Monday Morning Quarterback: SNL Season 35, Episode 16

Posted by Jesse March 7th, 2010 at 02:11pm In SNL

When an actual real-deal comedian hosts Saturday Night Live, for me, expectations shift. When you’re dealing with, say, Jennifer Lopez, or even someone you might sense is funny but isn’t really known for comedy like Jude Law, their job as a host is more to be game and comfortable, not necessarily to produce top-tier comedic work (hosts like Scarlett Johansson or Joseph Gordon-Levitt get bonus points when they seem to actively dig into their characters and enjoy themselves). But when Steve Carell or Paul Rudd host, or a former cast member like Will Ferrell or Tina Fey drops by, the possibilities seem purer; the host should be able to hit the ground running and do pretty much whatever everyone decides is hilarious.

Of course, Zach Galifianakis is more of a stand-up comedian than an actor, despite his good work in the otherwise overrated The Hangover. But a lot of SNL folk have come from stand-up over the years, and it’s always a treat to get a monologue from an actual comedian. This episode, featuring a longish bit of stand-up from this Comedian of Comedy, was no exception. Apparently a lot of this material came from his stand-up routine, but whatever, I hadn’t seen most of it and it was funny.

After that, though, the show went wildly uneven, even for an SNL episode. The material oscillated strangely between the kind of Galifianakisified stuff you might expect when a beloved, cultish comic hosts, and a mild Galifianakis touch on the kind of tired, plug-em-in recurring crap that would be better suited to a model, or an athlete, or an athelete-slash-model.

For example, the video bit with the comedian “dropping by” the sets of various NBC shows was amusingly weird, and was followed by a neat callback in the Today show sketch, where Galifianakis played a creepier, apparently non-famous version of himself. SNL so rarely does callbacks within episodes that I’m predisposed to enjoy even the simplest attempts. But Galifianakis turned up only after several interminable minutes of the usual fourth-hour Today routine — which seems like particularly greedy, lazy character-grubbing now that it’s continued on past the firing of Michael Watkins. The Hoda Kotb half of the sketch isn’t as showy as Wiig’s Kathie Lee Gifford impression, of course, but the Watkins version of Hoda was substantially funnier than Jenny Slate’s — more attuned Hoda’s suppressed rage.

So back and forth it went, all night. A simple sketch about a couple (Galifianakis and Wiig) inquiring about a hotel bathroom’s bidet was perfectly executed, very funny — especially following as it did another pointless go-round with the kissing family. And the presence of Galifianakis wasn’t enough to go another week of skipping an awful, awful “political” sketch opener. I know SNL feels like they have a responsibility to (a.) do at least one political sketch per week as per their history and (b.) “give it” to Obama with the same strength they’d utilize against the Republicans (which is to say, just as clumsily, but more based on stupid and misleading talking points), but I’d love it if someone would formally relieve them of that obligation, at least until they have a satirical take on Obama and/or a decent impression of him. Eighty percent of their Obama sketches have been among the worst political bits in the show’s history, a tradition they were unwilling to surrender just because a funny guy was hosting.

This tension between originality and utter hackiness even bled into a Galifianakis-free Weekend Update: there was Will Forte with a hilarious song about Women’s History (er, Herstory — see what he did there?), hooray, and then there was Kenan Thompson doing a shabby Mo’Nique impression. Let me summarize Kenan’s clever take on Mo’Nique: apparently, she speaks with the same nonsense-patois (“brootiful” for “beautiful,” etc.) as several other Kenan characters, with a dash of his Whoopi Goldberg talking-without-saying-much shtick. Nice work, Kenan. Way to totally compensate for not having an actual black lady in the cast. I can’t wait for your Queen Latifah impression to sound suspiciously like Bill Cosby.

I do have to wonder, in the show’s defense, if some of this roteness was, counterintuitive as this suggestion may be, due to Galifianakis himself. He seemed a little uncomfortable reading actual lines in actual sketches, so maybe there was a reason for sticking him into speaking-light bits like the kissing family (a novelty bit that has been thoroughly exhausted) and What Up with That (still amusing, but would be a lot better if it wasn’t the third recurring sketch of the night). The “Pageant Chat” sketch, another good one stuck at the very end of the show, played like a Galifianakis idea; maybe he came up with twenty or thirty minutes of good stuff himself, but felt at a loss when it came time to integrate himself further into the show.

Of course, it’s not his responsibility to fix the whole show — but nor is it the show’s responsibility to come up with sixty or seventy minutes of perfect, original, varied comedy. Under normal circumstances, three or four decent-or-better sketches might seem, well, better. Galifianakis, the cast, and the writers really collaborated on the sense of disappointment that persisted anyway.

Episode Grade: Another C+/B-, depending on expectations and, reversing the J-Lo problem, how much you enjoy Vampire Weekend. Just hearing some songs I liked helped the episode go down a bit easier.


March 2010
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