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
For better or worse, SNL leaves little room for subtlety. The show’s sketches are shot like a live multi-cam sitcom, with three-wall sets, a studio audience, and no time to edit takes for comedic rhythm. It’s interesting to watch 30 Rock’s live episodes in that regard (both of which were shot in SNL’s Studio 8H). The writer-driven, single-camera comedy capitalizes on subtlety in its wordplay and reaction shots. However, in the live episodes, Tina Fey and her team had to find a way to channel that signature 30 Rock sophistication through the broad, pandering, performer-driven world of live comedy. Fey obviously is no stranger to that world, so she succeeded.
The same cannot be said, unfortunately, for Jennifer Lawrence. The Oscar nominee has mastered the closeup, and she brought an uncanny level of naturalism to the surreal dystopia of The Hunger Games and truthfully conveyed a woman broken in Silver Linings Playbook. But her nuanced delivery did her no favors on the SNL stage, where her quiet, passive energy flatlined in most sketches. The writers seemed reluctant to challenge Lawrence with their material, holding her hand the way they do most A-list first-time hosts (re: Jeremy Renner, Daniel Craig, Daniel Radcliffe): a monologue riffing on their IMDB page highlights, lots of walk-on roles, and a parody in which they get to play their big movie character.
Take away Bobby Moynihan, or Bill Hader's various facial hair getups, and this episode was pretty forgettable. READ MORE
Comedian Nick Kroll’s new sketch series for Comedy Central Kroll Show officially premieres tonight, but it feels like the show has already been airing for weeks. Kroll’s characters – both new and old alike – have been floating around online since the show’s announcement two summers ago, giving viewers plenty of time to familiarize themselves with the man’s many talents. Favorites “Bobby Bottleservice” and “Rich Dicks” (with Kroll’s right-hand-man Jon Daly) make cameos in early episodes, along with several new faces. The show moves briskly from character to character, trading dialogue exposition for glossy, self-explanatory title cards, and rarely leaves a second of airtime without a visual gag. Kroll Show looks promising, with three things we’re specifically looking forward to: READ MORE
We're at a rest period in the middle of SNL's 38th season, and now seems like a good time to present all the Nate Silver-esque data I've been compiling over the past few months. Below are some stats from this season, including ratings, online views, cast member screen time, hosts, and top sketches, which will whet your appetite before the show returns on January 19.
Overall I've been pleased with this season. The departures of Kristen Wiig and Andy Samberg suggested the show might go through another rebuilding year, but the cast has filled in nicely, with new female cast members emerging as breakout stars, Jay Pharoah stepping up to the plate as President Obama, and Bobby Moynihan seeing significantly more screen time. Although we might not have noticed due to a string of weak hosts, the writers room has been generating some of the most original content in seasons. A less historic election resulted in less inspired political material, though there were a few highlights. Let's get right to it. READ MORE
This has been a lackluster season so far for SNL hosts. A stellar season premiere with Seth MacFarlane was followed by an overall downward slope of a season hosted by action movie stars who were, for the most part, a little awkward in sketches: Daniel Craig, Jeremy Renner, Jamie Foxx, and though many disagreed, Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Experienced sketch comediennes Anne Hathaway and Christina Applegate gave above average performances, and Louis CK and Bruno Mars proved surprisingly confident, but since MacFarlane we have yet to be blown away by a host's appearance on the show.
That all changed last weekend, when Martin Short returned to the SNL stage to host a triumphant holiday episode. Of course, it helped that Short was once a cast member himself in the 1980s and has appeared on the show a number of times since. The SCTV veteran is perhaps the greatest living sketch comedy actor — he possesses the frenetic joy of a first time performer as well as the cool, smug charm of fellow SNL veterans Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin. He hit his marks with perfect timing, at times reigning in his explosive energy, at others unleashing it to hilarious effect. Short was just the cheery Christmas elf we needed to bookend the first half of season 38 and launch us into 2013 on a happy note. READ MORE
After keeping track of each SNL cast member's share of screen time each episode for the past few seasons, I have noticed an interesting correlation: Whenever a person of color hosts the show, we see a spike in the roles given to the black cast members. Charles Barkley, Maya Rudolph, and now Jamie Foxx all hosted episodes that were big nights for Kenan Thompson and Jay Pharoah — at least, respective to other episodes. What causes this trend? Are black hosts lobbying for black cast members to get more screen time? Does Lorne think black hosts will be more comfortable in sketches if they're accompanied by black performers? Do the writers produce racially themed sketches for weeks when they'll have a black host because they can find few alternative angles to explore?
