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Dead from New York, it's "Saturday Night'

There was a time, long before most of us learned how to program our VCRs, when we stayed home on Saturday nights.

Not for lack of social options, but to catch the latest installment of Saturday Night Live. It could jolt, tickle and even repulse us into a smile. It deemed even the squarest of square hip at the water cooler or bus stop on Mondays, where re-enacting SNL sketches was a key element in the requisite game of weekend catch-up.

It made staying home cool.

These days, the talk at the espresso bar is anything but cheery. You know it's bad when the funniest bit of the season featured former President Bush Oct. 22 in a surprisingly wry introduction.

In this, its 20th season, Saturday Night Live has resorted to the unbearable: Relying on old ghosts to carry new shows.

"They may be living in the past," said Vinnie Favale, vice president of program planning and scheduling for Comedy Central. "They kind of get away with it by making fun of it."

Witness Steve Martin hosting the season opener. Then recall the onslaught of misdirected jokes about jokes that were once amusing.

Strike two: Oct. 22's episode. There, onetime cast bigwig Dana Carvey unpacked almost every character he's ever performed on the show, from Ross Perot (once a political migraine, now a Halloween scrooge) to Johnny Carson (in an odd sketch as a member of the O.J. Simpson defense team).

While other celebrity hosts are often relegated to minor roles in a handful of sketches, the entire show was written around the SNL alum in a humbling admission that when the going gets tough, marginally talented (and often out-of-touch) comedy writers run for cover.

But what are they running from?

Perhaps it's new, and unexpected, competition. Though SNL is the only game in town at its timeslot, a host of wickedly funny sketch comedy programs (like Kids in the Hall) have popped up at more reasonable hours on cable networks. So have witty series like Dream On and The Larry Sanders Show.

And on specialty networks like Comedy Central _ which drove a stake in the heart of the Forrest Gump craze through hourly 15-second lampoons _ viewers are finding the sense of comedic immediacy lacking on SNL's "Weekend Update."

"We can do it quicker. We can do it cheaper. We don't have to get a bunch of guys in a room all week to do one sketch," Favale said. "If Clinton does something stupid tonight, we'll comment on it tomorrow."

Maybe Saturday Night Live really is burying its head from reality. After 20 years in the game, it's time to change the strategy.

The show's once-groundbreaking format has stalled. Half the time, hosts spend their monologues lamenting about how hard it is to do a monologue or shout the requisite "Live from New York" line.

Then comes the musical act, the news, a few more sketches, an emotional "thank-you" from the host _ and poof, a virtual hugfest, as if the entire cast has just given birth to triplets.

In the beginning, there were no superstars. The show's ensemble cast ebbed and flowed together, allowing individuals to carve their own niches within the format.

Lately, Saturday Night Live has clicked only when there is a standout. But Eddie Murphy's gone. So is Carvey, and now, Phil Hartman. The closest thing to a leading man the 1994 cast has is Mike Myers, and even he seems reluctant with the coronation.

This year would have been the perfect opportunity to overhaul the program and revert to an ensemble cast. Notable additions include Michael McKean (you've loved him as Lenny on Laverne and Shirley and as the slimy Gibby on Dream On), the wacky Chris Elliot and up-and-comer Janeane Garofalo.

None of these newcomers are megastars yet, and most seem to have a genuine love for performing. Yet in the episodes so far, their talents have been wasted. Elliot _ previously brilliant on Late Night with David Letterman and his own Fox series, Get a Life _ saw about three minutes of airtime last week. And so far, McKean has been stuck with cheap elder statesman roles.

It probably doesn't matter. With the current trend, any cast member with an ounce of talent will have signed off on a movie deal within a season or two _ though Julia Sweeney should have quit while she and Pat were ahead. Then the whole vicious cycle will repeat itself, and we'll have an even worse nightmare: a return to the horrific early 1980s seasons.

Who knows, without baseball, maybe Saturday Night Live bashing will become the new national pastime.