Monday, November 14th, 2011

SNL Recap: Emma Stone and the Rules of Recurring Sketches

In my recap of last May's SNL season finale, I argued that the show's­ reliance on recurring sketches may­ not be such a bad thing. Audiences love familiarity, and recognizing a successful idea and finding clever ways to reintroduce it (while watering down its original ingenuity) is what made this country great, goddamn it. Only fellow comedy writers feel dirty about reheating old material — meanwhile, the home audience could watch Conan pull that Walker Texas Ranger Lever for hours.

One of the reasons I’ve been so supportive of SNL in recent seasons is its increasingly appropriate use of recurring sketches. Last weekend’s Emma Stone-hosted episode, for example, led with seven sketches that were all versions of premises the show has already done, and I thought all of them felt 100-percent earned. It seems like the show’s writers and producers have stumbled upon a healthy system for bringing back old premises, and below are a few ground rules that appear to be guiding them:

1. The sketch must have been a huge hit the first go around. SNL typically only brings back a sketch if there is some demand to see it again. When we first saw Penelope or Gov. David Patterson, it was all anyone talked about the few days after, so it made sense to give them encores. (Sure, no one ever spoke fondly about Deep House Dish. The popularity of Kenan Thompson talk show sketches in the writers room will forever be a mystery to me.)

2. The sketch needs to be far back enough in our memories that seeing it again comes as a pleasant surprise. If I had more time on my hands I would research all the recurring sketches from recent years to see how much time went by between each occurrence, and what connection that has to the sketch’s popularity over time. For now, let’s just say no more than twice a season is a safe bet.

3. If the sketch is centered on a character, then that character must be emotionally grounded. SNL lately has churned out a cache of absurd characters that are anchored by real human emotion. Judy Grimes, at her core, is simply a nervous wreck. Herb Welch is a bitter, scorned veteran. Bedilia wants her parents to be her best friends. There are always a few one-dimensional Gilly’s poisoning the well, but luckily Kristen Wiig threw her down one.

4. The sketch shouldn’t rely solely on shock value. Few sketches are more an example of the law of diminishing returns than the Lawrence Welk pieces, where Wiig appears as the mutant sister Dooneese. Seeing her enormous forehead and baby hands the first time was a hilarious twist. Now that we know what’s coming, the sketch doesn’t really have anything to fall back on. The best recurring sketches find ways to reinvent the twist, such as the anecdote-based “Wild World” sketch in the Ed Helms episode last season.

5. The sketch should be overwritten, not underwritten. The best all-time recurring sketches feature Pulitzer-worthy imagery and coin new vocabulary, as opposed to tent-poling the script with predictable catchphrases. The writers cram so much fresh detail into the average Stefon or Judy Grimes piece that if you laugh, you’ll likely miss a few jokes. That’s the brilliance of Judy Grimes: for every instance of her catchphrase (“justkidding”) there’s a new, fresh joke popping up from right behind it.

With these guidelines SNL has successful employed the use of recurring sketches in recent seasons, and in last Saturday’s episode, proving that you can get away with doing old material… as long as it’s still funny.

What hit:

GOP Debate Cold Open. At first, I groaned when this looked like yet another reenactment of news events, as many of the GOP debate sketches have been this season. However, Rick Perry’s transformation into Lenny from Of Mice and Men was a brilliant choice — the kind of “show-don’t-tell” observations I wish SNL did more of during political sketches.

Monologue. Just when I began to remember that the upside-down Spider-man gag had been done before (when Kirsten Dunst hosted the episode in 2002), SNL confirmed it and turned the tables back on Emma Stone and the producers of the new Spider-man movie: “Yeah, but aren’t you just doing the same movie from 10 years ago?” It was a refreshing moment of self-awareness, making all of Andy Samberg’s botched fly wire gags worth the while.

