Three and a half decades into its storied existence, an air of homemade, “let’s put on a show!” amateurishness clings to Saturday Night Live. One of the truest things anyone has ever said about Lorne Michaels’ venerable institution is that shows never air because the cast and crew are ready; they air because they’ve run out of time.
That was certainly true of last night’s oft-abysmal broadcast. It’s never an encouraging sign when a season shows signs of creative exhaustion during its second episode. As a longtime apologist for Saturday Night Live who grew up with the show and sticks with it through the highs, the lows and the creamy middles, I want every show to be good. So I watched the flopsweat-addled cast grind its way through one DOA sketch after another with a combination of mortification and pity. Considering what aired, can you even imagine what didn’t make the cut?
But first, let’s accentuate the positive. A fake commercial for a dog food promising “mostly garbage” adroitly mocked the ridiculousness of boutique pet food ads that promise five-star dining for sub-humans who’d just as happily devour gleanings from litter boxes or their own feces. Handsome actor Jason Sudeikis has a face and air of bland affability that makes him perfect for mock-commercials. And a digital video where Andy Samberg, dressed like a college anarchist with a silly hat and goatee, delivered a rap where he conveyed his anger and contempt for, respectively, a free energy drink sample, free hot dogs, a cell phone, a cake and Ryan Reynolds and Elijah Wood’s dinner, by hurling them angrily on the ground as a deliciously pointless act of rebellion against the man was absurdist to the point of being nonsensical in a delightful way. No one does unmotivated, irrational comic aggression quite like Andy Samberg, though Will Ferrell comes close.
Saturday Night Live attacked some interesting comic targets (to call them satirical targets would give the show far too much credit) from the least interesting possible perspectives. For example, the cold open took Obama to task for not having delivered on his promises by having Armisen’s Obama address the nation and, uh, own up to not having delivered on any of his promises. It made some good points in the most bludgeoningly straight-forward manner imaginable but it was hindered somewhat by a lack of, you know, jokes, and the fact that Fred Armisen has apparently given up on even trying to sound like the man he’s impersonating. Obama has very distinct cadences and vocal mannerisms. He’s not the easiest impersonation in the world but he's not impossible either. Terrible impersonations were a running motif in last night’s show. Kenan Thompson’s Charles Barkley and Darrell “Am I Still on The Show? No? Then When I Am Here? Seriously?” Hammond’s Arnold Schwarzenegger were so awful that I wanted to angrily hurl them on the ground.
When the show decided to tackle the great John/Mackenzie Phillips Incest Scandal of 09 I couldn’t wait to see what kind of fresh angle they’d attack it from. The answer? A molasses-slow, joke-light Family Feud parody pitting the Phillips clan against the squeaky-clean Osmonds. The talented mimic Bill Hader was appropriately creepy as Papa John but the sketch fumbled its way through the easiest possible jokes without getting within the same hemisphere of a laugh.
That was the problem with last night’s episode: it pandered relentlessly to the lowest common denominator without ever evoking more than a meek chuckle or two. That is a special form of comedy hell, a fate worse than death.
Speaking of terrible celebrity impersonations, I was quite convinced that one of the new cast members was doing a terrible Madonna impersonation during a sketch that sadistically resurrected Deep House Dish (which is essentially Jared’s Room with a disco beat) for the sake of musical guest Lady Gaga. Then I realized the terrible Madonna impersonator appearing alongside Lady Gaga as they bickered their way through a faux-collaboration and almost kissed was actually Madonna herself, who has a cunningly David Bowie-like genius for co-opting, collaborating and publicly making out with potential professional rivals.
Is there anything sadder than Madonna faux-lesbianism in this day and age? That includes puppies dying, the Holocaust and Big Star’s Third/Sister Lovers. The woman is a great grandmother for Christ’s sakes. Before tonight, I had never actually listened to a full Lady Gaga song. I knew of her by reputation and she sounded, looked and acted exactly as I imagined she would. Lady Gaga came off like a road-show Madonna wearing a series of cumbersome statues yet she was far and away the most electrifying aspect of last night’s show. She added an element of danger and spontaneity to a moribund institution, dropping an S bomb and getting her Billy Joel on tickling the ivories during a rambling, free-associative, New York-centric medley of her hits.
As for host Ryan Reynolds, he was an affable non-entity. Honestly, he kind of faded into the background. He wasn’t good, he wasn’t bad. He just sort of was. The show, on the other hand, was for the most part fucking dreadful.
It was hard to say who came off worse; Madonna, a fading institution desperate to hold onto her edge or youth appeal, or the show she appeared on, a fading institution desperate to hold onto its edge and youth appeal.
—That Kevin Federline! He seems to have put on some weight!