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Monday, November 21st, 2011

SNL Recap: Jason Segel's Great Muppet Revival

During SNL's first season in 1975, a recurring segment was an appearance by the Muppets. These slow, lengthy pieces took place in The Land of Gorch and featured ugly, monstrous characters like King Ploobis and Scred, whom Lorne Michaels and Jim Henson initially pitched as more adult versions of Muppets “that can stay up late.” Unfortunately, what Americans saw was King Ploobis and Scred bumbling around humorlessly for eight minutes. The writers loathed writing these pieces — “I don’t write for felt,” Michael O’Donoghue famously proclaimed — forcing then-rookies like Alan Zweibel to write them every week:

I look in the corner of the room and there’s this guy I learned was Michael O’Donoghue. What was he doing, you ask? He had taken Big Bird, a stuffed toy Big Bird, and the cord from the venetian blinds, and he wrapped the cord around Big Bird’s neck. He was lynching Big Bird. And that’s how we all felt about the Muppets.

When I watched the first season of SNL on DVD during college, I too felt betrayed by my beloved Muppets. “What the hell is this?” I asked my roommate. “This Muppet stuff sucks!” Luckily, Lorne cut the Land of Gorch pieces from the show and the two comedic institutions lived on separately, save for the occasional Kermit or Cookie Monster cameo.

One of the things I’ve loved about Jason Segel’s new movie The Muppets is how “back to basics” it feels. It looks as if his pitch to the studio was simply, “Amy Adams and I are going to dance and sing and have fun with the Muppets for two hours. Is that OK?” Of course, I didn’t mind The Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island, but for me the ongoing success of the Muppets franchise depends less on how our childhood icons are updated or reinvented as it does on Kermit and co. taking us back to a simpler time. No tricks or gimmickry — just the warm, fuzzy honesty that seems so hard to find these days.

Jason Segel gave us a taste of that amiable charm with his performance on SNL last weekend, as well as that by his co-hosts the Muppets, who made a triumphant return to SNL by doing what we love the most about them — simply being themselves.

What hit:

Monologue. Jason Segel charmed us all with a classic bit in which he and the Muppets sang “I (we) can’t believe I’m (we’re) hosting SNL.” While watching Kermit and co. turn against Segel, I realized I had forgotten the emotional range a puppet is capable of. Never mind the cheesy “chicken out of the bag” and “time machine” jokes… it’s the Muppets, guys!

Regis Philbin Auditions. The whole cast showed off their impersonation skills by running Nasim Pedrad’s Kelly Ripa through a gauntlet of a lip-biting Ricky Gervais, a hyperactive George Lopez, and a very owl-like Garrison Keeler, to name a few. I normally get annoyed when SNL falls back on these easy, weak-premise character reel sketches, but here we got to see the cast shine in some never-seen-before impressions, which I enjoyed.

Kemper Pedic Bed. One of the funniest things I’ve seen on the show this season, Segel and Vanessa Bayer parodied the non-disturb Tempur-Pedic mattresses with a commercial for a mattress so gentle a man’s wife won’t wake up even while he… well… just watch the video.

Kissing Family Thanksgiving. The holiday season wouldn’t be complete without a visit from the Vogelchecks, the family of uncomfortably intimacy. When this sketch came back last season it broke one of the rules I listed for recurring sketches — don’t repeat a sketch that relies on shock humor — and it suffered slightly because of that. However, during this reprisal, they transformed a family of kissers into a family that uses clever, inventive ways to show affection. The Brussels sprout pass was an especially fun moment.

Weekend Update. Seth Meyers killed it with the jokes this week, including one of the best Lego jokes I’ve ever heard. GOP candidate Jon Huntsman stopped by with some desperate pandering to New Hampshire primary voters, proving himself far too relaxed and self-aware to be a serious presidential contender. And Meyers got to live a dream come true by hosting a “Really?!” segment with Kermit the Frog, who nearly upstaged his human co-host.

Digital Short: Seducing Women Through Chess. Andy Samberg finally struck gold with a strong digital short: an instructional video (gone wrong) teaching men how to use chess to seduce women. The premise was great, as was Samberg’s toggling between suave confidence and boyish breakdowns. I also enjoyed the intentionally-cheesy production quality — an element the digital shorts rarely overlook.

Andre The Giant Chooses An Ice Cream Flavor. I’m a sucker for these Don Pardo introduced segments. They’re short, straight-forward, and a nice breath of fresh air. Segel’s mug to the camera at the end, while holding a tiny ice cream cone, reminded us that this is sketch comedy… we don’t need to take it too seriously.

The Blue Jean Committee. For the first time this season, the 10-to-1 slot was handed over to Fred Armisen for another one of his weird musical pieces. This one wasn’t as funny as his “A Taste of New York” junkie song, but its “Massachusetts Afternoon” tagline was catchy and it was fun to watch everyone jam out to such a stupid song. A pleasant way to close the night out.

What missed:

Mitt Romney Cold Open. This attempt to make Mitt Romney more of an unleashed, unrehearsed badass like his GOP rivals fell a little flat largely because each punch line was, literally, revealing something boring. The concept itself has plenty of comedic value — it just didn’t pay off as a live sketch.

Retirement Party. I’m not exactly sure what to make of this sketch. The premise was a little hazy — a retirement party for a hated boss, in which Wiig’s mousy secretary Janelle freaks out and Segel mysteriously leaks scandalous details about everyone. I love SNL falling into the bizarre, and sometimes these weird things just catch on. But in this case, it never did.

