Sunday, April 3, 2011

Saturday Night Live - Season 36, Episode 18: Elton John (AND FRIENDS!)

While my heart wants to give SNL the benefit of the doubt and say that this venerable show has had more ups than downs this season, my brain knows that would be overly generous. With few exceptions, the show has had a rough year. Some of the sketches have had good ideas behind them, but of these merry few, fewer still have had the execution to match. I have my own theories about what Lorne and Co. need to do to fix this, but I'll spare you that treatise for now -- aside from noting that Fred Armisen and Kristen Wiig have got to go -- and focus on the task at hand.

So how was this week's show? Sadly, it fell into an all-too-typical pattern for late-era SNL: attempting to wring laughs out of recurring sketches, finding maybe one or two funny moments in each bit of new material, and otherwise aiming just slightly to the left of funny, hitting the target wide of where a sketch's humor hot-spot might have been found. It makes me sad that I could copy and paste this paragraph into a review of almost any episode this season, but my sadness doesn't make it any less true.

This week's cold open was another rehash of the recurring Lawrence Welk bit, where your standard cutesy sister triple act is joined by their bizarre, deformed, and seemingly deranged fourth sister, played with manic cheer by Wiig. I have a hard time finding humor in this concept. There's a fine line between Wiig's character's weird tics, and playing to stereotypes about people with developmental disorders. I don't think this sketch stays on the right side of that line, as the majority of the joke seems to be "People with odd-looking bodies are probably as gross and weird in the head as they look!" Still, host/musical guest Elton John did a fine job here as the group's "confirmed bachelor" accompanist, having long since mastered the appropriately campy mannerisms that role required.

Sir Elton certainly does not lack for charm, and he was at his most charming during the monologue, when his reliance on the cue cards was at its least noticeable. His limitations were more obvious during the sketches, several of them suffering from the cold, static blocking required to allow Elton better line-of-sight on the cue cards and keep his stiff movements to a minimum. But he shined in the monologue, nailing quite a few solid jokes about he and David Furnish's new child -- for instance, regarding their decision to adopt: "Neither of us can become pregnant, though I promise you we tried our hardest." The man's a true entertainer, and his great job here prompted me to write in my notes that SNL should always have British hosts, as it seems the Brits are bred for the stage. In spite of that, I have to think that Elton would be better suited to a traditional sitcom rather than a live show, at least insofar as memorization and multiple takes are concerned.

The subsequent sketches revealed how the cast and crew decided to handle Elton's limited abilities: tons of special guests. The ESPN Classic bit (the 1985 KY Jelly Ladies' Shot Put Championship) didn't even feature him at all, though it saw appearances by Tom Hanks and Carmelo Anthony, as well as the return of Will Forte, a cast member whom I was quite glad to see go. Thankfully, he was good here, keeping his shouty tendencies at bay. The whole "clueless, half-mad sports commentator" thing has kind of hit its sell-by date post-Best In Show, but somehow Forte and his partner Jason Sudeikis mostly pulled it off. That said, a few lines (that obvious "bare hands"/"bear hands" thing) and some of the forced references to KY's sponsorship fell flat. Carmelo almost felt superfluous as a manly female athlete, as though the producers only had him on the show because they could.

Following that, we had a Britcom sketch ("Fancy A Jar, Do You?") interrupted by a BBC News report about a dragon attacking London and the subsequent activation of the Knights of the Realm. I wonder why the writers felt the need to tack on the interruption bit rather than just starting the sketch as a breaking news update, though it seems typical of the scattershot approach the show has taken lately. The sketch's idea -- that today's Knights are all goofy celebs unfit to defend the nation from anything, much less a dragon -- is pretty well-worn comedic territory, and having Sir Elton play himself, rather than mocking some other famous Sir, was another safe choice. But there were a few laughs, from Bill Hader's self-cloning daredevil Sir Richard Branson ("I just came from Space!) to the pompous Bono (Andy Samberg), to the one-off gag of Kenan as Sir Mix-a-Lot. Tom Hanks was also fine as an interminably halting Sir Michael Caine, but Taran Killam's Ian McKellen was disappointingly shouty, showing that he hadn't developed much more than a one-note impression (much like his Brad Pitt earlier this year). The sketch's best line, however, came from Paul Britain as the BBC Newsreader relaying the dragon's demise at the hands of "Sting, who, I'm putting this as delicately as possible, jizzed all over it... until it died."

From here, the sketch quality declined significantly. Even the usually-solid Digital Short was just another retread of Laser Cats, this time as a musical. But there were no new jokes there, really, and the lyrics and songs lacked any wit. I get that Laser Cats is meant to be bad, but I imagine it's also meant to be funny, and this wasn't. Later, there was another retread, with Fred Armisen and Hader reprising their take on Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip as secret Cockney toughs out of a British gangster pic. Of course, Armisen had to do something musical because he literally cannot help himself, putting Liz behind the drum kit on a punk song that closed the bit in lieu of any actual punch line. Oh, and Elton played himself again, as that's SNL's go-to move when they don't know what else to do with a host.

