Well that was easy.
Saturday Night Live
, which had looked a bit wobbly during the first two episodes of its 40th season, seems to have found its footing with the return of former cast member (2005-2013) Bill Hader.
Hader’s appearance played out like a good-natured, comedy victory lap as he brought back many of his best-loved SNL characters (Stefon, Herb Welch, war-hardened puppeteer Anthony Peter Coleman, his very first SNL impression, Al Pacino) and former cast mate Kristen Wiig (currently co-starring with Hader in The Skeleton Twins), who contributed her Kathy Lee Gifford to a very funny “Hollywood Game Night” sketch.
Perhaps no other recently-departed cast member could have given the show the kind of confidence boost Hader did Saturday night (save Seth Meyers). By focusing SNL’s writers and cast on reliable, go-to winners, there was room for riskier attempts. Truly, much of the genius of Lorne Michael’s Saturday night comedy institution is just that: broad-appeal, and “tent-pole” sketches that buy its audience’s patience for new and emerging work.
Beck Bennett and Kyle Mooney’s offbeat pre-taped pieces shouldn’t have to carry an entire episode. Reliable, multi-cast member sketches like “Hollywood Game Night” and “Puppet Class” can give an episode its shape and form. Well-chosen guest hosts earn audience favor, too. Combined, these two elements can make SNL’s more experimental attempts viable.
Interestingly enough, the Jan Hooks Tribute, Tom Schiller’s unblinkingly sentimental “Love Is a Dream,” from the 1988 Christmas episode, is a perfect example of that balance. Slipped in just after one of Hooks and Nora Dunn’s mega-popular “Sweeney Sisters” sketches, Schiller’s mini-musical (shot on actual black and white film, and physically aged to look like an old movie) elevated the Season 14 episode—art-comedy sharing the same stage with The Church Lady.
(One hopes that there will be better, more thorough tributes in the coming days and weeks to Jan Hooks, who was a SNL star during a key era in the show’s history, but for now it should be noted that—to many of us who aspired to create, who grew up in the South during the 1980’s—Jan Hooks was a hero.)
Hader’s episode seemed to get stronger as the night wore on. The only real flop of the night, his opening monologue (I am seriously considering filing a class action lawsuit against SNL musical monologues. Who’s with me?), seemed rushed, and not fully worked out. But only strong material followed—even the could-have-been-a-disaster, “10-to-1” (last of show) sketch, “Cat” brought legitimate laughs that extended beyond its absurd premise: The Cat In the Hat drops in on a (human) woman he once dated.
Weekend Update is still a work-in-progress. Only, there doesn’t seem to be much progress. There are some valid laughs (these are jokes, after all) and the distraction of character visits (Hader’s Stefon hasn’t missed a beat… and is expecting!), but the segment’s main problem persists—Colin Jost’s lack of on-camera charisma and comedy performance acumen. Time and experience won’t fix these issues. Yet the show seems willing to make us all sit through an entire season of it.
OF NOTE: Cecily’s Strong’s dead-on Sofia Vergara during “Hollywood Game Night;” this week’s Beck and Kyle pre-tape, the dead-eyed and droning “Inside SoCal 2;” and the cut-for-time “Coal Miners” which features Hader as a “gossipy coal miner” named Lavar.
BEST LINE OF THE NIGHT: Decrepit local newsman Herb Welch to Taran Killam’s mannequin-like studio anchor: “I know you’re smooth down there.”
Musical guest Hozier performed “Take Me to Church” and “Angel of Small Death…” Both songs were a nice change of pace from the two previous season 40 musical guests, as Hozier’s songs are right-sized for the intimacy of the Studio 8H stage, and even viewed from a screen, both felt exciting, fresh… like live from New York music should be.
SNL heads into its monthly bye week with a bit more swagger in its step. One hopes that when season 40’s next three hosts/musical guests are announced this week, we will get another visit from a former cast member (Wiig would be good, or Fred Armisen, or Andy Samberg). As the show continues its search for the next breakout star, bringing in the old favorites can’t hurt.
Not that it’s any of our business, but… does anyone know if Bill Murray’s shooting a movie later this month? He qualifies.
Chris White writes and directs independent feature films. His latest, a showbiz comedy about looking for Bill Murray, is called
. Follow Chris on Twitter.