When I watched SNL as a teenager, I tended to tune out of sketches that had their own opening title sequences. To me, the 20 seconds it took to get through the Debbie Downer jingle always felt so unnecessary and obvious, as if to say, “They aren’t going to get this sketch if we don’t spell it out for them up top.” I always thought that if the character or premise were good enough, it would be abundantly clear in the dialogue. For a recurring piece I particularly disliked, an opening title sequence became a warning siren: Oh great, I’m going to have to sit through five minutes of this. I even get a little stressed out during The Miley Cyrus Show or What Up With That theme songs, and I actually like those sketches.
After watching the past few episodes of SNL I realized that one of the reasons I feel the show has hit a new stride is a shift away from the sitcom-y, camera-mugging characters of previous generations. The recent trend, it seems, is to anchor the show’s best characters at the Weekend Update desk, where natural straight-man Seth Meyers can balance between pulling the leash on the crazies and letting them run free. While context-driven recurring characters seem to be a dying breed — with Kristen Wiig’s surprise-giddy Sue, gross-out Shanna, and black-sheep Dooneese appear to be going the way of Penelope and Gilly — at the Update desk these freaks have the freedom to simply be themselves, all while Meyers tries to maintain the insane task of getting some valuable information from his “correspondents.”
Of course, it’s not like this is the first time some loonies have drifted into the news segment. Adam Sandler’s Opera Man got his start at the Update desk, as did Gilda Radner’s Rosanne Rosannadanna. But those eras also had their Church Ladies and Coneheads to roam out from behind the desk. You can thank the rise of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, or blame the post-9/11 death of irony, but nowadays we prefer our characters raw and unfiltered, free of context or the need for justification, save for an occasional “Hold on a sec,” from a well groomed man in a suit behind a desk.
The polarization of characters in the news is evident. Bill Hader’s Stefon is the funniest thing to happen to SNL in a decade. Of all of Kristen Wiig’s wonderful voices, none are more consistently impressive than her panicked Judy Grimes. And those two are flanked by Update favorites Garth and Kat, Anthony Crispino, the Devil, James Carville, Nicholas Cage, Gov. David Patterson, and, two hilarious newcomers, Bobby Moynihan’s Drunk Uncle (last week) and Wiig’s flirting expert Rebecca Larue (this week).
This episode was no exception, with a Weekend Update segment — one of the finest this season — overshadowing the valiant efforts of host Katy Perry.
J-Pop Talk Show. While it might have been a little soon to bring back this stereotype-driven Japanese talk show (hosted by clueless white students), and Taran Killam and Vanessa Bayer’s timing wasn’t as tight as it was before, I appreciated this edition’s shifted focus on the cultural inaccuracies (the Yao Ming action figure, etc.) instead of the funny but tiring dancing and shouting. Katy Perry’s role as a Hello Kitty fanatic helped the piece reach the wild energy it had before.
New Year’s Eve Sequel. Kudos to SNL for going after a movie starring its very own Seth Meyers (along with pretty much every other famous person), here in a fake trailer for an apocalypse-centered celebrity-packed holiday film. It was nice to see Hader’s Alan Alda again, and Jay Pharoah made the most of his little screen time this episode with a fantastic Cuba Gooding Jr.
Finnish Talk Show. I’m a little on the fence in regards to this sketch about Finnish talk show with an “excellent research team.” It took a little long to get the ball rolling, but they did some interesting things with the “a clip for everything” concept – one “clip” replayed what we saw moments earlier, others showed future events. Ultimately, Wiig’s eerily excited host Kalle won the day, and I have to hand it to SNL for going for such a weird premise,
Digital Short: Best Friends. While I’m still waiting for this season’s show-stopping musical digital short (last season gave us epics like I Just Had Sex and Jack Sparrow), this Samberg-Perry joint was nevertheless a nice return to form, in which a simple concept sprints though fun innocence (caroling and scarves!), to twisted celebrity cameos (Russian roulette with Matt Damon and Val Kilmer!), to insanely weird (Bird Man and using a time machine to bring back famous historical figures!) in just a few short minutes.
