An episode of SNL feels most satisfying when the sketches come from a place of inspiration, as opposed to obligation. For example, when Justin Timberlake hosts the show, I don't need to see the "Dick in a Box" characters, but I would like to see them if the writers come up with a fresh and exciting way to bring them back. Whether or not a sketch addresses a recent news event or upcoming holiday is secondary to whether or not the sketch is funny. I'm sure the SNL staff shares this mindset — they really are just trying to produce the funniest show possible. But occasionally, in pursuit of that goal, SNL prioritizes expectation over its most critical obligation: comedy.
Such was the case last weekend, when Kristen Wiig returned to host the show after departing a year ago to focus on her film career. I normally am a huge fan of whenever a former cast member hosts, because his or her familiarity with the show and multiple talents usually results in a perfect storm of sketch comedy greatness. However, rather than deploy one of the show's most gifted alumni in some more complex pieces or layered characters, SNL took the lazy route, rolling out some of Wiig's most worn bits: Lawrence Welk, The Californians, Garth & Kat, Target Lady… even a Gilly cameo. Wiig's relatively recent departure hasn't given viewers enough time to properly move on from those sketches (especially The Californians, which the show had done three times since Wiig left). SNL aimed for the giddy nostalgia we feel when we see Tina Fey impersonate Sarah Palin or Justin Timberlake dance around in a big foam costume. Instead, our reaction was, "Really? This again?"
While the recurring characters dominated the lineup, a few fresh ideas did thankfully manage to squeeze in. And while Kristen Wiig goofed around with long-time SNL stalwarts Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, and Jason Sudeikis in the old material, it was fun to see her share the stage in the new material with freshmen Aidy Bryant, Kate McKinnon, Cecily Strong, and Tim Robinson, all of whom had some of their biggest nights of the season. So while it was a disappointing episode overall, there are certainly a few reasons to celebrate.
Monologue. After Jimmy Fallon, Maya Rudolph, and Martin Short, it seems as though musical numbers and backstage bits (with random live animals, showgirls, Lincoln, and Lorne) is now a required tradition for returning SNL alum hosts. Although "I'm So Excited" fell short of her predecessors, the gag of Wiig forgetting everyone's name and her way around the studio was good for a few laughs, specifically her catching Jonah Hill and Maya Rudolph hooking up in the broom closet. (Watch the sketch here.)
1-800-Flowers. I'm amazed that throughout every season, regardless of the relative quality of the cast and writers, you can always count on SNL to churn out solid commercial parodies. This Mother's Day themed ad featured Wiig bumping heads with her well-meaning but pestering mother (Kate McKinnon): "Thanks for the flowers, honey! But maybe you should keep them because your apartment is so sad." The video perfectly hit the balance between sweet and brutally honest.
Aw Nuts, Mom's A Ghost! Another great mom sketch was this promo for a corny Disney Channel sitcom in which the matriarch is a mool-gwishin, aka "Korean Water Ghost" — the type of ghoul from horror films like The Grudge and The Ring. The extreme specificity of the two genres helped this clash of context land as well as it did, and Cecily Strong and Bobby Moynihan's performances were hilarious. If you watched this at night like I did, hopefully you didn't catch the creepy kid in the background at the :50 mark.
Target Lady X. The one recurring character of Wiig's that was worth the comeback was Target Lady, whose chirpy charisma was grounded with actually-funny jokes ("I like to cut out the model's eyes and put them on my eyelids when I'm asleep so my birds don't feel alone and the ghosts think I'm awake!") and a few Aunt-Linda-esque judgmental moments ("I've never met a lesbian! Do you all wear vests?").
Acupuncture. This nauseating but awesome sketch featured Kristen Wiig and Aidy Bryant applying acupuncture treatment to Jason Sudeikis while jets of blood absurdly streamed out of his back. While the laughs were overwhelmed by groans and screams, Wiig and Bryant channeled Lucy and Ethel in their attempts to maintain the ruse. I have to hand it to the SNL props department for giving us a classic gross-out sketch in the same vein of Dan Aykroyd as a bleeding-out Julia Child.
