Sarah Silverman worked for Saturday Night Live as a writer and featured performer during the show’s 19th season (1993-1994). That was the show’s first season after Dana Carvey’s exit. SNL was finding its footing that year, leaning on the talents of Chris Farley, Phil Hartman, and Mike Meyers to see it into what would become the “Will Farrell Era.”
Silverman watched that season mostly from the sidelines (very often from the vantage point of fake audience member), and has not been back to the show since. So it may come as a bit of a surprise that she was very much the old pro as host, even though it was her first time.
This week saw a solid offering from SNL, though not the kind of episode that defines the character of an entire season. The show is in transition this year, and still searching for its defining voice.
For those of us who enjoy watching that process (and celebrate the fact that it is allowed to occur live, on network television), SNL40 has been refreshing. For others, the show continues to be a bit of a disappointment. Still, there is more to like about this week’s show than last’s. Ultimately, SNL is getting better.
President Obama’s recent interview with 60 Minute’s Steve Croft is the subject of this week’s cold open. Assuming that Middle Eastern terrorists are slyly subverting U.S. social media to propagandize the masses, the sketch serves primarily as a set up for a series of very funny “ISIS Tweets” read by the President (ably portrayed by Jay Pharoah). This feels like a talk show bit… the kind of recurring joke Jimmy Fallon or Conan O’Brien might try. In fact, it belongs there—not opening Saturday Night Live.
SNL’s most memorable sketches have given us more than just celebrity impersonations and good jokes; they are built like great songs—on a solid story structure, with memorable refrains, and surprise. This week’s 60 Minutes sketch provides a few reliable chuckles, but it’s not what any of us are talking about today.
By chatting up a presumably unsuspecting audience member (Lindsay), first-time host Sarah Silverman gives us a sense of intimacy with the Studio 8H goings-on that we’ve not experienced before. We become unsuspecting audience member Lindsay. As such, we are Sarah’s BFF now… we are pulling for her.
It’s a lovely (and very funny) masterstroke from a performer who is going to be who she is, no matter what—SNL opening monologue tradition be damned. And it’s just the flash of creative writing—a playfulness with the show’s format—that bodes well for her contributions throughout the episode.
A pre-taped movie trailer parody, “Fault in Our Stars Trailer,” is strong. A sardonic send up of romantic illness films, the piece features Taran Killam as a wistful romantic who declares himself to a woebegone young woman (Silverman) he believes to have incurable cancer. Only… she has Ebola. Suddenly, Killam must find a way to fulfill his romantic promise at (literal) arm’s length, without catching the dreaded virus.
Best line of the night: “Because you can’t quarantine your heart.”
The episode’s strongest sketch is also its most heartfelt… and, perhaps, controversial. “Joan Rivers” finds the recently deceased comedienne hosting an old school celebrity roast in heaven. This is strange and wonderful stuff that some may dismiss as too dark, too soon. (Rivers on Richard Pryor: “The longest relationship he ever had was with multiple sclerosis.”) Silverman’s Joan Rivers impersonation is not great, but that’s not the point. This sketch was written as a tribute to Rivers. And there should be no doubt: Joan would have loved it.
Still, “Joan Rivers” leaves little for the talented SNL cast to do, save wear wigs and costumes, and look pretty. This is a problem, because too much talent is left mugging for laughs, rather than working for them. This failure speaks more to Executive Producer Lorne Michaels’ unwillingness to lean on his most talented stars to carry the show, than to the sketch’s dark conceit.
Fake ad “Whites” is a solid addition to SNL’s longstanding tradition of smart commercial parodies and spot-on political satire. Here we meet America’s cheerful but declining cultural elites: white people. “Whites. Still calling the shots to around 2050… or 2060.” A happy surprise: a cameo by (very white) writer Mike O’Brien… who was sent back to the writer’s room after a couple of seasons in the cast.
“Forgotten Television Gems” seems like a sketch that belongs after Weekend Update, rather than in the first half of the show. The joke is that female characters on television are most often portrayed as claws-out, bitch-mode conspirators against each other, rather than supportive and helpful friends. Point taken—but the piece never seems to get any lift. Keenan Thompson as host “Reese De’What” is funny. But the framing device, a nostalgic look back at a forgotten television gem, is tired. Perhaps the sketch would have been stronger as a straight-ahead fake TV show episode.
There may be other people in the band Maroon 5, but The Voice vocal coach Adam Levine seems to be the main point of the group. He and the others offer serviceable performances of hits “Animals” and “Maps” (No, not all Maroon 5 songs are named for first grade homework assignments), though, ironically, Levine’s vocals are the sore spot, as he croons like a man trying to win a nationally-televised singing contest. (Here’s to next week’s promised musical guest, soulful Irish singer-songwriter Hozier.)
Weekend Update, featuring head writer Colin Jost and new co-host Michael Che, was better this week than last. (FUNNY: “Who goes to Texas and Africa?”) Jost and Che are not actors, though an interesting subplot has emerged in their approach to Update, that of an ongoing meta-monologue between them… a pause in the fake-news reading to discuss the rules, the structure of what they are doing. This week Jost and Che discuss which words are allowable on television newscasts. One hopes that they continue to pursue this idea in future episodes.
Keenan Thompson is currently the longest-serving cast member on SNL. And this year (rumored to be his last) he is everywhere. The problem is that Thompson lacks acting range. To see his Al Sharpton is to see all of his characters—the tone deaf, shifty-eyed charlatan. Not that he isn’t reliably funny in this role… it’s just not the kind of broad comic acting talent that has propelled SNL in its finer seasons. Kate McKinnon, Kyle Mooney, Cecily Strong, perhaps even the new (and noticeably absent this week) Pete Davidson bring star-level comic range to SNL that make them stand apart from their (quite capable and reliable) fellow cast members.
SNL40 is in need of a cast star. And one has yet to emerge.
Saturday Night Live’s “B-side” (i.e. everything after Weekend Update) this week was reliably hit or miss… nothing worth staying up past Update for, but a few nice moments to seek out online.
An airport pickup turned marriage proposal disaster is funny enough (Bobby Moynihan is perfect as Sarah Silverman’s surprised and jilted boyfriend), but it is Beck Bennett and Kyle Mooney’s offbeat “Poem” that is (again) the find of the night. These two bring the freshest comic identity to SNL, though they are clearly limited to mostly pre-taped offerings late in the show.
The last sketch of the night, “Vitamix,” was a bit of a baffler. Silverman and Vanessa Bayer play infomercial-styled suburban moms riddled with guilt and insufferable pride in their materialistic accomplishments. The sketch feels like it needed more clarity of intent than it was given… though there was certainly some satirical promise in the attempt.
While this week’s Saturday Night Live was better than the premiere, the show is still suffering from a noticeable lack of go-to cast stars. Next week promises the return of former breakout SNL star Bill Hader as host. Perhaps this is the show’s chance to channel its reliable past to find something reliably new.
Chris White writes and directs independent feature films. His latest, a showbiz comedy about looking for Bill Murray, is called
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