7.5

Saturday Night Live Review: "Larry David/The 1975"

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<i>Saturday Night Live</i> Review: "Larry David/The 1975"

This week’s show promos with guest host Larry David are essential viewing for Saturday Night Live fans. Sitting at a diner with cast member Leslie Jones, David urges us not to watch his guest host debut.

“What’s the difference if [you] watch or don’t watch? The show’s been on for forty years. Who cares?”

It’s a good joke—the essence of David’s on-screen persona brought to life in the show’s weekly sales pitch. But good jokes work on multiple levels. And this one gets to root of SNL’s current malaise: Who is watching Saturday Night Live? And why do we?

A fascinating question for another essay, another time… Still, it’s valuable for close watchers of SNL to take note of David’s existential question, which he carries over into his monologue. His episode turns out pretty well, actually. So maybe approaching the week of prep with a hearty Who cares? pushes the show in the right direction. Saturday Night Live used to matter because it wanted to matter. Ironically, with Larry David’s take-it-or-leave-it nonchalance, SNL almost matters again.

Unlike the candidate himself, Taran Killam’s Ted Cruz grows on you. In fact, if it misses anything, it over-shoots the Texas senator’s sunniness. There’s a Nixonian calculus to Cruz that Killam’s impression has never quite captured. Still, “Message From Ted Cruz Cold Open” reflects a sharpening of SNL’s political comedy writing. The barbs are cleaner, more clever than we’ve seen this season. It’s odd that we don’t see a Kate McKinnon as Hillary, Larry David as Bernie debate rehash. Their most recent encounter seems loaded with comic possibilities. But what we are given is solid stuff. Here’s hoping the trend continues.

Larry David’s monologue was quite strong, and the material serves to push the show forward through several strong sketches including “FBI Simulator” (which features David as Kevin Roberts, “the coolest bitch in town”) and the hilarious “Bern Your Enthusiasm” pre-tape.

Larry David doesn’t really look like Bernie Sanders. Those who noticed a resemblance early on did so citing a shared New York accent and grouchy demeanor. But David has elevated the act beyond impersonation…into something of a whimsical caricature: Bernie after hours, off stage and beleaguered by it all. Uncomfortable with the weight of the world on his shoulders. Brilliant because it’s the kind of parody fans and foes can both get behind.

And then, of course, the real Bernie Sanders showed up in an otherwise forgettable sketch.

Jon Rudnitsky, the new Featured Player no one really knows yet, had a break-out, steal-the-show (steal-the-whole-season?) moment with his Dirty Dancing Live “audition” during Weekend Update. Rudnitsky’s physical comedy chops are best-of-cast; his pantomime skills, world class. Whereas most successful Saturday Night Live cast members arrive with unusually malleable faces, the ability to mimic and parody celebrities, and a stockpile of hilarious characters, Rudnitsky brings something new. You might say he’s the second coming of Danny Kaye, but that sounds old, so let’s leave it at this: Jon Rudnitsky is funny with his whole body. There’s musicality to his work. But best of all, he’s not smug or cynical in the delivery. His is the kind of funny that laughs with us, not at us or at someone else’s expense. He’s on his A-game with this bit, and clearly worked hard all week to nail it. Good for him, and…good for you, Lorne Michaels.

The episode falls off significantly after Rudnitsky exits the Weekend Update set. In fact, the appearance of Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson as Zoolander 2’s Derek Zoolander and Hansel is shockingly hackneyed, listless. No doubt, the two actors, watching Rudnitsky from the wings, could feel him taking over the room. Nobody wants to follow something like that. Still, it feels like a cheat…promoting your movie on Weekend Update without hosting the full show. Surely Stiller or Wilson could have taken the Ronda Rousey spot last month…

The 1975, a throwback British synth pop band should have been called The 1985…or INXS, did well in their Saturday Night Live debut. Both songs, “The Sound” and “Love Me,” rose to the occasion, bringing the right energy to the room. SNL episodes always go better when musical guests see themselves as part of the flow of a live comedy show, rather than a standalone showcase.

The episode’s final three sketches were all fair to poor…though David certainly added value to the otherwise mediocre “Songwriting Class.” “Peyton & Cam,” a musical parody set to “Ebony and Ivory,” was particularly weak given the fact that riffing on a corny, three decades-old Paul McCartney/Stevie Wonder duet is archetypal Saturday Night Lazy. And though Kate McKinnon’s barstool grotesquery Sheila Sauvage has felt fresh and funny in the past, it feels like it’s run its course now. SNL could use a boost of new character work from McKinnon about now.

Worth noting…the episode seemed a little less than its best with few significant contributions from Beck Bennett, Aidy Bryant, Kyle Mooney, Bobby Moynihan, Cecily Strong, or Sasheer Zamata. Bennett and Zamata in particular have seen their screen time diminish as the season wears on. One hopes that there is still time for both of those performers to re-establish themselves before the year ends.

So yeah, you know…Larry David’s SNL was…alright, I guess. But I mean, come on, what were you expecting? I’m sure you had much better things to do than watch some dumb show last night. You…you regret it, don’t you? Watching. Deep down…you know…you’re a little worse off for seeing it. And who can blame you? Just don’t say Larry didn’t warn us.

NEXT WEEK: Melissa McCarthy with Kanye.

Chris White writes and directs independent feature films. His latest, an award-winning showbiz comedy about looking for Bill Murray, is called Cinema Purgatorio . Follow Chris on Twitter.

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