Monday, December 9th, 2013

'SNL' Review: Paul Rudd's 'Anchorman' Ad

The most beloved SNL hosts over the years can make sketch comedy magic with anyone. Justin Timberlake, for example, seemed to hit it off so well with Jimmy Fallon in the early 2000s, but even after Fallon left the show, Timberlake still hosted stellar episodes with whichever lineup of actors and writers happened to be working those seasons. Alec Baldwin is another example — despite being famous for his Scoutmaster and Schweddy Balls bits, Baldwin has never been dependent on any particular writer or cast member to make him look good. Baldwin understands that it's about making everyone else look good, and that's why he's hosted the show 16 times.

Paul Rudd's first two times hosting the show exemplified this chemistry. His memorable stints in the kissing Vogelcheck family were a particular highlight (he even popped up in Jason Segel's episode two years ago to reprise the role). But now in Rudd's third time hosting, most of that old guard has moved on from the show — Bill Hader, Andy Samberg, Kristen Wiig, and Fred Armisen. Would Rudd step up to the plate like Timberlake and Baldwin have, or, like most repeat hosts, would he look like a man excited to return to his old high school just to find all his favorite teachers have retired?

Unfortunately, this episode gave us mostly the latter, with the night's most memorable moments consisting of cameos from past cast members or Rudd mixing with his Anchorman buddies, making the entire episode feel like an extended promo for a movie we don't need another reminder to go see, let alone one that fell short of film's clever promotional campaign. Meanwhile, Rudd mostly failed to connect with the current generation of cast members, relying on a surprising number of recurring sketches — some from this season, some from past ones — not all of which I'm certain we needed to see again. But hey, Rudd looked like he was having fun, and I'm sure for several fans, Bill Brasky made it all worth it.

Cold Open: Sound of Music / Lawrence Welk VIII. The night kicked off with what initially seemed like a curious bite-at-the-hand parody of NBC's The Sound of Music Live! broadcast. But when the Von Trapp children marched out to introduce themselves, joining them was none other than Kristen Wiig as Dooneese, the roadkill-eating Lawrence Welk singer with a massive forehead and baby hands. I admit that I was legitimately surprised by the twist (what the hell are Kristen Wiig and Fred Armisen doing back here?) and it made me wish that the writers had found new, surprising contexts to unleash Dooneese into for the other seven times we saw her on SNL. While Wiig's return was welcome, I do wish the cold open had more fun with its source material, specifically the broadcast's awkward energy and Carrie Underwood's poor acting.

Monologue. Paul Rudd's entrance was overshadowed by not only the boys of One Direction, but the men of Anchorman, who engaged each other in a humorous standoff. While I would have preferred seeing the two gangs destroy each other a la the rival news teams in the first movie, the two sang "Afternoon Delight," which disappointingly contained no new context or jokes of any kind — just pure pandering to Anchorman fans. (Watch the video here.)

Politics Nation IV. I'm a little confused as to why this only moderately funny incarnation of Kenan Thompson's Al Sharpton impression came so early in the lineup. With so few jokes and only one guest (Paul Rudd played a befuddled Huffington Post contributor), this sketch focusing on Sharpton's wandering anecdotes and awkward mispronunciations felt even more pointless than usual.

One Direction Fan. One of the stronger moments of the night was this video of Paul Rudd as a grown-man One Direction superfan waiting backstage with a crowd of girls. Rudd's catty putdowns were funny in that "being mean to little kids" way that Peyton Manning did so well when he hosted, specifically the images of him braiding a girl's hair and correcting another about the Niall's natural color: "Oh, oh-oh! You don't know your basic facts!" While the bit paid off, I can't help but think this piece would have worked even better had Paul Rudd been interacting with real One Direction fans, man-on-the-street style, rather than the staged versions SNL insists on doing (see: Subway Dancers, Mr. Senior).

