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Monday, January 16th, 2012

SNL Recap: Daniel Radcliffe, Timid Host on a Ballsy Night

It’s frustrating when SNL plays directly to our expectations. When a former castmember comes back to host the show, for example, it’s almost certain that there will be at least one reprisal of an old sketch (Jimmy Fallon as Boston teen Sully, Dana Carvey as the Church Lady, Will Ferrell as President Bush, etc.). Seventy-five percent of the cold opens this season have been GOP parodies, and half of the episodes have opened with Jason Sudeikis as Mitt Romney.

Of course, I love an unsurprising comeback of the Barry Gibb Talk Show as much as anybody, but while watching 90 minutes of live sketch comedy, pieced together in less than a week, I like surprises. And not “Hey, Target Lady! Haven’t seen her in a while!” surprises. I want to see Lorne, Seth, and the writers approach the entire lineup with the same reckless disregard that they do for the last few minutes of the night, where sketches are selected with the precision of Pollack.

One thing that surprised me about last episode was how bold some of the sketches were. What began as some familiar self-parody in the monologue evolved into some genuinely risky moments, some that brilliantly hit too close to home for the studio audience, others that felt mostly for the amusement of the cast… and just came across as uncomfortable for the rest of us.

Unfortunately, SNL's nerve didn’t make up for an overall uncomfortable episode, hosted by a soft-spoken and tongue-tied Daniel Radcliffe, who made the most of a few wonderful sketches while barely surviving several other inexplicable ones.

What Hit:

Golden Globes Promos. Jason Sudeikis gave us another taste of his amusing Ricky Gervais impression in a sketch that parodied NBC’s attempt to bank on the Golden Globes host’s overhyped low blows. I think they could have gone a little meaner than suggesting Selena Gomez get a green card or a few dog put-downs — then again, I suppose painting Gervais as not as cruel as he’s made out to be was the point.

You Can Do Anything. This talk show celebrating the “incredibly high self esteem of the YouTube generation” was the first time I watched SNL and thought, “Wow, they just destroyed me and all of my friends.” Although I doubt most SNL viewers get as much an ego boost from double-digit views on a blog in a single day as I do, but in an age when American students rank 25th in math but are #1 in confidence, this sketch couldn’t have been more uncomfortably honest (notice the studio audience’s tepid reaction). Overwhelming sarcasm can only sustain a sketch for so long, but jabs like “You’re self-promotional, and everyone loves that,” will be enough to make me feel a bit less proud every time I check my Google Analytics.

Spin the Bottle. This short took a familiar premise – spin the bottle gone wrong – and had some dark, twisted fun with it, forcing Daniel Radcliffe to kiss revolting hobos, or as they prefer, “homeless bozos.” Kenan Thompson’s spaceman-fearing, suspicious powder coughing smoocher was my favorite.

Harry Potter Epilogue. For anyone who ever wondered what Harry Potter did for the rest of his life after saving the world, the answer is wander pathetically around his old campus, living in the past and hitting on students half his age, ala McConaughey in Dazed and Confused. I thought it was a hilarious direction to take the character… let’s just hope the actor doesn’t suffer the same fate.

Weekend Update. It was a good night for puns at the Update desk. Some good jokes from Seth (including an appropriate nickname for a fumbling Mexican organ transplanter), followed by the return of Vanessa Bayer and Fred Armisen as the scorned childhood friends of Kim Jong Un (Muammar Gaddafi in previous versions). While this bit is a little too subtle for a laugh-out-loud reaction, I still enjoy their cautious, lean-across-the-dinner-table delivery. And the highlight of the night came when Radcliffe appeared as Casey Anthony’s dog, who fears for his life. A lot of good lines here, and I especially loved the applause at the “It’s rough” pun.

2112 Play. I appreciated the cast’s commitment to this bizarre sketch about a theater company from the future presenting a “Carousel of Progress” type show about life in 2012. The details were delightful — apparently in just 100 years, wolverines will be domesticated, we will be able to switch ethnicities while we sleep, and New Zealand will peel off the earth and float into outer space like a Band-Aid. And jokes about assassin Taylor Swift will always be too soon.

