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Monday Morning Quarterback: SNL Season 36, Episode 11

It’s interesting: most of the sketches on this week’s episode of SNL were straight down the middle: big set-up, obvious follow-through, nail the jokes and get out. They could’ve easily seemed a little hacky, and though host Jim Carrey was strong in his only previous time on the show, about a dozen years ago, he isn’t necessarily the first person you’d suggest for the task of enlivening hoary sketch ideas; he didn’t have much luck enlivening Yes Man or Fun with Dick and Jane.

So maybe the show enlivened Carrey somehow? Because his episode was pretty much just as much of a delight as his last time around. In contrast with the amiable but half-there Jeff Bridges last month, Carrey was front and center; the writers seemed to really enjoy building goofy sketches around his elastic talents. So we got Carrey in the Mila Kunis role in Black Swan; Carrey as a psychic medium and ex-impressionist who conveniently only “contacts” bizarre celebrities; Carrey as a deranged animatronic in an old-timey amusement park ride. It was all pretty much physical shtick in service of a big central joke, but these sketches proved how effective that can be when the sketch is direct and the comedians really commit.

Yet as much as the episode showcased Carrey (who popped up back up to promote the excellent I Love You Phillip Morris, though he didn’t actually mention it on-air), it also brought out strength in the rest of the cast. Almost everyone got a shot at something hilariously silly in the “Worst of Soul Train” bit, while Jason Sudiekis stole that psychic sketch with his sheer delight at Carrey’s impressions, and Andy Samberg shined as a man who claimed to tell off his boss but actually burst into tears in that talk show parody. Even Taran Killam, probably my least favorite cast member, showed off an uncanny, Carrey-matching ability to mimic animatronic movement in the Merrymen amusement park bit

The only recurring character was Kenan’s jolly old-man sexpert Grady Wilson; they’ve done it a few too many times at this point, but I imagine resisting the opportunity to let Carrey contort his way into nonsensical sex positions was as difficult as it was for me to resist laughing. And the only really off sketch was the “Taste of New York” homeless band at the end of the episode: the one solid concept that didn’t really pay off in a decent-or-better way. Add in some energetic Black Keys performances, and you’ve got one of the best, highest-energy episodes of the season.

Episode Grade: B+

1 comment January 9th, 2011

Monday Morning Quarterback: SNL Season 36, Episode 10

Last week, I felt dispirited by Saturday Night Live‘s incessant recycling of years-old ideas when they had Paul Rudd at their disposal. This week, almost every sketch was some sort of rerun: Bill Hader did Julian Assange for the third time in three weeks; Fred Armisen bid farewell to Larry King; Weekend Update favorites came back for a Christmas song on Update and elsewhere in the show with the Kardashians; DJ Supersoak and Lil’ Blaster made a return appearance to promote Under-Underground Record’s Crunkmas celebration. Even in the traditionally more original final half-hour, sketches without recurring characters were pretty much conceptual reruns: this isn’t the first time the show has offered an alternate It’s a Wonderful Life, or found a silly angle on prank shows like they did with Jeff’d.

And yet: something about this week’s revisitations felt far more fresh and inspired than last week’s. It’s not that the show took particular advantage of Bridges himself; actually, he was absent for much of the show’s first hour. But Julian Assange, Miley Cyrus, and the Under-Underground Records crew (including the perpetually maybe-dead Ass Dan) are still fun characters, and the writers and performers seem to still care about writing new jokes for them. The familiarity was actually kind of nice — a glimpse into a world where the show’s recurring characters don’t summon so much dread from me.

In fact, when the show did a purely non-recurring sketch with Bridges prominently featured — that weird, lame, repetitive historic gift-wrapping sketch toward the end of the evening — it faltered and turned in the worst moment of the night. So a character-heavy, Bridges-light, Tron-free evening may not have been ideal, but given that glimpse of the alternative, I was pretty happy with it.

