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Monday, February 20th, 2012

SNL Recap: Maya Rudolph and the Magic of Breaking

For those who perform live comedy, there are few more dangerous games than breaking. Breaking is a term actors use to describe that moment when they laugh inappropriately while playing a scene, or “break character.” In acting classes, breaking is strictly forbidden, while in improv classes, it’s highly discouraged. One improv director made my whole team do pushups and run laps in the rain when someone broke. Our improv didn’t get any better, but we could have literally kicked your improv team’s ass.

Audiences have mixed reactions to breaking. In general, the more committed the performers are, the greater our tolerance for breaking. We enjoy Bill Hader cracking up while playing Stefon because we see his struggle to regain his composure. Also, chances are we cracked up long before Hader did. On the other hand, breaking can also be a signal to the audience that the performers are unconfident and “not worthy” of the stage. Jimmy Fallon attracted a lot of hate when he was an SNL cast member for being unable to keep a straight face, even before a sketch really got off the ground. And then there are those nauseating moments when performers break on purpose. Every production of Hairspray I’ve seen features a moment in the second act when one actor supposedly adlibs a line to another, who then “loses it.” The house always goes wild, but when you realize the moment is premeditated, it feels wrong. Almost as wrong as having seen Hairspray more than once.

Last weekend’s episode, hosted by Maya Rudolph (with plenty of cameos by Amy Poehler and Justin Timberlake), featured an unusual amount of breaking by the performers, which I attributed to Rudolph’s former cast member status. When Jimmy Fallon hosted in December, I made the case that the show should consider having only former cast members as hosts, arguing that their familiarity with the actors, writers, and the overall process would result in more consistently entertaining episodes. I forgot to mention that when one cast member returns to the show, it turns into a big “SNL family reunion.” And when a group of performers are having fun with each other, they’re inevitably going to make each other laugh.

I don’t mind breaking, so long as it’s earned. During an improv show, a performer smiling and calling something out is sometimes necessary to relieve tension and to remind everyone that everything is truly made up on the spot. Similarly, an unexpected giggle in an SNL sketch reminds us that the show is indeed live, which gives us greater respect for the performers and encourages us to rally behind them. And despite the frustration it may cause the writers, who spend painstaking hours rewriting scripts to perfection, breaking and adlibbing gives the show a more organic feel, causing us to wonder which moments are scripted and which are improvised. And to me, that’s when SNL is at its funniest.

Breaking or no breaking, I could never make Maya Rudolph and the rest of the performers do push ups for their performance last weekend, which was one of the season’s finest.

What Hit:

Cold Open: Linsanity Postgame. The night opened with a parody of sports commentators’ blatantly racist coverage of New York Knicks player Jeremy Lin. It was a nice change of pace to have a cold open that wasn’t focused on the GOP primary, and I appreciated the mocking of the Lin-puns and the absurd levels of Asian stereotypes (the interview voice over was a nice touch), and it was a wise choice to include Taran Killam’s clueless, wrong-kind-of-racist white commentator as a punching bag (and eventual empty chair) to the others’ righteous indignation.

Monologue. Rudolph took a number from Jimmy Fallon’s playbook for her monologue: going musical and dancing through the halls of 8H with the other cast members. Singing “Do you wanna funk with me” to a sexy disco beat, she hinted at her past flames when she was on the show, which included all the male performers, Kristen Wiig at the Japanese premiere of Bridesmaids, and dozens of NBC pages. Her wink became a fun button throughout the piece.

Bronx Beat. This old favorite from Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph’s era shone brighter than ever with a more detail oriented writing staff, giving us such gems as: “I’m gonna put my phone on vibrate, I’m gonna sit on it, and I’m gonna call myself over and over.” I can’t claim to really know how women who live in the Bronx talk and act, but these two women have evolved into such rich characters, watching them banter about hoarders and unfulfilled Valentines Days is such a treat. If Poehler and Rudolph weren’t already on the brink of breaking, Andy Samberg and Justin Timberlake’s appearance as catcalling crew guys pushed the sketch over the edge.

Maya Angelou Prank Show. Rudolph played the esteemed African American poet Maya Angelou following in the footsteps of Betty White and pulling stupid pranks on people the likes of Morgan Freeman, Dr. Cornel West, and Stephen King. I loved everything about this sketch, mostly just the premise of elderly dignified people pranking each other in such asinine ways, and then praising each other’s work.

