The Worst SNL Sketches of All-Time: Part 3 – The All-Time Worst

Throughout voting, one particular sketch received the most nominations for “worst Saturday Night Live sketch of all time”, and by a significant margin.  While these polls are subjective with a high representation of those who know their history, I think it’s safe to say that we’ve found the absolute worst thing the show’s put on the air.

The worst Saturday Night Live Sketch of all time is “Commie Hunting Season”.

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Most bad sketches on Saturday Night Live are just unfunny or boring.  This sketch is cringe-inducing at best and chilling at worst; easily the worst three minutes in the show’s 39-year history.

“Commie Hunting Season” (also known as “Open Season On Commies” in William G. Clotworthy’s book) was written in 1980 as a response to the November 17 acquittal of six people for their roles in the Greensboro Massacre, where five protest marchers were killed by supporters of the Ku Klux Klan and American Nazi Party.  The Klansmen are mentioned in passing in the sketch, though instead of pointed satire, this sketch is an exercise in nastiness and shock value, most evident in an exchange between Joe Piscopo and Charles Rocket’s characters:

Jim Bob(Joe Piscopo): Are they easy to spot, Uncle Lester?

Lester(Charles Rocket): Well, sometimes they is and sometimes they ain’t.  If they’s demonstratin’ like Commies tend to do, it’s like shootin’ fish in a barrel!

Jim Bob: Well, what if they ain’t demonstratin’?

Lester: Well, Hell, Jim Bob, alls you got to do is just shoot yourself a Jew or [n-word]. Chances are better than even you’d be shootin’ a Commie anywho.

What follows is a very uncomfortable five seconds of silence, which feel longer.   Whether it was because host Malcolm McDowell (playing the governor) missed his cue or, god forbid, they expected that line to get a laugh, in those five seconds one can feel whatever goodwill there was towards this new (at the time) incarnation of the show evaporate.

The sketch doesn’t end there, nor are its faults limited to aforementioned dialogue.  Rocket, Piscopo, McDowell and Gilbert Gottfried seem to be all acting in different scenes, as one voter explains: “There are at least three styles of acting going on here: farce (Piscopo), attempted gritty realism (Rocket), and not giving a shit (McDowell).”  The punchline to the sketch, with Jim Bob accidentally shooting the governor, features a far-too-realistic gunshot.  The whole thing is poorly lit and staged, with many of the players obscured by shadow, making this sketch unpleasant to even look at.

This sketch is bad enough without knowing what it’s supposed to satirize.  Knowing the background of the sketch makes it that much worse.

You can watch Commie Hunting Season on Yahoo Screen and see for yourself.

The Worst SNL Sketches of All Time: Part 2 – Runners Up

I apologize for not getting this posted before tonight; real-world commitments and a few other changes related to the future of my blog take precedence over these posts. I admit that I have also been pretty burned out on the show for a little while, which may be another factor in why I’ve put off work on this list.

Unlike the winners for “worst recurring sketch”, many of these sketches have not been posted online; some likely due to music licensing issues.

Third Runner Up

  • Rookie Cop – SNL had already aired a few sketches centered around people vomiting before, notably 1980’s Roman Vomitorium and 1993’s Bad Taste Sketches, but both prior examples wrote sketches around the vomiting.  This time, vomiting is the sketch, as it systematically gives every cast member and featured player (aside from Al Franken) a chance to spew out incredibly watery-looking puke.
  • Hot Plates – A one-joke premise where, despite the waiters’ warnings, diners touch the hot plates at a restaurant.  The whole thing is done too cartoonishly broad: as if having Horatio Sanz and Rob Riggle screaming “HOT PLATES!” didn’t seem like enough cover for a weak premise, the gags involving Hilary Swank’s hand fusing to a plate and Amy Poehler turning into a skeleton from just looking at her plate felt desperate.
  • Van Morrison Concert – Much of the distaste towards this otherwise weak sketch about a woman’s obnoxious dancing blocking the other patrons’ view of a concert is because Melanie Hutsell plays the dancing woman, and adds an extra layer of obnoxiousness to the character with her facial expressions.  One voter says “It’s a pretty bad sketch but she makes it unwatchable”.  Whether the antipathy towards Hutsell on SNL is deserved or not, many still consider her a sketch-ruiner.

Second Runner Up

  • St. Kat’s Middle – Another one-joke premise, where middle school kids take their teachers’ lessons on positive thinking to heart and try to apply them to their friend with a broken knee (Kenan Thompson).  The audience could tell where this was going to go before the first fall, but what makes this one excruciating is the extended sequences involving Thompson’s character’s face in close-up, delivering agonized damnation of his friends in such an overwrought manner that it’s plausible that someone just told Thompson to stretch out the sketch and milk it for all it was worth.
  • Sunken Submarine – The worst thing to make it to air while Dick Ebersol ran the show: a ten-minute-plus sketch that plays to light chuckles at the very most; it’s like they built the set first and only then decided to write a sketch around it.  So much of this sketch is a succession of attempted gags that just fail: Robert Culp eating oatmeal without a spoon while wearing a dress and gloves is a perfect metaphor for the pointlessness of the whole thing.