The other Bridges appearances mostly contributed a variety of middling impressions: Nick Nolte on The Miley Cyrus Show, and then, to better effect, Dog the Bounty Hunter on Larry King. Middling impressions seemed to be a theme for the night: Jeff’d is the sort of sketch that takes the opportunity for the cast to trot out a lot of quick-hit celebrity goofs, only aside from Andy Samberg’s vocally spot-on Billy Bob Thornton, the impressions weren’t all that tight. The same could be said of Fred Armisen’s Larry King; in terms of diction and vocal resemblance, noted non-impressionist Norm MacDonald actually did a much funnier King on SNL, while Armisen’s version is one of those bits where the writers have the subject say stuff other people think about him, rather than really act the way Larry King acts. Still, the jokes themselves were decent, and surprisingly mean, so the sketch worked pretty well.

More puzzling, impressions-wise, was Taran Killam’s Weekend Update bit where he played Brad Pitt as a weatherman. He had a lot of Pitt’s gestures and aspects of his voice down, but is Pitt known for saying “blegh” or whatever it was Killam kept doing? I’ve seen a lot of his movies and I only sort of understood what he was getting at with that. Also: Brad Pitt as a weatherman is a little too close to what if Denzel Washington worked at a customer service desk — and at least Jay Pharoah’s Denzel is top-to-bottom excellent.

Speaking of Pharoah, he continued an unfortunate trend of basing his comedy on making weird noises with his mouth, pretty much the only unfunny part of the Crunkmas bit which otherwise had me laughing until crying, as I often do when the show takes pointless but fruitful aim at the Insane Clown Posse subculture. It’s a joke based largely on listing extremely goofy things, but it works on me just about every time.

There were other grace notes, too, in areas that don’t always excel: a quick, funny political cold open, and a sweet monologue where Bridges sang a non-joke duet with Cookie Monster (the subject of a mock-campaign to host the show a few weeks ago). It was no classic, but with so few bum moments, the whole thing amounted to a pretty decent holiday party.

Episode Grade: B

December 19th, 2010

Monday Morning Quarterback: SNL Season 36, Episode 9

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

Monday Morning Quarterback: SNL Season 36, Episode 8

For some reason, Robert De Niro hosting a December episode of SNL has become something of a minor tradition; I didn’t even completely remember that he did this in Decembers of both 2002 and 2004, but it happened, and with Little Fockers looming, he returned for his third time. Unlike this year’s other three-timers, ScarJo and JoHa, De Niro hasn’t really displayed much surpise affinity for live sketch comedy. If anything, he’s one of the less natural recurring hosts of the past decade, clearly card-reading and sometimes stumbling over his lines, although also pretty game to play around for someone who is visibly uncomfortable even on talk shows.

Maybe the show was rewarding De Niro’s simultaneous reputations as legendary, cranky, and a potential good sport by playing it a little safe in his most recent gig: he played himself three times, and four of the night’s seven proper sketches featured recurring characters. Yet this hesitancy actually sort of paid off: it wasn’t a home-run episode, but nothing really fell flat.

Well, maybe the Mr. Produce sketch, one of the few attempts at originality of the evening, didn’t really work, lacking a clear comic premise/relationship as De Niro played a gruff cooking-show host dealing with his college-flunking pill of a son, played by Andy Samberg. And the return of Bobby Moynihan’s awestruck-except-in-the-face-of-celebrity little kid probably wasn’t necessary, but it didn’t go on too long and it’s an okay concept.

Anyway, the missteps made the use of other recurring sketches feel welcome rather than tired: Bill Hader’s Vinny Vedecci is reliably amusing and weird (Moynihan had better luck playing Vedecci’s drunk little son: “give me my mony, I kill you Robert De Niro!”), and What Up with That actually altered the formula ever so slightly, benefiting from De Niro’s ease with irritability — his barking “you messed up!” at the end of the sketch was a show highlight for me.

