Saturday Night Live: “Andy Samberg/St. Vincent”
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Andy Samberg (NBC)
Andy Samberg (NBC)

Saturday Night Live: “Andy Samberg/St. Vincent”

Lorne calls in the troops to close out a shaky season

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Saturday Night Live

"Andy Samberg/St. Vincent"

Season 39, Episode 21

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While it’s tradition for a former SNL cast member to host a milestone episode, calling on Andy Samberg to host the season 39 finale may look like an anticlimax. It’s not, of course—Samberg’s got a few Golden Globes, he anchors one of last year’s funniest new shows, and has made a respectable stab at indie leading man—but in his time on the show, he always came across like SNL’s goofy kid brother. It’s a role—amiable, energetic, and cocksure—that Samberg slips back into with ease, hosting an episode as enjoyable as it was shamelessly lazy. Of course, Samberg had a little help. Or, rather, all the help.

Right off the bat, the cold open, rehashing the Jay-Z/Solange leaked elevator fight footage, gets a crowd-pleasing boost when Maya Rudolph sweeps in as Beyonce. It’s not that Jay Pharoah and Sasheer Zamata don’t do a respectable job as the feuding duo (Pharoah continues to trot out technically proficient impressions of African American celebrities that the SNL studio audience titters at half comprehendingly—see his Kanye later in the show), but when Rudolph’s Beyonce arrives (with her own wind machine) and starts over-enunciating and preening in classic Rudolph/Sasha Fierce fashion, it’s hard not to feel like, well, the grown-ups are back.

It’s been a rough season, a fact underlined by Ryan McGee earlier this week. Too many cast members, a discernible lack of comic focus, and performers unable or unwilling to impose their individuality on the sketches has produced the blandest SNL season in years. Those who seemed poised to take over as the front rank after last year’s mass exodus haven’t, with Nasim Pedrad, Taran Killam, Jay Pharoah, Cecily Strong, and Vanessa Bayer looking collectively like they’re waiting for someone else to take the ball, so to speak. (While Kenan Thompson never shies away from airtime, only Aidy Bryant and Kate McKinnon truly made the case that they can carry an episode for any length of time.) As for the new kids, even when they got some increasingly scant screentime, few made much of an impression. (See the stray observations for the detailed scorecard.) I’ve made the case that, with enough time, this cast can find its stride, but tonight’s episode does little more than show how unlikely they are to get that time. With Samberg’s return promising a bigger audience, Lorne and company brought in a team full of ringers and told the current cast, with few exceptions, to clear the stage. For some, they’ll never get back on.

Which isn’t to say that seeing the likes of [deep breath] Bill Hader, Seth Meyers, Rudolph, Kristen Wiig, Fred Armisen, Martin Short, and Paul Rudd (not to mention Tatiana Maslany, Pharrell Williams, and 2 Chainz) keep popping up to rapturous applause so they can do their respective things wasn’t fun—they’re all beloved for a reason. It’s just that, in a season where the criticism has come faster and more furiously (from me, for one), this isn’t exactly a vote of confidence going forward.

As for Samberg himself, his hosting gig wasn’t exactly the parade of worn-out characters that Wiig’s was last year (Gilly? Target Lady? Really?) Sure, we got “Get In The Cage,” whose loony energy I somehow never tire of, inept rapper The Blizzard Man (this time obsessively comparing women to “country hams”), and the return of the Vogelchecks, whose open-mouthed lack of familial boundaries remains, for better or worse, like a naughty, giggly Carol Burnett skit, but Samberg endures as someone hard to get mad at. He’s just comfortable up there, and his commitment to even the broadest or most unpromising bits carries an undercurrent of sparky weirdness that makes them at difficult to resist. When not playing an established character, as in the very funny monologue where he tries to best Bill Hader’s record number of impressions, Samberg’s charisma and offbeat sensibility exhibit the star power so often lacking this season.

