Monday, February 11th, 2013

'SNL' Review: Not A Belieber

It's not easy to reconcile my preferences for the alternative comedy scene that this site represents and my admiration for an eternally mainstream show like SNL. I want a lineup of weird, dark premises and sketches that establish clear games… and then intentionally subvert them. I want sketches to end with Mr. Show-like transitions, with a character leaving the room and walking onto a new set, where a new sketch begins, and throwaway jokes from earlier sketches to reappear later, like Kroll Show is doing. I want an episode where Nick Offerman hosts, Garfunkel and Oates is the musical guest, Danny Pudi sits silently in the background of every sketch, and Lorne Michaels interrupts the cold open by ironically reciting Wes Mendel's rant from Studio 60 and flicking off the camera.

But the SNL isn't that show. SNL is a show for us and the rest of the TV-watching American public. A show that didn't book Zach Galifianakis until he was in The Hangover. A show that repeats sketches, beat-for-beat, three times in half a season. A show that, when its musical guest was caught lip-synching during a live broadcast, did nothing other than a subtle reference in the following week's cold open. SNL once changed culture, but now, 150 years later, it merely adapts to it. Part of that process is, unfortunately, letting Justin Bieber host and musical guest an episode. But despite selling out, it still manages to surprise us, make us laugh, and give us a weird Fred Armisen sketch.

So while I could hold a grudge against SNL for pandering to a demographic its writers despise by unleashing its teen idol host to randomly sing and dance in sketches for no apparent reason, or for doing The Californians for the sixth time in less than a year (sixth!), I will for the time being put aside my animosity for Bieber and that stupid fever of his that led to us having to watch him fumble through sketches and receive giddy squeals nonetheless. Instead, let's talk about an episode that had some fun with some old characters and took a few jabs at the revered pop sensation in the process.

What Hit:

Monologue. Justin Bieber didn't waste any time before diving into this it-must-be-February bit that merged his love for Valentine's Day and black history by serenading girls and in the audience and then telling them inaccurate factoids like "Denzel Washington invented the peanut." Although Bieber seemed a bit nervous whenever he wasn't singing (a recurring problem throughout the night) and the concept wasn't too inventive, the writers made the best use of the singer's charm and hinted at a point they would drive home in later sketches: Bieber's ignorance to black culture, despite his hip persona.

Bieber Body Doubles. I always appreciate sketches that roast the host — it shows that the host isn't afraid to laugh at himself and that the writers are generating fresh material for that week, instead of reheating old sketches from months before (which dominated the rest of the episode, it seemed). Here, the entire cast was dressed up as Bieber body doubles for security protection, mimicking his singing, dance moves, and his love of the word "swaggy." The jab about Bieber pretending to be black was perhaps the highlight, but I also loved Sudeikis's reaction upon learning that Saddam Hussein — a former body double client — had died: "Oh Saddam. … You just flew too close to the sun, didn't you?" Kate McKinnon's quick Ellen cameo is exactly the kind of character crossover I'd love to see more of. Watch the sketch here.

Bravo Spinoffs. Though I would say Bravo reality show spinoffs have already been effectively covered by Kroll Show, I still enjoyed the ridiculous heights the writers took the concept here, with Bobby Moynihan playing a gay bear limo driver and The Real Houseplants of Beverly Hills.

Weekend Update. Seth Meyers had some great jokes about Honey Boo Boo and the illiterate town of [Pig Symbol], Alabama, and Fred Armisen and Vanessa Bayer's return as the Two Best Friends Growing Up (IV), this time of recently uncovered tyrannical English monarch Richard III, was a welcome third-beat-style return for the gossiping duo. Kenan Thompson shined once again at the update desk as Corey, The One Black Guy In Every Commercial, a hip but non-threatening token black actor who spends his days drumming Pringles cans and placing Dr. Pepper on turntables. Those who still haven't warmed up to Kenan after this — as well as last episode's hilarious Ray Lewis segment — have no excuse. The guy's been killing it on SNL lately, and long gone are the days of Deep House Dish.

Miley Cyrus Show V. I thought we saw the last of Vanessa Bayer's Miley Cyrus, considering it hasn't been on the show in over a year. Bayer's impression is highly effective in small doses, which is why I'm thankful the writers didn't let this run too long. Bieber's Cyrus superfan fell flat, considering it was just a combination of his skater teen voice from The Californians and his Bieber bashing schtick from body doubles. That said, I did enjoy the weed-smoking apology — from both Bieber and Cyrus.

Valentine's Day Message. As if sending Bieber out to hold girls' hands and show off his abs wasn't enough, here was another appeal to the Beliebers' sexual fantasies… except, with a bunch of random un-sexy stuff. The game here was pretty unclear, but I still enjoyed Bobby Moynihan's Taco character, a bird smacking into the window, and Bieber texting Hillary Clinton a picture of his junk.

