Category Archives: SNL

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Saturday Night Live’s Alumni Problem

Dear TV,

WE’RE TALKING SNL this week, and I’m … excited. Which isn’t a feeling I’ve gotten from SNL in quite awhile. I wasn’t even aware of how much my enthusiasm for the show had waned until I legitimately guffawed at Noël Wells’s Hannah Horvath and Kate McKinnon’s Jessa in the Girls sketch during Tina Fey’s week hosting, an experience recently topped by Beck Bennett’s incredible sketch of the financial wizard in the body of a baby. That was some of the best physical comedy I’ve seen since David Hyde Pierce’s “A Valentine for Niles” and Maria Bamford’s entire oeuvre. So… what gives? Is SNL good again?

A lot of ink has been spent bemoaning SNL’s awfulness over the years, and I’m not particularly interested in investigating the merits of that critique, which I’ve been hearing for as long as I’ve been aware of TV criticism. What does interest me is the persistence of that narrative. If Anne Helen Petersen walked us through how stars use SNL to “thicken” their celebrity persona, I want to think about how the show is dealing with its own image problem: namely, that it’s routinely perceived as being, at best, mediocre TV.

The fact is, the comedy we have available to us on tap these days outperforms SNL on the regular. The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are consistently sharper and funnier than Saturday Night Live. Now, those shows use a different format, they’re scripted, they’re not live, and they don’t require that there be laughs every second, but the point is that if I want a topical laugh, Saturday Night Live isn’t where I go for clips. In its own sketch comedy genre, Mad TV was already making SNL look a little passé back in the late nineties, but — to return for a second to AHP’s post on how distribution changes everything — now that we can stream old favorites like A Bit of Fry and Laurie and Kids in the Hall and newer sketch shows like That Mitchell and Webb Look, get all of Louis CK’s standup for $5, and see Bamford’s entire show on Youtube for free, SNL suffers by comparison. This is strange to say of a live format, but it’s just too polished relative to the gritty low-production-value comedy that’s since come to define the experimental, spontaneous and new. Garfunkel and Oates, anyone?) It’s become the slightly square authority where it was once the rebel, and it’s low-octane comedy these days, comedy that’s a little too glitzed up to be much good, and it’s even competing against itself: you can stream the old (and always “better”) Saturday Night Live on Netflix!

SNL’s position as the Jay Leno of comedy isn’t helped by the fact that its alumni have done as well as they have and have aged publicly. It’s hard for people of our students’ generation, for instance, to believe that the Chevy Chase of Community was ever comedically innovative, or young, or game. When asked whether he learned anything from “established” comedians like Chevy Chase, Donald Glover:

Chevy’s like hilarious cuz he will do, um … none of it ever makes it, but he’ll be like, let me show you something really good, and it’s always like an old dude kinda joke, and I’m like oh, and it really helps me with my comedy science, like why doesn’t that work anymore? … It’s kinda like you learn more from a bad movie than you do from a good movie.

Now, Chevy Chase is the SNL alum extraordinaire: his infamous (second) Comedy Central Roast (which Comedy Central buried because it was so vicious, but you can see parts of it here) amounted to a revolt of younger comedians against everything they perceived Chase to represent — namely, the self-serious egomaniacal sellout who made a huge number of crappy movies for the dollars and not the laughs but still considered himself a comedy genius. But Chase is only the oldest and most embittered of a whole slough of aging SNLers who have in one form or another addressed their time on the show and — perhaps accidentally — degraded its image. Let’s face it: comedy fans these days are purists and they’re weirdly idealistic. We believe in the truth-telling power of comedy in ways we don’t believe in much else, and while that isn’t new — it’s a tradition that dates back to long before Shakespeare’s various Fools — it has intensified recently. Louis CK has disciples.

SNL hasn’t typically honored that priestly tradition, and former cast members have a habit of taking self-referential roles that further erode the sacred character of what we’d like comedy to be. Adam Sandler’s later-in-life turn toward serious acting culminated in the appalling Funny People, which explicitly framed his old comedy (much of which was based on SNL characters) as a hollow ploy for bucks without any regard for quality work. Jimmy Fallon’s turn to late-night hosting only confirmed what we always suspected when he broke in every sketch: he likes chatting up celebs and wearing suits. Rob Schneider. ‘Nuff said. Then of course there’s 30 Rock. I genuinely believe my estimation of SNL subconsciously suffered thanks to Liz Lemon’s world-weary cynicism regarding 30 Rock’s TGS, which is clearly an SNL knockoff and never represented as being anything other than pure crap. 30 Rock’s Achilles heel, in my opinion, is that Jack so often turned out to be right: there is no meaning to Liz’s work.

