Season Premiere Review: Saturday Night Live Season 38

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Season 38 was always going to be one of those “transitional” SNL seasons. With the loss of Andy Samberg, who kept SNL relevant in the age of viral videos with his “Digital Shorts,” and Kristen Wiig, certainly the signature cast member of this era of the show, and no big new hires, this will probably be one of those seasons where other cast members who’ve been around for awhile jockey to become the next breakout star.

Still, it’s not like the SNL cast is currently composed of a bunch of neophytes. In fact, the current cast is composed of a lot of Repertory Players with tenures far longer than used to be common, including Fred Armisen, (there since 2002) Keenan Thompson, (since 2003) and indomitable current Weekend Update anchor and head writer Seth Meyers (since 2001). By my calculations all of these men have already equaled or surpassed the amount of time spent on the show by Tim Meadows, (1991-2000) who used to be the butt of jokes for seeming to be on the show forever. And who knows, they may some day equal Darrel Hammond’s seemingly endless fourteen season run (1995-2009).

With these old hands on deck, SNL is also going through another kind of transition: changing the cast member who plays the current President of the United States in sketches. The role was turned over from Fred Armisen, who was widely derided for not really trying to mimic President Obama’s mannerisms or speech patterns at all and for playing the role and not being African-American, to Jay Pharoah, who was just newly promoted from “Featured Player” to “Repertory Player” i.e. cast member.

The show of course began with a political cold open with Pharoah as Obama. Unsurprisingly, Pharoah did a much better job than Armisen of mimicking President Obama’s speech patterns and mannerisms. Doing spot on impressions of major African-American figures is pretty much Pharoah’s thing (though I actually think Jordan Peele’s impression of Obama is much better), however, much like Armisen before him Pharoah hasn’t really found a funny angle on Obama, at least not yet. This isn’t really Pharoah’s fault though. It’s mostly that the SNL writers still haven’t found a satirical angle on Obama.

The sketch still was pretty funny though, because of Jason Sudeikis’s take on Mitt Romney, which I’ve been a fan of from the beginning. It’s not really an imitation so much as a weird comedic riff on the character as the most entertaining impressions always are, something Pharoah hasn’t seemed to learn yet. Also, Tarran Killam was fantastic as Paul Ryan. The sketch mostly riffed on Romney’s awkwardness, weirdness, and out-of-touchness, qualities which all but the most hardcore Romney partisan would have to admit are ripe for comedic fodder, and did it in a pretty funny way. This, of course, is an election year, as was the most recent really great period of SNL four years ago, and there will be plenty of opportunities to refine the acting and writing for these characters. It’s unlikely we’ll get anything this year as good as we got in 2008, mostly because having a politician with such a combination of unique mannerisms and total derangement as Sarah Palin and having a cast member so perfectly equipped to play her as Tina Fey at the same time is probably a once in a lifetime thing, but I’m reasonably optimistic that there will be some funny political sketches this election season. I’m also excited to see Sudeikis do double duty as Mitt Romney and Joe Biden!

If I was optimistic after the political cold open I was certainly not optimistic about the season premiere’s host, Seth MacFarlane. MacFarlane is pretty much a love him or hate him figure within popular culture and I’m firmly in the “hater” camp. Inauspiciously for his opening monologue he both sang, the most tiresome and predictable thing to do with the monologue, and did seemingly all of his annoying, hacky voices from Family Guy. However, after the monologue surprisingly he turned out to be one of the better hosts in a long time. He was a game performer and seemed every bit the “team player,” willing to fade into the background or take relatively thankless roles in sketches when needed. He was an asset to every sketch he was in and the best part of a few. He wasn’t a singular comedic presence or anything, but was a competent host whom I’d be happy to see host again.

