I wrote last year about how SNL was showing signs of severe creative fatigue, with an over-reliance on recurring material, and a higher number of disappointing shows than in seasons past. I mentioned that unless the show took steps to fix some of these very noticeable signs of wear, the show is only going to get worse.
SNL is still sick. I would argue it’s a bit worse than last season, ever so subtly. There weren’t any violently obvious symptoms like with last season, but the times when it appears to be firing on all cylinders are fewer and further between.
First off, I will concede that they did make a few good moves this season. There was an infusion of new talent into the show at the start of the season with the addition of Paul Brittain, Taran Killam, Jay Pharoah and Vanessa Bayer. This was a good decision because Killam and Bayer have made their mark on SNL very fast, demonstrating their ability to be good utility players and given the right chances will be the backbone of a new cast once veterans like Bill Hader, Andy Samberg, Jason Sudeikis and Kristen Wiig decide to leave for more lucrative offers. The other two didn’t fare quite as well: Jay Pharoah had a strong start on account of his impression ability but had a rougher second half of the season, and is still too green at live sketch comedy to fully integrate into the show. Paul Brittain kept the lowest profile on the show, with an awkwardness reminiscent of Jenny Slate, and he stuck to filling the useless roles like a male counterpart to Abby Elliott, but had a few gems like Sex Ed or the Hallmark Cards for Norman Bates types.
I’m also going to give them credit for a more interesting host selection. This is the year that we’ve seen quite a few former hosts and other guests return to the show after long absences: the show brought back Robert DeNiro (last host gig: 2004), Gwyneth Paltrow (2001), Dana Carvey (2000), Jim Carrey (1996) and Jeff Bridges (1983). We also got a show hosted by Elton John (last booking: 1982 as musical guest), who performed his musical numbers with Leon Russell, who last appeared on the show in 1976 (and still looked like an old mountain man even in his 30s). There were also left-field bookings like Helen Mirren, and more recent hosts like Jon Hamm, Scarlett Johansson, Anne Hathaway, Paul Rudd, Zach Galifianakis, Tina Fey, and Justin Timberlake made welcome returns even when the results were sub-par, which sadly was the case for most except for Hathaway. Even the show’s requisite kowtow to the idiot demographic with Miley Cyrus proved to be the exception rather than the rule.
Whatever positive steps the show’s been taken has ended up being mitigated by the lame writing. There seems to be a desperation to make any sketch that got laughs the first time around recurring: sketches like the 90-year-old reporter, What’s That Name and the Merryville Trolley did not necessarily need to be brought back for a second go around (although in the case of What’s That Name, the second go-around was actually funnier). They also milked the Wikileaks and Julian Assange material for every last drop in December. Like last year, the show is even reaching into even older sketches to bring back, from a sequel to the “Bunny Business” soundtrack (“Horse Play”), to Kenan Thompson’s soiled clothing merchant Googie Rene, to Kristen Wiig’s over-excited prize lady Cheryl Bryant. A real sign of how bad it has become is the cold opening to the Scarlett Johansson show with the Hu Jintao/Barack Obama press conference, a pathetically lazy rewrite of a cold opening that appeared less than a year earlier, distinguishable only from the other sketch because Bill Hader took over the role of the Chinese leader from departed cast member Will Forte. I actually wouldn’t have been surprised if they had tried to reprise Saundra’s House Of Massage with Jeff Bridges. Way too many hosts, like Bryan Cranston or the aforementioned Galifianakis, were also wasted on material such as “The Bjelland Brothers” (Cranston and Fred Armisen singing a song consisting entirely of one line about a bottle of sparkling apple juice) or “Celebrity Scoop” (an entertainment gossip show with Canadians -played closer to the Minnesotans of Fargo- being polite and apologizing about how “the rohds are clohsed”).
