Thursday, November 8, 2007

SNL Will Be Missed During Strike, But Not Too Much

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

For most of the television universe, when it comes to viewers, the writers strike is kind of like eating Doritos: We know it’s bad for us, but we put it out of our minds because the damage will occur down the road. Despite the strike, networks have enough episodes of most of their prime time series to make it through the calendar year. So, the strike has limited immediate impact in prime time. While the daily talk shows have been a casualty of the walkout, it looks like we will soon see the first weekly program to be shut down: “Saturday Night Live.”

It took me a while to realize that SNL would be waylaid by the strike, because, really, I didn’t really care that much. Tell me that I have to go weeks without “30 Rock” or “The Office,” or even without new favorites like “Aliens in America” and “Samantha Who?”, and I would immediately start reaching for the Xanax. But no SNL? Well, that’s 40 minutes saved on Sundays, when I generally buzz through the previous night’s episode on my TiVo.

Taking the position that SNL isn’t as good as it used to be is about as current, groundbreaking and interesting as a Dan Quayle joke. But that doesn’t change the fact that SNL isn’t as good as it used to be.

In the past, SNL has gone through its ups and downs. But the current downward trend has been longer than any other in the sketch pioneer’s more than 30-year history. Will Ferrell left the show in May 2001, beginning a talent drain that has not been reversed. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the Weekend Update chair, where the Ferrell-era team of Tina Fey and Jimmy Fallon has evolved into a pairing of Amy Poehler and Seth Meyers. The Fey/Fallon Update segment was must-see television. The Poehler-Meyers edition is occasionally amusing.

And that is really the problem with SNL. When it started, it was so daring and new, it became appointment television. I remember being a kid and looking forward all week to the next episode to see what craziness would go on (yeah, I know, I needed to get a life, but I digress ...). Even as SNL became more formulaic and corporate, the show still managed to feel the pulse of the culture and deliver funny and cutting observations, from Dana Carvery’s George Bush, to Phil Hartman’s (and later Darrell Hammond’s) Bill Clinton, and with all the pop culture of-the-moment figures in between (for some reason, Ben Affleck lusting after Chris Kattan’s male stripper Mango leaps to mind). But now? Other than a handful of exceptions I’ll get to later, what does SNL do that gets people talking anymore?

This year has featured four original episodes, three of which were hosted by men who were not primarily actors or comics (LeBron James, Jon Bon Jovi and Brian Williams). Again, putting aside some select exceptions, how many memorable moments has the season offered? Can you think of one sketch from any of those episodes that made you laugh (other than ones that started the show)? I’m hard-pressed. I liked the 2007 National Douchebag Championships during Seth Rogen’s show, especially the different types of annoying guys featured. I can’t think of another segment from this season that I thought rose above the level of mildly amusing. I went back and looked at a list of this season’s sketches to refresh my memory, figuring I must have forgotten something, but I really didn’t. I thought Williams did a good job as the fireman guest on “Bronx Beat.” After that, I’m out.

Look, I know that every era of SNL, even the vaunted Belushi years, had a ton of lame sketches that didn’t go anywhere. It wasn’t a sea of Coneheads, “Sprockets” episodes and wannabe cheerleaders. The difference was that you knew that in most cases, there would be at least one bit (if not more) during the show that everyone would be talking about the next few days. In other words, there was an Aerosmith on “Wayne’s World” or “Sinatra Group” moment to make it all worthwhile. That quality is missing from this year’s sketches, and has been for quite some time.

It is fitting that the first sketch after the monologue on the season premiere revolved around Kristen Wiig’s Penelope character, the annoyingly high-pitched woman who has the need to one-up everyone. The character is tired, and the Penelope sketches have one joke and nowhere to go. It’s enough already. Similarly, this year we’ve had to endure Will Forte’s MacGyver parody, McGruber, again, which literally plays out the same one joke (McGruber gets distracted from disabling a bomb and it blows up) over and over again. Same for Bill Hader’s Italian talk show host. Doing an entire sketch in Italian with a bewildered American guest might have been on the brave side when it debuted last season, but, again, now it just beats its one-joke premise into the ground. Even “Bronx Beat,” featuring Poehler and Maya Rudolph as bored, middle-aged Bronx natives hosting a talk show, is starting to feel played out. If I never again have to hear Rudolph say terrible things about her husband but then get choked up because she loves him, I can still live a full and satisfying life. Which really applies to nearly every SNL sketch this season.

