With only two shows left this year, SNL booked some heavy hitters for May sweeps, with Betty White and Jay-Z for the May 8th show, and frequent host Alec Baldwin paired with frequent musical guest Tom Petty for the season finale on May 15th.
The Betty White show has to be one of the most hyped episodes in the series' 35 year history. This was the first time that SNL booked someone requested by a Facebook campaign: of course, Betty White is a universally recognized and beloved TV legend, so that helped give the movement momentum. As well, six female SNL alumni were on hand, ostensibly to take the load off the 88-year-old White. The anticipation for this episode was so great that NBC even began promoting it in the middle of the Gabourey Sidibe show on April 24. But how was it?
I posted a few weeks ago that this season was a disappointment. The Sidibe episode that aired the week after I made the post was another fairly unremarkable show with a lot of recurring material, but Gabourey was game despite her inexperience being evident on air. In essence, a typical SNL for season 35. White's episode, though, wasn't really supposed to be a typical show like Sidibe's, as it was treated like a "special" episode for Mothers Day, and the returning alumni brought their stockpiles of characters and sketches. Recurring material seemed likely anyway: this was a show for the casual viewer, and if they can bring back a few recognizable sketches it would help the hit-to-miss ratio. It kind of reminds me of the time in 1984 when Ringo Starr hosted and halfway through the week the exhausted staff scrapped all the material and decided to do a show based around recurring sketches to avoid giving a Beatle a weak show.
As expected, the show was pretty heavy on recurring material. Some of it was nice to see again, specifically Ana Gasteyer and Molly Shannon's "Delicious Dish" radio hosts, doing a distaff variation on Alec Baldwin's "Schwedde Balls" routine with Betty talking about her "muffin". From the current season's stable, Kenan Thompson's "Scared Straight" inmate, Will Forte's MacGruber and Kristen Wiig's deformed Lawrence Welk singer Dooneese made return appearances. They also needlessly brought back a one-joke sketch from December called "The Manual Ortiz Show," and the last sketch of the night seemed to be a sequel of sorts to Fey's classic 2000 Christopher Walken census sketch.
The important difference was Betty White. She did seem a little shaky at first, but as the show went on she started to get on a roll; not only was she at ease doing the show, she positively THRIVED, making laughter come as naturally as she has been doing for 60 years. This was surprising because all expectations were for her to be on reduced duty and let Fey, Poehler et al. have their own moments in the spotlight. White was in the entire show, though, from the cold opening to Weekend Update to the hilarious Digital Short (easily the best moment of the night, with it's mixture of sweet sentiment and manic insanity). A lot of the material was based on "old lady saying dirty/shocking things"; it seemed to be a little bit of a crutch but Betty White has this bawdiness and devilishness to her, mixed with sheer professionalism and the ability to sell material, and that helped the show pull off what would have fallen flat with a less sure comic performer. It was definitely a feel good show: you could see Betty bask in the applause in her first appearance in the cold opening, and the sheer reverence everyone in the cast had for her was apparent throughout.
Next weekend's show is the season finale. With Alec Baldwin, they usually write an "event" show for him, and I'm glad to say that they've finally realized the importance of having a good lineup for the last show of the season. Unfortunately, as good a host as Baldwin is, there have been a few episodes of his that were definitely underwhelming (I'm talking about the one from February 1994 he co-hosted with then-wife Kim Basinger, and the November 2003 show from a particularly uninspired patch in the show's history). There's always the chance that they used up their energy with this week's show and they'll coast for the finale, another trend from several seasons past. It remains to be seen if the finale will leave me excited for the upcoming year (like last season's did) or hoping for big changes (like too many other seasons before).