Monday, October 17th, 2011

SNL Recap: Anna Faris and Happy (Early) Halloween!

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 They also feel obligatory: Holiday specials are an outdated gimmick from the days of appointment television.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.

What hit:

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.

What missed:

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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  • Choire Sicha@facebook

    " I felt a little out of the loop when it came to the New Yorker humor." GOOD. YOU'RE SUPPOSED TO. It's a NEW YORK SHOW, suck it up! :)

  • chris chris

    Yeah, it's not like it broadcast across the country. It's a New Yawk show! Er…um. Anyway, was Anna sick? I thought she made some reference to it in the monologue and she looked and sounded like she was fighting a cold. By the way, Lord Cecil Wyndemere is a direct rip-off of the little lad who loves Berries and Cream in the Starburst commercial (still liked the sketch though): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wYX_zhlTDr8

    • http://eavoss.com Erik Voss

      @chris chris "Direct rip-off"? I don't know, man. Not only are the characters from different historical periods, regions, and socioeconomic statuses, Wyndemere is a more realized character. Yes, he's ridiculous, but we get a clearer sense of who he is and what he's interested in. The only things I see them having in common are they're both excitable little European boys from the past. Sorry to go on a mini-rant, but joke-theft accusations need to be taken seriously.

  • http://shatnerian.wordpress.com jduncanhansen@twitter.com

    I'm not in NYC and I've always liked the New York jokes. The city's character is pretty well known so the jokes don't go over my head.

    I disagree about Manuel Ortiz. Just a sketch I don't find funny. It would be funnier if they could actually dance but they're all so stiff. But I think the tolerance for sketches that repeat the same joke over and over depends on the person. I can't get enough "What's Up With That?" while my wife HATES it.

    I would have moved the two strongest sketches, "Tell Him That" and "J-Pop", to before "Update". I'm still a bit shocked that Vanessa Bayer isn't a regular player yet, given the amount of (well-deserved) work she gets. There is the making of a solid, classic cast here but it feels as though a few more pieces need fall into place first.

    • Kristin Clifford@twitter

      @jduncanhansen@twitter.com That's SNL's format. People are feature players for two years, if all goes well they are promoted to regular player. It's rarely changed. I think Kristin Wiig was an exception but she was on in a season where there were not a lot of female players.

    • Megh Wright

      @jduncanhansen@twitter.com There are plenty of cast members who got bumped up after one season.

    • http://www.shutupshelley.net/ Shelley

      @jduncanhansen@twitter.com I don't think it's that standardized. I think it's just when Lorne thinks they're ready to be promoted. I do know that only two featured players have ever been promoted in their first season (Eddie Murphy and Amy Poehler). And I think Tim Meadows was a featured player for 3 years.

      Standard or not, I totally agree about Vanessa Bayer!

  • Anna Jayne@twitter

    I'm with jduncanhansen – Manuel Ortiz could disappear forever and I'd be happy but OH MAN do I ever love "What Up with That".

    The "Tell Him" sketch was "a fun idea with a lot of truth"? I am genuinely confused by this. The whole thing seemed to be based on Cosmo stereotypes, not reality. I liked the idea of updating that song for today, but they did it in a way that relied on tired jokes (or "jokes") that didn't work for me.

    • http://eavoss.com Erik Voss

      @Anna Jayne@twitter I think it was a fun idea to take one of those "advice" pop songs from the 60s and apply it to today, when the typical man-child needs a little more coaxing to get in a real relationship. Is that a Cosmo stereotype? If so, as a man-child, I found the song to strike a humbling truth.

  • David Pulsipher@twitter

    Actually loved the interviews with Drake, esp. the "sarcastic" and "racist" variants.

    Tell him skit was too long, didn't get to the point. Wrong song choice. "It's in His Kiss" would've been a better song for the delivery.

    Manuel Ortiz needs to go the way of Bobby Moynihan's eccentric, urban, dred-locked waiter routine. Unfunny broken record.

  • akivaddict

    At first I was surprised that Ferris wasn’t playing the ditz who needs to learn how to play games to get a man in the “Tell Him” sketch (she’s a go-to for clueless characters in Hollywood and the host tends to get saddled with ‘straight man’ in new sketches). Seems like a likely match for her most recent promo, “What’s Your Number?” and I really would have liked to see her poke fun at herself a bit.
    Perhaps it was just too soon. I’m sure those box office numbers still sting.

  • http://jonaspolsky.tumblr.com/ Jonas Polsky

    I was totally on board til you liked the Manuel Ortiz sketch.

    You're mental.

  • Anthony Coro

    Yeah, I don't get the love for Manuel Ortiz. A one-joke concept (and not a very funny one) that's now been done four times (which is surprising; it feels like it's been done a lot more). "Tell Him" and J-Pop were the highlights–"Tell Him" was probably my second favorite sketch of the year so far after Melissa McCarthy's salad dressing focus group. The worst bit of the night (if not the season so far) was yet another GOP nominee debate…basically just a rewrite of the Baldwin cold open.

    Also, I re-read the intro to this article four times and I still have no idea whether the writer thinks the lack of Halloween sketches/references is good or not. It's pretty bipolar.

    • http://eavoss.com Erik Voss

      @Anthony Coro Yeah, it bounces back and forth a few times, but I think I decided by the end of it. Holiday references are unnecessary and usually bad.

  • Charlie Fan@twitter

    I thought the digital short, GOP debate sketches and the weekend update were hilarious, not "misses". Also I think you are worrying too much about the 10 to 1 sketches too much. I do love when they have a great 10 to 1 sketch thats really weird but I am not disappointed when they are bad. After all they are the last sketch of the night.

    My favorite sketch was the night was "Life Time Game Show". It was the perfect way to make fun of the women from most life time movies.

  • http://videoshare.tumblr.com Firas Alexander

    I think you pretty much nailed it, although I think I liked the episode a little more. Of course its nice when they can fit in some holiday references, but that didn't make or break the episode for me like it has with some other comments I've seen online. The last Vincent Price sketch they did wasn't great, but on the other hand I did like that weird sketch they did with Nicki Minaj as the bride of frankenstein. But I guess you probably didn't like that one because she was the musical guest? I thought the episode was good in terms of giving everyone something to do, be it a line, a rap, or something else. So it was a good showcase episode for the cast and I just find Anna Faris to be really charming.

  • http://twitter.com/joshung Joshua Ungerleider

    I think the Bookstore sketch failed in part to how Wiig and Faris played the characters. By the time you start noticing the guys in the characters were odd instead of good looking guys, I think I was just irritated by those voices.

    The Drake/Pharoah rap definitely didn't work. Not sure a song about snatching candy is really ripe for humor, and it was hard to hear the jokes, perhaps in a digital sketch it may have worked better.