SNL Post-mortem: 09/28/13: Tina Fey / Arcade Fire

Saturday Night Live began its 39th season with a bit more media attention than usual: six new featured players were added to pad out a cast that lost three of its key players over the summer, and last year's rookie breakout Cecily Strong was added to Weekend Update to prepare for anchor Seth Meyers' departure for his own Late Night show mid-season.  In short, another "transition year" for a show that seems to be in the throes of a particularly long and gradual "transition year".

I've written about this before, but the season premiere is not really the best place to judge how the season as a whole will go.  The first few shows in September and October have the cast and writers slowly settling back into their routines, and they largely play it safe until the group dynamic is re-established.  Selecting TIna Fey as a host was a smart choice, though I suspect, like with Amy Poehler three years ago, the producers were having a little trouble finalizing that slot as the announcement came less than three weeks before air.  Fey also didn't really have anything to promote aside from being a successful alumna.  

Her fourth gig as host (and first since appearing while 6 months pregnant in May 2011) was welcome, though: with Fey, it feels like there's an extra member in the cast rather than someone being shoehorned into sketches.  

It did feel like the show was struggling to come up with content.  The influx of new players served as the basis for two whole segments: the monologue, and a game show where Tina Fey had to guess whether someone was a new featured player or a member of Arcade Fire.  Both of these segments were actually pretty funny, but SNL usually handles their new cast influxes a bit more succinctly than this (Side note: my all-time favorite way of introducing new players was 1986's premiere, which didn't show a member of its mostly-new cast on-camera before the first commercial break).  

On the downside, there were a few thin premises (the airport sketch, the PBS movie show), and the recurring characters (Drunk Uncle and the Ex-Porn Stars) didn't have their best outings.  I suspect that this was less of a problem than it would have been without Fey, who knows how to play the weaker bits.  While the Aaron Paul cameos were welcome and appropriate considering the event-level finale of Breaking Bad the next night, by the time of his third appearance they began to feel like a crutch.

Cecily Strong made her debut as a Weekend Update co-anchor.  Last season, she made a quick impression with characters like "The Girl You Wish You Haven't Started A Conversation With At A Party", and felt like a veteran after only a few shows.  Her first time at the desk showed promise, but was underwhelming: she seems to be trying to force herself into the Seth Meyers sarcastic delivery mold, and seemed to have an absence of the gravitas that Jane Curtin or Fey herself had at the desk.  I hope she eventually grows into her new role and finds a way to make the desk her own, rather than continue to dish out more of the same style of humor that Seth Meyers has been serving on WU since 2006.

The large number of people in the cast (and tendency toward longer openings, monologues and Weekend Update) means that there are a lot of people competing for airtime, and because the show only has so much space, some will inevitably get shut out some weeks.  Of the new hires, Kyle Mooney and Noel Wells seemed to make the strongest impressions tonight.  Mooney got an Update feature for his inaugural show with his hack stand-up character Bruce Chandling, and Wells led a fake promo for HBO's Girls with her Lena Dunham impression.  Writer-turned-player Mike O'Brien also had a feature playing an old-timey used car salesman character, but Fey was the one who carried the sketch.  Beck Bennett ended up relagated to support roles, while John Milheiser and Brooks Wheelan only had bit parts.  It remains to be seen how the male players will distinguish themselves from each other.

The size of the cast will only serve to make it tougher for some veterans to get airtime: Nasim Pedrad, now in her fifth season, seems to appear on the show significantly less each passing year, and while Jay Pharoah's Obama ensures his spot in the cast, he was nowhere to be seen after the opening montage.  Other than these two, the remaining cast seems to be gelling as a group, with Bobby Moynihan, Taran Killam, Vanessa Bayer, Aidy Bryant and Kate McKinnon settling into clear roles in the cast.  Curiously, it feels like they're grooming Kenan Thompson to take some of the Bill Hader and Jason Sudiekis roles, as his game show emcee and PBS host characters would have been portrayed by either of the two departed players.

I was disappointed that Tim Robinson was swapped out of the cast and into the writer's room for this year, essentially switching places with Mike O'Brien.  Robinson may not have had as stellar a year as Cecily Strong, but he was responsible for some of last year's more memorable sketches ("Z-Shirts" and "Roundball Rock").  O'Brien seems to fill a similar niche in the roles he plays, but he's not as strong a performer as Robinson, nor does he quite have his strong comedic sensibility.

