Forty-one seasons in, Saturday Night Live knows better how to be what it once was than what it will become. Such is the curse of middle age: the overwhelming pull of nostalgia set against the yearning to grow, to improve…to get right before we are gone. With the return of former cast member Tracy Morgan (1996-2003), SNL is its old self again. And for a night, those of us who love the show are reminded why we still watch.
It should be noted that the Tracy Morgan so many of us love (and miss) is more 30 Rock’s “Tracy Jordan” than the stand-up comedian who made his way onto SNL in the ‘90s and held down a mid-level cast position for eight seasons. Indeed, it was then-writer Tina Fey who best understood Morgan’s genius for alternative comedy…off-kilter characters that transcend stereotype and eschew easy categorization. So it is fitting that Fey and fellow 30 Rock cast mates Alec Baldwin, Jane Krakowski and Jack McBrayer are all on hand for Morgan’s SNL homecoming. It is likely that writer-Fey is personally responsible for the episode’s most satisfying moment: a most welcome 30 Rock reunion that pre-empts Morgan’s opening monologue.
“Democratic Debate Cold Open” is Saturday Night Live’s best opening sketch in years thanks to the inspired send-up of Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders by ex-SNL staff writer Larry David. David, who famously quit the show in a huff, then skulked back in two days later, is an underrated comic actor. Many have compared Sanders to David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm self, but hats off to him for delivering the goods. David is on fire as both Sanders parodist and rock-solid sketch comedian. Alex Baldwin is terrific as tough-guy Jim Webb, and Kate McKinnon’s Hillary is back with a bite (after cozying up to Clinton a couple of weeks ago), but it is Larry David’s performance energy that pushes the sketch forward and ultimately sets the tone for the entire show.
“Family Feud-Extended Family” is SNL’s strongest send-up to date of the Steve Harvey game show juggernaut. Pitting a jilted wife and kids versus her ex-husband and his new family, the sketch is edgy, almost to the point of dark…but never bitter. Finely tuned sketches like this are rare given Saturday Night Live’s hurried production schedule. And though it is doubtful these Family Feud game show sketches will ever achieve “Celebrity Jeopardy” status, it’s encouraging to see good writing, directing and live acting happening in 8-H again.
The return of Tracy Morgan’s TV zoologist Brian Fellow, homeless troubadour Woodrow, and ‘60s sci-fi spaceman Astronaut Jones serve as comedy comfort food for fans of Morgan’s SNL work of yore. Morgan is sharp in these sketches (as long as wandering camels didn’t obstruct his view of the cue cards), but equally at home playing in new pieces. Pre-tape “Standoff” reminds us that Morgan has solid acting chops, while the late-in-show “Yo! Where Jackie Chan At Right Now?” gives us Tracy Morgan as Tracy Jordan in fine 30 Rock sketch-within-a-show-about-Saturday Night Live form.
Musical guest Demi Lovato performed a medley of hit “Cool For the Summer” and new song “Confident,” then returned later in the show for “Stone Cold.” Lovato was better (strong, actually) with her ballad than her band, but left little mark on the episode itself. Tracy Morgan really did fill the room. No musical breaks were needed.
We see middle-age SNL at its best and worst with Tina Fey’s brilliant Weekend Update monologue about Playboy Magazine’s recent decision to drop nude photos. At its best because this is what has been sorely missing this season: razor-sharp, topical satire met with fearless, star-level performance—Fey as nostalgia’s warm pull. At its worst because sitting there alongside her banal heir to the fake news desk Colin Jost, we witness the show’s furtive stumble toward what comes next. Saturday Night Live isn’t quite sure where it’s going next, so neither are we. The creeping sense that the show’s better days are finally behind it is troubling. There have been weak seasons of SNL before, but this feels more like an existential crisis.
Still, for a night at least, the past became present. And it was lovely thing to see.
SNL returns November 7 with guest host Donald Trump.
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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