First Runner Up

  • Jack The Stripper – In their 1986 book Saturday Night, Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad mention that some considered this sketch about women on the streets of London being terrorized by a stripping heir to the throne of England “the most disastrous sketch ever on the show”.  Even the lighting contributes to the sketch’s problems, as this sketch is so dark, foggy and murky looking that the cast might as well have performed it in shadow.  Better lighting still wouldn’t have fixed this sketch’s aimlessness.
  • Miracles Of Science – The Tom Arnold show from 1996 was an unusually bad show right in the middle of SNL’s last major comeback year, and this sketch (which originally aired in the plum post-Weekend Update slot) is as unfunny as anything the show churned out during its low points.  Arnold plays a janitor who, following a nuclear accident, had his brain size, arrogance and physical pain grow instead of his intelligence, and new player Will Ferrell interviews him.  I wonder how much the sketch would have improved if the casting was reversed, but as a whole, this sketch dies early and hard, and both Arnold and Ferrell seem to know it.
  • Rear Window – It’s bad enough this sketch is little more than Grace Kelly farting; what’s worse is that it feels like the writer thought that if the audience wouldn’t laugh, it’s because there weren’t enough fart sound effects.  Even still, what brought an already terrible sketch to new depths of awfulness was host January Jones (easily the worst host the show’s had in recent years) and her inability to finish the sketch without giggling.  One voter’s comment said it best: “Jones gave a dreadful performance and actually ruined a sketch about the film ‘Rear Window’ that revolved around a fart joke. Think about that for a second.”

The Worst SNL Sketches Of All Time: The Results, part 1: Recurring Sketches

The results are in, and so begins my series of weekly posts on the worst Saturday Night Live sketches. Unlike the vote for the worst individual sketches, there was no single recurring sketch that got a significantly higher number of votes than the other nominees; many sketches received one vote apiece, and there were considerably fewer nominees (and votes) in the recurring category than in the worst overall sketches.  In the end, there was a three-way tie for worst recurring sketch, with a clear second place winner.

The worst recurring SNL sketch or characters of all time are: (tied) The Californians, Garth & Kat, Gilly

The Californians – One of the voters summed it up best: “Every time I see some promo of SNL that lauds that piece of skit sketch I want to break things”.  James Anderson and Fred Armisen wrote this sketch revolving around the characters’  accents and tendency to give driving directions, which likely would have been a forgotten one-off sketch had it not been for Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader breaking character at Armisen’s exaggerated line delivery.  Like with Debbie Downer, the producers and writers decided it was going to be one of their new signature bits, but where they found ways to put Debbie Downer in different situations, the very format of The Californians limited any potential to develop beyond such a thin premise.  By the time Armisen and Hader left the show, they had done the sketch 6 times in the space of 13 months.

Garth and Kat – This Weekend Update segment featuring an unprepared musical duo in matching vests is little more than Fred Armisen and Kristen Wiig playing an improv game where one leads and their partner has to match what they’re doing.  The whole thing is very self-indulgent and seems more designed to kill 5 minutes of airtime than anything else: like their characters, Armisen and Wiig don’t rehearse their songs, and the result is more amusing to them than it is to the studio audience or home viewer.

Gilly – A polarizing character that even Wiig’s own mother hates, Gilly seems to be the ultimate example of the bad SNL recurring sketch: one voter referred to it as “Kristen Wiig and the writers simply cashing paychecks”.  I’ve said before the sketch reeks of Wiig and Paula Pell cynically coming up with a cash-grab character to be put on a T-shirt, because this sketch is neither’s best work.  To Pell’s credit, she did manage to put a genuinely funny moment in the first sketch (Casey Wilson’s dialogue with Will Forte), but the sketches are tedious after the first run-through of the beats, which are limited variations on a set formula: if you see one minute of a Gilly sketch, you’ve seen the rest of the sketches.  Inexplicably, NBC and SNL figured this was enough of a beloved character to warrant being used as a framing device for  a compilation of Christmas sketches that aired in prime time called: A Very Gilly Christmas.

Runner-up

Ching Chang (later Ching Change) – Saturday Night Live was arguably at its best during the late 80s, which is why this Dana Carvey character sticks out as especially bad: a stereotypical Chinese man who is emotionally attached to the live chickens he sells, insisting in Chinese Pidgin English that “chicken make lousy housepet!”  This rightfully attracted flack when it aired; at one point, SNL addressed the controversy by having Ching’s sister Loose (Nora Dunn) criticize him for acting like a cartoon compared to her “positive ethnic role model” boyfriend (Phil Hartman).  This character is considered one of the most racist things the show has aired, and becomes more painful to watch as time passes on.

