Monday, September 17th, 2012

'SNL' Recap: Seth MacFarlane Makes a Good Impression

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.

What Hit:

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.

What Missed:

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.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/seanharrigan Sean Harrigan

    Ain't no white guy in Boyz 2 Men…

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

    Where was John Mulaney? His name was noticeably missing from the credits, as both producer and writer. And here I thought he'd stay on to take over as head writer…!

    • http://twitter.com/CricketNerdist Rishabh

      I fear for the fate of Stefon, now!

    • eavoss

      No clue. This doesn't mean he's gone from the show permanently – he may have just been busy touring or with other career stuff. We'll see.

    • DH

      I noticed that too and It has kind of been driving me crazy…People on Twitter are guessing which jokes from the season premiere were "Mulaney jokes", but he seems to be off the show. He wasn't in the credits for last Saturday's show and he's in LA this week doing stand-up (and therefore not in the mix for writing this coming week's show).
      Granted, he is a great comic and will do well on his own (I saw him twice in NY this summer and his stand-up has only improved, if that were even possible), but it's a bit of a bummer that he would just disappear from the show when clearly he has fans who are watching SNL with him in mind.
      Is anyone out there ready to start a "Where's Mulaney?" campaign on Twitter or otherwise?

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

        Wow, awesome response. It's nice to know someone else is as big a fan as I am. Consider me part of the campaign. #wheresmulaney

        • DH

          Alright…I RT'd a few of Mulaney's fans and added the hashtag. Unfortunately I have very few followers. Hopefully, others can pass it on from here…

  • http://bitshift.tumblr.com/ esjay

    Agree that Puppet Class was the best sketch of the night. Hader nailed the details.

    I think the attack ad was my second favorite, though. "Apparently for the sole purpose of firing him" sold me.

    And then I'd place woodenspoonwarehouse.com as the third place. It's just a shame that, while NBC nabbed the domain name, they failed to tie it into the joke at all like wegotussomemedicalwaste.com and grocery911.com (to name a just a couple of nonexistent website-based jokes).

    • eavoss

      The day NBC designs a whole website to tie in to a 53-second sketch that aired at 12:56 am is a very bright day indeed.

      • http://bitshift.tumblr.com/ esjay

        I didn't say it was expected, I just said it's a shame. :)
        Besides, it took me a minute and a half to do this:

        • eavoss

          Oh man. I am going to enjoy doing these recaps this season.

  • Matt Visconage

    I wasn't a huge fan of MacFarlane's monologue only because I thought the reliance on all his family guy/american dad voices was kind of hacky, but he definitely won me over with the rest of the episode. Loved him as big dummy Ryan Lochte

    • eavoss

      Definitely. I was just happy MacFarlane didn't share the stage with animated versions of Peter, Stewie and Quagmire, MC Skat Kat style.

    • http://bitshift.tumblr.com/ esjay

      Not that it makes it any better, but MacFarlane relies on his voices a lot. Like in his commencement address a few years ago.
      He pretty much betrayed why that is in the subtext of the monologue; he believes nobody values anything he does but the voices. So, in a way, if he attempts to move into a "more noble" creative outlet outside of voice work, he fears he'd be found a fraud.
      It might seem hacky, but I'm sure MacFarlane finds it to be a safety net.

  • IhateDisqus

    Is that the wooden spoons that actually aired? Seems different, like its the one from dress rehearsal.

    • eavoss

      As far as I can tell, the online version was the same as the TV one, but I'm also in the three-hours behind West Coast time warp, so who knows?

  • akivaddict

    This episode was crazy impressive (especially for a premiere). MacFarlane knocked it out of the park (As did this review. Glad to have you back, Voss!!)

    Couldn't agree more- loved the puppets and wooden spoons. Equally wowed by new talent / shocked by Tom Shales' review.

    • akivaddict

      To answer some fun questions (thanks for encouraging discussion!):

      - I did think that Pharoah's Obama fell victim to some of his former faux pas. (The delivery was a little off). But still- spot on impersonation and showed great promise!

      - I'm jumping on the bandwagon- I think Killam has the best shot at mega-stardom on the show.

      - I did not think MacFarlane would be quite that awesome- but he surprised me big time.

