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'SNL' Review: Business as Usual with Dakota Johnson

Two weeks ago, SNL's 40th anniversary reminded us what we love about this show. The routine scrutiny fell silent at the images that once captured each generation: the classic setups like "Celebrity Jeopardy," "Nick the Lounge Singer," and "Wayne's World"; the tongue-in-cheek smugness of regulars like Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin; the moments when endearing nobodies became stars before our eyes. We can complain that SNL lacks originality, but our hearts long for the familiarity we used to have, for the days when we'd pray for Chris Farley to crash into a scene or the TV Funhouse dog to drag the show away or Tina Fey to do the news.

As SNL falls back into business as usual, it's clear the show misses this familiarity too. Talented as they are, the current cast rarely produces the thrill we require to build anticipation and stay invested — not because they aren't as good as previous casts, but because they still haven't won over their generation of viewers. No one during the week says to themselves, "I can't wait to see Colin Jost do Weekend Update!" …other than Colin Jost, perhaps. This episode, with Fifty Shades of Grey's Dakota Johnson emceeing, featured several cast members each struggling to break through this apathy in their own ways, to varying degrees of success. And still, none of these live moments reached the comedic heights of the episode's isolated video segments, which are more the product of bold execution by writers and directors than a creatively gelled cast that functions in sync.

This chronic disconnect will be SNL's biggest hurdle as season 40 attempts to top (or at least, not topple) a towering legacy. READ MORE

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'SNL 40' Review: The Stars Come Home

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After 40 years, Saturday Night Live may be the only remaining "watercooler comedy" that everyone still has something to say about. Whether it's "The first five years were the best," or "Bring back Victoria Jackson!" (just kidding, no one says that), we all have our opinions on what is or isn't funny on the show… not just us nerdy online reviewers. SNL is, after all, one of the only shows we grew up with that's still on the air – those of us under 40 haven't lived in a world without it — and we each have a personal connection to the first incarnation of it that spoke to us. For me, it was Will Ferrell and Darrell Hammond in the "Celebrity Jeopardy" sketches. For others, it was Dan Aykroyd and Steve Martin as the "wild and crazy guys!" For at least one of you out there, it was Victoria Jackson's hilarious handstands.

With that nostalgia for our era sometimes comes an indifference to others. I'll sincerely giggle at Stefon losing it at "Sidney Applebaum," but I struggle to whip up anything more than appreciative nods when the Church Lady sighs, "Well, isn't that special?" Don't get me wrong — Dana Carvey is my hero, and as someone who writes about SNL a lot, I understand the comedic greatness of the iconic routines and characters from the show's first two decades. But they didn't belong to me. Wayne Campbell and Buh-Weet were the inside jokes at a party I was too young for. I knew them better as Austin Powers and Professor Klump, and those younger than me know them as Shrek and Donkey. (I know, ugh.) Older viewers exhibit this bias as well, bragging that Richard Pryor's "Word Association" would never air on today's SNL, while bemoaning the show's descent into the mainstream and over-dependence on low-hanging fruit gags to go viral online.

But last night, that generational rivalry disappeared. SNL's 40th anniversary, a three-and-a-half-hour telecast (seriously, has NBC just given Lorne Michaels keys to the building at this point?) showed an extended family united in the tradition they were once part of, celebrating each other on stage, in retrospective footage, and in star-packed revivals of classic sketches. It was an SNL nerd's wet dream, and as Stefon would say, this had everything. "Celebrity Jeopardy." "Wayne's World." Jane, Amy, and Tina hosting Weekend Update. Melissa as "Motivational Speaker Matt Foley." Martin and Maya throwing to "Nick the Lounge Singer" and "Choppin' Broccoli." Eddie returning to a standing ovation.

