Sunday, February 15, 2009

SNL: Jonas to the fourth power

Some thoughts on last night's disappointing episode of "Saturday Night Live" coming up just as soon as I go to Africa...

This season has featured guest-hosting appearances by Ben Affleck, Hugh Laurie, Steve Martin and now Alec Baldwin -- three of the most reliable hosts in the show's history, plus a sketch comedy master who killed in a previous "SNL" appearance -- and they've all been tremendously disappointing. Now, this season has also featured extremely promising first-time hosting gigs by Anne Hathaway, Jon Hamm and Neil Patrick Harris, so it's not like the series has entirely lost its fastball. But an Alec Baldwin episode -- complete with a Dan Aykroyd cameo -- should be a season highlight, shouldn't it?

The cold open with the Republican leadership being out of touch had a good idea, but the execution was off. The monologue with Jack McBrayer featured a twist on my least favorite monologue device, the questions from the audience. Then we got the inevitable Jonas Brothers sketch to keep the tweens from changing the channel, and at least this one allowed Baldwin to carry the full load, when much of the rest of the episode, like Steve Martin's, had him too much in the background. But I thought the Jonas Digital Short was the better of their two comedy appearances, as Andy Samberg and the Lonely Island guys are usually so good at parodying specific types of music like those early '80s hair metal videos.

Cougar Den needs to be put out to pasture, and only seems to come back because Cameron Diaz has attached herself to it. (The Vincent Price holiday specials, on the other hand, are still funny because of the oddness of the impression choices -- Fred Armisen's Liberace always makes me laugh -- so of course it's one of the few sketches from last night that isn't online.)

Weekend Update featured the inevitable Joaquin Phoenix parody (well-played by Jason Sudeikis), as well as the equally-inevitable return of Abby Elliott's Angelina Jolie and Kenan as the "Fix It!" guy. Diminishing returns, folks -- just because people laughed at something once doesn't mean you have to bring it back.

What did everybody else think?


Anonymous said...

Worst episode of the season. I was really excited by Alec Baldwin; he's usually funny.

But overall this episode was a disappointment.

And you like those Vincent Price skits? I fast forward through them as soon as I see the black & white ... maybe it's my age. /shrug

Benjamin Standig said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Matter-Eater Lad said...

The Wii sketch was hilarious, and should have opened the show. Which seemed to have trouble making the running time -- many of the sketches seemed very, very short, and the "Wave goodbye at the end" bit of the show was the longest I can remember.

Wish Jon Hamm had reprised his James Mason impression for the Vincet Price special.

Benjamin Standig said...

Pretty much right there with you on all those comments.

Where are the defining characters and skits, the one's you come back to watch each week, hoping it will be on? Outside of the occasional political bits (though not that horrible opening last night), there are no Wayne's Worlds or Farley playing the guy who loves in his van down by the river or Church Lady, etc.

I mean, if we told Lorne and crew that next week we just want the show to open with the five most popular characters/scenes staring the cast (meaning, no Justin in "Omeletteville"), what would they be?
Target Lady? Nicholas Fein? Joe Biden?

I am never sure if it is the writing or the on-air execution that is lacking, but if I had to pick, I'd go with the latter. After all, the Sarah Palin skits were absolutely hilarious and the performer (Tina Fey) is no longer in the cast.

Looking at the cast like a baseball lineup, I think it is filled primarily with slap hitters who show only occasional power and those big hits come in between an awful lot of swings and misses.

Bill Hader is a .300 hitter with good power and he has an MVP type season in him, but he should not be in the cleanup spot right now. Kristen Wiig at times during her career appeared to be destined for a Hall of Fame bid with her versatility, though this year her numbers are down. Andy Samberg probably has the best highlight reel and props for that, love those digital shorts. Now we just need to get up to that level when he performs live.

Darrell Hammond is like Greg Maddux' in that he still can paint the corners, but is no longer a consistent winner and should retire from the scene.