Exit Polling. One of two Kristen Wiig sketches later in the show that mocked the political process without the need for candidate impersonations was this one about an absurd pollster assaulting a voter with questions like “Are you a robot?” and “Do you like my new laugh?” As usual, Wiig amazed me with her performance here. I’m not sure other cast members could have nailed the timing on the age bracket joke as well as she did.

Headz Up App. This unnecessary but enjoyable commercial at the end of the night featured an app that prevents you from colliding into things while your head is down staring at your smartphone.

What Missed:

Mitt Romney Cold Open. I wouldn’t mind the fact that this is the sixth time this season an episode has opened with a Mitt Romney piece if the sketch was actually funny. Instead, the attempts to mine humor from Romney’s out-of-touch personality and his enjoyment of firing things never dug deep enough, and we were left with a cold open as bland as its target.

Monologue. Radcliffe didn’t waste any time addressing his reputation as the boy wizard and SNL's history parodying the character. He then tossed a few friendly disses at the writers for their tendency to do obligatory topical pieces, worried about possible sketches of Dumbledore working in a Harry Pottery Barn or Jersey Shore: Hogwarts (complete with a lightning bolt tattoo on the Situation’s abs). But for me, the monologue is all host — and I found to be Radcliffe to be a little stiff and very soft-spoken most of the night, undercutting several jokes.

Target Lady. I couldn’t believe my eyes when they resurrected Wiig’s first character on the show (and therefore Wiig’s first hated character). I’ve secretly always had a soft spot for Target Lady, though not enough to fight Radcliffe’s mulleted stock boy for her, and at first I wondered if the decision to bring her back after a few years absence might mean something drastic — say, the revelation that her Target branch is in a snow globe and her entire existence is in the psychopathic imagination of Gilly. This sketch had more scripted jokes than I remember its predecessors having, but in general, there was too much going on, with competing absurdities layered on top of each other.

Delaware Fellas. They couldn’t get much mileage out of this clash of context between the Jersey Boys musical and the state of Delaware, which seemed to run out of trivia 45 seconds in. It seemed as if the writers felt obligated to include a Broadway-themed sketch due to Radcliffe’s recent stint in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, but unfortunately we know too little about both contexts to make this sketch relevant.

Glenda Okones Runner. In another strange lineup decision, a runner was crammed into the final third of the show rather than spaced evenly throughout the night. I enjoyed the premise, as well as Wiig’s fearless mayoral candidate Glenda Okones, who decided to release a series of self-directed attack ads. Only the second of the three was strong enough to stand on its own, though, and I wish all three had been combined into one sketch.

The Jay Pharoah Show. In the most peculiar sketch of the night, the under-casted Jay Pharoah hosted an uninspired interview of Radcliffe. In some ways the polar opposite of “The Chris Farley Show,” in which a starstruck Farley spent entire interviews fawning over his guests, Pharoah instead waited for the sketch to end, occasionally doing one of his standard impersonations. I assume the joke here is that people view Pharoah as a one-trick pony (“Parodied what most folks think of me tonight..and I can mold and shape the creation into whatever I like.. #Perfectsense” he tweeted afterwards). It seemed like the studio audience wasn’t in on the joke (neither were several critics, apparently), so the sketch could have used a blunt call-out line or two to make the game clearer. I’m a little surprised that Lorne allowed such a personal, meta premise on the air. Also, I’ll sympathize with Pharoah’s reputation as a one-trick pony when he proves to me that he’s not one. This sketch didn’t do that.

Some episodes of SNL are fun to sit back and enjoy, while others may be a bit more thought-provoking, hoping that we’ll at least appreciate them. This episode was one of the latter. While I enjoyed many parts of this episode — Radcliffe as Casey Anthony’s dog and the image of a 27-year-old Harry Potter playing Quidditch by himself, making cheering noises — I’ll remember it more for the creative risks it took with the You Can Do Anything and Jay Pharoah Show sketches than I will for Daniel Radcliffe’s uneven delivery.

