It’s interesting: most of the sketches on this week’s episode of SNL were straight down the middle: big set-up, obvious follow-through, nail the jokes and get out. They could’ve easily seemed a little hacky, and though host Jim Carrey was strong in his only previous time on the show, about a dozen years ago, he isn’t necessarily the first person you’d suggest for the task of enlivening hoary sketch ideas; he didn’t have much luck enlivening Yes Man or Fun with Dick and Jane.
So maybe the show enlivened Carrey somehow? Because his episode was pretty much just as much of a delight as his last time around. In contrast with the amiable but half-there Jeff Bridges last month, Carrey was front and center; the writers seemed to really enjoy building goofy sketches around his elastic talents. So we got Carrey in the Mila Kunis role in Black Swan; Carrey as a psychic medium and ex-impressionist who conveniently only “contacts” bizarre celebrities; Carrey as a deranged animatronic in an old-timey amusement park ride. It was all pretty much physical shtick in service of a big central joke, but these sketches proved how effective that can be when the sketch is direct and the comedians really commit.
Yet as much as the episode showcased Carrey (who popped up back up to promote the excellent I Love You Phillip Morris, though he didn’t actually mention it on-air), it also brought out strength in the rest of the cast. Almost everyone got a shot at something hilariously silly in the “Worst of Soul Train” bit, while Jason Sudiekis stole that psychic sketch with his sheer delight at Carrey’s impressions, and Andy Samberg shined as a man who claimed to tell off his boss but actually burst into tears in that talk show parody. Even Taran Killam, probably my least favorite cast member, showed off an uncanny, Carrey-matching ability to mimic animatronic movement in the Merrymen amusement park bit
The only recurring character was Kenan’s jolly old-man sexpert Grady Wilson; they’ve done it a few too many times at this point, but I imagine resisting the opportunity to let Carrey contort his way into nonsensical sex positions was as difficult as it was for me to resist laughing. And the only really off sketch was the “Taste of New York” homeless band at the end of the episode: the one solid concept that didn’t really pay off in a decent-or-better way. Add in some energetic Black Keys performances, and you’ve got one of the best, highest-energy episodes of the season.
Last week, I felt dispirited by Saturday Night Live‘s incessant recycling of years-old ideas when they had Paul Rudd at their disposal. This week, almost every sketch was some sort of rerun: Bill Hader did Julian Assange for the third time in three weeks; Fred Armisen bid farewell to Larry King; Weekend Update favorites came back for a Christmas song on Update and elsewhere in the show with the Kardashians; DJ Supersoak and Lil’ Blaster made a return appearance to promote Under-Underground Record’s Crunkmas celebration. Even in the traditionally more original final half-hour, sketches without recurring characters were pretty much conceptual reruns: this isn’t the first time the show has offered an alternate It’s a Wonderful Life, or found a silly angle on prank shows like they did with Jeff’d.
And yet: something about this week’s revisitations felt far more fresh and inspired than last week’s. It’s not that the show took particular advantage of Bridges himself; actually, he was absent for much of the show’s first hour. But Julian Assange, Miley Cyrus, and the Under-Underground Records crew (including the perpetually maybe-dead Ass Dan) are still fun characters, and the writers and performers seem to still care about writing new jokes for them. The familiarity was actually kind of nice — a glimpse into a world where the show’s recurring characters don’t summon so much dread from me.
In fact, when the show did a purely non-recurring sketch with Bridges prominently featured — that weird, lame, repetitive historic gift-wrapping sketch toward the end of the evening — it faltered and turned in the worst moment of the night. So a character-heavy, Bridges-light, Tron-free evening may not have been ideal, but given that glimpse of the alternative, I was pretty happy with it.