So, if I think so little of the show, why do I TiVo it every week? Habit, sure, but there are three things that I actually think still generally work: The fake commercials, the cold opens and the digital shorts.

The fake commercials still manage to occasionally come up with something edgy enough not to demean a long tradition that includes classics like the Bass-O-Matic, Puppy Uppers and Oops I Crapped My Pants, just to name three. This season has included a clever send-up of the spots for the Sundance Channel’s “Iconoclasts” series, with SNL pairing Charles Barkley (Keenan Thompson) and Bjork (Wiig); Jason Sudeikis skewering Dane Cook’s incredibly annoying promos for the baseball playoffs was dead-on; and my favorite of all, the Veritas Ultrasound HD, so expectant fathers can actually see what their fetuses look like (with picture-in-picture, so father’s can also watch the game).

The cold open is the first sketch that airs, before the opening credits. On an episode of “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” last season, Matthew Perry’s character, the head writer, spends an entire episode obsessing about the cold open of the first episode since he returned to run the show. (Incidentally, the bit he comes up with is brilliant. Check it out on the DVD.) I feel like the current SNL takes the same approach. It’s as if they consciously want to make sure the cold open is memorable. If only they took the same attitude with the rest of the show.

The season premiere’s cold open was an address from the All-But-Certain-to-be-Next President, Hilary Clinton (Poehler). It was funny, and it cleverly lampooned the air of inevitability surrounding Clinton’s campaign. The next week, Andy Samberg opened the show as Kevin Federline, having fun with the idea that he was judged by a court to be a more-fit parent, which shows how far down Britney Spears’s life has spiraled. While less topical, the sketch that kicked of Bon Jovi’s turn as host featured Poehler as herself, circa 1986, angry because, among other things, she could not go to that night’s Bon Jovi show. The sketch was filled with cleverly observant comedy about the era and teenagers, with my favorite bit being Poehler bathing herself in enough hair spray to take down a good chunk of the ozone layer (it was 1986, after all). Finally, the cold open for the Brian Williams week, featuring a Halloween costume party at the Clintons’ house, was saved by the surprise of Barack Obama in a Barack Obama mask (poking fun at claims of Clinton’s lack of authenticity).

By the way, that means that in two of the four weeks, the show’s feature segment had Darrell Hammond playing Bill Clinton. Don’t get me wrong, Hammond does a great job portraying the former president as a fun-loving, women-chasing, wife-hating operator, but the fact that the show is still relying on its 90s stars to carry the load shows the dearth of new talent.

Except, that is, when it comes to the SNL Digital Shorts. Samberg, along with his writing partners Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone, put the feature on the map in December of 2005 with “Lazy Sunday,” a rap video parody about two guys who want to see “The Chronicles of Narnia.” The buzz really took off last season when Samberg teamed with Justin Timberlake for “Dick in a Box,” another music video, this time in a boy band style, that extolled the virtues of men gifting their manhood to their women. The digital shorts, despite low budgets and rushed schedules, manage to carry the bite and relevance that are missing in the rest of the program. This season’s highlight has been the music video “Iran So Far,” a comedic ode to Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The “Punk’d” parody “People Getting Punched Right Before Eating” was pretty funny, and “A Day in the Life of Brian Williams” was even better. The digital short is the one must-see element of each episode, and one of the only reasons to keep watching SNL, much in the way Fey’s Update segment was earlier in the decade.

As an aside, I don’t have much to say about the music acts on SNL, but that has more to do with the current state of the music business than the artists invited onto the show. This season, SNL gets points for mixing quality established artists like Foo Fighters and Kanye West with less well-known critics’ darlings like Spoon and Feist.

So with the writers out on strike, I miss David Letterman and Jon Stewart far more than SNL. If only Samberg could post a weekly SNL Digital Short directly to YouTube. It would almost be like the show never left.