Sunday, October 03, 2004

Saturday Night's All Right

Watching some of E!’s 101 Most Unforgettable SNL Moments, I was getting depressed about the current state of the show. I’m not the first to call last season utterly lame (nor was that the first season to be derided as “not as good as the good old days”). But last season was characterized by several major deficiencies, which were highlighted by E!’s retrospective.

There was the abundance of guest hosts not known for their acting abilities (Justin Timberlake, Andy Roddick, Al Sharpton, Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey, Christina Aguilera, Donald Trump, Janet Jackson and Snoop Dogg). Timberlake and Aguilera actually were among the best hosts of the season (Aguilera in particular proved shockingly adept at comedy – her Kim Cattrall was dead-on).

This Will & Grace-style addiction to stunt casting (which also included “actresses” Mary-Kate Olsen and Ashley Olsen) was in large part responsible for another lackluster trend – too many sketches per show where the guest host portrayed themselves. While this well was gone to far more often during the non-actors’ appearances, it spilled over to the actors’ episodes too. You know, there’s only so many Donald Trump playing… Donald Trump sketches an audience can handle in an hour and a half. SNL exceed that number by about five. Part of the reason why the Lindsay Lohan edition was pretty much universally considered (by everyone except whoever at SNL submits episodes for Emmy consideration) the best of the season is that it hit just before Lohan became a larger-than-life personality, so she was able to do skits that weren’t all about her.

Then there were the recurring characters, possibly the weakest crop in the history of the show (certainly the weakest since I started watching in 1992). It used to be SNL took a character that was funny at first, then ran them into the ground until they were painfully unfunny. Last season’s stable of recurring characters (with the exception of Donatella Versace) started out as painfully unfunny, and they had nowhere to go but down.

It used to be you could count on election years featuring the most inspired runs of SNL. Who doesn’t remember Dana Carvey’s impersonations of George Bush and Ross Perot better than the candidates themselves? In 1992, Entertainment Weekly named The Cast of Saturday Night Live the number one Entertainers of the Year. But last season, despite plenty of mockable behavior on both the Republican and Democratic fronts, there was hardly any political humor outside of the Weekend Update. Part of this was because since Will Ferrell left in 2002, no one in the cast has been able to carve out a solid caricature of President Bush – not Chris Parnell, not the usually impeccable impressionist Darrel Hammond (the elder statesman of this cast, he’s had a longer tenure now than any regular in the history of the show) and not Will Forte. And the one time during the primaries that all the Democratic candidates appeared (briefly) in a sketch, it looked as though the cast members had never even seen the politicians they were lampooning actually speak. It was obvious they thought they could get away with just slapping a gray wig on minor player Seth Meyers and have him use his natural speaking voice to play Kerry since there was no chance of him making it past Iowa. Whoops. So rather than try to find anybody who could humorously portray Bush or Kerry, the producers just gave up and avoided politics as best they could (the lone highlights being Hammond as Cheney and Rumsfeld and, surprisingly, Janet Jackson as Condoleezza Rice). Or maybe they just realized that they couldn’t compete with The Daily Show on that front, so why bother. In 1992 and 2000, SNL had high-rated primetime election specials featuring the best of their sharp political humor. I don’t see how they could even attempt such a special in 2004.

Even the always reliable Weekend Update wasn’t up to par last year as Tina Fey seemed more concerned with making a point than making a joke and Jimmy Fallon seemed to have checked out long before he actually did.

But last night, the 29-year-old institution showed signs that it’s getting back on track with an all-around good (if not great) season premiere that answered many of my above criticisms.

The opening debate sketch, while a little long and ignoring some ripe targets in favor of too much repetition (I get it, there was a lot of repetition in the actual debate, but after eleven minutes, it’s just as tedious), did have some moments. And more importantly, it revealed that Forte and Meyers have been honing their impressions during the off-season (particularly Meyers, who obviously did his homework over the summer and pretty much has Kerry’s voice and hand gestures down). Still can’t say that either one is as memorable as SNL presidents past, but it gives us some hope for the next four weeks/years of political humor.

Maya Rudolph made for a pretty good Teresa Heinz Kerry, though she didn’t have much to work with, and at times she slipped into Donatella Versace. But if Kerry wins, she’ll probably get more screen time than whoever played Laura Bush (did anybody ever?).

They managed to limit Ben Affleck playing Ben Affleck to the only two spots (with the occasional exception) where a guest host should play themselves. And in both bits, he had good, self-effacing material to work with. The same could be said of both Alec Baldwin and James Gandolfini (I thought he was desperately trying to get out of Tony Soprano’s shadow?), each of whom were quite funny in their cameos.

Thankfully, there was only one recurring character last night (though that’s mostly because Jimmy Fallon was part of every other recurring sketch on the show). Unfortunately, in only her second appearance, Debbie Downer jumped the shark. Wah wah wah. Not only didn’t the performers crack a smile during the sketch… neither did anyone watching. There goes Debbie Downer: The Movie. Sorry, Rachel Dratch.

I’m not sure who I expected to see replace Fallon on Weekend Update, but it certainly wasn’t Amy Poehler. After the initial shock of seeing two women at the desk wore off, I realized that aside from Hammond (who’s just the impression guy), there are no males on the show that I find particularly talented or likable (except for maybe the under-used Fred Armisen). Marking another potential first for this cast, the women are far more gifted than the men. Though women have infamously been given the short end of the stick throughout SNL’s run, the last two classes of women (Ana Gasteyer, Cheri Oteri & Molly Shannon and Rachel Dratch, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler & Maya Rudolph) have made great strides. This is evidenced by the decided lack of men in drag lately (or maybe that just stopped being funny ten years ago). That being said, Poehler’s first night as co-anchor was a little shaky, as was the writing. In a rarity, the three guests (Gandolfini, Affleck and Horatio Sanz as Elton John) were better than the fake news. Personally, I wouldn’t mind if Fey had the whole thing to herself, just like the big boys used to.

One last thing that I realized while watching the E! nostalgia-rama was that the show used to do more zany, absurd sketches and also did more experimental, filmed segments. That’s been missing in recent seasons, with greater emphasis placed on our celebrity culture and topical references (not that those are bad things). But last night’s show offered a near-brilliant, absurdist sketch about people trapped on an escalator, which seemed to hearken back to the olden days of SNL (and if you believe a talkbacker on Ain’t-It-Cool-News, it was more of a direct rip-off of the olden days of SNL). Then there was the short film of Kitty Kelly’s idea of Camp David that didn’t quite work, but earned points from me for attempting something… almost artistic.

Let’s just hope this upward trend in quality continues when they don’t have a whole summer between episodes to work on their material and performances.


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