Monday Morning Quarterback: SNL Season 35, Episode 18

Posted by Jesse April 11th, 2010 at 01:40pm In SNL

When Tina Fey returns to host SNL, it feels a bit like a delightful form of cheating, even compared to other return engagements from former cast members. Though we usually have to wait for incidental mentions in newspaper articles or comedy-history type books to figure out who actually wrote individual sketches, Fey, as a former head writer, has her fingerprints all over her full-episode returns to the show. You have to figure she’s pitching at least a few sketches, if not necessarily writing everything herself, Studio 60-style. So in her two hosting gigs so far, we’ve gotten sort of a Fey supershow.

This effect is compounded by the fact that while Fey was head writer during much of her time on the show, she was never a pronounced on-camera presence, sticking to her showcase Weekend Update and the occasional sketch; she never had a character as popular as the Sarah Palin imitation she honed as an occasional guest star. Since leaving SNL, Fey, always an engaging performer, has only gotten better; compare her early episodes of 30 Rock to where she is now, or even her charming supporting role in the movie of her screenplay Mean Girls versus her strong leading work in the inferior but enjoyable Date Night, which she was promoting this weekend. She’s always been funny, but she’s only gained confidence in her time away from sketch comedy.

So a Tina-hosted episode becomes sort of a peek into an alternate-world SNL, where Fey got as much screentime as, say, Amy Poehler. For her “record” second go-around, she was front and center in almost every sketch, including several near-solo performances: not just her monologue, but the Brownie Husband ad (not quite as brilliant as her Annuale piece from her first time hosting, but pretty funny), the teacher sketch that had her playing almost exclusively off of Justin Beiber, and her Women’s News segment on her old Weekend Update stomping ground.

The latter came off like a Tina Fey mission statement, and a scathing refusal to alter her personal style and irritations to answer any criticisms of “Liz Lemon feminism.” Fey has covered a lot of this ground before; call it her anti-slut platform. The piece was funny, though, and had a distinct point of view, which is more than you can say for a lot of SNL (or stand-up comedy, for that matter). In fact, Fey has such confidence now that, unlike the typical SNL hodgepodge, her episode had a distinctly personal feel, with riffs on pet Fey topics like lonely single women, attention-whore skanks, and nerdy awkward girls. The latter came through with this sketch about a girl (Nasrim Pedrad) whose best friend is her mother (Fey):

It’s the kind of thing that could come off one-note or condescending, but the sketch was disarmingly sweet, anchored by a lovely performance from Pedrad, who after this and Talk Show with Ravish, among others, has emerged as a solid breakout performer Again, I have no idea what role Fey played behind the scenes in getting this sketch to air, if any, but it certainly felt right that she’d have a part in such a well-written female-driven bit — and that she’d let Pedrad get so many of the biggest laughs.

Not everything worked swimmingly. The Al Roker sketch would’ve been a lot funnier if Kenan Thompson bothered to work up a decent Al Roker impression to better contrast with his amusingly absurd pimped-out dance-party version — and Fey’s Dina Lohan was probably one attention-whore character too many after a funny Tiger Woods riff earlier in the episode (which was itself, though well-played by Fey and Jason Sudeikis, not quite as inspired as Nasrim Pedrad’s mistress character from earlier in the season).

Fey’s Sarah Palin Network sketch was as funny as you’d expect, which makes me wonder why they didn’t make that the standard political cold open rather than the abysmal Obama census sketch. Not only was the latter completely muddled about what, exactly, it was satirizing (and, like so many Obama sketches, it flirted with “making fun” of the president only by flirting with creepy Fox News-style tropes, maybe out of a desire to make fun of the tropes themselves, but, regardless, not coming up with a decent satirical angle of their own on anything), it was just plain boring to watch, consisting primarily of of Fred Armisen reading words on the screen in his mediocre Obama voice. Strange that this was the one aspect of a routine SNL that they preserved as the rest was remade more or less in Fey’s image.

The show worked with one other handicap: involving Justin Beiber in two sketches. It made sense in the bit about the teacher; Beiber was awkward, but Fey’s character lustily pushing him a stroller certainly, you know, went for it. But shoehorning him into the above-mentioned school dance was pointless; it only brought muffed, nervous line readings into an otherwise lovely piece. Also, he sang two songs. That wasn’t so cool either.

Still, sketch for sketch, this was one of the best episodes of the season. Between Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin, and Jon Hamm, it seems like maybe 30 Rock is producing the odd side benefit of an excellent SNL host farm team. But hopefully we won’t have to wait for Grizz or Dotcom to host before we get another strong showing.

Episode Grade: B+


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