Monday, October 06, 2008

SNL: Not so atrocious

Some thoughts on this weekend's "Saturday Night Live" just as soon as I become Jane...

Everyone is, not surprisingly, talking about the vice-presidential debate sketch and how well Tina Fey continues to play Sarah Palin, and she's certainly nailed it. But I'm starting to feel diminishing returns with the impression, in part because nothing's going to sting quite as much as "I can see Russia from my house!" from the Palin/Hillary sketch, in part because Palin almost seems to be copying Fey at this point, rather than the other way around.

(The sketch also ran into the same problem "SNL" has had going all the way back to the 2000 election: the Democratic candidates, both presidential and vice-presidential, don't lend themselves as well to caricature because they don't have obvious physical or verbal mannerisms that can be easily and recognizably exaggerated. Even McCain's been a toughie, which is one of the reasons we're getting more of Palin and her Marge Gunderson accent than we are of the guy at the top of the ticket.)

But beyond that, this was the first episode of the season where I was glad I kept watching past the political sketches. It had the usual weird pacing choices, where some of the weakest sketches (dancing at the bar, people talking about the bailout) were near the front, while some of the funniest (Mary Poppins has a social disease, Mark Wahlberg talks to animals) didn't come until after Weekend Update. But the good sketches were very funny, as was Update. The bit where Amy Poehler and Seth Meyers went on a run of jokes about the world's fattest man getting engaged was particularly nice; Update always works best when the anchor or anchors inject their personality into it, and you could tell that Seth and Amy and the Update writers had spent a while coming up with all these punchlines and couldn't resist trying to get every single one of them into the show.

Hopefully, Anne Hathaway will wind up as a semi-regular host after this outing. The Mary Poppins impression wasn't that surprising, given that she's done a couple of movies with Julie Andrews, but she was good throughout; versatile and bright and more than willing to goof on herself with that monologue about having dated a con man. (It's not online anywhere I can see, but if you missed it, she went on about how her new boyfriend is a much nicer man: an African prince she met on the Internet, who's so interested in everything about her that he asks about things like her Social Security number and her mother's maiden name.) And she even got to cameo in the Digital Short.

Before I open it up, I'm going to make a simple request: when discussing a show that does contemporary political satire, it's impossible to not discuss politics in some way, but please try to keep it civil. I had to shut down one of the Letterman/McCain threads from a week and a half ago because it was getting ugly, and the latest "Mad Men" discussion is almost getting derailed by people noting the (physical) resemblance between Betty's dad and McCain. If people can't play nice, I may have to introduce a No Politics rule around here, and that means no more "SNL" discussion right along with it.

What did everybody else think?

49 comments:

dez said...

ITA about the diminishing returns. There were some funny moments in the debate sketch (Palin's meandering response ending with "Ronald Reagan!" was great), but it started to drag a bit.

Also agree that there were some very funny bits buried at the end (esp. Mary Poppins' disease). Why can't they front-load the show and put the weaker crap later so I can turn it off and get some sleep? :-D

I noticed a couple of times that as soon as the sketches ended, Hathaway had a look on her face like, "Get me out of this costume, NOW!" Not sure if she was just uncomfortable in some of them, or dying for the show to be over. She was a very good host, though.

Quick question: Do you know why they aren't using Andy Samberg as often as in the past? He's one of their funnier cast members and while I enjoy his weird-ass digital shorts, I'd like to see him do more skits.

Bobman said...

I thought Hathaway was a fantastic host, and the show in general was one of the best ones in recent memory, maybe since as far back as Peyton Manning? I can't think of the last time I didn't use my fast-forward button through more than one or two sketches. The Mary Poppins skit in particular had me cracking up.

Sometimes it's tough to distinguish "not as bad as usual" from "actually good," but I think this was actually good.

Anonymous said...

"Not so atrocious." I can just see NBC using that for the promos.

Alan Sepinwall said...

I noticed a couple of times that as soon as the sketches ended, Hathaway had a look on her face like, "Get me out of this costume, NOW!" Not sure if she was just uncomfortable in some of them, or dying for the show to be over.