Jay-Z and Beyonce’s Baby. Jay-Z (a more confident Jay Pharoah), Beyonce (Rudolph), and their new baby daughter Blue Ivy are visited by a laundry list of celebrities played by the rest of the ensemble. Normally I’m frustrated by these full-cast impersonation sketches, but in this case, the premise wasn’t as lazy as in previous instances, the post-Grammys jokes resonated well, and many of the impersonations were surprisingly inspired, including Nasim Pedrad’s Nikki Minaj, who sang a nightmarish lullaby, Killam’s nuanced Brad Pitt, and Timberlake’s Bon Iver, whose song put himself to sleep.

Weekend Update. No characters dropped by the Update desk this week — just a number of solid jokes, including some that speculated on the trustworthiness of Shakira’s hips and suggested a new slogan for Pepsi: “We don’t have Coke. Is Pepsi okay?” The highlight, of course, was Amy Poehler’s return to reprise the “Really? with Seth and Amy” segment, this time targeting their fury on the absence of women on the congressional panel on Obama’s birth control coverage mandate. These segments provide SNL with a rare opportunity to take a stand on an issue Stewart-style and barrage us with angry jokes, and I’m smitten every time they do so.

What Up With That. Every time SNL pulls this sketch back out, I immediately fold my arms and tell myself, “They better find a way to top it,” and then eventually get won over by Jason Sudeikis’ dancing tracksuit guy. I also enjoyed Rudolph’s gaudy Brazilian singer and the random appearance by education activist Geoffrey Canada (Pharoah). All that said, this sketch didn’t have me until “Oh poop!”

Super Showcase. It was a sketch saved by breaking. Rudolph and Wiig played foreign models on a game show, describing prizes. I’m not sure what cracked Wiig up exactly — it could have been the strange accent (did I detect a bit of Nuni in there?), or the odd prizes, or just the surreal nature of the sketch as a whole (notice Vanessa Bayer’s also “off” contestant) — but Wiig lost it completely, spreading her giggle fits along to Rudolph and Hader as well. Whether this sketch would have been as entertaining without the breaking, we will never know. But with it, we were able to see and laugh along with how strange these two women were. Best of Kristen Wiig DVD, here we come.

Cosby Obama. It seems like such a perfect clash of context to map the Obamas over The Cosby Show, I had to wonder what took SNL so long to do this piece. And then I realized: They haven’t had a performer other than Maya Rudolph who can play Michelle Obama. It seemed like they had a lot of time to plan this one out — the structure was nice and tidy, and all the right references were there, including the staircase Ray Charles musical number. I respected Fred Armisen’s choice to play Obama with Bill Cosby’s voice — it helped reinforce the context and shifted the focus from his so-so Obama impersonation.

What Missed:

How’s He Doing? I must say that I agreed with this sketch’s placement at the end of the night. The premise was clear — a talk show that speculates on black voters’ lukewarm yet undying support of Obama, and the extreme measures he would have to go to lose their vote. I thought the sketch explored some interesting points, I just didn’t find most of them very funny.

I cannot neglect to mention Maya Rudolph’s superb performance. When performers are still cast members on the show, they are part of an ensemble, and they sometimes go weeks without major roles in sketches. But give them a chance to star, and they’ll blow you away, as Rudolph did, in every part she played in last weekend’s episode: her musical talents in the monologue and What Up With That, her character work in the Bronx Beat and Super Showcase sketches, and her impersonation skills as Maya Angelou, Beyonce, and Michelle Obama. Anyone wondering what Rudolph would do without Whitney Houston to parody received a very clear answer.

Another thing worth mentioning was the spike in the number of roles played by Kenan Thompson and Jay Pharoah this episode. After making one blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo last week in the Les Jeunes de Paris sketch, Thompson was featured more than any other performer this week, followed by Jay Pharoah, who was given his largest share of roles ever. After a similar thing happened when Charles Barkley hosted in January, I have to wonder if the race of a host opens doors for cast members who are minorities. With sketches about “Linsanity,” Maya Angelou, and two focusing on Obama’s image, race was certainly a theme of the night. I’m glad SNL had a chance to address these issues and give Thompson and Pharoah more screen time, I just wish they could do it more often, regardless of the host.

What did you think? How do you feel when actors break during sketches? Is it ever justified? Would the Super Showcase sketch have been funny without it? A lot of “hits” this week… did I miss any “misses”? And what should we make of this potential trend of saving the race sketches until a non-white host comes along?

