Monday, September 30th, 2013

'SNL' Review: Tina Fey Introduces The New Cast

For a show that evolves constantly, SNL does a remarkable job preserving its brand. Despite the changes in the cast, the writers, and the culture it parodies, SNL will always be that live, hip, New York-centered show that puts up a few sketches at the end of the week to try to make you laugh. There's the "Live from New York…" throw line, the theme music, Don Pardo listing off the cast, the host walking out on stage, followed by that predictable pattern of live sketches, videos, musical performances, and the news segment. Critics put down this structure in favor of looser, more inventive sketch show formats, but given SNL's need to change with the times, its formula is its sole remaining constant in a flurry of variables, the engine that keeps the car running while the other parts are swapped out. The familiarity is what makes SNL, SNL.

So when new performers join the cast, it's common for them to stay on the sidelines for their first few episodes while SNL works to maintain its image. Other than a few quick cameos or larger appearances late into the broadcast, the newcomers typically sit backseat to the returning cast members, whose job it is to remind viewers that SNL is still just as funny as it always was. In the meantime, the producers will gradually fold the freshmen into the show, allowing viewers to slowly acclimate themselves to the new faces. (See: Bill Hader and Andy Samberg's impression-off segment in their first episode.)

Then again, sometimes the changes are too big to ignore. Case in point: the season 39 premiere, in which the six new cast members were shoved front and center, forced to dance like monkeys in humiliating costumes while hazed by host Tina Fey. Fey's joke at the end of the routine ("Thanks guys, you're done for the night!") was quite a misdirect — the newcomers were baptized by fire, manning the front lines throughout the night and proving, hey, maybe America doesn't need a couple months to fall in love with a new SNL cast. With the show's veterans bullying the pledges, SNL's recurring "gentleman's club" vibe took a fun, fratty turn, celebrating the show's tradition while avoiding the awkward built-up expectations that past all-new casts have suffered. (In the cold open to 1980's famously awful season, Charles Rocket painfully described himself as "a cross between Chevy Chase and Bill Murray." Lesson learned.)

As a viewer who began watching SNL regularly in the mid-90s, I wasn't sure how I would handle the biggest cast shake-up in 18 years. I was raised with Will Ferrell and Molly Shannon, spent high school with Jimmy Fallon and Tina Fey, and my college years (and since) with Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig. Sure, the show evolved during that time, but slowly. The transitions were smooth — it's not exactly clear, for example, when the Fey-Poehler-Rudolph era ended and the Meyers-Wiig-Hader one began, or if they weren't all the same era. But now, the cast has seen a seismic shift. Would I now become the bitter, nostalgic old timer who doesn't understand the appeal of the new kids and reminisces of simpler times of Stefon and the Target Lady?

The answer, thankfully, is no. I laughed at this episode just as much as — if not more than — the episodes of previous seasons, thanks perhaps to a writers room inspired by new weapons in its arsenal and an alumnus host who expertly took the babies under her wing with a little tough love. This isn't Tina Fey's first time hosting the show and it likely won't be her last, so she had little to lose by stepping aside and dedicating the episode to the new cast and SNL's legacy as a whole. They certainly needed it more than she did.

Obamacare Cold Open. The episode kicked off with a familiar face — Jay Pharoah's ever-improving President Obama — explaining the complexities of Obamacare, with the help of some clueless average citizens. It seems the writers have left behind the standard solo press conference cold open and opted for the higher energy full-cast option (last season's Obama budget sequester cold open had an identical format), which would have been flawless had it ended a few beats sooner. Kate McKinnon's smoking doctor berating people for sticking objects up their butts was a highlight, as was Aaron Paul's cameo as Breaking Bad's Jesse Pinkman, whom Obama and the background actors urged not to finish/spoil his story about his meth cook friend.