Sure, everything ran long, the cameos were a bit much, the highlight reels were redundant, and all the jokes were inside baseball. But this wasn't a normal episode of SNL intended to please fair-weather viewers, or fit neatly into our "what hit" and "what missed" watercooler chats. It was a homecoming that we were lucky to peek in on. And as we've seen before on this show, something magical happens when the family comes home to make each other laugh for a change. READ MORE

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'SNL' Review: Finding the Rhythm with J.K. Simmons

snljksimmonsFrom the very beginning, Saturday Night Live was considered "a writer's show." While other variety shows from SNL's early years, like SCTV and The Carol Burnett Show, were driven primarily by the actors (in the latter's case, the actors' intentional breaking), SNL's satirical voice was shaped largely by writers like Michael O'Donoghue, Al Franken, and Tom Davis, however famous their on-screen muses became. The show has gone through various love affairs with stock characters, but ultimately it remains controlled by its writers room, where first-years can pitch a sketch on Monday and see their scripts scrawled out on cue cards on Saturday, even if they don't showcase a cast member. In that regard, SNL stands out from the pack of sketch vehicles for character-actors like Key & Peele, Portlandia, and Kroll Show – it's a show where Robert Smigel can animate a cartoon with political soundbites as audio, or Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone can shoot a big-budget Lonely Island music video, or Mike O'Brien can star in his own "Mike O'Brien Picture." SNL celebrates good writing.

This season, with its ups and downs, has been a particularly creative one for the writers room. Recurring bits are down to about 20% of the lineup, compared to 25% in seasons 38 and 39, with the writers generating more original concepts to replace the star characters from the previous generation. It's easy for critics to point fingers at what they call "bad writing," but the reality is, SNL currently employs some of the sharpest comedy minds in the business. In particular, Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider tend to produce notably brilliant work every week (they wrote the scripts for "Totino's Superbowl Commercial," last week's "Wishing Boot," and "The Dudleys" and "Christmas Mass Spectacular" from earlier this season).

The downside to SNL being so writer-driven is that sometimes sketches reflect the room's mental exhaustion after a three-week stretch. Last weekend's episode, for example, found a capable host in J.K. Simmons, but the Oscar-nominee too often found himself with limited material. Perhaps my hopes were set too high by Christoph Waltz's 2013 episode — a triumphant night with another character actor finally getting his due — but I was a little surprised by the quality of the some of the sketches SNL placed its bets on in the first half. Nevertheless, there remained enough bright spots last weekend to give Simmons, and the writers, an episode they can hang their hats on. READ MORE

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'SNL' Review: Blake Shelton Ain't From 'Round Here

blakesheltonsnlOne thing that's forgotten about the early years of SNL was how much it was a show that anyone could host. While hosts from the old days were more often handpicked from Lorne Michaels' rolodex of awesome comics, like Steve Martin or Buck Henry, the show also took risks with host bookings that it never would these days. An 80-year-old German immigrant woman who won an "Anyone Can Host" contest in 1977. An 8-year-old Drew Barrymore in 1982. Ron Reagan, son of the president, in 1986. SNL even dared to allow directors like Francis Ford Coppola and Quentin Tarantino to host once, even though they led to catastrophically bad episodes (Coppola "hosted" by directing the episode from the tech booth — an experiment that didn't really work).

Given this eclectic history, it's a little sad to think that hosting SNL has become a sacred privilege reserved for A-list movie stars and superstar alums of the show. The only bookings to make us do double-takes in recent memory have been famous athletes who can barely read cue cards and Betty White, a beloved sitcom veteran who got the gig by being old, apparently. More recently, the show has fallen into a frustrating pattern of musician-hosts pulling double duty and people NBC really wants us to pay attention to. Considering how crucial The Voice is to the network right now, Blake Shelton hosting SNL isn't any more surprising than Adam Levine doing it two years ago. Not much better, either.

Of course, my pet peeves over SNL's safe host bookings shouldn't take anything away from last weekend's admittedly satisfying and often surprising episode. Despite being a bit of a stranger in a strange land, Shelton was effectively cast in roles that exploited fans' perceptions of the country singer, as if producers followed to the tee the playbook for a successful show that they used for Woody Harrelson last fall. Compared to last week's uneven outing with Kevin Hart — who, to be fair, possesses far more nerve and comedic ability than Shelton does – the show seemed more comfortable allowing experienced cast members (specifically Bobby Moynihan) to carry the weight when needed, resulting in a showcase of this cast's talent in the middle of a season that will hopefully see more of it. READ MORE

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'SNL' Review: A New Year with Kevin Hart

snlkevinhart2015A month ago, Chris Rock wrote an essay for the Hollywood Reporter about race in Hollywood, specifically mentioning a sketch he appeared in with Sasheer Zamata on SNL earlier this season as an example of normalization of black actors being able to do comedy without having to always represent the black community:

Twenty years ago when I was on Saturday Night Live, anything with black people on the show had to deal with race, and that sketch we did didn't have anything to do with race. That was the beauty: The sketch is funny because it's funny, and that's the progress. And there are black guys who are making it: Whatever Kevin Hart wants to do right now, he can do.