Principal Frye IV. Although I'm probably not as big a fan of Principal Frye as Jay Pharoah is, I still enjoy these sketches, if not for Pharoah's microphone gags than for the jokes the writers come up with: "If you get shot with arrow on this holiday, that is not Cupid. There is a hobo with a crossbow in the parking lot." The studio audience was more generous with their laughter at Bieber's nerdy abstinent student than I think he deserved; for me it was Nasim Pedrad's sex-craving girlfriend who stole the scene.

What Missed:

Super Bowl Blackout Cold Open. I had trouble getting behind this overlong parody of CBS's empty-pocketed coverage during the Super Bowl blackout, despite the plugs for Two Broke Girls, Bill Hader's creepy dancing German guy ad, and the cut-to battle between Kenan and Taran. This felt typical of SNL current event parodies: an obligatory, one-note concept buoyed by strong one-liners.

The Californians VI. At this point, it's as if Armisen and Hader's strategy for topping this exhausted premise is pronouncing as few consonants as possible. Sure, there's something fun to that, but good lord, it's time to take a break from the Californians.

50s Romance. This loose parody of "Summer Nights" got stuck far too much in establishing the source material before revealing that the boy Cecily Strong's character was obsessed with was too young and immature for her — "Let's just say he was hanging out with some of the kids I babysit." "Are you saying that?" It's a funny take on the creepy pseudo-pedophilic side to Bieber Fever, but I still prefer Tina Fey's fantasizing teacher from April 2010.

Glice. While this sketch has grown on me since I first saw it, and I admired Taran Killam's performance, I still can't tell you what it was about, or what Killam's character's deal was, other than an obsession with the accidentally uttered word, "glice."

Overall it was a so-so episode. Justin Bieber wasn't any better a host than Adam Levine (who I still think was part of a good episode nonetheless, despite the entire world disagreeing with me). The writers didn't hold back with their material and Bieber seemed game for all of it, but his comedic delivery was amateurish at best and he only looked comfortable when the ladies in the audience were screaming. What an odd turn-on. Still, it was as good an episode as we could have expected from the teen idol, whose turn on SNL was far less about his actual performing ability than his irresistible cult of personality. That may be what millions of Americans wanted, but it wasn't for me.

What did you think? Did Justin Bieber prove himself as a viable comedic talent, or should he stick to his first love of pre-teen seduction? Between Bieber and Adam Levine, will we finally get a reprieve from music stars as hosts? Did Kenan Thompson finally win you over this episode? And is there any end in sight for The Californians, or should we expect a dozen or so more sketches with blond, tanned lovers grunting incomprehensibly about driving routes and avocados?

I'll see you next week, when Christoph Waltz will host with musical guest Alabama Shakes.

Erik Voss is a writer and performer living in Los Angeles. He hosts the Evil Blond Kid podcast and performs improv on the Harold team The Cartel at the iO West Theater.

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

    It's crazy to me that anyone not only abides but appreciates Kenan. His Weekend Update character this week was the second character of his that I've EVER liked (I'm partial to Googie Rene), and I haven't missed an episode in eight years. He comes across as laughing smugly at how funny he is and not at the sketches themselves. To me he is still trying to be the guy who thinks he is too cool to be on "All That." When a "Kenan sketch" starts, there is a round of halfhearted boos in my house.

    That being said, I thought this episode was much better than it's getting credit for, despite the return of Principle Frye (ho-hum) and The Californians (which still manages to make me laugh). I loved seeing so much of the cast, and I thought the Valentine's Day Message was EXCELLENT. Taran's "glice" sketch was annoying, but since I think he's the most talented cast member on the show I want him to get as many of his own sketches as possible.

    • http://www.facebook.com/jeff.countryman.71 Jeff Countryman

      Agree about Kenan. I can count on one finger the number of times he's managed to make me laugh. I don't get why he's still on there. Even the opening credits sequence from prior to this year bugged me (seriously.) He just seems like he's trying too hard (or not trying enough?) I can't tell. I wish they put in more Jay Pharoah and less Kenan.

      • Colonel Leslie Hapablap

        Kenan's been doing a bad Dave Chappelle impression for a decade now. He's talented in his own way, but as a stand alone comic, he never has been at the level of his cast-mates, in my view. Probably the reason he hasn't and won't branch out and do other things. I used to think Lorne kept him around just to make everyone else seem funnier, but there are some folks out there that genuinely appreciate him. Not me though.

    • Damian

      Wholeheartedly disagree. He and Bill Hader are the only genuinely likable members of the current cast. You're calling Kenan smug over Armisen, Sudeikis, and Moynihan?

  • http://twitter.com/wdeg will degirolamo

    Yeah, it was definitely a rough episode, though I don't think anyone was expecting anything different with Bieber as the host. Every sketch seemed overly safe, even the 10-to-1. I'm really starting to lose faith in the show — every other sketch is a one-noted rehashing of the same flat joke. Fantastic improvisers like Sudeikis are sorely limited by the show's tendency to play it safe. Comedy has evolved far past what's being shown on SNL — as you said, it's entirely reactionary to pop culture, not driving it as once was the case.