If the show was on the cautious side, it gave De Niro himself some space to loosen up. He seemed more game than ever, appearing in almost every segment, including areas where the host need not tread if he or she isn’t feeling it: the cold open (which was actually pretty funny?! The second show in a row?! It seems like maybe the writers are feeling their way through this not relying on Armisen’s weak Obama impression thing!), the Digital Short, and even his own fake commercial, one of my favorite bits of the night:

Appearing almost as often was Andy Samberg: as the son in Mr. Produce; in his usual Digital Short as part of a funny (if somewhat inexplicable) Weekend at Bernie’s spoof; hanging upside down to good effect in a Weekend Update Spider-Man bit; reprising his one-note but still pretty hilarious Blizzard Man character; and featured heavily in the night’s other, more successful bid for a non-recurring sketch, the last one where he and Sudeikis find out who they have to screw to get a drink around here. Strange, but kind of neat, that one of SNL’s all-out silliest, least actorly comedians would get so many scenes with such a non-comedic host.

In fact, at the outset of this episode, I was wondering why they keep getting De Niro to promote these Fockers movies rather than SNL alum and actual comedian Ben Stiller (whose single 1998 hosting gig was pretty swell). Though Stiller actually turned up in two sketches, De Niro acquitted himself perhaps better than ever before (although I did enjoy his duet with Kermit the Frog back in 2004): fun, a little awkward, and very New Yorky.

Episode Grade: B

2 comments December 5th, 2010

Monday Morning Quarterback: SNL Season 36, Episode 7

After ScarJo and Jon Hamm both returned to high expectations and low rewards, it was Anne Hathway’s turn to follow up a successful SNL hosting gig. But Hathaway’s episode from 2008, while decent, wasn’t quite a best-of-season candidate; maybe that’s what allowed her, the writers, and the cast to kick up such a solid episode this time around.

How often you can say this about SNL since the 2008 election? It immediately got off to a strong start with a funny cold open. Seriously! It happened! Taking a page from the amusing-then-tired Hardball opening-sketch format of the mid-aughts, Abby Elliott played Rachel Maddow, interviewing Nancy Pelosi (Kristen Wiig), John Boehner (Bill Hader), and Kenan Thompson (Charlie Rangel). It wasn’t so much a feast for spot-on impressions, but it did have, get this, good jokes! Of different types! Boy, that was a good feeling, to actually laugh at a politically themed cold open. Remember when this used to happen all the time?

Hathaway seemed particularly amped to be back during her monologue, and jumped into the first of several impressions during the Miley Cyrus Show bit (recurring a little too fast, but the Miley Cyrus industry is providing enough material to change up the jokes to some degree, at least for now), a spot-on Katie Holmes. Her Alanis Morrissette bit at the end of the show, in the “Horse Play” soundtrack ad that reprised the bunny-movie soundtrack ad from a few seasons ago with less weirdness/hilarity, was less close but also established a strange mid-to-late-nineties niche for her, I assume because she was totally into Dawson’s and Alanis as a teenager.

I’ve often found Hathaway a little studied as an actor — a little more technically proficient than inspired — and this was true, to an extent, of her hosting gig, where she mixed more sustained impressions (of Holmes, or Judy Garland in the Wizard of Oz bit), straight-woman material (as Kate Middleton), and short bursts of accented craziness in smaller parts. But it worked: it was like she did her homework to ace the SNL test, and it pretty much worked. This variety also made her feel a little more present than her 2008 episode, in which she was similarly game but receded into the background a little.

It also helped that the show happened to give us a bunch of solid sketches this week, as if to make up for the disappointing thinness of the Hamm and ScarJo episodes. Only one sketch really fell flat: the reprisal of Penelope. This character that started out with a simple (if over-emphasized after pretty much one airing) conceit and joke: the behavior of a chronic, irritating one-upper. But as the sketch has been repeated and repeated, what used to be the kicker joke of one of Penelope’s nonsense one-ups coming true has become a running gag about how she really does, say, shrink and float through soap on a stick of celery. If Penelope had appeared exactly twice, first in the normal guise and second in the surreal one, this might be funny, but by this point it’s a waste of time, a dead-air opportunity for hosts (usually female, for some reason) to play it straight and irritated.