I'm still on the fence about the Arcade Fire performances: I do give them credit for always trying to present themselves with an interesting visual, but I wasn't feeling either of their songs tonight.  I suspect they'll grow on me in the context of the album, though.   For me, their best appearance was backing up Mick Jagger on "The Last Time" if only for the sheer joy exuding from their faces (Sarah Neufeld had a huge grin on hers all throughout).

Next week: Miley Cyrus is the host and musical guest.  Hope she keeps her tongue in.

SNL Season 38: End of an era

Last year, Saturday Night Live said goodbye to Kristen Wiig and Andy Samberg, two of the major performers on the show's past couple of seasons.  Samberg and his cohorts from The Lonely Island brought the show into the viral media age with their Digital Shorts, and for better or worse, Wiig was the show's dominant performer.  The loss of the show's most recognizable stars seemed to portend an uncertain time in SNL's history, but despite the hiring of a few new faces and the dismissal of another player (Abby Elliott), the 2012-13 season didn't seem to have a feeling that there was a void the show was desperately trying to fill.  A lot of the credit for this belongs to the new performers hired as featured players, particularly Cecily Strong; she established her place on the show quickly and firmly, in a way not seen since Amy Poehler.  Kate McKinnon (a late-season addition for 2011-12), was also fairly prominent, owing to having similar strengths as the departed Wiig.  While Aidy Bryant and Tim Robinson are still waiting for their breakouts, both show promise and distinct sensibilities that the show could mine to its benefit.

I do feel the long tenures of some players like Seth Meyers, Fred Armisen and Kenan Thompson tend to hold the show from effectively developing some of the new cast, but in three seasons alone, Taran Killam seems ready to take over as SNL's alpha male next season.  Jason Sudeikis and Bill Hader provided a solid backbone for this season.  Bobby Moynihan had the best year of his tenure, Vanessa Bayer rebounded from a confidence drop that plagued her throughout 2011-12, and Jay Pharoah taking over the Obama impression helped establish his place in the cast.  Only Nasim Pedrad feels particularly misused, mainly stuck with "little kid" and "old lady" roles.

The writing staff was mostly stable this year.  There were a few departures: Christine Nangle and Weekend Update writer Jessica Conrad did not come back this season, and John Mulaney joined Paula Pell as a part-time contributor.  One writer returned to the show after a seven-year absence (Joe Kelly, most recently a writer/producer for How I Met Your Mother).  Neil Casey and Josh Patten joined the staff, and, beginning in February, a slew of guest writers were brought aboard for brief stints, including Chelsea Peretti, Cora Frazier, Michael Che, Edi Patterson, Monica Padrick and Kids In The Hall alum Kevin McDonald (Che was later added to the regular roster for the May shows).

The season was fairly uneven, though, with more pronounced highs and lows than SNL's experienced in a few years.  There were a greater number of outright duds this year (the Mountain Pass sketch from Louis CK comes to mind), yet the stumbles felt more like the show was losing its fear of failure that made the last couple of seasons a little too safe and antiseptic.  In a way, this actually came off as promising.  There were also enough flashes of inspiration, including the Mike O'Brien-penned short film "Sad Mouse" and two-part sketches like Tim Robinson's "Z Shirts" and Seth Meyers' "Darrell's House" that imbued this season with a freshness not seen in a while.

The show has always had castmembers come and go to varying levels of fanfare, but it seems that the big emotional farewell for a departing player has become de rigeur in recent years.  Phil Hartman's 1994 send-off featured the show's recurring characters performing a variant of "So Long, Farewell" from The Sound Of Music.  Will Ferrell's 2002 departure was marked by the cast (except for Tracy Morgan) speaking out-of-character about how he'll be missed.  What turned out to be Darrell Hammond's final show didn't have an explicit tribute, but the cameo-filled full-cast "Goodnight Saigon" performance felt uncharacteristically emotional to be just a random Will Ferrell sketch.  The Kristen Wiig "graduation ceremony" at the end of Mick Jagger's show last season seemed to outdo all these earlier goodbyes; despite Wiig being such a divisive castmember for a lot of fans, the emotional displays of from her colleagues made her swan song all the more moving.

I touched on the news of Bill Hader, Fred Armisen and Seth Meyers' departures from SNL in my last post.  Hader and Armisen both got their goodbyes last night; unlike Wiig, both performers chose to say their goodbyes in character.  Hader's farewell was one last Stefon appearance on Weekend Update, culminating in a pre-taped segment of Seth Meyers racing through New York to stop the club promoter's wedding to Anderson Cooper a la The Graduate.  Armisen used the show's 10-to-1 to perform an understated farewell tune as his Thatcherite punk character Ian Rubbish, with Hader, Killam and Sudeikis as the Bizarros, and cameos by Aimee Mann, Michael Penn, J. Mascis, Kim Gordon, Sex Pistol Steve Jones, and Armisen's Portlandia collaborator Carrie Brownstein.   SNL is not a show that often features genuine emotion very often: when it does, such as last night, the results are amazing and devastating.

