I’ve previously published my “want list” for SNL on my blog; I have access to pretty much the show’s complete run, but because of the discrepancies between live and rerun versions, the copies of the shows currently circulating may not have all the segments that aired in the live show, or else may use dress rehearsal takes. I have plans for future reviews once I’m finished 1982-83, but am looking for the live airings of many of these shows. Original commercials would be a bonus, but I’m aware how expensive blank tapes were back then, so it’s not as big a deal. Comedy Central ran a few original versions back in the early 90s, but most have some additional editing (mostly bumpers and the Don Pardo closing voiceovers); many of the missing segments are also available through streaming sites, but I prefer to have a copy of the complete airing.
Regular visitors to the blog have probably noticed that I haven’t completed my review for the Kerry Washington SNL; I actually was a little late getting home on Saturday night due to some real-world commitments. I’m still trying to decide whether to complete it this week or just skip ahead to the next live show when it airs.
There are still plans to expand the site beyond SNL reviews, with a focus on the local Halifax arts scene. In the meantime, check out Sea Legs Collective, a fine local music blog.
After an underwhelming episode with Bruce Willis, pretty much anything would seem like an improvement for SNL’s next show. Fortunately, Edward Norton’s episode was markedly better than the last few, thanks to a game host and strong musical guest, even if the writing continues to be sub-par.
The Wes Anderson parody was easily the strongest and most fully realized segment, drawing primarily from Royal Tenenbaums, with some smaller nods to Rushmore, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Moonrise Kingdom. I have to admit that “failure to grasp a simple concept” is pretty reliable as far as a sketch premise goes, so “School Visit” and “Steve Harvey” both made me laugh. ”School Visit” was the stronger sketch, with Nasim Pedrad getting a rare featured segment on the show as an elementary school student who doesn’t quite understand “Stranger Danger”; the sketch works because Pedrad plays her character with such undue confidence, Norton was able to hold his own as the police officer, and the remaining cast does some good support work. ”Steve Harvey” was weaker and didn’t have an ending, but Harvey’s (Kenan Thompson) completely wrong guesses about punny Halloween costumes were some good quick laughs.
The show’s weaknesses were still apparent last night. Norton’s final sketch, where he explained individual pieces of Halloween candy he gave out, did have some good lines, but seemed like a quick rewrite of the Christmas ornaments sketch from the 2011 Steve Buscemi show. Miley Cyrus’ cameo in the monologue didn’t bother me as much as it did other people, but the gratuitous twerking reference that ended “12 Years Not A Slave” only served to date the sketch. A sketch revolving around a “Rain Man”-type character 25 years after the movie got some grousing from the message boards for its untimeliness, but the bigger problem was a lack of an ending. Weekend Update was mercifully shorter than usual, but Cecily Strong still seems a little tentative, and Bobby Moynihan’s Anthony Crispino character seems to be more to provide Seth Meyers something to react to than anything else.
I’m still baffled by the decision to hire six new featured players to replace three (four if you count Tim Robinson’s move to the writer’s room). I understand that Fred Armisen, Bill Hader and Jason Sudeikis were the cast’s foundation in the last few seasons, but the huge number hired seems to indicate a lack of faith in the established cast; this is even more aggravating when you take into consideration how limited their opportunities to develop their dynamic were, especially during the reign of Kristen Wiig as alpha-castmember. Kenan Thompson is being pushed as this year’s bedrock, but he doesn’t have the versatility of the departed castmembers; why the show didn’t look for a stronger black performer to replace him is a mystery. To their credit, Bobby Moynihan and Taran Killam are still very dependable in whatever they do, but there are so many players competing for airtime that the cast can’t establish a real group dynamic. It’s always going to be a revolving door.
Tonight’s host was Bruce Willis, who last appeared on the show’s season premiere in 1989; one of SNL’s current booking strategies seems to be to grab random hosts who appeared once many years back. Willis’ musical guest this time around was Katy Perry, whose performance of “Roar” with an animal-suited band was one of the oddest things on the show. Willis’ performances were off all night and sloppy compared to his first show; while Perry markedly improved over her 2010 songs, despite a iffy audio mix.
Even iffier was the writing, which was weaker than the previous two shows, with too many of the sketches going nowhere beyond the reveal of the main joke. The Lady Gaga Show was the latest dressing on one of SNL’s favorite crutches, the talk show sketch: besides not being particularly funny, the sketch was a misfire for Vanessa Bayer, whose delivery as Gaga seemed too similar to her bar mitzvah boy character Jacob. Cecily Strong’s awkward Weekend Update performance felt like a backward step from last week’s signs of improvement. More frustrating was the attempt to recur two one-off sketches from last year; the resurrection of Bobby Moynihan’s kittycat-fixated astronaut Kirby was a beat-for-beat remake of a sketch that aired almost exactly a year ago, while Taran Killam’s Eddie character predictably hectored a character played by the host over a mispronounced word. Perhaps the laziest piece of writing was Penelope Cruz (Kate McKinnon) mispronouncing hair product chemicals in Gaga Show, a routine cribbed from a sketch in McKinnon’s debut show in April 2012.