Secret Word. Of all the recurring sketches we saw this episode, this 1960s game show might be the closest to its expiration date. Still, Wiig was as entertaining as ever as washed up Broadway star Mindy Alyce Grayson, and this version found some fun in revealing Hader’s host’s misogynist side. Stone was also great as an airheaded, puppet-tonguing pageant queen.

Herb Welch. Jaded, phone-it-in veteran newsman Herb Welch, my pick for best new character from last season, made his season 37 debut, appearing even more bitter than normal. The old-school insults were fun as usual (“Oh, this lady… shouldn’t you be changing hotel linens?”), and I enjoyed the microphone/purse jousting between Hader and Stone. Maybe not the funniest Herb Welch outing, but still a strong sketch.

Les Jeunes de Paris. Another favorite from last season, this French dance frenzy took a little long to get off the ground this time. But by the end, Taran Killam and co. hit all the right ridiculous notes to make this a thoroughly enjoyable reprise.

Cry Music. It’s a shame that some of the best SNL sketches will never see a life beyond their initial live broadcast because of the costs of royalties for copyrighted songs. (Watch it in the slightly sped-up YouTube link before NBC takes it down.) In this sketch, office workers discover that Adele’s “Someone Like You” sets the perfect backdrop for sobbing alone at your desk and shoveling down some Haagen Daz. Placed at the end of the night with the sketch below, it was nice to see two fresh premises do so well.

Technology Hump. The 10-to-1 sketch was a show in which people acted out porn sex scenes using devices (smart phones, iPads, digital cameras) as puppets. I loved the premise, and it was nice to see SNL go all out with such an edgy idea. It was the perfect combination of danger, funny and just plain weird that I love to see in the 10-to-1 slot.

What missed:

Digital Short: Wish It Would Rain. Samberg played a rock ballad singer in a melodramatic music video, waiting for a cliché downpour that won’t come. Samberg has gotten mileage out of anti-climactic premises before, but this one missed the mark. Normally these digital shorts are packed with absurd heightening, but there was none here. Man, I wish they’d make a memorable digital short this season.

Weekend Update. Too many of Seth Meyers’ jokes seemed a bit corny this week, and Jason Sudeikis’ cameo as the devil — appalled by the sex abuse scandal at Penn State — didn’t hit either. I never buy the argument of “too soon,” but in this case it feels like the controversy is so complex that any attempt to simplify it in terms of “right and wrong” by a comedian (that includes you, Jon Stewart) seems naïve and will alienate too large a percentage of the audience to make the joke worth it. Update’s silver lining came in the form of a delightful return of unprepared songwriters Garth and Kat, who were joined in their wandering, improvised lyrics by “back up singer” Chris Martin.

Bridal Shower Gifts. Stone played Wallace, a fish-out-of-water guest at a bridal shower who goes off the deep end with overly-provocative gifts. The premise was fine and I appreciated Stone’s frank honesty as the character, but in general her delivery — her voice, timing, appearance — seemed a little uneven. It was a rare misstep for a performer who was otherwise a strong host. A nice bonus to see some writers (including recently hired writer and Splitsider porn-parody-reviewer Sarah Schneider) make cameos in the sketch.

Another strong episode, with a great performance by Emma Stone, some thankfully reprised recurring sketches, some awesome concepts for the original sketches, and a hilarious literary reference to shake up the standard political cold open. I didn’t mind the cameos by Coldplay in the sketches as much as I thought I would… I’m willing to admit that Chris Martin could have helped out with the digital short.

What do you think? Do you agree with my checklist for recurring sketches? Any other rules you can think of? Are GOP Debate, Secret Word, Herb Welch, the Devil, Garth and Kat, and Les Jeunes De Paris past their prime? Any other recurring pieces you want to send to Overdone Character Heaven with Buckwheat, Gilly and Penelope? Was Sudeikis’s rant about Penn State too soon or tonally inappropriate for you, or should I care so much about victims of sexual molestation that I should find that piece funny? Do your eyes well up while belting Adele’s “Someone Like You” on the drive home like mine do? The right person’s out there, and we’ll find them, right guys? Right? Man, I gotta go…

I’ll see you next week, when Jason Segel is hosting with musical guest Florence and the Machine.

