I imagine it must be frustrating for an SNL writer to go on break for a few weeks, just to have huge news stories arise and fade into irrelevance during the hiatus. In the three weeks since SNL has aired a new episode, we’ve seen the death of Muammar Gaddafi, the Greek debt controversy, the sexual harassment claims made about Herman Cain, the Kim Kardashian divorce, and the ongoing Occupy Wall Street protests.
While SNL is certainly not the only vehicle for American satire (nor is it the most lethal these days), for better or worse it’s the most traditional one. While other TV comedies have embraced more sophisticated forms of satire, SNL has reliably bore the torch for the ancient art of mimicry. Perhaps there’s nothing particularly clever about donning a bald cap and speaking in an accent, but a successful impersonation produces a necessary catharsis for American audiences. As Lorne Michaels has lectured in countless “exclusive” inside looks at SNL, citizens need to see powerful individuals being deprived of their power. Personally, the mere possibility that people might confuse parody for reality makes me giddy.
Normally I’m annoyed when SNL falls into pure, basic parody of topical events without any clever twist, but I suppose the longer I go without seeing a new episode, the more satisfied I am to see Fred Armisen just be Gaddafi for a few minutes. While last weekend’s episode had a fair balance of topical sketches to recurring pieces and a strong performance by host Charlie Day, the night’s best moments, for me at least, occurred when SNL relied on the form of satire it does better than anyone else: straight-up impersonations.
Ghost of Gaddafi Cold Open.SNL joined hundreds of Libyan rebels in dancing on Gaddafi’s grave with this message from the deceased dictator — no, not one that was pre-recorded — one literally from his ghost. Armisen had some fun in what will likely be his swan song in the role, offering the living some handy advice (“Never dare people to kill you.”) and pointing out that hell “looks a lot like Libya.”
Monologue. Charlie Day’s monologue wandered a bit, beginning with a few jokes about seeing New York through an infant’s eyes, followed by a cameo by Danny Devito and finishing with a song by Day. Luckily, Day’s frenetic energy is always fun to watch, and his bickering with Devito was a nice treat for Always Sunny fans.
Kardashian Divorce Special.SNL perfectly (and predictably) went after the Kardashian clan with a special on the E! network covering Kim’s divorce with the same sick pomp it did her wedding. Several cast members had nice cameos, specifically Kristen Wiig as Kris “The Fourth Sister” Jenner and Taran Killam as her husband Bruce, whose tears are even artificial.
Ask Dr. Oz. Bill Hader played a faithful Dr. Oz moderating an uncomfortable audience Q&A, with Day as an audience member reluctantly sharing his “dead rectum.” This role was perfect for Day — blowing into a human rectum and wearing a “poop” sign around his neck I think technically falls under Charlie work.
Comedy Tour. While I didn’t necessarily enjoy this commercial for hacky, catchphrase-centered comedians as much as I did during its first go-around last season, Day’s turn as a very Dane Cookian comic was wonderful. It seemed like the entire cast — Seth Meyers included — wanted a piece of this sketch, causing it to run a few beats too long. Still, it’s nice to see SNL has started mocking the idea of one-note, catchphrase characters instead of actually creating them and putting them in sketches. And movies.
Weekend Update. Meyers redeemed the previous few weeks of weak update segments with a great joke lineup and a hilarious rant about the European debt crisis — including a few harsh words for Greece’s “yogurt-based economy.” Hader made a cameo as a mumbling, bicep-flexing, drunk Rick Perry, who presented a Spanish-speaking dashboard hula girl as a solution to high taxes, and Wiig made a brilliant return as her nervous travel expert Judy Grimes, who might have gone on her longest and funniest “justkidding” tangent yet.
Crime Scene. The week’s 10-to-1 sketch (if you don’t count the previously-aired “Lil’ Poundcake” commercial) featured an out-of-touch detective (Day) who didn’t recognize how much a crime scene resembled the set from Seinfeld. I was amazed at the lengths the crew went to re-create the famous sitcom set and loved the concept, and while I worried that the sketch wandered away from it for a beat, it was nice to see them return to it and make some nice tie-ins.
Greek Gods. The gods of Greek mythology convene atop Mount Olympus to discuss the country’s debt crisis. This premise felt a little lame to me, especially when the bulk of the jokes centered around the personalities of the gods — the kind of material your cool 9th grade English teacher used to help you through that mythology section — instead of their attitudes on the crisis itself. Still, it had some nice moments, namely Andy Samberg as a dolphin-sex obsessed Poseidon.
Getting Freaky with Cee Lo. What is it about musical talk show sketches with Kenan Thompson that make me want to fast-forward the moment they begin? Kenan’s Cee Lo Green was great, and it was a pleasure to hear him describe himself as “a big ol’ sexy hairless Ewok.” But the mix of absurd characters (Day’s Freakasaurus and Hader’s Colonel Nasty — who deserves his own spinoff sketch) with straight ones as guests on the show made the structure a little unclear.
Dolphin Movie. More dolphin humor! Day played an actor trying to do an emotional movie scene with a dolphin while its trainer made distracting noises and movements out of frame. I suspect Killam’s delivery hit harder in dress rehearsal than it did in the live show, and the sketch took a fun but awkward turn with Thompson’s boom operator assuming the lead role. I liked the concept of this sketch, but the delivery just didn’t stick like it needed to for it to work.
It’s unfortunate that when SNL tries to do fresh, non-topical sketch premises, they don’t go over as well as the recurring, familiar material. It’s no wonder Lorne keeps bringing back crowd pleasing Wiig and Hader characters. Still, it was a highly enjoyable episode, one that allowed Charlie Day to showcase his ability to play both frustrated, beaten-down men (Ask Dr. Oz, Dolphin Movie) and cocky crackpots (Comedy Tour, Crime Scene). The cast treated us to long-missed impersonations and the writers packed the scripts with some great one-liners.
What did you think? Are you satisfied with the actors’ ability to do spot-on impersonations of famous figures, or are you looking for a deeper, cleverer statement about what that person is at their core? Do you think we saw enough of Charlie Day throughout the night, or do you wish we saw more of him? And which was better: Col. Nasty’s rainbow goatee or his cackle?
I’ll see you next week, when Emma Stone will host with musical guest Coldplay.
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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