It only makes sense that celebrity impersonations are an essential part of the SNL experience. Unlike satirists Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, the SNL court jesters have the benefit of physically embodying politicians, reality TV stars, or in some cases, one turned into the other. All SNL actors are expected to have at least a few celebrities up their sleeves, and week after week it seems entire sketches are written around whatever dated voice the guest host can (kind-of) pull off.
These pieces work best when the performance isn’t an impersonation — merely mimicking the source’s voice, appearance and mannerisms — but a full, subjective impression, one that hones in on a single comedic take on the character and speaks from that point of view. Will Ferrell’s George W. Bush wasn’t a dumb cowboy; he was a simpleton who took great pride in pronouncing complicated terms and foreign names. Tina Fey’s version of the former Alaska governor didn’t just have the pageant hair and LensCrafters frames; she was an aw-shucks, limelight-hungry phony. Hell, Chevy Chase’s Gerry Ford didn’t look or sound anything like the president; he just fell down a lot.
Unfortunately, most audiences are reduced to children at a birthday party magic show the moment someone does a Walken or a DeNiro, allowing us to feel satisfied with lazy, one-dimensional sketches. “Oh boy!” some out-of-touch critics respond to a Jay Pharoah cameo, “He does a delightful rendition of that rapper I never listen to! Now this is comedy.”
This weekend’s episode of SNL was an example of the show’s unfortunate tendency to run out the clock with the kind of material you could find in a simple YouTube search. Perhaps Lorne and Seth Meyers were (rightfully) concerned with Gwyneth Paltrow’s timing issues and went into damage control mode. This isn’t the way to do it, guys.
Secret Word. For the most part, the sketches that worked were the ones that weren’t impersonation-centered. These Secret Word bits survive less because of the blatant incompetency of the celebrity contestants (though Kristen Wiig has been able to pull it off brilliantly, despite how much we now anticipate her gags) but more in the portrayal of 1960s socialite culture. With haughty, bigoted women with names like “Titsy Bismarck-Tumlenson” describing parlor games like “Where’s Truman Capote’s Index Finger?” we can look forward to more of this generation’s Celebrity Jeopardy.
Bar Mitzvah. A well-connected Jewish family hosts several famous singers at their son’s bar mitzvah. The funniest part wasn’t the Hebrew-term-filled songs by Paltrow’s Taylor Swift, Pharoah’s Jay Z, Abby Elliot’s Katy Perry, or Cee Lo Green, but the banter between Fred Armisen and Vanessa Bayer as the Jewish father and son. Armisen barked at guests to stop bending the forks, and Bayer whined, “Dad, I told you I just wanted a modest luncheon!” See, SNL? You can be funny by just playing real, non-famous people too!
(Cee Lo Green made cameos in three sketches. Three! Maybe it’s just me, but I feel really awkward when musical guests do anything other than perform their songs. It’s like when your giddy grandfather jumps up on stage during your improv show. Stop trying to be cute, grandpa!)
Globe Theater Previews. The night’s high-concept premise: What if Shakespeare’s Globe Theater had previews for upcoming shows? We were treated to some strong, albeit formulaic, clash-of-context humor, with gags such as: “Please silence your falcons”; black guy in the audience yells “Watch out Hamlet, there’s a ghost behind you!”; a man tries to illegally “record” the show by painting a picture of the stage. I was waiting for a nerdy groundling to leave after one of the previews, saying, “Oh, I just came to see the MacBeth preview.” (Please hire me.)
Fresh Prince Lost Episodes. Pharoah and Kenan Thompson reenact some previously unseen Will and Carleton moments from Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. While I felt that going after Will Smith for shallow acting in his early career might have been a little unfair, the Scooby-Doo grunt, “Cha-ching!” and the punch + “Welcome to Earth! Rah!” accurately reflected Smith’s cheesy camera mugging. Finally, Pharoah gave us a true impression, not mere impersonation.
ESPN Deportes. Paul Brittain got his long-overdue break as the co-anchor of a Spanish language SportsCenter. Brittain and Paltrow spoke in rapid-fire Spanish, breaking only to awkwardly pronounce American names, teams and expressions: (describing a basketball play) “Derrick Rose – en el – fast break – a – Ronnie Brewer – y devuelve a Rose y… pop goes the weasel!” This sketch reminded me of last season’s “I Did It In My Style,” where a Danish theater company tries to perform a Sinatra musical that gets hilariously lost in translation. There’s just something funny about hearing iconic American phrases spoken confidently by foreigners.
