Saturday Night Live: “Lena Dunham/The National”
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Saturday Night Live: “Lena Dunham/The National”

I’m going to go ahead and speculate that a small but especially vocal minority of the internet-equipped viewing public was tuning in tonight to see if Lena Dunham was going to fall flat on her face. Is it because she’s young, and clearly talented, and very successful? Oh, and an outspoken woman? Just guesses there, but I may be onto something with that last one.  That being said/provoked, there were some questions going into Dunham’s hosting gig, the most important of which was whether she could shed her singular persona and don a variety of roles. Her most high-profile gigs thus far have seen her playing characters perceived as being very like herself—outside of a neurotic, self-obsessed overreacher, did she have any range? And would she be willing to turn herself over to the show’s writers and make an ass out of herself? Well, the results being in, Dunham did better on the second score than on the first—but her enthusiasm went a long way toward making up for the fact that multi-character sketch comedy may not be in Dunham’s wheelhouse.  

The cold open saw President Obama calling in career-resurgent sexagenarian action  star Liam Neeson in order for Neeson to call on his “certain set of skills” (his Hollywood contacts) producing a video riposte to Vladimir Putin’s ongoing series of ludicrous tough guy shirtless photo ops. As far as an SNL political satire about the ongoing Crimean situation, it was about as good as we get these days—at least the crowd-pleasing entrance of the very game Neeson was a genuine surprise. Jay Pharoah’s impression continues technically proficient and largely uninvolving—and it’s light years better than whatever Fred Armisen was allowed to trot out for a few years—but, especially with the participation of “Liam Neesons,” it’s hard not to compare Pharoah’s Obama unfavorably to Jordan Peele’s. That may be because Key & Peele has more of a handle on or, you know, a point of view about the character, but I did laugh when the third question Obama relates from the American public is “Hold up—what’s Crimea?” Plus, the deconstruction of Fox News’ recent obsession with praising Putin’s staged, he-man publicity stunts had to be done.

Dunham’s monologue hinged on a questionable premise—all the sex scenes on Girls cause random people to overshare their carnal exploits with her—but Dunham’s delivery was strong throughout, and the jokes at the expense of herself and her show were on target. Confessing her nervousness, Dunham relates that she was told to imagine her audience naked, “or at least imagine they haven’t seen you naked.” And her anecdote about the guy who claimed her breasts looked just like his sister’s (“I had a lot of follow up questions”) landed satisfyingly. And the oversharing idea, as tenuous as it was comedically, did touch on the idea that Dunham’s fame has come with a lot of unwelcome public attention. Plus, while the whole “cast interrupts the monologue” idea keeps coming back as if there were simply no other template to work from (apart from a musical number), Kate McKinnon, playing Dunham’s unexpectedly randy grandmother, once again showcased her ability to create a specific, inhabited character in a short period of time, which has always been one of SNL’s most invaluable commodities. Too bad she seems to have been sent home shortly afterward.

I liked the way the first filmed piece turned just as its initial premise (a car’s directional app only interrupts Dunham’s character when she attempts join in her companions’ singalong to The Five Stairsteps’ “O-o-h Child”), with the chipper quartet revealed as murderous vigilantes heading out to bury their victim. Dunham’s escalating impatience was amusingly done, but I was just starting to think Lorne had wasted the music licensing fee before the whole thing went to the unexpected (and appreciated) dark place.