After the monologue came a parody of the Obama ads attacking Romney for his career with Bain Capital. The fake commercial seemed to bend over backwards to “make fun of both sides” as it began with Pharoah/Obama saying “I approve this message but I’m not real proud of it,” seemingly buying into the argument that it’s somehow beyond the pale to attack Romney’s record doing the thing he did for most of his adult life and trumpets as good experience for being President, but after that the fake commercial took a pleasing turn into absurdity and surrealism. In this version of the commercials, downsized workers tell stories of how Romney personally went after them in increasingly absurd and ridiculous ways, ruining their lives just for the sheer fun of it. It ended up being a surprisingly creative take on the material, especially after Keenan Thompson talked about how Romney purchased a shoe shine stand where he worked for tips for the sole purpose of firing him again.

The first live sketch post monologue was also the first and only recurring character sketch of the night, the venerable Mr. Armisen’s Roger Brush, a gruff producer of a women’s talk show who always ends up taking over the show and being the most incongruous women’s sex adviser ever. With Wiig’s retirement SNL has lost all of her many recurring characters (much to many peoples’ delight) but Armisen has quite a few of his own, some of whom haven’t been seen too often in awhile. It’s quite likely we’ll be seeing a lot more of them this season. I confess that I couldn’t get through the Roger Brush sketch. I fast-forwarded after an incredibly gross line in which a bowel movement was compared to “two minutes of hot dog water,” but if you’re a fan of the character I’m sure the sketch was good.

After that thankfully it was time for Bill Hader’s inevitable take on the Clint Eastwood/chair incident at the RNC. It was a real gift to SNL that this happened so close to their season premiere and Bill Hader’s Clint Eastwood is just so innately hilarious and weird it almost didn’t matter what he did with the concept. The idea that Eastwood took multiple chairs on the road for a one man show wasn’t mindblowingly original but was certainly good enough and led to some hilarious, weird moments, my favorite being when he yelled at a chair representing Michael Bloomberg, saying “Why don’t you just let people eat soda?”

Then it was time for SNL’s perhaps equally inevitable response to K-pop viral video sensation Psy’s  “Gangnam Style”. There was truly nothing to this skit. It was just an excuse to play the song and have cast members imitate Psy and the other people in the video, but I didn’t care because it was just so fun to watch them do it. Bobby Moynahan’s imitation of Psy’s facial experssions and unique dancing style were so spot on it was almost redundant when the actual Psy inevitably showed up at the end.

After that came a pretty strong sketch about a puppetry class with a great role for Hader as an intense army veteran with PTSD and good work by MacFarlane as the instructor, as well as by Vanessa Bayer. Weekend Update was pretty good, with MacFarlane’s most memorable role of the night, a hilarious take on Ryan Lochte. It may be obvious to play Lochte as a stoner moron, but that doesn’t mean it’s not funny. His introduction of himself as ““I was… America in Olympics,” was one of the laugh out loud moments of the night. Vanessa Bayer and Moynahan were similarly good as “Honey Boo Boo” and her mother.

After Update it was, as usual, “weird sketch” time. Seth MacFarlane starred as a drill sergeant fond of asking recruits “do I stutter?” who actually had overcome a stuttering problem in his past. This was kind of a funny idea but went on for way too long.    There was a sketch making fun of the Steve Harvey show which had the funny sight gag of MacFarlane being made over to look exactly like Steve Harvey and really nothing else going for it. A sketch about a blind date with Nasim Pedrad and MacFarlane, where they say “And I’m all . . ” and then go into weird character voices instead of speaking like normal humans was surprisingly funny for something with such a strange, minimalist concept. The last, short sketch before the end, a short bit about a website for Amish people, was probably the best post-Update bit, a surprisingly common occurrence.

All in all, this was a pretty solid outing by the standards of SNL of the last few years or so. It won’t convert anyone who thinks the show has gone downhill since some imagined “golden age” which never really existed, but gave plenty of reasons for optimism, especially since this is an election year. And next week’s host is Joseph Gordon-Levitt, one of the best hosts of the previous season.

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