Hosting the show is stressful. You have very little time to get changed between sketches -- you often have to get naked (or close to it) in front of other people backstage -- and she was wearing a lot of very complicated costumes. I'm assuming it was just nerves; she was a good sport.

Alan Sepinwall said...

"Not so atrocious." I can just see NBC using that for the promos.

Eh, I was riffing on the lyrics to the Poppins song. It was a pretty good episode.

Greg said...

The sketch also ran into the same problem "SNL" has had going all the way back to the 2000 election: the Democratic candidates, both presidential and vice-presidential, don't lend themselves as well to caricature because they don't have obvious physical or verbal mannerisms that can be easily and recognizably exaggerated.

I'll take it back even further and mention that I was pulling for Paul Tsongas in '92 only so Al Franken could keep imitating him.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Oh, Franken's Tsongas was awesome. Do you remember the sketch with Tsongas, Jerry Brown and Clinton all trying to appeal to voters at a Star Trek convention? Genius.

Clinton gave them a lot to work with for eight years (and then some). I think it's really more about persona than politics; if they could find something funny to do with Obama or Biden, they'd try.

(With Obama, I'd probably take the same route they did with Jimmy Carter: exaggerate his perceived good qualities (for Carter, his intelligence; for Obama, his ability to inspire) to an absurd degree.

Heather K said...

I had several friends over for a clean-up move into a new apartment for free beer and pizza "party" that night. We were about finished when that came on and we all had to watch the debate spot.

But we too kept watching and being amazed that we were still finding it really funny. Only half of us found "Mark Wahlberg talks to animals" funny, but we were laughing so hard we hurt, and we could not get the others to understand why it was at all funny. They just looked very perplexed and led to lots of repeating, "but that's how he talks!" and "Chickens are funny!"

Funniest Saturday night live in a looong time!

Alan Sepinwall said...

I don't think the link I included for Ask President Carter works. Try this one to see it embedded at another site.

Anonymous said...

I thought Anne Hathaway was excellent. Her willingess to "go there" really set the tone. I think her end-of-skit looks represented panic over her numerous costume changes.

The quick transformation from Anne "as herself" in the monologue to her Lawrence Welk getup was amazing.

Even on the lousy episodes that I Tivo, I always skip ahead to the goodbye to see how the host interacts with the cast. (I wish Hulu had the Chevy Chase episode where the entire cast seemed to turn away from him, leaving Chevy to make faces into the camera).

It seemed like there was genuine affection between her and the regulars. I'm sure she'll be back.

Including her in the digital short (where Kristen Wiig was amazing) also indicates that she got along well with the producers and cast.

David Coleman said...

I thought Jason Sudeikis did a nice job with his Bush impression with the bailout sketch. Him peering at the camera around Pelosi was one of the funnier parts of that bit.

The problem is that Sudeikis, Will Forte and Bill Heder are kinda crowding each other out. They all can play such similar character, none of them have a good chance to break out.

One thing I wondered about: Will they get a special guest to be the debate moderator every week? First it was Parnell, then Queen Latifah. Are John Goodman and Steve Martin on tap next? Maybe Alec Baldwin?

Anonymous said...

Chris Parnell has done Brokaw before; he could be back.

--bad dad

Alan Sepinwall said...

Good question, David. Is Brokaw moderating this week?

I think Hader probably could distinguish himself if he wanted to, given that he's a master impressionist. But he's said that he doesn't want to get pigeonholed as the impressions guy -- both on the show and for the sake of a future career -- so he tends not to pitch as many of those kinds of sketches.

Ryan said...

I thought this episode was pretty consistent as well, with only the club sketch failing. Given the problems in recent years of sketches dragging on too long with no real payoffs, this week showed what they need to be doing more consistently, which is several shorter bits which try to hit hard and end quickly.

Let's hope for a return appearance from Alec Baldwin this year, although Jon Hamm's turn in a couple weeks sounds intriguing.

J said...