The other Bridges appearances mostly contributed a variety of middling impressions: Nick Nolte on The Miley Cyrus Show, and then, to better effect, Dog the Bounty Hunter on Larry King. Middling impressions seemed to be a theme for the night: Jeff’d is the sort of sketch that takes the opportunity for the cast to trot out a lot of quick-hit celebrity goofs, only aside from Andy Samberg’s vocally spot-on Billy Bob Thornton, the impressions weren’t all that tight. The same could be said of Fred Armisen’s Larry King; in terms of diction and vocal resemblance, noted non-impressionist Norm MacDonald actually did a much funnier King on SNL, while Armisen’s version is one of those bits where the writers have the subject say stuff other people think about him, rather than really act the way Larry King acts. Still, the jokes themselves were decent, and surprisingly mean, so the sketch worked pretty well.
More puzzling, impressions-wise, was Taran Killam’s Weekend Update bit where he played Brad Pitt as a weatherman. He had a lot of Pitt’s gestures and aspects of his voice down, but is Pitt known for saying “blegh” or whatever it was Killam kept doing? I’ve seen a lot of his movies and I only sort of understood what he was getting at with that. Also: Brad Pitt as a weatherman is a little too close to what if Denzel Washington worked at a customer service desk — and at least Jay Pharoah’s Denzel is top-to-bottom excellent.
Speaking of Pharoah, he continued an unfortunate trend of basing his comedy on making weird noises with his mouth, pretty much the only unfunny part of the Crunkmas bit which otherwise had me laughing until crying, as I often do when the show takes pointless but fruitful aim at the Insane Clown Posse subculture. It’s a joke based largely on listing extremely goofy things, but it works on me just about every time.
There were other grace notes, too, in areas that don’t always excel: a quick, funny political cold open, and a sweet monologue where Bridges sang a non-joke duet with Cookie Monster (the subject of a mock-campaign to host the show a few weeks ago). It was no classic, but with so few bum moments, the whole thing amounted to a pretty decent holiday party.
What is it about Paul Rudd that flummoxes Saturday Night Live? Rudd is a funny, charming guy, with cred both actorly and comedic, with ties to both The State and the Apatow gang of comedians. He even seems particularly chummy with Andy Samberg (who played his brother in I Love You, Man) and Bill Hader (who share the Apatow connection). When he hosts SNL, it should be an easy win for everyone.
And yet: Rudd’s first time hosting, about two years ago, was disappointing; a few good sketches and a very funny Digital Short (“may I paint you?”) were mixed in with a bunch of floundering, obvious bits, and the episode was more known for its bizarre onslaught of gay jokes (a few good-natured, others less so) and its (actually middling) Beyonce/Justin Timberlake “Single Ladies” sketch more than anything else.
Basically, it was an incredibly low bar that Rudd and company had to clear this weekend, and they knocked straight into it for an episode that was appreciably worse in just about every way. Maybe, if you’re a nerd who pays attention this sort of thing, you thought Rudd’s last time was heavy on recurring characters, with the deep-kissing Vogelcheck family, the mercilessly unfunny Scared Straight, and the (admittedly) always-welcome singing
Well, this one set out to beat it by reprising the Vogelcheck bit again, without even the novelty of seeing a new host go through the heavy-kissing motions; wasting even more time with Fred Armisen’s insensitive women’s-show producer; and pointlessly reviving the bit where Jason Sudeikis plays an angry technician (this time a spotlight operator), flummoxing a star playing him or herself. That last one has actually gotten a bit funnier since its inception something like five years ago, with more focus on funny, hostile dialogue from Sudeikis, but guys, if you’re going to take five years to develop a sketch to the point where it’s okay rather than awful, maybe you should direct your attentions elsewhere.
Of course, it’s not as if the show used Rudd, or anyone else, to better effect in many of the less tired bits. “What’s That Name” was funny, easily the best regular sketch of the night, and it was conveniently located close to most of the rest of the decent stuff: another good digital short (“Stumlin’”) that made better use of Rudd than almost anything else; another WikiLeaks bit to follow up last week’s (mostly superior) opener; and Weekend Update, which had a delightfully goofy Paul McCartney appearance and another fun go-round with Stefon.
