Posted by Jesse January 12th, 2009 at 10:01am In SNL
With Amy Poehler actually gone for good — no more opening introduction, no more Update credit — it was finally safe, even necessary, for the new SNL girls to step out. Michael Watkins logged four sketches, most notably playing straight woman to Kristen Wiig’s unhinged Kathie Lee Gifford, while Abby Elliott appeared in three and even got to say the “live from New York” bit.
Elliott’s impression of Rachel Maddow wasn’t much of one, though it probably wasn’t her fault that the sketch failed to find a satirical angle on Maddow herself. Her appearance felt more like an acknowledgement of her place in the cable-news landscape, with all of the jokes coming at the expense of Roland Burris (Kenan Thompson) and Governor Blagojevich (Jason Sudeikis, always at his best playing irrepressible and/or unrepentant jackasses).
Apart from the amusing opening, the sketches for this week’s Neil Patrick Harris-hosted installment of SNL traded almost exclusively in pop culture: parodies of Frost/Nixon, Burger King ads, the final hour of Today, and Broadway shows, including two different sketches (“Two First Names” and Frost/Other People) that existed mainly for the cast to do thirty-second impressions of various celebrities (three if you count the more conceptual impressions of the Broadway sketch). Even the Digital Short had NPH performing a full orchestral version of the Doogie Howser theme music.
Most of this worked well enough, especially the full-cast Broadway production: I love sketches where it seems like every last member of the cast found some silly idea rich and inexplicably hilarious, and just had to pitch in (well, maybe not Darrell Hammond, who looks perpetually bored when not doing his spot-on impressions — but his seeming indifference during these pieces is sort of funny unto itself). NPH went beyond the typical role of host as good sport; he energetically and smoothly blended into the rest of the cast, adept at playing characters as well as cracked versions of himself, Harold and Kumar style. His monologue grousing about Fred Savage’s mediocre timing back in 1990 sounded, to me, like a joke rooted very much in truth. Not that he’s actually jealous of Savage, mind you, but from what I’ve read about Harris, he’s an exacting comedic technician — exacting in matters of beats, pauses, reactions, and so on.
With a lot of decent sketches, an especially strong Update, and an able host, then, why was I only mildly satisfied with the episode? I think it had to do with pop culture overload. Past recent episodes have had moments of strange, character-based comedy that’s harder to wring from, say, making fun of the Today show. This week’s main attempt at sui generis material was an unusually long, and just plain unusual, bit with Wiig and NPH (in drag) as long-nailed air traffic controllers. The sketch had a certain observational charm, especially whenever Will Forte entered as their boss, but it was more puzzling than particularly good or bad (though I’d submit that the big-nails jokes were a distracting hindrance). We also had to deal with yet another sketch with Wiig as the inexplicably beloved Penelope, an awful lot of repetition to get to, okay, a pretty hilarious Liza Minnelli cameo.
At least we got Taylor Swift out of the way. Next week, the Fleet Foxes are on hand for the annual SNL Books a Relatively Indie Band in January Celebration. Past guests have included Vampire Weekend (January 2008), the Shins (January 2007), Death Cab for Cutie (January 2006), and inaugural January indie-rockers the Strokes (January 2002). Start lobbying for Marnie Stern in January 2010!
Episode Grade: B-