What does it speak to that they need to rely on guests to fill out necessary political roles? Fey was obvious (and I could watch her do that all night long) and Parnell was tradition, but there's no one on staff who can play Ifill or secure enough to make Obama funny? Good thing Latifah had a movie to promote; Armisen is just too conceptual/absurd to take pointed stabs at anyone. I miss the old SNL where dead-on vocal parroting wasn't necessary to get at the satire. I would love to see Eddie Murphy or Tracy Morgan take a crack at Obama.

This was the first tolerable ep of the year. Good thing they're going into a rerun just in time to lose their groove! The Wahlberg bit was a chuckler, even if it's one of those impersonations built around a single line; after the first minute, it made me miss Brian Fellows.

When does 30 Rock start?

lungfish said...

As soon as I saw Hathaway/ The Killers, I was excited- 2 of my favorites.

I give serious props to Anne for going there on her opening monologue. I doubt many celebrity hosts would be willing to poke fun at their personal lives.

In addition to the Mary Poppins sketch, I also really liked the Youtube News bit.

I do wish they would stop it with the skits that are rely entirely too much on goofy dancing for laughs like the skit with the pick-up attempts in the bar (also the Phelps locker room one off the top of my head). It's too much of shortcut I think.

All in all, it's been a pretty solid past few weeks. Franco was good as a host, and there were a couple of bright spots with Faris too.

Matt said...

The "Club" sketch was the only serious misfire, but "The Less Provocative Songs of Katy Perry" didn't really work (apparently, it had been cut from the Faris and Phelps episodes), and "I'm Not Gay" was a decent single joke stretched out way too long.

The Wahlberg sketch should have been the 12:55 slot, which is where I like my surrealism.

And I'll be shocked if Hathaway isn't back. She's widely rumored to be doing "Guys and Dolls" on Broadway (as Sarah), and this was an audition of sorts, with her singing in three sketches.

LA said...

I was very impressed with Hathaway's comic chops. She should take more work in the genre, she's quite good at it.

Don't forget, Mad fans, Jon Hamm hosts SNL 10/25!

Nicole said...

I think the first Palin sketch worked best because both Fey and Poehler were on fire. Since then, the sidekick to Fey's Palin hasn't been as funny (Poehler as Couric was a straight woman as opposed to her embittered Hillary Clinton). That said, it was still a funny sketch this week, with the absurd moments working best.

As for getting Queen Latifah to play Ifill, it worked, but then again I can't think of a black woman who is part of the show's current cast who could do the part anyway.

The Godfather said...

The Mary Poppins spoof this week and the Of Mice and Men sketch a week or two ago were well written and well acted. And the Lawerence Welk bit was funny, mainly because Kristen Wiig is just amazing.

The political humor is good, but it shouldn't be the cold open every week, right? I imagine a lot of casual viewers watch that and then drop off. Though anyone who hung with the Bailout sketch were rewarded with an over-the-top Barney Frank that saved the bit.

Still not sure whether we are human or dancer (whatever that means), but love the Killers regardless.

Anyway, the show is much stronger than it was a few years ago.

dez said...

I'll take it back even further and mention that I was pulling for Paul Tsongas in '92 only so Al Franken could keep imitating him.

Was Tsongas the bowtie guy? Because I still say "the bow-tie" in Franken's voice whenever I see someone wearing one.

@anonymous 12:19 p.m. - I also marveled at how quickly they costumed Anne for the Welk sketch.

I thought Keenan Thompson would have been funny as Ifill, though I love Queen Latifah. And if they want a better Obama impersonator, they need to steal Keegan-Michael Key from MAD TV. His Obama is spot-on.

Anonymous said...

I laughed throughout the Lawrence Welk sketch. Kristen Weig will probably take over for Amy Poehler as the go to funny girl of the show (sorry Casey Wilson). Seeing her deformed hands trying to pop bubbles had me rolling. I hope I'm not going to hell for that.

Anonymous said...

Sen. Paul Simon was the bowtie guy.

Vic DiGital said...

