Posted by Jesse May 11th, 2009 at 10:01am In SNL
Justin Timberlake has become sort of the Paul Simon of this decade on SNL — their go-to musician whose music would not necessarily imply an affinity for sketch comedy silliness. If future generations won’t quite assume he was an actual cast member, as many people do with Steve Martin, they may at least overestimate the number of times he hosted (three so far) based on his many non-hosting appearances, and the fanfare that accompanies his actual full-fledged episodes. He’s become one of the show’s big guns — like Alec Baldwin, but way more likely to attract and excite audiences who don’t necessarily watch SNL all that much. As the show winds down its thirty-fourth season, it’s only natural that Timberlake would be brought in for May sweeps. It’s less natural that this would be one of the worst episodes of the season.
But first, a brief history of Timberlake on SNL.
Not many people remember or acknowledge this, but Timberlake’s first hosting gig in 2003 was actually pretty mediocre. Not terrible, but par at best; Timberlake did a decent imitation of Ashton Kutcher, (and an awful one of Jessica Simpson), and the last sketch of the night, the Barry Gibb Talk Show, was agreeably weird. The rest of the episode was mostly rote go-rounds with recurring characters, with the added bonus of an interminable, laughless sketch where Timberlake, dressed as a mascot for a breakfast joint, vexed competing mascot Chris Parnell by imploring customers to “bring it on down to omeletteville,” which he said, I don’t know, about nine or fifteen times.
I don’t remember the episode getting much attention at the time, to the point where I was deeply confused when reading, several years later in the run-up to his second hosting gig in 2006, about how surprisingly great he was in ’03.
I had to admit, though: the second Timberlake episode was pretty solid even apart from the instant sensation of “Dick in a Box.” In one of the best (and less-replayed) sketches, Timberlake leads a group of earnest “hip-hop kids” trapped in a mineshaft with creatures obviously knocked off from the semi-obscure 2006 horror film The Descent, and in an excellent monologue, Timberlake led a singalong featuring Hader, Armisen, and Samberg as Alvin and the Chipmunks.
But even in this much-improved episode, there was a sense of unearned celebration, as if the cast and writers, too, had been reading all of that inexplicable good press, and decided to reprise sketches accordingly. This wasn’t so bad when it led to another go-round with the Barry Gibb Talk Show, but the awful omeletteville sketch was reborn with competing holiday charities — “bring it on down to homelessville,” etc. — to little more effect.
Since then, Timberlake has been popping up on SNL semi-regularly. He appeared in the Lonely Island’s “Jizz in My Pants” video; he did a long Weekend Update monologue apologizing for not being able to host the Thanksgiving episode as planned and running through all of the hilarious stuff he would’ve done; he played an effeminate male background dancer in a Beyonce-centric sketch; and I’m not sure how many other times the Barry Gibb Talk Show has been done at this point, but I know that it seems to appear regardless of whether Timberlake or Jimmy Fallon are hosting (you know, like Cameron Diaz).
Some of this has been fun enough, but it also strikes me as vaguely smug, as if, when attention-starved from, you know, not actually making new music or appearing in any movies, Timberlake can get his applause fix by mugging on SNL. The Weekend Update monologue, while technically impressive in its speed, was a good example in that he did not really tell any jokes. He was, in effect, saying, “remember all of the funny catchphrases I’ve been involved with in the recent past and may be reprising in the near future?”
So when Timberlake finally returned to host a third time this weekend, it was essentially an episode-length realization of that Update bit; he was not just the star, but the unabashed subject of just about every sketch. The monologue was about how he’s back and knows the ropes at the show. The Barry Gibb and “plasticville” sketches were about how he has these recognizable recurring characters that need to return every time he does, no matter how little the Gibb sketch changes or how fucking atrocious these mascot sketches always have been. The Target Lady sketch was less about Wiig’s mannered weirdness as this character and more about Timberlake’s mugging and repeating of yet another catchphrase: “classic Peg” with an accompanying shoulder-shaking laugh. Even one of the night’s funnier sketches, with Timberlake as his Irish immigrant ancestor, was one hundred percent about making references (albeit some charmingly self-kidding) to the epic, unending success of the career Timberlake has putting on hold in order to goof around on SNL.
These sketches weren’t just largely hacky; they were long (in fairness, the Timberlake-free cold open, while mildly amusing, also seemed to go on forever), and overflowing with self-regard. The audience was complicit, cheering and hooting when Timberlake did basically anything at all, encouraging Timberlake and the writers to think that things will be funny not because of jokes but because it’s Justin Timberlake singing a silly song, or Justin Timberlake doing a mincing gay voice, or Justin Timberlake moving his shoulders when he laughs.
Look, Timberlake is a talented guy. I admired his performances in Southland Tales and Black Snake Moan, and he’s clearly a game and energetic performer. The Digital Short sequel to “Dick in a Box,” “Motherlover,” deserves all of the viral internet pass-arounds it will certainly get. But we need to stop applauding and guffawing at every last thing he does, especially when that includes making “Sexy Back” jokes three years after that song came out. Watching this episode, you start to understand why Timberlake is producing some MTV game show instead of writing new songs; the world has become his yes-man.
Episode Grade: C-