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Monday, October 7th, 2013

'SNL' Review: No Escape from Miley Cyrus

After Justin Bieber hosted SNL last season, I concluded that SNL will never quite be the alternative comedy show we'd like it to be. There's no denying the show would be much funnier if producers only booked the heroes of comedy nerds to host the show, as it did last season with Louis CK and last week with Tina Fey. I've made the case several times that the show would be far better if only former cast members hosted — indeed, SNL has enough star alumni to fill a few seasons' worth of episodes.

But SNL isn't that show. The ongoing inclusion of performances by a musical guest in every episode tells us that SNL will always be a classic, network late-night variety show, where ratings and cultural relevancy remain top priorities.

So despite the ire of fans, a couple of times each season, we will have to deal with whatever pop culture sensation currently controls the zeitgeist. Sometimes, this mainstream pandering ends up being a good thing, as it was with Jon Hamm or Justin Timberlake. More often than not, however, we're stuck with a performer who, frankly, has no place on SNL: Justin Bieber, Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, Donald Trump, and now, for a second time, Miley Cyrus. To the writers' credit, they shot for the moon with some pretty ambitious ideas — a post-apocalyptic flashback cold open and cheerleaders getting abducted by aliens, and the cast members (namely Taran Killam and Vanessa Bayer) gave some of the best performances of their careers. But the early sketches had so many moving parts — and so much Miley — that the show felt rushed, with little breathing room for the cast and no time for jokes to land. That might be an unfair criticism for a show that is hastily thrown together last minute, but SNL normally pulls off the feat with a finesse that was noticeably absent this week.

If you didn't enjoy this episode — and I'm sure there were many of you — you shouldn't blame the writers, who got the most out of their hot button host while managing to address some big news events, or the cast members, who have stepped up remarkably so far this season. Nor should you blame Miley Cyrus, who improved on her hosting stint in 2011, left it all on stage, and happily poked fun at herself — even if it played right into her strategy to dominate every aspect of pop culture. Some of the blame can go to SNL's booking producers, who should recognize that the show is popular enough that it doesn't need to play within the toxic publicity machine that buoys stars like Cyrus and Bieber.

But mostly, we can only blame ourselves, for it was our obsession over Cyrus's VMA performance, our purchases of tabloids, our clever quips on Twitter, our hundreds of millions of views on YouTube, and our watching and talking about the singer on SNL that opened the door for her to host the show in the first place. If we learned anything from our country's tumultuous relationship with Sarah Palin (or from The Simpsons' "Attack of the 50-foot Eyesores"), it's that if we simply ignore the monster, it will disappear.

"The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves."

Miley Cyrus Cold Open. The episode opened with the image of Kenan Thompson and Noël Wells huddling for warmth in the ruins of post-apocalyptic New York City in the year 2045, then flashing back to the moment that caused it all: Miley Cyrus' performance at the 2013 VMAs. This interesting, high-concept framing device devolved into a standard SNL impression sketch, with the young, Hannah Montana-era Miley (Vanessa Bayer) warning present-day Miley (herself) about the dangers of her controversial gig, followed by appearances from Robin Thicke (Taran Killam), Will Smith (Jay Pharoah), and Bobby Moynihan as an upset backup dancer in a huge bear costume: "We shouldn't be doing this! This is for kids!" I enjoyed the bold premise, the impressions were solid, and I didn't mind Miley getting the VMA references out of her system early on… only she was just getting started.

Monologue. The monologue was so short and dependent on more VMA jokes that it's barely worth mentioning here, except for the lovely image of naked Bobby Moynihan straddling a wrecking ball. I am endlessly amazed at the lengths SNL's prop department will go to to pull off a three-second sight gag.