Monologue. The night's MVP was Tina Fey, a longtime SNL star and a perfect frontwoman for the show's "rebuilding year." Her sarcastic trip through memory lane of her (fake) recurring characters — Queef Latina, Reba MacEntired, The Lady with No Theme Song — set an appropriate, self-deprecating tone: 1) the show's approach to characters is indeed a little formulaic and 2) one obviously doesn't need hit characters to be an all-time great SNL star (though Fey's Sarah Palin impression certainly didn't hurt), so hey, go easy on these new guys. Fey's insight into SNL due-payments extended into a lecture for the new cast members of the long-held policy that newcomers have to dance in ridiculous outfits behind the host during the monologue — which, of course, Fey ordered them to do. "Remember, it was your dream to work here," Fey taunted as they shook and shimmied in humiliating gold spandex. "I hope your father isn't watching." The heartwarming reality of the bit is, wearing silly costumes and sharing the Studio 8H stage with Tina Fey was their dream, and it was exciting to see it finally happen for them.

Girls. Noël Wells was the first of the new cast members to earn her keep, with a pitch-perfect Lena Dunham impression in a superb parody of HBO's Girls. With Cecily Strong as Marnie, Kate McKinnon as Jenna, and Vanessa Bayer as Shoshanna, the cast delivered hilarious impersonations of the bratty New York twenty-somethings. The sketch was elevated from great to brilliant with the addition of Tina Fey's Blerta, a shaken, world weary Albanian refugee with OCD ("Old Cow Disease"), who found her outfit "in a fire," and who dealt a swift satiric blow to the show's fixation with trivial, first-world Millennial drama. Lena Dunham herself approved, tweeting that the parody was "a true honor" and praising the current lineup of women in the SNL cast. Sketch of the Night.

Airport. While air travel humor always smells a little hacky, you have to hand it to the writers for packing this mockery of boarding zone order with so many gags, with jabs at foreign people who ignore attendants and swarm the gate, and people who clap when the plane lands, ringing especially true. Some of the jokes were lost to timing issues, but Bobby Moynihan's slow saunter up the counter as a farter made the sketch for me.

New Cast Member or Arcade Fire? The writers found a new angle to address the cast's new faces with this clever game show premise that had Kenan Thompson and Tina Fey — more or less playing themselves — distinguishing between new cast members and members of Arcade Fire. Echoing previous seasons' "What's My Name?" and "Dylan McDermot or Dermot Mulroney?" this sketch put the contestant (Fey) on trial, not to mention the viewers, for our poor recognition skills. Perhaps the funniest running joke of the sketch was Thompson's outbursts at the new cast members, who tried to impress Fey with silly voices and compliments: "Shut up! That's something you have to earn!" Lorne Michaels provided another amazing moment when he too failed to identify the new cast member, looking at Kenan and asking, "It is the black one?" Well played, Lorne.

E-Meth. SNL unleashed its latest fake product, just in time for the finale of Breaking Bad: E-Meth (a parody of the e-cigarette), a vaporizer that allows meth addicts to smoke crystal in a socially acceptable way. In addition to giving us another taste of Aaron Paul (was the guy hanging out in the office all week?), we were treated to some fun sight gags, including Kate McKinnon lying face-down in a "big ol' tire" and Brooks Wheelan running around sans-pants in another man's living room.

Weekend Update. Besides the new cast members, the biggest unknown of the season was how Cecily Strong would fair at the Update desk, and the verdict is… quite well, actually. I am reminded of the first couple months at the desk with Seth Meyers, and Amy Poehler before, and Tina Fey and Jimmy Fallon before them, and I distinctly remember occasional stumbling over words and flatlining jokes. Which can be expected, because reading jokes handwritten onto cue cards minutes before (they don't even use teleprompters at SNL), and 100-percent nailing the delivery, is no easy task. But Strong made it through with no major screw-ups. She even added her own flair, acting out some of the punch lines in a character voice. She still has a little ways to go before she completely masters the timing, but I think it's clear we have nothing to worry about with a Cecily Strong-hosted Weekend Update. Overall, this episode's segment had plenty of great moments, including Tina Fey giving Strong the advice a veteran inmate would give a first-day fish: "Keep your head down, do your time, and on the first day, go up to the biggest guy in the yard and punch him in the face." Kyle Mooney made his big SNL debut as hack comedian Bruce Chandling — a familiar bit that we've seen in a few incarnations by Fred Armisen, but a promising introduction to an actor known for a slightly offbeat energy. Bobby Moynihan closed out the segment with a triumphant return of Drunk Uncle, whose wandering rants included the gem: "The only blurred line I see is our border with Mexico." We probably could have done without a third Aaron Paul cameo, but hell, when Jesse Pinkman's in the studio, why not put him in every sketch?

