Posts filed under 'SNL'

Monday Morning (or Tuesday Afternoon) Quarterback: SNL Season 36, Episode 1

I realize that Saturday Night Live probably spends a lot of time in a “transitional” phase, especially considering that since the mid-nineties there hasn’t been the kind of cast shake-up that used to occur about every five or six years. Since the 1995 overhaul that introduced Will Ferrell, Molly Shannon, Cheri Oteri, and Darrell Hammond, among others, cast changes have been more gradual. A near-complete turnover from that cast didn’t really happen until 2003, when Ferrell and Chris Kattan left in quick succession, still leaving Darrell Hammond, and cast members added between ’95 and ’00 were still going strong in 2005 when Bill Hader, Andy Samberg, Jason Sudeikis, and Kristen Wiig jumped on. Since then, new cast members have seemed minor, performing in the shadow of still-popular mid-decade additions.

That said, the Amy Poehler-hosted season opener of SNL seemed like a particularly transitional episode. Newcomer Jenny Slate is gone, as is long-timer Will Forte, while Nasim Pedrad, Abby Elliott, and Bobby Moynihan receive promotions and aging cast members Fred Armisen and Kenan Thompson remain, at seasons eight and seven, respectively. Four new cast members have been added, perhaps in expectation that Armisen, Thompson, and even some of the 2005 crew may be departing soon.

To confuse matters further, relatively recent cast departure Poehler returned to host and brought cameos from Tina Fey, Jimmy Fallon, Rachel Dratch, and Maya Rudolph. No one in the actual cast appeared in the first post-monologue sketch, with Poehler and Rudolph reviving Bronx Beat, a sketch that seems like it’s been revived as often as it was actually done when both women were cast members, with Katy Perry playing the busty guest, in a mildly clever nod to her Sesame Street ban.

Bronx Beat as a whole is not the most inspired first sketch of a new season, but it’s enjoyable to watch simply for how well Poehler and Rudolph know these characters, and how much of the humor is in pure dialogue and delivery, not “funny” behavior. As far as revived Poehler characters, I prefer the petulant one-legged cretin Amber, brought back as a character on a Showtime series — a funny premise, though it wasn’t the most hilarious Amber outing.

That applies to most of the material on Saturday’s premiere: pretty amusing, rarely the best example of its form. Bronx Beat and Amber provided okay recurring characters (not so much with Fred Armisen’s surly old guy producer character; funny on paper, less so in repeated sketches); the Digital Short was suitably bizarre but not top-tier; the fake ads for pubic hair transplants and The Even More Expendables were good enough shots at east targets; the “tiny hats” bit was funny and weird, but not on the level of, say, last year’s potato chip sketch.

The best material was quick: an ad for the “Ground Zero Mosque” merrily trumpeting gay weddings and more, revealed to be Republican fear-mongering; and “Actor II Actor” with Andy Samberg screaming at Justin Timberlake (another cameo!) about getting back to music. Oh, and Poehler’s monologue with all of those cameos was funny, but then, Poehler, Dratch, Fey, and Fallon tend to be pretty funny together. Update, as usual, was quite good, and newcomer Jay Pharoah did a killer Will Smith impression. (He has an Obama impression too! Please, please let him use it! Far better impressions than Armisen’s have been unceremoniously retired!)

So: a mostly funny episode, but with sort of a clearinghouse feel; it would’ve felt better as a mid-season break — bring in Poehler and her buddies to do some heavy lifting while the regular cast rests. Instead, we’re left waiting to figure out how this new mutation of the cast will gel.

But hey, if you want to hear some alarmist silliness combined with some awful, awful advice, Flavorwire is there for you!

Grade: B-

1 comment September 28th, 2010

Monday Morning Quarterback: SNL Season 35, Episode 22

For a nerd like me, Alec Baldwin hosting SNL, as routine an occurrence as it’s become (and sustained, thanks to the cross-promotional opportunities with 30 Rock), is far more exciting than Betty White doing it. So it’s with a heavy heart that I report that Baldwin’s episode wasn’t much better than White’s; it just wasn’t as overhyped.

Of course, while White’s episode suffered from multiple sketches essentially hitting the same joke (old lady talkin’ saucy!), the many one-joke sketches of Baldwin’s record-tying fifteenth hosting gig at least provided a variety of single jokes. Some of them worked beautifully, like the escalating absurdity of an infomercial for the Timecrowave, a food-heating device that can also wreak havoc on the space-time continuum, or the extremely, hilariously length set-up in the old movie clip about Baldwin reforming a prostitute (or rather, pretending to, and then trying to get a handjob). Others half-worked, like Baldwin as a belligerent swim coach, berating his young charges one by one; and another kinda felt flat, like the sniper sketch where the single joke was Baldwin saying “take the shot!” semi-comprehensibly. The majority, then, fell somewhere between middling and quite good, which is a pretty good track record for these types of sketches.