I think once the election is over, and assuming Obama wins, SNL will be a lot more overt in making fun of him. I think as a group, they realize that they DO have some sway over the national opinion, and as such won't use that power to derail their preferred candidate.

But once (if) he's in office, then he'll be open season.

Alan Sepinwall said...

I think as a group, they realize that they DO have some sway over the national opinion, and as such won't use that power to derail their preferred candidate.

I don't think that's the case. I believe Lorne Michaels is a Republican/McCain supporter, and they've had no problems mocking candidates from either side during the campaign. (They arguably beat up on Gore more than Bush back in 2000 with all the sighing and "lockbox" talk.)

Obama's just been a tough nut to crack for them, not helped by the fact that their lone African American castmember is physically all wrong for the part.

(Before Maya Rudolph quit, I would have pegged her as a perfect Obama, but some people told me that SNL would have gotten just as beat up for casting a woman as they have for casting someone who isn't black.)

Vic DiGital said...

True.

I just don't think there's anything funny about Obama that can be translated to a skit just yet. Armisen is trying valiantly to mimic Obama's vocal tics, but that in itself isn't funny (even if he were to nail it).

I thought that Jason Sudekis' Biden impression was okay-ish, but he did nail the way-too exaggerated toothy smiles.

I watch Obama (the real one) looking for ways he could be easily made fun of, but there's just nothing there. He's a bland, mid-western, well-spoken man.

The only hope, I think, is to over-exaggerate those around him, or those associated with him, like the Acorn people or his overly-hopeful supporters. Or play off his aura of hope, as you suggested.

Hyde said...

Al Franken was also good playing Pat Robertson, nailing the unnerving way that Robertson always seemed to be suppressing laughter when he would talk.

I guess I'm in the minority for finding the 2 most recent Palin appearances more memorable than the first one. Fey's initial Palin had the advantage of novelty, but the last 2 have just been funnier. And props to Sudeikis for latching on to the 2 most satirizable aspects of Biden: his anchorman grin and his tendency to repeat himself unnecessarily.

What was most surprising about this episode was that it was the fourth straight live week for SNL. The last show before a break often reflects a cast and writing staff running on fumes, but this was a first-rate show (it helped that the debate sketch and the bailout sketch practically wrote themselves and took up 20 minutes between them). But Hathaway gets credit too.

M said...

(With Obama, I'd probably take the same route they did with Jimmy Carter: exaggerate his perceived good qualities (for Carter, his intelligence; for Obama, his ability to inspire) to an absurd degree.

Nitpick: judging by the video you linked to, they exaggerated Carter's education, not his intelligence. He's shown as always well-informed on the topic at hand, no matter how far-fetched, but his application of said knowledge is mostly trivial.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Nitpick: judging by the video you linked to, they exaggerated Carter's education, not his intelligence. He's shown as always well-informed on the topic at hand, no matter how far-fetched, but his application of said knowledge is mostly trivial.

Six of one. Point was, they couldn't initially find a peg into a guy who seemed so perfect (especially after Watergate and Vietnam and all the other Nixonian baggage), and so they eventually decided to turn one of his apparent pluses into something they could tell jokes about. Most of the Carter sketches in some way played off how knowledgeable he was.

Hatfield said...

Oh man, when I read the comment about Franken's Tsongas the first thing I thought was, "I wonder if that was the old balding guy who bounced his head around too much while speaking at a Star Trek convention." I was only 11 the year that aired, but during my high school years Comedy Central absolutely loved airing the episode with that skit, and it never failed to crack me up. Sigh, the good ol' days...

Please tell me that's floating around YouTube somewhere; I can't check from the office

Tracey said...

@Hyde: I've liked all of the Fey-as-Palin sketches, but I think the problem with the last two is that they're a little too close to the reality. It's very hard to tell where the quotes end and the sketches begin, particularly with the Couric interview one.

Vic DiGital said...

What I want to know, what's MADTV's take on the whole Sarah Palin phenomenon?


ehem.


