Saturday Night Live: “Steve Buscemi/The Black Keys”
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Saturday Night Live: “Steve Buscemi/The Black Keys”

This was a brutally mixed week on Saturday Night Live. I either heartily enjoyed sketches, or they did absolutely nothing for me. Steve Buscemi, an odd but perfectly competent choice of host, blended into the background of a lot of sketches (he was often given roles amounting to bit parts), so there wasn’t really a strong through-line to follow. We got a fair amount of returning characters, but B-listers you had sort of forgotten about, like Kristen Wiig’s surprise-loving Sue and Vanessa Bayer’s Miley Cyrus Show.

Also, there was the return of that funny ol’ character Barack Obama, whom we have not seen at all this year. It’s not surprising that he’s rarely appeared in political sketches this year. This show knows its strength, it knows what gets big laughs, and Fred Armisen’s impression has reached the point where it’s just him reading fairly limp political satire from the cue cards. There’s still a hint of that very specific diction, but the voice is all wrong, and Armisen’s energy is painfully low in the role, which is not something I’d usually accuse him of.

Things picked up with Buscemi’s monologue, which went to an obvious place (his status as a character actor) but had some fun with it, bringing up increasingly specific “types” of bit parts quite suited to their portrayers, like Jay Pharoah as a sassy female judge who “cannot stand nonsense in my courtroom. But I will allow it.” Buscemi’s energy was fine the whole time, but he wasn’t exactly amped; he just seemed pleasant and happy to be on the show. Which is maybe why I found him so strange, since I don’t think I’ve ever seen Buscemi play someone who’s pleasant and happy.

Weirdly, though, that’s a role he got handed in pretty much every sketch. In Miley Cyrus, he was a blissed-out Burning Man attendee; his murderer in the Dateline spoof was fairly affable; the creepy coach he played in the crowning sketch of the night was maybe a little pathetic, but the crux of the joke was that he was an okay guy. I was a little surprised we didn’t at least get a Boardwalk Empire spoof (why the hell else did they think to have him on the show?) but maybe the budget for such a thing was just too much to consider.

I want to end this review on a positive note, so let’s start by running down everything that sucked. I wasn’t miserable at the return of Miley Cyrus, not because it’s a good sketch, it isn’t, but at least they had a reason to do it (she’s been in the news with her Bob Marley cake and her Occupy Wall Street song, the latter of which did not merit mention). Things quickly went to the most obvious place possible, with Buscemi showing up from Burning Man, before taking a sharp left turn and bringing in Maya Rudolph’s Whitney Houston impression, which was definitely welcome, if a little out of nowhere. Still, the whole thing felt pretty aimless.

Bill Hader’s Keith Morrison impression, also back from a long hiatus, is as spot-on as ever. He’s always been good at pinpointing obscure personalities to skewer. But then the sketch revolving around those impressions is usually a pretty strict formula every week, and the Dateline thing felt as stretched-out and overlong as Morrison joked that it was. Finally, I have very little to say about Sue, except that I must applaud Wiig’s manic physicality in the role and I appreciated when she started smashing things, partly because it meant the sketch was over, but also just because it meant something was happening on screen.

But there were some real gems here too. Coach Burt was a fun way to take on the Penn State scandal (they already succeeded in the more direct approach with the Devil’s monologue a few weeks back) and a perfect use of Steve Buscemi’s face (although, of course, they slapped on a mustache and slicked back his hair to make him look as creepy as possible). Even though it was in a typically staid SNL format, the press conference where multiple characters get up and do a bit, the sketch was well-written and developed nicely. First, Burt was just a put-upon coach who looked weird, but then Kenan’s investigator gets furious at him for never washing his hands, and then Pharoah plays a tape of Burt singing about his alter ego “Burtman,” who has a million friends (including Brett Favre and Chewbacca). Everything just clicked here: Buscemi’s increasingly pathetic indignation, Sudeikis’ baffled boss who was sure he was a child molester, Hader as a local chapter president of NAMBLA.

The other terrific sketch was the last of the night, also done in simple, staid SNL style: Buscemi just reaching into a bag, bringing out a Christmas decoration, and saying something increasingly weird about it. At first, I was frustrated with how low-energy it was, but it brought me around, at the point where he picked up a laptop and makes “beep boop” sounds on it, and then picked up a pinecone and does the same. The strangeness then multiplies faster and faster (Wiig as his seemingly drugged or blissed-out wife was doing her best work of the night), and I was laughing out loud by the point he said, “I wouldn't want to live in there. Just kidding. I'd like to own any home,” of his igloo decoration.

The shorts were all fine too. Okay, the Mexican dinner was one very old joke, but at least it was told quickly. Samberg’s Christian Bale spoof in the digital short is well-worn territory at this point, but it was also quick and to-the-point. Paul Brittan also dominated this week, with the return of his Sex Ed seminar an improvement on the funny first go-round. Of all the new players, he’s probably been the least featured (it’s a runoff between him and Pharoah), but it’s been fun to see him star in sketches more and more this year, because he obviously has talent and he’s usually lending himself to weirder material.

Weird material is what SNL should always be lending itself to, in my humble opinion. Look at this week; most of the repeat sketches were busts. Almost all of the strange stuff worked great. Take more risks, guys! Who’ve you got coming up next week? …Katy Perry? Okay. Maybe take risks the week after that, then.

Stray observations:

  • Obama’s influence list: not funny. But I did chuckle at him being barely above Pippa Middleton and the KIA gerbils.
  • Props to the props department on that frozen Mexican dinner, which was truly gross-looking.
  • Kenan’s magical African-American Chance wants to have a movie where he chews on a straw and chuckles to himself.
  • Keith Morrison explained: “When I was 4-years-old I saw a birthday clown drown in a pool. He just… floated.”
  • Kenan’s Herman Cain impression at least made an effort to get his accent right this time. An improvement, just as he drops out of the race. Real missed opportunity with that guy.
  • Moynihan’s drunken uncle was one of those things where you got the idea after 30 seconds, but it worked.
  • The Christmas decoration guy hadn’t heard of Christmas til 2008. “I just had never heard of it. It never came up!” 

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