What did you think? Did you give Radcliffe more credit for his performance? Were you as confused as I was to see the return of Target Lady, the late-in-the-show runner of political attack ads, and by whatever the premise was of The Jay Pharoah Show? And most importantly, now that SNL has called me out, will I forever hate myself for spending hours and hours every week blogging and self-promoting?

Find out when I retweet this article!

We have a few weeks off to rest during that long-overdue late-January holiday, so I’ll see you on February 4, when Channing Tatum will host with musical guest Bon Iver.

Erik Voss is a writer and performer living in Los Angeles. He performs with his improv team Natural 20 at the iO West Theater. He too has never been punched.

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  • Megh Wright

    Great recap! I got really excited when the Jay Pharaoh Show sketch started. I loved the ideas it was reaching for and it kills me how much time he isn't getting on the show considering he could be the next Hammond utility voice guy with his level of talent. He didn't push the idea to a new level though, so it ended up feeling like a missed opportunity. It was definitely peculiar, but I'll take peculiar over Target Lady any day.

  • Colin Hughes@twitter

    The "You Can Do Anything" sketch had to have been written after watching Lana Del Rey rehearsing during the week.

    • akivaddict

      @Colin Hughes@twitter
      This is the funniest thing I have read all week! (And that's a week that included Golden Globe live tweets.)

  • chris chris

    Jeebus Crispus! I don't know who to blame for the wasted use of Jay Pharoah. Why does it seem to be so hard for the writers to just have him do a talk show sketch using one of his dead-on impressions? Is he not a gifted-enough performer to carry it through for 3 minutes? Here are some ideas: How about Will Smith as a motivational coach? Woooh! Or Denzel Washinton fills in for Mike Rowe doing a "Dirty Jobs" type show on BET? (actually, dibs on that one, that's a decent idea ) I feel like this kid could be a breakout star but something is holding him back…

    • http://eavoss.com Erik Voss

      @chris chris Since when has a talk show sketch hosted by someone who just does an impersonation for 3 minutes been a good thing? If you look at Vanessa Bayer's Miley Cyrus Show, the joke isn't "Hey, look how much she sounds like Miley Cyrus!" it's "Miley Cyrus tries way too hard to be an adult." Pharoah hasn't shown he can do much more than just look and sound like a few celebrities, which is certainly a huge talent, but not one that's going to get him very far on SNL. Show me "Will Smith bribes George Lucas to digitally replace Luke and Leia with Jaden and Willow" or "Eddie Murphy spends Thanksgiving dinner alone, playing each of his 27 family members."

      I agree that he can be a huge breakout star, and I think he'll get there. This sketch showed he's aware of his reputation and is trying to show he's something more… I just want him to SHOW us, not just call it out.

    • steakm

      @chris chris @Erik Voss Imagine his impressions were purposely awful. Would have been way funnier. RIGHT?

    • chris chris

      @steakm – actually that would have been kind of funny if he did bad impressions on purpose.
      @Erik – the difference between Vanessa's Miley Cyrus and Jay's Denzel is that to me at least, the Denzel impression is SO good, it's simply fascinating to watch. But hey, the spring season has just started…

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

    Last week's episode was better, but even the sketches I didn't like had a good line reading or two (Keenan in "Delaware Fellas"/Hader in "Target Lady"). Regarding the "You Can Do Anything" sketch, good idea with good performances, but the execution was lacking. I just don't think they took the premise far enough. Your theory that the audience felt the sketch hit too close to home could be correct or maybe like me they just didn't find the sketch hilarious. The jury's out on that one, although Radcliffe Irish dancing while doing calligraphy did kind of bring it back for me at the end.
    My favorite sketches: the 2112 play and Glenda Okones ( I loved the way Wiig delivered the tags in those videos "Vote Okones")
    I couldn't agree more about the strength of Update and the odd Uber-Meta-ness of "The Jay Pharaoh Show". I liked the whispering friends a lot more this time and I thought Vanessa Bayer had great delivery in that Update segment. Missed having Sandberg around this episode, but Sudeikis really made up for it with that patented charm of his. I feel like he's one of those comedians that kind of tries to telegraph to the audience that he's in on the joke with his inflection and smile, so even when I'm not laughing uproariously I'm still enjoying the show.

