Monday, May 13th, 2013

'SNL' Review: Kristen Wiig Disappoints with More of the Same

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.

What Hit:

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.

What Missed:

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.

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  • hphan

    If the cast didn't have recurring characters they would all be just a Laraine Newmans

  • zen weapons

    Whatever happened to the Two A-Holes, I really wanted to see one last one of those but those guys disappeared years ago.

    Thankfully no Secret Word. I would have preferred a Judy Grimes to Garth & Kat.

    • hphan

      Or even an Aunt Linda

    • david


  • Carson

    Good summary, almost exactly how I saw it. I'll even agree that, while I'm not a fan of the Target Lady, at least the sketch had some fresh jokes. I've been really enjoying the work of both Bryant and Robinson this season and I think their unique skills will continue to come in handy in future seasons.

  • http://twitter.com/Solid_Muldoon Solid_Muldoon

    The best choice for the new Weekend Update anchor is Alec Baldwin.

  • SNL fan

    Are you insane?
    That cold open was the most political and strongest open IN YEARS.
    it's like they got their balls back for a split second.

    • eavoss

      I appreciated the political commentary of the premise, but the jokes just weren't there, and structurally it felt off (you would think they would add a third star witness, or just cut it off after Arias).

      • Carson

        Or even have, you know, the correct nameplates. The sketch seemed like it didn't go through a blocking rehearsal.

  • goran

    I am happy to see Kristen Wiig anywhere and in anything. I will never understand why she is such a polarising figure among SNL fans – she was the first reason I started watching the show religiously (Kate McKinnon is the latest).

    Though I would have ditched that Californians retread and even Dooneese (much as I've loved in her in the past) in favour of revisiting that Wiig character who is always way too excited about mundane things, or her secretly disgusting cheerleader, or Secret Word (screw you haters! I could never get tired of that bit), or any of Wiig's celebrity impressions.

    • Carson

      I like Kristen Wiig. I think she is a very good sketch comedian, as evidenced by her first few pre-domination seasons on the show. But there is plenty of sound reasoning for people to hate her. She did more harm than good on SNL.

  • AE

    "Nasim Pedrad's flat delivery as Jodi Arias didn't help"

    " Nasim's spokespersons came off as too sarcastic."

    Obviously in both cases, Nasim's performance flew right over your Head. Nasim's dry and chopped up delivery as Jodi Arias and her body language characterizes Arias as distant, self righteous and almost bureaucratic. Paralleling with exploitative politicians, Her performance brings out themes that writers of the sketch failed to point out. Did you think that she's supposed to do stand up and deliver killer punchlines?

    Your off the mark assumptions and praise for strong and McKinnon(both going for the most obvious pandering to audiences)shows why Nasim Pedrad is so underrated and why Lorne Michaels thinks of Kristen Wiig as a legend.

    • Carson

      I'll cosign on this. Pedrad is great and I appreciate that her performances tend to aim at something different than the Wiig acolytes.

    • eavoss

      You bring up a fair point. The weakness of the cold open had little to do with Pedrad and was almost entirely a script issue, and in general her contributions flew under the radar for me this episode. But I do love what she brings to the show and the types of characters she plays, specifically because she's totally different from someone like McKinnon. If you'll read my other reviews you'll find that my praise for McKinnon is far from universal and I almost always try to give Pedrad her due credit.

  • Robert

    Yeah I wasn't expecting much from this episode and wasn't disappointed. I'm not the biggest fan of kristen wiig and I'm glad she's gone. But couldn't they have waited more than a year to bring her back? Give her more time to focus on the shitty movies she makes.
    Bridesmaids was horrible. 1 funny joke and that was it. Hopefully she'll just crash and burn so I don't have to listen to people say how funny she is.

    • eavoss

      Well, at least you're consistently insane.

    • Comedy Fan

      I know a lot of people like Kristen Wiig, but I have to agree with Robert. So many other people on SNL are so much funnier. I often just turn the channel when I see that a sketch focuses on her. She simply doesn't make me laugh. I never understood her popularity either.

    • calchick

      And she got that gaudy, ridiculous sendoff when she left(over ALL the bigger talents who left the show over the years)only because Lorne Michaels was banging her. I mean come on, doesn't it seem a bit odd that such an average(at best)talent got such a sendoff? I had heard the rumors before about those two, but then when I heard(didn't see that particular show)about all the fuss made over her on her final show, then it clicked for me; the rumors were obviously true!

  • http://www.facebook.com/mark.longden Mark Longden

    Although there were sketches I liked (pretty much the same ones you did, although I like the Californians and the Elegnace CD), it was such a bummer seeing Wiig, after that huge emotional sendoff, back within a year to do the same old crap.

    I'll never understand why SNL likes Gilly, or Lawrence Welk (9 TIMES? Really?), but if you're going to have a former host (and her friend Maya Rudolph, as one can't appear without the other nowadays), either have them there to elevate their friends who are still struggling in the trenches, or have them wait a while so their tired old characters seem welcome again. Anything but this.

  • ElPaulerino

    SNL has been stale and lazy for a longggg time. To force some originality, I challenge SNL to ban the musical monologue and reoccurring characters for one season. Oh yeah, more Kate McKinnon please.