Doggie Duty. The cast wrung out their few remaining celebrity impersonations with this commercial for a kids movie soundtrack. In between an onslaught of dog puns, Jason Sudeikis’ Meatloaf and Hader’s Clint Eastwood were my favorites, yet Katy Perry’s Florence was pretty spot-on.
Weekend Update.SNL delivered a knock-out punch with its news segment, with something old, something new, and a fantastic moment of humility by a beloved SNL icon, buffered by some solid jokes by Seth Meyers. First we were introduced to Wiig’s flirting expert Rebecca Larue. Just when you start to lose faith in Wiig, she hits you hard with something so different from anything she’s done before. Such a simple character, and I was tickled by how real she was, with her giggly hair tussles and distracted dancing. Then came the American Airlines pilot of the flight Alec Baldwin got kicked off of — a pilot who looked and sounded remarkably like Alec Baldwin. The fact that Baldwin could come on the show within a week of the event and so casually make jokes at his own expense cements his status as the most sought-after Words With Friends contender. And as promised in the promos last week, we got a full dose of Stefon, who treated us to such wonders as Menorah the Exporer and A Fish Called Kwanzaa.
Pippa Visits the Queen. If you wanted to make a case for desk-less recurring characters on SNL, I suppose you could start here. Fred Armisen’s crass, thuggish Queen Elizabeth II is always a delight, especially here when she and husband Prince Philip (Hader) pressured Kate Middleton (Abby Elliot) to “pop out a baby and give us an heir to the bleeding frone.” Katy Perry made a cameo as Kate’s sister Pippa, holding her own with the royal couple and joining them in a ska number “Christmas in London” to close out the sketch.
One Magical Night. Another strong, albeit slightly more classic, 10-to-1 sketch gave us Bobby Moynihan and Katy Perry discovering they’re soul mates in a jazz club. There were some fun jokes in the coincidences, specifically in some of the tattoo reveals, and with a solid ending and some nice jazzy musical interludes, the piece was a great way to cap the night off.
Cold Opening: On The Record. Darrell Hammond returned to the show to play Donald Trump, sparring with Greta Van Susteren (Wiig), bragging about his general greatness, and putting down the GOP candidates to his sides. Too much “huuuuge” and “square footage” (What is this, 2004?) and birther debate humor (What is this, 2011?), and frankly, I can’t watch Hammond do his old characters without picturing the tortured soul underneath.
Monologue. Once again this week the monologue took on the structure of a normal sketch — here, Katy Perry implied that the crazy outfits from her music videos were inspired by people she grew up with… and happened to be in the studio. I liked the concept, but the execution was too much of a half-measure, resulting in a weak payoff.
Politics Nation with Al Sharpton. Kenan Thompson played the Rev. Al Sharpton in his bumpy crossover to hosting a cable news show. Thompson didn’t get much mileage out of the “bumbling, incompetent host” gag as he did when he did pretty much the same thing as Steve Harvey hosting Who Wants To Be A Millionaire a few seasons back, and this time the jokes weren’t really there.
Thanks to some interesting script choices and all-around stellar performances by the cast, as well as some nice hustle by host Katy Perry and guests Alec Baldwin, Darrell Hammond, Matt Damon and Val Kilmer, this turned out to be a great episode. I don’t know what it is about Weekend Update… I used to stay up for it because of my comedy nerd crush on Tina Fey, and now I watch it because there’s a good chance it will make me laugh harder than anything else on TV.
What do you think? Are you happy with this new wave of Update desk characters? The Finnish talk show and digital short a little weird for your taste? Do you want Fred Armisen’s Queen Elizabeth to come to your birthday party? Does some part of you desperately want to see Rebecca Larue and Stefon fight to the death for Seth Meyers’ love?
I’ll see you next week, when Jimmy Fallon will host with musical guest Michael Buble.
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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