The one-joke indulgences can come crashing down, though, when you barely have any idea what that joke is supposed to be. In the worst sketch of the night and possibly of 2010 so far, Kristen Wiig debuts a delightful new character named Starfish. Get this: she’s awkward and clueless, and talks weird! If that sounds too much like other Kristen Wiig characters, how about this: she also has buck teeth! And if that doesn’t sound enough like eighty other SNL sketches since the beginning of time, don’t worry: the premise is that she keeps ruining takes on a set and the director has to keep yelling “cut” — a structure inexplicably beloved by comedy writers. I cannot remember the last time this device was funny and would love any recollections about when this was in the comments section below.

In the meantime: Jesus, that sketch was really, really bad. And it was the first real in-show sketch of the night! And it ruined a perfectly rhythm set up by an amusing (and quick!) non-Obama cold open, a typically smooth Baldwin monologue with a Steve Martin cameo, and a hilarious Digital Short going more Broadway than fake rap. Well done, SNL writers: your treatment of Kristen Wiig can officially be called enabling, bordering on self-destructive.

I suppose I should be happy that the only recurring characters of the night were those that haven’t nearly worn out their welcome (Nasrim Pedrad’s mature fourteen-year-old Bedilia; Bill Hader’s mouth-covering club expert Stefon) or those that consistently display a degree of infectious joy in their performance (Kenan’s old-man sexpert Grady Wilson; Wiig and Armisen as underprepared musical duo Garth and Kat), and that Wiig tried out a new character instead of trotting out Penelope, the Target Lady, or the chick who ruins surprises. But boy, did that sketch leave a bad taste in my mouth.

Among the peaks represented by Timecrowave and the valleys represented by Starfish, we had pretty much the entire season: some brilliant invention, some passable one-joke material, a musical guest that doesn’t inspire me to say much, and a dash of awful hackery. In short, Baldwin hosted Saturday Night Live in 2010, and it was okay. I’ll try to put up a season-in-review later this week, but for now, this episode’s grade sort of suffices in that department.

Episode Grade: B-

4 comments May 16th, 2010

Monday Morning Quarterback: SNL Season 35, Episode 21

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).

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3 comments May 9th, 2010

Monday Morning Quarterback: SNL Season 35, Episode 20

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.

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3 comments April 25th, 2010

Monday Morning Quarterback: SNL Season 35, Episode 19

After a couple of shows that didn’t rely heavily on recurring characters, the Ryan Phillipe-hosted episode of SNL brought them roaring back. They even wedged three into Phillipe’s monologue, referring to his appearance in the upcoming MacGruber movie. MacGruber is the first SNL character to get a movie in about a decade, but Target Lady, Dick in a Box guy, and What Up with That host all wanted to know when they could cash their movie checks, prospects that seem unlikely, not least because I watch this show every week and I don’t know any of these characters’ names. Forte seems quite sage, in retrospect, putting his character’s name in the sketch title.

MacGruber himself was absent from the episode (I guess it would seem crass, although on the other hand, he shilled for Pepsi directly). But if you count Fred Armisen’s Larry King and at least one returning celebrity impressions from the Mort Mort Feingold sketch, there was a recurring character around for everything until the first Ke$ha performance (note: I’ve almost typed her name out as Ke&ha or possibly Kes&ha just about every time I’ve ever typed it; I think my normally decent keyboarding skills are trying to tell me something), plus several more post-Update.

This included SNL’s practice of returning to sketches long after they first aired, something that really began in earnest, I think, with Will Ferrell’s seven-year run on the show, and has blossomed as players like Forte and Armisen have come surprisingly close to the ten-year mark. Hence the Hip-Hop Kids, last seen fighting monsters from The Descent four years ago, made a surprise return appearance to deal with a bear problem, though without the help of Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph. More repeated but still sort of erratically is the sketch where four old friends reminisce while singing along to an inane rock song; the sketch has been done so often that what started with cheesy hits from the seventies and eighties has now caught up to Deep Blue Something’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

Both of these were reasonably funny, though, and Phillipe, while perhaps not distinct in his performances, certainly jumped in and blended with the cast. Less successful was a return to the ESPN Classic sketch; hopefully this fifth goddamned appearance is the last we’ve seen for the season. Not because the sketch isn’t funny — Sudeikis and Forte’s cheerfully out-of-sync banter can get laughs no matter how many damn times they repeat it — but because I’m sick of seeing it (and writing about it) even though it is kind of funny, and as much fun as the leads can have, there are so many grimacing sports guises Kristen Wiig and some host can take on; that half of the sketch hasn’t been particularly funny for months.