I Don't Wanna Know. My favorite sketch of the night was this scene featuring Paul Rudd and Vanessa Bayer as a divorcing couple whose vicious argument keeps getting interrupted by Fleetwood Mac's "I Don't Wanna Know." The details of the couple's new lives were hilariously silly — "She's not a gold digger, she works in a silver mine!" — and Rudd and Bayer's goofy old-people dancing gave the sketch a nice, heart-warming touch. SNL is doing well with these coy, song-themed sketches (see: "Your Love" with Josh Hutcherson) — too bad they're impossible to find online due to music licensing issues. Best of the Night.

Weekend Update. Not even Weekend Update was immune in this misfire of an episode — too many of the jokes fell flat and Vanessa Bayer's appearance as Jacob the Bar Mitzvah Boy (IV) was weaker than usual (though it was fun to see Jacob tear up at Seth Meyers' upcoming departure and tense up around Cecily Strong). Meanwhile, Taran Killam's very quick return as snarky 1860s critic Jebediah Atkinson (II) ("It was only three weeks ago. Run stuff into the ground much?") lost a bit of its luster since the character's brilliant first appearance, but his takedowns of beloved holiday TV specials were solid: "Don't get me started on Snoopy… if you ask me, Family Guy killed the wrong dog."

Michaelangelo. In this scene set in Renaissance Italy, Paul Rudd plays a male model for Michaelangelo's "David" who is embarrassed by the statue's small penis. Given the 500+ years of dick jokes that must have been made about the world's most famous sculpture, one has to wonder what new angles SNL presumes it can take on the topic, and the answer is… not many.

White Christmas. This parody of black Christmas movies like The Best Man Holiday and A Madea Christmas gave us a holiday movie for white people. Rather than have fun with the game of piling on white jokes, this sketch got bogged down in explaining its premise over and over, probably to reassure us that Paul Rudd's white version of Madea wasn't racist.

Skinny Santa. Paul Rudd's lack of chemistry with the cast was never more evident than in this sketch featuring Rudd as a slimmed-down Santa being taken to task by elves upset that he's lost his jolliness along with the weight. Besides the premise being a little uninspired, staging Rudd out of frame from the rest of the elves was prevented any comedic tension from building.

Memories. Cecily Strong led this sketch as a neglected wife haunted by the memories of her sexy ex-lovers, including one regrettable hookup with a greasy pizza guy in an airport (Paul Rudd). I enjoyed this premise and I appreciated the theatricality of the staging and Strong's performance. But this concept never truly got off the ground, largely because Rudd's character wasn't crude enough to sufficiently derail the wife's dream sequences.

Bill Brasky VII. Will Ferrell and David Koechner returned to the bar, joined by Paul Rudd and Taran Killam, in the classic setup, with four drunk salesmen one-upping each other with bizarre tales about their mythical colleague, Bill Brasky. The piece, penned by Ferrell and Adam McKay, didn't disappoint with the Brasky trivia — "He gave AIDS back to the monkeys!" was my personal favorite. And while it was exciting to see this old sketch once again, some of that Brasky magic was indeed missing, perhaps because of the absence of Alec Baldwin or John Goodman at the bar. It's a shame this sketch couldn't wait until next week, when Goodman will return to SNL after a decade absence.

Additional Thoughts:

  • The Jebediah Atkinson sketch posted online is the version from dress rehearsal, which goes over far better than the performance in the live broadcast. In the online version, Taran Killam plays the bit with more energy and makes a few amusing ad libs to Seth Meyers, who loses it throughout. The one improvement in the live version is Taran's hilarious reply when Seth inquires about Jebediah's accusation that the Bible ripped off the nativity story from National Lampoon's Vacation: "Time is not linear for me!"
  • Best: I Don't Wanna Know; Worst: Politics Nation; You'll See It On Facebook: One Direction Fan, Jebediah Atkinson; Worth It For the Jokes: Bill Brasky.
  • My second favorite piece of Brasky folklore: "His urine stream is so strong, it can cut through an uncooked steak! And I've seen him do it!"
  • Taran Killam led the cast in screen time this week, with Kyle Mooney bringing up the rear with just one appearance in the Skinny Santa sketch. Nothing against Killam in Bill Brasky, but you have to wonder why SNL didn't just round out the Channel 6 news team and cast Steve Carell in the role. Of course, Carell was never a cast member and his appearance could be distracting, but it's not like either he or Killam were in the sketches in the 90s anyway, so what's the harm?
  • In case you didn't notice, the cue cards are partially visible in the reflection in the clock during Skinny Santa. Perhaps I just got bored and my eyes began to wander.
  • Two pube jokes in one episode? What is this, 1998?
  • While I wasn't a fan of Politics Nation, Kenan Thompson's Al Sharpton certainly had its moments: "I drove a Honda Fiasco. No steering wheel. You just had to shift your weight."
  • For anyone counting, SNL has done Lawrence Welk more times in the past 4 years than they have Bill Brasky… ever. In both cases this episode, SNL invited back two former cast members who weren't even hosting to reprise the bit. Worth the trouble for Bill Brasky… not so sure about Lawrence Welk.
  • One Direction's Niall Horan during the monologue: "Yeah Paul, you just do that comedy stuff, and we'll stand back here and pose and blow kisses." I couldn't think of a better description of pop star cameos on SNL.
  • A few solid additions to this season's Stupid Name List: Dunkin Danish, Sobrina (with an "O," which is Spanish for "niece"), and Audrian.
  • Apologies if I seem particularly negative this week. I attribute my snarkiness to having read Gawker's excellent article "On Smarm," which exhaustively examines the warring factions within the online critic community of snarky haters and smarmy kiss-asses. Perhaps the guilt of being an SNL cheerleader after all these years started to weigh on me. I'm sure the smarm will be back in full force next week.
I'll see you next week, when John Goodman will host with musical guest Kings of Leon.

Erik Voss is a writer and performer living in Los Angeles. He hosts the Evil Blond Kid podcast and performs improv at the iO West Theater.

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  • Carson

    Holy, I'm pretty much with you on everything here. Weirdly disappointing episode. Also, I think Mooney also appeared in the White Christmas sketch.

  • Peter Murphy

    Mooney also had a small appearance in the "White Christmas" filmed sketch. Mooney's the one talking to Strong at her car outside the family's house.

  • Stuie299

    I'm not even gonna bother to do my usual good, mixed, bad review. This whole episode was just so disappointing. With the lack of Impressions this week it really stood out how bad the writers are at coming up with good original characters. I actually thought Politics Nation was ok and actually one of the better sketches. I thought white christmas was really lame. Also didn't care for the cold open. It just felt that so many of these sketches could have been hilarious but the writers were absolutely phoning it in.

  • Peter Murphy

    Lorne got more screen-time in the bumpers than most of the featured players.

  • Damian

    Cue cards also visible in Bill Brasky

  • BillBrasky

    The main joke of the divorce sketch got a little old after a while, but as mentioned there were lots of little incidental gags peppered throughout the sketch that were really funny ("She's not a gold digger, she works in a silver mine") and "You're just her sugar daddy" "You leave our son Sugar out of this"). Almost Zucker Bros.-like in a way. I wonder who wrote this sketch, it was a lot more clever than your garden variety SNL sketch.

  • Melissa

    I thought it was a very funny episode, overall. I wish they would have made fun of Carrie Underwood, instead of doing the Dooneese bit again. Also, I didn't care for the Michelangelo bit at all. Favorites: Paul Rudd hosting, because I really enjoy him, seeing Steve Carell and Will Ferrell…and One Directions' song was beautiful, didn't you think? Oh, and Dan Charles, that one was hilarious. I also loved the Divorce Skit.

  • Anthony Coro

    To me, Rudd has always been a slightly above-average host who seems up for anything but rarely takes the material to another level the way that people like Baldwin and Timberlake do. I think the One Direction Fan short is probably the best evidence of that. He did a fine job, and I don't think a lot of hosts would be willing to go as all-in as he did, but there was still something lacking that kept it from being a total success. Perhaps, as Erik mentioned, the fact that it seemed entirely scripted is the culprit. But maybe since it involved kids they were hesitant to totally let him loose.

