Monday, November 18th, 2013

'SNL' Review: Applause for Lady Gaga

In case you hadn't noticed, there have been a lot more music stars on SNL lately. Not merely performing as musical guests or popping up in a sketch here or there, as we've seen on the show every week, but pop stars getting booked as host in addition to their musical guest gig. What was once a rare event with triple threats like Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake occasionally pulling double duty in the early 2000s (and once by Paul Simon in 1976) has now become a fairly common practice. The last three seasons have seen hosts + musical guests Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, Justin Timberlake, Justin Bieber, Bruno Mars, and Mick Jagger, as well as just-hosts Adam Levine and Katy Perry. Perhaps Timberlake's success in the combined roles has paved the way for this trend: he has hosted the show five times, also serving as musical guest three of those times, to great critical acclaim.

The benefits of having a pop star host SNL are obvious. In addition to a guaranteed ratings boost, SNL often finds musicians to be gifted live performers with larger-than-life charisma and a willingness to poke fun at themselves — qualities not always present in serious screen actors. The downside, meanwhile, is over-saturation. A celebrity typically needs to have reached a certain level of cultural relevancy to get booked on SNL in the first place. For musicians, that means a new album to promote, flashy stunts at awards shows, and endless talk show appearances and magazine covers. Add SNL on top of that, and a pop star hosting the show feels more like yet another promotional deal in a shock-and-awe publicity campaign than something viewers actually wanted. Indeed, the general consensus from last month's Miley Cyrus episode wasn't that she was particularly bad — it's that she didn't know when to stop.

While Lady Gaga fared better than Cyrus or Bieber, she was every bit as unable to connect with sketches' overall concepts, focusing only on her small, one-dimensional components within pieces, and failing to convey the on-field awareness that makes hosts like Justin Timberlake so successful. Of course, that's a tall order for a first-time host. Gaga nevertheless capitalized on her on-stage talents and eccentric style to produce a high-energy and entertaining episode, where strong writing took the backseat to over-the-top performance. For most viewers, I'm sure the risk of a pop star host was well worth it.

Rob Ford Cold Open. The episode opened with Bobby Moynihan as embattled Toronto mayor Rob Ford. The Canadian-joke-filled CBC interview gradually picked up momentum with a few humorous cutaways to press conferences, in which Ford bought crack behind the podium and performed a Farley swan dive. Ford going on the gullible 60 Minutes slowed down the pace, which felt odd as the sketch ramped into the throw-line. But with Moynihan's funny character work and Rob Ford's real-life outlandish behavior, this sketch more or less wrote itself.

Monologue. It came as little surprise that Lady Gaga would play to her strengths and do a song in her monologue — a jazzy cover of "Applause" about the two types of audience applause: "the kind you earn, or the cheap kind that you get by pandering to the audience." The song was well delivered but could have used a few more examples of pandering than to teachers, to firefighters, and to working out differences with men who flash their genitals on the subway. However, I always enjoy when monologues dissect the SNL formula — as Tina Fey did in her monologue earlier this season about how new cast members have to degrade themselves as backup dancers — so Gaga's calling out of the show's New York pandering went over quite well. (Watch the sketch here.)

Presidential Anti-Depressant. This mock ad for an antidepressant for presidents (specifically President Obama) was clever but a little transparent — typically after the reveal come a few surprising/shocking jokes, but this one felt a little predictable. The medication not being covered by Obamacare was a funny twist, however.

Waking Up with Kimye. Normally I'm not a fan of these celebrity talk show sketches, but this one worked for me, largely because it explored the angle of Kanye West's sad attempts to convince us that Kim Kardashian is capable of anything creative. Jay Pharoah tried to steal the scene with his Kanye impression, but it was never funnier than the autotuned/screamed readings of the segments. Meanwhile, the look of joy on Nasim Pedrad's face as Kanye called Kim a "genius" was priceless. Lady Gaga hammed it up as a nerdy Apple Store employee, and the Little Monsters in the studio gave her way too generous a response when she mugged at the camera and recited: "I don't care about fashion. I think people who try too hard with their outfits are maybe hiding something." Celebrities self-deprecating themselves can be funny, but when they're enjoying it too much, it takes all the bite out of the joke.