But apart from Abby Elliot’s funny one-joke take on Meryl Streep late in the show, that was pretty much it. The recurring stuff was pretty bad, but nothing was worse than the rambling, joke-muffling sketch where Paul Rudd played a math teacher and Jay Pharoah played a school principal, making announcements at a Field Day. Everyone has been waiting for weeks to see what Pharoah might be like in sketches and not just impression showcases, but in this awful, awful sketch, his stand-up origins were clear: he was doing a “funny” voice with a lot of vocal tics, and that was the joke. I can see how this non-character of the phlegmatic, muttering principal would be funny in a stand-up routine. But it’s not funny as a comedy sketch, not on its own, certainly not when the entire fucking joke is him appearing, saying the same shit over and over, and walking away.
SNL writers tend to get the majority of blame when the show sucks, and in general this makes sense, as the show has maintained a likable, talented cast for over a decade now, with only a handful of uninspired performers. But sometimes you have to say, okay, Jay Pharoah, Fred Armisen, Kristen Wiig… you’re doing a bad job. You’re using tics, you’re repeating yourself, you’re using your powers for bad comedy instead of good.
Three mediocre recurring characters and one beyond-awful original sketch would damage the show on any night, but it was especially difficult for the show to recover when about half of the screen time was inexplicably devoted to Paul McCartney. I mean, okay, I know he’s a legend. The Beatles were pretty much the best thing ever. And his comedy appearances — in the monologue, in the Digital Short, on Weekend Update — were whimsical and silly and all in good fun.
But I’m getting impatient with the show’s selective interest in music. That is to say, almost every musical act on SNL does two songs, but if there’s some band or musician that is for some reason deemed far more worthy or legendary than usual, which is to say if aging baby-boomer Lorne Michaels happens to really like them, they get to do extra songs and take up space on a show that usually doesn’t pay much attention to its music. It doesn’t matter if Paul McCartney is performing fucking Wings songs to promote a fucking Wings reissue; he’s Paul McCartney so he gets as much screentime as the episode’s host, if not more.
If McCartney had a new record out and was afforded the opportunity to do a third-song “encore” of an older track, maybe I’d feel more charitable, even though ex-Beatles should realize that their solo versions of Beatles songs tend to sound like covers, no matter if they were there when the beautiful original happened. (I get that Paul singing both parts of “A Day in the Life” and going into “Give Peace a Chance” was intended as a Lennon tribute, although it’s difficult not to picture Lennon cringing about it.) In fact, I would love it if Paul Simon came on to promote his upcoming record in the spring and got to do three songs from different parts of his career. I would love it even more if this privilege was ever extended to a band with members younger than forty in it. But this was just out-of-nowhere tribute/genuflection toward McCartney, almost as if to make up for the attention Lennon has been getting this year — and I usually think of Paul as somewhat underrated (“Maybe I’m Amazed” may be the best Beatles solo song).
Of course, if the sketches in between all of the McCartney love were better, I wouldn’t complain much. But poor Paul Rudd deserves a chance not to be upstaged by McCartney, Timberlake, Beyonce, or horrible laziness.
Community: Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas
Okay, saying that Abed sees everyone as stop-motion animated figures because of a major family disappointment is a huge, huge stretch. If that happened, I think his mental illness is more serious than anyone imagined. But, leaving that aside, I thought this was one of their “good” parody episodes. It was sweet. I liked seeing them as babies and teddy bears (Pierce squeaked when he walked!), I liked hearing them sing, and I especially liked seeing Troy and Abed switch heads at the end.
30 Rock: Christmas Attack Zone
Personally, I love Christmas. Sure, my family has had issues, but I don’t really relate to shows that are all, “Ugh, isn’t Christmas with your family just AWFUL and full of so much DRAMA?” So jokes that start from there don’t always land for me. That said, I did laugh at the way Jack interacted with his family, simultaneously resenting his mother while dismissing his father. His smile at the end was great. As were, of course, the “black swans.”
