Last night's second SNL Weekend Update Thursday ended a marathon of sketch comedy for the SNL cast and crew, with four live shows in 12 days. And not a moment too soon, either. I wasn't a huge fan of NBC's attempt to repeat its success in 2008 with two election-season primetime specials. The move failed to get the ratings the network hoped for, and instead it strained the writers and sapped political material from the better-rated Saturday episodes. Also, it seems odd that NBC would schedule the two specials before the debates (traditionally SNL's satirical home turf), leaving us with amusing yet often generic bits that lacked the political catharsis the show is known for.
Still, the experiment wasn't without its benefits. Like their real-life counterparts, Jay Pharoah and Jason Sudeikis were able to get in a few extra test-runs before the big debates — specifically Pharoah, whose Obama is improving in terms of pure impersonation, but still has a ways to go before he discovers a comedic voice for the character. Some new cast members also got some additional airtime, which should help ease their transition into the show. And despite how awkward it might seem for a hit-or-miss live sketch comedy show to share a lineup with tightly edited sitcoms Up All Night, Parks and Recreation, and The Office, a few extra jokes from Seth Meyers and company each week isn't something to complain about.
It's pointless to try to classify each sketch into "hits" and "misses" — the half hour was designed less like a typical fragmented SNL episode and more like one extended Weekend Update segment. All the pieces went okay, composed of some jokes that hit and some that didn't.
Obama Rally Cold Open. Jay Pharoah donned the Obama guise for the second time, with the casual, rolled-up sleeves of "a weatherman on a Friday," and what appeared to be less skin-lightening makeup, appealing to Ohio voters in a town hall rally. Indeed, Pharoah seemed more comfortable this go around and got less distracted with testing his subject's petty mannerisms. However, a satisfying caricature of the president eludes SNL still, and the cold open would have felt hollow if not for the great exchanges with other cast members playing Obama supporters with pathetic or strange recession-era jobs. Kate McKinnon's employee from the apple store — selling literal apples, that is — was a favorite.
News Segment. Meyers' jokes were a slight improvement from last Thursday's, with some nice punchlines about J.K. Rowling's new book and the fact that sex dolls "always look like they're yelling for help." Nice to see writers (and improv heroes) Neil Casey and Mike O'Brien appear in a graphic as replacement cheerleaders.
President Ahmadinejad and Translater. In my favorite moment of the night, Fred Armisen reprised Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (whom he memorably played opposite Andy Samberg and Adam Levine in the "Iran So Far" digital short in 2007) and his translater (Nasim Pedrad), who quickly gave up translating and instead complained about the president while he continued babbling, obliviously. Armisen's commitment was hilarious, while Pedrad gave us some nice details about her boss, like his joy playing "Homosexual or Jew?" and ongoing obsession with Austin Powers.
Cornel West. After making a brief cameo as the famous scholar in last season's hilarious Maya Angelou Prank Show, Kenan Thompson now got a full three minutes as Cornel West. The bit seemed to tickle Seth Meyers more than it did me, but I enjoyed some of West's bizarre wordplay, as well as the mental image of a journal filled cover-to-cover with the word "mendacity."
Girl You Wish You Hadn't Started A Conversation With At A Party. Cecily Strong received another solid chunk of airtime at the Update desk, here as an inebriated, wannabe activist that's apparently a common deathtrap at a bunch of parties I've never been to. I loved Strong's consistent delivery and the vague rants ("I need to go to Croatia so bad," "Can I use the n-word real quick?"), but the bit ran a little long.
Replacement Refs. In this sort-of 10-to-1 (10-to-8:30? 20-after-8?) sketch, SNL worked in a fun nod to the NFL replacement referee fiasco just as the lockout had come to an end hours earlier. The sitcom-esque structure saw a group of hapless replacement refs goofing up a verdict in a murder trial and misdiagnosing a hospital patient as dead. With Tim Robinson's dummy voice and Kenan's flag-throwing, I wouldn't mind seeing these guys showing up again at some point. (Nice reference to attorney and jacked NFL referee Ed Hochuli.)
I'm sure there's an analysis waiting to be written on how the political enthusiasm gap in 2012 compared to that in 2008 has resulted in apathy to see candidates getting lampooned on SNL this election cycle. Maybe Obama is just too cool to mock, and there's no Palin wildcard to keep us distracted. Whatever the reason, these SNL Weekend Update Thursday specials just felt a little… unnecessary.
What did you think? Have you noticed any improvement in Jay Pharoah's Obama impression? Will Wednesday's debate finally give SNL the handle on the president they've been looking for? Isn't it great how Bill Hader can play two completely different long-haired nutcases (both hilarious) in one half hour? And they gave the Emmy to Eric Stonestreet?!
I'll see you on Oct. 6, when Daniel Craig will host with musical guest Muse.
Erik Voss is a writer and performer living in Los Angeles. He performs on the Harold team The Cartel at the iO West Theater.