50 Shades of Grey Auditions. I am surprised SNL would call attention to the recent departure of Bill Hader with one of these screen test impression pieces, which Hader more or less carried in recent seasons. Since there's really no joke here other than "Look how funny our impressions are!" the fact that most of the impressions fell a little flat made this piece a bit of a downer. Taran Killam's Christoph Waltz, Kate McKinnon's Jane Lynch, and Jay Pharoah's Tracy Morgan seemed to hit the hardest… expect those three to emerge as the cast's go-to impersonators.

Girlfriends Talk Show III. Although I was excited to see one of my favorite sketches from last season make a comeback, this premise has lost a bit of its luster for me. Before, the focus was on the relationship between Aidy Bryant's Morgan and Cecily Strong's Kyra, but in this instance, Miley Cyrus' Lil' Teeny stole the spotlight (despite not doing much with it) while Morgan stuck pretty closely to the bit about helping her mom's friend through her divorce (which was funny, but didn't need to last longer than a beat) and Kyra mostly parroted "Awesome!" for 90% of her lines. Bryant still had her moments, such as her camp nickname being "Night Crier" and a self-written song with several rounds of "hoo-hey-ho's."

We Did Stop. The night's most memorable moment was this shot-for-shot parody of Miley Cyrus' "We Can't Stop" music video, featuring a tanned John Boehner (Taran Killam) in Cyrus' skimpy underwear, grinding and twerking with Michelle Bachmann (Cyrus), about the government shutdown. The bizarre imagery from Cyrus' original video made for some fun visuals here, but what impressed me most was the piece's flawless execution, which has always been the strength of SNL's music videos. A big win for writers Erik Kenward and Colin Jost, but mostly for Killam, who's all-business dancing has apparently made him the show's new star.

Piers Morgan Tonight IV. This sketch encapsulated the night in a nutshell: An interesting concept (different networks' takes on Hillary Clinton biopics) bogged down in poor execution, Miley Cyrus awkwardly infused with politics, an unnecessary reliance on familiar characters and an abundance of impressions, and Miley nearly drowning a sketch and Taran Killam saving it. One thing that stood out to me was the casting of three different actresses as Clinton: Vanessa Bayer, Kate McKinnon, and Noël Wells (in one of the stills). While I would have preferred to see one actress showcase her versatility here, it is interesting to see SNL weigh its options prior to Clinton's decision of whether or not she'll run in 2016. (My money's on McKinnon for the gig.)

Weekend Update. The news segment seemed to run a little long this week, with four desk pieces slowing the momentum of some of the segment's later punchlines. After a so-so "Winners and Losers" bit about the shutdown, Kate McKinnon appeared as GTA5-obsessed soccer mom Pat Lynhart: "I was supposed to run the carpool yesterday, and you know what I did instead? I shot a hooker in the boob for sport!" McKinnon's aggressive delivery is always welcome at the Update desk, but her jumping out of her seat made her bit at times uncomfortably kinetic… an energy that boiled over when Jay Pharoah stopped by as hyperbolic NFL commentator Shannon Sharpe. I'm not too familiar with Sharpe, but Pharoah stirred up the studio audience into a frenzy — which I'm not sure was a result of the accuracy of his impression, or his constant tongue-flicking. Finally, Vanessa Bayer reprised her always-enjoyable Jacob the Bar Mitzvah Boy (IV), with the bonus thrill of seeing the nervous kid who sticks too closely to corny, rehearsed jokes absolutely lose it when he caught sight of Cecily Strong at the desk.

Cheer Squad. Certainly the strangest sketch of the night was this one about cheerleaders who get abducted by aliens during practice. I love such a bizarre idea and applaud SNL for going for it, but the complicated technical setup and the awkward cutting around green screens and crew people rigging fly wires resulted in disjointed timing, leaving Miley Cyrus appearing a little confused. By the time Kenan Thompson showed up as a rapping alien and the sketch ended with a toy spaceship stealing the moon, the only thing that made sense was Taran Killam's shrieking, "WHAT IS HAPPENING?!"