The show also continued to indulge Fred Armisen’s unpleasant recurring characters, though his insensitive substitute host of Teen Talk is, admittedly, the funniest, most believable, and least all-out irritating of the characters he’s given us this year. He was also front and center for a Larry King imitation that, while not particularly funny, was notable for replacing his own crummy Obama impression, and starting the episode off with a few actual laughs, rather than prolonged discomfort.

The whole episode was like that: doing small things right, like the commercial for a DVD that loops the porny-looking Shake Weight commercial, and “I Got This,” an amusing little observational sketch about paying the check. They also introduced actual new characters on Weekend Update, including Forte’s hilarious Father Swimcoach Scoutmaster.

Little was flat-out brilliant, but on the other hand, nothing completely tanked for me; it was one of those solid episodes were every sketch had at least a few chuckles. Then, putting the show over the top into acceptable territory for me while utilizing that more measured approach to recurring bits was this last sketch of the night:

A strange combination of obscurity (spoofing an internet circulation) and easiness (Insane Clown Posse is not exactly the most nuanced target), yes, but really funny. Something to bask in while ignoring Ke&*a’s poor-lady’s Lady Gaga shtick and waiting for the writers to turn the charming Gabourey Sidibe into Kenan Thompson’s newest ghetto daughter next week.

Episode Grade: B

2 comments April 18th, 2010

Monday Morning Quarterback: SNL Season 35, Episode 18

When Tina Fey returns to host SNL, it feels a bit like a delightful form of cheating, even compared to other return engagements from former cast members. Though we usually have to wait for incidental mentions in newspaper articles or comedy-history type books to figure out who actually wrote individual sketches, Fey, as a former head writer, has her fingerprints all over her full-episode returns to the show. You have to figure she’s pitching at least a few sketches, if not necessarily writing everything herself, Studio 60-style. So in her two hosting gigs so far, we’ve gotten sort of a Fey supershow.

This effect is compounded by the fact that while Fey was head writer during much of her time on the show, she was never a pronounced on-camera presence, sticking to her showcase Weekend Update and the occasional sketch; she never had a character as popular as the Sarah Palin imitation she honed as an occasional guest star. Since leaving SNL, Fey, always an engaging performer, has only gotten better; compare her early episodes of 30 Rock to where she is now, or even her charming supporting role in the movie of her screenplay Mean Girls versus her strong leading work in the inferior but enjoyable Date Night, which she was promoting this weekend. She’s always been funny, but she’s only gained confidence in her time away from sketch comedy.

So a Tina-hosted episode becomes sort of a peek into an alternate-world SNL, where Fey got as much screentime as, say, Amy Poehler. For her “record” second go-around, she was front and center in almost every sketch, including several near-solo performances: not just her monologue, but the Brownie Husband ad (not quite as brilliant as her Annuale piece from her first time hosting, but pretty funny), the teacher sketch that had her playing almost exclusively off of Justin Beiber, and her Women’s News segment on her old Weekend Update stomping ground.

The latter came off like a Tina Fey mission statement, and a scathing refusal to alter her personal style and irritations to answer any criticisms of “Liz Lemon feminism.” Fey has covered a lot of this ground before; call it her anti-slut platform. The piece was funny, though, and had a distinct point of view, which is more than you can say for a lot of SNL (or stand-up comedy, for that matter). In fact, Fey has such confidence now that, unlike the typical SNL hodgepodge, her episode had a distinctly personal feel, with riffs on pet Fey topics like lonely single women, attention-whore skanks, and nerdy awkward girls. The latter came through with this sketch about a girl (Nasrim Pedrad) whose best friend is her mother (Fey):

It’s the kind of thing that could come off one-note or condescending, but the sketch was disarmingly sweet, anchored by a lovely performance from Pedrad, who after this and Talk Show with Ravish, among others, has emerged as a solid breakout performer Again, I have no idea what role Fey played behind the scenes in getting this sketch to air, if any, but it certainly felt right that she’d have a part in such a well-written female-driven bit — and that she’d let Pedrad get so many of the biggest laughs.

