An episode of SNL feels most satisfying when the sketches come from a place of inspiration, as opposed to obligation. For example, when Justin Timberlake hosts the show, I don't need to see the "Dick in a Box" characters, but I would like to see them if the writers come up with a fresh and exciting way to bring them back. Whether or not a sketch addresses a recent news event or upcoming holiday is secondary to whether or not the sketch is funny. I'm sure the SNL staff shares this mindset — they really are just trying to produce the funniest show possible. But occasionally, in pursuit of that goal, SNL prioritizes expectation over its most critical obligation: comedy.
Such was the case last weekend, when Kristen Wiig returned to host the show after departing a year ago to focus on her film career. I normally am a huge fan of whenever a former cast member hosts, because his or her familiarity with the show and multiple talents usually results in a perfect storm of sketch comedy greatness. However, rather than deploy one of the show's most gifted alumni in some more complex pieces or layered characters, SNL took the lazy route, rolling out some of Wiig's most worn bits: Lawrence Welk, The Californians, Garth & Kat, Target Lady… even a Gilly cameo. Wiig's relatively recent departure hasn't given viewers enough time to properly move on from those sketches (especially The Californians, which the show had done three times since Wiig left). SNL aimed for the giddy nostalgia we feel when we see Tina Fey impersonate Sarah Palin or Justin Timberlake dance around in a big foam costume. Instead, our reaction was, "Really? This again?"
While the recurring characters dominated the lineup, a few fresh ideas did thankfully manage to squeeze in. And while Kristen Wiig goofed around with long-time SNL stalwarts Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, and Jason Sudeikis in the old material, it was fun to see her share the stage in the new material with freshmen Aidy Bryant, Kate McKinnon, Cecily Strong, and Tim Robinson, all of whom had some of their biggest nights of the season. So while it was a disappointing episode overall, there are certainly a few reasons to celebrate. READ MORE
SNL works best when it hits a balance between structure and chaos. As a show that's broadcasted live after only a week of production time, chaos is pre-installed into the system. The show attempts to offset that chaos with as many safety nets as possible: a cast of multitalented actors, a writing staff that can turn out an abundance of material in a pressure-cooker environment, and one of the best crews in television. Over time, some of those safety nets turn into crutches that annoy the hard-core fans: recurring characters, sketches that rely too heavily on celebrity impersonation, talk show formats, etc. So periodically, the show will reintroduce a bit of chaos into the mix to keep things fresh.
In the past, Zach Galifianakis was praised for the dangerous energy he brought to the show. He possesses a restlessness similar to that of Melissa McCarthy in that, at any moment, he might do something unexpected. Sure enough, in his previous two times hosting, Galifianakis shaved off parts of his hair and beard throughout the live broadcast.
Now in his third stint, Galifianakis stepped up his game with some riskier choices, both in terms of targeted jokes (the deaf and blind got it particularly rough this episode) and in tense, punchline-less moments that reflect his stand-up and his "Between Two Ferns" webseries. "I have only setups, no punchlines," he joked during his monologue. But by the end of the episode, the risk paid off as Galifianakis delivered the most spectacular punchline we've seen on SNL in years. READ MORE
It seems a little unfair how unexcited viewers were headed into last weekend's episode of Saturday Night Live, hosted by Vince Vaughn. The Swingers and Wedding Crashers star is a reliably funny guy, and his fast-talking wiseass personality really should have been enough to build a strong episode around. Sure, Vaughn doesn't have a movie coming out until the summer, but the cross-promotional component to SNL has never seemed important to us before.
Yet the night had the energy of the ninth hour of a telethon. Even Vaughn seemed to sense it based on the way he worked the room during the monologue, dishing out hack crowd-work schtick and holding one man's phone hostage on the condition of his enthusiasm. Vaughn's attempt to play warm-up guy failed: even during inspired sketches, the studio audience remained relatively stonefaced with its response.
There's really no one to blame in this situation. The sketches, for the most part, featured some playful concepts. The cast stepped up and delivered. Vaughn, while failing to play any memorable roles, still hit his mark. It just goes to show you that SNL isn't as much the predictable formula that we make it out to be. Sometimes, they can have all the right ingredients, but the lightning still misses the bottle. READ MORE
"Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels." – Former Texas Gov. Ann Richards at the 1988 Democratic Convention.