There were handful of bright spots: Boy Dance Party got a great reaction from the audience and is likely to be SNL’s latest meme-generator, while the Good Neighbor guys’ “Sigma” short was well constructed with good jokes. Centauri Vodka had the most interesting and classically funny premise of the night, as well as giving two of the season’s least-used castmembers (John Milheiser and Nasim Pedrad) some much-needed airtime. Brooks Wheelan also managed to show some promise in a Weekend Update desk segment.
I don’t know how the hierarchy at SNL currently works regarding who gets their material on air, or how big a part in the sketch writing process the cast have, but over the last few seasons, I’ve noticed it’s the veteran writers that stick around while the newer hires come and go. I get the feeling that the writers with the most influence are the ones who are also holding the show back. It’s a shame, really, because the cast has been quite good in the last couple of seasons; Bobby Moynihan is particularly reliable for saving sketches. However, the show is only as good as its writing, and I have a feeling that even the celebrated original cast or ’86-90 ensemble would have trouble salvaging some of tonight’s material.
Next week is a dark week for the show, which will return live on October 26 with Edward Norton and Janelle Monae. I will continue my Classic SNL reviews that week with the next show from 1982-83 (Robert Blake / Kenny Loggins).
Miley Cyrus first hosted SNL back in 2011; at the time I was a little irritated by the show’s kowtow to the youth demographic, but in retrospect she was a decent host. Following the media attention to her infamous twerking performance with Robin Thicke at the 2013 Video Music Awards, her second hosting gig seemed to be an inevitability. This honestly didn’t bother me much, largely because all the finger-pointing and tongue-wagging towards that particular incident seemed to disproportionately blame and criticize Cyrus, as well as call her mental health into question. Her attempts to sexualize her image have a whiff of trying too hard, but for all the questionable decisions she made in the past few years, Cyrus comes off more as a 20-year-old who makes many the same mistakes as a lot of non-famous people do than a cautionary tale in the waiting.
Some were expecting the show to be a trainwreck; Cyrus did seem to fan those flames by getting into a feud with Sinead O’Connor over the latter’s open letter to her, but by air, she seemed collected and in control. I’m not going to kid myself: Miley Cyrus is no Justin Timberlake. She did fine on double-duty, though; she has a self-awareness that I never really detected in Britney Spears, and while Cyrus sometimes does stupid things, she also seems fully aware of what she’s doing. I was more impressed by her ability to share the spotlight and join in SNL sketches as part of the ensemble. In that respect, she was light years ahead of Justin Bieber. Cyrus performed her songs decently, even if that only served to illustrate that these aren’t really good songs to begin with.
Where the show faltered was the writing. A lot of the ideas came across as fairly low-hanging fruit (the VMAs, the cable networks’ Hilary Clinton movies). The “promo shoot” has become one of the most overused sketch premises on SNL in the past few years; while the one-liners are usually what save those bits, the writers seem to plug things into formulas rather than actually building towards something. The poetry teacher sketch had a few moments, but while it was nice to see Vanessa Bayer, the character wasn’t developed enough for the sketch to work. Worst of all was the “cheerleader alien abduction” sketch, which felt too similar to “Nascarettes” and “Delinquent Teen Girl Gang” in that it was the same joke played repeatedly: in fact, the main laughs in the cheerleader sketch came from the technical miscues. Cecily Strong is growing into her role as Weekend Update co-anchor, but has yet to fully ditch the “Seth Meyers’ trainee” vibe that permeated last week’s show, and the segment as a whole has become way too long and bloated in recent years.
There were bright spots here and there: the “We Can’t Stop” parody with John Boehner (Taran Killam) and Michelle Bachmann (Cyrus) twerking was memorable, and new players Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett got some of their own sensibility on the air with a pre-taped 10-to-1 sketch. Bobby Moynihan can be depended on to provide a quick laugh. ”Girlfriends Talk Show” came across as a predictable choice for a lead-off, but Aidy Bryant demonstrated that she carries those sketches.
Next week’s show should prove to be a wild card: Bruce Willis returns as part of SNL’s “Hey, let’s get someone who hasn’t hosted in a long time” series with musical guest Katy Perry.
A BRIEF NOTE ABOUT CANADIAN TV: I missed a good chunk of the “Fifty Shades Of Gray Auditions” because Global, the Canadian broadcaster of SNL, mistook the commercial parody for a real commercial. This has been happening infrequently for the last 10-11 years or so, possibly longer: I remember back in 2005-06, the network would run commercials during the Robert Smigel “TV Funhouse” segments. It’s annoying because in most markets, the American signal from NBC is unavailable due to simultaneous substitution. SNL has been clearly marking their ad breaks for years, and to keep doing this suggests incompetence with live TV on Global’s part. NBC needs to consider renegotiating the Canadian rights to the show with another network.