      - I predict a Chicago comedy plug in at least 3 of your responses in this comment section alone.

      • eavoss

        Thanks, it's great to be back! I will be extremely surprised if Pharoah ever finds a good handle on Obama. Not only is that largely a writer thing, they've had four years to find something and I doubt they will in the next four, barring some scandal or a version of the father/son mapping with Biden that they've done before (and I loved). And I think Taran is on his way, but I could see him facing some competition from Tim Robinson. Maybe a little too soon to tell.

  • http://twitter.com/DevinRosni Devin Rosni

    I thought Steve Harvey hit and Drill Sargent and First Date missed by a mile. And Tom Shales can piss off, this was an excellent season opener.

    And I loved in the spoons sketch when he referred to "S" as The River What Took My Son.

    • eavoss

      "The river that took my son," was my favorite line of the night.

    • http://bitshift.tumblr.com/ esjay

      I agree with your opinions reversed. :)
      Steve Harvey never really found itself, but Keenan always has to play things smarter to earn laughs from me. That may have been why I liked the attack ad so much.
      And Drill Sergeant and First Date both were probably 4 and 5 of the night for me. I think the concepts maybe would have failed were it not for the clinching details.

  • david p.

    Was Jenny Slate that bad? I thought her biker-chic-chat show had real promise. I thought Bobby Moynihan was going to tank until they got rid of his white-rastafari-waiter bit. Now he's super strong. The puppet class was absolutely killer – followed by the attack ad. Hader said on NPR that he loses his voice for a week after doing the Eastwood voice. Nice recap erik. Looking forward to the new performers. Any reasons as to why Abby Elliot left? I always felt like she was under-utilized, and had an opportunity to shine with Wiig leaving.

    • eavoss

      Thanks! Jenny Slate is great. I just joke that at least Aidy didn't drop the f-bomb in her first appearance on the show. I think Abby was rumored to leave to do a pilot as early as last season, so she may have been looking to move on for a while now.

  • http://twitter.com/FirasAlexander Firas Alexander

    I don't know how anyone reasonable could have disliked that episode. It was fun and hopeful, everything you could possibly want in a season opener. I hope to see more from the featured players and I'm glad they finally moved Bayer and Killam up to repertory. Got to say Kate McKinon makes some great silly faces I noticed when she was in the background of several sketches.
    I haven't seen anyone mention that maybe MacFarlane is so good at SNL because he has lots of practice as a showrunner. For years he has had to accept pitches from other comedy writers and then attempt to perform the material. That has to be pretty good training for SNL.

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

      I have to disagree with your feelings on McKinnon. I think the faces she makes in the background are distracting; I feel as though she's trying too hard. Much like Kenan, she's too much "herself" in every sketch. I'm not a fan.

      • eavoss

        What background faces did McKinnon make this episode? I must have missed them.

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

          The one that comes to mind is the Lids/Gangnam sketch. Nasim remained straight-faced in the background, but she just had this goofy face. She doesn't have to be funny ALL the time.

          • eavoss

            I remember her mugs during The Californians sketches last season too, but it made sense in that context.

      • popnlocke

        I agree Betsy. She seems to be relying on a form of comedy that was popular in the mid '90s. Seems like she'll resort to physical humor, weird faces, or wave her arms more in hopes of getting more laughs.

      • http://twitter.com/FirasAlexander Firas Alexander

        People's mileage may vary on the silly faces thing. But you have to admit her her old lady voice was pretty great in that Armisen sex advice sketch.

    • eavoss

      Agreed on all fronts. EW's Ken Tucker and Tom Shales are pretty unreasonable assholes when it comes to SNL. I would imagine MacFarlane's long career producing TV comedy did indeed help, as did the fact that he does animation, with all his voice talent.

      • http://twitter.com/FirasAlexander Firas Alexander

        I like Ken Tucker as a TV reviewer, although I do have my disagreements with him. Personally the worst online SNL review I've seen was at the Huffington Post. Their reviewer has a Pitchfork-style point rating system for each sketch. I don't even want to begin contemplating what separates a 6.0 sketch from a 5.7…

  • Itsonreserve

    UGH, good riddance Tom Shales. I thought Cecily Strong did a good job with her given material, but the latina teenager sketch just felt really dated to me. It's a degraded photocopy of a stereotype that was maybe last fresh on MadTV in the late 90's.