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

    Great recap- I pretty much agree with all your hits and misses, though the monologue kind of fell in the middle for me (I find it hard to consider anything with Bobby Moynihan being awesome a miss). I was really excited in the early moments of The Jay Pharaoh Show sketch. It's an inspired concept that went completely nowhere. I was waiting for the one trick pony joke to be heightened or for there to be a twist or God, anything to happen. Disappointing. I so badly want to get behind Jay Pharaoh, but so far there's not a lot to get behind. Also, if you're a spaceman, you legally have to tell me!

  • akivaddict

    Where was Samberg this week? It's too bad because he's such an HP fan- although, you know most of Brittain's roles would have been Andy's (Harry Pothead, come on), and I would hate to miss out on some much-deserved airtime for Paul.

    Also… Voss, noooo! Radcliffe completely surprised me as a Freshman host. You really thought he seemed nervous and soft-spoken? I thought for sure you'd give him a rave. Oh well, I'll have to watch again (cause you're usually right. Hmmmm….)

    • http://eavoss.com Erik Voss

      @akivaddict I don't know what it is, but we always expect these young performers to come in there and reinvigorate the show (Radcliffe, Miley Cyrus, Scarlett Johansson), and in the end, they usually just prove that they're still freaking kids. Talented kids, yes. But I'll take a John Hamm or a Melissa McCarthy any day. So Radcliffe didn't surprise me much… did about as good as I expected… but for me he blew a few too many jokes in Target Lady and Harry Potter Epilogue for me to get behind him.

      And yeah, Samberg strangely MIA this episode. To be fair, he was all over the place last week, so maybe they're trying to share the wealth?

  • HereComesOmar

    It's funny that they used the most tired, anyone-can-do, sketch format of all-time, the "talk show with quirky guests" skit, to make their point.

  • B Westof@twitter

    I really enjoyed Jay Pharaoh Show. I thought he played the uncomfortableness of it really well. I also really enjoyed the Glenda Okones commercials. You are right they could have been better spaced, but I thought they still hit.

    I didn't like weekend update. Casey Anthony's dog went on far too long for a one joke premise. Also, I didn't like exit poll. Thanks to this recap, I have started looking at the last slot on the show as a chance for them to really do something off-the-wall. I didn't see any reason that exit poll couldn't have come much earlier (even though it would have been boring then too). I guess they made up for it a little by playing 2112 Play earlier. That seemed like a more traditional last sketch.

    • http://eavoss.com Erik Voss

      @B Westof@twitter Yeah, I guess the Headz Up App was technically the 10-to-1. And as weird as the 2112 Play felt, structurally it was pretty standard. I think sometimes they play it safe and drop the final experimental piece all together.

  • Cameron Line@facebook

    I'm a SNL nerd so I got the joke of "The Jay Pharaoh Show" and was very amused although the execution was lacking. On a side note and not necessarily because of this sketch I'm starting to have some hope that Jay Pharaoh might be a viable cast member and not just the guy who can do accurate but shallow impressions of black celebrities.

    I'm agreeing though that this was an episode of head nodding and polite applause. It made some daring statements often recieving lukewarm response. Then it made some safe choices that weren't that much uproarious.

    I'm a Target lady fan. Maybe it's a midwest thing but I can see Target ladies that I've come across in my shopping in Wiig's portrayal. Besides I enjoy absurd comedy. This one wasn't one of the better ones however.