Apart from that Penelope detour, though, it was pretty much all decent or better. There were some unquestionable highlights, like the inspired royal-family sketch with Kate Middleton discovering her future in-laws to be tough-talking limey thugs and the ad for Mega-Mart’s twelve-minute Black Friday stampede in the making, with promises of freshly waxed floors, free box cutters, and seven copies of a secret unpublished Harry Potter novel. There were a lot of fake ads, actually: Horse Play and Camel Tame and the TSA, all pretty funny.

Such was the show’s freshness that even long-time cast members like Fred Armisen (who by this point typically slows the show down more than almost anyone) and Bill Hader (who is hilarious but sometimes struggles to do more than his funny recurring characters and occasional impressions) were particularly well-used: they both killed in the royals sketch, Hader had a nice showcase as the elderly, confused, angry news reporter, and one of Armisen’s patented awkward-weirdo characters actually worked in the Wizard of Oz deleted scenes.

Even Weekend Update was better than it’s been for most of this season. In fact, the episode was so solid that a pretty strong six-minute bit was cut from dress and put online, featuring another short burst of Hathaway craziness:

If this sketch has been subbed in for that Penelope run-through, this would’ve been… oh, wait, this already was definitely the best episode of the season.

Episode Grade: B+

2 comments November 21st, 2010

Monday Morning Quarterback: SNL Season 36, Episode 7

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-

1 comment November 14th, 2010

Monday Morning Quarterback: SNL Season 36, Episode 5

I was afraid this might happen. After two good-to-great hosting gigs and several hilarious 30 Rock appearances, expectations were high for Jon Hamm’s third go-round at Saturday Night Live, and while it didn’t completely fall flat, it was arguably the weakest overall episode of the season — and certainly the most disappointing.

Hamm’s monologue, in which he attempted to prove his learned advertising acumen by coming up with product slogans from “audience” suggestions, was in keeping with his past comedic work: daft, a bit strange, and more than willing to deflate his smooth Mad Men image. That strength turned up again in the sketch about two actors with a bizarre list of what they will and won’t show or do in a stage play; Hamm, with his crazed earnestness, more or less saved it from becoming another Kristen Wiig tic-sketch. There was also another go-round with Vincent Price and his Halloween special, and, as usual, it was pretty amusing.

So after a decent opening thirty or forty minutes, I was primed for the really good stuff to happen after 12:30, which is when we got weird little masterpieces like “Jon Hamm’s John Ham,” “Hamm & Buble,” and the closet organizer sketch (and its strangely low-key sequel sketch in the same episode). But the show failed to deliver anything on this level, and after Hamm’s past triumphs, it was a little deflating.

Unlike last week’s Emma Stone episode, this one faltered in the post-Update section — the popular and usually incorrect idea of what SNL is like in its final half-hour. I admire that in general, this season has been light on recurring characters (both Vincent Price and the Rihanna-only Digital Short character Shy Ronnie have been used sparingly enough to remain funny), so I appreciated the attempts at originality in sketches like “I Didn’t Ask for This,” “Highway Cops,” and, well, okay, SNL doing its umpteenth bit about low-rent lounge singers doesn’t exactly qualify as original, but points for giving Hamm a series of bizarre parts.

The one that came the closest to working was the odd “Highway Cops” bit, but that was hamstrung by that triple-joke structure where basically the same thing happens three times — only “Highway Cops” barely escalated the jokes, barely made any jokes, in fact, so it just went on a long time. I chuckled at the wide-eyed innocence of Hamm and Sudeikis, and Kenan Thompson’s conversations with the photo of his dead wife, but the sketch just didn’t add up to anything. It was sort of cute, but last week’s Paris teenagers and “My Brother Knows Everything” sketches were cute and actually funny.

Really, one out-of-the-park sketch in that last thirty minutes would’ve made a huge difference; the episode wouldn’t become a season highlight, as last year’s Hamm visit indisputably was, but it would’ve seemed a little light rather than a substantial bummer. Instead, we’re left picking through the scraps (lots of Hader! Hamm is good in pretty much everything!) and noticing how the “Shy Ronnie” song is arguably just as catchy as Rihanna’s actual music.