    • eavoss

      I wouldn't be surprised if Mimi Morales was an original character of Strong's, perhaps something she auditioned with? I appreciated the details – the silent boyfriend creepily trying to feel her up every five seconds, her uncles who shouldn't be in this country, etc. For me, that kept her head above those walking catchphrase chonga girls from Mad TV.

      • Spencer Hamilton

        Erik, you're right. That was one of Cecily's audition characters.

    • http://twitter.com/FirasAlexander Firas Alexander

      I remember them skewering that particular stereotype pretty well on "It's Always Sunny" 4 or 5 seasons ago. I agree that she seems like an able performer, but that was really one of the lowest points of the episode for me.

      • Itsonreserve

        Yeah. I mean, she certainly did well technically with not dropping her accent and timing her jokes….but that "brunette white girl in a starter jacket as a Latina," sketch tent pole is just very ten years ago to me. Not that a lot of SNL episodes don't feature ten years ago type comedy as filler sometimes, but I wouldn't consider it a highlight in my mind in an otherwise solid offering.

  • http://www.facebook.com/michael.desir Michael Desir

    Did John Mayer not count as a cameo because he only appeared during Frank Ocean's second performance?

    That said, I'd probably switch Rodger Bush with Eastwood and Chair on your list.

    • eavoss

      Mayer's cameo was pretty great. I guess I was only counting celebs who pop up in sketches, which is more grating to me than in music segments.

  • Jay

    Wow, I was actually looking for a takedown of the Lids sketch. It struck me as incredibly lazy — "Let's take this viral video everyone's talking about and shoehorn it into a 'sketch.'" Shouldn't SNL be the one *making* the viral videos?

    • eavoss

      You have a point that SNL should be making its own viral videos. I appreciated Lids because it wasn't just a simple remake of the music video – it was a comment on how simpleminded young people use silly Internet videos to make themselves happy. The references to the video are obviously more memorable, but at its heart it's a piece about dudes who sell hats in the mall trying to cheer each other up the only way they know how.

      • Jay

        I actually didn't know it was a reference to anything until MacFarlane's character explained it, and up until that point I appreciated its absurdity. But given the audience's reactions when Moynihan came out as Psy, then when Psy himself came out, I think you may be reading too much into it. It felt like not much more than pandering.

    • akivaddict

      "Shoehorn". Nice.

  • http://twitter.com/bitsmack Bitsmack

    You didn't mention that Paul Brittain was missing from the opening credits. Or did they get rid of him some time last year and I missed it?

    • eavoss

      Paul Brittain left the show in February of last season.

  • Teaflax

    They cut the second half of the wooden spoon sketch, where the amishesque guys also give a phone number in the same style (and a few lines in the intro). Which was probably good, to be honest.


    Or throw your words with a tiny voice holder

    (seth holds up a wooden sign with burned letters that read:

    (He points as tim reads each “number”)

    tim (CONTD)

    Hawk’s mouth, skinny fella, cripple's knee, a
    trio of squirrels, lookin' at something, owl's house, owl's house
    with the door closed, pregnant lady, God's cup.


    Call now, unless you’re on rumspringa and
    doin’ Meth.

    higgins (V.O.)(1/4”)

    Yoder and Yoder’s Wooden Spoon Barn Warehouse.
    Located at one old dirty road, Lancaster Pennsylvania.

    (seth and tim look up confused)


    • eavoss

      Thanks so much for sharing this! Was this the version on the east coast broadcast, or was this from dress rehearsal?

      • http://www.facebook.com/teaflax John Thelin

        From the script (I subtitled the episode into Swedish last week). I have no idea if it was ever performed this way. The script also contains some WU gags that weren't used and some changed or dropped lines in almost every sketch, plus writing attributions. Interesting stuff, to say the least. Sadly, I'm not going to get to do all episodes this season, but I'll try to drop any fun info I have into the comments for these recaps.

        • eavoss

          Interesting! Thanks John!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=700950742 Kerri Rifkin

    Don't diss Jenny Slate.