Perhaps the question we should be asking is, Why do we need a black host for SNL to address race?
While perhaps it's true that black hosts might be more comfortable playing with black actors and the writers may feel a greater urge to address themes of race in those weeks, I suspect the SNL staff would say it's far less a deliberate choice than it seems from the outside. Everyone is still just trying to produce the funniest episode possible. Perhaps when Jamie Foxx huddled with Lorne in his office to pick the final run order, he picked sketches that spoke more to him, and those happened to be ones with racial subtexts. Or maybe it's simply the fact that when your cast has no black woman, the only time you can do a Michelle Obama sketch is when Maya Rudolph is in the room. READ MORE
Part of the genius of SNL's design is how effectively it underestimates its audience's patience. Despite the show's ongoing popularity, it's rare that all of its viewers stay tuned in until the goodbyes at 1 a.m. — "Our competition is sleep," one cast member once said. In the early years, Lorne adopted a strategy of front-loading the lineup with the stronger, more topical sketches, leaving the last half-hour (when even NBC's censor guy has stopped paying attention) for off-beat pieces, filler sketches in case the episode runs short, or sketches in which Fred Armisen sings.
Of course, now that more and more people are watching SNL sketches at their own convenience online, and in whatever order they want, this strategy is becoming increasingly obsolete. It's not uncommon these days to see a few dark premises crawl into the first half of the show, sometimes to great success ("Puppet Class" from the Seth MacFarlane episode). This trend also owes some credit to the Digital Short innovation, where Andy Samberg's short films were so popular that even his most bizarre clips were granted early time slots. However, the old-school formula is still set very much in stone at SNL, and most of America won't miss much if they turn off their TVs after Weekend Update.
Such was not the case last weekend, when action-star Jeremy Renner hosted an episode with one of the weakest starts I've seen in quite some time, just to find its footing later on and cross the finish line with the audience firmly on its side. Having already written off the episode, I was shocked during the goodbyes at how many sketches I actually enjoyed, in retrospect. So if you're one of those viewers who turns in after Seth Meyers' last joke, consider sticking around. And if that's too hard for your sweepy wittwe eyes, or you're way cooler than me and actually do stuff on Saturday nights, just go to bed and then read my recaps to find out which sketches are worth watching on Hulu. Deal?
It's great when an SNL host has nothing to prove.
Sure, it's fun to play into expectations surrounding a new host, and to wonder how his or her specific skill sets might factor into an episode: Will Bruno Mars do anything other than sing in sketches? Will Louis CK's style work in the SNL format? Meanwhile, with a repeat host, those concerns are lifted. Whether it's a former cast member (Will Ferrell, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler), or a longtime friend of the show (Alec Baldwin, Jon Hamm, and now with three episodes under her belt, Anne Hathaway), a host who is familiar with the process can ease back and have a bit more fun. The night becomes less about what the host needs to do to survive and more about letting the writers and cast members work their magic.
Some of my favorite SNL episodes over the years have celebrated the ensemble, and that only happens when you have a host who is a collaborative team player, a rising tide that lifts all ships. Last episode — with its high frequency of big-cast sketches and generous screen time for all cast members (especially recently underused ones like Taran Killam and Aidy Bryant) — was just that. The Dark Knight Rises and Les Miserables star banked on her impersonation prowess and moment-to-moment chemistry to bring out the best of the SNL staff without letting any A-list ego get in the way. Hell, she even thanked the pages during the goodbyes! Most celebrities can't even see those mythical, blazer-wearing sub-humans.
While at times the parodies felt too broad and the premises too thin, Anne Hathaway won the night with a team-player performance, securing the actress as a reliable go-to SNL host. READ MORE
Despite reaching televisions across the country, SNL is at its heart a New York show. The Mayor Bloomberg bits, the subway jokes, and the references to the Dr. Zizmor ads resonate more with the studio audience in 8H than the millions of viewers watching at home, some of us on a three-hour delay in different time zones. Bill Hader’s Stefon character is largely inspired by the city’s seedy underground club scene, and the writers — many of them staples of New York’s stand-up and improv community — share an on-edge, claustrophobia-induced comedic language.