Episode Grade: C+

6 comments October 31st, 2010

Monday Morning Quarterback: SNL Season 36, Episode 4

Let’s start with the good stuff: check out the last half-hour or so of the Emma Stone episode of Saturday Night Live. If not for what I assume are music-clearance issues, I would be linking the most delightful sketch of the evening, the thing with the dancing French teenagers. I’m not sure how they got away with doing a sketch that was more cute than laugh-out-loud funny, and also entirely in French, but it’s the kind of non-formulaic experiment that the show should indulge more often, as long as it’s this adorable.

The sketch I’m linking above instead is another one of Nasrim Pedrad’s earnest-little-kids bits, and I’m also fairly delighted that she gets these on the air, even if I’d love to see her explore other types of characters with the same knack for sweet-natured (but not saccharine) observational humor. “My Brother Knows Everything,” like “New Boyfriend Talk Show” from a couple of weeks ago, took what could be a one-joke premise and actually fleshed it out without outstaying its welcome. It was followed immediately by the ad for Sex Ed Vincent’s Sex Symposium, with newcomer Paul Brittain playing a creepy self-styled sex educator running sad, weird sex seminars — yet without any real mean-spiritedness.

“Sex Symposium” was one of four (!) fake ads of the night; the other was for Kenan Thompson’s budget Halloween costumes. I know it’s kind of a go-to move for this era of the show, to do an ad for some kind of sleazy broken-down discount house, but it almost always gets me. Easy, sure, but it’s all in the details, like how the shop offers to cover any stain with an incongruous object, like a gladiator shield or a pot of chili.

So that was four sketches in a row that I really liked. Most impressive was the way this run was driven almost entirely by cast members added in the past two or three years, with the able assistance of Emma Stone, offering a glimpse of what the show may be like when Sudeikis, Hader, and Wiig start thinking about departing in a year or two.

Before that, though, I was a little worried. With her work in Superbad, The House Bunny, Zombieland, and Easy A, Stone has built a breezy comic career without resorting to Heigl-level romantic comedies; no easy feat for a young actress. And young actresses have often been served well by SNL: Scarlett Johansson, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Gwyneth Paltrow (she was young once!), Anne Hathaway… all were surprisingly funny as hosts, without Stone’s background in comedy.

But after another labored-yet-seemingly-effort-free Obama opener, an okay but uninspired monologue, a one-joke fake ad for Baby Spanx, another one-tic Kristen Wiig mess about a prize-dispensing TV host vexed by a non-reacting Stone (a sketch only partially redeemed by everyone else in the sketch having funnier ideas about what to do with their characters), and another listless run-through of The View (aren’t there a billion other talk shows the show could turn its attentions to spoofing after, you know, twelve or fifteen years/!), suddenly we were at Weekend Update with exactly one decent sketch — the one about the parent-alarming teen trends on local news — and one inspired Digital Short featuring Stone’s broken limbs and rapping grape jelly.

Even Update itself has felt off its game this year; you can hear Seth Meyers’ voice in the jokes, which I like, but they’ve so often felt toothless or obvious, with just the occasional cutting remark. And really, as amusing as it is to see Kenan playing the Rent is Too Damn High guy, is it that much funnier than just watching the real guy? Stefon is still funny, through.

But the show really proved the power of a last-half-hour rally; by 1AM, there had been a half-dozen good-or-better segments, which offhand I’d say beats any episode this season, and I give bonus points for a minimum of recurring characters. It’s far from unbeatable — Jon Hamm, fingers crossed, should prove a season high point next weekend — but it’s another decent notch in Emma Stone’s belt.