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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  • Jim Pharr@facebook

    you're WAAAAAY wrong about the Penn State/Devil sketch. the whole bit is that the Devil is appalled that this actually happened to real people. that sketch was NOT a miss, at all. c'mon, you're supposed to be a comedy critic.

    • http://eavoss.com Erik Voss

      @Jim Pharr@facebook My issue with the piece wasn't the comment it was (or wasn't) making, it's that it wasn't very funny. They took a risk by joking around on a tense subject, which is respectable, but it just didn't pay off comedically. So I have to wonder if it was worth the risk. I will say I liked the jokes around the devil inventing the Internet.

      I want humor to challenge me, but it's gotta be good humor first.

  • Megh Wright

    First of all, thanks for returning with Judy Grimes as your glorious weapon this week (4 LYFE). Second of all, can't believe you're pointing the finger at Jon Stewart for the Penn State segment. I do agree that in the case of SNL, having Jason dress up as the Devil and sort of prance around the subject without pressing any of the hot buttons (as he shouldn't!!) was pretty weak, but I gotta say, Jon Stewart's take on it was perfect. This opinion is coming from a PA native whose Facebook feed is drowning in PSU nonsense though, so I'm very biased.

    • http://eavoss.com Erik Voss

      @Megh Wright I will concede that by now we've come to expect Jon Stewart to occasionally act more as preacher than comedian, so I don't mind if his comments are less hilarious as they are "true" sometimes. Meanwhile, I don't think SNL needs to comment on a news event unless it has a truly hilarious idea for it. Otherwise, it can do sketches about anything. The Devil piece felt like a forced, "We HAVE to say something here!" move, and it suffered.

      Side note: Judy Grimes = Frank Grimes' widow?

    • Megh Wright

      @Erik Voss I think you are onto something sir.

      And I agree.

  • http://slaneofthought.tumblr.com Kevin Slane

    I enjoyed Technology Hump and Les Jeunes Paris the most this week, but I had a real "aha" moment when the Adele sketch started, because I was immediately reminded of this humor piece Chris Kelly wrote a few weeks ago: http://chriskelly.tumblr.com/post/12041115269/live-blogging-my-572-listens-of-adeles-someone-like

    Glad to see one of SNL's new writers making a mark.

  • Liz Aaron@facebook

    Dooneese? Don't you mean Judice?

    • Megh Wright

      @Liz Aaron@facebook This drives me a little nuts. I've seen "Junice" on a script to one of these sketches, but somehow Dooneese has caught on as the correct name. No idea but looks like we have to live with it.

    • Liz Aaron@facebook

      Sorry… being a nerd.

      I must add on the devil sketch. There is a lot of silence in the beginning. (The premise seems to make the audience uncomfortable?) At first, he only gets laughs when he really hams it up with "Nooooooo!" and "Blaaaaaaaaarrrg!" They seem to warm up near the end, but at first there is some definite discomfort with the subject.

      I always find the devil-on-weekend-update premise interesting: Even the devil wouldn't do some of the sh*t we come up with.

      Also – I REALLY love Judy Grimes and the cold opening was surprisingly awesome.

    • Liz Aaron@facebook

      @Megh Wright
      Really? Interesting…

    • BillBrasky

      @Liz Aaron@facebook Here is my theory about this (which may be completely wrong, but it's what I'm going with). In the first Lawrence Welk sketch with Anne Hathaway, when Wiig's character is introduced, she says "And I'm Ju…..dice". There is a distinct pause between her starting to say "Ju.." and finishing up with "..dice". Later in the sketch, she is singing about finding a dead cat on the side of the road, etc. and Hathaway yells at her "Denise! Shut up!" She pretty clearly says "Denise".