With the departures of Hader and Armisen, Meyers' impending move to the Late Night desk, and the rumored exit of Jason Sudiekis, last night's show truly felt like the end of an era for Saturday Night Live.  Even if Meyers sticks around to ease the transition to the next Weekend Update anchor and head writer, he will seem more like a vestige of a prior version of SNL than a full-fledged member of the new guard.

SNL's cast change news

The next season I'm going to be reviewing on the blog is...1982-83!  I'm going to start my reviews after the current season wraps up; I'll be giving my thoughts on 2012-13 as a whole before doing my intro post for the season, then the first review will be of the Chevy Chase / Queen show.

It's been quite an eventful week in Saturday Night Live related news: it hasn't been a full week since the last live show with host Kristen Wiig (which was, by most accounts, underwhelming) but with word that this week's season finale will be Bill Hader and Fred Armisen's last show, and the announcement that Seth Meyers will depart mid-season to take over Late Night, SNL's next season is already shaping up to be very different.

Bill Hader's departure is going to be a huge loss for the show; I consider him to be the "glue" of the current cast, and many fans on the message boards have already mentioned he belongs in the ranks of the top ten SNLers of all time.  He impressed me even as far back as his rookie season: there was one sketch in the Jason Lee episode that was a commercial parody for tasers, and Hader walked away with the whole thing with his delivery on one line: "Is that man a criminal? Well, he sure looked like one."  There was a time when Andy Samberg overshadowed him, especially immediately after "Lazy Sunday" hit big, but Hader has been consistently solid in sketches, even if sometimes he begins to break character, as he does in Scared Straight, The Californians, or Stefon.  Despite sticking around the show for a year longer than Kristen Wiig, it never really felt like he overstayed his welcome: even his big recurring character Stefon is still capable of providing the highlight of a particular show.

I'm a little more mixed on losing Fred Armisen.  Early in his tenure, he brought such a different sensibility to the show, and was a relief from the antics of Jimmy Fallon and Horatio Sanz, which were starting to run their course (side note: I've since grown to appreciate both a bit more).   Unfortunately, Armisen's last few years haven't held up to the standard set by his early SNL work.  Part of the blame goes to his being cast as Barack Obama: at the time, it made a bit of sense, since Armisen had the closest resemblance to the candidate, but he never really got the voice down or found a real hook for the impression.  It didn't help that the most frequent use of his Obama was in these lengthy, lecture-like "in one" segments.  Toward the end of the run, his other roles started to run together: in the Arab Spring, he had a string of appearances as middle-eastern dictators making outdated pop-culture references in the same identical accent.  I never cared much for Garth and Kat or The Californians either.  His work on Portlandia seems to be where he's at his best, though, even if his later SNL work comes off as him goofing off and participating in private jokes.  Even so, he still had a knack for knowing parodies of certain types of people and affectionate tributes to musical genres.  Eleven years is a long time to stay on the show, though, and Armisen's departure is something that opens up a lot of possibilities for SNL.

The biggest change will be Seth Meyers' promotion to late-night talk show host.  Meyers has been the show's head writer and Weekend Update anchor since 2006; he is currently the longest-tenured WU anchor of all time.  While the show has taken a bit of a dip in quality around 2009, a lot of the sketches with Meyers' name attached have been some of the strongest of the past few seasons: he wrote Coach Bert (Steve Buscemi episode) and Darrell's House (Zach Galifianakis episode).  He's staying an extra half-season, but I'm curious whether his exit will also mean that he's going to poach the ranks of the current SNL writing staff for his new show.  Despite all the new players that have been introduced since Meyers became head writer, the writing feels stale at times, with the writers' room dominated by veterans and new writers only lasting a short period of time (particularly the 2008, 2009 and 2010 hires).  If anything is going to shift the show significantly, it's going to be Meyers leaving.

I think the remaining cast (particularly Taran Killam and Cecily Strong) has proven they are more than capable of carrying the show, even if these three veterans are gone.  Some expect Jason Sudeikis and Kenan Thompson to leave with them, but until either say the word, they could still be heading up the next year's cast.  Despite some issues with the writing, this year's cast is one of the best in a long time.

But I'll get back to that after the finale.