What I’m getting at is that there’s a certain artistic bankruptcy built into the brand of comedy SNL puts out. It’s always billed as a bit of a hack compromise, albeit with very talented hacks (this quality comes through in both Tina Fey and Rachel Dratch’s autobiographies). It’s live, it’s what we could write in a week, it’s what the host could stomach. In the end, of course, the Famous Person is the weak link. Structurally, the host is a built-in generator of comedic mediocrity: he or she is a contaminant virtually guaranteed to dilute the funnies unless she miraculously possesses or develops comedy chops.

And that was all fine until recently: in a way, it was a version of Celebrity Jeopardy! (one of SNL’s most successful ongoing skits). You get to watch the famous people do something different and burnish their celebrity profile, and you’ll laugh! But this side of the equation, the See the Famous Person side, has collapsed too: we have way more access to famous people than we ever had before thanks to Twitter, fashion sites, gossip sites, deleted scenes, interviews, reality TV and paparazzi. We aren’t starved for the phenomenon of a celebrity unfiltered — LIVE! — the way we once were.

But what — I hear you ask — about SNL statesman Bill Murray? He’s the exception that prove my theory that there are just too many SNL alumni running around degrading the brand. One reason we keep hearing how much better SNL used to be is because most of the old cast members have obligingly faded from view, and Murray has in the interim demonstrated a kind of lifelong comedic integrity: a dedication to comedy as an art form that has taken them into serious spaces without ever abandoning the funny or condescending to the audience. This has retroactively branded their time on SNL as purer and more brilliant (I’m talking about the PR narrative here) and so has death: Andy Kaufman, Chris Farley, and Jon Belushi are comedy saints.

But these guys only got quiet and intense with their funny as they got older, and that’s important. SNL comedy has a certain profile that fits it best, and however muted and prophetic its elder statesmen have since grown, that profile wasn’t subtle or understated or melancholy or wise, it was loud and brash. I’m talking Rachel Dratch and Will Ferrell’s wonderful The Lovahs and Carvey’s Church Lady and Ferrell and Gasteyer’s singing duo and Molly Shannon’s armpit-sniffing and Maya Rudolph’s Donatella Versace and Cheri Oteri’s Get Off My Lawn bits. What these all have in common is that they’re buffoonish and, again, loud. But SNL was tapping into another comedic vein in the ironic 2000s. Let’s call its practitioners the Clever Clan. This is the Seth Meyers/Tina Fey/Amy Poehler/Bill Hader/Jimmy Fallon style. It’s smirky. I like these comedians individually (except for Meyers, who I find likable but totally unfunny and Fallon, an incredible performer but an average comedian) but — to return to where I started, which was wondering when my enthusiasm for SNL had waned — they’re a winky, good-looking bunch, and the ensemble effect was more wry than hilarious. I think this hurt the show. Wry is not a mood Saturday Night Live does well. There are, as we’ve seen, simply too many other people doing it better.

Now, no one says SNL has to be great comedy. It isn’t and doesn’t; as I’ve said, the show’s constraints make greatness almost impossible. But it should be good comedy: you should be laughing a few times a night.

Here’s the sketch that made me realize how quietly bored I’d become by SNL — or at least, how far I’d drifted from an actual laugh into Mildly-Amused-But-Sort-Of-Waiting-For-It-To-End-Land:

This made me laugh my head off. The physicality is SO DISTURBINGLY RIGHT. It’s not a clever meta-joke, it’s an in-your-face belly-joke. For Beck Bennett, who’s new to the show, it’s an instant classic and total triumph. What seems to me really wonderful about a few recent SNL offerings is that the cast is willing to go broad with gusto (and without winking). The turkey sketch Annie mentions is one example; so is the possum sketch with Edward Norton. Aidy Bryant is a delight, Cecily Strong is great (though I wish they’d kill that Girlfriends Talk Show sketch), and Bobby Moynihan’s face is a national treasure. (I want Vanessa Bayer and Taran Killam to do a sketch called The Killer Smiles where they play a couple, the Smiles, whose creepy grins have convinced everyone in the neighborhood — wrongly — that they’re serial killers.) It feels, this season, like there’s less eye-rolling and more energy in the room.

