Saturday Night Live Christmas episodes might be likened to Christmas Eve services at church: it’s the only episode some of us will see all year. If it’s good, we may be back. But if it’s bad, we won’t.
SNL40’s Christmas episode started in high gear, then quickly fell off post-Weekend Update. Guests Amy Adams and One Direction performed their duties admirably, but not joyfully. Good enough for a non-seasonal episode, but Christmas at SNL requires holiday magic (i.e. Taylor Swift as host and musical guest, anyone?). Instead, Executive Producer Lorne Michaels leaves a few small surprises under the tree (SNL alumni Mike Meyers, Kristen Wiig, and Fred Armisen), but no grand gestures.
Weekend Update, a troubled SNL segment all year, was notably improved this week, while still suffering from the odd coupling of co-hosts Colin Jost and Michael Che. The ripped-from-the-headlines jokes, as written, are funny enough, but the segment always fails in the delivery. Che is a better comic performer than Jost, but neither bring any discernible sense of style or consistent tone to the telling. Weekend Update is a platform for stand-up comedy… for joke telling. So, successful stand-up comedians strike a unique tone. Jim Gaffigan can’t get a laugh telling a Sarah Silverman joke—and vice-versa. The comic’s words have to fit their mouth… they have to match their look, their style. In this regard, Jost’s got no game. He’s not a comic. He’s a joke-writer. Che does, but he’s (usually) saying the wrong jokes. It’s frustrating to watch, and likely more frustrating to perform. One hopes that SNL finds a way to re-cast the segment for Season 41.
Holiday song-meisters Garth (Fred Armisen) and Kat (Kristen Wiig) return to Weekend Update for another round of on-the-spot merriment, this time promoting their new Hanukkah record called “Hanukkah Is One Of Those Only Things That You’re Sure To Know And Don’t We All.” It’s still a funny bit (though Wiig’s breaking for laughs has become a bit too much of the conceit), but serves mostly to remind us of SNL Weekend Update Christmases Past… when these two would beg “Mr. Minors” for “50 more” songs.
Mike Meyers as Dr. Evil, mocking Kim Jong-un and Sony Pictures, is the season’s best Cold Open. There were promises of 40th anniversary surprise guests last summer, and Meyers, who was a break-out star on SNL (1989-1995), fits the bill. His Austin Powers bad guy, though never an SNL character, was inspired (vocally, at least) by Lorne Michaels. Meyers’ performance reaches past the laughs a couple of times, but this is a minor quibble. Mike Meyers was the John Belushi, Eddie Murphy, Will Farrell, and Bill Hader for many of us. Long before he was Austin Powers or Shrek, he was “Sprockets” host Dieter, “Coffee Talk’s” Linda Richman, and Lothar of The Hill People. It was good to see him back.
As Michael Che suggested during Weekend Update, you may need to be white to know anything about NPR’s popular podcast, Serial. Still, the loving send-up “Christmas Serial,” works as a perfect parody of the kind of gently prodding narrative journalism NPR is known for. Cecily Strong as Serial host Sarah Koenig politely pries into what sounds like a complete hoax…or is it? This is most certainly a Top 5 of the year piece for SNL.
Both “Asian American Doll,” a satire of “sensitivity-trained” toymakers, and “Tenderfield Video Christmas Card,” a sardonic spoof of the smug “Christmas Jammie” wearing Holderness Family, take sharp, pointed, and quite funny jabs at the holiday excesses of our age. This is where Saturday Night Live finds its cultural relevance, its moral compass. The season’s most successful sketches and pre-tapes thrive here—wryly prodding in the muddled and conflicted middle of Middle America’s unwitting hypocrisy.
On the contrary, when SNL reaches for some semblance of political satire, such as the clumsy “A Very Cuban Christmas” sketch, or the vaguely pointless “Singing Sisters,” it feels like an opportunity wasted. Unfortunately, Amy Adams’ Opening Monologue, an aimless holiday-themed musical number, suffers the same fate: it’s a whole lot of comical activity, without a point or even a resounding laugh. The viewer is left without so much as a lingering smile as the show cuts to commercial.
Incidentally, was anyone as excited as NBC and SNL promo producers this week with the booking of musical guest One Direction? Honestly. Where is the SNL audience demographic overlap with “1D” fans? And why didn’t they perform a Christmas song? One Direction on SNL serves the needs of entertainment corporation cynics and cultural anthropologists only: “Take note, students! The vestigial remains of what we once referred to as a ‘boy band.’” I mean, look at them! Men, who would actually be better people with desk jobs, bored wives, and occasional dinners at Red Lobster.
So that’s ten episodes in the can for SNL40 this season. It’s been a roller coaster of a season to date. A few outstanding episodes, and a few regrettable ones… but all of them overshadowed to one degree or another by our awareness that Saturday Night Live is entering the pantheon of longest-running network television shows this year. And we are all asking ourselves if it belongs there.
SNL at 40 is holding steady at a C- as it heads into mid-season. Here’s hoping they can bring that average up to an A by season’s end.
SNL 2015: Kevin Hart 1/17, 40 Anniversary Special 2/15
Chris White writes and directs independent feature films. His latest, a showbiz comedy about looking for Bill Murray, is called
. Follow Chris on Twitter.