What’s wrong, what still works, what SNL needs

Posted: January 2, 2014 at 2:54 a.m.

If there’s one show on television that makes expert critics of us all, it would be NBC’s Saturday Night Live. We’ve had so much practice - coming up on four decades - that it’s almost as if SNL exists mainly so viewers can dump on it.

Along the way, it has been SNL’s good fortune and bad luck to become an American institution saddled with obligations. I happen to enjoy SNL in a slump season because it feels like it’s new and full of possibility. Other viewers, during off years, beat up on SNL for failing their expectations, which are surprisingly deep and complicated, given that it’s a comedy show. We demand much - sometimes too much, I think - from SNL. A happy example would be how Facebook users demanded that Betty White host the show in 2010 and how executive producer-for-life Lorne Michaels gamely granted this wish.

But lately SNL has been faced with a more serious shortcoming, which also required public demand and swift remedy: Far too many seasons went by without a black woman in the cast, to the point where even the most dense viewer could notice the lack of diversity and missed opportunities for topical humor. Thus, auditions have been held and a black woman reportedly will join the show in January, where she can participate in sketches that could elevate and illuminate the satire without playing down to stereotype or merely checking off a box. (Cross your fingers, girl.)

Although we occasionally want SNL to reflect life back to us, most viewers still just want it to be funny. Or funny again, as some swear it used to be. Criticizing SNL almost always centers on a belief that the show was better two seasons ago, or four seasons ago, or back in 2004, in 1993, in 1987,and, most of all, in the mid- to late 1970s. It helps to have lived just long enough to remember for certain that SNL has never been fully brilliant in any year.

Saturday Night Live was always a talent show and a train wreck at the same time, and even now, in one of its dreaded “rebuilding years” with a raft of new and newish cast members and featured players and a departing head writer (Seth Meyers, 39, off to host NBC’s Late Night), SNL manages to be funny - sometimes by luck, but just as often through skill.

The show is in many ways immune to criticisms about its wavering quality from era to era, mostly because its legend is built upon the art of improvisation, which understands that brilliance can be found in the pretty-good-try. The only way to truly enjoy SNL (in good years and bad) is to watch from a place of habit and forgiving optimism; otherwise, all you’ll ever see - particularly this season so far - are the show’s consistent flaws.

These include innumerable sketches that peter out five seconds after they begin - a problem SNL has always grappled with, but is worse now. It’s also painful to watch attempts to launch new recurring characters in the void left by the recent departures of Bill Hader, Fred Armisen and Kristen Wiig.

It’s also tempting to resent the show’s sentimental habit of bringing SNL alums back for guest spots, as with Tina Fey hosting this season’s opener in September; or when Wiig showed up recently to reprise her magnificently goony “Dooneese” character as an oddball von Trapp child in a Sound of Music Live! spoof.

In one way you’re relieved to see them back; in another way it signals that the cycle is basically inert. Saturday Night Live spends far too much of its time now being self-referential and nostalgic. Sometimes it seems the only audience the cast members are playing to is themselves.

SNL simply has too many friends asking for too many favors - evidenced by an endless stream of celebrity cameos that mainly serve to promote films starring alums or longtime friends of the show. When it’s like that, SNL reminds me of being part of a captive audience in a high school pep assembly, watching the popular kids act out their lame sketches.

In a weakened state, it’s also easier to notice SNL’s puzzling dependence on old premises, such as lampooning talk shows of the sort that no longer exist or only ever existed on SNL (“Girlfriends Talk Show”; “Lady Gaga’s [talk] Show”), or making very old hay out of the game show genre (“New Cast Member or Arcade Fire?”; “Cartoon Catchphrase”). These set-ups no longer apply to SNL’s original mission: to lampoon contemporary culture.

Yet, despite the slump, SNL still offers the security of ritual - something of real value in a pop-culture era that worships disruption and upheaval. The show’s format is as inviolable as the Mass liturgy. (Mass, that is, if more than half the priests were Jewish.) It starts with the “cold open,” where SNL displays its desire and its flailing inability to deliver relevant political satire, followed by monologue, sketches, a song, “Weekend Update,” more sketches, another song, and then, most delightfully, the back end of the show, which is an experimental playground for anyone still awake. What SNL has going for it - what it has always had and remarkably retains - is its confidence in and surrender to youth, even though it is controlled by a 69-year-old man. Among the new (or relatively new) performers remains a sense of lark and pleasure in partaking in the show’s vaunted traditions. The women in the cast, especially, are harnessing a long-overdue interest in post-feminist comedy; they are beneficiaries of the work Fey, Wiig, Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph (among others) did in the 2000s.

Kate McKinnon, 29, who came on as a featured player in 2012, proves her versatility in each episode, whether she’s playing a celebrity or a teacher or a politician (Kathleen Sebelius; Angela Merkel) or a dour foreigner (impoverished babushkas; Angela Merkel). She also excels at surreal, uncategorizable characters like Sheila Sovage, a barfly who throws herself at the last remaining customer at closing time.

The same praise applies to the superlative Vanessa Bayer, 32, who joined in 2010 and now finds herself capably shouldering sketches all through the show, the way Wiig used to, whether she’s playing Miley Cyrus or her greatest contribution to date, Jacob the Bar Mitzvah Boy, who comes onto “Weekend Update” and painfully, nervously sticks to a prepared text filled with Borscht Belt attempts to make his grown-up relatives laugh.

Cecily Strong, 29, will take over as “Weekend Update” anchor this month when Meyers departs. Her co-anchoring during the fall still felt a little flat and came at a terrible price: So that she could play anchor, we’ve lost her best character, an “Update” commentator called the Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With at a Party. (It’s a tragesty, Seth.)

The men are on less sturdy footing. Jay Pharoah, 26, patiently outlasted SNL’s ineptitude at using its minority performers and now does a passable President Barack Obama and a manically funny take on ESPN commentator Shannon Sharpe, among other characters. Taran Killam, 31, can do anything, which means he has to do everything. It’s exhausting to watch him try to be Hader, Armisen and even Jason Sudeikis all at once. Bobby Moynihan, 36, is similarly good at filling gaps, but his characters - “Update” commentator Drunk Uncle among them - run too quickly into the ground. Kenan Thompson, who is only 35 but has been on the show for a decade, seems at long last bored with his work - a feeling conveyed to the viewer.

And though SNL was dinged for adding too many young white guys to its supporting cast this season (five of them), they’ve shown themselves to be funny and not entirely indistinguishable from one another if you pay attention, especially 29-year-old Beck Bennett (known to TV watchers as the stern businessman in the AT&T commercial who sits at a table and talks to kindergartners about cell phone coverage), who was very funny recently as a chief executive who behaves like an 11-month old baby.

Though their hearts (and theatrical training) belong to the live stage, today’s SNL performers tend to succeed most in the pre-recorded bits. Short film has been with the show since its earliest days (think Walter Williams’ “The Mr. Bill Show” all the way up through Robert Smigel’s dangerously funny and still missed “TV Funhouse” cartoon clips). The form took a huge and relevant leap forward when Andy Samberg and his collaborators delivered “SNL Digital Shorts,” and brought the show much-needed juice as a source of Internet fodder.

The millennial members of this cast and writing staff seem most naturally drawn to this genre, whether it’s in sustaining SNL’s tradition of pre-filmed commercial spoofs (“Autumn’s Eve pumpkin spice” feminine hygiene products; or a brutally spot-on fake ad for those tacky H&M clothing stores) or in weirder, one-off films. Bennett and another new featured player, Kyle Mooney, 29, seem most at home in this format, especially in a recent film in which two fraternity members explain their elaborate rules for beer pong.

What the new crop is very good at is playing awkward and comically pathetic people.

This is where today’s comedy is headed - not in celeb impressions and riffs of political news, but in smartly observed renditions of everyday people. I like SNL best when it follows those instincts.

Weekend, Pages 25 on 01/02/2014


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