Embrace your inner hack,

Lili

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Good, Giving, and Game: Towards a Theory of SNL Hosting

Dear Television,

WHEN PHIL FIRST emailed to ask if we wanted to cover this week’s Saturday Night Live, he was not optimistic: “It’s a new one, but it’s with WhoGivesAShitJoshHutcherson.” (It was also with HAIM, whose employment of “bass face” merits a column unto itself.) But people do care about Josh Hutcherson — the Youngs care about Hutcherson, and SNL cares about the Youngs, or at least cares about their demo, which is why the hosts and musical guests seemingly oscillate between things 30-something bourgeois hipsters like (HAIM, Tina Fey, Ed Norton, The Alabama Shakes) and things 16-year-olds like (Hutcherson, Lady Gaga, Ne-Yo, Justin Bieber). Then there’s obvious ploy to get anyone over 40 to DVR the show, on display every time they invite a classic host (Steve Martin) or classic comedian (Martin Short, one last season’s best hosts).

So SNL picks hosts to attract demographics, that much is clear. But why do the celebrities pick SNL?

On the surface, the answer is clear: Publicity. Exposure. Promotion, especially for a new movie or album or season of television. But hosting Saturday Night Live also offers the opportunity to add necessary texture, humor, or substance to a star image — to turn “that guy who plays Peeta in Hunger Games” into a national name, something more than sum of his franchise parts.

Star images are the culmination of a star’s publicity, promotion, and textual appearances, but they’re also something more. They’re everything the star says in interviews, every outfit they’re photographed wearing, every appearance they make in films and commercials and award show podiums. But certain sound bites and outfits and appearances are accentuated over others and come to compose the core of the star’s meaning. Julia Roberts did all sorts of things before she was in Pretty Woman, but once she was in that film, it became the foundation of her image, inflecting every choice, every romance, every hairstyle. When she cut and dyed her hair to appear in Mary Reilly, for example, her fans balked. It wasn’t “right,” it was “all wrong” and unnatural — which is another way of saying it wasn’t her Pretty Woman hair, which was the way that audiences wanted to understand her.

We like to think of star images as natural — a reflection, just ever-so-slightly mediated, of the “real” person. But they’re the result of complex strategies of star production: a whole team of people who make decisions about what the star should say, who he should say it to, and how he should say it, and how that will make the star seem to mean a certain thing, like “cool girl” (Jennifer Lawrence) or “your ideal boyfriend” (Ryan Gosling). (I’m not suggesting that J-Law isn’t, in fact, dorky and self-effacing, but her PR team has absolutely told her to amp that performance to 11).

And if star images are products, then SNL functions as a prime, privileged means of image production. It can’t set the image core (at least not for its hosts), but it can inflect that core, give it something like heft and complexity and charisma.

As SNL has aged, it’s amassed an enormous pool of hosts, which means that there are relatively “open” spots in a season, especially for untested non-comedians. But every season, a few would-be stars get their chance. Most of these performers already have something big going for them: a teen franchise (Taylor Lautner), a huge album (Justin Timberlake), or a hit television show (Jon Hamm). But their images, at least at that point, are one-dimensional. Taylor Lautner was Jacob from Twilight and nothing more; Timberlake was a boy bander-turned-solo-pop-star; Jon Hamm was handsome Don Draper.

And then SNL proved that they — or at least two of those listed above — were something more, something bigger and star-worthy.

To excel at hosting, you must be what Dan Savage calls “GGG” — good, giving, and game. Savage uses it to talk about sex, but it applies to comedic performance as well: you’ve got to be a decent actor, you’ve got to give your time and energy to doing it right, and you’ve got to be up for the weirdest shit the writers throw your way.

Timberlake and Hamm are “good” because they are, bluntly, good actors. (Timberlake may falter on the big screen, but that’s usually an issue of casting: if he were playing his Social Network and Bad Teacher roles at all times, we wouldn’t have a problem). They can take direction, they hit their marks, they don’t “break” in reaction to a punchline.

They’re generous to their co-performers (Timberlake was always happy to let Fallon have the joke), but they’re also “giving” in a slightly different way: they learn their lines. It’s clear they’ve rehearsed — that they’re taking this comedy diversion seriously. (I enjoyed parts of Kerry Washington’s hosting turn from a few weeks ago, but she was visibly reading the cue cards 75% of the time).

And Timberlake and Hamm are both “game”: Timberlake was willing to do weird Color Me Badd riffs (before the ’80s were even that cool again) that involved a.) his penis and b.) having sex with his friend’s mother. But it’s more than just the viral hits — watch Timberlake in “The Barry Gibb Show,” from one of his earliest hosting appearances, and see a man willing to own the ‘70s androgynous pantsuit/temper tantrum.