Dunham’s first real test—and only real triumph—was in the Scandal parody, where her ditsy new associate Kelsey remains delightedly baffled by the nigh superhuman chicanery of Olivia Pope and Associates. Having never seen a single episode of Scandal (back off you guys—there is so much TV to watch, seriously), the joke still landed, since the premise was established just fine. Ordered to get to Mexico, infiltrate an embassy ball, and bug a diplomat’s wife, Dunham’s “Okay—I have, like, a thousand follow-up questions” spoke to viewers perhaps unconvinced that everything is quite as easy as the show makes it seem. Also, Kelsey’s objection that Olivia, “a beautiful black woman who only wears tailored pantsuits” should go on the mission since “these are the fanciest clothes I own” and her rejection of Olivia’s romantic woes since, “I wish my dating problem’s that my boyfriend’s the president” keep the joke flowing along with Dunham’s energetic character (although she was hitting the teleprompter especially hard throughout). And Sasheer Zamata has her first real star moment of the season—she anchors the sketch with a passable Kerry Washington, but it’s her bit of business reacting rapturously to Taran Killam’s Fitz putting his fingers in her mouth that is one of those small but impactful things that stick in the audience’s mind. It’s a funny bit because it pops—there’s really no more scientific explanation for SNL success than that.

I always get cringe-y whenever SNL does rap music sketches. It’s not that they’re always terrible, it’s that they invariably approach the genre from the outside (no matter how many funny hats they give Kenan Thompson to wear).  This time at least, the premise of the sketch was loopy enough, and the concept of an all-white jazz/beat poet band proclaiming themselves rappers brought the whole racial divide to the forefront, but the band’s song went on for far too long. Dunham looked uncomfortable and, apart from Pharoah’s horrified “NO!” and Mike O’Brien’s attempt to claim that Tim is his “rapping name,” this one dragged on and dribbled out to a non-ending.

Dunham other good sketch was “Girl,” where she costarred with Taran Killam’s Adam Driver (not his strongest impression) in a Dunham-ized Biblical epic about the Garden of Eden. It’s here that she took the most shots at herself, with the sketch’s nonstop, pixilated nakedness (A.O. Scott says, “Even for Adam and Eve, that’s a lot of nudity”), and her Eve’s suspiciously Hannah Horvath-like quibbling over every detail with both Adam and God turning a the writer/director/star’s would-be religious blockbuster into yet another extension of Dunham’s signature, solipsistic style. To quote the sketch’s Wall Street Journal, “If this is feminism, I’m confused.”

Venturing into character work in the middle school girl talk show “What Are You Even Doing? You’re Being Crazy!” saw the host eclipsed by partner Nasim Pedrad. Again, this sort of broad, throw yourself into it role seemed out of Dunham’s comfort zone, with she and Pedrad playing a pair of young teens who just entered puberty “like three hours ago” and making invited guests Kyle Mooney and, as himself, Jon Hamm very uncomfortable, flirting with clueless enthusiasm. It’s always nice to get some unexpected Hamm (and him being pissed that there was no pizza was worth a laugh), but apart from big brother Bobby Moynihan’s unexplained, wind machine-aided glamor shot, this one didn’t approach the heights of, say, Amy Poehler’s Kaitlin in the realm of “tweens acting hyper” genre.

After seven sketches and the first number from The National, it was finally time for Weekend Update and, once again, I’m not feeling this new anchor team. Cecily Strong and Colin Jost both seem far too pleasant and, well, grateful for the gig, their fixed smiles and occasional giggles removing the edges from their material. Not that the post-Seth Meyers jokes have had much bite—tonight, the closest thing to a toothy joke targeted the zoological puzzle of a Rand Paul metaphor (“Will we be like lemmings, rushing to the comfort of Big Brother’s crushing embrace—or will we be like Rand Paul, not quite understanding what lemmings do.”) It’s early, but Strong and Jost haven’t shown any chemistry or ability to play off one another—their jokes zip by in innocuous isolation. It’s a problem. On the visitor front, the big winner tonight was Killam’s stellar Matthew McConaughey, revisiting his typically spacy Oscar speech (“Don’t congratulate me, congratulate the man who never existed” “Who’s that?” “That’s me”) and just generally rambling in the delirious glory that is McConaughey’s mind. As everyone from Matt Damon to everyone you know has proven for years, even a bad McConaughey is reliably funny, and with Killam piloting the surfboard, this could have gone on for five more minutes as far as I was concerned. (Extra points for getting the audience to segue inexplicably into the Inspector Gadget theme.) Beyond that, Fred Armisen returned to join Vanessa Bayer playing those two people who were a dictator’s (Putin this time) childhood friends, whispering their mundane complaints about the despot’s social rudeness. Proving once again that, no matter how big Portlandia gets, or how demanding his duties as Seth Meyers’ bandleader, he’s always game to noodle around with a weird voice in a middling recurring bit.

