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Monday, April 4th, 2011

SNL Recap: I Think Elton John Might Be Gay

A few weeks ago, SNL alum turned conservative blogger Victoria Jackson made headlines with homophobic comments about a recent episode of Glee that featured two gay males kissing. She called the episode “sickening,” and said that the show was “shoving the gay thing down our throats.” Now, I doubt many people still associate Jackson with SNL, or view her as a spokeswoman for the show’s views. Still, it presents a bit of a PR problem when one of the hippest, most progressive programs in television history produced such a bigot.

Last Saturday was SNL's first new episode since those comments, and judging from the content of many of the sketches, it seemed like Lorne and co. were taking a stand. Was it just coincidence that Elton John, one of the world’s most outspoken homosexuals, would be hosting the show so close to Jackson’s rant, thus already providing each sketch with a gay-friendly tone? Perhaps, but following a former castmember’s anti-gay rant, when a show (especially a show that’s no stranger to making jokes about itself and its alumni) uses its first opportunity to comment by presenting a sketch featuring Elton John in a lavender tuxedo, I can’t help but connect dots.

While I’m proud of SNL for being so progressive, I still feel a little dirty about the way this episode exploited homoeroticism for laughs. It’s not like the writers expected the studio audience to do anything other than squeal like schoolchildren when they had Elton John and Taran Killam kiss and grope repeatedly in one sketch. When such an image makes us so uncomfortable, are we really that much more evolved than Victoria Jackson? Or is a dick joke somehow more sophisticated when it’s categorized as “gay humor”?

Whatever your thoughts may be on the issue, you can’t deny Elton John’s natural talent as a live performer, which suited him well in a strongly written and well-paced episode.

What hit:

Monologue. Elton John cracked a few jokes about being a millionaire and a gay father. His orchestrated, presentational flair put the audience at ease, although his delivery seemed like it would be better suited at the Tony’s. I prefer the monologues to have a more casual, off-the-cuff tone, but I suppose those sitting in the back row of 8H enjoyed themselves.

ESPN Classic: Ladies Shot Put. Will Forte, Tom Hanks, and New York Nicks player Carmelo Anthony made cameos in this ESPN commentary on a 1980s ladies shot put tournament. This sketch has always been successful largely because it balances three different games: the confused banter between the commentators (Jason Sudeikis, Forte and Hanks), the manly nature of the female athletes (Kristen Wiig and Anthony), and if either of those don’t make you laugh, the writers punched up the script with some pun-heavy KY warming jelly taglines. Boy, that Tom Hanks sure knows how to milk a line!

Knights of the Realm. A wacky premise sketch featured a panel of British “knights” (Elton John, Richard Branson, Bono, Michael Caine, etc.) discussing ways to stop dragons from attacking England. I loved the playfulness in structure: the sketch began in the middle of a hokey English sitcom titled Fancy a Jar, Do You? before jumping to a BBC news broadcast, before finally arriving at the knights panel. Whereas SNL normally jams celebrities together in some tired talk show format, with the goal of course being to show off the actors’ impersonation skills, I was impressed that all the characters here were instead tied together by a creative concept, and served the function of exploring that concept. Bonus points for the Spiderman musical jab.

Digital Short: Laser Cats, The Musical. I’ll always give credit to the Laser Cats series for inspiring the new Web genre of “poor production value comedy,” where the goal is to include as many cheesy special effects and transitions as possible. I was pleased that Samberg and co. fully committed to that joke with cheap songs, ignoring the pressure of musical episodes to go for a grand spectacle in the musical numbers. The Tom Hanks Wilson bit was a nice touch.

Weekend Update. Seth Meyers' joke lineup included a fun Celebrity Apprentice-themed appraisal of the potential GOP presidential candidates. Fred Armisen reappeared as Muammar Gaddafi, criticizing the military campaign in Libya by using the talking points of Obama’s American critics. It was a piece that was more politically pointed and interesting than funny, but it’s not like Real Time with Bill Maher has that market cornered. Kenan Thompson appeared as a klutzy Bronx zookeeper who keeps losing track of that snake (I bet PETA will have a few things to say about that beating), and Samberg continued SNL's recent Nicolas Cage jabs with a segment called “Get in the Cage.” While Meyers cracked up off camera, Samberg’s Cage harassed Jake Gyllenhaal with ridiculous taunts such as, “You can’t take your eyes off my strange skin, and lips that dance and quiver like banana slugs doused in salt,” and “I’m going to have sex with the Declaration of Independence.” I can only imagine the joy of the writing process for that piece.

Elton Visits the Queen. Another reprisal sketch featured Elton John meeting Queen Elizabeth (Fred Armisen) and Prince Phillip (Bill Hader) to talk about Prince William’s wedding reception. I really enjoy Armisen and Hader’s transformation into foul-mouthed, Cockney punks, though by now the physical gestures (lifting the skirt, pushing and shoving) get more mileage than mere dialect differentiation, evoking a class distinction lost to many on this side of the Atlantic. The punk song was fun, though the lyrics were a little difficult to make out (an affliction of many of Armisen’s musical sketches).

The Old West. This clash of context sketch placed a homosexual cowboy (Elton John) in a tough Old West saloon. It was a fine premise, and I was pleased that the sketch avoided the over-the-top homoerotic innuendo of some of the other sketches. Here, the gay cowboy actually had dimension, which we saw through comedic interaction with other characters. The twist at the end was brilliant — it not only provided a rare successful ending to an SNL sketch, but re-contextualized any perceived homophobia from earlier parts of the piece.