Cinema Classics. Perhaps the weakest sketch of the night was this look back at a 1940s film in which the director's brother-in-law was a mentally challenged taxidermist, resulting in distracting stuffed animals in the background of every shot. I enjoy any premise that involves animals — and who can resist a squirrel holding a tiny basketball? — though the sketch took a little long to get off its feet, and the "mentally challenged" component felt totally unnecessary.

Used Car Commercial. Mike O'Brien had his big SNL debut (if you don't count the dozens of cameos he's made over the past few years) as an old-timey used Model-T salesman shooting a "promotional film." Although a few of the jokes were lost in the timing, O'Brien effectively channeled the dark, crackpot joy the writers have with these clever period pieces. That said, Tina Fey stole the scene as O'Brien's off-her-rocker wife Daisy: "I gave all my babies to the well."

Porn Star Commercial (IV). I'm beginning to think that these sketches always air in the 10-to-1 slot not because they're unfunny, but because Lorne is worried the network will raise hell if a sketch this risqué airs any earlier than 12:50 am. Vanessa Bayer and Cecily Strong's airheaded former porn stars making commercials to get free stuff last lost some of the magic, but while the shock value of their "getting banged" stories has worn off, the idiotic mispronunciations are still hilarious: "You'll think you're drinking lobster straight out of the sink!"

Additional Thoughts:

  • For those of you who are new to my recaps, I include Roman numerals after recurring sketches to signify how many times the sketch has been played. In the case of Porn Star Commercial, this was the fourth time they've performed the bit on SNL. Also, you may have noticed I don't cover the musical segments. There's just rarely anything funny about them.
  • While the new cast members received a far greater margin of roles than normal, the returning cast nonetheless received the lion's share of screen time, with Kenan Thompson, Cecily Strong, and Taran Killam topping the tally. Meanwhile, Nasim Pedrad came in last, with no memorable roles other than an angry foreigner storming the plane in Airport. It's unfortunate that SNL continues to sideline such a talented performer the way it has Pedrad, but hopefully she'll get more screen time as the new cast pecking order is established.
  • Hulu's extensive backlog of SNL clips is no longer available, due to NBC's new deal with Yahoo, which is only providing select videos from past seasons. This isn't really a problem for the casual SNL viewer, but for us nerdy recappers who like to go back and watch all seven Debbie Downer sketches and embed the links in our articles, it's a little frustrating. Bear with us as we search for a solution.
  • It seems like Kenan Thompson is filling in as the cast's resident "moderator" — a function performed by Bill Hader and Jason Sudeikis in previous seasons — with his roles hosting the game show and Cinema Classics. Say what you will about Thompson, but as the senior member of the cast, he understands the rhythm of the show better than most and has emerged as an effective straight man.
  • I'm willing to bet that Kate McKinnon's doctor from the cold open, who's fed up with anal insertions, worked a few shifts at the Appalachian Emergency Room.
  • In the game show sketch, the side-by-side photos of the cast members and the band both included Arcade Fire's Tim Kingsbury on the far right.
  • I like to point out subtle running gags between sketches when I see them: Tina Fey let out a silly "Byeeeee!" when she left the Update desk, which Kenan Thompson echoed later at the end of Cinema Classics.
  • Drunk Uncle, singing: "Oh, I wanna dance with somebody! I wanna feel the beep with somebody!" Drunk Uncle thinks Whitney Houston says "beep" in her own song. Wonderful.
  • We're going to keep track of stupid names this season. This episode gave us Reese De'What.

I'll see you next week, when rising tween star Miley Cyrus, daughter of Billy Ray and lead from Disney's Hannah Montana, will host and perform as musical guest.

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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  • harvardsailingteamisgreat

    Thanks for the recap. I missed the show on Sat and was looking forward to catching up on the new cast while at work. #doingstuffisforlosers #tonystewart

  • zen weapons

    I think Mike O’Brien could be the next Bill Hader, there I said it. Also that line about the solar eclipse locked in the trunk killed me. I'm not a fan of Kenan kind of replacing Hader and Sudekis' presence, he was good in the new cast member or Arcade Fire bit though. Overall, I think it was a pretty good episode, the only sketch that kind of seemed flat was the Taxidermy one.. the rest of the sketches were pretty solid.

