Posted by Jesse February 2nd, 2009 at 10:01am In SNL
Steve Martin is one of my comedy heroes, someone whose work I have appreciated on different levels since I was about ten years old, so I’m always thrilled to see him back hosting Saturday Night Live, even if his rate of appearance in the seventies (which, given the accompanying recurring characters and classic bits, has caused some layperson confusion as to whether he was actually a cast member; nope, never) has dwindled to a more cursory couple times a decade for old time’s sake.
Of course, it’s a little dispiriting that the motivating factor behind his two most recent appearances has been his Pink Panther franchise. In other words: hooray, a new Steve Martin SNL episode! But at what cost?
As a friend of mine put it, Martin appears to be playing the “one for them, one for me” game with his measurements askance: “one for them” means an entire, terrible feature film and/or franchise, and “one for me” is the occasional guest spot on 30 Rock or SNL. I don’t begrudge Martin the occasional commercial grab, but plenty of his earlier commercial hits were also good-to-great: the success of movies like All of Me, Roxanne, Bowfinger, and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, among others, seem like a direct refutation to the necessity of the likes of Bringing Down the House or Cheaper by the Dozen. Stranger still that Martin’s forays into screenplays and comic essays are almost always wonderful, as was that 30 Rock guest spot; and that his current cinematic forays aren’t just lightweight, but downright chintzy.
Like Martin’s current career, his latest SNL hosting gig was weirdly divided, though it didn’t appear to be his fault. Many moments harkened back to classic Martin/SNL bits of yore: his monologue, for example, which was, wow, an actual comedy monologue with actual jokes. That monologue, as well as a brief quasi-backstage bit with all of the female cast members staring at Martin with lust in their eyes, trafficked in the kind of ironic meta-comedy Martin always delivers with crisp, knowing perfection. Later, he even broke out the banjo for a non-ironic musical number, which felt like the kind of odd little variety-show sidebar you see more often in the looser, scragglier, and, OK, yeah, sometimes tedious classic episodes.
When Martin wasn’t center stage, though, the show let the writers’ and cast’s worst instincts took over with just as much clarity. Can you ask for a more perfect encapsulation of Kenan Thompson’s weaknesses than his “Issues” sketch? Once again, Thompson gives us a character who barely has enough dimension for a three-minute, one-joke sketch, decorated with all of his favorite tics: cartoonish “funny” voice and mispronouncing words. The single joke — apart from the apparent hilariousness of someone saying “pruhmples” instead of “pimples” — is that this low-budge talk show host points out the physical flaws of people who approach him for help with other, unrelated life issues. Thompson can be hilarious as deadpan reactors and befuddled old men, but when he pushes hard for a character, he tends to hit an unfunny wall.
Then Kristen Wiig brought out a similarly dead-end character as the … retarded? Insane? I wasn’t really clear on this and I’m not sure if she was, either… wife of a makeup counter employee. Both characters seemed destined to recur in some form; Wiig’s obvious talent is especially undermined by this kind of tic-heavy repetition.
Fortunately, there were other highlights: Weekend Update was solid (and while Armisen’s Paterson impression is admittedly a little tasteless, I giggle uncontrollably whenever he starts ripping on my home region of Upstate New York); Laser Cats returned with an excellent Martin-assisted Star Wars knock-off; and I sort of love Wiig and Forte’s buttoned-up office nerds — another sketch where Martin slipped into the action with ease. Even better: the ESPN short film about “The Gun,” probably the best sketch of the night:
But a Steve Martin hosting gig should be better than half-good, just as even a bad Steve Martin movie should be better than awful.
I have nothing to say about Jason Mraz because my DVR zipped through his performance without pause — but speaking of DVR, did anyone else catch those MacGruber ads for Pepsi? It took me awhile to figure out that they were actual ads, which I guess speaks well to the craft. Do people have thoughts on this? On one hand, it’s a little whorish, but on the other, it’s pretty savvy advertising, at least to me, because I DVR-whoosh through most commercials these days, but I would watch MacGruber in just about any form.
Episode Grade: B-