When it comes to SNL, we rarely delve too deeply into a host's delivery. There are so many moving parts to the production of an SNL episode — last-minute rewrites and prop construction and wardrobe quick changes — that a host has but a narrow range within which to succeed or fail. They either fit nicely into the machine, like Alec Baldwin or Justin Timberlake, or, like Justin Bieber or Jennifer Lawrence, they clatter around within it like a forgotten wrench under the hood.
Then someone like Melissa McCarthy comes along. At first it's a mystery why the Groundling never worked on the show as a regular cast member, but upon second thought it becomes clear. She breaks the rules. Whenever McCarthy enters a scene, whatever governing premise from the moment before is now forced to merge with the catastrophically insecure human being who is making a mess all over the room. (I say human being, because to describe McCarthy's fully realized and nuanced work as a character seems like an understatement.) Melissa McCarthy is the scene. Her sketches have structure, patterns, and jokes, but they are all rooted in the psyche of Sheila Kelly, Casey Battersix, Jean Corerra, Barb Kelner, Veronica Shanks, or Nanelle. Hell, McCarthy even subverted the monologue — usually the most composed segment of the night — milking it near the band for several minutes before eventually hitting her mark (somewhat wobbly) downstage.
A Melissa McCarthy episode doesn't feel like SNL, which is why I love her so much as a host, if not a cast member. She's a tornado. Fellow Groundling Kristen Wiig was occasionally (unfairly) accused of hijacking the show with her characters, and viewers even tired of Chris Farley's overwhelming energy. The show needs a little danger every now and then, and that's what McCarthy does best.
Even in high heels. READ MORE
Michael Patrick O'Brien is well into his fourth season as a writer for Saturday Night Live, a job he landed after spending years honing his comedy skills at Chicago's iO and Second City theaters. In addition to SNL and working on an upcoming sketch comedy album, O'Brien also hosts the popular web series "7 Minutes in Heaven," where he does bits and locks lips (or awkwardly tries to, at least) with stars such as Ellen Degeneres, Tina Fey, and the Insane Clown Posse. We had a chance to catch up with him about this season of SNL, specifically his appearance in the recent "Five Timers Club" sketch and his penning of some of this season's most memorable sketches, as well as his "7 Minutes" series and his future in late night.
You were recently in the "Five Timers Club" sketch with Justin Timberlake. You played the doorman role that Conan O’Brien played with Tom Hanks in 1990. How did you come about playing that part?
Seth Meyers wrote that sketch, and I’m sure in his writing process he rewatched the 1990 version with Conan. So he came up to me on the day of the table read and said, “Hey, I have you in this part.” And he mentioned it at the time too – he said that Conan did it last time. And I was like, “Oh, that’s cool.” And I know things change between Wednesday and Saturday, so I was glad that thing didn’t change, and that I ended up getting to do it. READ MORE
Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson are the creators and stars of Broad City — a web series Splitsider has been following since our site began and one that was recently ordered to series by Comedy Central, thanks largely to Amy Poehler's influence. A 10-episode first season is expected to debut sometime in 2014. I spoke with the duo about translating 4-minute webisodes into half-hour scripts, concerns over facing the same feminist comedy expectations Girls encountered, and why you don't need to get on a UCB Harold team to get a Comedy Central deal.
How did you two meet and come to start making videos together?
