Monday Morning Quarterback: SNL Season 35, Episode 20

Posted by Jesse April 25th, 2010 at 07:04pm In SNL

I think the elevated expectations for the Gabourey Sidibe episode of Saturday Night Live must speak to Sidibe’s innate likability; most people have only seen her in the movie Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire if at all, which makes sense because while she’s shot some episodes of an upcoming TV show since, her hosting gig was really only her second acting gig. Yet everyone I talked to seemed to be psyched for her appearance based on her charming (and very non-Precious) interview presence.

She played up those differences, of course, in a jubilant monologue, singing about being herself to the tune of “It’s in His Kiss,” and singing quite well. For the rest of the show, she stumbled over lines pretty regularly, but it made sense: her only other acting that anyone has seen didn’t require a ton of dialogue, and her actual personality is far more exuberant. Her fumbles felt like excitement more than nerves.

It helped that most of her material was pretty fun and often appealingly strange. Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way: the Obama cold open was a laugh-free refusal to admit that the best openers of the year have had, sadly, absolutely nothing to do with Obama; this piece, with protracted explanation (a solid minute or more without even an attempted joke) and stunning lack of incident (it was really just Armisen’s Obama talking for a few minutes, something you can’t really get away with unless you’re dealing with an inspired impression like Dana Carvey’s Bush Sr. or Will Ferrell’s Bush Jr.), matched previous low ebbs.

The botching of political humor has become a trademark of this season; the awards show sketch honoring absent, indifferent, and lazy public employees was a bit more old-school in that it was a one-joke piece with ridiculous elaborate set-up and lasted seemingly forever, with a side of bizarre axe-grinding. I worked alongside public school janitors for a few summers, and while I get the behavior that was being kidded in the sketch, I don’t know, it just never really occurred to me that someone needed to stick it to people who do clean up the schools. I know that sounds like a humorless response — but fair play, I think, for a sketch that just wasn’t very funny and took up a ridiculous amount of airtime.

Those bits aside, though, SNL didn’t indulge in its worst habits: a surprising amount of material was fresh and/or strange, like sketch with Sidibe playing a batty old lady hollering at guys on a stoop while actually conveying a lot of useful and well-informed information (nice touch, too, saying that her daddy “sold wikipedias”). There were three recurring characters, yes, two were post-12:30 regulars that I’m always happy to see: Jenny Slate’s doorbell/car horn/alarm clock pitch lady and Will Forte’s white supremacist Hamilton, trying to patch things up with former lover Gabourey Sidibe.

In short, it’s been a nice surprise to see the show’s spark from the Tina Fey episode continue for the duration of the April shows. Not everything has been great, and MGMT continues the streak of unexciting musical performances, but SNL has been a lot of fun for three weeks straight. Weekend Update has been on a streak of its own during this period, with strong Seth Meyers jokes and a lot of new Update characters. Last night’s Bill Hader club-expert character Stefon provided some of the night’s funniest lines even before Hader started to break.

A word about giggling: SNL was vaguely founded on the principle of not breaking, as, especially in the mid-seventies, it closely recalled the old-school cast chumminess of The Carol Burnett Show, where Harvey Korman and Tim Conway would make each other laugh all the time in a display of shticky artifice. But it’s happened more often on SNL over the past few decades, especially during Jimmy Fallon’s stint on the show: he’d break because of Will Ferrell getting in his face (understandable) and, later, because he and Horatio Sanz seemed to be goading each other on (less so; Sanz is actually a brilliant improviser, but Fallon isn’t, and their interactions felt more like private, show-stalling jokes).

