While we often look to comedians to help us contextualize the news by adding some satirical spin or heightened reality, some events are so fixed at the heart of our cultural zeitgeist that the best form of commentary is direct parody. It is in this area that SNL — with its expert impersonators and innovative makeup artists — possesses an advantage over the other sources of political comedy on TV (for now, at least). In 2008, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert couldn't openly call out Sarah Palin as the clueless media hog that she truly was without inviting criticism of sexism and bullying. Meanwhile, all Tina Fey had to do was to literally read the transcript from Palin's catastrophic interview with Katie Couric, and SNL could deliver a devastating blow of satire while maintaining its sterling, unbiased image. Mostly.
I can't think of a zeitgeist moment that's so ripe for parody as a presidential debate. Witnessed by millions and dissected endlessly by pundits, the debates are so carefully manicured — yet full of so many revelatory surprises — that they often result in fascinating character studies. Yes, most of the time I prefer my SNL political sketches to hone in on one aspect of a candidate and expand it into bizarre caricature, as in Cosby Obama or Newt Gingrich Moon President. But with the debates, we don't need a funhouse mirror as much as we need an instant replay. A voice of comedic reason to explain to us precisely what happened, free of any agenda other than making us laugh.
Over the years, SNL's debate parodies have had a way of bypassing the spin of cable news and the Internet, giving us its own couple takeaways from the 90 minutes of soundbites. In 2000, it was strategery versus lockbox. In 2004, it was Cheney's lesbian daughter. In 2008, it was McCain's ploys to get Obama off the campaign trail. Now, in 2012, it's Obama, sleepy and distracted. That's right, according to SNL, the president's greatest vice is being too thoughtful a husband.
Dominating the cold open, a later sketch, and most of Weekend Update, last week's game-changing presidential debate easily overshadowed host Daniel Craig, who made the most of being out of his element throughout a night that was short on laughs.
Debate Cold Open. In what was largely a play-by-play parody of last week's debate, the cold open got some additional mileage out of the president's inner monologue and a few great cutaways to a concerned-looking Michelle Obama (who, in the absence of a walking-punchline for a president, has joined the ranks of Joe Biden as a recent flavor of the week for comedians, as seen in last week's episodes of South Park and The Office). Much like the real Barack Obama's performance, this debate sketch was much weaker than anticipated — a low joke count, Jay Pharoah's irritating fixation with the president's "uh's," the unclear justification for Obama's behavior (was it the anniversary or the altitude?) — though overall the sketch delivered when it needed to, whether it was hearing the inner monologue of moderator Jim Lehrer (played by special guest Chris Parnell, his fourth election cycle in the role), or Obama's telling response to Lehrer asking if he wanted to respond to Romney stealing credit for killing Osama bin Laden: "No, you two go ahead."
Monologue. Considering how rare it is for SNL to book actors with no memorable comedy roles (Jon Hamm is the exception, not the rule), I was a little concerned when it was announced that this week's host would be Daniel Craig, arguably the most humorless and violent incarnation of James Bond in the franchise's history. However, Craig addressed that concern perfectly in his monologue, rolling a fun "In Memoriam" video of all the people killed by his film characters. Rest in peace, "Dog Who Saw Too Much" (and, presumably, Gary the Triggerhappy Fog Guy). Note: NBC/Hulu won't upload this sketch due to music licensing issues. The Louis Armstrong curse lives on.
Construction Workers. Craig's first big role of the night was a catcalling construction worker who couldn't quite roll with the big boys, a la Steve Carell's "bags of sand" metaphor in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Craig whipped out his stock Brooklyn accent (adding legitimacy to his joke in the monologue that all American roles are played by English men), describing passing women using terms like "100-percent whammo" and "a big bowl of butt soup." Craig's delivery was a bit over-the-top and was occasionally overshadowed by the others' quips ("Someone dial 3-1-1, because I saw something, and I need to say something!"), but I enjoyed this premise and the quick flashback with Bill Hader playing the worker's ill-fated father.
Bond Girls. The women of the cast took over this week's impression-off sketch: a DVD featuring all the lesser-known Bond girls. Kate McKinnon cleaned up with amazing impressions of Jody Foster and Ellen Degeneres, and Vanessa Bayer was great as an Annie-Hall-era Diane Keaton. Fred Armisen's gold-plated Penny Marshall was a bit unnecessary here — though I preferred this appearance to the other moment he wore a wig and got down with Craig that night.
Long Island Medium. This was a highlight reel night for Kate McKinnon. Here, she played Theresa Caputo, the hack psychic from Long Island Medium. Complementing McKinnon's funny impression was an awesome running gag with all her clients immediately bursting into tears. It was another solid win in SNL's campaign against the ridiculous programming on networks like TLC and Bravo.
