I realize that, week to week, the number of segments on SNL do not change dramatically. In fact, this season’s first four episodes have all operated in the twelve-to-fourteen segment range (counting music and Update; not counting opening or closing credits). But this week’s installment felt unusually packed with short and funny, if sometimes insubstantial, sketches. The Lawrence Welk sketch, in which an old-timey singing family contended with a misfit sister (Kristen Wiig playing a derivative but funny cross between Rachel Dratch’s Angelina Jolie lovechild and those non-SNL “baby hands” sketches online), set the pace: quick set-up, hammer a central joke, garnish with optional side jokes, and get out.
Not surprisingly, this strategy tends to work best when the central joke is somewhat inexplicable, as with Welk or the dancing courtship between Bobby Moynihan and host Anne Hathaway. A later sketch, withHathaway as Mary Poppins explaining the meaning of “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” to Moynihan and Casey Wilson, was a less successful of echo of Moynihan’s Of Mice and Men sketch from the James Franco episode a few weeks back. You can picture how these sketches probably came about, with writers riffing on pop-culture obsessions and eventually writing it out. But the Of Mice and Men bit somehow avoided sounding like a “what’s up with that?” observation, while the Mary Poppins sketch went on autopilot almost immediately (or maybe it just paled in comparison to the episode-long Simpsons version of the source material).
But the pop-culture-debris approach worked more often than not: I loved Casey Wilson’s caricature of Katy Perry (hawking a CD of her “less provocative” songs). Thin political impressions can grow tiresome, but sometimes the simplest celebrity skewerings work best. Every blog covering politics and/or SNL will probably link to the VP debate sketch, so let me shine a spotlight on something far less zeitgeisty yet still hilarious:
Andy Samberg has never fancied himself an impressionist — he’s appeared in several sketches flaunting his supposed total lack of facility in this department — but damned if he doesn’t do an absolutely spot-on Mark Wahlberg. Between the above sketch and another excellent digital short, Samberg owned several of the night’s best moments. He started his tenure on the show as an overhyped next-gen Jimmy Fallon; somehow, though, he’s since wound up one of SNL’s most underrated talents.
While the non-political sketches were pitched as goofy and efficient throwaways, the two political bits were by far the longest of the night; the writers seem to be emboldened by the suggestion that they’re contributing to the political conversation, even when the material isn’t really there. The VP debate sketch was fine, of course, a better synthesis of obvious and semi-obvious jokes than its presidential counterpart (helped immeasurably by Tina Fey’s version of Palin). But the bailout press-conference sketch felt muddled; once again, the writers seemed to be satirizing “all sides” more out of obligation than inspiration.
If I haven’t said much about Anne Hathaway’s work as host, it’s because she often wasn’t in the spotlight, as screentime was doled out with unusual equality this week. Just about everyone (save Darrell Hammond, who routinely sits out most of any episode that doesn’t require him to impersonate an older political figure no one else in the cast can handle) found strong moments: Will Forte singing on Weekend Update; Bill Hader’s mincing fake gay walk followed by a manly stride; Fred Armisen’s muppety Barney Frank. This evenness extended to Hathaway, who seemed happy to blend in (the monologue, her one solo showcase, was about a minute long). Scarlett Johansson still (somewhat inexplicably) sets the gold standard for recent starlet hosts, but Hathaway was clearly game, sending up her relationship problems (in that brief monologue) and her Disney heritage.
The Killers were okay; they seem to have dialed things back from their inadvertent empty-grandeur phase, back when they made the mistake of trying to release a Springsteen-esque album within a few weeks of the Hold Steady. But their acceptable, well-oiled song machines fit right in with this solid, well-crafted episode.
Episode Grade: B