Fox News Cold Open. In an attempt to lampoon Fox News’ recent pledge to embrace civility following the Arizona shootings, the show instead kicked off with a clusterfuck of pundit impersonations. Bill Hader’s James Carville, as dead-on as it is, isn’t enough to carry a sketch with so few jokes.
Monologue. Gwyneth Paltrow knows nothing about country music despite supposedly studying it for months for her role in Country Strong. Great premise, but Paltrow had trouble executing it. Her “Islands of the Stream” duet with Jason Sudeikis’ Kenny Rogers (or “Garth Brooks” as Paltrow initially joked) could have used some of the improvised desperation of the fun Garth and Cat pieces. Instead, the joke fell flat.
The Cape Promo. A commercial mocking NBC’s The Cape laundry-listed off a number of other clothing-related crime fighting shows, like “The Scarf,” “The Smock,” and “The Bolo Tie.” After the third beat, the sketch quickly ran out of steam. I feel like they would have had better luck picking one idea and exploring it rather than plowing through eight of them.
Andy and Pee-Wee’s Night Out. This week’s digital short felt like a let-down, despite the appearances by Paul Reubens’ Pee Wee Herman and Anderson Cooper. It’s always great to feature a celebrity engaging in dark behavior — a staple of the Lonely Island videos — but there was nothing particularly catchy, memorable, or Samberg-weird (I’ll define that later, I promise) about the piece. I was intrigued that Reubens made an appearance on SNL: The man auditioned for the show in 1980, but fellow Groundlings alum Gilbert Gottfried beat him to the part, leading a bitter Reubens to eventually create The Pee-wee Herman Show and Pee-wee’s Playhouse. I guess time – or a Broadway show right down the street — heals all wounds.
Record Meeting. Paltrow plays a record producer in a world where “forget” and “bull-sugar” are swear words. The sketch was a lead-in to Cee Lo Green’s first musical performance, and I do love it when SNL plays around with its format, but the premise was a little unclear. Was it a critique on censorship, in a world where silly, mundane words are considered risqué? Or was it a joke that record producers have been overly sensitized? Or that for some people, even “forget you” is too much? I don’t know. But other than saying “Nintendo” instead of the N-word, none of the mock swear words seemed to hit.
Weekend Update. Although I enjoyed most of Seth Meyers’ jokes more than the studio audience did, and Seth’s “Constitution Corner” was a breath of fresh air in the way the “Really?” and John Mulaney pieces are, Update was bogged down by more celebrity cameos. Kenan’s Jimmy MacMillan was fun but a little irrelevant these days, and the Golden Globes red carpet interview did nothing more than plug more impersonations. I always enjoy the Garth and Cat sketches, but what makes them work is the musical chemistry between Armisen and Wiig — Paltrow just felt like a third wheel.
CNN Spitzer Auditions. Rather than taking a gamble with an awkward-premise sketch in the 10-to-1 spot (which paid off big time last week), SNL piled on more impersonations with a sketch about auditions for Eliot Spitzer’s new co-host. Hader’s sleazy Spitzer is always enjoyable, but by now everyone was just exhausted. Add crowd-favorite David Paterson and you’ve got yourself another lazy, formulaic sketch.
By my normal standards (weak cold open, monologue, digital short, and weekend update; unimpressive host; too few strong sketches), there’s not much to celebrate over this weekend’s SNL. Perhaps I’m being too hard on Gwyneth Paltrow — she certainly showed more effort than DeNiro did earlier this season (you can catch the rerun of that episode this week). Evidenced by her body of work, she’s clearly a talented actress. I just wish SNL had trusted its host — and its entire cast — to do material that’s deeper than a suit, a wig and a familiar voice.
On the other hand, in just a few days, these people made five successful sketches and performed them on live television! By most standards that should still be a freaking miracle.
What do you think? Is writing sketches around impersonations a lazy approach to sketch comedy? Was Gwyneth Paltrow funnier than I’m giving her credit for? And do you feel as awkward as I do when musical guests make cameos in sketches? I mean seriously… just sing your damn song so we can get back to the funny stuff, right?
Erik Voss really loves SNL.