New Jack Thanksgiving. After the Regis Philbin Audition sketch, another laundry-list character reel sketch just felt exhausting. While some of the characters hit, most of them just felt like filler. I did enjoy “Toni, Tone, Tony Shaloub,” however.

(Note: I didn’t review the Red Flag Perfume commercial because it was previously aired during this season’s premiere with Alec Baldwin.)

An unsettling moment occurred during the goodbyes (which really just should have happened during the Blue Jean Committee sketch), when the puppeteers, holding their Muppets, joined Jason Segel and the cast on stage. The girls I was watching the episode with gasped. Why have Kermit stress his non-puppet existence during Weekend Update, just to reveal his and all the other Muppets’ true nature at the end of the show? Magic ruined!

All in all, however, Jason Segel and his Muppet pals hosted a strong episode. Not as many strong sketches as last week, but the Kemper Pedic mattress commercial, Weekend Update, and the digital short gave us some great highlights.

What did you think? Am I too big a sucker for the Muppets, or should I critique them as hard as I should critique SNL? Do you trust Jason Segel to do justice to the Muppets franchise? Are you looking forward to another year of Mitt Romney cold opens?

We’re off next week for Thanksgiving weekend, so I’ll see you in two weeks, when Steve Buscemi will host with musical guest The Black Keys.

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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  • Jason Farr@facebook

    I really enjoyed this episode! Like always, I loved the last few episodes the most. I wish they'd shake up the show by putting them earlier in the broadcast. It's not 1975 anymore and though Carson was right when he told Michaels to make the first sketch appeal to middle America it just doesn't work in a day and age where only young, hip people are going to watch SNL live. In an internet world you can put sketches anywhere in a show and watch them go viral to the non-TV viewers. But for the people who want to watch it live put the best, most edgy stuff up in the first half hour. It just makes more sense to me…but I'm not Lorne Michaels. Which literally could translate to "I'm not a genius."
    This show in particular is going to have a hard time getting much out of this election. Only Rick Perry is a good person to do an impression of. Mitt Romney is so bland and straight that there's nothing to latch onto for a performer to get some laughs out of. His voice isn't funny, his mannerisms are plain. Nothing funny there. And that goes for most of the people running…except Ron Paul and Rick Perry. And they won't get the nomination and no one talks about Ron Paul to bother devoting a cold open to him.
    Also, I wish they'd stop doing political cold opens. Okay, nerdiness over.

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

    The Retirement Party was awful, it was one of the few sketches I've seen in a long time where you can feel the uncomfortableness of the audience, and the cast realizing the sketch is bombing.

    The New Jack sketch was lazy too, and it seemed like after one or two "songs" they even gave up the "New Jack" premise, and just had people singing stupid songs.

    But overall, I thought it was a good episode. Did they distort Jason Segal's voice, or is his Andre the Giant that good?

    • http://www.twitter.com/pablogoldstein Pablo Goldstein

      @Joshua Ungerleider It's that good. His impression originated in "I Love You, Man"

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

      @Joshua Ungerleider One other thing, I guess somebody has to play Gelman, but I thought by using Paul Brittan, they missed out on his impressions, which are pretty good in my opinion.

    • iamjustryingtolive

      @Joshua Ungerleider Segel was the guest on Live with Kelly (dvr'd bc Seinfeld cohosting) and he talked about doing the impression and then did it there, so def no technological enhancement to it.

  • Roger F. Lussier@facebook

    Call me crazy but I don't understand why, 7 episodes into a season, they've already re-used two commercials. (let me note i only watch the show on hulu) Maybe I just never watched seasons from start to finish, but I always thought that SNL usually went out of their way to have more skits than actual runtime so that if something bombed in the live show they could replace it for the west coast and hulu with something from the dress rehearsal.

    • http://eavoss.com Erik Voss

      @Roger F. Lussier@facebook Agreed, reairing old commercial sketches from previous episodes is a pet peeve of mine. There's typically two sketches that don't make it from dress rehearsal to the live broadcast… surely there's new material to use. My theory is that because commercials are short, they keep a few on standby in case the night's looking like it's running a little short. If that's the case I suppose the practice is justified.

  • http://www.twitter.com/pablogoldstein Pablo Goldstein

    What's the "10-to-1 slot"?

    • http://eavoss.com Erik Voss

      @Pablo Goldstein "10-to-1" slot refers to the last sketch of the night, the one that airs around 10 minutes to 1 o'clock. Usually it's where Lorne places the weirdest or riskiest sketches, so that if they tank, the lowest number of viewers will be watching.

    • http://www.twitter.com/pablogoldstein Pablo Goldstein

      @Erik Voss Thanks! I usually like those a lot. Even if they're bad, at least it's not making fun of the politician of the week and the wacky thing he/she did/said.

  • Anthony Coro

    Gotta disagree on the Vogelchecks. In fact, I specifically singled them out last week as something that would suck to see again just because I figured Jason Segel seems like the sort of host they would utilize for that. I'll give them credit for coming up with some inventive ways of, uh, showing affection but no matter how you slice it, it's a shock value sketch, period.

    I also wasn't feeling the 10-to-1…those Fred Armisen band sketches are really hit or miss. I want to love them all because comedy and rock music are my two greatest pop culture passions but this one just had a minor laugh and then draggggggggggggggged.

    Other than those two, I'm pretty much with you. The mattress commercial was hysterical and the digital short hit the right balance of weird and silly. But alas, I would not be surprised at all if Wiig's retirement party character returns at some point. I didn't think they would stoop to bringing that "Thomas! Thomas!" character back…but they did.