The Worst SNL Sketch of All Time: My own nominations

I’ve come up with a list of my own choices for worst sketch of all time, which will be factored into the overall vote (which closes at 11pm ET tonight):

Commie Hunting Season – 11/22/1980
This easily makes my all-time worst list; many of the reasons have already been cited here (particularly that one line followed by the silence as if they were expecting to get a laugh). Knowing this was intended as a comment on the acquittal of a few Klansmen for their role in the Greensboro Massacre makes it that much worse, but there really isn’t anything good about this sketch to begin with. Poorly lit, poorly scripted, poorly paced, poorly acted.

Sunken Submarine – 04/24/1982
Easily the worst thing on the show during the Dick Ebersol years: a bloated, pointless and unfunny mess that plays to mostly silence. By the time Neil Levy comes in pretending to be a dog, you just want the sketch to be over with.

The Limits Of The Imagination – 11/09/1985
The later live “Limits” sketches were better, but this one, while high in production values, seems to be an excuse to show off the new SNL’s film unit than anything worth the time in the show. The main joke is that it’s “he’s calling from inside the house” in a car. Lovitz’s nasal whine as the maniac is only funny now that his voice is so recognizable.

Brace Steele: Greenpeace Photographer – 04/20/1991
The most irredeemable part of the already bad Steven Seagal episode: this sketch about a Zen nature photographer happening upon an Exxon conspiracy feels like something he pushed to get on the show, and it plays like they’re indulging him. Points deducted for one of the most cringe-inducing endings on an SNL sketch.

Disneyland Runner – 03/12/1994
The three Nancy Kerrigan at Disneyland segments really felt like the show was short on material and the writers were scrambling to use a host they knew to be a dud.

Fortune Cookie Factory – 11/12/1994
The transition point where the 1994-95 season goes from just bad to joyless. This is also the first in a string of consecutive episodes where Mike Myers dons yellowface or race makeup.

The ESPYS – 02/18/1995
Take a thin premise, a terrible host (even for a non-actor), a bunch of impressions by people who barely resemble or imitate their targets, repetition of the same gags that were barely funny to begin with (I’m looking at you, stock footage clip of Lou Diamond Philips), and pad it out to 10 minutes: you have this sketch.

Miracles Of Science – 02/17/1996
SNL was on the comeback in 1995-96, but this particular sketch with Will Ferrell playing straightman to Tom Arnold as Brainiac (complete with oversized prosthetic brain-head) is painful to watch. You can smell the flop-sweat in the studio.

Dr. Mrs. Frankenstein – 10/30/2004
One of many “the joke is he’s gay” sketches that SNL has done in the last 15 years, with no real twist beyond that. Even more annoying is that this is one of the instances where Maya Rudolph plays a character in a period piece with an anachronistic “sassy black woman” voice. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the handiwork of James Anderson.

Rear Window – 11/14/2009
Grace Kelly has gas. That’s the sketch.

Worst recurring sketches:
Ching Chang/Ching Change
One of the most racist things the show’s done; this seems like it could have been written for a 1950s variety show.

Trina
There are a lot of Wiig characters I’ve been tempted to add to the list (Surprise Sue, Gilly, Secret Word, Dooneese). This stands out. As much as Gilly comes across as a cynical attempt by Paula Pell and Kristen Wiig to create a marketable character, it at least had a few funny portions (OK, just Casey Wilson’s part in the first sketch). Trina is Kristen Wiig as a wacky mental defective saying “Thomas!” over and over.

Elinda Nade, Stenographer
It was down to this and Regine, but where the latter is annoying and has enough telegraphing to keep Marconi busy, Elinda Nade is Fred Armisen trying to be Kristen Wiig. It’s more aggravating when you realize what Armisen does well and compare it to this.

Garth and Kat
Another Fred Armisen / Kristen Wiig bit; this just feels like an excuse to eat up as much airtime as possible while making something mainly for them, James Anderson and Kent Sublette to get songwriting royalties from whenever the show repeats.

Dishonorable mention: Debbie Downer / The Californians
Both are sketches that weren’t much on paper, but through a fluke of corpsing, they ended up better and more memorable than they should have been. Of course, Lorne and the writers figure they might as well keep bringing both back, thereby tainting the originals.

It’s sad how most of these recurring sketches are Wiig and Armisen; maybe it’s just because both are better performers than they can be on this dreck that even they can’t save.

The Future of Existentialist Weightlifting

I’m in the process of setting up a professional website and am still trying to make a decision regarding the future of this blog.  I’m still not sure whether I want to keep this as a separate space for my more esoteric posting (such as the SNL reviews) or integrate the content into the professional site.  If I do end up putting content from this blog on the other site, I’m planning on only picking and choosing the better posts, which will have to be re-edited for grammatical and clarity issues.  If I keep the site running as a separate space, I still want to make some changes but I don’t have anything specific in mind.

The 1982-83 reviews are officially on hold for now; I will be doing a few posts related to the results of the Worst SNL Sketches of All Time poll in March (by the way, if you haven’t voted yet, you have until midnight, March 1, 2014 to do so.  This is Atlantic Time, so technically voting closes at 11 pm ET on February 28, 2014.