Seth Meyers is solid at the news desk, but lacks the daring, edge of your seat, you never know what will happen on live TV charisma that some of his predecessors possessed.

Fred Armisen and Jason Sudekis are solid and are worthy of being in the lineup, but in the 6th and 7th slots, not at the top of the order. Will Forte is a 4th outfielder who won;t embarrass you if he is forced into regular action. But these guys rarely break out despite being on the show for some time.

Of course, they all have had at least one or two memorable characters over the years, unlike Kenan Thompson. He is like that one-time prospect who gets bounced around from team to team despite never putting up any decent stats, but keeps getting work because every coach thinks he can cokes a great performance out of him. He makes me long for the never funny amateurism of Horatio Sanz.

Really not impressed with Casey Wilson's overacting. The new kid Moynihan has promise and the same can be said for Abby Elliott and Michaela Watkins, but time will tell.

I mean, there was a time when David Spade and Chris Rock could barely get off the bench on SNL. What happened???

Lorne - go find better actors. If nothing else, hire the talent scouts from The Daily Show. Now that is a funny crew...

Benjamin Standig said...

also, why did they go with not one but two repeated bits towards the end? Did a skit get cut at the very last second?

Alan Sepinwall said...

Ben, I think you're on to something with the cast. If you go back and watch some of the more well-regarded seasons of the last 10-15 years, the writing really isn't that much better, and the sketches are often just as one-note as they've been this year. ("More Cowbell," for instance, is one joke told exceptionally well by Will Ferrell and Christopher Walken.)

The difference between a good year and a bad year is when there are castmembers who are so innately funny, or fearless, that they jump out of the simplistic premise and make it work at length, and sometimes over multiple appearances. Ferrell had that gift, and Amy Poehler mostly had it, but nobody in the current ensemble seems able to elevate the material.

I feel like Hader should be able to do it, based on how good he is in the heavily-improvised Apatow films, but he seems to be barely in the show most weeks, and he's also admittedly reluctant to do too many impressions (his greatest strength) for fear of being pigeonholed. And Samberg, like you say, doesn't seem able to translate his genius in most of the Digital Shorts to the live sketches, which still make up the bulk of the show.

Anonymous said...

I think Keenan deserves some praise. His three lines were the only funny part of Cougar Den, Sir Mix-a-Lot was the funniest sketch of the first 45 minutes, and "Fix It!" worked last night.

Here's why I think "Fix It!" worked, as opposed to every time before: he went in an unexpected direction, the voice was not over the top, and the whole thing was over in about a minute.

I'm not a fan of Cougar Den, but I'll watch it, because it's the only voice Wiig does without that guttural whinny.

The digital short was weak- either show one long video of 70's Jonas, or three short clips that were progressively older (70s, 60s, 1920s?) but the way they did it didn't work.

Wii Guys was funny visually, but lacked the dialogue that would make it memorable (They even had good phrases that weren't used to any potential: playing with my wii, chubby little guy, grab the sack)

Seth Myers really is funny enough to carry Weekend Update on his own- I hope they keep it this way.

I'm also tired of Vincent Price. It was very funny the first few times, but now, not so much.

Castaway said...

I know it's popular to rip on SNL for being lame, past its prime, etc...but when an Alec Baldwin episode is that bad, there are some serious problems with both the cast and the writing.

Hyde said...

Yeah, I think it's time for one of those Lorne Michaels once-a-decade housecleanings (I don't think they've really had one since that last year Spade, Sandler, and Farley were all there--the Janeane Garofalo season). Keep Wiig and Hader, maybe keep the new kids another year to see what they can do (Moynihan is showing promise), and get rid of everybody else. Frankly, Hammond should have the pride to just leave on his own.

The reappearance of Angelina Jolie last night came across as desperation. Typically SNL will let a little more time pass before reprising a successful bit. But they've had so little buzz since the election that they panicked and threw her right back out there.

Anonymous said...

I had managed to avoid ever hearing the Jonas brothers before. I can't believe they are so popular. They are worse than Hansen.

Unknown said...