“Jewelry Party” was tailored most overtly to Dunham’s outspoken feminism, with everyone at said gathering discovering that the one male attendee is a rabid “men’s rights” advocate. There’s not much to it, with Dunham’s character become incensed the more she learns about the guy’s activities (shutting down Planned Parenthoods and lobbying against equal pay for women) and the theme of the sketch being that all such men are just sad virgins who were rejected in high school, but at least Mike O’Brien wrings some uncomfortable laughs desperately attempting to assert his innocuousness with some funny underplaying and—while I don’t know why it was necessary for Cecily Strong to put on an accent to play a kooky hairdresser from South America—at least it injected some energy.

Jay Pharoah, every bit the impressionist Taran Killam is, is handicapped by the fact that often the majority of the SNL audience is simply unfamiliar with the figures he’s so adept at. Tonight’s example is pint-sized comedian and pimp enthusiast Katt Williams and, while Pharoah’s impression is a lot better than Drake’s from earlier this season, it suffers from the fact that the audience’s titters are clearly uncomfortable/uncomprehending and that Williams’ persona is pretty offputting even if you do know who the hell he is. There’s a funny kernel to William’s BET post-Oscars talk show, in that he’s turning the tables by presenting white actors that black viewers don’t know or care about (and his line introducing Liza Minnelli, that she’s a household name “if that house belongs to Ben Vereen” is solid), but the rest of the sketch sinks under the weight of some mediocre impressions by Brooks Wheelan (Jared Leto), Dunham (Liza—she’s a gamer, but it’s just beyond her), and Killam’s limited Harrison Ford (who falls back on movie lines.)

Finishing up, the show filled the ten-to-one spot by giving Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett a video camera and letting them do something odd and conceptual—an idea I heartily approve of. Sure this one, about a pair of detail-oriented office workers attempting to organize an outing to a Will Smith concert with their annoyed office mate wasn’t their best (that’d be the fratboy bit from the Bruce Willis episode), but, again, just letting these two run with a weird idea is always worth the risk.

Dunham hugging Jon Hamm and telling the audience that she wanted to French kiss every one of them at home base closed it out, a goofily triumphant image of a host who’d taken her best swings and come through just as she came in—energetic and seemingly thrilled to be hosting.

Stray observations:

  • McKinnon’s Granny Dunham: “Only the cool girls went to third base and I was cool as hell. I was practically a third base coach.”
  • Kelsey, attempting to help out with Scandal’s computer hacking: “I accidentally opened Garage Band!”
  • “I can do it in 24 hours.” “I need you to do it in one minute.” “I’ll see what I can do—it’s done.”
  • Neeson and Hamm? It’s good to have Lorne’s little black book.
  • Jared Leto thanks his band “for not being good enough to take me away from acting.”
  • Noel Wells, whose only star turn all season was as Dunham, is brought out for one perfunctory Dunham impression at the end of the Katt Williams sketch. That is not a good sign.
  • Speaking of, this cast is overstuffed with featured players who are not making a mark. My picks to exit at the end of the season, or before (in order of likeliness): John Milhiser, Wells, Brooks Wheelan,
  • I am hip to the musics of today!: The National was the musical guest tonight, who are one of those bands everyone says I should like because I love Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave. Apart from the serious baritone, they don’t really click for me, although the two songs tonight were good enough for me to almost buy one of their albums but probably not. I did appreciate that the lead singer looks like mid-1980s John Heard.
  • Even McConaughey isn’t immune to dull PR: “Oh, True Detective? It’s a good script. I like workin’ with Woody.”

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