Ilana Glazer: Abbi and I were taking classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade comedy school in 2007. We didn't have any classes together, but we were fortunately asked to be on the same practice improv team. We auditioned for the house improv and sketch teams and were not getting on them. But you know, if you want to get better, you need to get yourself in a group and practice frequently and do shows as often as you can, and we weren't doing that in classes. So we joined this team, and it was called Secret Promise Circle. And we were so grateful for that, this time that we got to play, without thinking, oh, let's monetize. But then at a certain point, we both wanted to make something that would last, that we could send a link to our parents and be like, "Hey, we're doing something," rather than like, "This improv show I did was great!" And then it came to a certain point where we thought, 'Hey, we could do it about us.' READ MORE
DC Pierson is a comedian, actor, member of the popular sketch group DERRICK, and well regarded UCB performer. In 2010, he added "novelist" to that resume with the release of his first book The Boy Who Couldn't Sleep and Never Had To. Last week, he released his second novel, Crap Kingdom. I had a chance to sit down with Pierson and chat about the book — which I can honestly say is definitely worth reading (or better yet, owning) — as well as working in the young adult genre, making rap videos to get on the New York Times bestseller list, why DERRICK's success may have been more timing than technological wizardry, Splitsider's emotionally insecure readership, and why it's cool if high school students try to cheat out of reading your book… so long as you still get paid. READ MORE
I don't think anyone is as big a fan of SNL as SNL itself. At every opportunity, Lorne Michaels reminds us of his show's elite status and cultural impact, whether in a tongue-in-cheek backstage bit with Paul Simon and a scotch, or in a more sincere soundbite from one of those now-dime-a-dozen behind-the-scenes specials NBC rolls out on Sunday nights. I can't really blame Lorne for perpetuating this "SNL dynasty" mystique; admittedly I find the show's history fascinating, and I believe the man has earned enough ego to occasionally place his show on a pedestal, especially by coyly likening it to a vain gentleman's club. SNL can get away with its only-somewhat-in-jest swagger because it usually follows it up with genuinely impressive comedy: clever jokes, original concepts, strong performances from its actors. For a majority of any given episode's runtime, SNL walks the walk.
Last weekend's episode was bigger than five-time-host Justin Timberlake. It was a celebration of the entire SNL legacy. There was a sense of homecoming pride in the air, similar to the feel of a beloved former castmember returning to host and the whole gang coming back to play. And while I enjoyed seeing Timberlake and the boys run victory laps, if you look at the scoreboard, you'll notice the home team's win wasn't a decisive one. Unlike during the star host's previous appearances — which are all episodes for the books, with Timberlake's perfect assimilation into the cast — this time, frequently his performance magic either wore off prematurely or was dispelled by SNL's incessant need to jerk itself off.
Perhaps I'm just being a Debbie Downer who remembers all-too-fondly Timberlake's past work on the show, or I'm a victim to the "overly high expectations" he noted in his opening remarks. I will say Justin Timberlake remains one of the best hosts SNL has ever seen and easily topped most of the other hosts from this season with a nearly flawless performance… even if the episode itself wasn't. READ MORE
When it was announced two weeks ago that comedian Kevin Hart would host SNL, an odd debate sprung up online over whether Hart was "qualified" (i.e., "famous enough") for the gig. Hart has certainly had a huge year, with his film Think Like A Man and comedy album Laugh At My Pain both raking in millions, and his SNL episode received higher ratings than Oscar-winner Christoph Waltz's two weeks ago. Regardless, it's not for us to decide whether or not someone is famous enough to host — only whether or not his talents make him a good fit for the show.
Yes, Hart did occasionally stumble over lines and plow through most sketches with a high-octane, mile-a-minute delivery. But considering he never lost his cool (even during some flatlining bits) and gave every sketch his all, he still came across as a likable, gracious, and often funny host. Hart gave the performance of a comedian who knew he had a lot to prove, and, for better or worse, he left it all out on stage. Of course, he couldn't save a hit-or-miss lineup of promising yet unsatisfying sketches, and the obligatory-black-host racial humor bugged me a little, but there was enough to like in this episode to give Kevin Hart the credit he deserves. READ MORE
This post is brought to you by Out There, premiering tonight at 10:30/9:30c on IFC.
Ryan Quincy has been working in animation for well over a decade. He spent 12 years on South Park (he's featured in the behind-the-scenes documentary 6 Days to Air) and now he's taking his original characters to IFC in his new animated series Out There (which premieres tonight at 10:30/9:30c on IFC). I had a chance to chat with Quincy about the show, his "out there" character designs, and fainting in sex ed class.
Tell us what Out There is all about, and how it came to IFC.
Out There is about two best friends, Chad and Chris – 15-year-old boys, virgins for years to come. They live in this small town in the middle of nowhere. Chad is an introverted, sensitive wallflower, and Chris is an anarchist cheerleader, devil-may-care type kid. The show centers around these two kids and their whole experience navigating through adolescence and this very strange town that they live in.
This idea is based a lot on myself growing up in Nebraska during my adolescence. I mine a lot of stories from all that stuff so in the episodes that we’ve done, there’s a lot of that coursing through its veins. READ MORE
One thing that has persisted through the undercurrents of SNL's humor is an ironic fascination of German culture. From the celebration of avant garde in Sprockets to the arrogance and vanity of (technically Austrian) bodybuilders Hanz and Franz — as well as the running gag of Liz Lemon's nerdy fluency in German on 30 Rock — SNL and its cohorts have depicted exactly the German qualities that host Christoph Waltz reflected last Saturday night: charming, precise, deliberate… and yes, a little unnerving.