Indeed, Kevin Hart has exploded as a mainstream box office draw in recent years, starring in studio comedies like the Think Like A Man films, Ride Along, and now, The Wedding Ringer (aka that Hitch-like movie with the previews that are ruining "Uptown Funk" for everyone). Like Chris Rock, Kevin Hart appeared alongside the cast's black performers in bits that often had little, if anything, to do with race, suggesting a gradual normalization of diversity on the show. I've never been quite sure why black hosts tend to result in an uptick of screen time for black cast members — it's not like the hosts cast sketches, and Hart doesn't strike me as a comedian who is picky about what races he works with. But if it gets us away from an SNL trying to "represent" different minority groups and closer to an SNL trying to do different, interesting comedy, I'm all for it.

But despite Kevin Hart's Hollywood stardom, his chemistry with SNL has dwindled. Hart remains a sharp, charismatic performer whose bravado can carry him through the weakest bits, but this recent episode lacked the fun surprises – Quvenzhané Wallis as the new pope, the hilarious "Z-Shirt" commercial — that saved his first outing in 2013, leaving us with a series of mildly funny sketches that rarely went deep enough to score the big laughs. Even with a strong, well balanced cast, and an impressive commitment to special effects in sketches, SNL in 2015 appears to be every bit of the mixed bag with too many duds that it has been throughout Season 40. READ MORE

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'SNL' Review: Amy Adams' Got Christmas Spirit

snlamyadamsLike anything else this time of year, it's hard not to come away from SNL in good spirits. Traditionally, the show's holiday episode provides an easy victory just in time for SNL's weary midseason mark, with returning stars like Jimmy Fallon or Martin Short bringing in the holiday cheer with some of the finest moments of the season. SNL is another one of those NYC-based festivities viewers tune into during the holidays, like the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade or New Years' Eve coverage in Times Square. Whatever complaints you may have about SNL… it's not going to ruin Christmas.

Amy Adams isn't a proven SNL veteran like Fallon or Short — her only connection to the show is one unmemorable episode she hosted in 2008. Yet Adams nonetheless helmed a satisfying — albeit somewhat confusing — holiday special, banking largely on her well established musical charms and surprise cameos by beloved cast members. However, as welcome as the appearances by Mike Myers, Kristen Wiig, and Fred Armisen were, their bits often came out of nowhere, without any recognizable history with Adams or recent cultural relevancy to justify them. And after a half season that has been so on-point with its racial humor, this episode's attempts to explore the subject matter ranged from hypocritical at best to exploitative at worst. Still, despite a lackluster middle stretch and a few painful One Direction sightings, the night proved to be the hearty cup of eggnog SNL Christmas episodes are intended to be… only not as sweet as last week's Martin Freeman episode. READ MORE

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'SNL' Review: James Franco Delivers in an Episode That Doesn't

JamesFrancoSNLLet's face it: over the 40 years SNL has been on the air, the majority of its sketches have not made us laugh. For every "Cowbell," there are a dozen forgotten flat-liners you'd never see on the "Best of Will Ferrell" DVD. At best, the show can hope for a 1:1 hit ratio. That's not meant as a knock against SNL, but as an acknowledgement of its difficulty level. By now, we've gone through enough behind-the-scenes documentaries and oral histories to appreciate the show's demanding six-day production period and the risks of live broadcasts. Regular viewers accept a mixed bag as par for the course.

This season has served as evidence of that inconsistency. SNL has produced some real turds over the past eight episodes (I don't know why Chris Rock keeps bringing up his god-awful "Anniversary Couple" sketch), but it has also proven itself capable of 90-minute hilarity, effective topical commentary, perfect pre-taped pieces, and, as always, returning alum hosts reminding us how great the show can be. And if the writers could spin gold out of Woody Harrelson, one would assume they could do the same with a younger comedy star / stoner icon / three-time host like James Franco, who seemed every bit as game and even more familiar with the SNL process. (He directed a documentary about it, after all.) After a week packed with news Americans need to hear our comedians talk about, SNL was teed up for success last weekend.

