Every now and then a beloved entertainer crosses a threshold in which he is no longer comparable to his colleagues. Morgan Freeman, for example, has no legitimate rivals, though I suppose he has yet to best mirrors at being reflective. The only way to critique these elites is to place them in context of their previous work. You don’t compare Bill Murray in Lost in Translation to Sean Penn in Mystic River (as the Academy Awards did in 2003); you compare him to Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.
SNL, now entering its 37th season, has reached a similar status. In the past people have tried to compare SNL to Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Laugh-In, In Living Color and Mad TV. More recently, critics have pointed to The Daily Show and The Colbert Report as usurping SNL's political jester hat. And those of us patrolling Simpsons message boards and tweeting @danharmon tend to embrace The State or Mr. Show as the best sketch comedy programs of all time.
But SNL isn’t quite a political satire, nor is it a string of independent comedic pieces. Under traditional categorization, SNL can be viewed as a “variety show,” but we don’t look at it quite the same way we did The Carol Burnett Show or The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour. (Really, did anyone reading this article look at those shows at all?) No one seriously compares SNL to Mad TV (sorry Orlando Jones); we compare “the Ferrell era” to “the Farley era.”
Furthermore, SNL feels like such a bizarre, ancient beast in late-night television these days. It lasts 90 minutes, airs at a time the most attractive demographics probably aren’t watching television (and in a year most of them aren’t watching shows on television), moves at a relatively sluggish pace, reeks of cross-promotion, and worst of all, airs live. No post-production firewall to protect the home viewing audience from late cutaways, missed cues and poor delivery. Why the hell does this show still exist? How many Faustian deals did Lorne Michaels broker with the demons inhabiting the executive suites of 30 Rock to save SNL from its inevitable reaping?
The answer, for me at least, is that SNL is Morgan Freeman: a dusty, one-of-a-kind gem that always seems to know a bit more about our world than we do. At this point, no show is ever going to out-SNLSNL. And we will keep coming back to it, because like people who grew up with FDR as president, we cannot comprehend life without it.
The host of Saturday’s season premiere was Alec Baldwin, another entertainer no other can compare to (keep blowing out those birthday candles, Billy and Stephen). Baldwin cemented his class-all-his-own status by hosting the show a record 16-times, surpassing Steve Martin as the most frequent SNL host. And while he may not have been Schweddy Balls Alec Baldwin, he was still fucking Alec Baldwin, which was more than enough for a hilarious and promising start to the show’s 37th season.
GOP Debate Cold Open: The SNL ensemble lined up as the contenders for the GOP nomination, among them Baldwin as Rick Perry, Jason Sudeikis as Mitt Romney, and Bill Hader as moderator and “silly little rag doll” Shepard Smith. While there was somewhat of a focus on the “Perry vs. Romney” horserace dominating the debate coverage in recent weeks, the sketch fell into the familiar “Let’s let each of our actors show off their impersonation skills” structure that stretched the piece to 11 minutes. But since I haven’t seen these guys in four months, and it gave us an awesome “Gingrich peaces out early” callback, I didn’t mind one bit.
Red Flag: The warm studio audience might have enjoyed this commercial for a perfume that warns men that the wearer is “f***ing crazy” more than I did. Still, the parody was spot on, and I loved details like “her ex-boyfriend is a club promoter” and “she lived in Vegas for 11 years.”
All My Children Wrap Party: The lead sketch of the night was a more theatrical piece: a wrap party for the recently-ended soap opera in which uninvited crew people crash the party with dramatic, soap-style twists. It began as a cheesy premise, but it was executed perfectly, with a combination of ridiculous character names (Glenda St. Jesus!), over-the-top performances from the cast, and genuinely funny surprises. “I operate the fans,” says Sudeikis’ Wendell Scaggs (!), “Or was I pushed?!”