Such qualities made SNL's first native-German-speaker a natural host. Waltz's many talents acquired from an upbringing in a theater family — singing, dancing, character work — gave the writers plenty to work with, and his laser-sight delivery suited him well for the rigid, demanding structure of an SNL broadcast. But what elevated Waltz from gut to fantastisch was his dark side. Much like in his violent roles in Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained, Waltz seemed most comfortable with racy subject matter — playing a feeble Pope Benedict XVI or a murderous Jesus Christ — or in characters like his darkly judgmental game show host and creepy office lover Demitri.
Always in control and with a willingness to be dangerous, Christoph Waltz was a host who truly kept the trains running on time. (I realize that phrase is a reference to fascist Italy, not Nazi Germany, which makes it even less fitting considering Waltz is Austrian.) READ MORE
It's not easy to reconcile my preferences for the alternative comedy scene that this site represents and my admiration for an eternally mainstream show like SNL. I want a lineup of weird, dark premises and sketches that establish clear games… and then intentionally subvert them. I want sketches to end with Mr. Show-like transitions, with a character leaving the room and walking onto a new set, where a new sketch begins, and throwaway jokes from earlier sketches to reappear later, like Kroll Show is doing. I want an episode where Nick Offerman hosts, Garfunkel and Oates is the musical guest, Danny Pudi sits silently in the background of every sketch, and Lorne Michaels interrupts the cold open by ironically reciting Wes Mendel's rant from Studio 60 and flicking off the camera.
But the SNL isn't that show. SNL is a show for us and the rest of the TV-watching American public. A show that didn't book Zach Galifianakis until he was in The Hangover. A show that repeats sketches, beat-for-beat, three times in half a season. A show that, when its musical guest was caught lip-synching during a live broadcast, did nothing other than a subtle reference in the following week's cold open. SNL once changed culture, but now, 150 years later, it merely adapts to it. Part of that process is, unfortunately, letting Justin Bieber host and musical guest an episode. But despite selling out, it still manages to surprise us, make us laugh, and give us a weird Fred Armisen sketch.
So while I could hold a grudge against SNL for pandering to a demographic its writers despise by unleashing its teen idol host to randomly sing and dance in sketches for no apparent reason, or for doing The Californians for the sixth time in less than a year (sixth!), I will for the time being put aside my animosity for Bieber and that stupid fever of his that led to us having to watch him fumble through sketches and receive giddy squeals nonetheless. Instead, let's talk about an episode that had some fun with some old characters and took a few jabs at the revered pop sensation in the process. READ MORE
It seems SNL has struck gold with booking music stars as hosts. Despite my long-standing pet peeve of musical guests making cameos in sketches — No one wants to watch Cee Lo read cue cards! — I have been proven wrong, again and again, as pop stars and rock legends have strapped on their host shoes and presided over far better episodes than most athletes, comedians, or A-listers have. While I was never sold on the argument that musicians' live-concert backgrounds causally make them natural live sketch performers, musicians are often less likely to let their nerves get the best of them, and they typically bring a fun-loving charisma and game-faced hustle to their roles in sketches. Earlier last decade, Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears relied on their upbringings as child performers to deliver memorable stints. In recent seasons, Elton John, Mick Jagger, and Bruno Mars similarly hosted fun nights. In two weeks, we'll get to see if Justin Bieber is up to the task… though I'm sure that verdict is already in for millions of teenage girls (and a few grown men).
Thanks in part to this hot streak of music star hosts, Adam Levine's turn hosting SNL was highly anticipated. This episode certainly delivered — even if you don't compare it to last week's train wreck, it was still one of the best episodes so far this season — I have to admit it was more in spite of Levine than because of him. There was nothing wrong with Levine's performance, and he had some great moments (notably in the gay advice show Circle Work and in the hilarious Digital Short). However, he lacked the show-stopping highlights that made his predecessors such hits: Dick in a Box, Pandora Intern, Mick in the Mirror, etc. During the goodbyes, Levine looked visibly bummed, which is a shame considering he just finished hosting a near-perfect episode. READ MORE