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Why 'The Californians' is Saturday Night Live’s greatest gift to Los Angeles

Michael Juliano
Written by
Michael Juliano

Los Angeles has been supplying Saturday Night Live with Groundlings alumni since the variety show’s inception—which was 40 years ago, in case you haven't heard about this Sunday's bonkers anniversary show. We’ve shipped over some of SNL’s biggest players: Will Ferrell, Phil Hartman and Kristen Wiig, just to name a few. So what has SNL given us in return? Six sketches that satirize our obsession with dried fruit, artisan decor and name-dropping freeways. To that, we say: thank you.

We combed through the SNL archives to try to filter out the best sketches about LA over the last 40 years. There were plenty of botox jokes, LAPD jabs and O.J. Simpson coverage, plus a bizarre Tori Spelling bit. The surfer-filled, Hollywood-centric caricatures feel like tired and cheap punchlines. But nothing else is as affectionately self-deprecating as “The Californians,” a soap opera send-up of SoCal tropes with an original sketch subtitle of “Drama off the 405.”

In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, sketch writer and star Fred Armisen attributed the premise to conversations he had about visiting LA that always seemed to land on what roads he was driving on. Sure, the geography in the sketches is way off, but the ad nauseum references to San Vicente and the 10 as well as shout-outs to Zankou Chicken and Umami Burger feel so spot-on.

Mirror gazes and blond wigs aside, “The Californians” completely nails the neurotic ticks that keep LA surreal. That even includes the way Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig—both Groundlings alumni—deliver lines about a quotably incoherent “Marina del Reh” and over-and-under-articulated inflections that make as little sense as our sunburned Midwestern pronunciation of San Pedro.

As for those geography gaffes, we’re willing to forgive Armisen. No, Beverly Glen won’t take you up to Encino and there’s no Culver exit on the 105, but Fountain does dead end at a junior high that Carol Burnett used to attend—they got that one right, but oh, there were go, talking about driving in LA again. What makes it work is that it sounds right. Just like real Angelenos, the scripts mostly avoid Hollywood and Sunset and instead reference uniquely LA-sounding streets like Carmelita, Alvarado and Pico; somehow our ordinary surface streets begin to sound like communal in-jokes.

A conversation from The Californians

(Still wrong.)

There hasn’t been a new "Californians" sketch in almost two years; considering that the last three or four pummeled the joke into submission, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But the recurring sketch tapped into something about our crazy automobile-centric world, where people have a preference over canyon roads and taking the 91 to the 605 to the 105 to the 110 to the 10 is a viable alternative to the 5. As a guest starring Steve Martin asked: Does anyone know how to get from Wilshire to the PCH?

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