    • Betsy Hobbs

      I think O'Brien could definitely take over a lot of Hader's roles, but without the arsenal of incomparable impressions, there's not much overlap.

      Eventually I hope Beck Bennett will become "the new Sudeikis." He has that handsome everyman charm, and I think time will show him to be the next regular guy.

      • zen weapons

        Yeah it's not really the same as far as Hader's impressions, I just think they have a similar look and range. I feel like Hader himself is a modern Phil Hartman.

        Bennett I could for sure see becoming the next Sudeikis, I was actually wondering if he may be brought in to replace Seth on Update but it's way too early to tell and there's so many possibilities. I just can't see Strong doing the desk alone, could always be two women again too though. It's crazy to think Nasim is the veteran woman cast member now, I like her characters even if they're all a bit samey.

        As far as people being "the new" whoever, I feel like Killam is positioning himself as the next Ferrell.. the go to guy with the energy and range. As much as I was not a fan of Glice, it seemed like that was the trajectory there.. not to mention when I saw him in his tighty whities in that hypnotist sketch.

        • sjobs

          Yea, Beck has the looks and attitude to be the next golden boy. It will be exciting to see how he pans out.
          And Mooney was good too.

      • JeffMc2000

        I could see him replacing Seth Meyers on update.

  • Francis Rizzo III

    – When you're introducing so many new players, why not toss in an old favorite to help cushion the landing? I guess what I'm saying is, why not do J-Pop America Fun Time Now?

    Three appearance by Jesse from Breaking Bad? I get it's basically the
    last chance with the finale tonight, but that felt like overkill.
    – Two separate bits about the new cast members? That wasn't necessary.
    – Girls parody was good.

    – Cecily Strong was OK at the WU desk, and should improve with time.
    But I would have preferred Nasim or Vanessa, to ensure they get
    – Not much to say about the new crew, though O'Brien was fun in the old-tymey sketch.
    – It may be completely repetitive and formulaic, but the two ex-porn stars commercial sketch makes me laugh every time.

    • zen weapons

      I feel like without Sudeikis and Armisen, we'll never see another another J-Pop America. I was really sad there wasn't a goodbye Two A-Holes or What's Up With That when Sueikis left.

      • Francis Rizzo III

        They could easily lose the girlfriend character and replace the sensei. I imagine Kyle Mooney would make a fine guest.

      • AGoodQuestion

        Maybe they couldn't get Kristen back for Two A-Holes, and What's Up With That was more Kenan's thing, and sort of Hader's too. Plus, Sudeikis seems to have made his decision over the summer.

    • Ben Hennessy

      "Why not do J-Pop America Fun Time Now?"

      Because that bit sucked.

  • Samson Enobarbus

    I think Drunk Uncle had a few Stefon jokes referencing Bill Hader – the Seth intro was kinda like Stefon's, with the "it's that time of year" thing, and then Druncle referred to Hader's Emmy nomination and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.

    There seemed to be a lot of in-crowd jokes like that – I wonder how that will hurt or help the ratings?

    • thebobbyparker

      Love the recap as always, Voss. I would love to hear your thoughts on Tim Robinson's banishment to the writing room.

  • Will

    Great recap! Out of all the new cast members, I'm hoping that Mike O'Brien is able to show his potential quickly. I've seen him improvise live a few times and he's hilarious. Can't wait to see what comes in the future!

  • Betsy Hobbs

    I'm a little bit disappointed with the new season. Adding six new cast members and many new writers seems like a great time to really re-vamp the whole show. But it just seemed like a continuation of the past few seasons; nothing was really inherently different other than the few new faces.

    Sorry, I'm reading "Live from New York" right now and really wish SNL still had the cojones to do something refreshingly interesting and/or dangerous. With so much competition in comedy these days, I definitely feel like they've lost the edge (but I also love Tim & Eric, so my standards of "edge" are not exactly broadly appealing). I'm really hoping Kyle Mooney does some more awkward characters and starts making people uncomfortable.