Mornin' Miami. Things finally slowed down to a comfortable pace during the episode's back stretch, starting with this enjoyable sketch featuring Miley Cyrus, Bobby Moynihan, and Kate McKinnon as hating-life morning show hosts recording stupid promos: "Jeff Dunham's puppets are in studio, but Jeff Dunham is not. We'll find out how funny those puppets really are." The long, angry pauses between each take worked beautifully here — not just to punctuate the high energy deliveries and hilariously odd copy, but to give the episode as a whole a chance to catch its breath. And I don't know what it is about Moynihan saying, "And I'm BF!" over and over, but it got to me. Best of the Night.

Poetry Class. Vanessa Bayer received another big character break as charismatic substitute poetry teacher Miss Meadows. Bayer's voice was hilarious — the little "ahknowwhatI'msayin"s and sudden barks gradually won over the studio audience. And despite Mike O'Brien's limited role in this sketch, I was impressed at his ability to score some big laughs: "Is everything OK? I thought I heard a seal." Hopefully we'll see more of him in episodes to come.

Miley Sex Tape. Kyle Mooney's big debut came in the 10-to-1 slot, which may be a good place for him while viewers warm up to his Andy Kaufman-style delivery. Here, he attempts to record a sex tape with Miley Cyrus, but finds himself blocked by his own insecurities, despite the moment being perfect. The video had a definite Good Neighbor vibe to it, and although it didn't get huge laughs, it was nonetheless an enjoyable introduction to Mooney's type of humor.

Additional Thoughts:

  • Vanessa Bayer was the MVP of the night, with appearances as Miley Cyrus, Hillary Clinton, Jacob, and Miss Meadows. Newcomer John Milhiser was on the low end this episode, with his Jon Cryer impression as his only memorable cameo.
  • I'd love to know who wrote Mornin' Miami. Some of the best lines of the episode came from that sketch alone: "Are ghosts real? It turns out, no. Here to talk about it is Topher Grace."
  • Man, were there a lot of impressions in this episode. Before we even got to Weekend Update, we saw the following: Miley Cyrus, Robin Thicke, Will Smith, Seth Rogen, Emma Stone, Scarlett Johansson, Christoph Waltz, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Kristen Stewart, Rebel Wilson, Steve Harvey, John Cryer, Jane Lynch, Aziz Ansari, Mary-Louise Parker, Tilda Swinton, Tracy Morgan, Shaquille O'Neal, Kristin Chenoweth, John Boehner, Michelle Bachmann, Piers Morgan, Arianna Huffington, Hillary Clinton (two of them), Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Sway Calloway. Save some for the rest of the season, SNL!
  • With John Mulaney's pilot being ordered to series by Fox, our days with Nasim Pedrad may be numbered. Her appearance as Arianna Huffington reminded me how few recurring characters she has on the show. Mulaney may have come at just the right time for Pedrad.
  • Also from Mornin' Miami: "It's a bird, it's a plane, it's an… ugly rabbit? The worst looking rabbits in the state of Florida strut their stuff in Tampa's 23rd Annual Bummer Bunny Contest."
  • Jay Pharoah and Kate McKinnon obviously joined the cast largely because of their impersonation skills, but watch out for Taran Killam. His Eminem and Brad Pitt made the rounds in previous seasons, and tonight, he stole the show with Christoph Waltz, Piers Morgan, and John Boehner. (Another impressionist worth keeping an eye on: Noël Wells.)
  • I was happy to see Beck Bennett as Bill Clinton. Although the role isn't as lucrative as it once was, it must have been pretty cool for the guy to don the costume worn by Darrell Hammond and Phil Hartman. His impression wasn't bad, either.
  • Last one from Mornin' Miami, I promise: "No show Thursday because it's a leap week."
  • KYLE: "Is that my brother?" TARAN: "Hey bro, you wanna play catch? Sup, Beck?" BECK: "What's up, Ricky!"
  • New additions to the Season 39 Stupid Name List (all from Mornin' Miami): BF, Bill Spinx, Yolanda Natalie Portman, Jill Amockingbird, and Bitch Fantastic.