Not everything worked swimmingly. The Al Roker sketch would’ve been a lot funnier if Kenan Thompson bothered to work up a decent Al Roker impression to better contrast with his amusingly absurd pimped-out dance-party version — and Fey’s Dina Lohan was probably one attention-whore character too many after a funny Tiger Woods riff earlier in the episode (which was itself, though well-played by Fey and Jason Sudeikis, not quite as inspired as Nasrim Pedrad’s mistress character from earlier in the season).

Fey’s Sarah Palin Network sketch was as funny as you’d expect, which makes me wonder why they didn’t make that the standard political cold open rather than the abysmal Obama census sketch. Not only was the latter completely muddled about what, exactly, it was satirizing (and, like so many Obama sketches, it flirted with “making fun” of the president only by flirting with creepy Fox News-style tropes, maybe out of a desire to make fun of the tropes themselves, but, regardless, not coming up with a decent satirical angle of their own on anything), it was just plain boring to watch, consisting primarily of of Fred Armisen reading words on the screen in his mediocre Obama voice. Strange that this was the one aspect of a routine SNL that they preserved as the rest was remade more or less in Fey’s image.

The show worked with one other handicap: involving Justin Beiber in two sketches. It made sense in the bit about the teacher; Beiber was awkward, but Fey’s character lustily pushing him a stroller certainly, you know, went for it. But shoehorning him into the above-mentioned school dance was pointless; it only brought muffed, nervous line readings into an otherwise lovely piece. Also, he sang two songs. That wasn’t so cool either.

Still, sketch for sketch, this was one of the best episodes of the season. Between Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin, and Jon Hamm, it seems like maybe 30 Rock is producing the odd side benefit of an excellent SNL host farm team. But hopefully we won’t have to wait for Grizz or Dotcom to host before we get another strong showing.

Episode Grade: B+

April 11th, 2010

Monday Morning Quarterback: SNL Season 35, Episode 17

Jude Law’s second time hosting SNL felt a little light on material. Not, to my surprise, in the usual manner of this season, where half the sketches or more are recurring bits and characters. In fact, tonight only featured two such sketches, and one, the game-show parody “Secret Word,” is relatively reasonable on the SNL repeatability scale. (The return of Fred Armisen’s awful stenographer character tested my SNL completism, as I took advantage of my late watching to fast-forward the hell out of that shit.)

No, what made the show feel thin, I think, was its four different non-live bits: two funny fake ads (one of which I sort of assume was held from another episode, since they haven’t done a proper fake ad in several weeks); another Digital Short that was really a music video for a song already released on the Lonely Island’s Incredibad album last year; and a semi-inexplicable rerun of the (hilarious) “Under-Underground Rock Festival” ad, a longer segment than usually gets re-used. On their own, these segments were funny. So close together, though, they came off as filler.

There were also two bits built around Law’s run as Hamlet on stage last year, the monologue and the audition sketch; and two sketches built around old TV, the aforementioned “Secret Word” and a Twilight Zone riff. None of these were too terrible, and in fact the silly Twilight Zone sketch that put Jude Law into the famous “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” episode with Bobby Moynihan as a mischievous though not particularly destructive gremlin was quite funny. I also enjoyed the odd Vicky Cristina Barcelona semi-spoof, with Jude Law playing a charming Spanish man promising two girls a weekend of beautiful scenery, great food, lovemaking, and murder by poison, and “Talk Show with Ravish,” in which a young Indian boy is pressured to host a talk show rather than become a doctor.

But the good stuff was oddly centerless; while the last two episodes swung wildly between repeat-sketch hackery and oddball invention, this one felt more like an odds-and-ends compilation. Law was funny, but due to the show’s odd pacing and wealth of pre-taped material, he disappeared for long stretches. Further contributing to the unevenness, we saw lots of the featured players, particularly the wonderful Bobby Moynihan, as well as Hader and Kenan, but very little Forte, Samberg, or Sudeikis. Armisen turned up a few times, but mostly sleepwalking. I wonder if they’re subtly preparing for the fact that Armisen and Forte, at least, seem primed to leave the show soon, while Moynihan and the new girls all seem due for a promotion. As much as I adore Forte and admire Armisen, that may be for the best. SNL in 2010 hasn’t been awful (in fact, the Jon Hamm episode was the season peak so far), but by and large, they seem to be stuck in a rut.