Cover Songs. Another tired format that still worked was this commercial for a compilation CD of the worst cover songs of all time. The impressions were strong, but the context of seeing these singers cover totally inappropriate songs made the sketch hit: Rick Ross covering the "Cups" song from Pitch Perfect, Lana Del Rey and Nathan Lane covering Shaggy's "It Wasn't Me," Adele (silently) covering the LA Law theme song. Gaga covering Madonna's "Express Yourself" by singing "Born This Way" was a good joke, but we didn't need the entire chorus to get it. With all the licensed music, it won't be easy to find this one online, but you can watch it here.

Weekend Update. Seth Meyers and Cecily Strong's jokes didn't hit as hard this week — merely reading Rob Ford's real quotes got a bigger laugh than the punchline. Kenan Thompson played Mr. Senior, a common-sense correspondent who's fed up with early holiday decorations. The character seemed a bit unclear until we saw him in an amusing man-on-the-street video segment, in which he Grinch-ly shouted at ice skaters in 30 Rock and swiped candy canes out of kids' hands. The highlight of the night came at the end of the segment, with Taran Killam's Jebediah Atkinson, a newspaper critic from 1863 who panned Lincoln's Gettysburg Address: "Don't get me started on that beard. What was her name? Mary Todd?" Killam's snarky rant (written by Update writer Alex Baze) was comedy gold, especially when he moved on from Lincoln to various other famous speeches: "John F. Kennedy! I'll tell you what you can do for my country… wrap it up!" Killam lost it a bit when he flubbed a line about FDR's Pearl Harbor speech, but recovered nicely: "That was a rough draft. I could have used a couple of kamikazes after that one." Best of the Night.

Co-op Board. The game of this sketch about aspiring tenants being interviewed by a co-op board was too vague to build consistent laughs — each of the ridiculous neighbors were absurd in different ways. That said, Kate McKinnon was pretty enjoyable as a barren woman mothering a head of broccoli.

Child Actors II. This is the second time we've seen Vanessa Bayer's over-rehearsed child actor (the first appearance was in "Stars of Tomorrow" with Scarlett Johansson in 2010), with cheeky kids reciting grown-up scenes from The Social Network, Training Day, and Breaking Bad. Bayer's character remains funny and Lady Gaga's spot-on delivery made this an appropriate week to bring the idea back, though the sketch started to feel long by the time we got to the second Forrest Gump scene.

Blockbuster. One of my favorite sketches of the night was this melancholy piece about recently let-go Blockbuster clerks trying to move on with their lives, including starting a fight with a Red Box and giving a fiery viking funeral to a cardboard standee from The Croods, and crossing into the surreal upon discovering a bizarre cult refuge for Blockbuster employees in the forest. Written by Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider, and directed by Matt & Oz, it's one of the more beautifully absurd pieces we've seen SNL do this season, and I love it all the more for that.

Fourth Grade Talent Show. John Milhiser finally got a big debut as an energetic stage dad at a school talent show, barking direction and dancing along with his wife (Gaga). The sketch was big, physical, and funny, and I love the choice to focus solely on the parents in the audience. And kudos to Milhiser for actually out-dancing Lady Gaga!

Old Lady Gaga. Self-referential sketches seem to be the norm when a pop star hosts the show, and this week's took the form of a batty elderly version of Lady Gaga holed up in her apartment in 2063, pathetically trying to get her superintendent to remember her long-gone glory. The concept's dark undertones were somewhat lost as Gaga failed to convey the character's fragility and hollow-ness — but to be fair, it's rare that an SNL sketch requires such subtext from any host, let alone a non-actor. The closing image was surprisingly poignant, with Gaga sadly playing "Applause" in a minor key on her piano (sweetly bookending the upbeat cover at the top of the show) while one of her Grammy statuettes quietly applauded her. Had this been the final sketch of the night, I would have been in awe that SNL had come full circle in such an artful way. (Watch the sketch here.)

