Posted by Jesse May 9th, 2010 at 02:02pm In SNL
Okay, let me get to this right away: I was not that into the idea of Betty White hosting Saturday Night Live. It has little to do with Betty White herself: I’ve seen most episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and a bunch of Golden Girls — enough to know that the lady is an old-school comedy pro who, even more remarkably, was hitting her peak several decades into her television career.
But the Facebook group that brought her to SNL’s attention isn’t really about Betty White’s esteemed comedy career. It popped up after she appeared on a (cute, amusing) Super Bowl ad for Snickers, following her umpteenth saucy-grandma appearance in The Proposal. Again, nothing against White in either of these parts (although, really, she does very little of interest in The Proposal), but since when is a thirty-second commercial spot indicative of a talent or even proficiency in live sketch comedy? To me, this isn’t much different than, say, lobbying for the Taco Bell chihuahua to host SNL — because the kind of people who clicked on “Betty White to Host SNL (Please!)” aren’t, I’d wager, people who actually watch SNL with any kind of regularity. They’re the kind of people who think that saucy old ladies are delightfully hilarious pretty much by definition, and who have a vague idea that “funny” equals “should be on Saturday Night Live or something.” It’s confusing “funny” with “cute.” Wouldn’t it be darling if Betty White did SNL? Ooh, she could do a skit with that Jimmy Fallon! He’s still on the show, right? What about the Church Lady?
So when I heard about the decision to actually let life imitate Facebook, I was bummed. It sounded craven twice: first in that SNL was responding to, and not making fun of, an internet meme; and second because there’s no way Lorne Michaels would’ve put a call in to an eighty-eight-year-old old-school comedy pro without that stupid Facebook group, no matter how many saucy grandmas she played in second-to-third-rate comedies. In short: it may have been a nice idea, but it’s one that came about almost entirely because of non-fans of the SNL with lame taste in comedy. That shouldn’t be what it takes to bust out of SNL’s hosting formula (which usually equals attractive plus has movie coming out, plus or minus has another show on NBC).
That said: White was quite good on the show, and it was touching to see her treated with such reverence with the guest-starring female cast. As someone who actually cares about the show, I was far more interested in the idea of Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Ana Gasteyer and Molly Shannon returning to support White than I was in seeing White herself — in fact, I kind of assumed that rounding up a who’s-who of female cast members from the past two decades was insurance policy against White maybe not wanting to stay up until 1AM, changing costumes every three minutes. I sort of figured that by Weekend Update, most of her bits would be done.
But White appeared in just about every sketch of the night, all through the night, with impressive energy and timing. The problem was, the sketches themselves were not especially strong. Almost every one relied on either a recurring character, or Betty White saying something saucy, or, as in the case with the amusing if predictable Delicious Dish sketch, both, over and over and over.
I understand that with a big alumni presence on the show, recurring characters will be revived. But hitting a long-dormant favorite is one thing; there’s no real excuse for doing not only yet another Scared Straight piece, but another Scared Straight piece in which the host comes in and, get this, totally mimics Kenan Thompson’s Macintosh character in speech and appearance! Even stranger, better recurring sketches like Bronx Beat and (to a lesser extent) Debbie Downer were cut from dress, though they are available online (then again, this cut batch included Molly Shannon’s intolerable “Joyologist” character, so maybe I shouldn’t complain). To skip these in favor of Scared Straight and The Manuel Ortiz Show seems downright perverse. I definitely laughed at MacGruber’s grandma feud and Kristen Wiig’s freakish Lawrence Welk dancer, but that doesn’t completely make up for six minutes of Manuel Ortiz where the joke is “everyone keeps dancing.”
The most interesting bits, of course, were relatively fresh: an appealingly silly promo for CSI: Sarasota; a weird sketch with Amy Poehler employing her old-timey gal voice as the tomboy/lesbian of a girly family; and Tina Fey playing a census worker opposite a dotty White (although that last one was really just a remake of a Fey-penned census sketch from ages ago, with Tim Meadows as the worker and Christopher Walken as, you guessed it, the weirdo). They still depended on the show’s single basic idea for White: old lady sayin’ weird stuff! But at least they approached the formula without adding Molly Shannon screaming “I’m fifty!” and then having Betty White say “I’m ninety!” In the parlance of “Really?!? with Seth and Tina and Amy” — really, SNL? This is worth keeping Betty White up until one in the morning? Really? So she can enter the pantheon of comedic achievement that can only be represented by a second-tier recurring character from twelve years ago?
Funnier than some of those character revivals was Jay-Z’s second performance. Watching Jay-Z in general makes me feel like a clueless white dude because I pretty emphatically do not get what is supposed to be impressive or electrifying about most of his songs. His first performance was sort of cool and unusual in that he performed a semi-epic medley of hits — although I couldn’t shake the feeling that at some hip-hop shows, that ten minutes would’ve constituted an entire set, and also that his Alicia Keys impersonator totally got surprised applause because the audience assumed she was, in fact, Alicia Keys. (Also: “concrete jungle where dreams are made of”? Do better.) This left me unsure if he was going to do a second song, since so many hits were touched upon in that first medley, but he did come back for an abbreviated and ridiculous run-through of his version of Alphaville’s “Forever Young,” which provides stiff competition with Will.i.am for most laughable version of a song called “Forever Young.” In this song, a guy sings the chorus to Alphaville’s “Forever Young,” and Jay-Z yells stuff in the breaks. Virtuosic! I particularly like the way Jay-Z uses those pauses not just to go “uh,” but to answer rhetorical questions: that dude sings “do you really wanna live forever?” and Jay-Z practically steps on the line with a quick “YES!” Seriously, Bobby Moynihan could scarcely have done it better.
This all made for the strangest, mangiest SNL episode since Charles Barkley hosted: unpredictable, but rarely hilarious. It’s not so much that Betty White deserves better — she looked delighted to be there, set a record for oldest host, performed well all night, and honestly, seeing the cast present her with flowers at the episode’s end was very sweet. It’s that this show should treat itself better, and not just hand itself over to the internet.
Episode Grade: B-