The final two sketches had premises that could have gone somewhere, but which were derailed by the writers' inability to find the sweet spot. The LOGO channel film review bit had its moments, mostly because I wanted to hang out and watch movies with Killam and Elton's campy life-partner co-hosts. But instead of developing funny dialog, the writers went with a simple three-fold escalation as the sketch's central gag, with Killam's attemps to pull the bitchier Elton out of his shell via song leading to increasingly intense make-outs. There was no reason for Nasim Pedrad (as Vanessa Hudgens) to be there, and the bit ended rather abruptly after what felt like about a minute and a half. The other late sketch, with Elton as a flamboyant cowboy who rides (on a unicorn!) into a Western saloon, was really hampered by Elton's stiffness. It didn't help that the writers elided out the more-potentially funny bits (his character charming the saloon crowd with witty stories) in favor of the safer "characters don't understand that he's gay!" stuff instead. Still, the last-second reveal -- that Sudeikis's tough guy and Hader's bartender are a couple, and Sudeikis was acting cold towards Elton to avoid hurting his partner -- was funny.

As usual, the night's best bit was the Weekend Update. Seth Meyers really comes into his own when he goes on extended riffs, and tonight's gag comparing Republican presidential hopefuls to cast members on the Celebrity Apprentice was particularly inspired. Unfortunately, the writers felt the need to interrupt Meyers with three guests bits, none of which were needed. Armisen's Gadhafi is about as funny as anything else Armisen does (so not at all), while Kenan's appearance -- as the inattentive and rage-prone zookeeper responsible for the Bronx Zoo cobra's escape --was totally overplayed. The last guest segment, Get in the Cage (featuring Samberg as Nic Cage alongside the real Jake Gyllenhaal) milked a couple of laughs out of Cage's weirdness and proclivity to take any film role regardless of quality, but I was not impressed by Samberg's Cage impression, which often sounded more like Owen Wilson to my ears. Gyllenhaal had the best line: "You're doing fine, man, you're in every movie. You're like the white Samuel L. Jackson!" Still, I wish the writers would cut back on these asides and give Meyers freer reign to riff as he sees fit, but since Meyers is the Head Writer, perhaps I'm barking up the wrong tree.

Overall, this wasn't a terrible outing, compared to some of this season's low points. It doesn't help that I can't think of a single episode, this year, that was solid from start to finish. Given his limitations, Elton John was a trouper, and Tom Hanks is always a welcome presence. SNL hasn't yet totally destroyed my goodwill; I still tune in each week and hope for the best. But sooner or later, I may have to accept that uneven, repetitive, easy bits like tonight's are the best the show can do, and at that point I'm not sure I'll want to give them an hour and a half each week that could be better spent watching things I'll enjoy on Netflix Instant.

Random Thoughts:

  • Forte, responding to a question about how far female shot putters can throw: "Well, if the average man is around five inches, then for maximum pleasure, you're just gonna wanna put it all in."
  • At times, I felt that Elton John looked and sounded vaguely like a cross between Stewie Griffin and Mad Men's Lane Pryce.
  • Britain's BBC reporter was called "Barnaby Xavier St. Hidgens III," and was filling in for "Fat Danny."
  • I felt as though Elton John's musical performances -- featuring the legendary (if barely audible) Leon Russell -- were fine. I couldn't personally distinguish the first song from the second, but they were well-executed and featured great back-up singing. Like a concert that would have really impressed my parents.
  • A few good Meyers lines from Weekend Update: 
    • "Let this be a lesson to you, Moammar Gadhafi: If you choose to stay in power, we will bomb you for two weeks every 27 years, like clockwork!" 
    • "This Thursday was opening day for the Yankees, and Friday was 'Well, Here Goes Nothing!' day for the Mets." 
    • And the reason that the Bronx has a reputation for being unhealthy? A restaurant, "Fat Mike's Fried Chicken and Punching."
  • Nicolas Cage's upcoming big plans: "I'm gonna have sex with the Declaration of Independence!"
  • Next week we get Helen Mirren! Maybe they heard me wish that only British folks would host from now on?


  1. Okay, was it just me, or were there some sort of awkward, irritating electronic beeps (fairly similar to old Nokia tones) whenever the audience began to react? It was as if there were a mute person in the audience using a device to signify laughter... just me?

  2. @Anonymous - Whoa! Maybe you've got super-sensitive hearing, but I didn't notice anything like that.

    Sometimes I get strange audio compression artifacts via digital cable, and they can sound mechanical and flanging... but I've never heard a ring tone-esque beep. Makes me wish I could have DVR'd that to try and hear what you heard. It'll have to wait until Netflix gets the episode tomorrow or Tuesday...

    For now, my advice is to visit your local paranoid conspiracy theorist and have him check you for implants. :-P

  3. Learn the difference between trooper (police/military) and trouper (performing arts) and when to use each.

  4. @pberry73 -

    If you find a mistake, I encourage you to point it out; it's great to get input from people who read the blog and notice the things that slip past me. I can certainly use the help.

    But if you choose to do so in such a condescending tone, it looks as though your intentions are to troll rather than to help. I mean, if you're so bothered by a simple, easy-to-miss, single-letter mistake that you're compelled to leave a rude comment about that rather than say anything of substance regarding my post, I've gotta think your intentions aren't good. Judging by the way you phrased your comment, you'd rather assume that I don't know the trouper/trooper difference than think that, maybe, I missed something in the edit. That certainly doesn't indicate that you think much of me!

    That said, while I'm tempted to leave the error as it is, out of spite, I will instead fix it, thank you for pointing out my mistake, and apologize profusely for the egregious harm my error has so clearly caused. Be comforted in the knowledge that your day can only get better from here!