The second Jeff Bridges took the stage for his opening monologue last night, you knew he was in his element. Bridges looked so at ease and thrilled to be there, even if he was just playing himself as Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski. He played to his audience’s expectations very well and effectively was the very image we have in our heads when we think of Bridges as this great, scruffy, but mostly benevolent man out of time. I suspect Bridges knows he doesn’t need to try very hard to win his audience over, and that’s why his monologue was as good as it was. He knows he can get by just by doing his Lebowski bit, then bringing out the Cookie Monster and jamming out with him to “Silver Bells.” It’s just that easy for Bridges because no matter how much he may jokingly protest to the contrary, he really is a slightly more self-aware version of the Dude, if such a thing isn’t totally contradictory. He knows he’s spent most of his career stumbling through different roles and looking great while doing it. So yes, Jeff Bridges can absolutely just get by doing a duet with Cookie Monster. He’s just that good.
And the best part about this week’s episode is all he needed to prove his Dudeness was just show up in a couple of sketches. As with any Saturday Night Live sketch, the bulk of Bridges’ sketches were driven by their one-note concepts, which in this case was sending up his public persona as a laid-back, kinda manly WASP. These bits are funny on paper, mostly because seeing Jeff Bridges as a Hasidic Rabbi asking for a glass of Manischewitz is so against type for Bridges that it’s inherently funny. In other words, the saving grace in even the most strained sketches from last night, like the one about the recently unearthed “original” Jewish version of It’s a Wonderful Life, is that they work so well in theory that it doesn’t really mater how good they are in practice (though really, Bill Hader’s monotone imitation of TCM and former At the Movies critic Ben Mankiewicz was pretty dead-the-fuck-on). This generally worked to the show’s writers’ advantage, considering that a lot of the sketches from last night, with or without Bridges, were better in theory than in practice.
So first, the good, non-Jeff Bridges-related news: A couple of the more topical gags this week worked rather nicely, as in the cold opening and the bit where they made fun of Time Magazine’s recent Man of the Year pick. Bill Hader’s Julian Assange was terrific, even if he’s just basically saying what should by now be obvious. (Mark Zuckerberg as man of the year over the Wikileaks guy? Yowza.) That sketch confirmed what I’ve always suspected about the current cast: The comedians that have the most seniority on the show (Samberg, Hader, Wiig, Armisen) are the rare few that are good enough to make even middling material work. Hader’s impersonation was hilariously cracked, his shticky cackle too good to be completely driven into the ground, even when Hader leaned on it too hard. It’s a shame that some of the other “older” cast members weren’t as prominently featured in this week’s episode: Armisen’s Obama and David Patterson impressions are usually pretty strong, and Wiig’s Nancy Pelosi is always a hoot.
Also, I have to say, as someone that doesn’t actively go out of his way to listen to Eminem’s music, his performance with Lil Wayne during the first of their two musical numbers was pretty impressive. It took Em a while to warm up, but once he got to his solo verse during that first number, he was pretty much unstoppable. Seeing the veins bulge out on his neck as he kept going and going breathlessly was amazing. The man was clearly working very hard to get people to shut up about that Kanye fella for a second, and boy, did it pay off. Lil Wayne fared better during his second number, but still, Em’s solo rant in their duet was pretty unassailable.
And now the bad non-Jeff-Bridges-related news: A lot of the more obvious pop culture du jour bits just sat there, as with the Judds gags in the Larry King sketch, the Kardashians' holiday message at the end, and the Snooki and Nick Cannon references in this week’s Weekend Update. I mean, c’mon, making fun of Miley and Billy Ray Cyrus is like shooting dead fish in a barrel: There’s no point, but I guess it’s satisfying if you adjust your expectations accordingly. By which I mean, just wait for Bridges to walk in doing his half-hearted but still pretty damn satisfying Nick Nolte impression. He pretty much singlehandedly saved the skit from drowning in its own self-satisfied torpor. Still: Why was this the bit to follow the show’s first commercial break? It’s just not that strong.
Then again, the decidedly more surreal and hence automatically stronger Crunkmas Christmas bit proved that the show’s writers can crack effective jokes at the expense of lowest common denominator entertainment. Jason Sudeikis and Nasim Pedrad did a fair job, but their performances were completely outshone by the sketch’s delightfully no-brow humor. Idiocracy-level gags about “comedian Phil Spector,” a first aid kit full of snakes, a band called Mary Poopins, and someone called Chairman C. Everett Koop all hit their mark really well because they were so shrilly absurd. In other words, they were just too loud to fail.
But now, back to Bridges: The Dude really didn’t need to do anything but show up in order to make even his more half-assed sketches to work. I was practically screaming “YES! YES!” at my tv as soon as his Dog the Bounty Hunter showed up during the Larry King Live sketch. Making fart jokes about Larry King is all well and good, but that skit only really became worth watching once Bridges, clad in a spectacular mullet wig, showed up. Any sketch that ends with Bridges singing “My Way” is a worthy one.
Then again, the weird thing is: Bridges’ sketches all seem to pre-empt his performances. There wasn’t a heckuva lot of him to go around in many of his gags. I tend to doubt that there’s a conspiracy at work here, but the fact is that he didn’t really have a lot of face time during this episode, which is especially disheartening since, as he joked in his opening monologue, it’s been 27 years since Bridges last hosted Saturday Night Live. Though a little Dude’ll do ya, some more Bridges would’ve been nice, too.
- Akon’s performance was the funniest thing about the “I Just Had Sex” digital short. The way he was beaming like a proud papa while singing about screwing was great; it's so nice to see somebody having a good time while singing about sticking their penis into people.
- Taran Killam’s Brad Pitt isn’t close to anything resembling even a caricature-level of verisimilitude, but it is still rather funny.
- “Jeff’d” mostly left me cold, though it was conceptually a clever way of poking fun of Bridges’s laid-back persona.