I agree with you completely. Hamm and Neil Patrick Harris were definitely the best of the year. The rest of the season has been dreck. If the writers were doctors, I think we could sue them for malpractice. I'll take the Vincent Price skit every week. It borders on SCTV-quality, which for my money was always better than SNL.

Nicole said...

I'm too lazy to check this theory out, but are the episodes after a break better than the ones where there was only a week to prepare for them?

I am inclined to side on the weak cast as part of the problem. The Palin skits were the highlights of the first half of the year, but that was because there was a lot to work with considering the source material, and it was Fey and Poehler in most of the skits, not the regular cast. Actually, in one case I think it was just Tina repeating what was actually said, so the funny was purely performance based.

Our expectations were raised too high, and were for reasons that were not because of the regular cast or writing abilities. Further, Hathaway, Hamm and NPH managed to make their skits funny because they all seem have more comedic talent than most of the regular cast. They also all had more to prove than Martin, Laurie or Baldwin, who are established stars and have hosted before.

I echo Ben's suggestion for Lorne to use the Daily Show casting directors, or maybe get a few Canadians in there.

Unknown said...

I really don't think the cast is the problem. It's the writing, although I guess most of the cast writes as well. You could have a cast of SNL all-stars on every week but they couldn't squeeze laughs out of this lousy material.

Anonymous said...

This one, Bradley Cooper, Steven Martin and Rosario Dawson were all really bad and painful to watch.

Anonymous said...

No love for the John Malkovich-hosted episode? I think it's at least as good as the Hathaway and Hamm episodes. I'm not quite that fond of the NPH show but it was better than most this season. Thinking back, Paul Rudd was pretty good too.

I was expecting great things from Baldwin given his history on the show and the wonderful things he does with Jack Donaghy every week.

My only suggestion for improving the show would be to give The Lonely Island guys more of a presence.

Anonymous said...

I also loved the Wii sketch, but for once I think it ended too soon - if they had kept going for a bit when the wife came down, it could have been become a classic in the tradition of Colonel Angus (another Christopher Walken skit). Vincent Price and a couple other isolated bits (wizard in the Digital Short, glory hole exchange in the weird office skit) were funny, but that was it.

I think the problem is the writing, which is too bad, because I like this cast. I guess your opinion partially depends on what you want from the cast. I enjoy fearlessness and gonzo comedy acting, but the downside to that is the personality overwhelming the comedy, where it's just watching X doing funny things, no matter which part X is playing. For this first time in awhile, this cast is free of that and Jimmy Fallon-type dead weight. They're incredibly versatile and (I think) talented performers, but the writing is just not there.

For example, the Michaela Watkins as a blogger on Weekend Update. It was a great performance and she stuck with it even after it was clear that it wasn't getting a response. But what should have been a funny parody of Defamer/Gawker style blogs failed because the lines had no relationship to how those blogs actually work.

Anonymous said...

SNL used to be the best way for the best young stand-up and improv guys to turn into household names and transition into big-time stars. When I was growing up in the 80s and early 90s, it was truly the big leagues.

That's simply not the case anymore. Facing more competition from cable shows and other sketch comedy shows, its really fallen back to the pack.

The biggest result is their failure to recruit the blue-chip guys they used to get. The days of having a lineup of comedy sluggers on SNL is long-gone.

But all that said, SNL needs to dig deeper and try to find some fresh talent. I think I speak for a lot of us when I say we just fast-forward through most of the recurring skits on the show and through virtually every Keenan appearance.

I agree with Ben that there are a few good singles hitters in this lineup...but they need some more transcendent talents to play off against.

Maybe they need to hire a big-name star or two to help anchor the show until they can unearth some great young talent.

lungfish said...

I agree that the Wii skit was the highlight. I wonder if the nature of the bit caused it to air that late in the show and not go on too long as an appeasement for the censors.

I thought for sure that the Jonas Brothers would have been featured in the Cougar Den sketch

Anonymous said...