As to the original sketches this week, um, there was really only one. (Samberg as the confident hunchback had a few chuckles, though.) Luckily, the sketch centered on Bryant and McKinnon who, as a pair of the naughtiest girls at summer camp, deliver their salacious camp gossip with a combination of delighted mischief and age-appropriate naivety that shows how good each are at creating specific comic characters. Sucking on cool pops and delighting in delivering scandalous news they half understand, McKinnon and Bryant continue to make an outstanding team. When older cousin Samberg keeps telling them of the daring pranks he’s pulled off (usually he’s putting his butt on things), McKinnon’s wild-eyed “I’m trying to enjoy these stories, but I don’t have context for any of them” is the sort of inhabited character bit that she’s proven so adept at. Honestly, this was the only unique sketch of the night, but it was a great one.

While they weren’t given a chance tonight, both Kyle Mooney and Mike O’Brien have carried on Samberg’s tradition of staking out their own territory with filmed pieces. It would have been nice to see the authors of digital shots like “Beer Pong” and “Monster Pals” share a returning Digital Short ™ with their predecessor, especially since neither of Samberg’s were particularly memorable this time out. “When Will The Bass Drop?” played out Samberg’s DJ manipulating the ecstatic crowd with a few absurd touches (playing Jenga, tending his zen garden) before making everyone’s head graphically explode. (Poor John Milhiser, in likely his last official SNL act, commits seppuku.) And his team-up with Lonely Island pal (and returning former SNL writer Jorma Taccone), singing an incongruously braggy rap about hugs is similarly energetic—but no “Motherlover.”

Update—existed, I guess you’d say. Decisions are going to have to be made about the segment over the summer, as what should be/has been a centerpiece of the show has become even more nondescript if that’s possible. Colin Jost and Cecily Strong and the writing share equal blame here—but the fact that I’m debating who’s really at fault with the segment is not a good sign for Weekend Update. Neither anchor is bringing much personality to the desk, but they’re fighting against some of the blandest, most obvious, and toothless Update political material ever. It’s of a piece with SNL all season—there is clearly no interest in mining the ever-promising political landscape for comedy in this SNL’s writers room. Look at tonight’s targets: Karl Rove is gross and slimy, and Donald Sterling looks like a catfish. Now lets show photoshopped penguin. This cast has a world class Obama impression from Jay Pharoah at its disposal at any moment—but the writers aren’t interested in giving him anything to say. SNL doesn’t have to be all political comedy all the time, and the pressure of keeping up with Stewart, Colbert, and now John Oliver on that front is pretty daunting, but it’s obviously just not a priority. Under those conditions, doing a satirical news segment would be impossible for anyone. (That being said, get Jost to remedial Norm Macdonald boot camp over the break.)

The show’s priorities manifest themselves in the two “topical” sketches this week, one about the aforementioned tabloid elevator dustup and the other about Kanye West’s upcoming marriage to a member of that family famous for no reason whose name I can’t bring myself to type. If I understand correctly, the jokes in the latter center on the fact that—sigh—Kim Kardashian is reputed to be stupid, and her stepfather the former Olympian has had a lot of cosmetic surgery. Again, decent Kanye from Pharoah, but there are other subjects, other premises for sketches—how many times does the show need to dip into the shallowest satirical well possible? I’m asking.

Going into the break, I’m as excited about Saturday Night Live as I’ve been every year since the 70’s (I may not be young). There’s going to be a lot of stuff each year that doesn’t work—cast members who don’t pan out, low-hanging fruit all too eagerly plucked—but SNL, for all its inherent weaknesses, remains a unique and exciting American comedy enterprise. It’s a high pressure, high stakes comedy incubator where indefinable creative forces interact in unpredictable ways. Sometimes it’s a disaster. Sometimes it’s sublime. Yeah, I said it.