Episode Grade: C+

March 14th, 2010

Monday Morning Quarterback: SNL Season 35, Episode 16

When an actual real-deal comedian hosts Saturday Night Live, for me, expectations shift. When you’re dealing with, say, Jennifer Lopez, or even someone you might sense is funny but isn’t really known for comedy like Jude Law, their job as a host is more to be game and comfortable, not necessarily to produce top-tier comedic work (hosts like Scarlett Johansson or Joseph Gordon-Levitt get bonus points when they seem to actively dig into their characters and enjoy themselves). But when Steve Carell or Paul Rudd host, or a former cast member like Will Ferrell or Tina Fey drops by, the possibilities seem purer; the host should be able to hit the ground running and do pretty much whatever everyone decides is hilarious.

Of course, Zach Galifianakis is more of a stand-up comedian than an actor, despite his good work in the otherwise overrated The Hangover. But a lot of SNL folk have come from stand-up over the years, and it’s always a treat to get a monologue from an actual comedian. This episode, featuring a longish bit of stand-up from this Comedian of Comedy, was no exception. Apparently a lot of this material came from his stand-up routine, but whatever, I hadn’t seen most of it and it was funny.

After that, though, the show went wildly uneven, even for an SNL episode. The material oscillated strangely between the kind of Galifianakisified stuff you might expect when a beloved, cultish comic hosts, and a mild Galifianakis touch on the kind of tired, plug-em-in recurring crap that would be better suited to a model, or an athlete, or an athelete-slash-model.

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March 7th, 2010

Monday Morning Quarterback: SNL Season 35, Episode 15

Jennifer Lopez served as both host and musical guest of Saturday Night Live this week. The last time she pulled double-duty on the show, the episode was delayed forty-five minutes by an XFL game. That’s not a bad Weekend Update joke. That actually happened back in the heady days of 2001, when Chris Kattan was still doing recurring characters and “Love Don’t Cost a Thing” ruled the airwaves.

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2 comments February 28th, 2010

Monday Morning Quarterback: SNL Season 35, Episode 14

Ashton Kutcher has now hosted Saturday Night Live four times. Does that seem weird to anyone else? I wouldn’t immediately guess that he’d be the That ’70s Show cast member to host most often, or that he’s hosted more than, say, Scarlett Johansson or Justin Timberlake, who both have their own recurring characters. Looking through the invaluable SNL transcripts site, I see that none of his episodes have been particularly memorable, though he did appear in a Falconer sketch as “the Muskrateer,” and his most recent appearance, in April 2008, was surprisingly decent.

This week’s episode, then, fits right into the Ashton Kutcher SNL oeuvre that we all forgot existed. It was surprisingly good in the sense that it was one of the least recurring-character-heavy episodes of the season, with only a typically middling and pointless View sketch and some amusing Update appearances representing the retread factors. The first post-monologue sketch wasn’t The View or a Kristen Wiig tic-fest, but a very funny bit with Kutcher playing a golddigging pool boy spurned by his departed 110-year-old lover. It exploited a funny idea without just hitting a single joke over and over; that sounds simple, but isn’t always as easy as it looks.

But also like some of his past appearances, the episode was a bit rote; nothing else matched that early high. The sketch with Will Forte as a Roman leader taking creepy pleasure from grape-feeding was appealingly weird, but thin; same goes for “What Is Burn Notice?” — the game show that challenges contestants to describe the apparently popular USA network series. Personally, I’d have more trouble with “What is Criminal Minds?” — a couple of my regular SNL-watching buddies actually love Burn Notice and it’s certainly among the top three or five cooler-sounding cable shows that I never watch but suspect I might like if I did, whereas I have no idea what separates Criminal Minds from its cop-show brethren apart from it not being set in the Navy, not involving crazy forensics or cold cases, and not, as far as I know, taking place in Miami. But anyway, it was still a kinda-sorta funny sketch poking fun at the show’s admittedly vague ad campaign.

The kinda-sorta-pretty-good stuff kept on coming all night. Andy Samberg’s Rahm Emmanuel impression isn’t one of his most dead-on, but the laughs it gets are certainly the most cathartic the show, which hasn’t been specializing in political humor since late 2008 at best, can offer these days. The Oscar nomination bit was funny enough. I liked that band of dads reuniting their eighties punk band at a wedding at the very end of the show. Kutcher didn’t do much to help or hurt, apart from a downright puzzling Mel Gibson impression — he got Gibson’s weirdo defensive posture right, but the voice was a gravelly mess.

So I guess Kutcher is a kind of gap-filler, inconsequential host; he hasn’t worked up enough strong material to qualify as a hosting event, like a Steve Martin or Alec Baldwin appearance, and he doesn’t give off that Jon Hamm major-repeat-host-of-tomorrow vibe, either. He just does pretty typical episodes that you probably won’t remember when he hosts again in a couple of years.

Episode Grade: B-

February 8th, 2010

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