      What I THINK happened is that Wiig, for whatever reason, forgot her character's name, started to say "Judy" (maybe thinking about Judy Grimes) and then tried to switch halfway through to "Denise". Hathaway decided to be a pro and say her later line as written.

      Now, in later versions of the sketch, they have permanently made her name "Judice", as if that's a normal name that's really commonplace.

    • http://eavoss.com Erik Voss

      @BillBrasky An interesting theory. If Megh said she saw a script with the name, I'm inclined to believe her. I like "Dooneese" because it looks and sounds completely ridiculous. Frucci ought to ask Sarah to settle the matter.

    • iamjustryingtolive

      @Erik Voss is it outrageous to ask for you to know who wrote which sketch in your review/recaps? Also, where do you read the scripts?

    • Megh Wright

      @iamjustryingtolive Ah sorry, I should clear this up — it is a bit much to ask Erik who wrote each sketch because they don't really tell you that in the credits, he'd have to get that info through people at SNL. The only reason I bring up the script thing is because I interned there several years back, the year the first Welk sketch aired, and I remember this name issue well because she was never really called Junice, at least not very long after the first sketch. I agree with Erik that Dooneese is funnier but at the same time it really doesn't make much sense. This whole thing isn't that big of a deal but it still bugs me, I agree Frucci needs to settle this while it's still hot.

    • http://eavoss.com Erik Voss

      @iamjustryingtolive I don't know any of the writers personally, but I know some people who do. I'll check on that – I agree it would be interesting to know. It's a collaborative process, so it's not always clear who wrote what, but I know John Mulaney and Simon Rich write the Stefon sketches (with Hader), and Jim Downey has written the bulk of the political cold opens. Other than that I'm unsure.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ben-Worcester/818292220 Ben Worcester

    I can't get enough of those Paris skits.

  • Charlie Fan@twitter

    I loved weekend update this week, including the devil sketch.

  • Charlie Fan@twitter
  • carson

    Really enjoyed the Devil piece, I thought it was a funny way to respond to a touchy subject. Garth and Kat, on the other hand, is soooo stale it's literally not funny.

    Also, I could happily never see that Secret Word sketch again. Also also, the Bridal Shower Gifts sketch worked well enough for me. Certainly better than any of the recurring bits.

  • iamjustryingtolive

    best sketch for me was the Adele sketch. That one just spoke a truth and i got a giddy sensation when the cast was arm in arm singing. It reminded me of LOST. Most uplifting when the characters worked together.

  • Anthony Coro

    Ready for me to drop the bomb? …I actually agree with most of this. Except for the Judy Grimes stuff you threw in just to spite me. But even Secret Word worked for me this time because it was the first time (perhaps even including the original) where you couldn't forecast every joke. Which I think is another criteria you need to consider when bringing back a sketch/character–are you able to maintain the 'integrity' of the character and still throw viewers for a slight loop? Take Shauna for example–when she's about to eat a banana, I know what's gonna happen: she's gonna say something like, "I wonder if I can fit the whole thing in my mouth," then chew it like Mr. Peepers and it's safe to bank on her passing gas afterwards. Her male co-workers will be shocked and repulsed (because they suffer amnesia between each Shauna sketch), but her boss is totally turned on. But even if I initially groaned seeing Secret Word and Garth & Kat (and I'd still be quite content seeing both of those retired), at least they weren't fill-in-the-blank rewrites. Adding a backup singer isn't a huge modification but it's something at least.

    The original Les Jeunes de Paris is probably my favorite sketch of the past 5 years so my hope was that they'd never do it again–but both times they've brought it back (with Miley Cyrus and Emma again), it's still perfection. But I'm still glad they haven't overdone it like What Up With That. And if Taran Kilam is reading this, I will PAY YOU to let me be in this sketch. PAY. YOU. Or at least help me choreograph a flash mob or something.

    Of course, much of my positivity towards the episode must be chalked up to my Emma Stone-induced haze. I might not be so excited if Blizzard Man or the Vogelchecks show up next week.