  • http://twitter.com/ninesnowboots Ben

    "Obligation" is the right word for what a lot of the sketches from the weekend's show seemed to be. When they put all these Wiig characters back-to-back, it only serves to show how flimsy a lot of them really are. "The Californians" is at the point where they know they don't have anything left in the well and are reduced to playing as broadly and silly as possible to compensate. Dooneese has largely been the same basic joke (ugly weirdo sister doesn't fit the song). Target Lady usually was about the guest performer's character as much as Wiig's (the rest of the cast did better in that one I thought). As for Garth and Kat, I can't stand them at all. At best it comes off as an inside joke, and at worst it comes off as "lets eat as much airtime as possible".

    I feel like the hatred for her on some of the SNL forums is extreme (some people seem to extend their dislike of her irritating sketches to enmity towards her as a person), but it does seem like the show's trying to squeeze every last golden egg out of this goose. It doesn't help that two of her most frequent collaborators (James Anderson and Kent Sublette) tend to favor repetitive sketches (Lawrence Welk, Secret Word, Garth and Kat, "THOMAS!").

  • http://www.facebook.com/jonathan.michaels2 Jonathan Michaels

    Looking forward to Affleck.

    They seem to have more confidence in him than most hosts, considering the Olbermann sketch from his previous episode.

  • Reggie Pecker

    The quantity and quality of the humor was virtually the same as last week's episode, that is to say, just o.k. I don't think we can expect much more from this particular set of SNLers, the fact they they chose to honor Margaret Thatcher after Jonathan Winters died says a lot about their skill set.

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

    "Why do we see endless returns of Target Lady and Garth & Kat, but never the Two A-holes?"

    I've always wondered about this. Maybe Wiig never liked the sketch? It was one of her first hit sketches and if Sudekis leaves they really won't be able to do it again.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jasonfarr Jason Farr

    More hits than misses doesn't make a weak show I don't think. But I liked the Californians and especially Elegnace CD. This is subjective, though. Mark Longden makes a good point when he mentioned her emotional sendoff only for her to be back within a year. I get that. I love Kristen Wiig, though. So I wasn't as disappointed as everyone else.
    I feel like this generation of comedy audiences are getting super cynical and judge-y. It seems like people make it so hard for themselves to enjoy something. I mean, people are complaining about this episode even when, by their own account, more things hit than missed.

    • eavoss

      Normally I'd side with you, as I think people in general are far too cynical of SNL and of Kristen Wiig. But stepping back from the episode, this was in the bottom half of the ones we've seen this season. And if you want to talk about hits vs. misses, sure, the way I listed them, more things technically "hit," but the sketches that missed not only dominated the episode's total runtime, they were the night's "loadbearing" sketches, ie, the ones in crucial timeslots that tend to be bellwethers for the quality of the episode as a whole: the cold open, the post-monologue sketch, Weekend Update, etc. The hits felt like momentary rays of sunshine in an otherwise cloudy episode.

      • http://www.facebook.com/jasonfarr Jason Farr

        That's a well articulated and valid point. This is why I like Splitsider. It's not just someone saying, "SNL sucks" with no intellect to back up why they disliked something.
        I didn't take the loadbearing sketches into account. But I did like a couple sketches you didn't, like Elegnace. And I wasn't as hard on Weekend Update, either.
        Here's one thing I noticed that was weird about this episode and speaks to why they maybe should have waited to have her back…the writers and cast didn't seem excited or pumped up like they were when Jimmy Fallon came back. Or even when Maya came back. I think it's because she was just there with these same people. So they were happy to be around her again, but not as excited as they would be if it was a cast that looked up to her before they were on the show like was the case with Fallon.

        And I will agree that this wasn't one of the top episodes of the season. But would put it more in the middle than in the bottom half.

  • http://about.me/bradreason Brad Reason

    I really felt like the show was a solid throwbackesque fun jam with Kristen back in the saddle. Although your review is fairly accurate, it's also missing what the whole show did have that night; a good ol' sketch comedy jam with classic characters acted out by old talented friends. The whole show had such a fun vibe and atmosphere. Getting overly critical on how this show's sketches held together their own individual plot-of-funny is almost immaterial when it comes to Kristen Wiig coming back to jam. It all felt like a great, fun time that night for everyone involved. To me, watching her come back to simply do all the reoccurings was satisfying enough. I may not have laughed at every single joke, but I had a smile on my face the entire show.

  • david

    garth and kath hasn't been funny since the second time it appeared. it has been used to death. I think one aspect of that that doesn't make it as funny, is that there is no give and take. It is all Fred with Kristin tagging on. It might be more fresh if Kristin led once, and Fred had to keep up with her. After loving it the first time, I grew to despise it.

    It was an overall disappointing episode, but the Korean water ghost saved it from the Lindsay Lohan realm.

  • Debbie Niemeyer

    Ever since David Spade left and Tina Fey led the camp, things never was the same. I rarely make fun of K Wigg….because the woman is so non existent-ly amusing as in NOT FUNNY at ALL. And now she's pulling a Jason Sudekis or whatever his stupid name is as if she's hot. Personally, I think she looks a cross between a corpse and a zombie and or orangutan. Hey K Wiig, stop wearing clothes that only attractive women should wear. Did I mention she's as a funny as the color beige?

  • J

    Kristen Wiig is hilarious, SNL would have been lost without her for the past 7 years. I can't actually believe that she is so polarising. I watched her SNL youtube playlist and she is crazy talented, most of the other cast members are like watching paint dry!

  • zannle

    Best SNL episode since..