Rosé Zone. Unfortunately, the final sketch of the night was this commercial for a Red Zone-esque cable channel showing all the trashiest moments from reality TV shows, playing out in a clip-reel format similar to The Soup. Given the mainstream subject matter and strong execution, I was surprised this sketch didn't air earlier in the night. But I still have to hand it to SNL for dishing out such biting satire of garbage reality television and the wine-sipping women who consume it: "I want to watch women destroy other women!"

Cut from Dress: Female Sea Captains. The title says it all with this sketch that sadly didn't make it into the live show. The concept is pretty obvious here, but the jokes are so over-the-top ridiculous, it seems like a sketch better suited for TGS than SNL.

Additional Thoughts:

  • Despite Gaga's over-the-top performances and the occasional weak execution with jokes, this episode contained some of the most original concepts we've seen all season, including only one recurring character (Vanessa Bayer's child actor), which was itself repackaged in a totally different format. With a slightly more gifted actor in the driver's seat and a few more solid jokes, this could have been one of the finest SNL episodes in years.
  • Best — Jebediah Atkinson; Worst — Co-op Board; You'll See It On Facebook — Blockbuster, Rosé Zone; Worth It For The Jokes — Waking Up with Kimye.
  • Taran Killam and Aidy Bryant topped the screen time leader board this week, with Brooks Wheelan at the bottom. I imagine we'll be seeing Jebediah Atkinson on a Best-Of Taran Killam DVD set someday.
  • As usual, Kate McKinnon made the most of every cameo. Re: her dysfunctional clapping as Kris Jenner.
  • In case Gaga's promotional plugging throughout the night wasn't abundant enough, she couldn't help but awkwardly flash her Vogue cover during Co-op Board. Good, because, you know, she really needed that extra screen time this episode.
  • At the end of Weekend Update, Jebediah turned to Seth Meyers and said: "I loved the Correspondents Dinner speech!"

I'll see you next week, when Josh Hutcherson will host with musical guest HAIM.

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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  • has this horse been beaten yet

    snl needs to be more diverse, otherwise they might appear racist.

  • M.W.D.

    I didn't see any black female characters portrayed in Saturday's episode

  • Stuie299

    The Good: Cold Open, Monologue, Presidential Anti-Depressant, Weekend Update, Blockbuster, Fourth Grade Talent Show, and Old Lady Gaga

    The Mixed: Cover Songs, Co-op Board, Child Actors II, Rosé Zone, and Female Sea Captains

    The Bad: Waking Up with Kimye

    This might have just been the best episode all season. Also I totally agree that Female Sea Captains would have been perfect for TGS/30 Rock.

  • TS Idiot

    IMO, the 60 Minutes bit of the cold open was the most successful part of it, and the Canadian part was frankly just too much of a stereotypical jab at Canadian accents rather than an exploration of Ford's insane actions and comments.

  • BillBrasky

    What does Taran's Jebediah character say right before Seth Meyers says "For Weekend Update, I'm Seth Meyers"?. It looks kind of like he's saying "I'm Amy Poehler"

    John Milhiser reminds me a little bit of Sean Hayes in that talent show sketch.

    • eavoss

      According to Taran's tweet, he said to Seth: "I loved the Correspondents Dinner speech!"

      • BillBrasky

        Right, he says that in his ear at the very end, but before that he waves to the crowd and mouths something.

        • eavoss

          Maybe "Hi, Amy Poehler"?

  • ffffffffffffffffffffffffffggg

    I thought Gaga actually did really well. The girl is not a bad actress. Her nerd character in Apple seemed real, she wasn't trying to hard.
    Jay P has got to be one of the best impressionists alive right now, but he never seems to really connect with the other characters in the sketches he is in.
    It was good to see John Milhiser get some stage time. He's got charisma.

