I don't expect brilliance from Saturday Night Live these days. But it's not impossible, so I still hope for it. A genius moment and genuine belly laugh may come from the old standby of celebrity impersonations or from something utterly bizarre like that French dance sketch that first popped up in October — even from a rare recurring character who somehow stays hysterically funny, like Bill Hader's Stefon.
Photo: Mary Ellen Matthews for NBCUniversal Media © 2011
With few exceptions, in fact, the weirder SNL gets anymore, the better. That's not to say that weird is always good, but that the good is almost always a result of weird, be it Zach Galiafinakis' out-of-nowhere Annie number from last month, the non sequitur "lost" Vincent Price TV specials, or the stranger SNL Digital Short installments.
SNL's general mediocrity isn't always a consistent mediocrity — we might get a whole show where everything's sort-of average, or a show with extreme highs and lows that on balance is hard to grade. Last weekend's edition, hosted by Helen Mirren, was almost aggressively middling, however. Its standout sequences were the Digital Short of Nasim Pedrad experiencing the magical world within Mirren's breasts, more for the bizarre premise than the slightly-too-long execution, and another of the fake ads for extreme concert events from Under-Underground Records featuring Pedrad and Jason Sudeikis that I've praised in the past, which are just chock-full of gleeful randomness. Filmed segments have always been a part of SNL's mix (Albert Brooks, Mr. Bill, many of the fake commercials), but it's kind-of a shame when most of the best parts of Saturday Night Live are taped.
Of the celebrity impersonations this week, I was surprised to enjoy Hader's turn as James Carville on Weekend Update the most. A little of that can quickly become enough already, but, again, going for the gonzo is what made it work, revealing and repeatedly hitting the fact that Carville was "raised by eels". By contrast, Andy Samberg's Hugh Jackman as the host of The Best of Both Worlds sadly dragged down an amusing springboard capped by the dark turn by Mirren's Julie Andrews. If you're going to stick with the superficial for laughs — the guy is Australian, he's known for being Wolverine and being in musicals — as opposed to showcase more full-bodied mimicry (Jay Pharoah as Denzel Washington, Paul Brittain as Johnny Depp, Hader as almost anyone) then you'd better do it at least as well as Jackman has done it himself and have at least a passable Australian accent unless that's part of the joke. Samberg's doofus persona can be really funny, but it can also mar his attempts at other kinds of comedy; while Samberg's take on Nicolas Cage during Update the previous week was adequate, it's no coincidence that he plays the title character in the "Mort Mort Feingold: Accountant for the Stars" sketches while the rest of the cast parades through in celebrity drag.
Too often SNL gets lazy on both the celebrity impersonations and the political humor, although it's hardly alone on that score in the sketch-comedy world. While Jon Stewart can expertly wring humor out of public officials' and commentators' pandering, hypocrisy, or just plain idiocy through the simple act of calling attention to it, he and his staff at The Daily Show know when a little research needs to be done, when juxtapositions have to be made, when the point should be driven home by, to mix metaphors, a smoking gun. And they're using actual news or news-like footage to do so. I've only seen Fox & Friends via clips on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, but there's enough context there for me to see how glib and, frankly, stupid its conversation can be; the shallow gloss on it that SNL offered last weekend, in the sketch from which I posted the quick-scroll text on Sunday, was actually less ridiculous than the real thing, disappointing because it settled for generic buffoonery rather than digging into the particular lack of merit of these blind-allegiance "conservatives".
With Helen Mirren hosting just a week after Elton John and four episodes after Russell Brand, SNL reached its saturation point of writing for British accents. Actually, I think that point was hit within the Brand show, and smart use was made of John as himself as well as of copious unannounced guests — including not just Tom Hanks but former cast member Will Forte in the return of the "ESPN Classic" sketches wherein oddball women's sporting events are sponsored by feminine-hygiene products and sexual aids, vigorously promoted by Sudeikis's announcer. Casting Mirren as Mary Shelley was an interesting exercise of the Anglophilia, but anyone who's read Frankenstein knows that the familiar Universal Studios depiction of the creature isn't really based on anything in the book, so dressing up Fred Armisen as Shelley's landlord with greenish skin and bolts protruding from his neck made no sense; I don't accept the excuse that most of the audience on Saturday night wouldn't have read the book, since a similar sketch could have been built around devising the makeup for the classic film version and avoided the disconnect entirely.
You might wonder, reading this, why I still watch Saturday Night Live at all. The answer is certainly in large part habit and tradition, which to me are only questionable motivations if the show were to take up more of my time than it does or a greater psychic toll was effected whenever it fails to live up to its potential. I'd rather have it there, imperfect as it is, for what it does bring me and the culture at large than see it go dark.
Do you still watch SNL? Even if you don't, do you like knowing that it's still around? Am I being too hard on it — or not hard enough?