Capsule comments on some SNLs I watched

I've been transferring some of my original broadcasts of SNL to DVD format, and I'm using the chance to watch some of these shows for the first time in years.  I thought I'd give some of my thoughts on some of them.

  • Elijah Wood / Jet:  OK show, good host.  This had Amy Poehler's first Hillary Clinton impression, one of Maya Rudolph's earlier Whitney Houston bits (not quite as exaggerated and mean-spirited as they would get), and Chris Kattan making his second cameo since leaving the show.  Not as good as I remembered it, though.
  • Jack Black / John Mayer:  Better than I remembered, still Black's weakest outing (2002 was probably his best though 2005 had Lazy Sunday and Spelling Bee).  It's a shame they didn't do the Adult Students after this time.  Wade Robson Project was kind of odd to have so early in the show (does anyone even remember that show now?) but Black saved a lot of the weaker material.  Best sketch was Cat's In The Cradle, with Jack as the singer airing out childhood issues with his father (Horatio Sanz) while on stage, as new step-mom Shelley Long (Amy Poehler) points out she was on Cheers.  I heard that was actually Jason Sudeikis' first aired sketch as a writer.
  • Jennifer Garner / Beck:  The start of a four-show hot streak for an uneven season.  Will Forte and Seth Meyers look like little kids in the monologue that Tracy Morgan steals by dressing as cupid ("You make me feel like the Lion King!").  Good early Fred Armisen stuff with the "Lights Out" sketch.  Garner had good energy and presence in her sketches.  Debut of Amy Poehler's cartoonish Michael Jackson impression, kind of a slap in the face for Dean Edwards who does a better job as one of the alien Michaels.  Saddam and Osama was actually funnier than I remembered it.  I used to be sick of Jimmy Fallon and Horatio Sanz cracking each other up but I couldn't help but laugh at this one.
  • Paris Hilton / Keane:  At the time I didn't think it was bad as it could be, but yeah, this was one that was even worse than I remembered.  I couldn't help but think about Tina Fey referring to Hilton as "a piece of shit" on Howard Stern all through the episode.  She always seemed to be doing that damn hand-on-hip pose in sketches combined with this air of doing the show a favor just by being there, which would be annoying enough without blatant gaffes (crossing between Chris Parnell and the camera during the closing of Merv The Perv, not hiding her real arm when holding a fake for a Barbie sketch).  Aside from an American Idol sketch and a nerd phone-sex line, the sketches were pretty weak too. seemed to be Jim Downey's way of showing disapproval of the host (the audience seemed a little uncomfortable in those, because they veered a little close to dead baby comedy).

It's interesting to see some of these shows and then watch a new show where Seth Meyers, Fred Armisen and Kenan Thompson are still hanging around.  I'm also realizing Horatio Sanz was a much better cast member than I remembered.

SNL Season 36: Still ill.

I wrote last year about how SNL was showing signs of severe creative fatigue, with an over-reliance on recurring material, and a higher number of disappointing shows than in seasons past.I mentioned that unless the show took steps to fix some of these very noticeable signs of wear, the show is only going to get worse. SNL is still sick.I would argue it's a bit worse than last season, ever so subtly.There weren't any violently obvious symptoms like with last season, but the times when it appears to be firing on all cylinders are fewer and further between.

The staleness has been lingering for years now and the stench is starting to get pungent.At least when the show was at its worst they took quick emergency measures to fix the show.I do hope for next year that the creative powers-that-be realize they need to operate, or we're going to watch the show suffer and decay even further.

Read More

SNL Season 35: Final cast and episode summary

This is my last part in my series of posts about the 2009-2010 season of SNL.If I blog about SNL any more during the summer hiatus I'm going to focus on earlier seasons and episodes.I plan on doing reviews of an earlier season during the summer, but I wanted to give some final thoughts on the castmembers and the shows this year.I've said before that the writing was the big problem on the show, but I wanted to get in depth on the individual castmembers' performances this year.I also wanted to highlight a few of the standout moments of this year, both good and bad.

Read More

SNL Season 35: What's Wrong?

The current SNL season is almost finished, and by and large it's been a dissapointment.It's not quite at the point it was in the infamously bad seasons (1980-81, 1994-95), but after coming off a particularly strong 2008-09 season (buoyed in part by Tina Fey's cameo appearances as Sarah Palin), the drop in quality is still noticable and that if things don't get fixed soon, it's going to get worse.For the most part this year has actually had at least one funny sketch per show.But the cracks are visible and unless something changes over the summer, next year could have the makings of another bad year on the level of 1994-95, when the show could no longer successfully navigate the line that divides the uninspired and the terrible.

Read More