Saturday Night Live: “Charles Barkley/Kelly Clarkson”
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Saturday Night Live: “Charles Barkley/Kelly Clarkson”

I’m not really sure why Charles Barkley was invited to host the first SNL of 2012 – I guess it coincides with the return of basketball, but I really think it’s just because Sir Charles is a really fun presence on the show. He’s never going to have the poise of an actor in the sketches, but there’s definitely something inherently amusing about him, and I think the writers enjoy tapping into that. Things had definitely lost steam by the end of this one but I had enough fun to not really mind.

We began, though, with a very disappointing political cold open starring Andy Samberg as the latest Republican in ascendance, Rick Santorum. It was classic Jim Downey stuff – just one character staring us down and reading a bunch of hit or miss lines that show a more than superficial awareness of the issues. Santorum’s line about starting a war with Iran “as a favor to Israel, whether Israel asks us to or not” was a pretty accurate hit, and one most of the SNL audience would not think of if you asked them about Santorum, I bet. But the sketch was still a flop, with most of the lines provoking mild chuckles at best. One problem is that Samberg’s Santorum was based on the scared face he made, but he can’t do that here, so he’s just reading the lines in his regular voice. It’s not really Samberg’s fault, since there’s nothing to imitate when it comes to Santorum’s cadence, but it doesn’t start the show off with a lot of momentum.

But then Barkley came out and things perked up. His monologue was a happily short collection of zingers (one, directed at Michael Jordan’s recently-announced engagement, even had a little bite to it). The show knows Barkley’s limitations, so it didn’t have any song and dance or fast-paced dialogue. But it also knows his strengths – like that putting him in an oversized Shaq neckbeard and having him talk like he was in a weak trance would be absolutely hysterical.

The Inside the NBA skit wasn’t really that funny, but there was something about the energy created by pitting Barkley’s deliberate anti-enthusiasm as Shaq (“I’m on TV. I’m Shaq”) against Kenan Thompson’s surprisingly on-point Barkley impression (I feel like having his subject in the room really raised his game). Jay Pharoah, sadly, continued to confirm for us that he’s not terrific at sketch acting when he doesn’t have an impression to focus on. I mean, he was doing Kenny Smith, but he really seemed to just be doing Jay Pharoah. But almost all of Shaq’s lines cracked me up (remembering Memphis, he says, “one time I was there, I ate ribs”), as did Barkley’s (“I’d rather be in Free Willy 2 than Kazaam 1!”). Plus, Bill Hader, who plays a straight man as well as he plays a weirdo, cracked everybody up with his possibly off-the-cuff non sequitur declaration of, “we’re all black friends.”

In keeping with Barkley hosting, we had a couple other sports-themed sketches: the brief “bowl madness” bit was just a combination of whatever weird shit the writers could think of, but it worked (my favorite was the Ruby Tuesday Hanes Her Way Prejudice Bowl). Barkley’s post-game conference translator app was similarly short and sweet. Sports-themed sketches are rare enough on SNL that having three in one show felt unusual, but I was happy to have them.

Aside from all that, Barkley anchored three other fairly strong sketches, which is usually the most that you can hope for from any host. The “white people problems” Investigation Discovery spoof was hardly original but was consistently funny. I did start to get worry after its first two segments with Thompson and Pharoah that they’d have to bring in a black SNL alumnus for a third and final bit, but they instead threw back to Barkley and made it work. Still, it’s a somewhat unfortunate commentary that this is the most we’ve seen of Jay Pharoah in months.

Barkley playing a woman called Joanne who shocks everyone by coming out was a one-joke premise that happily wasn’t dragged out too long. What really made that sketch work for me were the surreal little details, like Paul Brittan hiding behind a centerpiece waiting for someone to say his name, or everyone else’s willingness to turn around and look at a painting above the mantle to give Joanne some privacy. Even by SNL’s standards, the ending was abrupt and unfunny, but I’m on board with that if it means a short sketch.

Finally, the return of Lord Wyndemere signaled that we’ll probably be seeing this dude at least one more time this season – he’s one of very few breakout recurring characters from the season so far. This was essentially a repeat of his appearance in the Anna Faris episode, with Jason Sudeikis channeling his Will Ferrell again by being all sweetness and light to Brittan and then screaming bloody murder at Samberg. Barkley’s enchantment with Wyndemere was the one difference, and the sight of Barkley holding Brittan in his arms and struggling not to laugh pretty much made the episode for me.

Lord Wyndemere followed a fairly flaccid Weekend Update (where the return of Drunk Uncle was a highlight and the millionth appearance by Nicholas Fehn was not). Things slowed down for the last couple of sketches – the Adult Video Awards in memoriam montage was a cute idea that quickly lost steam, the digital short was probably the least memorable of the season so far, and the Mayan calendar thing was a classic end-of-the-night bit, although no one’s hearts really seemed to be in it. But there were almost no out-and-out stinkers. Barkley’s got a lower energy, so the show had a laconic feel throughout, but that’s good, considering that Daniel Radcliffe is probably going to be a little spark plug next week.

Stray observations:

When Barkley was called the Round Mound of Rebound, “It made me think. And 25 years later, I did something about it.”

“You all look like turkey legs to me. Especially you. But we have a great show for you tonight. A turkey leg named Kelly Clarkson is here.”

Oh, that Chantix ad was pretty good. I could have done with more of the surreal waking nightmare at the end.

“I had to wear a baby bonnet once. When I was a baby.”

“Why do you have 5 spare bedrooms? Do you have five grandmas?”

“Can we turn around now? My thighs are getting a little hot from the fireplace.”

“When I was a kid, five dollars, you could get hot dog milk bread cigarettes television.”

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