Monday Morning Quarterback: SNL Season 34, Episode 12

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-

8 Comments

  • 1. katie  |  January 12th, 2009 at 10:54 am

    oh, jesse, i disagree. for just the digial short alone i would give this episode a much higher grade. the single tear always gets me.

  • 2. jesse  |  January 12th, 2009 at 10:58 am

    I liked the ep, and the short, but if I was going to boost grades based on Digital Shorts, I would’ve been all over the Paul Rudd one.

  • 3. Marisa  |  January 12th, 2009 at 11:43 am

    I love that Broadway sketch so much. The chandelier thing really kills it.

  • 4. Maggie  |  January 12th, 2009 at 12:23 pm

    I agree with Katie. Digital short + Broadway sketch – Only One Sketch That Failed (Air Traffic) = much higher than a B-

  • 5. jesse  |  January 12th, 2009 at 1:28 pm

    NPH is inciting y’all to grade-grubbing. 😉

  • 6. sara  |  January 12th, 2009 at 5:46 pm

    I have to agree with the group. I thought it was the most consistently funny episode all season. And since I watched with someone who’s not a regular SNL watcher (“It’s never funny”) and he laughed almost the whole way through, I give it extra points. “Time for a revival of Miss Saigon?!”

  • 7. Rebecca  |  January 12th, 2009 at 5:58 pm

    I fell asleep during Taylor Swift’s second song so I missed all the sketches after it, but I thought the material didn’t rise to the occasion. I love NPH and the digital short, as always, was just right, but the rest of the sketches were pretty aimless. For the Broadway sketch, I know they were going with characters the general public could recognize, but it bothered me because Cats, Rent and especially The Music Man have already closed. I was greatly underwhelmed by the cold open because I feel like Rachel Maddow is totally idiosyncratic and should therefore be really easy to impersonate, yet Abby Elliott made little to no attempt. The only thing funny about the sketch was SudeikisBlagojevich’s repeatedly calling her by other names (KD Lang, anyone?).

  • 8. Nathaniel  |  January 13th, 2009 at 9:58 pm

    I don’t watch Rachel Maddow regularly (I guess mostly just clips online) but I thought the impression was actually a pretty good physical imitation, just without much of a bead on how to write a real parody of her (perhaps because she seems to mostly come off as nice and reasonable). The jokes about her androgynous appearance were about the least interesting, most obvious thing to riff on, but you’re right about Jason Sudeikis…I could watch him being a jerk for the entire hour and a half.

    I agree a little bit about the Penelope character. I actually like the character, and think her performance is always funny, but it initially worked both because her delivery of those lines was perfect and because it was a nicely observed bit of behavior that everybody has some experience around. Now, while they occasionally come up with a funny new wrinkle (I dug her showing up in Hader’s video), the fact that they had this one pay off with a reveal that she was actually telling the truth seemed to dilute the original premise of the character a bit. Though Liza Minnelli sure did bring in a ton of energy for her appearance (I hope she pops up in the Arrested Development movie).

    The Broadway sketch was a real treat, and the Digital Short was swell, and I really just liked that fact that there were a handful of sketches (the Broadway one, the “Two First Names” one, and Frost/Other People) that made use of most or all of the cast. Also, while it didn’t move beyond a couple of weird laughs and a kind of quirky observational mood, I do like to see something like the “Freba and Fran” sketch that’s a little more experimental compared to the format of some of the other bits in the show. And I pretty much loved the fake Burger King commercial.


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