Mars Mission. In this character sketch, Bobby Moynihan played Kirby, a doughy feline-lover on board a spaceship who can't stop talking about his little kitty cat back home. Moynihan's admirable commitment to the stupid voice saved this sketch, though of course it always helps to cap a sketch with an adorable freaking kitten. I also enjoyed the Aliens-nod with Cecily Strong's character.
Weekend Update. Weekend Update was the anchor of the episode: whatever satirical points the show failed to make in earlier sketches, Seth Meyers made them loud and clear here. "You gotta hand it to Mitt Romney," Meyers said, "Obama did." Meyers then launched into another one of his killer rant segments, in which he broke down the winners and losers from the debate, including loser Jim Lehrer, "a ghost visiting a scene from his past life," and winner Joe Biden, who's likely saying "Tebow Time!" as he braces to save the campaign this week. Another great moment came in a visit from Big Bird (played by longtime Muppeteer Caroll Spinney), who gave a delightfully apolitical and signature pun-tastic response to Mitt Romney's threat to cut funding to PBS: "I'm a bird. Tweeting is how we talk." Closing out the block was Kate McKinnon, playing Cecilia Jiminez, a Spanish painter who defaced a priceless fresco of Jesus with a new, goofy depiction of the Son of God. Though her accent wavered a bit, McKinnon's delivery was hilarious as she described Jesus' "enormous, round, monkey face" and "rabbit eyes" now give-me-my-money!
MSNBC Debate Fallout. The debate consumed even more airtime with this commentary on Obama's allies at MSNBC attempting to justify the president's lackluster performance. Considering several jokes were rehashed versions of material already covered in the cold open, this sketch seemed unnecessary. It's worth mentioning the changing of the guard for two big impressions: with Abby Elliott gone, Cecily Strong took over as Rachel Maddow, and Jason Sudeikis played Chris Matthews now that Darrell Hammond isn't making house calls anymore. While Strong didn't improve much upon what was Elliott's strongest impression, Sudeikis brought a whole new life to Matthews, focusing less on the nuance of the pundit's speech and more on his abrasive personality.
Working Class Drama. I'm not really sure what to make of this parody of the obscure sub-genre of BBC's blue-collar programming, but the premise wasn't clear, there was no consistent pattern with the jokes, and the subject matter just bummed me out overall. Maybe it's just one of those sketches you have to live in Liverpool to fully appreciate. Do people in England see SNL broadcasts five hours into the future? I don't understand how time zones work!
Loving Couple. In a late character sketch, Fred Armisen played Craig's worldly/clingy girlfriend at a couple's party. At first I was interested to see Armisen's weird new character, who enters the room with questions like, "What were you guys talking about? Syria?" But as the sketch wore on, it became more about Craig and Armisen awkwardly groping each other and making stupid faces — a gross-out premise we've seen with characters like Mango and Sexy Shana. I'm sure this was inspired by someone Armisen has crossed path with, but due to the sketch's crude execution, it was difficult to relate to.
Note: Because the Undecided Voter video was from a previous episode, I won't review it here. That said, its message makes even more sense now than it did two weeks ago.
Overall it was an uneven night. While the debate cold open was passable, I certainly had higher hopes for it. Daniel Craig was an average host, sticking mostly to safe, straight-man roles in sketches that could have been used for any host, any week of the year. And although Seth Meyers made up for lost ground in Weekend Update, everything that followed was useless. Kate McKinnon had a great night, however.
There's also a lot to look forward to. Next week, Christina Applegate returns to the show for the first time since she hosted in 1993 (when she appeared in the famous Motivational Speaker Matt Foley sketch), and considering her comedic chops, her experience working in live musical theater, and a possible cameo by Up All Night costar and SNL alum/host extraordinaire Maya Rudolph, we're in store for a stellar episode. Also, writer John Mulaney has returned to the show, so I wouldn't be surprised if Stefon is brewing up some festive ideas for Halloween. Finally, after missing out on Taran Killam this season, as well as Jason Sudeikis's Biden, it should be fun to see the two of them go at it in a parody of this week's vice presidential debate. And sooner or later, we're bound to get some cameos by the candidates themselves. My money's on Michelle Obama… she can't ignore the siren call of the comedy world forever.
What did you think? Did the debate cold open leave you wanting more? Who's to blame for the lackluster Obama sketches — Jay Pharoah, the writers, President Obama himself… or the fact that he inherited this country's greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression? Did you find Daniel Craig's performance as host to be awkward and uncomfortable like Daniel Radcliffe's, or hilarious and charming… like Daniel Radcliffe's? Was it at least good enough to give these Bond movies a shot?
I'll see you next week, when Christina Applegate will host with musical guest Passion Pit.
Erik Voss is a writer and performer living in Los Angeles. He performs on the improv team The Cartel at the iO West Theater.