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Monday, May 9th, 2011

SNL Recap: Tina Fey's Ode to Motherhood

I'm on the fence when it comes to “mom humor.” For me, topics like pregnancy, nursing, and raising a child fall within the categories of endearing or just plain gross. As much I want to laugh at Baby Mama, it will always be just another forgettable, heartwarming flick. I concur with DeAngelo Vickers (Will Ferrell’s character on The Office) about Jim and Pam’s daughter Cece: “That baby could be the star of a show called ‘Babies I Don’t Care About.’” The only mom on network TV that makes me laugh is Cameron from Modern Family.

Perhaps I just haven’t experienced enough in life to find the humor in morning sickness and signing report cards. But I think the contemporary stereotype of mother characters has limited their capacity for comedy. Too often are mothers portrayed as thick-skinned disciplinarians, complementing oafish husbands (see: The Simpsons, Family Guy, King of the Hill, Malcolm in the Middle, Modern Family, Home Improvement). Of course, writers have to be careful with what kinds of comedic flaws they assign to their mother characters – square-ness, overanalyzing and caring too much are okay, while stupidity, recklessness and selfishness risk making a negative statement about the gender as a whole.

Writing successful mom humor is certainly tough, so I’m impressed when anyone pulls it off, even a little. Such was the case last episode of SNL, where host Tina Fey (pregnant with her second child) got a lot of mileage out of being a mom, from mocking the urban princesses on the Bravo network to singing harmony with her unborn baby.

What hit:

Osama Cold Open. I admired SNL's cleverness with their response to Bin Laden’s death — rather than blatantly stomp on his grave like most of us have, the show opened with a video of the terrorist (Fred Armisen) reading his last will and testament. Considering most of Bin Laden’s past addresses felt like post-mordem will-readings anyway, this was an appropriate way to comment in the news event.

Tina Fey Monologue. Fey teamed up with also-pregnant Maya Rudolph and sang a duet to their unborn children. It began as a sweet serenade, then it abruptly shifted to a sexier Motown feel: “You are the proof that we’ve been doing it.” There were a ton of great details in the lyrics (“drinking rose wine and having unprotected sex on a rollercoaster at Epcot Japan”), and Fey and Rudolph belting harmonies with their babies via sonogram was such a hilarious visual.

GOP Debate. This week’s impersonation fest took a more relevant tone than usual, with the cast portraying a number of Republican figures at a debate, such as Mitt Romney (Jason Sudeikis), Newt Gingrich (Bobby Moynihan), and Donald Trump (Darrel Hammond). One would think Fey’s Palin cameo would steal the thunder, but this was a true ensemble effort, with the laughs evenly distributed across the entire cast. Favorite moment: Gingrich abruptly leaving at the beginning, high-fiving Jimmy McMillan (Kenan Thompson) on his way out.

Digital Short: Jack Sparrow. The Lonely Island stuck to the Funny Or Die formula this week: Michael Bolton ruins a music video with his obsession with the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, among others. While this was a lot of fun, I prefer the digital shorts when they’re simpler, stand-alone ideas. We DERRICK wannabes need a new role model, after all, and it’s not like any of us have Justin Timberlake, T-Pain and John Waters on speed dial.

Weekend Update. The dense news week gave the writers plenty of fodder for strong jokes. My favorite: “A number of conspiracy theories are surfacing claiming that Bin Laden is not really dead, which means Barack Obama will go down in history as the first black person ever to have to prove that he killed someone.” Sudeikis made another delightful Devil cameo, and Armisen and Vanessa Bayer had a bit as Muammar Gaddafi’s cautiously disloyal best friends that wasn’t received well because the punch lines were literally whispered. Capping the segment was another Stefon piece, and I know in the past I’ve raved about this character, but I’m willing to say it now: these Stefon jokes are starting to feel a little tired. I mean, Jesus, Lorne, do you have to drag Stefon out every three episodes?

Bedelia: Sleepover. While Nasim Pedrad’s Bedelia, a pre-teen girl who views her parents as her best friends, may not get Wiig-level responses from the studio audiences, I’ve always been won over by her earnestness and friendly jokes. The details in these pieces are always so much fun: “Ouch! Turn your hair down! Seriously, mom, it’s got mad volume.”

Pregnant in Heels. This mockery of Bravo’s ridiculous new show featured Fey as a spoiled rich city wife who treats her pregnancy like a makeover. Abby Elliot played host Rosie Pope with an incomprehensible lisp (due to intentional bee-stings on the tongue), and Jay Pharoah had a great turn as that weird guy who appears in all those shows: “I am not so much a person as a collection of choices.”

Hallmark Mother’s Day. The 10-to-1 sketch featured Paul Brittain in a Hallmark commercial for all the Norman Bates types out there. It was a funny reveal, but the joke was too odd to last longer than a minute or so, making this an appropriate fit at the end of the show.

What missed:

Mermaid. A mermaid and a group of friendly sea creatures sing a “Little Mermaid” type song when the corpse of Osama Bin Laden floats down upon them. It’s an edgy premise, but I feel like the writers played it safe, with each sea creature responding in a predictable pattern, from drunk celebration to conspiracy theories. Why waste that expensive set and those costumes on a sketch no one will remember?

http://www.hulu.com/watch/239638/saturday-night-live-mermaid

Birthing Class. A birthing class instructor, hoping to illustrate the benefits of all-natural birth, shows an extremely graphic video that looks like a cross between the old “Lovers” sketches (with Will Ferrell and Rachel Dratch) and the trololo video on YouTube. The premise was great, and the physical gags were often hilarious, but cutting back and forth between the video and the classroom reactions created timing issues. I would have much rather just seen the complete video — uncut — with a straight character bookending it.

