Monday, May 23, 2011

Saturday Night Live: Season 36, Episode 22: Justin Timberlake/Lady Gaga

I know I tend to be hard on Saturday Night Live, and I don't always mean to be. I have very high expectations for the show, as if a part of me anticipates that it will somehow live up to the memory of how funny and subversive the show seemed when I was a kid. In reality, SNL probably was no more a paragon of smart, consistent humor then than it is now. And, by its thirty-sixth season on the air, the show has at least demonstrated an ability to connect with new audiences, even if this means occasionally alienating audiences who've left the target demographic.

Regardless, I came into this week's season finale with high hopes. Justin Timberlake is a heck of a performer (something I'd never have imagined saying ten years ago!) and knows how to entertain the crowd. His track record as a host has been pretty solid, as he's not afraid to try new things and really give the show his all, so I had reason to believe that this inconsistent season would end well.

The night's first sketch, a cold open set at Riker's Island, made me feel as though my hopes had been well-placed. The sketch, far more writerly than SNL's typical fare, involves Kenan Thompson and Jay Pharoah as two convicts sharing a cell with embattled former IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn. The joke here, of course, is that these hardened criminals only want to talk about international monetary policy, and the writers do well combining the technical economic jargon with more street-level hard language. The bit doesn't go on too long, and the final twist—"It's been really good talking with you, Mr. Strauss-Kahn." "Yeah, it truly has... so, uh, we gonna rape you now."—is no less funny for being obvious.

After that, Timberlake's monologue song kept my hopes high. Typically, sung monologues are a risky proposition, but the irony of the premise—a song about how Timberlake was not the musical guest and would therefore not have to sing tonight—worked. The writing is again quite clever, and Timberlake's voice and charisma raise the bit above the usual song-a-logue.

Unfortunately, this is the last original bit to air for the rest of the show. If there's one thing that routinely drags this show down, it's the excess of recurring sketches and characters. Now, to be clear, recurring bits aren't automatically bad. If the writers find new ways to play with a sketch's themes and characters, then there's no reason not to bring it back for another go. The problem with the majority of SNL's recurring sketches is that they were one-joke bits the first time around, and rarely if ever get any more nuanced than that in subsequent appearances. Instead of having a purpose, these bits play more like filler, or bones tossed to appease the audience.

There's some justification for tonight's first recurring bit, at least. The "Bring it on Down" sketch, where Timberlake plays a mascot who repurposes pop songs as jingles for a local shop, has become a staple of his hosting appearances. Unlike the other retreads, which happen willy-nilly, regardless of who's hosting, this bit only shows up once a year or so whenever Timberlake's in town. This instance doesn't exactly break new ground, and it goes to the well way too often with Kristen Wiig's character's use of the word "teabag," but Timberlake's earnest enthusiasm carries the bit a long way. Lady Gaga's appearance (as a Gaga-esque wine mascot) is also welcome, though it's a welcome she gradually wears out through her cameos in several sketches and her baroque, overly-long musical numbers.

Then we get yet another appearance from Bill Hader's senile news reporter Herb Welch. I thought this bit was funny as a one-off thing, but its popularity has led to a couple of return engagements, none of which have taken the bit into new territory. Instead, they stick to the formula: Welch is old, he says and does inappropriate, sexist, and racist things, hits the host with a microphone a couple times, and dies for a few moments at the sketch's conclusion. I could see this bit working better if they'd take Welch out of the man-on-the-street interview format, for a change, and give him a more important or whimsical story to cover. But by mining the same ground, the sketch turns up nothing but dirt.

Hader is also a part of two other purposeless recurring bits, hosting two game show sketches that we've seen before. The first, "What's That Name?," at least adds the twist of having Lady Gaga be good at the game (unlike JT and the guests on previous iterations). But is it a funny twist? Not really. The underlying joke is still the same thing: most celebrities are narcissists who don't bother remembering people's names. I did laugh at Taran Killam's appearance as Timberlake's forgotten *NSYNC bandmate Chris Kirkpatrick (aka "Chardy?"). The other game show, another occurrence of the interminable "Secret Word," is even less successful. Timberlake is fine as a terrible mentalist, but this sketch belongs to Wiig's self-aggrandizing Mindy Grayson, a character that I've never found funny. She's just another member of Wiig's manic, wide-eyed stable of caricatures, and the joke of her inability to play Secret Word has long since run its course. Still, the audience seemed to love both of these sketches, and was generally raucous with their approval all night long. Maybe this stuff just works better in person?

