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Thursday, January 6, 2011

Saturday Night Live Mid-Season Report

There’s a show that holds a very peculiar, very unusual position in my heart. I love it and hate it in equal measure – I want it to be better because I like almost everyone in it – and its something I like to talk in incredible detail about – but have no one to do that with because it is so very American.
And no, it’s not Glee.
It’s Saturday Night Live.

Ever since I started watching Saturday Night Live in its 25th season, I’ve been obsessed with it. It’s a comedy show that so rarely makes me laugh on the first viewing and yet has immense rewatchability. Like a comedy version of the WWE, there’s a show within the show – as we track the cast members and watch them forge their own comedy identities as they attempt to rise to the top.
This latest season – the 36th in the show’s history, is no more or less inconsistent than any other season the show has had. Head Writer Seth Meyers is clearly a very talented guy but under him, the show occasionally seems to be coasting when it feels like it could be so much more.
So as we begin 2011 – which will kick off with a highly anticipated episode hosted by none other than sketch comedy legend JIM CARREY (!!) – I’d like to take stock of the season so far, look at the cast and kick off my series of 2011 Saturday Night Live reviews – which, along the lines of all of my other reviews, will probably go into far too much detail…
The Best– Bill Hader, Andy Samberg and Jason Sudeikis
Hader: My absolute favourite person in American comedy right now and one of most agile and talented cast members the show has ever had. Has the ability to wring laughs out of the deadest of sketches and has developed a repertoire of characters that are uniformly brilliant. Stefon is the best thing on the show, Vincent Price never fails to amuse and Vinny Vedecci is a sketch that makes great use of poor hosts (Hello, Robert De Niro). His Julian Assange-as-Bond-villain is so well drawn that the show has used the character three times in a row – and put that down to Hader’s performance. The best thing about Hader, though, is his ability to add something to every sketch that he’s in, even if he’s not in it very much. A star – and thankfully a star that is finally getting the chance to shine.
Samberg: Like Hader, an excellent impressionist, a talented comedian and occasionally, just batshit insane. Which some of the best comedians are. It was a slow year for Samberg in many respects – nothing to match his Mark Wahlberg impression from a few years before – and none of his digital shorts really reached the heights of previous efforts. But then, along came his new Lonely Island single. “I Just Had Sex” is something I’ve watched maybe, oooooh, 37 times since it aired and it never gets less funny. Best Digital Short of the year and a frontrunner for Sketch of the Season. Samberg’s back.
Sudeikis: The go-to guy – an underrated impressionist and one of the best everymen on television. Also a guy who can read a line in ways even the writers couldn’t have possibly dreamed up. There’s something to be said for a really likeable performer. And of course he has the Sudeikis secret weapon: the best dancing on television.
Incredibly talented, but bad sketch magnets: Fred Armisen and Kristen Wiig
Armisen: I can’t remember a sketch this year where Armisen has been prominent that I have come close to enjoying. He’s a talented impressionist and a funny guy in general, he’s just always rubbed me the wrong way as a performer. Putting Nicholas Fehn aside for a moment, let’s look at his recurring characters. Of his Obama impression, the less said the better. His producer fill in character is awful, his Manuel Ortiz show is baffling and awful and his stenographer character – none of these characters are funny, creative or even entertaining. Yet they keep RECURRING. This isn’t to say he’s not a talented guy – he’s just better served as someone who features in other sketches – not as a lead. Like the Steve Buscemi of Saturday Night Live performers.
Wiig: Kristen Wiig is one of the best comediennes for as long as I can remember, bar none. She’s outstanding, but like anyone brilliant, she needs a writing staff that doesn’t indulge her worst tendencies. (Overacting, reliance on mugging, playing caricatures instead of characters). The Saturday Night live staff is anything but that. Allowing characters like Gilly and Penelope to flourish takes away from her likeability and stretches her too thin. She’s best when she’s playing normal people. And the Kat and Garth sketch is like the motherlode of the Wiig and Armisen conundrum. Rarely funny, easy to do and talent over actual, you know, jokes.
Solid if unspectacular – Seth Meyers, Bobby Moynihan
Meyers: Seth Meyers is relatively funny and very likeable every week. That’s all I’m really looking for from an update host. Let us never forget that every Update host in history has told a whole bunch of clunkers. The best thing about Meyers is that he allows the characters that grace his desk to take the spotlight. That’s important.
Moynihan: Isn’t quite there yet. Solid in most sketches he appears in, but always seems to be much more comfortable when a sketch isn’t live. His Snooki impression is probably the best thing he has going for him – at least as long as she stays relevant. Hasn’t got a solid character or niche (Ass Dan aside) yet, but give it time.
Found their niche: Kenan Thompson
Kenan is Kenan. His sketches are usually amusing, the most popular sketch on the show (What’s Up With That) is his and he’s excellent when playing indignant (see: Norman the Doorman from the Paul Rudd episode) and only occasionally veers into annoying these days. Classy performer who has really found his niche, after a long time on the show.
Bafflingly underused: Abby Elliot
I love Abby Elliott. I don’t understand why she’s dating Fred Armisen, but she’s one of the best female impressionists I’ve ever seen. She manages to capture the essence of the person she’s imitating and work out why that impression is funny. She’s great when in other sketches, she’s a great singer and dancer, she’s naturally funny and has been promoted to a regular castmember – so WHY ISN’T SHE IN MORE SKETCHES? SNL, please – more Abby, less Armisen.
Taran Killam: If you want to see one of the better, if subtle, impressions this year – watch the Unstoppable sketch (AKA the best thing in a terrible Scarlett Johannson episode) and watch Taran Killm’s Chris Pine. Brilliant. I don’t know who has a Chris Pine in their repertoire, but Killam is starting to make a habit of impersonating Hollywood Hunks. That could go somewhere. More screen time, please.
Paul Brittain: Just hasn’t had a chance. I liked his Johnny Depp, though I didn’t find the sex Ed sketch as funny as a lot of other people. Out of the four, the biggest chance to drop off the radar. I like him though.
Nasim Pedrad: I think Nasim might be in trouble. None of the sketches she’s got to take the lead in have been very funny, she has this strange habit of playing awkward children and her best character is in the Lickspit festival sketches, in which she’s not crucial. A serviceable Kim Kardashian is her other asset. Overall, though, I can’t see Nasim Pedrad being a huge loss to the show, should she not get a new contract at the end of the season.
Vanessa Bayer: Talented, luminous but a little bit one-note (Again, see the Scarlett Johannson episode, where she plays oddly similar characters in a lot of sketches) I think Bayer has a future. She has an adaptable face – though I’m yet to see her pull off a really good impression. (As evidenced by the fact she’s the weakest of the Kardashian sisters – and that was a strange sentence.)
Jay Pharaoh: Okay, Saturday Night Live, here’s what you need to do. You’ve got a talented African-American impressionist on your cast. He lacks a little bit of confidence in front of the live cameras, and still performs better in pre-recorded segments, but he’s very, very talented. Here’s how you harness that talent, and its very simple. Use him in sketches where the impression is not the joke. Let’s look at Unstoppable (Johannson) vs. Denzel Washington works in retail (Lynch). In the former, the impression lifts the joke of a sketch to a higher level, in the latter, the impression is the joke, and it fizzles quickly. Easy. Use him properly, because he could be a franchise player.
There’ll be a separate article looking at the hosts – but at the halfway point of the season there have been some gem hosts and great sketches. This is Saturday Night Live, so there’s been some awful work as well – but I think the show is starting to work out what its good at – and they’ve got a lot of talent on the bench. Here’s to a better second half of the season.

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