The only thing more entertaining in American politics right now than Joe Biden is the character version of himself he has inspired.
After spending the 2008 election as a less-exciting foil to Sarah Palin and a gaffe-prone campaigner, Joe Biden emerged as the easiest-to-peg member of the new Obama administration. Intensely brash and dangerously honest, Biden stuck out like a sore thumb in a White House that was otherwise tightlipped and pokerfaced. Political comedians, having exhausted their search for a resonating angle on the president, turned their sights on his brazen understudy. “Biden Minimizes Browser Every Time Obama Walks By,” reported The Onion. During his routine at the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2011, Seth Meyers gave us a crystal clear comedic take on the vice president:
I imagine having Joe Biden as vice president is kind of like taking your blue-collar dad to a fancy restaurant. He’s more comfortable at Olive Garden, he talks too loud, he mispronounces the sauces, and you’re always tempted to lean over to the waiter and say, “I’m sorry about him. He’s from Scranton.” … The vice president loves trains. I assume it must have been hard for the president to tell him the new budget cut $1.5 billion from high-speed rail. “Joe, come in. Take off your engineer’s cap. I have some bad news about the choo-choo’s.” As he broke the news, one of the straps of Joe’s overalls sadly drooped off his shoulder.
That image of Joe Biden – a loose cannon in need of a chaperone – has been a goldmine for SNL. Last season gave us a great moment in which Fred Armisen’s Obama – playing the Daddy in Chief – reprimanded bratty son Joe for spoiling the timing of the administration’s gay marriage announcement. And last weekend, in an ironic reflection of the way the Team Obama unleashed the pitbull VP to reinvigorate the campaign, Seth Meyers turned to his reliably hilarious Biden (Jason Sudeikis) to recover lost ground after the previous week’s lackluster debate sketch. “It’s Tebow time,” Meyers declared. Both Bidens didn’t disappoint.
SNL broke a two-week streak of letdowns with a satisfying cold open and a powerhouse performance by host Christina Applegate. “Your performance tonight is extremely unlikely to affect the outcome of the election, so just have fun with it,” said Kate McKinnon’s Martha Raddatz at the top of the show. Influential or not, this episode was plenty fun.
VP Debate Cold Open. In a must-read New York Times article last week, Meyers and long-time writer of debate sketches Jim Downey confessed that the first presidential debate was one of the toughest ones to parody they’ve witnessed.
“I can never remember one that didn’t have something,” said Mr. Downey, who watched the debate by himself at home. “Some kind of thing that was odd or weird.”
This week, boosted by a livelier debate between the real vice presidential candidates, Downey delivered. All three players had killer moments – Sudeikis as Biden (“Irish is I come over there and smack that dumb look off your face.”), Kate McKinnon as Raddatz (“Don’t try to [bleep] me like I’m Jim Lehrer.”), and Taran Killam as Paul Ryan (suckling from a hamster water spout). The script had the same across-the-board parody structure as last week’s, jumping from Biden’s sighing and chuckling, to Ryan’s fuzzy details, to some classic Scranton roasts. The only difference here was the Biden factor: a lovable character using his monkey strength to take care of business.
Monologue. Christina Applegate returned to the show for the first time since 1993 (when she appeared in the famous Motivational Speaker Matt Foley sketch), and 19 years later, she serenaded us about the joys of the stress-free, pre-holiday season. I have to admit, the song didn’t deliver too many laughs, but I preferred this to some forced ode to a holiday weeks away, and cameos by “the Fruppets” and Sudeikis’s dead-on Dane Cook carried the segment.
Shaver Ad. I admired this blackout commercial parody for settling on one simple joke: use this Gillette goatee trimmer if you want to look like a child molester.
The Californians. Christina Applegate seemed to be channeling Kristen Wiig at several points throughout the night, firstly here as one of the shallow, driving route-obsessed stars of the SoCal soap hit from last season. The strategy worked – although I was disappointed that the sketch followed the same exact structure as the previous two instances (including predictable closeups, a sluggish mirror gag, and unnecessary extra beats), I loved the extremes to which Bill Hader, Fred Armisen, and the rest dumbed down their speech this time, mumbling incoherently for most of the sketch, without breaking this time. The Usain Bolt cameo confused me, as it did in the cold open. My guess is Lorne booked a random celebrity when the presidential candidates turned him down again this week.