And then, SNL turned up a bogey. Despite a few strong pieces in the episode's back stretch, on the whole the night sweated through its segments, relying on every hacky necessary evil in its playbook — forced celebrity cameos, random impression-based setups, pop culture pander, spineless political humor, recurring bits we're all pretty tired of seeing – with little fresh comedy to redeem them. I suppose it made sense to see Franco's second-half Seth Rogen join him on screen so often, even if it reeked of a pressure to promote their upcoming movie. But Nicki Minaj's three appearances were tougher to swallow, especially her excruciating Weekend Update bit covering a month-old Kim Kardashian story… one of many huh? moments during this uneven episode. READ MORE

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'SNL' Review: A Step Back with Cameron Diaz

camerondiazsnlWell, that didn't last long.

Just one week after seemingly proclaiming its transitional era to be over, SNL reaffirmed viewers' perennial skepticism with an episode that made Woody Harrelson's excellent outing look like that much more of a fluke. Cameron Diaz's hosting gig wasn't quite the disaster the show is capable of, but it exhibited all the symptoms of a bland episode that no one will remember by the end of the season: a game-for-anything host that the writers didn't know what to do with (despite this being her fourth time), a dependence on watered-down recurring bits that the actors seem to love more than audiences do, and a general miscalculation by producers on how to use the show's various strengths to create a cohesive night of exciting sketch comedy.

Yes, inconsistency has been an issue throughout every one of the show's 40 seasons — even the ones we remember as being perfect. I still believe SNL possesses all the ingredients it needs to win us over again — a well rounded cast, vibrant writers, an excellent film unit — but Lorne Michaels is still figuring out the recipe (to borrow his metaphor). Whereas last week witnessed a show that clearly understood its strengths and strode confidently from sketch to sketch, this week felt like a series of nervous dice rolls that settled into a sad parade of stock characters that don't contain anywhere near the stamina that previous generations' crutches did.

Still, some of those dice rolls paid off. Still in transition or not, this SNL is at least willing to experiment. And that's something to be thankful for. READ MORE

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'SNL' Review: A Season High with Woody Harrelson

woodyharrelsonsnlFor the past two years, many viewers have described SNL as being in a "transitional phase." This phase began with the departures of Kristen Wiig and Andy Samberg in 2012, followed by Jason Sudeikis, Bill Hader, and Fred Armisen in 2013, then by Seth Meyers in early 2014. The old guard was clearing out, and their replacements didn't seem up to the task of continuing that golden era. And while not all of the episodes in this interim period have been bad — in fact, many have been quite good, and the hit-to-miss ratio has remained roughly the same — SNL seemed lost in the woods, with almost weekly PR crises, a dependence on returning alums, sagging ratings, and a vagueness as to how this era would redefine itself.

After last weekend, SNL's transitional era may finally be over.

Woody Harrelson's triumphant episode wasn't just a win — it was a bellwether win for the show. While most episodes take on a tentpole structure, with strong pieces holding up weaker ones, this episode was a full 90 minutes of clever writing and assured performances, from cold open to Weekend Update to the 10-to-1, all without a desperate reliance on recurring bits and pre-taped videos, or the tendency for live sketches to fall flat, or a returning alum host to carry the night. While Bill Hader's dazzling return last month worked largely because of the host's made-for-SNL talent, Woody Harrelson presented less of a guarantee, with a more limited range of comedic personae and a 25-year gap since his last appearance on the show. And yet, the staff made it work, smartly casting Harrelson in a mix of gruff authority figures and loopy substance abusers, while giving the likable goofball freedom to enjoy himself.