I agree that the cast is pretty weak right now. I find Bill Hader very funny, and if he can improve the show with his talent for impressions, isn't that kind of his job? So what if he's pigeonholed? This show is in serious trouble right now. I think Kristen Wiig is sometimes funny, and she really goes over the top, but her characters border on creepy, and always seem a little too similar. I find the two new girls, Kenan Thompson, Will Forte and Fred Armisen all pretty mediocre, hit-or-miss comedians. Darrell Hammond is always hilarious, but I can't understand why he and Hader are always in the background?

jcpdiesel21 said...

SNL needs to stop relying on Kristen Wiig as the go-to woman in the majority of their sketches. For the most part, I find her unfunny, yet she is used so often to launch new characters.

Anonymous said...

The Wii sketch was hilarious! Maybe the best single sketch of the season. An instant classic. And I thought it was a fairly good episode overall. They did seem to run out of material at the end with the two old commercials, that was odd.

Anonymous said...

I never fast forward through SNL (except the musical guests), but last's night's episode was over in about 20 minutes for me. I still like the Price skits, I loved the Wii sketch, and the Sir-Mix-A-Lot Photo Shop was a great idea. Everything else was a complete miss in my mind.

I was also exceptionally disappointed. I was fully expecting to see a sketch of the Jonas Brothers vs. the Baldwin Brothers.

Anonymous said...

I thought it was a pretty bad episode. I think they got burned out with all those extra episodes (prime time specials) during the election.

I do have to disagree with Ben's assessment of the current cast.

I think Armisen, Forte, and Wiig are all superb. And all are willing to do out there stuff which may not always score but is fantastic when it does. I just wish Lorne would embrace the odd stuff more and make the show interesting and fresh.

Anonymous said...

The Wii sketch was sensational... I haven't laughed out loud like that from SNL in a long time.

to be fair to Abby Elliot, the the Angelina Jolie bit made sense because it is topical. The Salma Hayek story was huge, and everyone was making Jolie jokes about it.

I really like Michaela Watkins and thought she was terrific as the blogger.

Keenan is terrible.

I normally love Armison but he got little screen time. (I think the "calculator" bit with Malkovich is incredibly underrated)

Anonymous said...

Yeah, what the hell happened at the end? Two old shorts and then a verrrry long SNL title card before the "Good night, everybody" wrap-up. It seems like they just had to dump the last 10-15 min. of the show for some reason. Did someone twist an ankle?

William Ham said...

I haven't seen last night's show yet, but y'know, I'm of the mind that it ain't the cast and it ain't the writers so much as the work schedule that so often sinks the show. It's pretty well known that the whole show is basically written within a 36-hour period, the bulk of it between midnight and six AM on Wednesday morning, subject to heavy (and sometimes heavy-handed) last-minute rewriting and all sorts of the kind of vagaries that go along with live performance. I've been very happy to own the complete box sets of the first four seasons, but even then, with some of the most exciting comic talent in America in front of and behind the camera, there are long stretches where it just didn't work, and the same can be said for whatever seasons are gazed upon by everyone with such rose-tinted hindsight. Tina Fey does a pretty consistently wonderful job over at 30 Rock, but wow, those last couple of seasons when she was head writer were largely painful. I think that's just the nature of the beast - a volatile mixture of talents and circumstances that sometimes strikes long-lasting sparks and just as often results in a long trail of damp squibs. SNL: never as great as you remember, never as bad as it seems.

Unknown said...

I agree with pretty much everybody - terrible episode- and being a Alec Baldwin ep made it that much more dissappointing. This show goes through its ups and downs -and it's been worse than this in the past - but in the 30 years I've been watching this show I don't ever recall it turning so bad so quickly. It's usually more of a gradual sucking -this feels like somebody flipped a switch.