The Office: Classy Christmas
First off, let me say that, more than anything, I love the Scranton Strangler. I’m his biggest fan. I’ve enjoyed how that’s just kind of been developing in the background for the entire season. I was afraid that, after the Strangler got caught, they wouldn’t bring him up again, but he’s back! Apart from the trial, it was a really strong episode overall. When The Office was at its weakest, I missed Dwight and Jim’s antagonistic relationship. I’m glad they brought it back—and reversed, so Dwight had the upper hand. The parts with Michael and Holly, and the parts with Darryl and his daughter, made me cringe throughout, but I didn’t want to kill myself at the end. And—sorry TiFaux Sara—I like this version of Erin, where she’s missing something but isn’t incredibly stupid. My only complaint is that I get tired of The Office when it’s in its hour-long format. Even when the episode is good all the way through—which I don’t think happens a majority of the time—it still feels long and drawn out. When Michael starts misbehaving, I thought: “I don’t really think I could take another 40 minutes of this.”
For some reason, Robert De Niro hosting a December episode of SNL has become something of a minor tradition; I didn’t even completely remember that he did this in Decembers of both 2002 and 2004, but it happened, and with Little Fockers looming, he returned for his third time. Unlike this year’s other three-timers, ScarJo and JoHa, De Niro hasn’t really displayed much surpise affinity for live sketch comedy. If anything, he’s one of the less natural recurring hosts of the past decade, clearly card-reading and sometimes stumbling over his lines, although also pretty game to play around for someone who is visibly uncomfortable even on talk shows.
Maybe the show was rewarding De Niro’s simultaneous reputations as legendary, cranky, and a potential good sport by playing it a little safe in his most recent gig: he played himself three times, and four of the night’s seven proper sketches featured recurring characters. Yet this hesitancy actually sort of paid off: it wasn’t a home-run episode, but nothing really fell flat.
Well, maybe the Mr. Produce sketch, one of the few attempts at originality of the evening, didn’t really work, lacking a clear comic premise/relationship as De Niro played a gruff cooking-show host dealing with his college-flunking pill of a son, played by Andy Samberg. And the return of Bobby Moynihan’s awestruck-except-in-the-face-of-celebrity little kid probably wasn’t necessary, but it didn’t go on too long and it’s an okay concept.
Anyway, the missteps made the use of other recurring sketches feel welcome rather than tired: Bill Hader’s Vinny Vedecci is reliably amusing and weird (Moynihan had better luck playing Vedecci’s drunk little son: “give me my mony, I kill you Robert De Niro!”), and What Up with That actually altered the formula ever so slightly, benefiting from De Niro’s ease with irritability — his barking “you messed up!” at the end of the sketch was a show highlight for me.
If the show was on the cautious side, it gave De Niro himself some space to loosen up. He seemed more game than ever, appearing in almost every segment, including areas where the host need not tread if he or she isn’t feeling it: the cold open (which was actually pretty funny?! The second show in a row?! It seems like maybe the writers are feeling their way through this not relying on Armisen’s weak Obama impression thing!), the Digital Short, and even his own fake commercial, one of my favorite bits of the night:
Appearing almost as often was Andy Samberg: as the son in Mr. Produce; in his usual Digital Short as part of a funny (if somewhat inexplicable) Weekend at Bernie’s spoof; hanging upside down to good effect in a Weekend Update Spider-Man bit; reprising his one-note but still pretty hilarious Blizzard Man character; and featured heavily in the night’s other, more successful bid for a non-recurring sketch, the last one where he and Sudeikis find out who they have to screw to get a drink around here. Strange, but kind of neat, that one of SNL’s all-out silliest, least actorly comedians would get so many scenes with such a non-comedic host.
In fact, at the outset of this episode, I was wondering why they keep getting De Niro to promote these Fockers movies rather than SNL alum and actual comedian Ben Stiller (whose single 1998 hosting gig was pretty swell). Though Stiller actually turned up in two sketches, De Niro acquitted himself perhaps better than ever before (although I did enjoy his duet with Kermit the Frog back in 2004): fun, a little awkward, and very New Yorky.