Stray observations:

  • Jay-Z and Solange’s dubbed-in damage control about her trying to kill a spider that’s landed on Jay is pretty funny. “Kick it!” “It keeps moving!” “Foot five!”
  • As formulaic as the Vogelchecks are, the comfort level of the former castmates with each other is pretty damned endearing. Hader and Wiig especially are clearly on the same page as far as cupping and motorboating go.
  • McKinnon’s facility with physical humor in the same sketch marks her as one of the gang, too. Whatever she and Rudd did to each other is the sort of thing only true pros get away with.
  • “Every time we do something bad, we have to go to bed 15 minutes earlier.” “Yesterday, our bedtime was 2:15.”
  • “I believe this is what Jesus would have worn if he had access to a kilometer of leather.”
  • “I performed in over 100 digital shorts and six live sketches. So this is gonna go great.”
  • “I have at most a year to live!”
  • My guess is Kyle Mooney’s on the bubble, but the fact that his secretly depressed comedian character made it back onto Update has gotta be a good sign, right? Right?
  • “I get scared ‘cause the grim reaper’s knocking at the door. Kinda wanna answer it.”
  • The first time I saw the ex-pornstars sketch, I laughed myself silly. It hasn’t worked as well since. Time to be ex-ex-pornstars, lades. 
  • As he proves in the Vogelchecks sketch, Killam has the best horrified stare in the business.
  • Symbol for the end of the season: With the returning alumni crowding the stage for the goodbyes, Noël Wells leaps up and down, frantically waving to be seen.
  • I am hip to the musics of today!: No, I’m clearly not—but thanks for putting up with me. St. Vincent was strange, which I appreciated. If the Talking Heads had never been invented, she could take their spot.

Dennis’ featured player continued employment sweepstakes!

Look, not everybody makes it on SNL. Saturday Night Live has always been an unforgiving machine—it grinds on year after year and some very talented people have been chewed up in its gears. You can’t get in the door at SNL without being funny, it’s just that some people can make their funny work there and some cannot. So before anyone takes these predictions as proof that the people involved aren’t talented and can’t go on to do good work, I’ll just toss out names like: Larry David, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Chris Rock, Casey Wilson, Michaela Watkins, Jerry Minor, Laura Kightlinger, Dave Koechner, Mark McKinney, Chris Elliott, Sarah Silverman, Jenny Slate, Nancy Walls. That being said, you’ve just seen some of these people on SNL for the last time.

Beck Bennett: Uncanny adult baby impression notwithstanding, Bennett’s greatest asset may be his ability to bring some life to the endless straight man game show host roles that Bill Hader used to get saddled with. Like Hader, he can find the funny in thankless. Plus, his work with Kyle Mooney remains gratifyingly odd. He stays.

Colin Jost: It’s good to be co-head writer, so Jost isn’t going anywhere on that score. Over the summer, though, there’s going to be some serious thought given as to whether he’s right for the Weekend Update desk. Jost’s had long enough to get comfortable back there and he hasn’t done it. He stays at both jobs—it’s good to be co-head writer.

Sasheer Zamata: This one just sucks for everyone involved. Overpopulation hasn’t given Zamata much of a chance to show what she can do, so she hasn’t had the chance to make people forget the circumstances of her hiring. (Here’s hoping Kenan Thompson still apologizes about once a week.) Either bringing her back or letting her go will be awkward. She stays.

Kyle Mooney: Mooney’s the sort of strange, original voice SNL needs. That being said, SNL often doesn’t know what it needs. His video pieces carry on the long tradition of unusual performers finding a home on film at SNL, and he’s proven a capable sketch performer as well. He stays (I hope).

Mike O’Brien: Like Tim Robinson last year, O’Brien’s a writer attempting to make it as a cast member. Also like Robinson, O’Brien’s never seemed comfortable on-camera, although his filmed pieces (like “Monster Pals”) have been more successful. Stays. Barely.

John Milhiser: Go ahead and name your favorite John Milhiser moments this season. It’s not working out.

Noël Wells: All the soft-pedaling aside, Wells has been largely invisible and largely uninteresting when not. Brought on as an impressionist, she’s got a decent Lena Dunham but all her others have been substandard (I still have no idea who that Alyson Hannigan was supposed to be). She goes.

Brooks Wheelan: When people talked about SNL hiring too many identical white guys, Wheelan was who they were picturing. His stints doing standup on Update gave him some colors, but too little, too late. He goes.

  • It’s been great fun staying up late with all of you this season. Thanks to the great David Sims for handing over the keys and thanks to everybody for reading. 

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