Louis C.K. speaks this language. As a comedian who honed his craft in New York clubs like Caroline’s and the Comedy Cellar, C.K., along with his show on FX, has been praised for his acute observations of city life. Hours before SNL went live last Saturday, he posted an email to his fans describing his feelings about hosting the show in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, and what it was like shooting exterior shots (probably for the amazing Lincoln short) in powerless Greenwich Village: READ MORE
We expect a lot from an SNL host.
Considering most of the people who have hosted the show over the years have had little experience with live TV sketch comedy prior to hosting, and the fact that SNL depends largely on the gimmick of forcing the hosts to play against type — James Bond as a construction worker who's clueless about women, for example — we nonetheless hold the hosts to a high standard, expecting them to out-funny the regular cast members and confining our excitement to our assessment of his or her comedic background. However, comedic background is often irrelevant to an episode's outcome. Some of the best hosts have been actors known better for their dramatic roles — Jon Hamm, Christopher Walken — whereas reliably funny comedians — Dane Cook, Jerry Seinfeld — had a bit of trouble adjusting their style to the speed of the show.
A more reliable indicator for a host's success is his or her credibility: Is he/she up to the task? Does he/she seem comfortable despite the circumstances? Do I want this host to succeed? My rhetorical criticism professor in college used to talk about "the five dimensions of credibility" for political figures: knowledge/sagacity, high moral standard, good will, dynamism, and similarity. I like to apply these values to SNL hosts. Seth MacFarlane demonstrated knowledge of the ins and outs of comedy with his performance during the season premiere. Tom Hanks banks on his persona as an all-around good, moral person whenever he hosts. Lindsay Lohan failed to show good will last season when it became evident she was using the gig to reinvigorate her career. Melissa McCarthy, who prat-fell down stairs and took a blast of ranch dressing in the face, was one of the most dynamic performers SNL has seen since Chris Farley. And whenever a host shares his nervousness during the monologue — as Bruno Mars did last Saturday — it's a classic example of similarity: "This is all new to me. I'm a regular guy… just like you."
Hoping to follow in the footsteps of singer-turned-host-extraordinaire Justin Timberlake, Bruno Mars' announcement as host came as a surprise to fans. While he wasn't the funniest host we've seen, he was certainly a likable one. In an episode that played largely to Mars' musical prowess and unassuming persona, being charming might have been just enough. READ MORE
The only thing more entertaining in American politics right now than Joe Biden is the character version of himself he has inspired.
After spending the 2008 election as a less-exciting foil to Sarah Palin and a gaffe-prone campaigner, Joe Biden emerged as the easiest-to-peg member of the new Obama administration. Intensely brash and dangerously honest, Biden stuck out like a sore thumb in a White House that was otherwise tightlipped and pokerfaced. Political comedians, having exhausted their search for a resonating angle on the president, turned their sights on his brazen understudy. “Biden Minimizes Browser Every Time Obama Walks By,” reported The Onion. During his routine at the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2011, Seth Meyers gave us a crystal clear comedic take on the vice president:
I imagine having Joe Biden as vice president is kind of like taking your blue-collar dad to a fancy restaurant. He’s more comfortable at Olive Garden, he talks too loud, he mispronounces the sauces, and you’re always tempted to lean over to the waiter and say, “I’m sorry about him. He’s from Scranton.” … The vice president loves trains. I assume it must have been hard for the president to tell him the new budget cut $1.5 billion from high-speed rail. “Joe, come in. Take off your engineer’s cap. I have some bad news about the choo-choo’s.” As he broke the news, one of the straps of Joe’s overalls sadly drooped off his shoulder.
That image of Joe Biden – a loose cannon in need of a chaperone – has been a goldmine for SNL. Last season gave us a great moment in which Fred Armisen’s Obama – playing the Daddy in Chief – reprimanded bratty son Joe for spoiling the timing of the administration’s gay marriage announcement. And last weekend, in an ironic reflection of the way the Team Obama unleashed the pitbull VP to reinvigorate the campaign, Seth Meyers turned to his reliably hilarious Biden (Jason Sudeikis) to recover lost ground after the previous week’s lackluster debate sketch. “It’s Tebow time,” Meyers declared. Both Bidens didn’t disappoint.
SNL broke a two-week streak of letdowns with a satisfying cold open and a powerhouse performance by host Christina Applegate. “Your performance tonight is extremely unlikely to affect the outcome of the election, so just have fun with it,” said Kate McKinnon’s Martha Raddatz at the top of the show. Influential or not, this episode was plenty fun. READ MORE