Also disconcerting was number of sketches that made homosexuality the punchline. We got yet another Affectionate Family sketch when Paul Rudd hosted, and while I do commend the level of commitment to the sketch the cast goes to (particularly Bill Hader), WE GET IT ALREADY. There was also a lame sketch in this year’s Jon Hamm show involving homoerotic tension between CHiPs expys, and the Elton John episode had a drawn out sketch involving a gay cowboy. It’s known that writers James Anderson and Paula Pell are openly gay and have been linked to some of the gay-themed sketches in the past, and I supposed by having the content on the air in itself shows how far acceptance of gay-themed entertainment has gotten, but I don’t think it helps when it lacks any real humor or bite to it. Bill Hader’s Stefon character is the exception, largely due to the lengths that Hader and the writers go to with the randomness of the different nightspots and activities Stefon recommends.
There is still a lot of dead weight in the show. The show’s writing staff still has far too many people to function effectively. Weekend Update anchor Seth Meyers, finishing his tenth season with the show and fifth as head writer, has outstayed his welcome and the show cries for a new direction. There are still five current SNL writers who have stuck around as long or even longer than Meyers (not counting Lorne Michaels): Jim Downey, Steve Higgins, Paula Pell, James Anderson, Erik Kenward and Doug Abeles. Five additional writers have been with the show five seasons or more. This is a little less than half the writing staff. Only two of last year’s four new writers came back for 2010-11 and several new writers joined as well, but I wonder if they are getting much on the show or if the veterans are muscling them out.
The cast is also filled with people taking up space. Abby Elliott, despite getting promoted to full cast this year with fellow 2008 rookie Bobby Moynihan, is essentially furniture that can do the occasional impression and is a contender for the most useless regular cast member since Finesse Mitchell. There had been suspicion that the main reason she was kept around so long was due to her famous lineage (daughter of Chris Elliott and granddaughter of Bob Elliott), nepotism (apparently she is writer/producer Steve Higgins’ niece), or the rumor of her being romantically linked with Fred Armisen, but those things would be less of an issue if she actually made more of a contribution on the show. Speaking of Armisen, it’s more than obvious he is long past his prime on the show, usually playing interchangeable foreign dictators making outdated pop culture references or droning on in interminable cold openings with his weak Barack Obama impression. With his new sketch comedy show Portlandia getting positive notice, Armisen would probably benefit if he committed to that full-time instead of his watered-down antics on SNL. Kenan Thompson is also long overdue to leave the show, as we’re not likely going to see anything from him that we haven’t seen already: bad impressions and bug-eyed mugging. Several other cast members had disappointing years (most notably Bobby Moynihan). Kristen Wiig’s walking collections of tics and twitches were on shorter leashes this year, though, and Wiig actually decided to retire Penelope and Gilly after one appearance each this year because both characters had been played out. She still had a few annoying moments (particularly with her Secret Word actress character Mindy Gracin), but she had a better season this year, and her performance in the movie Bridesmaids reminded me of what I used to enjoy about her before SNL started stretching her thin.
SNL’s condition has deteriorated mainly due to the cancer of complacency and coasting on three-year-old goodwill from the election material. There have been a few notices about how lame SNL’s been getting in the few years (most recently a stunningly accurate critique by Slate.com’s Nathan Heller calling the show “The embarrassing uncle of American comedy“), but a lot of them were more focused on particular episodes (such as the January Jones debacle from 2009). Despite this, it doesn’t seem like the producers and writers think anything is wrong with the show the way it is. In a sense that has been keeping the show from descending into another 1980-81, 1985-86 or 1994-95: those seasons were not only savaged by critics and audiences, but one also got the impression that the negative reaction was starting to affect the show’s atmosphere, leaving a taste of despair in a lot of the weaker shows. Watch the goodnights from the Sarah Jessica Parker episode from 1994 to see what I mean.
But not letting the most virulent criticism get to you is not the same as ignoring severe problems with the show. The staleness has been lingering for years now and the stench is starting to get pungent. At least when the show was at its worst they took quick emergency measures to fix the show. I do hope for next year that the creative powers-that-be realize they need to operate, or we’re going to watch the show suffer and decay even further.