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Monday, May 14th, 2012

'SNL' Recap: Will Ferrell Delivers Amid High Expectations

After Jimmy Fallon and Maya Rudolph’s spectacular stints hosting SNL earlier this season, I proposed (only somewhat facetiously) that all episodes should be hosted by former castmembers. Fallon’s episode was a gleeful trip down memory lane, complete with cameos by Tina Fey, Tracy Morgan, Rachel Dratch, and Horatio Sanz, and Rudolph’s might have been the highlight of the season, with the multitalented actress bringing the best out of the cast and crew to with her own masterful performance. I expected this episode would be the closing argument to my former-castmember-hosts proposition.

So was it? Sure, so long as I get another closing argument at some point.

We were given a solid, albeit predictable episode: predictably strong in the first half while weak in the second; predictably laden with cameos by other former castmembers and reprisals of characters from Ferrell’s era; predictably celebratory for remaining at the center of the pop culture universe over the years. Of course, Ferrell’s presence makes anything immediately funny (except maybe Broadway Sizzle), but for whatever reason – high expectations or simply lightning evading the bottle for the writers and actors – this episode didn’t ignite as we all hoped it would.

What Hit:

Biden Cold Open. My favorite political sketches tend to be the ones that remove the podiums and take place anywhere other than the oval office. Here, Vice President Biden (Jason Sudeikis) was portrayed as a teenager angry with President Obama (Fred Armisen), for getting all the credit for his support of gay marriage. I love the “Obama as responsible dad, Biden as fuckup son” analogy drawn upon by the likes of Seth Meyers and The Onion. I assumed we would see Ferrell’s Bush come out at some point, and I enjoyed the natural camaraderie that existed between he and Biden: “I used to catch grief all the time from President Cheney.”

Monologue. Ferrell kicked off the night by bringing his mother up on stage and attempting to give a script-free Mother’s Day tribute. His rambling contained a few laughs, but I have to admit I was hoping for more of a spectacle, and the piece treaded too closely to Chevy Chase’s infamous birthday cake bit. Nevertheless, Ferrell’s tugging at the heartstrings won me over.

Cold Commercial. In this one-note sketch, Ferrell plays a husband who interrupts a commercial for cold medicine with a terrifyingly loud sneeze. It was a simple premise, but well executed, particularly thanks to Ferrell’s dumb innocence.

The Culps. Ana Gasteyer reunited with Ferrell in their wholesome song parody team Marty Culp and Bobbi Mohan-Culp, here serenading high schoolers at a gay pride event. Aside from Bush, Culp was Ferrell’s only reprisal of a character from his time on the show, and although I missed his Robert Goulet and Harry Caray, I was reminded instead of Ferrell’s strength as a team player (his other famous SNL roles include straight-man Alec Trebek in Celebrity Jeopardy and halves of other duos like the Spartan Cheerleaders or the Lovers). Ferrell and Gasteyer delivered as always, updating the Culps’ source material to include Adele, Nikki Minaj, and LMFAO. (Seth Meyers tweeted Sunday that the sketch couldn’t be posted online due to music licensing issues.)

100th Digital Short. With Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone’s absence from the show, this season has been relatively light on digital shorts, making this a somewhat odd time to celebrate the greatness of the recurring segment. The Lonely Island boys were in on the joke, however. Throughout the delightful cameos by Michael Bolton, Jon Hamm, Justin Timberlake, Natalie Portman, and Justin Bieber, was their central theme: “Tonight, we’re gonna suck our own [bleep]s!” And hell, why not celebrate the guys who brought us Dick in a Box, Laser Cats, and Shy Ronnie? The image of Natalie Portman tossing a baby off a building is well worth a few inflated egos.

Weekend Update. A bright week for Seth Meyers shone even brighter thanks to a merciless breakdown of Time’s infamous breastfeeding cover photo in a “Really!?!” segment and another epic visit from Andy Samberg’s Nicolas Cage (joined by Liam Neeson), who seems to plunge one ring of insanity deeper each time we see him. This time, we got to meet “The Fixer” and hear Cage’s new Dickensian self-portrait: “the skin of sundried Gremlin, and the oaky tan and the receding hairline of a Puerto Rican Beetlejuice.”