(Right around 37:00 mark).

And Jon Hamm is likable and Jon Hamm-ish throughout his hosting gig, essentially reifying his Jon Hamm-ness, but he’s also so gamely bizarre in skits like “Jon Hamm’s Jon Ham,” about a bathroom stall ham dispenser.


After hosting SNL, the discourse about both Timberlake and Hamm changed. Suddenly, Timberlake was more than just a former Mickey Mouse Clubber who dated Britney Spears and might be the next MJ: he was funny, maybe even smart, with an indelible charisma that you have to battle to dislike. With that sort of layered image, it became impossible to write Timberlake off as just another boy band star turned solo. It thickened his image, made it stick — which is precisely why he’s still around today and not just an aging 30-something with an arguably disappointing third record.

As for Jon Hamm, he became something more than Don Draper. The famous Don Draper satire skit showed just how performative Draper is — how easy, in other words, it is to “play at” being Draper-ish, with the added bonus of highlighting Hamm’s distance from the Draper character. (You don’t make fun of who you are, just who people think you are). Television stars always have this problem: because you see them playing the same character week after week, their star images are overdetermined by their onscreen characters, making it very difficult for them to move on to marketedly different roles. (See: Jerry Seinfeld, the entire cast of Friends, etc.) Unlike movie stars, who only play a role for two hours, television stars are equated with a role for years.

Hamm could have been stuck to Don Draper forever, but he/his people made two calculated and, in hindsight, genius moves: he appeared as a very unsuave, unDraper womanizer in Bridesmaids, and he was very, very funny on SNL. And now he’s a bonafide star, with a Hollywood future that will extend far beyond season seven of Mad Men. He’s charismatic and handsome and talented, but lots of television actors have that. With the help of SNL (and the lack of underwear), however, Hamm built himself an actual star image.

As for Lautner, there’s many reasons why that kid isn’t a star, and lack of trying isn’t one of them. After the success of the first Twilight, his publicity team did a fairly masterful job of promoting his road from scrawny teenager to jacked werewolf, and he was signed to a slew of action roles that promised to make him into the next Tom Cruise. But unlike Cruise, Lautner can’t act. He also has no charisma, or agility as a performer, or even, it seems, a robust sense of humor — all of which were on prime display in his turn as SNL host.

The lesson: SNL can turn you into a legitimate star, but it can also prove that you maybe shouldn’t be one.

Which is why Josh Hutcherson’s turn as host was so quietly delightful. Here’s a guy who, on paper, should be a horrible host. He’s the (relatively) boring straight man from a franchise (albeit a better franchise than most) and his acting, at least in the first one, isn’t noteworthy. If there’s one thing people know about him, it’s that he’s not who they would’ve cast as the hot, strong-armed baker-turned-Katniss love interest.

From the beginning of the episode, Hutcherson was all about redeeming himself. In the first sketch, he roundly ridicules the passivity of his Hunger Games character, and in the digital short “Matchbox 3,” about a crew of subway performers who do their acts in very, very confined spaces, he not only makes fun of his height, but gives himself over fully to the role.

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(There’s something so winsome about the way he throws his hand in air in the intro).

And then there’s the most bonkers skit on the show, in which Hutcherson brings home his “new girlfriend” for Thanksgiving, only to surprise his family with the fact that she’s….a turkey.

It’s a classic example of weird, end-of-the-night SNL. It’s not funny, exactly, nor is it entirely satire, but Hutcherson’s ability to straight-facedly make out with a turkey should make us consider him as something more than sad-faced Peeta.

Because Hutcherson is, indeed, more than just a franchise star: he was convincing and embarrassed in The Kids Are Alright, and he’s been slogging through bit roles and kid parts since 2003. Like Hamm, Timberlake, and other recent SNL charmers Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Miley Cyrus, Hutcherson is a workhorse — in classic Hollywood, they called actors like them “troupers” because they’d paid their dues, often since they were young children, in vaudeville troupes, where they’d laugh, cry, sing, dance, do stunts, and then do it all over again 24 hours later in the next town. They were GGG because their very livelihood depended on it.

Cary Grant was a trouper, so was Judy Garland — and both would’ve made superlative SNL hosts. Because when it comes down to it, SNL is the vaudeville show for the 21st century, with the ability to bring out the best and worst in its hosts. A hosting gig will always provide visibility. But if the performer is a GGG trouper, that gig can also make him or her a star. It didn’t quite happen with Hutcherson, but who knows: given another chance and more, weirder, material, it might yet.

Googling “Jon Ham,”

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