What missed:

Lawrence Welk Cold Open. While I don’t mind the frame parodying the classic variety show, Wiig’s freak-of-nature Dooneese character is starting to reach Gilly-status. The comedic heart to Dooneese is how proudly and blissfully alone she is (“With my by myself!” “I eat dinner in the dark!” etc.), but instead they keep pushing her physical deformities (baby hands, huge forehead) and disturbing behavior (putting a bird in her mouth). Popping bubbles with tiny hands will only get you so far when you aren’t writing funny things for your character to say.

The Silver Screen. Elton John and Taran Killam play a gay couple hosting a classic films talk show. There was an excellent premise buried here — cinema snobs are forced to interview uncultured teen stars like Vanessa Hudgens (Nasim Pedrad) — yet it got lost in the stereotypically gay bickering, snuggling and groping between the two. Sure, the interplay was fun, but the laughs here come from places of ignorance about gay culture, like how your parents just love The Birdcage despite being terrified of your gay roommate. By this time, SNL's pro-tolerance stance was loud and clear, but by treading into stereotype territory, they actually lost a little ground.

Elton John helmed a strong episode with the help of a number of friends; so many, in fact, that the goodbyes got cut off (in the west coast broadcast, at least). My only major complaint with this episode is that it relied a little too heavily on exploiting the host’s sexual orientation as source material for humor. Granted, Elton seemed perfectly comfortable, even playing up his gay persona, so it’s not like he was being victimized. But did we see so many gay-themed sketches when Ellen Degeneres or Neil Patrick Harris hosted the show? Obviously SNL isn’t a homophobic institution, and we should probably interpret this episode as a celebration of gay culture in the wake of a vicious attack.

I’m interested to hear your thoughts, readers. Did you think the gay overtones were a response to Victoria Jackson’s rant, or merely a reflection of the host’s public persona? What did you think of Tom Hanks? And are any other non-New Yorkers getting tired of the show’s local references, such as the escaped Bronx snake and the Carmelo Anthony cameo? Or are those similar to Broadway, a purely New York thing that the rest of America is expected to know and give a shit about?

See you in the comments section.

Erik Voss really loves SNL.

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  • http://popcornapocalypse.blogspot.com colinfisher

    I think a better example of a pro-gay SNL episode is the one Paul Rudd hosted after Prop 8 got defeated. Elton John hosting does sort of lend itself to the sketches we saw, regardless of anything in the news. Paul Rudd, not so much.

  • iamconnor

    i actually thought this was the only time that the Laurence Welk cold open was funny.

    I also thought the Silver Screen sketch was adorable because i've seen couples like that, and while there was another game they could have played with uncultured teens, i think it was funny the way it was.

    • http://eavoss.com Erik Voss

      I agree to an extent — all the nose touching was indeed adorable. That said, just because we all know people like that, i.e., redeeming examples of a stereotype, still doesn't make it okay for comedians to make jokes about it. Along the same vein, there are probably some black men who don't pay child support and women who are bad drivers. That fact doesn't make it open season on those groups either.

  • Scott Saslow

    "[...] Wiig’s freak-of-nature Dooneese character is starting to reach Gilly-status."

    Starting to? :-) (Seriously, as much as I love Kristen Wiig, too many sketches start out with interesting concepts only to end up being character pieces for Wiig's latest creations; interesting concepts be damned.)

    It's funny you mention SNL's local references. I have a friend who absolutely hates them. "Ooh, a joke about the subway." I never minded them, even before I moved up to the NJ/NY area.

    As for Miss Jackson… ugh. She also occasionally writes for a conservative website called Big Hollywood. As an independent, I can say that some of their contributors are quite good, even if I disagree with their politics sometimes. Ms. Jackson is probably one of their worst contributors, writing songs about the "Socialist in the White House" and so on. It's the worst kind of Obama Derangement Syndrome and she's simply a mirror image of everything the right accuses the left of being (Bush/Palin Derangement Syndrome). She offers no constructive criticism or alternatives and I almost wish she were more sarcastic and snarky with her Obama jabs; the fact that she's playing this all 100% straight (pardon the expression) almost makes it worse.

    • Megh Wright

      It's Junice! Does sound like Dooneese though, haha.

      • http://eavoss.com Erik Voss

        Is it "Junice"? I looked it up and most sites (nbc.com, hulu, the character's Facebook page) have it spelled as "Dooneese." The ridiculous names of SNL — this episode also gave us Greg Stink and Eric Sandrews — deserves a piece of its own.

        • Megh Wright

          Wow, that is a good idea. Good lord.

  • JoshUng

    I got to say, I thought this was one of the worst episodes in awhile. At first I was thinking, why so much Tom Hanks, then I was happy, because he was the only saving grace of the show to me. I didn't care for the Knights of the British Realm sketch, but Hanks was funny as Caine. I did think the Old West was kind of funny, but really only a chuckle or two. Elton John looked as out of place as athletes do when they host (assuming they aren't named Peyton Manning).

    Also, besides the opening sketch, did any of the female cast have any lines besides Kristen Wiig? Pedrad was Vanessa Hudgens, but I can't think of any other instances.

  • Spencer Hamilton

    As usual, you're pretty spot-on with your review. However, I think Laser Cats could not be any more played out. There were one or two funny moments, but at this point, I'm pretty tired of it, and it seemed like the audience agreed.

    And as far as NYC references, I'm usually pretty hip to most of them, as I'm sure most fans of the show are, but Carmelo Anthony is such a non-celebrity that he seemed shoe-horned into his sketch. I really don't like how SNL crams as many celebrities as they can into an episode these days. I was honestly surprised they didn't have the real Vanessa Hudgens come on the Silver Screen sketch.

    On the other hand though, I love Tom Hanks and I would watch him every week, but for someone who wasn't hosting, he seemed to be featured pretty heavily. I would have rather had him host and had Elton John just be the musical guest. I'm sure SNL would have still written Elton John into the couple of good sketches he was in from tonight.