Posted by Jesse November 22nd, 2009 at 08:57pm In SNL
Maybe it was a lucky break for Joseph Gordon-Levitt that last week’s episode of Saturday Night Live was so universally acknowledged as terrible, because by comparison, his own perfectly decent gig began to look positively transcendent. After a rocky start with a ridiculously overlong and poorly written bit involving Obama in China, Joseph Gordon-Levitt took the stage for his monologue, an elaborate and impressively faithful reproduction of the “Make ‘Em Laugh” number from Singin’ in the Rain.
The monologue musical number has become just as much of a go-to in recent years as the “questions from the audience” bit, but if it’s done well, it provides a nice dose of variety into the mostly-comedic proceedings. This variation wasn’t particularly funny, but for me, the monologue stands with the music performances as a time when SNL doesn’t particularly need to be funny as long as it’s entertaining, and Gordon-Levitt’s physical dexterity — his ability to do back flips off of walls on live TV — was actually sort of thrilling, not a word I would apply to many other monologues.
That theatrical sort of energy wound up defining Gordon-Levitt’s performance throughout the night. It’s odd: on screen, he’s a natural — his work in movies like Brick, Mysterious Skin, 500 Days of Summer, and the recent Uncertainty is utterly believable across a diverse bunch of stories and parts. But despite his history on Third Rock from the Sun, his approach to live comedy was very actor-doing-theater — self-consciously big, with a lot of broad gestures, and transparently forced, as if the audience wouldn’t otherwise understand when a character is being ridiculous or insincere. That is to say that he was often doing schtick — but not that he was doing it poorly. Quite to the contrary: his commitment to each sketch was, again, a refreshing contrast to the tentative January Jones performance a week earlier.
Maybe Gordon-Levitt seemed especially excitable in contrast to the rest of the cast; with the exception of the new girls who still haven’t broken out, most of these performers have been in the cast far longer than the SNL average — many upwards of six or seven seasons, which gives them an easy professionalism and chemistry even when the material sucks. This gradually expanding tenure has also led to a different breed of recurring sketch that would’ve been difficult to pull off in years past. In addition to the usual bits that are instantly repeated and beat into the ground, there are more off-beat sketches that will turn up two or three times over as many years. Call them occasionals.
While it’s nice to see a more measured approach to recurring sketches, and to see some more innovative, conceptual reprisals, it also makes the writers seem a little exhausted, to keep reaching back into the show’s recent history, even if they do so with a little more care. In this week’s episode, for example, we saw the return of the seething family dinner from last year’s Hugh Laurie Christmas episode (and this sketch itself seems like a variation on the old tense family dinner sketches where Will Ferrell would wind up yelling stuff like “I drive a Dodge Stratus!”), and another go at “The Mellow Show,” the talk show where Jack Johnson (Andy Samberg) chats with similarly lame singers like Dave Matthews (Bill Hader), Jason Mraz (Gordon-Levitt) and, because Dave Matthews was actually there tonight, Ozzy Osbourne (Dave Matthews, doing a reasonably credible imitation).
Both of these sketches were funny, as was another go-round of “What Up With That,” the absurdist chat show that descends into variety-show insanity — it debuted only a month ago, but its return was more in the spirit of these occasionals. Sometimes this does a sketch some good: watching “What Up With That” on the dreary Gerard Butler episode, fighting to stay awake, I thought it was faintly amusing but mostly stupid. The fact that they brought it back at all, and re-upped the craziness with an apparently crunking clown and Joseph Gordon-Levitt on the keytar, kind of pushed it into so-stupid-it’s-hilarious territory for me.
So after an episode with failed sketch after failed sketch, here was an SNL where just about every sketch at least amused me, and in some cases made me laugh heartily (I admit it; I’m a sucker for making fun of Jack Johnsn, Jason Mraz, etc.). It’s just a little disheartening that the funny stuff didn’t find a more original way to make use of Gordon-Levitt’s energy. The “Secret Word” game-show sketch, while technically a first-time appearance, belongs to a group of recent retro-game-show pieces; even a sketch cut from dress rehearsal falls into this category, and also further showcases Gordon-Levitt’s manic commitment to his hosting gig:
Still, if a nixed, bonkers, slightly over-familiar Will Forte/Kristen Wiig/Joseph Gordon-Levitt collabo is emblematic of the episode as a whole, something is going right. I didn’t even mention how much I liked the “Reba” Digital Short (nice use of Kenan, not always a major presence in the Samberg-dominated Digital Shorts) and the Say Anything spoof. Looking over last season’s fall episodes, I see that there were some clunkers (although nothing as poor as the Gerard Butler or January Jones installments). Maybe this season isn’t a lost cause. Hopefully the show can keep this energy going for the holidays when it returns next month.
Episode Grade: B