Tech Talk. In the night’s best sketch, Applegate hosted a talk show in which tech bloggers complained about the iPhone 5… and then had to face the Chinese workers who work tirelessly to manufacture the device. Here is SNL at its best: presenting an unnoticed cultural trend, placing it in context, and executing it perfectly. SNL landed yet another blow to the tech nerd generation (after last season’s The Comments Section and You Can Do Anything), and I loved the workers’ sarcastic insults (in a script written by Colin Jost and John Solomon): “Let’s see, what does America make? Does diabetes count as a product?”
Give Us All Our Daughters Back. After last week’s female-dominated impression sketch, it was the men’s turn this week, in this mock trailer of testosterone-fueled movie franchises like Taken and The Expendables. Taran Killam and Bobby Moynihan were especially funny as Liam Neeson and Steven Segal (who had both his chest and crotch pixilated, thank goodness). I appreciated the lengths the writers went to place all these character impressions in a standalone premise.
Weekend Update. Seth Meyers was back this week with some great election/debate jokes. Nasim Pedrad stopped by with her Ariana Huffington character, which became increasingly funnier as it went, culminating in an amazing summation of Paul Ryan: “He’s alluring in that guy next door kind of way. He has the muscles and the money and your family loves him, but if you’ve seen any Lifetime movie, you just know he’s gonna kill you.” Kenan Thompson reprised his French Def Jam comic Jean K Jean, whom he played with a bit more awareness than usual, which helped the segment from growing too tiresome.
Siren Song. Sudeikis and co. played Greek hero Odysseus and his crew, attempting to ward off the distractions of the Sirens, who sang 90s chick songs like “Stay,” “All I Wanna Do,” and “Scrubs.” Reminiscent of last season’s Adele Song sketch (and also a no-go for Hulu due to music licensing issues), this sketch banked on the ability of catchy pop music to emotionally affect the characters… and draw in the audience. The sketch also benefitted from the effects department – a cheesy toy boat crash sequence and the old SNL staple of water buckets. Looks like they got in an extra wave at Sudeikis right at the end.
Dance Teacher. In the final sketch of the night, Applegate yet again channeled Wiig, specifically her Broadway has-been Mindy Alyce Grayson, as a Fosse dance instructor having trouble connecting with her class. This sketch relied solely on Applegate’s performance, and she delivered for the most part, thanks to fun anecdotes about her odd casting couch experiences with Tommy Tune: “It just laid there like a steamed carrot.” The ending was a bit cheesy for me, but Applegate and the others made the most of the Fosse poses and the “ka-konks.”
Principal Frye. In the past I’ve enjoyed this sketch, featuring Jay Pharoah’s stammering principal at an inner city school (his only original character on the show). This time, however, his performance seemed a bit too self-aware – a common trap for Pharoah – resulting in the performer often trying too hard for laughs, instead of the more natural delivery he’s played the character with in the past. Applegate’s nerdy librarian wasn’t much help and often fell flat. That said, the detail of the students fornicating inside the Mufasa costume was golden, and Kenan’s no-nonsense gym coach is always a great walk-on: “This white lady dressed up like a slutty Jedi… for you!”
Still no cameos by the presidential candidates this season. With the race as tight as it is, I wouldn’t be surprised if neither candidate made time for a cameo. President Obama is scheduled to appear on The Daily Show this week, so who knows? Maybe he’ll record something with SNL while he’s in town.
This episode had the perfect recipe for a great SNL episode: a knockout political cold open, a stellar host, a few inventive premises, and a ton of great one-liners. Add in a Biden wildcard, and you got yourself a solid comeback episode.
What did you think? Was the VP debate cold open everything you hoped it would be? Did Christina Applegate’s performance make you miss Kristen Wiig, or have Nasim Pedrad and Kate McKinnon successfully filled that gap? Were you disappointed we didn’t get to see much of the new cast members this week? And has anyone heard from Stefon? Seriously, I think we should check his apartment. Or whatever condemned crib factory he’s crashing in these days.
I’ll see you next week, when Bruno Mars will perform as host and musical guest.
Erik Voss is a writer and performer living in Los Angeles. He performs on the Harold team The Cartel at the iO West Theater.