Saturday Night Live: "Charles Barkley/Alicia Keys"
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Saturday Night Live: "Charles Barkley/Alicia Keys"

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Saturday Night Live

"Charles Barkley/Alicia Keys"

Season 35, Episode 11

In previous Saturday Night Live TV Club posts I have raged semi-coherently about the show’s current policy of only using hosts neither me nor any of my fellow nursing home residents have heard of, sentient fetuses with glisteningly white teeth and preposterous names like Taylor Lautner and Taylor Swift and Taylor Gordon-Levitt-Franco who have apparently won the public’s fickle favor by promenading about in front of film cameras pretending to be werewolves or vampires or chupacabras.

When I see these smooth-skinned young people, who know nothing of the ravages of age or the horrors of the Great Depression or how painful it was to sever our ties with England over their infernal policy of taxation without representation sashaying about the Saturday Night Live stage I shake my walker at the screen in rage and yell, “How about some performers I can relate to: the Fred Allens and George Jessels and Al Jolsons? Why doesn’t the show scour the ranks of our most vital artforms: vaudeville, minstrel shows and silent film in its quest for jesters?”

All those calls and letters I’ve been sending to the show have finally paid off, because last night the show featured the comic stylings of someone from my generation: Charles Barkley, basketball legend and an endless font of quotable bon mots. As videogum posited on Twitter, “So the key for an SNL host is to be a borderline illiterate Shrek with no affect!”

Ah, but Barkley did borderline illiterate Shreks with no affect proud last night. It was a performance hypnotic in its awfulness. Barkley delivered his lines in an oddly soothing montone, often a beat or two late, looked off into the wrong camera more than once, gazed intently at his cue cards and appeared on the verge of giggles throughout. And yet it kind of worked.

Everybody loves to see the macho jock act a fool and Barkley was a game and appealing host. Suprisingly, the writing was strong enough that he didn’t have to carry the show with his non-existent comic chops. The episode got off to a thoroughly “meh” start with a cold open about a Yemeni official trying to distance himself from his American “allies” at a press conference that served as yet another opportunity for Fred Armisen to do a very minor variation on Andy Kaufman’s Foreign Man persona. The bit had the potential to be mildly amusing, but that potential was only half-realized.

Then came a monologue where Sir Charles riffed on the dearth of black Saturday Night Live hosts and his reputation as a straight-shooting loose cannon and a funny faux commercial for Thomas Peeper’s Insurance, a company that anticipates and attends to the needs of its clients by lurking outside their homes and spying on them.

SCTV fans are liable to notice Saturday Night Live’s several thousand homages, intentional or otherwise, to the Canadian comic institution’s Hi-Q sketch in which Eugene Levy’s game-show host goes increasingly insane when confronted with the asinine answers of comically inept though undeservedly self-confident teen contestants (think every Jeopardy sketch ever).

Last night that dynamic played out again in a sketch about a Bill Hader-hosted game show about famous movie lines featuring contestants (Charles Barkley and Kristin Wiig) who had apparently never seen a movie yet brimmed with ill-earned bravado. Hader did a very capable slow burn as the host but what really sold the sketch was Barkley’s unwavering belief in himself as his answers spiraled into insane abstraction, like when he finished “life is like a box of” with “dead people!”

Speaking of movies, Barkley played the father of Kenan Thompson’s Scared Straight bully in a sketch that was far funnier than it really had any right to be. In the umpteenth variation on this sturdy fixture, Thompson once again tried to terrify unimpressed kids with tales of his violent, dirty deeds that are very transparently just recaps of the plots of popular films. That character should have worn out its welcome long ago but I still found it funny. Also funny: Andy Samberg as Nicolas Cage and Armisen as David Paterson on “Weekend Update” and a recorded segment with musical guest Alicia Keys putting in an unlikely booty call to a spastic grotesque played by Samberg. It bore a more than passing resemblance to the digital video with Rihanna and “Shy Ronnie” (sexy R&B diva+Samberg super spazz=comic gold!) but it was funny and had a great capper.

On the painfully unfunny side of the scale Kristin Wiig brought back yet another soul-crushingly awful recurring character. This time the offender was a Marilyn Monroe-style sex bomb who promises to do things that sound sexy in theory (working a stripper pole, taking care of the whipped cream in her hot chocolate, dancing) but prove incongruously disturbing, even grotesque in practice. I once again experienced déjà vu; its incredibly weak premise of an attractive woman behaving in unexpectedly gross ways reminded me an awful lot of that terrible sketch with January Jones as a flatulent Grace Kelly.

But I haven’t even gotten to the most awesomest part: maybe the greatest set of MacGruber runners ever. In the bits, MacGruber wrestles with his racism, visits the motherland and comes back a new man with a weakness for traditional African garb. It was some funny-ass shit and made me kind of excited about the prospect of a MacGruber movie.

Last night’s episode sailed above my low, low expectations and it was nice to see someone represent for us geriatric types. Oh, and that Alicia Keys is a lovely young woman and I found her second song very affecting. Good job, Saturday Night Live. Now get the hell off my lawn

Stray Observations—

 Did anyone see Tony Romo impatiently asking a post-game commenter to stop asking questions so NBC could air Saturday Night Live? That was awesome

—Sigourney Weaver hosts next week. Yay! It's a veritable oldsplosion!

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