Maybe it is the performers that are somewhat to blame (I agree Alan there's nobody right now that could carry a cowbell sketch) but I think it's mostly the writing- the current writing staff hath no balls. Look at what they had to work with this week -

crazy octoplet mom (whatshername doing the idiotic Angelina Jolie impersonation could've killed in a well written sketch)

Obama's town hall meeting with the crazy nervous McDonald's worker and the Mom without a house- they meet Obama and BAM he gets a job and she gets a house. That's a political comedey writer's dream I would think. You combine that somehow with "Magic Negro" comments and it's comedy gold.

We at least got the one Alec Baldwin over-the-line sex skit ala Canteen Boy and Schweaty Ball but even that wasn't over-the-line enough and felt unfinished.

Paul Matwychuk said...

I really don't understand why the writing on SNL is so uneven. How big a writing staff do they have? 12, 15 people? Responsible for, let's say, about 60 minutes of sketch comedy a week? How hard can it be for a highly paid comedy writer to turn out four or five minutes of polished sketch material a week? SNL has produced countless examples of classic comedy over the years, but I just don't think there's any excuse for their head writers to allow as many baggy, ending-less skits to escape onto the air as they do.

Anonymous said...

SNL has got to find a way to do decent political humor in the Obama era. That opening sketch was just plain dreadful. Targeting the irrelvent and out of power GOP was an odd choice. It could have worked if done properly, but it was handled horribly and it reeked of the writers trying to crawl back into their comfort zone, since they still cannot figure out how to generate laughs out of Obama. Its going to be a long 4-8 years if the best we can get from SNL is a moderately amusing Biden impression.

Anonymous said...

The show is terrible. I understand why Alan has to watch it, it's his job. Why anyone else watches this inane, redundant, and repetitively written garbage is beyond me. I usually am jealous of Alan's job but not when it comes to this show. Cancel it tomorrow or suspend it and get rid of everyone but maybe Seth Myers. And I mean Loren, too, he needs to retire.

Anonymous said...

Two comments:

1) Only a few months ago, I marveled at the unique talents of Wiig. Now, I feel that she is so overexposed on the show that I wince whenever there is a new sketch with a quirky new character. It's like when Tracy Jordan took over The Girlie Show. She needs to be spared so that we can have a chance to appreciate her talents rather than be bombarded with her at every opportunity.

2) As the debate over whether SNL is good or bad continues on as it always has, I wonder how many of its faults are due to the fact that Lorne Michaels' personal preferences for the show have become institutionalized. Save for a brief stint in the 1980s, he has run the show since its inception, and I wonder if what SNL needs is not just an infusion of new talent but a replacement for Lorne Michaels. Talk about new blood.

Anonymous said...

Loved the Wii sketch, but I worry that so many people had tuned out by then. I fell asleep during the meeting planning sketch, which was OK, and luckily was recording so could watch the end.

But what was up with the filler at the end? We've seen Chewable Pampers. Love the sketch, but it was obvious something went wrong.

I thought the JoBros showed they will fare better as actors than singers. I thought the sketch with them and the digital short were both awesome.

I wouldn't totally slag this episode, but it was mediocre and inconsistent.

Anonymous said...

I watched the show on our local NBC broadcast affiliate via cable, no hi-def.

During the 4 Jonas Brothers sketch, Joe was cropped in half most of the time.

I then realized that they were no longer doing wide screen window box on their broadcast over 'old' TV.

Today, I rewatched the sketch on Hulu. I realized that broadcast channel definitely was cropping the widescreen picture. This was annoying as all hell.

Do we really have to subscribe to digital HDTV to get the full picture at this point? I'll probably just quit watching live instead.

--bad dad

Dana's Blog said...

Am I the only who thinks that SNL is just a bit out of date and confused as to who their target audience is? While there were some highlights in the Vincent Price sketch (loved Kristen Wiig's Carole Channing), I just find it hard to believe that the average 18-30 yr old would know who the people in the sketch were. I'm not saying that SNL shouldn't try to be appeal to a larger audience; I just feel like they are more current and topical things to satirize. The aforementioned Octo-mom would be great or how about the reality shows on vh1, E! and Bravo. Ultimately, there is no excuse for the terrible and lame sketches they try to pass off as comedy.