I'll see you next week, when Bruce Willis will host with musical guest Katy Perry.

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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  • getawaysticks

    The episode was terrible. And I don't blame myself because I didn't watch Miley on youtube, buy tabloids, Tweet incessantly about it. So I blame all of you :P

  • Joon Chung

    I'm pumped to see more Kyle Mooney.

  • Angrier Geek

    "So despite the ire of fans, a couple of times each season, we will have
    to deal with whatever pop culture sensation currently controls the
    zeitgeist."

    Which is different form the last 35 years of the show how? Or do you think OJ Simpson hosted the show in 1978 because of his comedic skills? It's ALWAYS been this way and the whining about how "the show will never be as good as it was" started when the original cast aka "Not Ready For Prime Time Players" left in 1980. Now get off my lawn!

    • JeffMc2000

      Or how about during the Will Ferrell years when every other host was a kid from some WB show, and the musical guest was either a boy band or Britney Spears clone (or actual Britney Spears)

    • eavoss

      I think you misunderstood my point. Never at any point did I suggest this was a recent phenomenon. To the contrary, by suggesting that SNL continues to, and always has been, featuring musical guests implies that appearing "cool" has been a priority on the show since the beginning. OJ's 1978 gig is an example of this, as was any athlete, rock star, or non-actor celebrity who hosted the show over the years. My point is that we need to stop pretending that this pandery precedent doesn't exist, and stop judging the show as if it ever positioned itself as a "comedy nerd's paradise."

  • Stuie299

    I didn't really care for this episode at all. Too many of the sketches just fell flat thanks to Miss Cyrus. It was a huge letdown after how much I enjoyed the premiere. Also I was wrong about Cecily Strong as WU co-host . She seems to be better suited for WU then any of her other sketches.

  • bigfanbigfanyea

    Thought Vanessa's acting in Bar Mitzvah Boy and Poetry were fantastic. Suttle, real, and left me wanting. She showed her possible chops as a mainstream movie star.
    Kate continues to play A level work. She's so underrated. That girl needs to be in the movies.
    Did anyone else notice after Cheer Squad during the commercial break when they cut to the studio for 3 or so seconds (do these segments have a name?), they cued up a camera with the blocking segment. I thought this was a clever joke in regards to the mix up during Cheer.

  • Mik

    The audition sketch definitely felt empty without Bill Hader. Am I just supposed to believe that Alan Alda didn't audition for 50 Shades of Grey?

  • zen weapons

    I noticed it seemed like every sketch had an awkward ending this episode.

  • Betsy Hobbs

    I LOVED this episode, and I think Miley Cyrus is a monster person. Glad the cold open wasn't a boring political press conference, loved Taran's Christoph Waltz, thought the Miley video was pitch-perfect, and adored Vanessa's poetry teacher. Jacob the Bar Mitzvah Boy is my favorite recurring character, so I was overjoyed to see him return. Cheer Squad was weird, so even though it flopped they at least tried something silly. Could have done without the Clinton biopic or Girlfriends Talk Show sketches, but that's a pretty high hit vs. miss count.

    I was so happy to see a Good Neighbor sketch in the show and thought it was great, but seeing Bobby Moynihan (whom I adore) replacing Nick Rutherford made me really sad. That'd be like hiring Andy Samberg and Akiva Schaffer but not taking Jorm. I hope they at least bring him on as a writer soon.

    But Miley did lie in her monologue. She said no twerking jokes, and then twerked about a billion times. Then again, she is a monster person.