    That said, the dream episode you described in the intro sounds AMAZING. All I want is Nick Offerman doing umpteen mustache-related bits.

  • Colin Perkins

    Well written piece – the lead in especially. I really wish they'd let fewer squealing 11-year old girls into the audience. Or at least instructed them to shut up.

  • ianrey

    The audience was really distracting. Screaming teenagers are as welcome in sketch comedy as they are at a concert.

    I'm a little ashamed that "glice" made me laugh more than anything. For the sheer absurdity of it, and for the absolute commitment of Taran to the bit. I'm completely done with Principal Frye, though.


  • http://tinyurl.com/GoingtotheKnicksGame SpeedsterNYC

    It was a horrible episode from start to finish except for the token black guy in every commercial character. That was funny. Everything else SUCKED and I'm generally a defender of SNL.

  • Jason

    "pandering to a demographic its writers despise" – That's a mighty big assumption, sir.

    • eavoss

      I think it's fair to say that of you're writing for SNL, you probably don't give a shit what 13-year-old girls think of your material.

  • http://twitter.com/fictionalsleep Colin Fisher

    I loved Glice, and I took Taran Killam's deal to basically be what he said to his dad at the end before playing it all off: that he's insecure and aware of his loser status and covers it all up by being an asshole. Not super clear, but it was enough justification to win me over. Also Sudeikis' character reminded me of his dad from those Paul Britton little-fancy-lad sketches, which I really miss.

  • Colin

    Was that really the sixth Californians? I thought the last one was with Mick Jagger in the finale last year. Was there another one this year? I don't recall any others since Kristin Wigg left.

    • eavoss

      There have been two since then: once in the Christina Applegate episode and another in the Jeremy Renner episode.

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

    Hard to be disappointed by a Bieber episode of SNL. Didn't have very high hopes going into it. But I did enjoy Cecily Strong and Aidy Bryant in that 50s Romance sketch and I agree with the A.V. Club reviewer that it would have been better with a more naturally comedic male lead. And I felt that most of the cast had some great individual moments though that didn't save the show.

  • http://www.facebook.com/chrishudson918 Chris Hudson

    Oh man I thought Glice was amazing. Best sketch of the night. Totally reminded me of Matt Foley.

  • dingalingaling

    Token black guy = Kamau Bell

  • Anthony Coro

    Overall, it was a decent show, marred mainly because they played a little too much to Bieber's fanbase. I do have to say though, as much as I hated the somewhat similar fireman sketch a few weeks ago, "GLICE!" absolutely killed me. Taran was amazing; I had to watch it three more times in order to soak in all the greatness.

  • HeppCat

    Wondering if this has anything to do with the "Glice" sketch: https://twitter.com/irauhlwithjus

  • HeppCat

    Wondering if this has anything to do with the "Glice" sketch: https://twitter.com/irauhlwithjus

  • Franky Nanderpan

    like Kroll Show is doing, terribly

  • Travisb1990

    I loved Justin's episode. Of course, I'm a Justin Bieber fan, or Belieber, if you will, so, I'm a little biased when I review this episode. I must say, he did a lot better than I thought he would. He was a little nervous during the monologue, but, he later overcame that and did a fine job. My favorite sketches during this episode were the "Super Bowl Blackout Parody", "Justin Bieber Decoys", "'50s Romance", "The Miley Cyrus Show", "Valentine's Day Message", "Protective Brother (Glice)" and "Valentine's Day Dance with Principal Frye".

    The worst sketch of the night was "The Californians". It was so annoying. Sadly, Justin wasn't really able to save that sketch. I hope they get rid of it. It's annoying and ridiculous.

    This episode showed that Justin has no problem making fun of himself, as he showed in the decoy sketch and when he played the Miley Cyrus fan.

    He also performed "As Long as You Love Me" and "Nothing Like Us", which are two of my favorite songs by him.

    His episode is my favorite since Betty White hosted in May of 2010.

    I hope they invite him back to host again someday.

  • ManfredYon

    50's heart throb was my favourite sketch all season. I keep rewatching it to perk me up

    • ManfredYon

      maybe it would have been better with a more snappy lead, but I thought the nervousnes sold the premise much better. An actual kid in the world of mutton dressed as lamb Grease is pretty good. I made my family watch it, and we were cracking up.

      I know this isn't very insightful, I just plain enjoyed it.

      However, yeah, I would have hit the lines faster and it seems a shame to not put them in the call and response lyrics (when you've got heart-throb throw back justin beiber, you can let him sing its ok) as the structure of statement – reinterpretation of events is already there from the movie! 'say more stuff, say more stuff did he caress your face?' 'say more stuff, say more stuff, she helped me tie my shoe lace'. I dunno. Clearly the cast can do the kind of music, they nailed the Tell Him parody.
      By the by, Nasim Petrad is great at complicated background work. Very accurate dancing and choice of reactions. Vannessa too, obviously, but its essentially the character reacting each time while nasim always seems specific to the sketch. Would you say she is the most versitile perfomer? Or woudl that be Taran?