I’ll see you March 3, when Lindsay Lohan will bribe her parole officer into letting her host the show, with musical guest Jack White.

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 sees Maya Rudolph nearly every day on the lot at work, and he will probably make an ass of himself complimenting her at some point this week.

  • thejasten

    Definitely the best of the season. No misses for me. Maya was absolute gold in everything she did on Saturday. Also, JT and TK's best performances yet.

  • leftleftright

    I really liked the use of Pharoah. I'd grown to dislike him a great deal, if I'm being honest. But to see him in non-impersonation roles was very nice, and his acting has gotten stronger, too. I hope this continues. Great episode!

  • leftleftright

    Oh, and I thought Armisen's Obama playing Cosby was masterful!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Filup-Molina/2000761 Filup Molina

    Eh, I can't accept that one of the last lines of the "What Up With That?" sketch can save it. In fact, I think the audience audibly turns on this sketch, refusing to react at a few key moments. I will admit the audience is won back over after Kenan begins to sing over Bill O'Reilly. Still, I don't know if they've ever had a sketch that so clearly embodies the recurring sketch problem. The same exact thing, performed the same exact way, just isn't gonna be funny for very long.

    Also, I genuinely believe that there is a file cabinet full of unused sketches divided up by the minimum number of minorities they require.

    • http://eavoss.com Erik Voss

      @Filup Molina The fact that they placed it later in the show, rather than lead with it after the monologue like they have in the past, at least signals that they might be losing confidence in it. But when I look at this sketch, and Secret Word, I have to admit that those premises are still really strong. If they're going to keep bringing back sketches, I'm glad these days it's the well-conceived ones.

    • Colin Hughes@twitter

      @Filup Molina is right, in that I turn the show off, literally. I muted the TV until this sketch was over. Bringing back any sketch is a sign of weakness, and Erik's old coach should make the writers run laps. I understand that the audience for SNL is not filled with people like me so I don't take it too seriously but honestly, Keenan Thompson has to be one of the worst performers I've ever seen on SNL, and this sketch takes him to number 1 with a bullet.

    • http://eavoss.com Erik Voss

      @Colin Hughes@twitter A pretty bold stance, Colin. Recurring sketches are such a huge part of SNL. Sometimes an idea or character is so good, you have to bring it back. If you think bringing back ANY sketch — that doing Stefon, MacGruber, or Matt Foley as much as a second time — is a sign of weakness, and if you make the effort to mute your TV during sketches, then seriously, why do you even watch SNL?

  • theBULL

    I would place Cosby Obama and What's Up With That in the Miss category. The Cosby sketch just wasn't funny, and you can hear/not hear the audience reaction. They were waiting for some great moments but just never got any. It was a pretty strange sketch. I did enjoy the opening credits of it. But there weren't any good jokes, and ended terribly weak.

    • http://eavoss.com Erik Voss

      @theBULL It was a sketch written for lovers of The Cosby Show. I didn't watch it a whole lot, but I recognized that staircase reference, and I thought it was a great way to end the sketch.

  • http://shatnerian.wordpress.com jduncanhansen@twitter.com

    Breaking is one of those things that can either take a sketch somewhere unexpected and fun or it can look like the Carol Burnett Show where they did it ALL THE TIME. I think Super Showcase fell into the latter category. So kudos to Vanessa Bayer for not breaking during the Super Showcase sketch. No laps for her.

    I couldn't get behind the Cosby show sketch even if it did include the welcome return of Joe Jamal-Biden, not too mention Maya's dead-on impression of Michelle Obama. I was waiting for something to happen to but the entire sketch was its premise: The Obamas as the Cosbys.

    I've never seen Betty's White candid camera show but it didn't stop the Maya Angelou sketch from being awesome.

    I've been a defender of "What's Up With That?" in the past but as I enjoyed this past entry, even I can see it's time to retire it, at least until they get something new out of it.

    • theBULL

      @jduncanhansen@twitter.com I would say that the people who don't break in a sketch where their partner IS breaking is what makes it funny too. If Vanessa had been laughing, I doubt I would have enjoyed it much. Sounds weird, I know, but it's important to have the straight person in there that can keep composed when everyone around them can't help but laugh. It just makes it even funnier.

  • MyFavoriteWasteofTime

    Anybody no what is up with the drought of Digital Shorts? I don't think they have had one since the Charles Barkely episode, so that makes it 4 episodes sans what I thought was SNL's current tentpole. There has been a lot of talk about the fact that they haven't been that strong this season, I wonder if Lorne pulled Samberg aside and told him to reassess the format. Or possibly this is just a sign that he is on his way out from the show.