  • LaMar

    While the pace was much more frenetic, this episode seemed more entertaining overall than Fey's season opener. I've really become a big fan of McKinnon since the middle of last year. It was great watching her stay completely in character while figuring out how to raise her Update desk chair. And I've been a fan of Killam's since he guested on "Community". Question, does Bayer typically have some mumble/voice tick with every character or is it just a few? I hadn't seen the Bar Mitzvah boy sketches but coupled with her poetry teacher and the voice-over actor sketch w/ Kevin Hart from last year, it's a trend that I find really funny…

  • Jon Swift

    I feel like Kyle Mooney is less Kaufmannesque and more the heir to the Dana Carvey throne.

  • Erik Gooden

    I thought this week was better overall than last week. There was nothing as strong as the Girls parody this week – but I enjoyed more of the sketches overall. This week's cold open was infinitely stronger than last, Miley's monologue was solid with the spectacular " If I owe anybody an apology, it's the people who make the bottom half of shirts." line. Miley was solid in all the sketches. The only complete miss was the cheerleader sketch – and even that had enough weirdness to not be a complete failure.

  • Dustin James

    3 obvious issues with your review:

    McKinnon's seat during update was clearly messed up, so i doubt they were shooting for "uncomfortably kinetic.

    Cheer Squad's only problem was the technical issues. They attempted a good amount of special effects for a live show.

    And why would they only choose only one cast member for the Clinton biopics? They were supposed to be multiple biopics from multiple networks. One actress playing her in all of those different interpretations would make zero sense.

    In my opinion, this season is off to a tremendous start. There hasn't been a bad sketch IF you get the type of humor this new generation is thankfully providing us.

    • eavoss

      I'm not sure it was so clear that there was a problem with her seat, but in the event that there was, I doubt Kate was shooting for "uncomfortably kinetic" either. That's just how her performance occasionally came off to me. I thought it was hilarious overall, however.

      Cheer Squad's only problem was NOT merely the technical issues. There were several problems with that sketch. The game of the scene — cheerleader questions her teammates' commitment, when they're really getting abducted by aliens — got lost to the sight gags, which didn't pay off. There was also a general lack of jokes and a confusing cop-out of an ending.

      I don't think anyone would be confused by seeing Vanessa Bayer play three different versions of Hillary Clinton — the Fox News political hack, the AMC "Heisenhower," and the MTV pop VJ — considering the three beats were defined more by the context. Seeing the same actors play one character with shifting contexts/POVs is a very common comedic device. I never said SNL was wrong to cast the sketch the way it did. I just proposed an intriguing alternative.

      I agree that the season has been awesome so far, but not without a few bumps along the way. Or maybe my OBVIOUSLY out-of-touch, 25-year-old comedy nerd brain can't grasp the groundbreaking humor of talking like a famous person.

  • mobber

    A) miley = quantity, not quality
    B) miss your SNL reviews that groups Good, OK, Bad

    • eavoss

      The problem was, I never classified any as "OK." They were either "hits" or "misses." And I realized I spent most of my time arguing why sketches I classified as misses weren't that bad, and sketches I classified as hits weren't all that perfect. The truth is, in any given episode, you'll get maybe one clear hit, and one clear miss, with the rest falling somewhere in between. So I figured I might as well force you guys to read the paragraph and draw your own conclusions. But I'll see about adding a streamlining feature in the "Additional Thoughts" section.

      • Anthony Coro

        Maybe you could have a single pick each for Best and Worst of the night. How am I supposed to argue with you if I don't know where you put each sketch on the spectrum of greatness?

        …But seriously, I like the new format better. If I'm being honest, it's rare that a sketch completely misses for me–could be a great premise with poor execution, could be plagued with a few too many flubs/corpses, could be a recurring sketch I love but its beats have become too predictable, could be so bad it's entertaining (see: cheerleader abduction), etc. Even one decent line can save a sketch from being a complete waste. True misses are almost legendary in their awfulness, such as the infamous "Commie Hunting Season."

  • Just No

    The writers just seem to be phoning it in, the performers are not the issue.

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  • Name

    And giving this coverage is just feeding into the hype machine that you accuse the public of being a part of. Shame on you.