Weekend Update: Seth Meyers nailed a shorter-than-usual Update segment, with mostly great jokes. The highlight of the piece, and of the entire night, was an appearance by Tony Bennett (a brilliant impression by Baldwin), riffing on recent movies. Bennett kept slipping into wild anecdotes of long-forgotten entertainers, his language peppered with ridiculous jazzy idioms. “You know who I miss? John Garfield! He left us too soon when he croaked on top of a chick for hire.” The details are so well crafted and fly by so quickly that this clip needs to be watched at least twice to get the full effect.
Who’s On Top? “The rules are simple. As we all know, when two men have sex, one person is the top, and the other’s the bottom. We’ll show you two male celebrities who hypothetically could have sex, and you decide whoooo’s on top!” Exit Sudeikis. This sketch danced around its racy subject matter by playing at the top of its intelligence. “It’s a smart game.”
Child Psychologist: It was nice to see Nasim Pedrad get some screen time as Raquel, the attention-starved wreck of a daughter of a strict child psychologist. While the character herself was a little uneven (psychological abuse victim or strong-willed youth who rebels against her father’s philosophies?), Pedrad captured the moment with a strong addition to her “weird children who just love their parents” character arsenal.
Dying Wish: Normally the “10-to-1” (the last sketch of the night, airing around 10 minutes to 1 o’clock) is the spot reserved for weird, offbeat pieces, yet this one had a more traditional premise. A soldier (Taran Killam) is asked by his dying friends to fulfill increasingly absurd dying requests: “I want you to dress up like a doctor and tell my brother he has cancer. Trust me, it’ll be hilarious.” A perfectly well executed sketch, I’m just hoping SNL lets its freak flag fly for future 10-to-1’s.
Monologue: Baldwin’s monologue focused on his SNL hosting rivalry with Steve Martin, who surprised the host with a drug screening, complete with Martin taste-testing Baldwin’s urine sample. The piece felt a little underwritten, especially when compared to some of the past rivalry moments between Baldwin and Martin.
Satellite Delays: Kristen Wiig plays a local Buffalo journalist reporting live from Costa Rica with an overlong satellite delay. An inventive premise, but the piece relied too heavily on Wiig not noticing insects and critters on her body, when it could have found more clever and interesting ways to play with the delay concept. Props to the prop department for the giant snake head, however.
Top Gun Screen Tests: We’ve seen these “celebrity auditions for 80s movies” pieces before, and save for Bill Hader and Taran Killam showing off their pitch-perfect Alan Aldas and Bobcat Goldthwaits, the sketch feels a little lazy. Especially if the jokes aren’t there, as was the case here.
Overall, exactly the quality episode we can expect from Alec Baldwin. While his larger-than-life presence often dominated the screen, we forget how much of a team player Baldwin is, playing straight news anchors, game show contestants, even offering up his impersonation skills as Rick Perry and Al Pacino. His hustle left us with some interesting casting arrangements for this episode — last season’s MVP Bill Hader took home the lion’s share of roles, while still-fresh Vanessa Bayer and Taran Killam were popping up left and right. Meanwhile, Jay Pharoah was inexplicably nowhere to be seen.
I am thrilled to be back writing recaps for this season of SNL, which is looking to be another great one. The current cast is among the strongest the show has ever had, boasting genuine big-screen comedy stars in Kristen Wiig, Jason Sudeikis, Bill Hader, Seth Meyers and Andy Samberg. On the political comedy front, I can’t wait to hear my parents mistakenly attribute a line spoken by Jason Sudeikis to Mitt Romney.
What do you think? How does this episode stack up against past Alec Baldwin episodes? Has SNL earned immunity from comparison to other sketch comedy shows, or should it be held more accountable? Is it possible that the reason Lorne wouldn’t let Jay Pharoah see the light of day was because he plans on revealing him in the role of President Obama next week?
See you then, when Emmy winner Melissa McCarthy will host with musical guest Lady Antebellum.
Erik Voss is a writer and performer living in Los Angeles. He performs with his improv team Natural 20 at the iO West Theater.
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