Double Date. This peculiar sketch never really got off the ground with the studio audience, but I enjoyed it nevertheless. Kristen Wiig and Cecily Strong played flirty women on a double date with a couple of sixth-graders (Tim Robinson and Bobby Moynihan). Perhaps the pedophilic undertones distracted from the humor of two grown women being so smitten with awkward boys, but the realism in the dialogue and the relative innocence of the interaction won me over. A shining moment for Robinson, whose nervousness was a delight to watch: "My favorite dinosaur is the brontosaurus. Scientists can't tell from the fossils if they, um, held their neck out upright, or, and, um…" Comedian Mike Birbiglia live tweeted this episode and seemed to particularly enjoy Robinson's performance.
Benghazi Hearing Cold Open. This cold open leaned more towards obligation than inspiration, with the writers attempting to cram in three major news events into one sketch (the Benghazi hearings, the Jodi Arias trial, and the Cleveland kidnapping escape), when any one of them would have sufficed. To be fair, it is impressive when two separate news events come together humorously in one sketch, as with Quvenzhané Wallis being named the new pope in the Kevin Hart episode, but this one felt like a bit of a stretch. Of course, the lack of jokes and Nasim Pedrad's flat delivery as Jodi Arias didn't help. One of the weakest cold opens we've seen this season.
Californians VI. As I predicted, there was really no where else for The Californians to go but having the actors grunt and mumble incomprehensibly while trying to make each other laugh. Like many of the other recurring sketches this episode, The Californians had a "grasping for straws" energy, like the closing night of a high school play where the actors try to spice things up by screwing with each other on stage. I will admit that this version had the first (and only) mirror gag that actually worked, with Vanessa Bayer's maid cleaning it and blocking everyone's view.
Lawrence Welk VIII. I've always felt Kristen Wiig's monstrously undercooked Maharelle sister Dooneese was far too one-note to deserve the star character exposure SNL has given her. Rather than coming up with inventive lyrics, delving deeper into her dark backstory, or even giving her new physical mutations to exploit, the Dooneese bit never goes further than the predictable sight-gags of revealing Wiig's massive forehead or giving her absurd things to do with her baby hands.
Weekend Update. Despite Seth Meyers' sickness, I actually enjoyed several of the jokes this week, but the appearances by Bobby Moynihan's Secondhand News Correspondent Anthony Crispino (VIII) and Garth & Kat (IX) both suffered from that tired, out-of-gas desperation, where literally the performers have no other recourse than speaking in silly voices.
Socialite CD. I had trouble getting on board with this commercial for an album recorded by wealthy non-famous housewives, perhaps because as far as I'm concerned, those character types only make sense within the frame of an obnoxiously edited Bravo reality show, so placing them in a different context sapped some of the humor from that world. The autotuning was good for a laugh and the lyrics contained a few good jokes, but Kenan and Nasim's spokespersons came off as too sarcastic.
I was genuinely surprised at how weak this episode was, given Kristen Wiig's reputation as one of the most talented performers to ever be part of the SNL cast. I think we all expected to see a few of her old characters, but to see the episode rely so heavily on them, and underwrite them so severely, was a huge letdown. The Roman numerals I've been tagging onto recurring sketches really told the story this week: eight times we've seen Lawrence Welk, nine times we've seen Garth & Kat, ten times we've seen Target Lady… six times we've seen The Californians in one year! When the writing staff is capable of original content as fun and interesting as Korean Water Ghost Mom and Acupuncture, there's no excuse for SNL to resort to so many recurring sketches. Even when they think the viewers are demanding them. (They aren't.)
A nice silver lining to this episode is how much it showcased the newer cast members. Kristen Wiig did Aidy Bryant and Tim Robinson a world of favors playing opposite them in the night's sketches. The two (more so Robinson) finally had the opening they've been yearning for all season and delivered, hopefully increasing their chances of being hired back next season. With Kate McKinnon and Cecily Strong fitting in so well with the cast this season, it would be nice to have all four newcomers return for season 39.
What did you think? Were you happy to see a Kristen Wiig "hall of fame" episode, or would you have preferred to see her talents put to use in some more original premises? Why do we see endless returns of Target Lady and Garth & Kat, but never the Two A-holes? Did the first-years step up to the plate, or do they still have more to prove before they're locks for next season? And with Seth Meyers now officially moving up to Late Night, and John Mulaney's pilot not getting picked up, does this mean we'll see Mulaney in the Weekend Update chair next season? Not a bad consolation prize (for us, at least).
I’ll see you next week, when Ben Affleck will join the Five Timers Club as he hosts the season finale with musical guest Kanye West.
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.