Television

Why Please Don’t Destroy’s Warp-Speed Absurdity Is the Future of Saturday Night Live

When Lorne Michaels retires, the show will need a new guiding light, or three.

Please Don't Destroy
Please Don’t Destroy. Saturday Night Live/NBC

Not long before the sketch comedy trio Please Don’t Destroy were added to the cast of Saturday Night Live, the show’s Heidi Gardner told a reporter profiling the group that she “almost felt embarrassed how much of a fan I quickly became.” After seeing them live (pre-pandemic) and immersing herself in their Twitter posts and TikToks, Gardner said she could even see them going on SNL one day—not knowing that day was only a few months away.

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Please Don’t Destroy made their SNL debut in October with a sketch called “Hard Seltzer.” dropped at the end of Kim Kardashian’s episode in the show’s famed “10 to 1” slot, the period near the end of each episode usually reserved for weird, experimental sketches. On first watch, it’s pretty jarring for viewers who don’t know the group beforehand; set apart from the rest of the episode by a title reading “A Please Don’t Destroy Video,” the sketch features no established cast members and gives the viewer about four seconds of introduction before it dives into its main joke. Martin says he’s going to have a hard seltzer, John asks what kind, and Martin responds with a straight face, “Just a J.C. Penney.”

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What follows is a structure common in sketch comedy: A bewildered John keeps asking questions and the other two give increasingly absurd explanations, delivered as if there’s nothing out of the ordinary. The basic character dynamics should be familiar to anyone who’s watched SNL before, but they’re done with an efficiency that puts the rest of the show to shame. “Hard Seltzer” is less than two minutes long, and not a moment is wasted. The pace starts off steady in the beginning, then the cuts get faster and faster to create a speed and energy not even seen in SNL’s other pre-taped sketches. Even the little moments between the main jokes, like Ben walking into the room and saying “Ben in the house!” in a parody of the kind of dumb banter close friends have with each other, feel unique and fully calculated.

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In the Live From New York subreddit, fans of SNL have a weekly Sunday thread where they rank the sketches from the previous night’s episode. Despite its time slot, “Hard Seltzer” rose right to the top. This trend has continued throughout the season, with even cut-for-time PDD sketches like “Rami Wants a Treat” making it into the top three. The trio also work as writers for the show as a whole, responsible for such live sketches as “Mattress Store” and “Men’s Room,” which both immediately became fan favorites. Every sketch they’re involved in has a similar sense of the escalating surrealism that helped make I Think You Should Leave such a standout hit, combined with the swiftness and energy the Lonely Island added to the show back in the mid-2000s.

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“Hard Seltzer” felt particularly fresh in its placement at the end of the Kim Kardashian episode, which otherwise featured sketches that relied heavily on cameo appearances and premises that dragged on for way too long. This was the same episode as “Dream Guy,” a seven-and-a-half minute mess where a string of celebrities were each greeted with polite applause, got to say a few lines, and then walked offstage. This sort of thing grew especially common throughout the Trump years, where the cold opens of each episode would grind to a halt as celebrity after celebrity came in to play a political figure. Actors like Robert De Niro or Ben Stiller would show up halfway through the sketch and spend 10 or 15 seconds waiting for the clapping to subside before they could get on with their lines.

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The renewed focus on the cast is part of why the new season of SNL has felt so fresh overall. The Kardashian episode aside, the 47th season has shied away from celebrity cameos, allowing more actual cast members to take up the major roles in cold opens. Some of this may just be COVID-related, as it’s easier for the show’s high-strung production schedule to run smoothly when almost everyone involved’s been following the same safety measures all season, but that’s not the only area where the show’s changed recently. None of the monologues have relied on musical bits or gimmicky Q&As from the audience, two crutches the monologue writers seemed to rely on throughout the 2010s. (Last week’s Ariana DeBose-hosted episode did feature a musical monologue, but in fairness to the show she was there to promote an actual musical.) Whereas the political content previously seemed more concerned with getting a rise out of people within the Trump administration than with being funny, the show as a whole this season has started leaning more into the weird, absurdist sensibilities seen in a PDD sketch.

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That’s not to say there aren’t still problems with the rest of the live show. There’s still no shortage of sketches that are essentially one joke repeated with slight variations for five minutes straight, and it’s common for sketches to end without a proper conclusion. And perhaps because pandemic protocols limit rehearsal time, it’s never seemed more obvious that most of the performers are reading their lines off cue cards. Most fans accept these as inevitable limitations of the show, but it’s grown less tolerable after seeing PDD avoid all of these issues every time the group makes it on air.

It’s possible, however, that the style of Please Don’t Destroy can’t be fully replicated. After all, most of the techniques that allow them to infuse so much energy into their sketches aren’t available to live performances. The trio reportedly shoots dozens of takes for every few seconds of footage in an attempt to get the perfect reaction shot, the perfect line delivery. This is at odds with the format of most of the show’s sketches, where timing and delivery vary from dress rehearsal to the live show.

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Please Don’t Destroy’s digital format is only one part of its appeal, however, and SNL has never been afraid to change things up. In response to the rise of internet content, the show started producing digital sketches. In response to its expanding cast, the show started having more sketches like “Karaoke All-Stars” or “Jurassic Park Auditions,” designed to give each cast member a quick, guaranteed moment in the spotlight. The show’s pacing has gradually sped up throughout its run, too; in 1998 the beloved “Schweddy Balls” sketch took over two minutes to get to its main joke, something that would be a rarity on the show today. SNL is barely recognizable from what it looked like when it premiered 47 years ago, and it’s the show’s ability to evolve that’s kept it going strong. Although the live format of most of its sketches is here to stay, it’s not hard to imagine the show embracing the nontechnical aspects of PDD’s appeal. Look no further than the PDD-co-written “Men’s Room” sketch; even as the actors have to work with the live audience laughter, the sketch still has the tight writing and constantly escalating premise that make sketches like “Hard Seltzer” work so well.

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Please Don’t Destroy’s rise to prominence comes at a time when Lorne Michaels is considering his retirement as the long-running lead producer of the show, spurring speculation over who will take his place as lead producer and how that would affect the show going forward. As Gen Z makes up a growing percentage of potential viewers, the show’s survival will come down to understanding what made PDD so successful. It’s not about constant cameos from older celebrities, nor is it about cramming in references to whatever the kids on TikTok are talking about this week. It’s about embracing the absurdist, fast-paced, occasionally nonsensical humor Gen Z is known for loving and creating. SNL can’t be all made up of PDD sketches, but a showrunner who embraces the trio’s style as much as possible seems like a smart bet for the show going forward. At the very least, stop cutting them for time.

Five Sketches to Know Please Don’t Destroy

  1. Doing a Roast with My Guys

  2. I Got Vaccinated!!!

  3. Martin the Documentary

  4. Three Sad Virgins (ft. Taylor Swift)

  5. Touch Up

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