Anniversary Toast. I didn’t mind this throwback to the classic “parade of freaks” toast sketch, in which Ferrell played a deadbeat wannabe psychic who lives above a suit store, while Forte reappeared as his blond creeper and Bobby Moynihan (in his only memorable appearance of the night) as his badass microphone-dropper.

What Missed:

ESPN Classic. I was a big fan of these three-sketches-in-one pieces, where glib sports commentators cover women’s sporting events while plugging crude taglines for feminine hygiene products. Unfortunately, this time, the only plate to remain spinning was Will Forte’s best-name-ever Greg Stink. It also seemed odd to reprise a sketch that came about after Will Ferrell left the show.

Funkytown Debate. I don’t know what it is about SNL’s obsession with the outrageousness of funk culture, but I immediately tune out to these kinds of sketches, whether they take the form of the barely tolerable What Up With That or the obnoxious Gettin’ Freaky with Cee Lo. I appreciated the attempt to ground the premise with the political debate context, but it quickly fell apart to serve the standard catwalk of bizarre names and costumes.

Broadway Sizzle. You know something’s wrong if Bill Hader’s first appearance is three quarters of the way through an episode. He and Wiig played co-hosts of a Broadway talk show in which three-name up-and-comers sang audition songs (including Ferrell as a clean-mouthed lad who accidentally sings women’s numbers). Even to a Broadway enthusiast, the premise was unclear, and the laughs were few and far between.

Cut from dress rehearsal was this fun Weekend Update segment in which Bobby Moynihan plays a self conscious Incredible Hulk.

Also cut last minute was this dysfunctional Grady Wilson sex video sketch.

Will Ferrell is without a doubt a true comedic talent – perhaps the finest of our generation – and it’s always a pleasure to see him return to his old stomping grounds. He was consistently funny throughout the night, though, unfortunately, few sketches stood out in any memorable way. The writing staff certainly deserves credit for the cold open and everything about Weekend Update, but otherwise they seemed stretched thin, perhaps expecting Ferrell to play more of his old characters and instead having to awkwardly fit him into supporting roles of unexciting new sketches. For me, Will Forte stole the night, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed he’ll get to host the show to promote the release of MacGruber 2.

What did you think? Did Will Ferrell give you everything you had hoped for as an SNL host, or were you expecting another season-topper? Are our best digital shorts behind us? And after a big night for Jason Sudeikis and Andy Samberg, can we expect a Kristen Wiig highlight reel in next week’s season finale, considering the three’s rumored departure? In fact, should we expect any comedic pieces at all in next week's concert episode, when Mick Jagger, Arcade Fire, Foo Fighters, and Jeff Beck will be in the lineup?

Erik Voss is a writer and performer living in Los Angeles. He performs with his improv team The Cartel at the iO West Theater.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1625377858 Jason Nafziger

    I don't know if it was just the heightened expectations that Ferrell brings, but this week's show felt like a huge letdown.  The cold open was funny, except that W was awkwardly shoehorned into a premise that really didn't need an extra layer of absurdity. (That said, Ferrell as W was a given and how else were they going to get it in?)  The monologue had promise, but felt stale (Ferrell saying weird things! Ha!). The ad parody was terrible. As you correctly noted, many of the late sketches were head-scratchers.

    The digital short was a clever bit of self-congratulation-satirizing self-congratulation and Update did a good job handling easy-target topics like gay marriage debate hypocrisy and the Time cover.  I still enjoyed the ESPN Classic sketch but felt there was probably a better way to work in the O.J. coverage.

    Overall, I kind of felt like Ferrell seemed tired. Or maybe I'm just tired of him. Let's all take a nap.

  • DennisPerrin

    I was astonished by the pedestrian writing for this episode. Not completely, because SNL's writing isn't very good right now, but I thought they'd make a better effort for Ferrell. I think that's why they rely more and more on celeb/former cast member cameos — to cover the numerous bad spots. And why bring back The Culps? If you're going to remind us of that period, bring in Molly Shannon and do Dog Show. At least the premise is more interesting.