    • http://eavoss.com Erik Voss

      @MyFavoriteWasteofTime That's a good question. For each of the past few seasons, Samberg and co. gave us at least a few epic digital shorts. This season, we're still waiting for even one. I'm wondering if The Lonely Island guys are just busy with other career things.

    • http://twitter.com/bradfordevans Bradford Evans

      @MyFavoriteWasteofTime Akiva left the show at the end of last season and Jorma left the season before. Akiva's directing "Neighborhood Watch," the new Ben Stiller-Vince Vaughn-Jonah Hill movie, and Jorma's been directing episodes of "Parks and Rec" and "Up All Night." Jorma has come back a few times this season to write/direct shorts, but Samberg's the only Lonely Island guy on SNL on a weekly basis these days.

    • http://eavoss.com Erik Voss

      @Bradford Evans Ah, there's your answer, @MyFavoriteWasteofTime. Thanks, Bradford!

  • Dennis Perrin

    I thought How's He Doing? was a solid premise, if soft in jokes. Obama's been worse on civil liberties than Bush, which affects Black people more than whites. Examining that tension would make the piece stronger. Still, I liked it.

  • Gilbert Martinez@facebook

    Totally with you on this one @Erik Voss. A very strong episode. I laughed alot…..out loud even.

    Yeah, I have to disagree with @Filup Molina and @Colin Hughes about "What Up With That?" I really enjoy that sketch every time. I think it was smart to put it on later in the show given how many times it's been done, but it's far from the embodiment of the recurring sketch problem. My main issue with it is that sometimes the absurd character the host plays can be cringe worthy. Not a problem with Rudolph. And yes, Voss, Sudekis' tracksuit dancer always gets me.

    As for the Obama/Cosby Show, if you didn't think the premise alone was funny then you're not going to like the sketch. I watched that show all the time so I loved it. The opening, the hoagie, Armisen's Cosby sound effects("Thawp!"), the Cockroach reference and the aforementioned Ray Charles lip-sync with the fantastic Hilary as Rudy "Baby!" button were all spot on and hilarious.

    Also, I agree with Filup on the minimum minorities required file. It's a such a glaring difference when non-white hosts are on, they have to be aware of it.

    • theBULL

      @Gilbert Martinez@facebook I've watched the Cosby show a few times and really liked the premise. I was just waiting for something funny to happen. They really stayed true to that old sit-com format, where nowadays you realize shows like Family Matters and such don't hold up so well joke-wise.

  • semiserious

    Definitely tells you something about the strength of a returning cast mate when they go back to only one of her recurring characters and just one of the impressions she did on the show.

    While Bronx Beat was pretty much the high light of the episode, they've done it already a few times after Maya left (counting the online only sketch with Betty White).

    Wouldn't have minded seeing a return of Noni & Noni. Kind of debating whether or not I would have liked to have seen the return of Donatella, but I guess the Beyonce sketch accomplished the same cavalcade of celeb impressions with a more timely setting. Then again, seeing Donatella and Stefon in a room together would have been great.

    Also, I hope Maya Angelou is glad she's finally been played by a woman on SNL after three guys already offered up their impression on the show.

    • http://eavoss.com Erik Voss

      @semiserious It is interesting how Bronx Beat only had a "14 month hiatus" when Amy and Maya haven't been fulltime cast members together since 2007. We've seen the same thing with The Barry Gibb Talk Show, which saw a few reprisals even after Jimmy Fallon left the show in 2004. Does anyone ever really "leave" SNL?

  • John Bridges@facebook

    I agree that this was one of the better episodes of the past couple of seasons. The Beyonce/Jay-Z skit was brilliant. I just don't get why she looked at the camera at the end and said "Bye" twice, and awkwardly?

  • B Westof@twitter

    Has anyone else noticed that Taran Killam’s Brad Pitt is pretty much him doing Tony Danza.

    I love it.

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

    I'm not if this is why, but it seemed like there were a few technical difficulties during the showcase sketch, I think I saw the boom mikes once during the sketch, and I don't think Rudolph or Wiig knew what accent they wanted to use until halfway through the sketch. Basically, it seemed like a trainwreck that wrecked in a funny way.

    This "What's Up With That" didn't bother me so much, but I can't help but feel like the sketch is used to give each cast member at least a few minutes of screen time.