There’s plenty to not be excited about on television. But then there’s The Walking Dead.
The Walking Dead is about as exciting as it gets, if you ask me (which you sort of did by visiting this blog that I haven’t updated since phoning in a post about how I’d gladly share a twin bed with Parks and Recreation’s Chris Pratt). And I haven’t been excited about much on TV in a long while, aside from the rather disappointing third season of Damages or the sustained excellence of 30 Rock.
If you don’t like graphic comic book mayhem, chances are you won’t like The Walking Dead. Shocker. But what I’m trying to say is that it’s not one of those horror shows that’s actually a heady extended metaphor for something political. This is a show about zombies. It’s just a beautifully/grotesquely shot, somewhat soapy series that features unusually well developed characters for a genre that often leans on camp or cheap thrills.
The premise of the show isn’t complicated: basically, the cute guy from Love, Actually (the one who loves Keira Knightley, but she’s married to his best friend and at the end of the movie he does that kind-of-sweet-but-mostly-depressing series of poster board cards like he’s in a hangdog version of INXS’ “Mediate” video) is a cop who wakes up in the hospital after the zombie apocalypse. I’m not going to get worked up over who did it first, The Walking Dead or 28 Days Later, but I recognize the duplication.
Anyway, he ambles out of the deserted hospital, makes friends with a man and his son who get him up to speed on said apocalypse, leaves for Atlanta (where allegedly salvation awaits — we know better than that, though), and eventually gets reunited with his wife and son, who are living on the outskirts of the city with a band of survivors. Also worth noting, his wife is boning his best friend (a fellow cop) because she assumes he’s dead. There seems to be something afoot here about how long this relationship had been going on — that has yet to come out, though.
What I love about The Walking Dead, aside from the endlessly satisfying debraining of the undead, is the idea of a sustained series* about zombies. The traditional zombie movie format has an origin story (“Where did all these zombies come from?”), a hero story (“I’ve got to get away from these zombies. My buxom love interest too.”) and a frequently downbeat conclusion. With this series we’ve the opportunity to see a sustained zombie narrative with emotional ups and downs as well as complex characters. This is a new playing field where the reality is post-apocalypse.
There’s going to be a marathon of the series on Sunday, so you should TiFaux that.
Goodbye TiFaux! See you in 2011!
*I know, I know — it’s based on a comic book. But I don’t read comic books (I’m barely literate as it stands), so television is really all I’m concerned with here.
After ScarJo and Jon Hamm both returned to high expectations and low rewards, it was Anne Hathway’s turn to follow up a successful SNL hosting gig. But Hathaway’s episode from 2008, while decent, wasn’t quite a best-of-season candidate; maybe that’s what allowed her, the writers, and the cast to kick up such a solid episode this time around.
How often you can say this about SNL since the 2008 election? It immediately got off to a strong start with a funny cold open. Seriously! It happened! Taking a page from the amusing-then-tired Hardball opening-sketch format of the mid-aughts, Abby Elliott played Rachel Maddow, interviewing Nancy Pelosi (Kristen Wiig), John Boehner (Bill Hader), and Kenan Thompson (Charlie Rangel). It wasn’t so much a feast for spot-on impressions, but it did have, get this, good jokes! Of different types! Boy, that was a good feeling, to actually laugh at a politically themed cold open. Remember when this used to happen all the time?
Hathaway seemed particularly amped to be back during her monologue, and jumped into the first of several impressions during the Miley Cyrus Show bit (recurring a little too fast, but the Miley Cyrus industry is providing enough material to change up the jokes to some degree, at least for now), a spot-on Katie Holmes. Her Alanis Morrissette bit at the end of the show, in the “Horse Play” soundtrack ad that reprised the bunny-movie soundtrack ad from a few seasons ago with less weirdness/hilarity, was less close but also established a strange mid-to-late-nineties niche for her, I assume because she was totally into Dawson’s and Alanis as a teenager.