    • http://twitter.com/megh_wright Megh Wright

      Oh man, YES! "Dog Show" would have been a much better choice. I'd give anything to see Rocky Balboa one more time.

    • Rcshowman

      I'll go ahead and toss out there that perhaps they revisited the Culps because the male half of the duo that inspired the sketch originally kicked the bucket a couple months ago. Alright, probably not the case, but I just wanted a chance to remourn the loss of Mark of Mark & Lorna.

    • http://twitter.com/eavoss Erik Voss

      In the show's defense, I would argue that the writing on the show is as good as it has ever been, particularly when it comes to jokes and dialogue. Just listen to how delicately the words are strung together for any Nic Cage or Stefon segment. Certainly more sophisticated than the lazy "give Farley the ball" mentality of the early 90s, the "Celebrity Jeopardy" and "Spartan Cheerleaders" at finitum strategy of the late 90s, or the Tina Fey era, in which the only redeeming quality was Weekend Update. I will agree that when it comes to original premises, the writing staff lacks the "danger" of Michael O'Donoghue's 1975-80 room. But every few episodes, Seth Meyers rolls out a wonderfully subversive piece, such as the Biden Cold Open, the "What Is This?" and "What's My Name?" game shows, the J Pop talk show, the Californians, and the Brutus and Coach Bert sketches from earlier this season.

      And yes, I too would have preferred Dog Show. Perhaps they were banking on the updated songs of the Culps to hit harder.

      • DennisPerrin

        I try not to compare generations. It's a hopeless exercise. I find worth in pretty much every SNL era, since there are always talented people who contribute to the show. It comes down to perspective, engagement, originality, guts. While I'm not a big Stefon fan, I agree that there is some nice wordplay involved. But overall, I'm not that impressed with the current writing. Perhaps it's me.

  • MakesNoScents

    Usher DESTROYED. His two performances wont get any mentions on any recaps, but god damn that guy can sing.

  • Mike

    I have to say, I was pretty disappointed with this episode.  Maybe I built it up too much in my head, but I found very few laughs in the hour and a half show.  Also, It must be very frustrating for current cast members to be neglected so two person sketches featuring the host and an old cast member can be shown.  

    • http://twitter.com/eavoss Erik Voss

      Agreed, but I'm sure they're a little used to taking the backseat when the show requires it from them. I imagine it must be a little more frustrating for the ones who will be leaving soon. At least Ferrell is such a good sport — although he took the spotlight as Bush and with Ana Gasteyer as the Culps, the rest of the night he played the typical host supporting roles, as second beat ancillary characters like the field reporter in ESPN Classic and the singer in Broadway Sizzle. He has a surprisingly small ego for such a huge comedy star.

  • Slutface

    I really liked the Funkytown sketch. It included every castmember and Usher had me rolling.

    • http://twitter.com/eavoss Erik Voss

      I'm genuinely curious, Slutface: What about the sketch did you enjoy? The weird way everyone talked? The crazy costumes and character names? The fact that it used everyone in the cast? Usher's cameo? Or the overall premise that funk characters were holding their own political debate? If my tuning out of the sketch is just my unique blindness to this kind of humor, I'm looking for some insight into why the rest of the world enjoys it.

      • http://twitter.com/gronquil Gregory Ronquillo

         It was great if you're into funk culture. If you've listened to parliament-funkadelic, bootsy collins, watched 70s blacksploitation movies, etc, you'll have a much larger appreciation for what a perfect style parody it was. George Clinton style funk is as wacky as that sketch was, maybe even wackier. When you're doing a parody of a fringe subculture, some people will love it and appreciate it if it's true to life, others will get what's going on but not have any special attachment to those jokes.

