Every four years, a new energy fills the air on Saturday Night Live. The knowledge that more viewers are tuning in to see how the show frames the presidential election forces Lorne, the cast, and the writing staff to put their best foot forward. This is the only time millions of people will probably watch SNL over a four-year period, but they will regardless continue to talk about it, and assume they are experts on it. Making a good impression is essential.
Right now, SNL is sitting at the grown-ups’ table. It has to know just as much about politics and current events as Brian Williams and be wittier than Jon Stewart. Its actors’ impressions of candidates and media figures must be razor sharp. Lorne knows this — he’s steered SNL through eight presidential elections (not including 1984, when he took a break from the show), and he doesn’t take this responsibility lightly.
Over the past year, change has been a-brewing at SNL, but it wasn’t until last Saturday night that everything finally fell into place, like the decisive moves of chess match. In retrospect, it makes perfect sense that Lorne would string Jay Pharoah along for two seasons without much of a highlight reel — after this cold open, it’s clear he was destined to play Obama all along. Bobby Moynihan, Vanessa Bayer, Taran Killam, and Kate McKinnon have all been similarly groomed to replace the departing Kristen Wiig, Andy Samberg, and Abby Elliott. The three new cast members — Aidy Bryant, Tim Robinson, and Cecily Strong — appear to be solid long-term investments that might start paying off even sooner than expected. And Bill Hader, Jason Sudeikis, Kenan Thompson, and Fred Armisen are by now reliable anchors… give them any line and they’ll win the audience with it.
Lorne, guided by trusted writers Seth Meyers and Steve Higgins, has made SNL a well-oiled machine. He still makes mistakes, but he still learns from them. Four years ago, SNL premiered with a history-making cold open featuring Tina Fey as Sarah Palin and Amy Poehler as a disgruntled Hilary Clinton, but then squandered the rest of the episode with Michael Phelps, an athlete inexperienced in comedy. This season premiere’s host was a performer who could easily be in the SNL cast himself, and instead of having a dimwitted Olympic swimmer host, they destroyed one during Weekend Update. And last season, the GOP debate cold open dragged for 11 minutes; this cold open ran a tidy five.
Last weekend’s episode was a near-perfect 90 minutes of entertainment: a delicious variety-show blend of political satire, song and dance, cultural relevance, fake ads, blackouts, characters… even puppetry. While I too have grown weary of MacFarlane’s work, I admire the hell out of the guy’s talent. Not since Justin Timberlake have we seen a host come from outside of the SNL family yet so gracefully fit in with the rest of the cast. I hate to give a host so much credit for a show that’s due mostly to a talented staff of writers and actors, but MacFarlane never missed a step, at many times carrying the show on his shoulders.
It’s a changing of the seasons, folks. New cast members, new go-to performers, a new Obama, a new opening title sequence. There’s a lot to talk about.
Obama v. Romney Cold Open. In a poignant passing of the torch, Fred Armisen introduced us to Barack Obama, now played by Jay Pharoah. The sketch mostly intercut between Pharoah – who got more mileage out of the vocal and physical mannerisms of the president (the rolling rhythm and guttural “uh’s”) than his predecessor – and the Obama campaign’s secret weapon: a gaffe-prone Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan (well rehearsed Jason Sudeikis and Taran Killam). Pharoah’s impersonation is actually quite good and ought to satisfy most viewers, though we’re still waiting for that all-important “handle” on the president’s character, i.e. Tina Fey’s spotlight-craving Sarah Palin or Darrell Hammond’s womanizing Bill Clinton. That said, the sketch (written by Seth Meyers, Colin Jost, and Bryan Tucker) did effectively frame the 2012 election as a whole: that Obama’s greatest political strength is not his own record, but his hopelessly out-of-touch alternative.
Monologue. Seth MacFarlane warmed up the crowd with some voices of Family Guy characters, followed by a song about the character voices that fill his head. I could have done without the Stewie and Quagmire bits, but the song did its job and MacFarlane’s surprised reaction to the studio audience cheer for Family Guy got me on his side.
Mitt Romney Ad. In a parody of the testimonials against Bain Capital, Bill Hader and Kenan Thompson played middle-America men claiming to be personally targeted by Romney. It was a clever bit of satire, seemingly mocking the Obama campaign’s exaggerated claims about Romney’s business background, while itself building on that very caricature.
Rodger Brush. Admittedly I was a little disappointed that SNL led the show with this old premise about a crass producer filling in as host of a sensitive sex advice talk show. It seemed like something that killed during dress rehearsal, making it a shoo-in for the live show. Nevertheless, the details of the sketch worked and they wrapped it up before it started dragging. Kudos to Hader for his hilarious microphone guy: “It’s on!”
Lids. MacFarlane, Thompson and Sudeikis played douchey Lids employees, cheering each other up by having Psy (from the viral Gangam Style music video), played by Bobby Moynihan, enter and dance for them. This could have easily been a one-note parody of the music video, but I loved the choice to place it in a mall hat store, which made the absurd (and well-executed) dancing even funnier, especially when Moynihan and Killam politely groped the wall, trying to exit, and when MacFarlane’s “complete bush” Deacon giddily exclaimed, “We’re gonna live forever!” The appearance by the real Psy was unfortunately the only celebrity cameo of the night (I predicted there would be at least three. Is SNL getting away from the dumb celeb walk-ons? Let’s hope so!)