Episode Grade: B

2 comments October 24th, 2010

Monday Morning Quarterback: SNL Season 36, Episode 3

This is (somewhat) more like it. The Jane Lynch-hosted episode of SNL was not excellent straight through, but it had the kinds of major peaks that can keep the show worth watching during its usual unevenness. There were three sketches that I straight-up loved, most prominently the “New Boyfriend Talk Show” bit with Andy Samberg playing a sweetly dorky little kid who interviews the suitors of his single mom (Jane Lynch). This could’ve been pretty mean-spirited, but it managed to exploit several angles after announcing its clever premise: the upbeat neediness of Samberg’s kid character, the growing dismay of new “boyfriend” Jason Sudeikis learning about Lynch’s many past conquests, and Lynch’s unflappable encouragement of her son. In fact, I think the sketch works especially well because Lynch and Samberg affect a weirdly sweet, affectionate relationship, rather than a darkly antagonistic (this helps the darker stuff — Lynch apparently having slept with Magic Johnson — go down easier). It’s telling that when I see a sketch like this, part of me is just relieved that the host played a central role that probably wouldn’t be recast, thus hopefully discouraging the writers from repeating it several more times.

The other two standout sketches were shorter: the parody of Christine O’Donnell’s already-kinda-hilarious “I’m not a witch” ads; it may have been an easy target, but they went after it with gusto, especially when the camera pulls out to reveal a skeleton playing the piano. I also adored the flat-out weirdness of parodying those Tax Masters ads by supposing that the pitchman is always filmed in profile due to a tiny identical twin growing out of his head.

Between three hilarious sketches, another decent musical monologue, a decent commercial parody for the “Damn, my mom’s on Facebook” app, and a serviceable (if still not top-level) Weekend Update, this was certainly the best episode of the young Season 36 and, as such, excused some stumbles.

It’s a little strange, for example, that new cast member Jay Pharoah has been shown exclusively as an impressionist; building an entire sketch around his (excellent, uncanny) Denzel Washington imitation, for example, is the kind of thin, cheap stuff you expect from middling stand-up comedy or that Frank Caliendo guy who apparently used to have a show on TBS. The impression was spot-on, as was his Will Smith from a few weeks ago, but that kind of impression-for-impression’s sake material works better either on Weekend Update, where it’s not burdened with a half-premise, or in one of those goofy impression showcases where they throw together five or six celebrities in a waiting room or an ad or a red carpet or something.

Pharoah, though, is still new, and it’s nice that they’re giving him a showcase (even if it’s strange that the other featured players haven’t been afforded such an opportunity). The Denzel sketch was fun to watch even if it wasn’t much in the way of actual comedy. Like a lot of good impressions, it pointed out tics you might have only noticed subliminally, but also engendered a weird kind of affection toward the target; it kinda made me want to go and watch some Denzel movies (luckily, Unstoppable is barreling toward us; come to think of, why didn’t they save Pharoah’s Denzel for next month, when he’ll presumably be all over the place promoting his newest Tony Scott train disaster movie?!).

There’s no such excuse in place for trotting out three different Kristen Wiig characters. Someone at the show seemed to be under the twin incorrect (twincorrect?) assumptions that (a.) Jane Lynch, being a funny lady, would have to play mostly opposite other funny ladies; and (b.) Wiig is the only woman on the show, not one of four. So we got three Wiig-centric bits that varied from lousy to passable (sometimes in the space of a single sketch).

Admittedly, the Glee stuff diluted the punishing sameness of every Gilly sketch, but it also took out the incidental pleasures of those sketches (like the non-Gilly characters) and forced Sudeikis to imitate the Will Forte lightly-admonishing teacher voice that is more or less my favorite thing about that stupid sketch (well, that and Gilly’s dancing; I’m sorry, Wiig can just be funny to watch, which is probably why the writers get incredibly lazy when creating sketches for her).