At least a few of the recurring bits worked just fine over the airwaves, too. Chief amongst these was the reappearance of Taran Killam's creepy animatronic musicians. The sketch is essentially a carbon copy of its last appearance during the Jim Carrey episode, except that Timberlake is even better than Carrey at moving like an uncanny-valley dwelling robot. I think it's the subtlety and skill of this bit's performers that make it better than the other retreads; Hader's unsettling smile as the triangle-playing robot is alone worth the price of admission. And, as expected, this week's Digital Short continues the adventures Timberlake and Andy Samberg's characters from previous outings "Dick in a Box" and "Motherlover." This week, their song expounds upon the "golden rule," which states that, when it comes to homosexual behavior, "It's OK when it's in a three-way / It's not gay when it's in a three-way." The clever wordplay, spot-on song parody, and the characters' continued descent into absurdity make this one of the better sketches of the night, even if it's not quite as strong as either of its predecessors.

Finally, the show closes with the other inevitable Timberlake sketch, another visit to "The Barry Gibb Talk Show." No matter how often they trot it out, this bit always manages to elicit a few laughs from me, typically whenever Jimmy Fallon's voice jumps octaves in mid-sentence. Still, this week's version felt oddly short, and barely seemed to get going before it ended. I'm not even sure if the show's "guests" got so much as a line apiece.

Anyway, in spite of its early promise, this episode proved to be business-as-usual, on a par with this season's mediocre standards. During the end-of-show goodnights, I couldn't help but look at the cast and wonder who amongst them had just made their final regular appearance. Personally, I hope Wiig decides to move into movies full-time, as it's a milieu that allows her to be more flexible and less dependent on going BIG all the time. I've also just about had it with Fred Armisen, as, throughout his tenure on the show, his characters have all relied on the same two or three gimmicks. For the featured players, I'd love to see Paul Brittain and Killam given bigger showcases, and still think that Pharaoh could be great if he learns to act and not just read cue cards. Nasim Pedrad and Vanessa Bayer (who I believe was the only cast member without a sketch tonight) are both perfectly fine, if not Wiig-style lead role material, and I hope they both get the chance to do more next year.

I don't know which changes, if any, will take place over the summer, though I hope that something is done in service of this show's venerable history. Then again, perhaps it's just in the show's nature to remain mostly the same, even as its fans grow up and start wanting it to become something else. And that's fine, too. I'm at peace with no longer being part of the audience that wildly applauds Wiig's mugging, or turns a Digital Short viral, or impersonates favorite characters amongst friends. And even as I criticize the show, I'll always be rooting for it at heart, whether it's capable of fitting my definition of "good" comedy or not.

Notes and Quotes
  • Once again, Seth Meyers's "Weekend Update" provided some of the funnier lines of the evening:
    • On Donald Trump's claims that he "would have won" had he stayed in the Presidential race: "Pretty bold, when you consider the fact that he's not even winning his timeslot."
    • During the extended "Really?!" bit about Arnie's lovechild: "Also, I couldn't help but notice every one of your movies makes a perfect New York Post headline for this story: Junior. Twins. True Lies. Predator. Judgment Day. Collateral Damage, and Raw Deal."
    • Describing the new Internet fad Planking as "the act of lying face down, keeping one's body stiff while balancing on top of something. Or what Protestants call 'sex.' "
  • I'm still not a huge fan of Samberg's Nic Cage impression during these "Get in the Cage" bits. He sometimes sounds almost like Steven Seagal, or some sort of stereotypical Native American. But the concept is a funny one.
  • Barry Gibb: Lycanthrope? "I can't be trusted when there's a FULL MOON!"
  • "Bitch, you know I ain't got no love for Portugal!"
  • I have a feeling the "Helicopter Dick" is a move that will take the nation by storm
  • Regarding Gaga's musical bits: She sure knows how to craft a pop hook! But man, everything else about her performances just distracted me, not least the synth and the digitized/low-voiced backing vocals. The best part was when she sat alone at the piano and wailed. THAT I can support. The costumes and the spectacle set off my hard-wired "Trying Too Hard" alarm.
  • The only funny part of the Herb Welch sketch was when Jason Sudeikis's straight man anchor reminds Welch that his old colleague had been cremated, to which Welch mournfully replied, "They burned my friend!"
Well, that's the last of these SNL reviewcaps until the Fall. I'm not sure whether I'll continue them then or not. Who knows where we'll be then, hmm? We almost got raptured yesterday; anything can happen! I hope you've enjoyed these pieces, and thank you for reading!

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