There is a maddening paradox to this year’s spectacularly underachieving season of Saturday Night Live. The show is full of funny, talented, dynamic young performers. I like just about everyone in the current incarnation of the Not Ready For Prime Time Players: Fred Armisen, Andy Samberg, Will Forte, Jason Sudeikis, Bill Hader and Kristin Wiig. Yet the show is seldom better than mediocre and often times much, much worse.
How can so many funny people create something so egregiously unfunny? The answer, of course, is that ninety fucking minutes is an awful lot of space to fill. It was an awful lot of space to fill for the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players and it hasn’t gotten easier in the ensuing thirty-five years.
Here at the A.V Club I think of my workload as “The Beast”. The Beast needs to be fed an enormous diet of words every week, then the next week it needs to be fed with an equally voluminous deluge of unnecessarily verbose verbiage. SNL has to feed a rapacious and demanding beast every week as well, and that can’t be easy, especially when you have variables like a host who is about as chuckle-inducing as a Holocaust memorial.
I do not want to pick on January Jones, who is a lovely woman and I’m sure a delightful human being, but Cunt-Fucking Christ on a Crucicracker was she a terrible host. You could tell from the very first moments she lurched onstage wearing a forced smile and a deer-in-headlights look of mortification that never left and proceeded to make sweet love to the cue cards. Everyone on SNL reads cue cards but Jones was especially egregious. She stared at those cue cards so intensely I’m surprised she didn’t burn a hole right through them. Though she excelled in a clever if fairly obvious taped faux-education film about how to throw the perfect incredibly repressed early-sixties Mad Men-style dinner party, Jones pretty much had two modes: stone-faced or giggly.
Nobody expects Jones to be the second coming of Gilda Radner but she made Taylor Swift look like a comic virtuoso. From a cold open that “satirized” the Obama’s administration’s willingness to equivocate and compromise on the Health Care bill by having Sudeikis’ Joe Biden talk about how willing his administration was to equivocate and compromise on the Health Care bill, SNL attacked its targets from the most obvious possible angles. It was once again all about going after the lowest hanging fruit.
Jones’ monologue of the damned, for example, found her bantering with Mad Menies, Mad Men super-fans who—get this!—swill cocktails and smokes cigarettes, just like the characters on Mad Men! Then they sang their version of the Mad Men theme song, with new lyrics all about swilling cocktails and smoking cigarettes! As a hip hop fan it annoyed me that Jones claimed there were no lyrics to Mad Men’s theme, since it’s the instrumental version of an Aceyalone and RJD2 song. Somewhere Aceyalone was shaking a fist at the TV in anger. On second thought, he probably has better things to do with his time.
Almost by default, Wiig has emerged as the breakout member of the SNL cast. Tonight she recycled two recurring characters: drunken, loopy, Kathy Lee Gifford and the nervous, flopsweat-drenched reporter who awkwardly hits on the women she interviews. The overly aggressive reporter character isn’t particularly funny but at least it’s unfunny in a different way than the rest of the show. The Wiig showcases and a sketch about Dr. Jeckyl using his “Mr. Hyde” alter ego as an excuse to have gay sex rose to the level of mediocrity. Also affably mediocre: a closing sketch that cast Jason Sudeikis and Jones as a mismatched pair on a date gazing up at clouds, looking up at the same sky but occupying vastly different worlds. It wasn’t particularly funny but it was ingratiatingly odd and watchable.
The same could not be said of a dire sketch about Grace Kelly farting. I brightened up briefly at the promise of a Rear Window sketch. Finally, a sketch about something the average Robert Pattinson super-fan might not be familiar with! True to form, SNL spoon-fed its audience (which I’m guessing is half the age of the show itself) by clumsily establishing that Alfred Hitchcock was the master of suspense and that Kelly epitomized grace and sophistication.
As soon as Kelly’s bona fides as a classy broad were established I thought, “Oh boy, I bet this is going to be a sketch about her farting.” Sure enough, that was the sketch’s single gag. I don’t know that anything could have saved this sketch, but there was a huge disconnect between Jones and the unconvincing flatulent noises ostensibly emanating from her, which seemed to be coming from somewhere stage left. What I’m saying, dear reader, is that a sketch about Grace Kelly farting on the set of Rear Window was marred in part by shoddy comic craftsmanship.
Also marred by insufficient craftsmanship: a “Weekend Update” bit about Kim Kardashian having a big ass, though a bit with Darrell Hammond as Lou Dobbs waxing paranoid about the prevalence of Hispanics in everyday life fared much better. “Weekend Update” is increasingly becoming a forum for wacky characters, including the Bon Jovi Backwards Band, a cute idea that wore out its welcome long ago. Hammond brought me to the verge of laughter but how desperate do you have to be to bring back Hammond seemingly every week?
The digital video can usually be relied upon for larfs aplenty but last night’s wafer-thin bit was a lazy exercise in comic elevation as Armisen walks in on roommate Andy Samberg sitting on the toilet first in their apartment and then in increasingly unlikely places, like a video monitor at 30 Rock and the street.
But the ultimate mark of desperation was that Lorne Michaels and the gang allowed Black Eyed Peas to perform three fucking songs. Three fucking songs! It’s bad enough that a show that once upon a time exposed audiences to Frank Zappa, Ricky Jay and Loudon Wainwright III had one of the worst, most obnoxious groups in existence as its musical guest. But to let Will.I.Am and his three fashion-victim stooges perform more songs than just about any act in Saturday Night Live’s thirty-five year history is just inexcusable.
It’s not an encouraging sign that the only thing that made an indelible impression was Abby Elliot’s padded ass when she played Christina Hendricks. And if that wasn’t a padded ass, well, then she made an even more indelible impression.