Monday, May 16, 2011

Saturday Night Live - Season 36, Episode 21: Ed Helms/Paul Simon

Coming on the heels of last week's mostly-successful Tina Fey episode, this week's Saturday Night Live seemed primed to continue the momentum heading into next week's Justin Timberlake-hosted finale. Ed Helms is a pretty funny guy, and Paul Simon is a veteran of the show, having hosted and performed numerous times over the years. But, as ever, the proof is in the pudding, and this week's pudding unfortunately proved to be a demonstration of the things that have hurt SNL time and again.

For starters, Ed Helms was completely underutilized. It was pretty clear that he seemed nervous, and that perhaps performing on live TV wasn't his forte, but what of it? In the past, SNL has had musicians, politicians, and even athletes as hosts, and those inexperienced hosts often took central roles in the majority of sketches, sometimes with great success. I can't believe it would have been too hard for the writers to give a funny performer like Helms more to do than sitting on a couch and shouting at Kristen Wiig's Ann-Margret, or popping up briefly in yet another "What Up With That?"

Speaking of the latter, this episode was plagued with unfunny recurring sketches and bits. Sure, it had been quite a few episodes since "What Up With That" last graced us with its presence, but that hardly matters since it's still basically a one-joke sketch, a lazy-feeling bit of filler that has literally nothing to say. At least this week's iteration finally featured an appearance from the real Lindsey Buckingham, and he and Hader's fake Lindsey called out D'Andre for his repeated shunning. It almost, almost felt like a farewell performance for the bit, but something tells me that I'm overly optimistic, here.

Another recurring sketch at least gave Helms some screen time, even if it was also genuinely unfunny. This week saw the return of the "Song Memories" sketch, where four drinking buddies get together, sing a song, and tell increasingly inappropriate stories. The writing here was particularly bad this week. At one point, Ed Helms says to Andy Samberg, "Oh yeah, how is it being a Doctor?" as if that's something a human being would ever say except as the clumsy set-up to a joke. The bit's surreal closing gag about the friends being turned into a Human Centipede was so bizarre it even bombed with the typically-generous live audience.

One recurring bit that the audience somehow still enjoyed was the umpteenth "Weekend Update" appearance for Fred Armisen and Wiig as Garth and Kat. By now, I feel like I must be missing something, or like the joke must just be going over my head, because I really do not get it. It's just more of Armisen improvising his usual "terrible, self-unaware musician"-shtick with Wiig struggling to follow along, and that's ALL this bit has ever been. Whatever humor there may once have been behind the idea of a perpetually-underprepared singing duo who make it up as they go along, it was lost years ago. Yet somehow, despite the repetition, people still laugh, though perhaps I shouldn't expect anything else from a nation where Two and a Half Men is TV's top-rated sitcom. I just wish SNL had remembered Helms's experience on The Daily Show and used him as one of the now-standard three guests on the "Weekend Update" in place of Garth and Kat or the mildly-entertaining Anthony Crispino.

The only repeat bit that did work was this week's "Saturday TV Funhouse." I was pretty happy to hear the old standby "... a cartoon by Robert Smigel!" during the opening credits, but I admit I was disappointed when it turned out to be the return of "The Ambiguously Gay Duo!" Thankfully, Smigel found a way to make even that old chestnut into something new by turning the cartoon's motley crew into live-action characters. Ace and Gary were amusingly well-played by Jon Hamm and Jimmy Fallon, and the villains were like a Daily Show reunion, with Stephen Colbert, Steve Carrell, and Helms together again. The look and feel of the live-action stuff was like NBC's failed The Cape, which I now think might have succeeded had it been an absurd comedy instead of an absurdly-bad drama. But this sketch's success only supports my theory that SNL's best bits these days are the prerecorded ones.

The remaining sketches were pretty unremarkable. The cold open featured Jason Sudeikis's fine, mush-mouthed Wolf Blitzer, but also brought in Armisen's Obama in a mode that Armisen's mediocre impression can't support. He does fine when it comes to conveying the President's calm, even-tempered speech patterns, but totally falls apart whenever he has to show passion or fire, which was kind of the whole point of Obama's post-bin Laden "victory lap." In any case, the sketch carried on far too long and killed the joke as dead as Osama. The bit with Samberg as 1940's actor "One Take" Tony was strange and unfocused. It seemed like the writers didn't know whether to mine the humor from Tony's terrible acting, or his embarrassing verbal slips, or from everyone being too wrapped up in his undeserved nickname. As a result, the bit sputtered and choked. 

Finally, the aforementioned Ann-Margret bit was perfectly fine despite incorporating two of the standard Wiig personas I usually dislike (the "breathy, pseudo-sexy" and "manic flailing" ones). And, closing out the night, the political speech sketch finally gave Helms something to do on his own. He nailed the overall genericness of the Republican candidates, and the writing—"Hello, I'm either Tim Pawlenty, Mitch Daniels, or Gary Johnson" and "I know that I'm not Donald Trump or Newt Gingrich, because you know what they look like."—was clever and to-the-point. Even though Helms did flub a line, here, it still made me wish they'd used him more or at least let him assume some variation on his established comedic persona. This was the closest we got, and perhaps the closest we can expect from the show's current creative team.

Notes and Quotes
  • As tedious as "What's Up With That" may be, I still do laugh at Sudeikis's enthusiasm. I also enjoyed finally hearing from and learning the names of the other recurring characters from the sketch, for once. That also adds to my suspicion that they may indeed be retiring the bit, but time will tell.
  • The "Corn Syrup Producers" ad was another repeat. I liked Nasim Pedrad's attitude, here, but the ad is weakened by the reveal of her fat "daughter" (played by Bobby Moynihan). It'd have been better if they'd just let the joke be Pedrad's disdain for Wiig's overly-pushy, anti-corn syrup mom.
  • As usual, Seth Meyers had some good lines on "Weekend Update:"
    • Regarding the discovery of bin Laden's diary: "First order of business: "Who is Kimberly and why is she acting so fake?"
    • Rebuffing Pakistan's claims of ignorance about bin Laden's presence: "Hey, Pakistan, if your parents find weed in your bedroom, it's your weed."
    • Slamming McDonalds' attempts to redesign restaurants as Starbucks-esque casual hang-outs: "Of course, people don't 'hang out' at McDonalds; they 'end up' at McDonalds."
  • Ed Helms's monologue started off pretty slow, but began to pick up steam as it went on. I liked a couple of lines: 
    • "My costars Bradley Cooper and Zach Galifianakis have already hosted the show, so it was down to me, Mike Tyson, or the baby. And I'm so lucky that they were both unavailable."
    • On being a single guy people assume to be married: "I look like someone who waits outside of the Dress Barn holding a purse."
  • I also enjoyed Helms's baton twirling outfit, though I wondered if he felt at all funny saying "Paul Simon is here!" while dressed in a blue unitard...
  • Speaking of Paul Simon: I respect the man's career, I really do, but it almost sounded like both of the songs he performed were written by a computer programmed to make generic Paul Simon music.
  • What happened to Taran Killam? After featuring heavily in a few episodes and being one of the better performers this season, he's barely figured into the last couple of shows. Ditto his cohorts Paul Brittain and Jay Pharoah. Pharoah can't seem to buy a non–Will Smith role.
  • I'm voting for Hunt Mitchman!
Anyway, next week we close out the season with the usually-reliable Justin Timberlake and musical guest Lady Gaga. Let's hope the show goes out on a high note and uses the summer break to make some much-needed creative and cast changes...

1 comment: