From the moment he appears in his trademark white suit Martin owns the stage. He's clearly in his element, performing with a loose, seemingly ramshackle effortlessness that can only come from endless practice and rehearsal. But there's a chilly ironic distance between Martin and his material; every line, every quip, every intentionally cornball bit has invisible air quotes around it that lets the audience in on the joke.
It's a multi-layered act that works as both a brainy, post-modern send-up of show-business smarminess and as goofball physical comedy. Martin's simultaneously playing to the cheap seats the post-grad set and there's a well-oiled slickness to his monologue that's both impressive and a little hollow. Instant fame can be both a blessing and a curse and Martin here seems both doomed and honored to give audiences exactly what they want. He dutifully trots out the hits–the arrow through the head, "Exccccusse Me", the banjo virtuosity–but he seems to be operating on autopilot.The Good:Today's episode finds Saturday Night Live transforming into The Steve Martin Show Featuring The Not Ready For Primetime Players. Martin performs what I strongly suspect is stand-up from his act to open and close the show, limiting poor Kinky Friedman to a single song. Martin scores with both lowbrow silliness and off-kilter bits, as when he complains about the public's short attention span, asking a gleefully accommodating audience "How many people remember, a few years ago, when the Earth blew up?" An eerily prescient Jeopardy 1999 skit uncannily predicted how Americans would all dress like Star Trek extras and wear giant white fright wigs at the turn of the millennium, in addition to serving as a sturdy foundation for some gleefully absurdist gags. A typical A&Q; is "Legalized in 1983, it eased overpopulation" and "What is baby killing." A more pointed Answer and Question is "Comedian whose career fizzled after leaving NBC's Saturday Night?" and "Who is Chevy Chase". The Bad:Two skits drag on interminably in search of laughs that never arrive. The first is a beatnik skit that is straight up squaresville, man. It's downright L7 in its buttoned up lameness, man. Ain't no more comedic juice to be derived from riffing on beatnik, slang, ya dig? It's like, so over, man. Hack city. Lamestown even. Actually, this skit offered several distinct flavors of unfunny. There's John Belushi's sweaty, desperate parody of Lenny Bruce, Dan Aykroyd beating his bongos and spouting hepcat talk in a Wolfman Jack rasp and Laraine Newman and Steve Martin offering DOA takes on spacey beatnik pretension. Also, this skit lasts roughly three days, as does an equally misfiring Mary Tyler Moore Show parody with Steve Martin's Ted Baxter accidentally killing Mary. Non-hilarity ensues and Martin seems out of his element playing a character immediately recognizable to the home audience. Gary Weis' short film is typically underwhelming. Musical Guest: Texas Jewboy and Gubernatorial candidate Kinky Friedman, resplendent in his best cowboy finery. I know Friedman primarily as a professional wacky guy so it was a little bracing seeing him perform a sad, literate folk song with a funereal, slightly morbid Leonard Cohen vibe. They aren't making SNL musical guests like Friedman anymore though it did seem a bit odd that he only got to perform one song. It's a little like being one of the other guests on The Ed Sullivan Show the night the Beatles made their first appearance: no matter how well you perform you're doomed to live on only as a historical footnote or the answer to a rarely asked trivia question (quick: who else performed on Sullivan the night of The Beatles' first appearance?). Final Verdict: As a commenter warned last week, this episode was a bit of a disappointment given the iconic aura surrounding Martin's legendary association with Saturday Night Live. The cast wasn't given much to do and sure-fire monologues from the hottest stand-up comic in the world and relatively safe television parodies took the place of quirkier conceptual weirdness. But it wasn't a bad episode by any stretch of the imagination and there were moments of genius and liberating spontaneity littered throughout, like when Al Franken wandered onto the Weekend Update set and read over Chase's shoulder or a fake advertisement for "Rhesus Monkey Torture Kit". I'm also loving "Good night and have a pleasant tomorrow" as the Weekend Update closing line. It's downright Midwestern in its elegant, down-home simplicity. This wasn't a bad debut for perhaps the greatest guest host in the show's history (though Alec Baldwin, John Goodman, Tom Hanks and Christopher Walken all deserve consideration for that title as well) but I suspect that Martin's greatest Saturday Night Live moments lie ahead. Grade: B