Posted by Jesse November 14th, 2010 at 02:10pm In SNL
This is getting to be a little troubling. Saturday Night Live has had a pretty epic run of great host choices this season. Seemingly few of them have been chosen to promote any particular blockbuster of the moment, but rather to capitalize on generally good feelings about their strong, not-quite-household-name work: Bryan Cranston, Jane Lynch, and Emma Stone. Other hosts have been established friends of the show: Amy Poehler, Jon Hamm, and, this week, Scarlett Johansson. Unfortunately, all three of these episodes have represented some degree of disappointment, Hamm and Johansson in particular: they both hosted twice before to surprisingly strong effect, and both had their weakest of three this season.
Johansson’s episode was a bit better than Hamm’s, but it may have been just as disappointing, because I’d argue that her two previous gigs were even better, on average, than Hamm’s. She even has a recurring character: Lexy, the daughter of Fred Armisen’s Long Islandy pitchman urging people to buy classy stuff like marble columns, chandeliers, and, in this week’s episode, “ceramic busts.” It’s pretty much just one joke, but if more one-joke recurring characters only came back once every year or two, they would seem a lot less intolerable.
I should point out, though, that Johansson seemed to use that Long Island/Jersey-ish accent as a go-to whenever she was unsure of how her character should sound — odd, because one of the very funny promos running this week had Jason Sudeikis prompting her to perform in a couple of reasonably convincing silly accents (English, pirate). I haven’t seen the Millionaire Matchmaker on TV, but some who have tell me that the sketch pretty much nailed her behavior but not her voice, which sounded suspiciously like Lexy which sounded suspiciously like her non-impression of Rosario Dawson in the nonetheless very funny Unstoppable trailer.
But I don’t want to blame ScarJo, because generally she’s a game and engaging comedienne; based on her SNL work, she should mix some more film comedies into her acting gigs. No, the problem with this week’s episode was rooted in the show’s insistence on note-for-note repeats of awful sketches.
The Obama opener is always pretty bad, but if they’re getting to the point where they’re not even writing new bad Obama sketches, but reprising past non-triumphs almost word for word, maybe, just fucking maybe, they could consider not doing an Obama sketch. I won’t qualify matters with “The Manuel Ortiz Show”: Never do this sketch again. No matter how much Fred Armisen loves it and no matter how much Lorne Michaels loves Fred Armisen, which in both cases I’d classify as “beyond all reason” (and I say this as someone who admires a lot of Armisen’s earlier work on the show), stop taking up precious sketch real estate with a sketch about people dancing, sometimes slightly faster or slightly slower.
With better sketches in place of those, maybe I wouldn’t have gotten so irritated that the show wasted a good five to eight minutes on that weird, rootless, baseless Disney Channel sketch with middle schoolers with too much faith in the power of positive thinking. I mean, yes, I get it, the power of positive thinking is overstated to children. Kind of funny. But why in the name of all that is even sort of holy did they determine the best way to critique this was to repeat the same obvious joke as slowly and methodically as possible? The sketch felt like it was missing some key piece, a first scene or a last scene that would make it make more sense or drove home the long set-up.
By comparison, the recurring Hollywood Dish sketch seemed almost refreshing. I’m getting kind of a Vinny Vedecci vibe from this bit, where it was kind of tired after a few times, but now they’re actually finding more ways to make it sillier and funnier. I wasn’t expecting to laugh much at the outset (and it’s still kind of a waste of Johansson to have her playing herself; let’s save that for the athletes and singers, guys), but I did, especially at the sustained take of Kristen Wiig covered in slushie and spaghetti while Bill Hader maintained his play-shocked face.
And I did laugh elsewhere, throughout the episode: I loved the “Stars of Tomorrow” sketch with Johansson and newcomer Vanessa Bayer doing pitch-perfect child-star stage acting. The digital short was funny. The Unstoppable bit found a better, more concise outlet for Jay Pharoah’s fantastic Denzel impression. I liked ScarJo’s classy-ladies song in the monologue. It’s just that the dead weight this week felt deader and weightier than it should’ve.
However: Arcade Fire did perform two excellent songs. In most cases, the musical guest doesn’t affect my grading much; I can usually fast-forward or ignore the bad stuff, and even the better performances rarely wash away bad-comedy aftertaste. But Arcade Fire (who also appeared in their second Digital Short) kicks ass, even if I wish they had been the icing and not a decent portion of the cake.
Episode Grade: B-