What is it about Paul Rudd that flummoxes Saturday Night Live? Rudd is a funny, charming guy, with cred both actorly and comedic, with ties to both The State and the Apatow gang of comedians. He even seems particularly chummy with Andy Samberg (who played his brother in I Love You, Man) and Bill Hader (who share the Apatow connection). When he hosts SNL, it should be an easy win for everyone.
And yet: Rudd’s first time hosting, about two years ago, was disappointing; a few good sketches and a very funny Digital Short (“may I paint you?”) were mixed in with a bunch of floundering, obvious bits, and the episode was more known for its bizarre onslaught of gay jokes (a few good-natured, others less so) and its (actually middling) Beyonce/Justin Timberlake “Single Ladies” sketch more than anything else.
Basically, it was an incredibly low bar that Rudd and company had to clear this weekend, and they knocked straight into it for an episode that was appreciably worse in just about every way. Maybe, if you’re a nerd who pays attention this sort of thing, you thought Rudd’s last time was heavy on recurring characters, with the deep-kissing Vogelcheck family, the mercilessly unfunny Scared Straight, and the (admittedly) always-welcome singing
Well, this one set out to beat it by reprising the Vogelcheck bit again, without even the novelty of seeing a new host go through the heavy-kissing motions; wasting even more time with Fred Armisen’s insensitive women’s-show producer; and pointlessly reviving the bit where Jason Sudeikis plays an angry technician (this time a spotlight operator), flummoxing a star playing him or herself. That last one has actually gotten a bit funnier since its inception something like five years ago, with more focus on funny, hostile dialogue from Sudeikis, but guys, if you’re going to take five years to develop a sketch to the point where it’s okay rather than awful, maybe you should direct your attentions elsewhere.
Of course, it’s not as if the show used Rudd, or anyone else, to better effect in many of the less tired bits. “What’s That Name” was funny, easily the best regular sketch of the night, and it was conveniently located close to most of the rest of the decent stuff: another good digital short (“Stumlin'”) that made better use of Rudd than almost anything else; another WikiLeaks bit to follow up last week’s (mostly superior) opener; and Weekend Update, which had a delightfully goofy Paul McCartney appearance and another fun go-round with Stefon.
But apart from Abby Elliot’s funny one-joke take on Meryl Streep late in the show, that was pretty much it. The recurring stuff was pretty bad, but nothing was worse than the rambling, joke-muffling sketch where Paul Rudd played a math teacher and Jay Pharoah played a school principal, making announcements at a Field Day. Everyone has been waiting for weeks to see what Pharoah might be like in sketches and not just impression showcases, but in this awful, awful sketch, his stand-up origins were clear: he was doing a “funny” voice with a lot of vocal tics, and that was the joke. I can see how this non-character of the phlegmatic, muttering principal would be funny in a stand-up routine. But it’s not funny as a comedy sketch, not on its own, certainly not when the entire fucking joke is him appearing, saying the same shit over and over, and walking away.
SNL writers tend to get the majority of blame when the show sucks, and in general this makes sense, as the show has maintained a likable, talented cast for over a decade now, with only a handful of uninspired performers. But sometimes you have to say, okay, Jay Pharoah, Fred Armisen, Kristen Wiig… you’re doing a bad job. You’re using tics, you’re repeating yourself, you’re using your powers for bad comedy instead of good.
Three mediocre recurring characters and one beyond-awful original sketch would damage the show on any night, but it was especially difficult for the show to recover when about half of the screen time was inexplicably devoted to Paul McCartney. I mean, okay, I know he’s a legend. The Beatles were pretty much the best thing ever. And his comedy appearances — in the monologue, in the Digital Short, on Weekend Update — were whimsical and silly and all in good fun.
But I’m getting impatient with the show’s selective interest in music. That is to say, almost every musical act on SNL does two songs, but if there’s some band or musician that is for some reason deemed far more worthy or legendary than usual, which is to say if aging baby-boomer Lorne Michaels happens to really like them, they get to do extra songs and take up space on a show that usually doesn’t pay much attention to its music. It doesn’t matter if Paul McCartney is performing fucking Wings songs to promote a fucking Wings reissue; he’s Paul McCartney so he gets as much screentime as the episode’s host, if not more.
If McCartney had a new record out and was afforded the opportunity to do a third-song “encore” of an older track, maybe I’d feel more charitable, even though ex-Beatles should realize that their solo versions of Beatles songs tend to sound like covers, no matter if they were there when the beautiful original happened. (I get that Paul singing both parts of “A Day in the Life” and going into “Give Peace a Chance” was intended as a Lennon tribute, although it’s difficult not to picture Lennon cringing about it.) In fact, I would love it if Paul Simon came on to promote his upcoming record in the spring and got to do three songs from different parts of his career. I would love it even more if this privilege was ever extended to a band with members younger than forty in it. But this was just out-of-nowhere tribute/genuflection toward McCartney, almost as if to make up for the attention Lennon has been getting this year — and I usually think of Paul as somewhat underrated (“Maybe I’m Amazed” may be the best Beatles solo song).
Of course, if the sketches in between all of the McCartney love were better, I wouldn’t complain much. But poor Paul Rudd deserves a chance not to be upstaged by McCartney, Timberlake, Beyonce, or horrible laziness.
Episode Grade: C-
1 comment December 12th, 2010