        Here's an example: A comparison I think I could draw to why I found it funny was Nick Kroll's character El Chupacabra. I'm a huge fan of this character, though i'm certain not everyone appreciates it as much as I do. Having listened to Spanish radio in LA since I was a kid, watching Spanish television, I can appreciate how well crafted and true to life his character is. Yes, spanish radio does have a weird obsession with babies, and monkeys doing people things, and old men and theme songs. It's so well researched and written that I appreciate it. "It's funny because it's true."

        Same this this. It was incredibly well researched and written. This played itself like a crazy Parliament Funkadelic stage act, with 50 people on stage each characters as ridiculous or even more ridiculous than in this sketch. "It's funny because it's true."

  • evil_toaster

    During the monologue it seemed like Will Ferrell was struggling to project his voice, and that he had that problem in other sketches too.  I think he may have had a cold and didn't have his usual level of energy/intensity.

    • http://twitter.com/eavoss Erik Voss

      He seemed a bit hoarse. Coulda used those Ron Burgundy vocal warmups.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=67600030 Betsy Hobbs

    I assume this will be the last SNL Digital Short, so I'm glad they went out with a retrospective bang (and due to my OCD a nice and neat 100). Otherwise, this episode was very bluh. Funkytown was silly but so busy, and singing ridiculous lyrics instead of saying lines is always a gamble — most of the jokes were lost. I absolutely HATE the ESPN Classics bits and was not at all pleased to see them return.

    I feel like this should have been the full-on finale and the writers should have poured more in. I can only assume next week Mick Jagger will spend 90 minutes looking old and constantly cracking.

    • http://twitter.com/eavoss Erik Voss

      Probably the best way for The Lonely Island to go out. And by "cracking," I have to assume you mean Mick Jagger's skin. It'll take weeks for the NBC pages to glue Mick back together again.

  • Jasten

    Forte owned Ferrell on Sat. Its insane how underrated he is.

  • Hambulance

    "…while plugging crude taglines for feminine hygiene products."

    Well played, Mr. Voss. Well played.

    • http://twitter.com/eavoss Erik Voss

      You're welcome.

  • Draymorton2000

    Saturday Night Live? More like Saturday Night Dead!

    • http://twitter.com/eavoss Erik Voss

      Joke's on you, Draymorton2000! I never said "Saturday Night Live" anywhere in my recap! I imagine Gene Shalit must hate acronyms. 

  • http://twitter.com/connorratliff Connor Ratliff

    I was sort of stunned by the absence of Chris Parnell in the Lonely Island cameo-fest.  Given that they went out of their way to get so many big stars, why no reference to the "Lazy Sunday" short that really triggered these shorts becoming a thing?  

    It seems weird to have Will Ferrell show up to riff on how he has nothing to do with these shorts, but not have an appearance by Parnell.

    • JoshUng

      Exactly!  I imagine Chris Parnell didn't say "sorry, too busy"

  • http://mylifeissoawkward.com caroline_is_awkward

    While this episode obviously paled in comparison to Maya Rudolph and Jimmy Fallon's, I was most disappointed that for me at least it paled in comparison to Eli Manning's last week. 

  • graybull

    There was no way this could live up to everyones expectations, especially if Ferrell was under the weather. Plus I imagine it would be hard to find the balance between featuring Will Ferrell and doing the Samberg/Sudeikis/Wiig greatest hits. I know it still isn't official that they are leaving, but it seems pretty apparent. Why else would they suddenly bring back "ESPN classic" or the "anniversary toast" sketches. Not that I'm complaining, I loved seeing Will Forte and I hope he gets to host someday. As far as the digital short, which was the best thing all night, I don't think anyone would be upset if that was the last one ever (or at least the last one produced by Samberg and co.). Between that and "get in the cage" this definately felt like Samberg's farewell (unless he reprises Mort Mort Feingold). I hope thats not it for Sudeikis though, I still wanna see "What's up with that?" again before he leaves (if only to see him dancing in that red track suit). All in all it was a mostly enjoyable episode, if not particularly memorable. I hope the writers can buckle down and give us one more good show before the break. They won't have as much space to fill considering how many musical performances are expected. I just hope it's more than a Kristen Wiig highlight reel. Which character hasn't she done lately? And more importantly which one do we actually want to see? My vote is her and Sudeikis as "Two A-holes"

    • http://twitter.com/eavoss Erik Voss

      My vote goes to "Two A-Holes" as well. I also wouldn't mind Virgania Horsen (though that was technically a digital short character, and it looks like those days are done), her Flirting Expert from earlier this season, or one last Judy Grimes.