    That being said, I'm a hard-core fan of the show. I don't want anyone to think I'm a hater.

    • imjustbettr

      Hey I JUST STARTED reading that too!!! It's pretty great.

    • Anthony Coro

      I agree; people keep saying this is a major overhaul year just because there's a bunch of new cast members, but there are still 7 cast members that have been there for three years or more. Let's be real here; there's nothing noticeably different except for Don Pardo announcing a really long list of featured players. I really don't know what happened to the old mentality that cast members stuck around for 4-5 years and then left. 7-8 years–or more–is just too much for a show like this that thrives on being live and (theoretically) unpredictable.

      I think the show could use a true overhaul every now and then just to keep it exciting. Sure, it's a risk that you'll end up with a cast that doesn't gel like '80-81 or '85-86, but at this point, Lorne has been at it long enough to have an idea of what will work and what won't. There's nothing worse for SNL than to be stagnant, which I think was the case for a while not too long ago.

      But I am optimistic about this year. Last year was the most I enjoyed the show in a long time, largely because the new cast members were great, and yes, not having Wiig around was a sigh of relief.

    • http://www.thecricketnerd.com/ The Cricket Nerd

      That IS an excellent book. Let's keep in mind that an "unpredictable" SNL was on the verge of cancellation more than once though!

      • JeffMc2000

        Yeah, that Randy Quaid/Anthony Michael Hall season was pretty unpredictable, all right.

        One thing people forget when criticizing SNL is that as much as it's about hopefully enjoying smart, well-written sketches, it's also about watching people play, and goof around and try shit out. Not everything works, but that's part of the fun. It's 90 minutes of live tv. No other sketch show does that.

  • mikeluv311

    Tina's BYE!!! killed it.

  • Stuie299

    I really liked it…but then again I've always been a fan of Kenan Thompson. I also think Cecily Strong did a better job behind the WU desk than I would have expected. Overall I think the lack of prominent cast members created an excited energy. Reminded me of an up and coming sports team where all of the players are fighting for playing time.




    ps. breaking bad sucks

  • imjustbettr

    Oh man that eMeth commercial killed it for me. Best "sketch" of the nigh in my opinion,

  • yeaaaah mon

    hahah fart. moynihan is my booooyyyyyyyy-ee

  • Marie

    Are you not doing what hit/what missed anymore? How will I know which parts to not watch?? I literally come here on Mondays and just watch the stuff you tell me to. :)

    • eavoss

      Yup, I've done away with categorizing the sketches into "hits" and "misses." After doing that for a while I realized that I so rarely considered anything a solid hit or a solid miss… it was usually somewhere in between. Watch all of them!

  • thebobbyparker

    Love the recap as always, Voss. I would love to hear your thoughts on Tim Robinson's banishment to the writing room.
    And doing this from my phone, I think I just added this incorrectly the first time… stupid, fat fingers…

  • OnECenTX

    Great recap as always! Love knowing that somewhere out there, someone else also notices the little things :D On to my rant;

    Why did SNL demote Robinson from the cast and promoted O'Brien to it…. REALLY!? Tim was great playing the weird side characters (a-la the male Rachel Dratch) but then he gets demoted to the writer's room??? And then O'Brien gets promoted from the writers room to the cast, whom after the first week looks like a really cheap version of a greater O'Brien whom used to roam the halls back in the day but without the charisma or charm or 1/10th of the talent…. Hopefully Lorne will smarten up and reverse this decision asap.

    • http://www.thecricketnerd.com/ The Cricket Nerd

      Mike O'Brien is super-charming. Only takes one viewing of a "7 minutes in heaven" video.

      • http://twitter.com/alexhanly kencosgrove


        Tim Robinson perturbed me. Mike O'Brien is pleasant.

  • AGoodQuestion

    Of the new castmembers, John Milhiser never really got a moment in the sun. I hope that changes, since everyone should at least get a shot. From what I've seen of his work online he seems almost like a silent movie comic. That was sort of Chris Kattan's wheelhouse too, but it might be a hard sell in a crowded cast. We'll see.

