Saturday Night Live: "Amy Poehler/Katy Perry"
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Saturday Night Live: "Amy Poehler/Katy Perry"

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Saturday Night Live

"Amy Poehler/Katy Perry"

Season 36, Episode 1

I honestly didn’t know what to expect of Saturday Night Live this season. Last year, coming off one of its hottest seasons in years, it went into a huge slump, with only a handful of memorable episodes (Jon Hamm! Betty White!). This year, there hasn’t exactly been a total shake-up but the cast has been somewhat overhauled. Will Forte is gone, and so is the quickly-fired Jenny Slate (I’ll miss her, but her and Nasim Perdad seem to fill basically the same role so I guess one had to go) and they even hired another black actor, Jay Pharoah, to impersonate the thin African-Americans Kenan Thompson can’t cover. Next step guys – hire a black woman, so Maya Rudolph doesn’t have to keep coming back as Michelle Obama.

The host of the premiere, Amy Poehler, felt like a safe choice rather than an exciting one but certainly an improvement on Megan Fox last year. But this episode was bad, bad, very bad. It’s either a harbinger of a coming season that will be as juvenile and aimless as the last or just a sign that they’re shaking off the cobwebs. But, you gotta wonder, these guys had the whole summer to come up with jokes and this is what we’re getting? Of all the cold opens I’m sure they considered, they went for Kristen Wiig as a half-hearted Christine O’Donnell dropping masturbation jokes? Guys, I know what it’s like. It’s hard to resist a good masturbation joke, and O’Donnell just served one up for you on a plate. But it’s gonna have to be more nuanced than Christine O’Donnell admitting she likes to masturbate.

The lazy-feel cold open pretty much set the pattern for the entire episode. I feel like Amy Poehler’s bad dream in her monologue would have been a better way to start the show even though it’s equally lazy just to toss old cast members like Tina Fey and Jimmy Fallon and Rachel Dratch. It was at least marginally exciting to see them, whereas it isn’t at all exciting to see Kristen Wiig stare maniacally at the camera again. 

The other problem with having Amy back for the first week is that you need to bring back some of her old sketches, which makes the show seem very, very tired when it should be looking strong out of the gate. It’s not that I really hate Bronx Beat or one-legged Amber but it just feels like the writers are coasting when we’re watching a sketch with Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph when neither of them have been on the show for a couple years now. Sure, they made the sketches kinda topical: Katy Perry’s boobs offending Sesame Street were addressed by the Bronx Beat girls (who basically noted that they were large and bouncy) and Amber was worked into a Showtime series gag (Abby Elliott did a good Laura Linney). But the point remains.

Probably the highlight of the week was Weekend Update, less for Amy’s triumphant return than for the appearance of New York Governor David Paterson. As someone who covers New York politics in his day job, it’s amazing how much damage Fred Armisen’s vaudevillian, Mr. Magoo portrayal of the blind governor has done to him. Paterson’s a lame duck now but it was impressive to see him give a little back before he departs. "I see you're still sporting a beard! I shaved that off a year ago. Are you blind?" Sure, he was pretty stiff and he flubbed a couple lines, but remember – the guy’s blind! Everyone else on that show is reading their gags off of cue cards and he had to remember them all.  

The one thing I remember laughing at the most was Jay Pharoah’s impersonation of Will Smith, also on Update. It wasn’t really relevant other than serving as an introduction to the guy but he nailed Smith’s cadence exactly. SNL has been crying out for an actor like this for a long while and considering he’s the only new member of the cast who got any real play this week they obviously see the most promise in him. I also appreciated the punch line of the “ground zero mosque” ad, something they probably could have devoted more time to but honestly probably was best to be done in a two-minute bit with Hader as a Billy Mays-style pitchman.

So, there were a couple good sketches, and a couple exhumed bits from Amy’s glory days, and what filled in the rest? Fart gags, it seemed, was the connecting tissue to hold this all together. Finally, in the last half hour, which is where the sketches deemed too weird tend to get dumped, some originality was finally on display. The bit about Amy and Kirsten playing rich ladies with tiny hats was pretty long-winded but it had some funny little touches, like when the restaurant’s slogan changed to “Trish eats here!” and then the place just becomes “Trish’s!”

The one-minute interview with Justin Timberlake had me wondering why they had him be on the show this week and then did nothing more between him and Samberg. Of course, it feels like he’s on every other episode at this point so maybe they didn’t even worry about it. But Samberg probably got the biggest laugh of the night with "When you gonna make some more music? Everyone wants to know! I'm your FRIEND!" and Justin screaming “I’m TRYING to take this SERIOUSLY!” I’m looking forward to The Social Network, Justin!

It’s not like bits like “The Even More Expendables” were that good. They were just a huge improvement on Amber farting in Stanley Tucci’s face or a pube transplants-as-baldness cure ad. And it’s not a good sign when the best members of the cast (Hader, Samberg) get very little material but Fred Armisen gets that dumb producer-on-the-maternity show sketch, which isn’t exactly fresh, put on as the first skit after the monologue.

So yeah, it’s tough to know whether this is going to be the pattern for the year or if now that the writers are limbered up, they’ll give us more fresh material next week. But I’m worried that they’re so out of ideas that they just have to lean back on old “classics” (at least Gilly didn’t rear her head) to fill time. Next week we get Bryan Cranston and Kanye West. That HAS to be better by virtue alone.

Stray observations:

I was hoping for an Inception sketch but I guess I’ll have to settle for Kenan-as-Lorne spinning a top. I guess anything more than that would cost a lot to mount.

I liked Amy Poehler making Parks and Recreation sound like a Rizzoli and Isles-type show. Also: bring back Parks and Recreation!

“You guys made fun of me so much for being Governor, I forgot I was black!”

"Governor, let's leave New Jersey out of this." "That's what the constitution should have said!"

I don’t really listen to Katy Perry enough to know if that’s what they usually sound like but she seemed really off-key at the start of both of her numbers and then the chorus, or the auto-tune, or whatever, kicked in. She was really lifeless both times, anyway.

Weekend update’s best line was on Mahmoud Ahmedinejad predicting the end of capitalism. "Predicted? It's more like he noticed!"

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