Bill Hader has become this cast’s unlikely giggler; it doesn’t happen with the serial tiresomeness of Fallon, but Hader has broken a good three or four times now. Yet there’s something honest and enjoyable about Hader’s laughter that’s not nearly as vexing as Fallon’s. It doesn’t hurt that he often breaks during what has become an otherwise lame sketch, the “Scared Straight” bit where it seems like Kenan Thompson and Jason Sudeikis make it their business to crack him up through actual goofy behavior, not just Sanz-and-Fallon style in-joke dopiness. But him losing it during his Update commentary was sort of delightful, too, because it reflects the joy of performing, and of attempting to commit to ridiculous characters, that is closer in spirit to Ferrell than Sanz and Fallon, who didn’t exactly disappear into characters. Hader’s break was like the episode as a whole: far from technically flawless, but a lot of fun.

Episode Grade: B

3 Comments

  • 1. Maggie  |  April 25th, 2010 at 8:00 pm

    Thanks to a totally awesome friend, I was in the studio audience for the rehearsal of this episode. Unlike when Kyle and I saw the taping, we had good seats, right in the center of the balcony in the front row (having gone twice now I’m pretty sure you have to be sleeping with someone to get those floor seats). They do an extra half an hour of material, which meant three sketches (that I remember) and 2 pre-taped bits (both really funny, and I hope they show up eventually) that didn’t make it into the final broadcast.

    The number-one take-away from seeing the taping is that this show is a MASSIVE undertaking. There are so many details and so much complication. It was mind-blowing to think that after we left, just an hour later they were going to do it all over again — live. Not because what we saw wasn’t ready — the quality of performances/stagecraft/etc was almost exactly the same — but because it was just so much work.

    Anyway, it was a kick to see Seth Meyers look down and cross something off and say “nope” when a joke totally bombed, and then to see it disappear for the actual broadcast. Also my friend and I had a lot of fun putting bets on which sketches were going to be cut. The whole time it seemed clear which sketches were in the competition to be the last sketch of the night. Suze Orman, the Grandma bit, the Cherry video, and all the early stuff was obviously locked in. We weren’t sure about Frank Sinatra, just because they had some trouble putting up the set, but that’s easily solved. The others were all lumped together and had a try-out vibe to them.

    Of the ones that lost out to Hamilton (who was my pick to stay, so I was psyched he prevailed), there was an Andy Samberg one where he’s a bully who’s also a wimp, which was somewhat charming but maybe a little thin. Then there was a Kenan-and-Gabby-as-pretend-doctors thing that had some really funny character stuff but also seemed to have some timing issues. And then there was an audition sketch, which my friend and I totally loved, with Forte and Hader casting a 30s Broadway musical, trying to find someone who knew about “suffering,” and continually ignoring Gabby, the “curtain-beater.” It featured a truly amazing Kristin Wiig grotesquerie as one of the auditioners. But it too had some timing issues, and a slow ending. I thought it was crazy and weird, but I see why they went with the crazy and weird of Hamilton instead.

    The Hader breaking thing was really interesting, because he broke at rehearsal, too. I don’t have a problem with breaking — for someone as awesome as Hader, it makes him seem human and like he’s having fun, like you said — but I’m personally convinced that the breaking in the Scared Straight sketch was genuine to start and is now faked because it’s part of the DNA of the sketch. So I was interested to see if he’d break in the live broadcast after “getting it out of his system” in dress. But in the end I haven’t really proved anything to myself, because just the thought of “fire-hydrant-people” had me laughing in anticipation of the line, so I imagine it could be really, really hard for him, too. I hope Stefon comes back soon. I loved it. High-waisted midgets in red pants with a big ass. Genius.

    So in the end, what have we learned? I don’t know! It’s fun to go see TV being made, I guess!

  • 2. sara  |  April 25th, 2010 at 10:17 pm

    Maggie, weren’t you also there for the Jezebel James taping? Sounds like this was way more fun.

    I love Bill Hader. I was crying with laughter by the time he actually broke. And unlike Jesse, I thought the public employees sketch was the funniest of the night. I have met that lady at the DMV.

  • 3. Maggie  |  April 26th, 2010 at 10:09 am

    I’ve now been to tapings for The Daily Show, The Return of Jezebel James, SNL, and the SNL dress rehearsal. All of them totally fun. Even the six-hour-plus Jezebel James. I have a hobby!


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