But more importantly, for the first time in season 40, SNL looked confident. Will that confidence still be there next week, with Cameron Diaz hosting? We'll see. But for now, it seems Lorne Michaels and his team have finally figured out how to make this generation of SNL shine. READ MORE

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'SNL' Review: Chris Rock Underwhelms

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Wherever you stand on SNL, it's safe to say that season 40 has shown a noticeable step forward in quality from last season (regardless of lower ratings and the ever-present hate in many corners online). One of the reasons for this improvement has been the fact that all five of this season's hosts have been performers known for their work in comedy. Chris Rock, Jim Carrey, Bill Hader, Sarah Silverman, and Chris Pratt are all stars we're accustomed to laughing at, so we don't have to deal with that annoying "faculty follies" effect the show tries to employ with athlete or musician hosts.

And yet, not every comedian's humor translates to SNL, and each of those comedians earn their laughs in very different ways, from very different fan bases. Bill Hader, for example, is a prototypical sketch comedy wunderkind who enjoyed a long, healthy run on SNL. Chris Rock, meanwhile, is a vibrant standup and film star who was often relegated to the sidelines during his three seasons on the show's unapologetically whitewashed 1990s. SNL's cast is far more diverse now, theoretically giving Rock more freedom to explore the provocative material he's famous for. But the comedian's pacing was still as mismatched as a first-time host's would be, despite having hosted an episode in 1996. Rather than the dominant crowd killer he proved himself to be after he left SNL, Rock transformed back into the caged-bird featured player struggling to fit in on a show that was always too small for him.

The result was an at times very difficult episode to watch, even for someone willing to give SNL the benefit of the doubt. READ MORE

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'SNL' Review: Jim Carrey Dances Like Everybody's Watching

jimcarreysnl2014When Jim Carrey last hosted SNL in 2011 (the first episode I reviewed for this site), I worried the 1990s comedy icon best known for playing manic cartoons from In Living Color, three comedy blockbusters in 1994, and a well regarded SNL stint, would fail to connect with the show's modern lineup. Thankfully, Carrey proved me wrong, blending nicely with Fred Armisen's eccentric subtlety and showing us how much fun a (then) fresh-faced Taran Killam could be to watch. Carrey's performance was a testament to the fact that while SNL may evolve, with increasingly eye-popping production value and an emerging struggle to make its live multicam elements work, some things will always just make us laugh. And Jim Carrey is one of them.

This episode was largely the antithesis of that notion. Once again, the night played to Carrey's strengths, with an abundance of live sketches giving him plenty of freedom to take the reigns. But this time, the actor struggled to produce the same chemistry with today's cast members (the exception being Taran Killam, who has become even more of a Carrey-esque alpha performer over the years). Depending on your outlook on the show, that may be a matter of a subpar cast failing to keep pace with a true comedy genius, or an example of a comedian from a bygone era relying on over-the-top schtick that doesn't quite resonate with 2014 audiences.

Whatever the reason, this episode lacked the redeeming charm that makes a comedy powerhouse like Jim Carrey an enduring star. Rather, the effect was that of a beloved cartoon being transported into the real world… without anyone knowing quite what to do with him. READ MORE

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'SNL' Review: Bill Hader's Master Class

billhadersnlYou can judge how great a past SNL cast member was by the void they refill when they return to the show. Maya Rudolph's hosting gig in 2012 reminded viewers not only how irreplaceable of a triple-threat talent Rudolph is, but how colorless (in every possible meaning of the word) the cast seemed in her absence. Andy Samberg's return last May revealed the cast remained short of a goofball viewers seemed to like, even if the show could still produce amazing video content without him. If SNL needs to know what it's missing, it needs only bring back an old cast member to highlight the weak spots.

Bill Hader returned to find his seat at the table still very much empty. To be fair, that's largely a credit to Hader's uniqueness. A master impressionist, star character performer, and eager utility player until the end, Bill Hader's value to the show only seemed to increase as time went on… even after he left the cast. Bill Murray recently praised him as having done "the best work anyone ever did on that show," and it's true — not only did Hader's characters rarely show the gray hairs that other cast members' recurring bits quickly formed, he exhibited a Phil Hartman-esque cohesive quality of a performer who legitimately loves the people he works with. Seeing Hader share the screen with Kristen Wiig in The Skeleton Twins reminded me how much I've missed watching SNL performers try to make each other laugh, as opposed to aiming to play their individual roles as efficiently as possible.