At least that sketch also parodied Glee, although I can’t say how well, because I don’t watch that shit. I can appreciate that it saved us from sitting through separate sketches about Glee and Gilly. But I’m not sure why they keep bringing back “Secret Word” — or at least, not in the way that they insist on doing it, with Wiig’s pretentious-stage-actress character always eating up half the screentime. It’s not a great sketch on its own, but the other character bungling the secret-word concept is reliably more entertaining than Wiig by simple virtue of newness. Lynch had fun playing a Phyllis Diller-ish stand-up, and I loved Bill Hader’s host getting genuinely angry when she suggested that he was “full of bananas,” but there was plenty of dead-air Wiig mugging to ensure that the sketch wasn’t worth watching. The Suze Orman sketch managed to feel like like a relief, because it’s a more dexterous character for Wiig than most of her one-note jobs.

Still, a couple of time-wasters couldn’t fully undermine the best moments of the show, or the general fun of seeing an older, hilarious comedienne jumping into the SNL formula. Lynch fit into almost everything, including the often host-free Digital Shorts and fake commercial. Can’t she quit Glee and join this show instead?

Episode Grade: B

1 comment October 10th, 2010

Monday Morning (Afternoon?) Quarterback: SNL Season 36, Episode 2

So they’re not making Armisen give up Obama, for reasons unknown apart from what I assume is general Lorne Michaels stubbornness. SNL continues, though, to at least work around it; Obama had only the set-up for one of the better political cold-opens in awhile, which made excellent use of Andy Samberg’s Rahm Emmanuel. Samberg isn’t really an impressionist by trade, and when he does dip into imitations, they tend to be Hollywood people who he can push into absurdity with ease. His Emmanuel, though, is one of the only political bits on the current iteration of SNL that has any kind of satirical take; an obvious one (Rahm as the profane, sinister puppetmaster and dealmaker), sure, but at least it’s fun.

For the first thirty minutes or so, the Bryan Cranston-hosted episode of SNL appeared to be business as usual, but running smooth: a decent political cold open; an amusing musically inclined monologue; an ad for Pepto Bismol ice; an obvious bid for a recurring sketch, “The Miley Cyrus Show,” that didn’t wear out its welcome yet (give it a few weeks, although newcomer Vanessa Bayer does a spot-on and very funny Miley); and an actual recurring sketch with this season’s first “What Up with That.”

So far, so decent. But then the show went and scraped bottom with the laziness of Kristen Wiig’s breathy-voiced-but-gross mock-sexy Shana character, a sketch that was very funny once and, guess what, isn’t that funny three or four times. Here, it felt like no one was even making the minimal effort, starting with the premise: so Cranston was playing a basketball coach? And the three cast members were on the team? So they were kids, right? And so is Abby Elliot, who is the coach’s assistant or something? Which is kind of weird, right, to have a teenage girl assisting a basketball coach of teenage boys? And who is Shana in relation to these people? A lady who shows up at basketball practice? What are the relationships here? Little things, yes, but when a sketch’s set-up is neither logical nor defiantly absurdist, it seems like the writers thought this one would take care of itself. Wiig got off some chuckleworthy physical bits, particularly her unsexy “mixing” of a protein shake, but I almost felt guilty laughing at it, because easy laughter is actually the kind of unearned reward sketches like this feed on.

After this, it was back to more or less business as usual: a funny Digital Short; music; Weekend Update; a game-show sketch that mostly didn’t work; a post-Update bit of absurdity; and a nice character-driven sketch from Nasim Pedrad. There was a slight change of balance, Kanye West’s performances being more compelling than the average musical guest and Weekend Update having some uncharacteristically lame jokes, but it was pretty much a normal SNL episode.

But after that Shana sketch, everything felt slightly diminished. I love Nasrim Pedrad’s fondness for young, nerdy characters, but as funny as her meek mural-loving boy character was, it also shared a cadence with the girl who really admires her parents from last season. The “bottle of sparking apple juice” sketch was nicely ridiculous but I feel like Will Forte would’ve really sold the hell out of it. The “Kidz Smarts” game show bit didn’t really go anywhere except maybe knocking off the “kissing family” sketch that I’m sure will turn up before October’s end.

So following a season premiere that felt scattered in the face of so many guest stars, this was pretty much standard issue SNL sans inspiration: entertaining, uneven, a little tired.

Grade: B-

2 comments October 4th, 2010

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