Even though we live in an age where we're excited when an SNL episode doesn't suck (which has been the last 20 years or so, I guess), I'm still amazed that when something really big happens in the news, we remain intensely curious as to how SNL is going to cover it. We all really WANT SNL to be funny and relevant. We give it every possible chance to earn our love (or earn it back). And somehow, SNL manages to do so every once in a while.

Side note: Tina Fey is apparently the defacto queen of comedy in America right now. And deservedly so.

David J. Loehr said...

I thought "not so atrocious" covered it. I didn't think it was all that great beyond the opening, save for "Mark Wahlberg" and Kristin Wiig's Nancy Pelosi eyes--there's a song parody begging to be written--but it was a vast improvement over the season to date. (Expectations were so low coming in, etc...)

I'm finding NPR's Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me is one of the only comedy shows that's nailing their Obama jokes.

For example, in discussing the story about Biden asking Missouri State Senator Chuck Graham to stand up for the crowd--Graham is a paraplegic--their follow up was, and I'm paraphrasing, that it was a shame that it was Biden and not Obama, because then he might have been able to stand up after all...

Wait, Wait is also required viewing/listening around here, along with The Daily Show and Colbert. They're not news sources--you have to know the news to get all the jokes--but they're indispensable. There's talk that CBS is developing a tv version, which might be all right if they just turn a camera on and broadcast it as is; there's nothing that tv-ifying the show would improve. (And best of all, each week's episode is free as a podcast on iTunes.)

zodin2008 said...

This was the best all around SNL of the year, though I agree that the first Palin/Hillary sketch in the season premier was my favorite sketch of the year.

But yeah, the Julie Andrews and Mark Wahlberg sketches were funnier.

Weekend Update:

Here's what I've been feeling about that the past few years, particularly during the Poehler-Myers years.

Poehler and Myers are great together on "Weekend Update" and carried the mantle nicely from Fey/Poehler. The 2 pronged host approach works, plus, Myers and Poehler are good writers as well.

Where "Weekend Update" fails at times every single week, is the vast majority of whomever their special commentators are. The only time in the last few seasons that a "special commentator" stuck out as funny was McCain back in April or May was on, encouraging Obama and Hillary to keep fighting, all the way through the Democratic convention.

Other than getting "real" people to do a shtick like that, I generally have not enjoyed any of the Fred Armisen or Will Forte special characters/commentators.

Particularly bad is that character Armisen plays where he holds a newspaper and says he's going to talk about headlines and doesn't complete a sentence - what the hell is funny about that? Or the Forte character where he mumbles...they keep bringing these characters on and they suck the life out of the segment.

re: Andy Samberg

Dez, I couldn't disagree with you more. Every single person I know above the age of 17 thinks Samberg and his shtick is idiotic. His humor, IMHO, mostly appears to teenagers.

The only time he has stuck out in a good way was the infamous "D--k in a box" segment he did 3 years ago with Justin Timberlake. And even that's a bit overrated.

The less Samberg, the better. The worst mistake SNL made was getting rid of their most talented castmember a few years ago, Chris Parnell. Speaking of weekend Update, his Ashton Kutcher love song had me crying with laughter.

Dan Coyle said...

Interestingly, Chris Parnell appeared in the debate sketch last week as the moderator.

It was nice, after he'd been bounced from the show, brought back, and bounced again he blew the doors off with Dr. Spaceman on 30 Rock and stole the show from Judy Greer's breasts (NOT EASY TO DO) on the excrable Miss Guided that they bring him back.

Mac said...

You said:
The bit where Amy Poehler and Seth Meyers went on a run of jokes about the world's fattest man getting engaged was particularly nice

I found that bit to be mean-spirited and full of nothing more than "cool kid" smugness. Uribe has lost over 500 lbs. I found the jokes about his sex life to be particularly appaling. Ask yourself why those you found those insults amusing.

jim treacher said...

The debate sketch was better than the real thing because Ifill actually mentioned her book. But it still would've been funnier if she'd been played by Tracy.

I also liked that they got through an entire episode without ripping me off.

"Ask yourself why those you found those insults amusing."