    • eavoss

      Good point on Jay not really connecting. He's definitely talented, but he only recently has begun see the sketch as a whole, rather than just his independent role within it. (His Obama impression has improved, largely because he's learned how to get out of the way and let the jokes speak for themselves.) It's interesting to see cast members or repeat hosts develop that enlightened, freed-mind state, where they can help each other carry a premise rather than just play their parts. Kate McKinnon seems like another cast member who has transitioned from distracting bit player (that eye thing) to a more seasoned repertory player.

      • fffffffffffffffffffffffffffggg

        Good point about Jay getting used to being in sketches with people. Maybe he's just not aware of it, with his stand up background and all. I love Kate, but yea, she does the same eye thing. I noticed Bobby and Taran doing it a lot during the cold open. Can they not figure out better angles for the cue card people?
        Thanks for the wrap-ups, as always.

  • Carlos R.

    Disclaimer: Saw this ep through Hulu and the opening monologue, the cover songs sketch, and the Future Gaga sketches were not included, usually due to music licensing issues. With that said…

    Disappointed w/this episode overall; feel like it'll end up being on the top five list of bad eps for this season.


    Six things of note:

    – Waking up with Kimye

    Gaga's mousy character was kinda cute, but they held on her breaking the 4th wall about the fashion comment WAAAAY too long. It was like "I know I dress weird… get it? Get it? Get It? GET IT!?!?!"

    – Weekend Update: Common Sense Correspondent "Mr. Senior"

    It was so refreshing to see them do a man on the street style field-report, but then they ruin it by having Keenan interact with fellow cast members in what's basically a pre-recorded sketch. In a post-UCB, post-Improv Everywhere, post-BORAT world where many comedy shows do these kind of segments, trusting their talent to be funny without a script, it's sad that either SNL or Keenan didn't have enough faith in his character to just engage with regular New Yorkers. I hope they do more of these, but not with castmembers playing regular people.

    – Condo Co-Op Board

    This was, straight up, a first draft. A level 1 sketch writing STUDENT could have written this. Not gonna say anymore about the writing of this sketch itself as it doesn't merit any more thought.

    As far as Gaga's My Cousin Vinny impression, just shoe-horned in. Why not do a My Cousin Vinny-ish sketch then? This show isn't afraid to do dated topics, and she's clearly good at the impression. Wasted opportunity.

    – Talent Pageant

    Fun physical work, but that last line was poorly written. There must have been a cleaner way for Aidy to communicate that these parents kid left already. And while their was nice escalation at play, disappointing that they went sexual for some shock value. I'm not a prude… just someone who knows that there's more ways to go than blue.

    – Weekend Update: Cicely Strong

    Either she's not getting the good jokes, or she's still not that great in punchline delivery six episodes in.

    – Brooks Wheelan

    Where IS he? A friend of mine pointed out this weekend that they didn't think he's been in any recent episodes, and I'm starting to agree. Had such a strong first outing. Hope he hasn't been Tim Robison'd already.


    Some final, random thoughts leaning more towards the positive… considering John Milhiser has probably had the least amount of screen-time out of the new feat. players, he definitely needed that high-profile paring with Gaga, and he took full advantage of the opportunity. Also, GREAT Taran character in Weekend Update; a highlight performance that deserved to be in a better episode.

    • eavoss

      Wow, you should write your own reviews! Nicely thought-out comment.

      Perhaps you watching the episode over Hulu affected your viewing experience. Speaking for myself and from what I've gathered from other critics, the consensus is that the night had a fun, vibrant energy that may not have translated to online clips. Although the monologue wasn't perfect, it was definitely a huge component to that energy. It wasn't my favorite of this season, but I highly doubt this would land in the top-five worst lists, but rather in the top-five best — AV Club and Huffington Post were fairly smitten.

      • Carlos R.