It was a night of few surprises and little new material, and perhaps that's a good thing. There's a certain joy to watching someone do something they were made to do. And no one alive was made to do SNL moreso than Bill Hader was. READ MORE

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'SNL,' the Groundlings, and the Parallel Thinking Excuse

snlgroundlingstinaturnerMembers of Los Angeles' famed Groundlings theater company have made headlines by accusing SNL of lifting their sketch during last weekend's Sarah Silverman episode. The piece in question, "River Sisters," featured Silverman, Cecily Strong, and Sasheer Zamata as a Tina Turner tribute act performing "Proud Mary" on a crummy river cruise, which many have noticed bears a strong resemblance to a sketch that has been running at the Groundlings for several weeks, with Kimberly Condict and Vanessa Ragland as identically-dressed Tina Turner lookalikes, similarly bemoaning their careers to the song (except in a casino). Groundlings teacher Ian Gary claimed that SNL writers have plagiarized "many, many" of the theater's bits in the past, with victims too intimidated to ruffle the feathers of the gatekeepers that could one day give them their dream jobs. Splitsider mentioned the similarity in our review of the episode, and several other sources (Deadline, AV Club, Good Morning America) have more or less rendered a guilty verdict for the show.  SNL hasn't responded, other than to take down its Twitter and Instagram photos of the sketch. Meanwhile, a source close to the show attributed the sketches' similarity to "parallel thinking."

Of course, this isn't the first accusation of joke thievery we've heard directed at SNL. Many of them, in retrospect, appear to be baseless. In 2010, when the show featured a tiny hat gag in a 10-to-1 sketch, Tim and Eric pointed out that they had done a similar bit in 2007, essentially trying to claim ownership over the idea of tiny hats. (The controversy has been mentioned in a few articles covering this recent dispute.) Then, a year ago, comedian Iliza Schlesinger accused the show of lifting a joke she had about airport boarding zones for a sketch in the season premiere, despite the fact that air travel is regular comedic fodder for SNL (and, hell, everyone). And let's not forget the few similar premises that aired on Key & Peele and SNL in the same week… though those never made headlines.

Some accusations have been proven valid, however: former cast member Jay Mohr admitted in his 2004 memoir Gasping for Airtime that he stole a joke from New York comedian Rick Shapiro and turned it into a sketch. Add Mohr's admission on top of the well documented examples of joke stealing by comedians like Carlos Mencia and Dane Cook, as well as Patton Oswalt's elegant clarion call against the practice, and it's no wonder why people might roll their eyes at the "parallel thinking" excuse. READ MORE

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'SNL' Review: Sarah Silverman's Racy Return

Sarah Silverman SNLSNL shifts into a different gear when a comedian hosts the show. In the early days, comic-hosts like George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and Steve Martin were every bit as much a part of the show's countercultural brand as the cast members were. 40 years later, SNL has become part of the mainstream, with a product so formulaic that today's most innovative comics define themselves by how different they are from the comedy institution and the network TV legacy it represents. Popular comedians often struggle to bridge the gap between their delivery and the SNL machine, where the multicam format and demand for immediate laughs often leave little room for nuance. Sometimes the two are incompatible, like when Jerry Seinfeld brought in his own writers or Russell Brand's larger-than-life persona outshone everything on screen. Other times, the two sides meet in the middle, producing such delightfully offbeat fusions as Zach Galifianakis in "Darrell's House" or Louis C.K. in "Lincoln."

Sarah Silverman is a unique case. The megastar comedian is also a returning SNL cast member, which often lends itself to a specific kind of episode, with the host playing old characters and reuniting with contemporaries. However, Silverman was only on the show for one season, with no classic bits fans were expecting to see again. This freed Silverman to be her provocative self — at least, as much of her provocative self that the NBC censors would allow – and push SNL out of its pander-y, predictable comfort zone into some more dangerous territory. The night's first half featured Silverman in a Fault In Our Stars parody as a girl with Ebola, followed by Silverman as the late Joan Rivers, followed by a video about whites sad over losing their racial majority, followed by a sketch skewering society's fixation with watching women tear each other apart. And while not all of the daring concepts paid off, overall, Silverman's rep as a blue comedian gave SNL permission to play with fire. Hopefully that will be something it stops waiting for permission to do. READ MORE