Because big ol' fatsos are hilarious! And that's coming from a big ol' fatso.

Anonymous said...

Even on the lousy episodes that I Tivo, I always skip ahead to the goodbye to see how the host interacts with the cast. (I wish Hulu had the Chevy Chase episode where the entire cast seemed to turn away from him, leaving Chevy to make faces into the camera).

The best goodbye ever was Steve Buscemi. The show ended with a really dreadful Grease number. Buscemi was obviously embarrassed by the whole thing and tried to be as inconspicuous as possible. The first chance he got, he hid behind Chris Farley. It's subtle, but hilarious.

Anonymous said...

I didn't get the Mark Wahlberg sketch. Is there a recent news item that makes it funny?

Bobman said...

99% of comedy is making fun of people and things that are different and strange. You can either laugh at it or feel high and mighty about it. Take your pick.


Re : the Mark Whalberg sketch, I thought it was funny just because it was just such a dead-on impression.

Melanie said...

I also didn't get the Wahlberg thing, anon 6:49. I'd like to consider myself fairly up on most things pop-culture, so I'm feeling left out...

Alan Sepinwall said...

The Wahlberg sketch is just making fun of how he talks and how he seems so intense and yet not very bright.

Melanie said...

So, apparently, I'm like him.

Jeff said...

I really enjoyed the Lawrence Welk skit. Kristen Wiig is great at playing such absurd characters!

Bellingham View said...

Sorry if this has been discussed, but in the bailout sketch, the presidential portrait hanging on the wall behind Bush/Pelosi/Frank: was that Jon Stewart's face under a bald head? Hilarious if it was (looked that way to my eye).

Also, re: possibly something funny to do with Obama: a sketch focusing on his daily basketball games. He reportedly is a trash-talker on the court, so perhaps they could do something giving him a wild dual personality: maniacal Bobby Knight-like screamer and Larry Bird-level trash talker on the floor, smooth as silk pol off it.

Or not!

jim treacher said...

The bailout sketch has now disappeared from the NBC site:

http://hotair.com/archives/2008/10/06/whered-the-snl-bailout-skit-go/

Coincidentally enough, this happens the day after Herb and Marion Sandler, the two "people who should be shot," complained about it:

http://www.usatoday.com/money/industries/banking/2008-10-05-sandler-golden-west_N.htm

Coincidences are so totally coincidental.

Anonymous said...

"Particularly bad is that character Armisen plays where he holds a newspaper and says he's going to talk about headlines and doesn't complete a sentence - what the hell is funny about that?"

Oh my god, zodin2008, I think those are HILARIOUS - the way he can riff endlessly with incomplete phrases! And his timing is exquisite! Matter of taste...

j gillespie said...

I wish Hulu had the Chevy Chase episode where the entire cast seemed to turn away from him, leaving Chevy to make faces into the camera


My favorite good-night with Chase was the February 1980 show he hosted where the cast members stood as far away from him as possible and still be on stage- leaving Chase to stand there with musical guest Marianne Faithfull and Bert Convy (who'd done a cameo)

m said...

Six of one. Point was, they couldn't initially find a peg into a guy who seemed so perfect

Eh... no, it's not the same thing. Intelligence is the ability to understand new concepts; it doesn't magically translate into knowledge. The Couric interview SNL "mocked" (is it still mocking if you're quoting the, eh, "mocked" verbatim?) is a rare example of intelligence without knowledge. Sarah Palin isn't stupid -- the woman was smart enough to successfully dislodge an incumbent governor, after all -- but she came off like a tool because she was utterly ignorant on political issues not directly related to Alaska. Conversely, with the rare exception of knowledge that in itself requires intelligence to attain (like, say, advanced math or engineering) being knowledgable doesn't indicate being intelligent. A lot of tv writers are knowledgable on a vast array of topics, but they aren't necessarily smart -- which is why tv characters more often than not demonstrate their "intelligence" by being knowledgable on obscure topics.

And yes, I realize that doesn't detract from your larger point. Which is why I called it a nitpick. It's just a pet peeve of mine.