Over the years viewers have come up with all sorts of excuses to justify their predisposed disappointment with SNL. “They keep doing the same sketches over and over.” “The sketches run too long.” “They keep getting crappy hosts.” “The guy who does Obama sucks.” “Bring Piscopo back.”
You know what complaint you never hear? “Man, it’s mid-October, and they didn’t do a single Halloween sketch.”
I understand SNL's preoccupation with centering its episodes on an upcoming holiday. Holiday-themed sketches help keep the show relevant, making the conceptual, out-of-touch material coming out of the writers room more accessible to those pushing their carts past holiday displays at Walgreens. The holiday spirit has inspired several wonderful premises, including the “I Wish It Was Christmas Today” song and a piece in which Will Forte went “trick-or-treating” as a “sex offender.”
However, these seasonal tie-ins often feel a little forced, looking less like thematic through-lines and more like lazy attempts at reheating old sketch ideas for a new week. They also feel obligatory: Holiday specials are an outdated gimmick from the days of appointment television. Now that we watch shows on our DVRs and Hulu weeks after they air, is mentioning Columbus Day in the sketch such a priority?
Then again, if you were to watch last Saturday’s Anna Faris-hosted episode — which was apparently the Halloween episode — two weeks late on your DVR, you’d be right on schedule with the actual holiday.
This is an admittedly petty complaint for an episode that in reality missed the mark with its cold open, monologue, digital short, Weekend Update, and 10-to-1 sketch — which I consider to be the load-bearing pillars for any given SNL episode. If an episode can’t get its five most important segments right, then unfunny, unnecessary seasonal tie-ins are just going to be annoying.
That said, there were certainly a few highlights.
The Manuel Ortiz Show. Yes, we’ve seen this Dominican talk show, in which guests pause their passion-filled arguments for spicy Latino dance breaks. But despite its flat-joke structure, and this version’s weak ending, the piece still works. Like the “What’s Up With That” sketches, it’s just fun to watch the formulaic talk show format serve several seconds of ridiculous dancing.
Lifetime Game Show. Fragile suburban housewives speculated on young girls’ emotional distress on a game show called “What’s Wrong With Tanya?” on Lifetime, “television for women… white women.” I’ve loved how SNL has reinvigorated the game show format in recent seasons, with Bill Hader as a perfectly Aykroydian host and a number of playful concepts, like “What’s My Name?” and “Who’s On Top?” While the over-the-top melodrama and anti-male sentiments of the Lifetime Network are familiar targets, the sketch featured some genuinely surprising moments, including some hilarious reactions from Hader.
Tell Him. In this modern take on the lyrics of 1960s pop hit “Tell Him” by the Exciters, a group of girls advise their friend to instead say the things that will be more effective at attracting the man of today: “Tell him that you don’t believe in marriage,” “Tell him that you play Call of Duty.” While the piece was a little light on jokes and might have made more sense in Act II of Hairspray, it was nonetheless a fun idea with a lot of truth that gave us some great performances by the women in the cast.
J-Pop Talk Show. Two white students hosted a Japanese talk show, with giddy dancing, anime gestures, and random, soulful solos. Although I think the piece lost steam as it went on, I loved the performances by Killam and Bayer. I also appreciated SNL's ability to effectively mock a new target while avoiding ignorance — the decision to make the kids specifically not Japanese, but white and obsessed with Japanese culture, as well as Jason Sudeikis’ frustrated faculty “sensei,” helped this sketch stay on track.
Wyndemere. Your daughter’s new boyfriend is Lord Cecil Wyndemere, a giggling 17th century European noble who dances to the harpsichord and chases swans. It was wonderful to see Paul Brittain finally get some real screen time, especially in this season’s most bizarre and most purely entertaining new character. I particularly loved the way Sudeikis played the father, who was tickled and overjoyed with Wyndemere’s antics, while violently enraged with his son.
Michael Bloomberg Cold Open. Fred Armisen gave a faithful NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg impersonation, giving his two cents on the Occupy Wall Street protests. While I enjoyed some of the jokes and Armisen’s general delivery, as a soulless west coast resident, I felt a little out of the loop when it came to the New Yorker humor. While I love that SNL is a show heavily influenced by the city of New York — and not to give any legitimacy to Sarah Palin’s “real America” sentiment — the local jokes come across as panders to the studio audience in 8H and make the show feel all the more distant. Don’t forget about the rest of us, SNL. We are the 99%, after all.
Monologue. Anna Faris opened her monologue to audience questions, just to be surprised at how complex the questions are. This standard, straight host Q&A format needs to be saved for emergency situations, like if the host happens to be an athlete or Paris Hilton. Faris, meanwhile, is talented enough a performer to pull off a more interesting concept for her monologue. And ending the piece with the “celebrity host meets impersonator” gag just plain pissed me off.
Digital Short: Drake Interview. SNL hit yet another one of my pet peeves this episode by allowing the musical guest to appear in the sketches — not just once, but twice. In a sketch that could have just as easily been performed live (undermining all the wonderful opportunities a digital short presents), Andy Samberg had a series of short, awkward exchanges with Drake. The studio audience loved the Drake cameo, while my curmudgeony frown broke only for Wiig’s flash appearance as the interview’s sponsor.
GOP Debate. Vanessa Bayer hosted a Marriott-sponsored GOP debate, with all the regulars in the various roles. Between Bayer’s shaky delivery, the familiar jokes, and an unclear concept (unfair positioning by the media or creative metaphors of candidates? I was confused), this sketch never really caught on. The failed kidnapping/murder attempt of Ron Paul was a nice twist, however.
Weekend Update. Seth Meyers’ jokes weren’t much an improvement from last week, and Bobby Moynihan’s second-hand news correspondent is officially the newest Weekend Update character segment in which the fake names are the only funny thing about it. Jay Pharoah and Drake appeared as a pair of punk teenagers rapping about stealing Halloween candy, or “bag jacking.” I actually enjoyed some of the lyrics, but the concept didn’t work as well at the Update desk as I suspect it would have as a digital short.
Bookstore. Faris and Wiig played women drooling over pictures of deformed men in a Ferrari calendar in a bookstore. While I was proud of SNL for finally going off the deep end with its 10-to-1 sketch, the bizarre descriptions of the men in the pictures lacked the “consistent weirdness” of a typical Stefon piece or the Under-underground Records commercials. The studio audience turned against the sketch and it ended the night on an uncomfortable note.
When I look at the episode as a whole, the fact that the all five pillars were misses in my book forces me to declare this episode a weak one. That said, I still consider it a substantial improvement from last week (when Ben Stiller almost changed the show’s name to Saturday Night Playback), for it gave us some of the funniest non-recurring live sketches this season. Featured-performer Vanessa Bayer got the most screen time, while Hader and Sudeikis shined in supportive roles. And I want Lord Wyndemere to chase swans at my birthday party.
What did you think? Do holiday jokes feel as awkward and forced for you as they do for me? Any of you other 299 million non-New Yorkers feel excluded by Big Apple humor? Is it just me, or does Andy Samberg love making scary faces in his digital shorts? And not to recognize the musical segments’ existence or anything, but what did you guys make of Drake and Nicki Minaj’s “moment” at the end of their duet, when he ad-libbed during the song: “I’m so, I’m so glad you wore that outfit tonight, you look amazing, you know you do.” Minaj looked genuinely awestruck and flattered, like Lorraine right after George McFly punched Biff.
SNL goes on hiatus for a few weeks, so I’ll see you guys on Nov. 5, when Charlie Day will host with musical guest Maroon 5.
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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