I’ve often found Hathaway a little studied as an actor — a little more technically proficient than inspired — and this was true, to an extent, of her hosting gig, where she mixed more sustained impressions (of Holmes, or Judy Garland in the Wizard of Oz bit), straight-woman material (as Kate Middleton), and short bursts of accented craziness in smaller parts. But it worked: it was like she did her homework to ace the SNL test, and it pretty much worked. This variety also made her feel a little more present than her 2008 episode, in which she was similarly game but receded into the background a little.
It also helped that the show happened to give us a bunch of solid sketches this week, as if to make up for the disappointing thinness of the Hamm and ScarJo episodes. Only one sketch really fell flat: the reprisal of Penelope. This character that started out with a simple (if over-emphasized after pretty much one airing) conceit and joke: the behavior of a chronic, irritating one-upper. But as the sketch has been repeated and repeated, what used to be the kicker joke of one of Penelope’s nonsense one-ups coming true has become a running gag about how she really does, say, shrink and float through soap on a stick of celery. If Penelope had appeared exactly twice, first in the normal guise and second in the surreal one, this might be funny, but by this point it’s a waste of time, a dead-air opportunity for hosts (usually female, for some reason) to play it straight and irritated.
Apart from that Penelope detour, though, it was pretty much all decent or better. There were some unquestionable highlights, like the inspired royal-family sketch with Kate Middleton discovering her future in-laws to be tough-talking limey thugs and the ad for Mega-Mart’s twelve-minute Black Friday stampede in the making, with promises of freshly waxed floors, free box cutters, and seven copies of a secret unpublished Harry Potter novel. There were a lot of fake ads, actually: Horse Play and Camel Tame and the TSA, all pretty funny.
Such was the show’s freshness that even long-time cast members like Fred Armisen (who by this point typically slows the show down more than almost anyone) and Bill Hader (who is hilarious but sometimes struggles to do more than his funny recurring characters and occasional impressions) were particularly well-used: they both killed in the royals sketch, Hader had a nice showcase as the elderly, confused, angry news reporter, and one of Armisen’s patented awkward-weirdo characters actually worked in the Wizard of Oz deleted scenes.
Even Weekend Update was better than it’s been for most of this season. In fact, the episode was so solid that a pretty strong six-minute bit was cut from dress and put online, featuring another short burst of Hathaway craziness:
If this sketch has been subbed in for that Penelope run-through, this would’ve been… oh, wait, this already was definitely the best episode of the season.
Community: Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design
Totally solid episode. Both the blanket-fort and the conspiracy theories were wild, out-there plots without really spoofing one specific movie, and it worked better that way (if for no other reason than there was nothing for Abed to point out, so he got to be a real character). Plus, who doesn’t like seeing Kevin Corrigan pop up anywhere? Its central weakness: It’s basically the “and that’s why you don’t teach lessons” episode of Arrested Development. There are far worse things to strive for.
30 Rock: College
For a show that’s already lean and fast-paced, how much better does it get when they decide to jettison a third plotline? Here, they just stuck to Liz and Jack—no Tracey or Jenna—and they were able to cram more jokes in by not having to do a set-up or payoff of the third plotline. Rather than giving Jenna and Tracy something to do, Liz just comes across them, sitting side-by-side on a couch, each gazing into a different hand-mirror. Genius! High-fiving a million angels!
The Office: WUPHF.com
I love Ryan. I love how he’s cycled through 10 different types of douchebags throughout the course of the show. I also get a kick out of every time someone gets a fax because of WUPHF.com. But, even more than that, I love how Michael was able to manipulate Ryan this time around—in his sad, pathetic, Michael way. I also liked Dwight’s plotline, because he was evil and curmudgeonly, but there were reasonable explanations why (for money and to heal childhood wounds), making it less cartoonish.
It will never be Outsourced. Maybe that joke about how “Native Americans” are called “Native Americans” and not “Indians” because they find the word “Indian” derogatory would have been funnier in other hands, but it wasn’t funny here.