Discount Prom Wear. While I’m always a fan of parodies of low-budget commercials for local businesses, Thompson’s Googie Rene relies too much on random nonsensical expressions, which, combined with a general lack of jokes and poor delivery, made this sketch fall flat.

Overall, a great episode. Did we really expect anything less, with the triumphant return of Tina Fey, a few weeks of rest for the actors and writers, and a massive surplus of source material in the headlines?

What do you think? Are you as turned off as I am by mom jokes? Did Tina Fey pull off the mom humor as well as I thought — or will I always just be blindly supportive of everything she does? And I assume I’m not alone in my new attitude toward Stefon.

I’ll see you guys next week, when Ed Helms hosts the show with musical guest Paul Simon.

Erik Voss really, really likes SNL.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Caroline-Anderson/731041782 Caroline Anderson

    Your criticism of Jack Sparrow is moot when you take into account that it was a Lonely Island music video, not a digital short. It's a track off the album, and as was the case with The Creep, I'm On a Boat, Jizz in my Pants, etc, SNL allows them to play it because it serves both parties. You can tell it is not SNL property because The Dudez have it on their Youtube channel.

    So to say "While this was a lot of fun, I prefer the digital shorts when they’re simpler, stand-alone ideas." you're comparing it to Andy Punches or Roy Rules or Daquiri Girl, and that's not what it is. All their music videos have the sheeny, celebrity, FOD feel that this one has.

    • http://eavoss.com Erik Voss

      @Caroline Anderson While I wasn't aware the Jack Sparrow song was on their album, I don't see how that reduces the validity of my wanting them to do something simpler. I'm allowed to compare parodies of music videos to other non-musical comedy videos, especially if they're made by the same people, and that was the point of my argument here.

      I want The Lonely Island to reconnect with their roots. "Lazy Sunday" was my favorite of their music videos, and that didn't have "the sheeny, celebrity, FOD feel" that all their music videos have now. While the cross promotion of doing a music video of "Jack Sparrow" helps both SNL and The Lonely Island, it seems like a savvy marketing decision but a lazy creative one (one Jack Donaghy would make, not Liz Lemon). Why not write something new? You don't see Seth Meyers re-using his jokes from the White House Correspondents Dinner in Weekend Update — hilarious as they were. I just worry that The Lonely Island has become more concerned with self-promotion than just making funny videos.

      Anyway, I hate to tear them down over a video that I actually found really funny.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Caroline-Anderson/731041782 Caroline Anderson

      @Erik Voss

      I don't meant to reduce the validity of wanting them to do something simpler. But your words were

      "I prefer the digital shorts when they’re…"

      And this wasn't a Digital Short. It was a music video. They are two different things, made with different budgets, production qualities, time frames, and purposes. It has the title card because 1. They can't just present it as a filmed sketch because it isn't, 2. They won't take time away from advertisers to air it.

      It's like comparing a Kristen Wiig sketch to a trailer for Bridesmaids during SNL. It's the same person, in the same time slot, but not the same thing. It's not a perfect analogy, but I think there are enough similarities to show what I'm trying to say.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Caroline-Anderson/731041782 Caroline Anderson

    I don't want to sound like a dick since my last comment was dickish, but since you asked: No, I am not tired of Stefon. Not in the least. But I love a good list joke, and I love Bill Hader.

  • JoshUng

    I agree with you on most of the what hit / what missed, (though I think the Birthing Class overcame the timing issues), but overall I think the episode was "okay." There was a good ratio of good/bad skits, but I just don't think the good ones were great. Maybe my expectations were too high with Tina Fey as the host.

    As for Mom jokes, I'm not turned off by them so much, but I think because less than half the population really knows what pregnancy is like, I think most mom/pregnancy jokes are really just the same ones over and over again (strange food combinations, temporarily larger boobs), and its hard to keep that fresh.

  • Niall Robb@facebook

    I thought Mermaid was slightly edgy and challenged the whole idea of America celebrating the death of Osama Bin Laden as if it were their achievement or much of an achievement at all. I thought it was a well written and very central piece in a country dominated by right wing politics.

    The rest I agree on well enough, Pregnant In Heels, the cold open and the monologue were really poor skits but the weekend update, digital short and GOP segment made up for it. I think the show was a definite 'okay' and not great. Like the whole season, there would be enough there to make a stand out 45 minute show but an hour and 45 minutes is stretching.

  • iamconnor

    I will never be tired of Stefon.

    There were also sound problems that threw off some of the punchlines, specifically in the mermaid sketch. Though it was a weak sketch i still found it to be funny.

  • iamjustryingtolive

    Bedelia is sooo funny!!! Pedrad is the hidden gem of this cast. Only recently signed up to comment so have to back applaud (why do i have to?) her Sharon Osborne from "The Talk" sketch, nailed it!! In that sketch Abbey Elliot was unreal as Leah Remini, such a random person to be able to do a spot on impression of.

  • Emma K@twitter

    I loved the birthing class skit, if only because I can't get nough of Maya Rudolph playing new age weirdos(the Nuni/Nuni sketches are some of my favorites of all time).

  • kablooooooom

    So nice to hear some love for Nasim Pedrad! I think she's hilarious and I hope she gets promoted to a regular cast member soon.

  • Richard Feder

    Why is Paul Brittain on the show? is he Lorne's nephew? anyway to be fair it must suck to be in the cast and you can't get any air time and then Lorne puts former cast members in sketches.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Luke-Wilson/714197154 Luke Wilson

    In reference to the acting on the Googie Rene sketch, it's pretty obvious that the sketch is a parody of crappy local commercials.