    Before the show started, I think everyone expected the Anchorman cast to be there, but the one thought running through my head was, "Please don't bring Bill back so they can do another Vogelcheks sketch," since that was one of Paul's specialties. Well, I'm glad that didn't happen but egad, what was the point of bringing back Kristen and Fred (who has been gone for SEVEN episodes, members of the audience, let's not go nuts)? I agree with Erik in that I genuinely didn't see Dooneese coming, and if they had to keep repeating this character while Kristen was in the cast, this would've been a better way to do it than to go back to the Welk well over and over. But there was no reason to have this cameo (and again, it's not like the Festrunk brothers popping up with the Roxbury or DIAB guys; Dooneese last appeared seven months ago).

    Bill Brasky was one recurring sketch I was thrilled to see show up though. I had seen Adam McKay mention that he'd written one, but as the show progressed, I kept waiting and waiting and losing hope that it made the cut (or perhaps it was meant for next week's show with Goodman). I wasn't watching back when these sketches began, so I didn't know if they were all 10-to-1s, but I was delighted when it finally came up.

    Weakest of the night for me was Al Sharpton…there was no hook, especially for something so early in the show. Wasn't really crazy about White Christmas either–too much walking on eggshells and not enough unique jokes. And I really hated the tacked-on, "Let's make it clear that a black guy is ok with this" ending with Jay Pharoah. But it was partially salvaged by "Starring Paul Rudd, Paul Rudd, and Paul Rudd" and "The Macklemore of movies."

    Overall, it was a middle of the road episode but I have high expectations for Goodman and Fallon.

  • AGoodQuestion

    I'm not sure him interacting with real One Direction fans would have been a good idea. Would they have known that it was an act? Maybe, and the results could be funny, but Borating kids carries a risk.

  • Smitty

    Best of the night IMO was the cold opening and the Divorce sketch, went all downhill from there. But even the "mail us your tweets" part in the Al Sharpton sketch made me giggle. I liked Bill Brasky, but I've never LOVED that sketch in general, and it kinda bummed me out that it made Tim Meadows so upset. I feel like they missed out on a perfect opportunity to bring back Celebrity Jeopardy though! When Will Ferrell guest stars they gotta do Celebrity Jeopardy! I even googled to see what the heck Darrell Hammond is doing these days and it turns out he was doing stand up in NY on Saturday.
    Also, I have noticed a LOT of technical difficulties this season. Extremely noticeable ones. Maybe I'm just looking out for them now.

  • Adam Michael Brenner

    I thought it was quite good. Better than the Josh Hutcherson episode, anyway.

  • Rusty Shackleford

    This episode was disappointing. I think your review is on point for the most part. Seth screwed up the energy in Weekend Update by flubbing a line in the very first joke! The audience gave him a pity laugh and he knew it, so his confidence was gone for the rest of the sketch. Cecily tried to pick up the slack but it was a lost cause. It's a shame because I had high hopes for the return of Jebidiah (but lay off on some of the anti-Christianity humor please!) unfortunately he disappointed as well. Hopefully they can find a better use for him before too long. This week's episode hopefully will be good with Goodman, but I've noticed there has been barely any political talk this week because of Mandela's passing. That should allow for the cast to come up with more creative ideas for sketches and WU bits that wouldn't normally make the show in a politics-heavy week. So my prediction for the Goodman episode is a hit-or-miss, ultimately satisfying hour and a half. If any of the cast is reading this, be creative! Do something only you think is funny and follow through with it. This is the week for an off the wall sketch to shine!

  • HardAsIs

    Much as I love Paul Rudd to death (he is my always and forever mancrush) this fell flat for me. I loved the 1D sketch, but there was little else. Jebediah Atkinson had me rolling. The fact that they acknowledged from the start that they were already reusing him was priceless. Taran Killam just kills that bit. I liked the live, so thank you for the dress version.