Saturday Night Live began its 39th season with a bit more media attention than usual: six new featured players were added to pad out a cast that lost three of its key players over the summer, and last year’s rookie breakout Cecily Strong was added to Weekend Update to prepare for anchor Seth Meyers’ departure for his own Late Night show mid-season. In short, another “transition year” for a show that seems to be in the throes of a particularly long and gradual “transition year”.
I’ve written about this before, but the season premiere is not really the best place to judge how the season as a whole will go. The first few shows in September and October have the cast and writers slowly settling back into their routines, and they largely play it safe until the group dynamic is re-established.
Selecting TIna Fey as a host was a smart choice, though I suspect, like with Amy Poehler three years ago, the producers were having a little trouble finalizing that slot as the announcement came less than three weeks before air. Fey also didn’t really have anything to promote aside from being a successful alumna. Her fourth gig as host (and first since appearing while 6 months pregnant in May 2011) was welcome, though: with Fey, it feels like there’s an extra member in the cast rather than someone being shoehorned into sketches. While the Aaron Paul cameos were welcome and appropriate considering the event-level finale of Breaking Bad the next night, by his third appearance they were feeling like a crutch.
It did feel like the show was struggling to come up with content. The influx of new players served as the basis for two whole segments: the monologue, and a game show where Tina Fey had to guess which person was a new featured player or a member of Arcade Fire. Both segments were actually pretty funny, but SNL usually handles their new influxes a bit more succintly than this (Side note: my all-time favorite way of introducing new players was 1986′s premiere, which didn’t show a member of its mostly-new cast on-camera before the first commercial break). There were still a few thinner premises (the airport sketch, the PBS movie show), and the recurring characters (Drunk Uncle and the Ex-Porn Stars) didn’t have their best outings. I suspect that this was less of a problem than it would have been without Fey, who knows how to play the weaker bits.
Cecily Strong made her debut as a Weekend Update co-anchor. Last season, she made a quick impression with characters like “The Girl You Wish You Haven’t Started A Conversation With At A Party”, and felt like a veteran after only a few shows. Her first time at the desk showed promise, but was underwhelming: she seems to be trying to force herself into the Seth Meyers sarcastic delivery mold, and seemed to have an absence of the gravitas that Jane Curtin or Fey herself had at the desk. I hope she eventually grows into her new role and finds a way to make the desk her own, rather than continue more of the same of what’s been dished out since 2006.
The large number of people in the cast (and tendency toward longer openings, monologues and Weekend Update) means that there’s a lot of people competing for airtime. Of the new hires, Kyle Mooney and Noel Wells seemed to make the strongest impressions. Mooney got an Update feature for his inaugural show with his hack stand-up character Bruce Chandling, and Wells led in a fake promo for HBO’s Girls with her Lena Dunham impression. Writer-turned-player Mike O’Brien also had a feature with an old-timey used car salesman character, but Fey was the one who carried the sketch. Beck Bennett was mainly doing support roles, while John Milheiser and Brooks Wheelan only had bit parts. It remains to be seen how the male players will distinguish themselves from each other.
The size of the cast will only serve to make it tougher for some veterans to get airtime: Nasim Pedrad, now in her fifth season, seems to appear on the show significantly less each passing year, and while Jay Pharoah’s Obama ensures his spot in the cast, aside from the opening he was nowhere to be seen. Other than these two, the remaining cast seems to be gelling as a group, with Bobby Moynihan, Taran Killam, Vanessa Bayer, Aidy Bryant and Kate McKinnon settling into clear roles in the cast. Curiously, it feels like they’re grooming Kenan Thompson to take some of the Bill Hader and Jason Sudiekis roles, as his game show emcee and PBS host characters would have been portrayed by either of the two departed players.
I was disappointed that Tim Robinson was swapped out of the cast and into the writer’s room for this year, essentially switching places with Mike O’Brien. Robinson may not have had as stellar a year as Cecily Strong, but he was responsible for some of last year’s more memorable sketches (“Z-Shirts” and “Roundball Rock”). O’Brien seems to fill a similar niche in the roles he plays, but he doesn’t quite have the strength of sensibility that Robinson possessed.
Still on the fence about the Arcade Fire performances: I do give them credit for always trying to present themselves with an interesting visual, but I wasn’t feeling either of their songs. I suspect they’d grow on me in the context of the album, though. For me, their best appearance was backing up Mick Jagger on “The Last Time” if only for the sheer joy exuding from their faces (Sarah Neufeld had a huge grin all throughout).
Next week: Miley Cyrus. Hope she keeps her tongue in.