  • http://twitter.com/megh_wright Megh Wright

    Excellent review Erik, I'm so glad these are back! Thanks for bringing up the Hulu/Yahoo thing, that's been super frustrating. It seems like Yahoo has pretty much everything, but they haven't spent any time developing the search feature so that it works properly. Hopefully that gets fixed soon. Either way I'm still reluctant to use it, because who's going to have permission to have those clips NEXT year? Ugh, can't a girl watch her extremely dated and highly specific SNL sketches in peace?

    • http://www.thecricketnerd.com/ The Cricket Nerd

      Their new Youtube channel is adding a gazillion classic videos and guess what – all blocked in my country (Canada). GAH.

  • Anthony Coro

    This was one of my favorite episodes of all time–not a single bit that fell flat, although the porn stars was a comparatively weak edition, and Bruce Chandling didn't really go anywhere. I like to see the newbies shine, because SNL is at its most exciting when the performers are 'unseasoned' (I didn't say it's at its best, mind you, but we've seen pretty much everything we're gonna see from Kenan and Bobby and, sadly, I imagine Nasim as well, who is out Abby Elliott-ing Abby Elliott in terms of airtime. That said, Bobby earned his entire season's paycheck for the farter face alone.)

    I know it sounds lame, but I actually got excited when I saw that Aidy was promoted to the main cast. I figured Cecily would be, and Kate probably, but I think Aidy was an increasingly strong player as the season went on last year, and I'm glad she was bumped up. I know it's only because she happened to be entering her second year as six new cast members were joining, but it was still nice to see, and I hope she continues to do well, because I like her a lot. But it did underscore how much I'm really, really gonna miss Tim Robinson, even though he's still a writer. He was underutilized last year but I think he had a near-perfect batting average ("Ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-basketball!" might have been my favorite sketch of the season) and I was hoping he'd emerge as a new wacky Will Forte type. I think he would've been stronger in the used car ad than O'Brien, who I will admittedly forever be biased against because I'll always see him as the guy who stole Robinson's spot, even though it's probably not true and I'm sure it was a mutual decision. Nonetheless, the first time O'Brien flubs a line, I will be holding up signs outside of 30 Rock campaigning to bring back Tim Robinson.

  • Brian Preston

    Bruce Chandling ftw

  • Ben Tyson

    Firstly, great recap. I can tell just by reading these the last year or so that you are a diehard SNL fan. It's fun reading from a fan's perspective instead of a critic. Secondly, I agree that Nasim Pedrad is far under utilized. Her body language (especially during the close when they're all on stage) makes me believe that maybe other cast members don't like her. She can never play the role of a stupid person well because of the smug smirk on her face every time she's on camera. That said, she's fine as hell…I'd sure like to bend her over and show her the 50 states. I also agree that Kenan can play the straight man well and I thoroughly enjoy studying his approach to comedy every week. Thirdly, this episode was good, not great. I'd give it a B-. The porn stars seem played out (though hearing the word "blumpkin" on national TV made me LOL). Taran Killam is the new star. He's Sudeikis and Hader all-in-one, could've used more of him. Finally, could the "byeee" be a Big Brother reference? BB got a lot of headlines this past summer for its racist houseguests, possibly bringing some SNL writers/cast into its mass of viewers. One of the houseguests, Amanda Zuckerman, a vile and disgusting woman would say "byeee" almost exactly like Fey did whenever she was scheming to get someone voted out of the house. Also, in classic Drunk Uncle fashion, Moynihan said "Yeah I watch Big Brother" as an NSA snooping/ CBS reality reference. Just my thoughts, glad to have a forum to express them!

  • Whatever

    The whole additional thoughts thing feels like an av club rip-off

    • eavoss

      That's because it is. As is reviewing TV shows on the internet. We're talking about listing random points at the end of an article — something I've been doing for two years, only in paragraph form before now. Not every idea is unique and valuable enough (ie, formatting) to be considered patent-able.

  • jaimie bisbee

    my Aunty Emily got Volvo XC60 SUV by working part-time at home.
    recommended you read J­a­m­2­0­.­ℂ­o­m

  • Ben Hennessy

    I am so fucking glad Kyle's on SNL. That guy's deserved mainstream recognition for a while now.