It’s been nine months since Chris Hemsworth last hosted Saturday Night Live, which says more about Hollywood’s lack of imagination than SNL’s. Hemsworth’s In the Heart of the Sea has just opened and he will appear in next summer’s Ghostbusters reboot. Booking him now, less than a year later, makes a kind of administrative, two birds with one stone sense, but Hemsworth was mostly forgettable in his SNL debut, overshadowed by Kate McKinnon and strong late Season 40 writing.
His return only serves to illustrate how far the show’s writing has slipped in a very short time. This episode’s sketches were consistently, depressingly weak or malformed. Saturday Night Live is broken, sliding, lost. And rather than addressing the problems and working towards a fix, the show slouches along…hoping we don’t notice.
If nostalgia is a sentimental longing for happier times, then it’s fair to say Will Ferrell’s surprise appearance as the 43rd president in “George W. Bush Cold Open” works primarily on an emotional level. It’s good to see him back—especially at a time when, indeed, W. seems like a far more preferable choice for GOP primary voters.
But there is more happening here than just the warmth of the familiar. Ferrell is a seasoned comic actor, a rare talent…one of the very best to ever play the SNL stage. What we see in his appearance (and to a similar degree, in Mike Meyers’ cameo last week) is what the Saturday Night Live format is built for: stars. Which is precisely why the format is broken at the root: you won’t always have Will Ferrells in your cast…so the weekly mad scramble to air insures that most attempts fall short. Unless you have stars—three to four big stars in your cast. That is why off-seasons dip so low in our collective estimation. It takes time to develop comedy stars. In forty seasons, SNL has never come up with a shortcut to greatness. It’s always ebbed and flowed.
“Star Wars Commercial” is a toy commercial parody about geek dads forcing their kids to collect and archive new Star Wars toys instead of playing with them. It’s a fine piece (if for Kyle Mooney’s wig and facial hair alone), though lacking in the kind of madcap absurdity that has been a trademark of past SNL toy commercial parodies. Premised on a casual, almost universal observation—the irony in a toy’s investment value over its play value—the piece is content to make that point and call it a day. But there are hundreds of Star Wars-inspired short comedies popping up on YouTube daily. Saturday Night Live has to swing harder if it wants to break out.
Kate McKinnon’s Greta Van Susteren in “On the Record” is not her best imitation, though the sketch scores a few points for Taran Killam’s surprisingly on-the-money Ted Cruz, Bobby Moynihan’s Chris Christie, and Jay Pharoah’s consistently amusing Ben Carson. There’s just not much to the sketch past its people parodies. The cagey politician, unwilling to lock down definitive positions, is nothing new. Still, those SNL performers and makeup artists are a wonder. They continue to wow us with their ability to create photo-realistic caricatures.
The episode does give us a couple of moments of laudable writing staff risks that don’t quite get off the ground. The first is pre-tape “Time To Bleed,” a cop drama parody about a detective who takes a bullet to the gut, but never actually gets any medical help. It’s a good use of host Hemsworth, and a pretty funny take down of a common cop show trope—the dismissive “I’ll be alright” played to get the girl.
Other risky experiments include “Christmas Sing-a-long,” “Pirate Ship” and “Male Strippers.” Not one of them wins Sketch-of-the-Year honors, though each delivers on the promise that SNL has the talent to create outstanding work. Still, something is amiss in the editing and development of these pieces. Could be as simple as the Seth Meyers leadership void is still yet to be filled?
New Featured Player Jon Rudnitsky may have stolen the show in the episode’s best sketch, “Pirate Ship.” As the pirates’ adorable ship’s clown “Mark,” Rudnitsky takes the lead, establishing himself as an affable rube with strong physical comedy chops. Not to wax nostalgic, but his performance calls to mind the early days of Chris Kattan, who had an impressive run at SNL (1996-2003).
Chance The Rapper’s performances of “Paradise” and “Sunday Candy” were both excellent, the latter spreading a bit of much needed holiday cheer in Studio 8H. Chance is a terrific lyricist, who isn’t afraid to go for the funny. As well, he has a well-developed, soulful singing voice he isn’t afraid to throw in the mix. Chance The Rapper really is an ideal Saturday Night Live musical guest, easily best of the year.
It feels like we’ve been through The Five Stages of Grief with the current incarnation of Weekend Update since the Jost-Che era was rammed down our throats. Whereas Saturday Night Live itself is locked in the Denial phase, most of its audience settled in to the Acceptance phase earlier this season: “This is what they’re going to give us, so okay. Fine.” But every once in a while, you just can’t help yourself. A Weekend Update like last night happens, and we revert to Anger and Bargaining and wake up in a full-on Depression.
The established gag seems to be two news anchors who not-so-secretly loathe each other: Michael Che thinks Colin Jost is a square, Colin Jost is intimidated by Michael Che. (A microcosm: Che smashes Jost’s Weekend Update script during Hemsworth’s opening monologue.) And this tension is set in a kind of post-racial, but still racist America. Within this construct, it doesn’t matter if the jokes are funny. The premise is fear and loathing. And that’s only fun to watch if you yourself are afraid and hateful.
Not to get too nostalgic, but there was a time when Weekend Update co-anchoring was a joy to watch…not premised on the inevitability of stereotypes, but on friendship. SNL would do well to explore how that time might be brought back to the fake news desk.
Cue those Tina and Amy Christmas show promos…
NEXT WEEK: Tina Fey and Amy Poehler with Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band.
Chris White writes and directs independent feature films. His latest, an award-winning showbiz comedy about looking for Bill Murray, is called
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