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‘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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