Sunday, April 10, 2011

Saturday Night Live - Season 36, Episode 19: Helen Mirren/Foo Fighters

I don't want to bury the lede, so I'll just come right out and say it:

Helen Mirren is damned sexy.

OK. Now that THAT's out of the way, let's chat a bit about tonight's SNL. It might not have been as bad as last week's episode, but it suffered from many of the same problems. These issues were mitigated somewhat by Dame Helen's willingness to try more things than Sir Elton -- she played herself only in the Digital Short, and impersonated several other celebrities with some success -- but they still smarted plenty. It's hard to watch this show and not think: This could be better. This should be better. And given the caliber of tonight's host, those thoughts have rarely been more true.

The show kicked off with a cold open featuring Barack Obama delivering an address to the nation about how the last-minute budget compromise has left everyone unhappy. Armisen's Obama has always been a lukewarm impression; he nails the president's halting cadence when speaking without passion, but can't seem to hit the mark on fierier, punchier lines, killing the bit's energy. The litany of unhappy folks and their reasons was well written, but Armisen's impression just doesn't have the emphatic zing these jokes need, unlike, say, Will Ferrell's George W. Bush. Still, I laughed at the line about non-essential government employees; how soul-crushing that designation must feel!

Next, Helen Mirren's monologue was actually quite entertaining. First, she laid down a sick burn on last week's episode, saying "Since most people know me from playing the Queen, I was afraid that they'd make me play a queen in every sketch. But they did that last week with Elton John." Then, accompanied by the show's male cast, she burst into a song showcasing both her proper, Dame-like side and her bawdy, sexy side. The words were pretty funny, even if Mirren herself didn't sing so much as talk through the song Rex Harrison-style. These monologue-songs can be hit or miss, but this was a short, tight bit with plenty of charm, and had me hopeful for the rest of the show.

Sadly, Helen Mirren sometimes seemed to have caught Elton John's stiffness from last week. She certainly relied on the cue cards more than I expected, and although she tried, she never quite nailed an American accent, not in the too-easy Fox & Friends sketch, the flat and unfunny Roosevelts miniseries, or her brief appearance as a dunk-tank operator in the Under Underground Records bit. She even looked lost or dazed in a couple scenes. Given Dame Helen's copious charm and vast theatrical experience, I expected a little more out of her. Maybe SNL's quick turnaround time from writing to performance didn't allow her to get into her usual rhythm?

Aside from the Fox & Friends and Roosevelts sketches, the rest of the show had more ups than downs, overall. There was a reprisal of Andy Samberg's "Mort Mort Feingold, Celebrity Accountant," a bit that's essentially a bunch of brief impressions punctuated by intentionally bad jokes by Feingold and increasingly inane bits of his theme song. Here we got to see a couple overused impressions (The Kardashians, Armisen's Gaddafi), and some solid ones we've seen before (Jay Pharaoh's Will Smith and Paul Brittain's job-loving James Franco and, briefly Johnny Depp). Mirren showed up as Helena Bonham Carter alongside Bill Hader's spot-on Tim Burton. There were some laugh-out-loud moments -- such as when Feingold remarked that the Kardashians were "in the black," and Abby Elliot's Kim replied "Usually it's the other way around!" -- and this would have been one of the better bits of the evening without the grating Mort Mort Feingold shtick.

But that bit's format points to a bigger problem: the show relies pretty heavily on these list-type sketches, where characters or ideas come and go and the humor doesn't develop out of comic situations for the performers on stage. As we saw in the Obama sketch, delivery matters, but these sorts of jokes could just as easily be read by a narrator, as in the later Under Underground Records sketch. Those are always funny, but that's because they're mainly just brainstormed lists of repulsive band names, terrible ideas, and random people and events that have no business being at a Juggalo-esque festival. You can go to the well a hundred times in mocking the crude, defiantly tasteless lifestyle of these characters, but you're going to get diminishing returns. Did I laugh? Of course. Who wouldn't laugh at a name like DJ Vlade Divac or the inexplicable appearance of NY Times Crossword Editor Will Shortz at an event where attendees get a "Free KICK IN THE DICK?"

My problem is simply that, on a live show like SNL, the emphasis should be placed on what makes a live show different from a recording: The interaction of cast members with each other and with the audience, playing off of each other, building humor out of a shared scene. List sketches, even well-written ones, can inadvertently separate the performers from the jokes.

But when your performers seem to sacrifice versatility in favor of doing the same thing over and over again, I guess I can't get too angry about list sketches. Did Armisen's turn as Mary Shelley's monstrous-looking, Frankenstein-inspiring landlord Frank Stein require a New York accent? It's like no-one there has the nerve to stand up to Armisen and say "Just because YOU still think this is funny, doesn't mean it is." At least the concept and writing in that sketch let it work regardless of Armisen's incongruous accent.

I also enjoyed tonight's Digital Short, where Nasim Pedrad asks to touch Mirren's breasts and is transported (via a hilarious montage) to a Heaven-like dream world. The montage went from traditional sexy/awakening imagery to hilarious shots of Brendan Fraser clapping and Teen Wolf dunking. It was also funny to see that Dave Grohl was already in the world of Mirren's bosom, because why wouldn't he be? And although the show flogged the "Mirren's boobs" horse half to death, the bit still worked here.

Another sketch that mostly lived up to its potential featured Samberg as a Wolverine-haired Hugh Jackman hosting a talk show for performers with "two sides" -- toughness and tenderness. Here, he and Taran Killam's wonderful Gerard Butler arm-wrestled while singing karaoke, playing on their dual nature as stars of both action pics and musicals. The jokes regarding Kenan's Ice Cube felt like they needed more punch, as he was wasted until he joined Mirren's Julie Andrews in brutally murdering her assistant for putting the wrong kind of milk in her tea. Oh, and whoever picked Mirren's costume for this scene might as well have stolen the outfit from Andrews herself, so kudos there.

Anyway, I don't want to sound like I'm coming down too hard on the show. It really wasn't bad, and even when it missed the mark tonight, it didn't miss by too much. And, for once, almost every cast member had one or two key parts to play, which means Lorne's finally opening up his whole ensemble instead of overworking the "stars" (such as they are). I really think that the show could be near a renaissance with a couple of cast changes and perhaps some new blood in the writing room. They're just not quite there yet.

Random Thoughts:

  • The Fox & Friends sketch was really generic, though I was amused by the closing crawl of the errors spotted by the fact checkers (more list humor!), which included things like "Green is a color" and "Jane Fonda lives in America."
  • I don't have much to say about Weekend Update. Meyers had a few good lines, but again they interrupted his flow with three guests, only one of which (Hader's brilliant James Carville) was at all funny or memorable.
    • One good line from Kristen Wiig's Southwest flight attendant: "I sensed that the top of the plane was maybe not as... there... as it had been." Wish they'd stuck with that calm detachment instead of mingling that with her standard manic stuff.
  • Mostly enjoyed the commercial spot for "Perspectives Photo Studios," who specialize in flattering penis shots for men to sext at less-than-willing women. I found the visual humor, especially for the "Action Shots," very funny.
  • The closing sketch, set in a strip club, was overlong and listless, though Sudeikis's delivery as the DJ/Announcer sold the humor in lines like: "They call her Lace because she's thin, white, and full of holes! One's from a bullet!"
  • Hader's Burton on his tax receipts: "I made them into a Dream Spider!"

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