      • graybull

        I wouldn't mind Virgania Horsen either, but they did give her a shout out in the digital short.

  • http://violetmonkey.wordpress.com/ VioletMonkey

    I attended the Dress on Saturday (my first time at SNL), and enjoyed the content of it much more than the Live show that aired. 
    I loved Bobby's Hulk bit on Wkd Update. I was really surprised that "Maine Justice" didn't make it into the live show (it was a bit OTT, but seemed like a winner to me); but thank god the "Unicorn B'day" bit didn't make it in. I don't know why they cut the Grady video, (other than time?); and was scratching my head when Almost Pizza aired again instead. "Skippy and Toothpick" was just so-so for me. (But at least it had Bobby! Kate was rather awkward in it, though). The Al Sharpton sketch was fine, but not memorable. As a first-time attendee, I was shocked by how much content we saw that didn't make it into the live show. Personally I loved that they brought the Culps back, and was thrilled to see Ana. Forte is always a solid surprise guest; but as much as he appears on SNL/30 Rock these days, it's hard to remember that he isn't actually a regular anymore. Seeing an appearance by him doesn't feel "special" to me… perhaps over-saturation? Is it just me? But I must say, I was practically crying at the "elevator from The Shining" line in ESPN classic. 

    There was not NEAR enough Hader or Moynihan for my taste, but with Ferrell there, that was to be expected. Weekend Update was damn near perfect, but it's my favorite part of any show, so biased I definitely am. 

    Funkytown Debate didn't hit for me either, nor did Broadway Sizzle (and I'm a B'way fan). As for Usher, I really had no expectations for his performance going in. I've never been a fan, but damn – I thought he really brought it (at least at Dress). I bought both of the songs he performed before I was even out of the building. 

    • http://twitter.com/eavoss Erik Voss

      This is great. We've never had someone who went to the dress rehearsal and could give us some details about all the material that didn't make it to air. What exactly were "Maine Justice" and "Unicorn B'day?"

      • https://twitter.com/#!/AngelaBlanken AngieBlanken

        Maine Justice was a courtroom sketch, along the lines of Judge Judy (i.e. – no lawyers). Sudekis was the judge… Ferrell as bailiff, Wiig as the plaintiff and Samberg as the defendant. The case was something about an abnormally high water bill in an apartment…blah, blah, blah. The crux of the sketch was, despite taking place in the state of Maine, everyone, aside from Samberg, acted as if they had been airlifted straight out of the Big Easy. Sudekis had a crazy creole accent, and kept talking about gators. Wiig kept fanning herself and speaking in a southern drawl, etc. Samberg played the straight man, completely baffled by everyone else's behavior. Twice, Kenan and Jay led a New Orleans-style jazz band on a procession through the courtroom. In the end, Samberg was "sentenced to eat a super-spicy jambalaya".  It was campy and silly (in a good way), and I thought for sure it would have made the final cut for the live show. Unicorn Birthday Party featured Pedrad as a young b'day girl, with Sudekis as her father. Bayer, McKinnon, and Elliot played other young girls at the party. Sudekis surprised Pedrad with a unicorn for her birthday, and then announced that Ferrell (the man he purchased the unicorn from) had brought one for all of the girls. Upon closer inspection, the unicorn had a nasty eye infection, and Ferrell declared that he must put it down. In fact, he had to put ALL of the unicorns down. The little girls fussed, and Sudekis yelled at them to stop interrupting Ferrell, etc. It was NOT funny, and fell completely flat. It was the final sketch of the Dress, and I was certain it wasn't going to make it. Good call on that one, writers.

    • Mr. Me

      Maine Justice did make the cut but we ran out of time at the end