Puppet Class. In the finest sketch of the night, MacFarlane taught a puppetry class with a student haunted by his war memories in Grenada (Hader), which he verbalized through his puppet, Tony. All the components of this sketch worked perfectly to heighten this clash-of-context: Hader’s performance was chilling and hilarious; the direction to frame the camera on the puppets was extremely effective (and possibly masked Hader’s breaking); and the dialogue was incredible. There’s just something inherently brilliant about a puppet saying, “He was another grunt in my platoon… together we went house to house, spraying liquid death,” and then taking a drag on a cigarette.
Weekend Update. Seth Meyers’ jokes about the Middle East riots and poor kids getting haircuts at JC Penny were joined by three great character segments. Vanessa Bayer and Bobby Moynihan played Honey Boo Boo and Mama, mocking the TLC stars' outrageous behavior and need for subtitles, despite speaking English. In another episode highlight, MacFarlane played Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte as an airhead inexplicably giving us a preview to the fall TV season, with gems like, “I was America in Olympics,” and “It feels so weird to be dry.” Newcomer Cecily Strong got her moment in the sun as a hilarious “Get Out The Vote” volunteer who fends off her groping Dominican boyfriend and relates everything to her weird Latino family. A great character from a promising talent.
Drill Sergeant. In a play on the stereotypical soldier lineup bark, MacFarlane played a self-conscious drill sergeant asking, “Did I stutter?” and actually wanting an honest answer. I was amazed at the mileage they were able to get from such a simple, one-note premise – largely due to MacFarlane’s strong performance.
First Date. I loved this sketch in which a couple on a date does non-stop bits – a perfect setup for MacFarlane and Pedrad’s versatility with characters. Their chemistry was a delight, as was the execution of the walk-ons, which gave us the night’s only glimpse of Aidy Bryant (with still a better batting average than Jenny Slate) and a fun twist with Hader’s character.
Wooden Spoons. My second-favorite sketch of the night was this blackout in which Tim Robinson (who had a fantastic debut episode) and MacFarlane play Amish brothers selling their wooden spoons on a website, using absurd descriptions for each of the letters while spelling out the URL. It was exactly the simple, bizarre humor I love in the 10-to-1 slot. It’s only a minute long and moves fast… definitely worth watching a few times.
Eastwood and Chair. I’m kicking myself for building this up so much over the past few weeks. Of course SNL would have trouble covering this news event in a way that hasn’t already by other comedians. What they settled on was this middle-of-the-road concept in which Eastwood and the RNC chair perform on Broadway together as a comedy duo. The sketch had its moments (I particularly liked the juggling and Eastwood eating rotisserie chicken for 45 minutes), but overall it felt like SNL was saying, “Well, we have to do an Eastwood chair sketch, so let’s just get it over with.”
Steve Harvey Show. In what was actually one of the better Kenan talk show sketches, Kenan’s Steve Harvey made over an average guy to look and dress as he does, in a big flashy suit, bald head, and mustache. It had some great details, specifically the idea of having a mustache that looks like a frown so that a smile comes as a surprise, but overall the piece ran too long and never moved on past the first beat.
It’s worth noting for fellow SNL-philes that Tom Shales, co-writer of oral history Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live, trashed the season premiere. His fury is rooted in his hatred for multimillionaire Seth MacFarlane – “a man who has gone farther with less than perhaps Tyler Perry” – as well as what he considered a lack of political satire and a tendency for sophomoric humor: “MacFarlane's outing will probably prove a popular one with the young demographic to which even SNL largely kowtows.” He also called Tim Robinson “dopey-looking” and misspelled Nasim Pedrad’s name. So, sorry folks, we’ve lost another high profile TV critic to the demonic army of SNL haters.
As a member of the naïve recipients of SNL’s kowtowing, I couldn’t have been happier with this episode. Jay Pharoah's performance as President Obama was promising, and I’m looking forward to what he and the writers can come up with for the upcoming debate sketches. It was a real team win – every cast member had at least one moment to be proud of. The new people looked particularly strong – especially Cecily Strong as Mimi Morales and Tim Robinson in his walk-on roles. Hopefully we’ll get to see more of Aidy Bryant next week. With all this talent in the cast, and given the episode was still great even without relying too heavily on Hader or Killam, anyone worried whether SNL would fall apart without Kristen Wiig and Andy Samberg can sleep easy. And whatever your thoughts are on Ted or Family Guy, there’s no denying that Seth MacFarlane is a powerhouse performer who helped SNL give a great first impression for viewers tuning in to Season 38.
What did you think? Did Jay Pharoah’s Obama impression fall short for you? What did you think of the new cast members? Which returning cast member do you see replacing Kristen Wiig and Andy Samberg? Did Seth MacFarlane deliver as you had hoped? Any sketches you think should have been cut? How many weeks do you think I can go without plugging the Chicago comedy scene before I get some angry comments?
I'll see you next week, when Joseph Gordon-Levitt will host with musical guest Mumford and Sons.
Erik Voss is a writer and performer living in Los Angeles. He performs on the Harold team The Cartel at the iO West Theater.