        Thank you for the compliment Erik. And I can see how the missing sketches may have affected the overall impact of the show for me… however I still can't see this as "top-five best" material :D

        Now, since I have your virtual ear… two questions: 1) What do you think about Cicely Strong so far? 2) Where's Brooks?

        • eavoss

          I think Cecily's doing just fine. Not all the jokes are going to hit, and she can only deliver them to the best of her ability. Surprisingly few flubs, and as she gets more comfortable, we'll get to see more of her style come through.

          I don't know where Brooks is. He's been getting about as much screen time as Mike or John, but without a distinct niche like the ones Kyle, Beck, and Noel have found, we're not likely to see him very often in this first half-season. If it's any comfort, we pretty much never saw Taran Killam in his first half-season on the show… it wasn't until January 2011 that he emerged as a dominant performer. I say give it time.

          • IhateDisqus

            Are you basing the Taran comment on your research/notes or are you just going on memory? My memory was that Taran was anointed and involved right out of the gate. I remember because I was really watching for Paul Brittain and noticed that Taran was getting a lot more of the screen time. Of course, I may be mis-remembering the order. Do you have numbers from that season?

          • eavoss

            I don't have exact numbers, but here are Brittain and Killam's major appearances in Fall 2010, not including small walk-on roles.

            Brittain: Johnny Depp (in Miley Cyrus Show), Sex Ed Vincent.

            Killam: Les Jeunes de Paris, Gilbert Gottfried & Pee Wee Herman (in BTTF Auditions), Brad Pitt (doing the weather with Angelina in Update).

            Neither of them came close to the amount of screen time Pharoah and Bayer were getting during that time, so it seemed like we hardly saw them. But in retrospect, Killam received more roles than Wheelan or Milhiser seem to be getting in these first 6 episodes. We'll see how the next month plays out.

          • IhateDisqus

            Thanks! Although I think the distinction between major appearances and small walk-on roles is important. My memory is that nearly every supporting male part to the sketches went to Taran that first year. Even a few that I thought would have been better or equally played by Brittain. (The Melissa McCarthy ranch dressing scene is one that I remember.) Pharoah also didn't have many walk on parts — mostly just Obama. Maybe those walk-on parts don't make you a star, but I think they solidify your place in the cast with the audience. They also probably help the actor get more comfortable on screen.

            This year, I don't think any of the new guys have had too many major appearances, but Beck has probably been the one with the most number of walk-on/screen time roles. Which influences your perception that he's developing a niche vs. Brooks. (I am limiting my comments to the live sketches. I am not counting the pre-taped Good Neighbor videos, since that is what though guys were brought in to do, so of course they are going to get a few on air and more screen time with them.)

          • Carlos R.

            The sketch where I really started to take notice of Killam was the one from the Jim Carrey episode about two(?) seasons ago where he, Bill Hader & Carrey played menacing animatronic robots in a carnival ride. Really solid physical work from all three, but the "new guy" doing such a good job really stuck w/ me :D

    • Anthony Coro

      Great post, I agree with almost everything, especially about using cast members as the "people on the street" in the Mr. Senior piece. I'd add using them as audience members in the monologue as well. In the 90s, they usually used a writer for roles like that. There's nothing wrong with writing the material in advance, but in situations where they're supposed to be playing with people in "the real world," it takes you out of the moment when you immediately recognize, "Oh, that's Aidy."

      I know Vince Vaughan's monologue last year was apparently improvised, but one of the reasons it worked so well was because it involved actual audience members. If he had walked up to, say, Vanessa Bayer, and they tried to pass her off as an audience member, it would've fallen flat.

  • Buster Abbott

    "Indeed, the general consensus from last month's Miley Cyrus episode wasn't that she was particularly bad — it's that she didn't know when to stop."

    But Erik, she can't stop. She won't stop.

  • IhateDisqus

    My least favorite episode of the season. Nothing was awful, but nothing really stood out for me. And I thought that Gaga was trying way too hard in her sketches.

  • Val

    Jebediah was the best thing in a long time. A keeper!