SNL works best when the cast, writers, and host come together and produce a comedic product that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Just as talented performers can’t revive worn sketch premises from the writer’s room, a host can’t carry a show just by being individually talented — he has to find his mark and deliver a carefully crafted line, all while supplying and feeding off energy from the rest of the cast. It’s a team effort, and everyone has to be as in sync as tribal menstrual cycles.
Heading into this week’s episode, I was worried that Jim Carrey’s frenetic energy and physical humor (which he showed off during his In Living Color days to great effect) would overwhelm a cast and writing staff that is more accustomed to slower, more deliberate pacing. While the first half of the episode nearly proved my prediction correct, it seemed like everyone found their groove in the second half, resulting in a rare but exciting bottom-heavy episode of SNL.
-Cold Open. Fred Armisen thankfully shelved the Obama guise and instead donned a Michael Bloomberg getup in an address to the blizzard-stricken people of New York. At first it seemed like non-New Yorkers were going to be out in the cold for the Bloomberg gags and references to “those big rocks or whatever in Central Park,” but the focus shifted to the city’s sluggish response to the storm. After that viral video of the epically clumsy Brooklyn tow truck driver, it was a topic everyone could laugh at.
-Finding Your Power. Jason Sudeikis played a host of a talk show in which people describe how they boldly told off their enemies, just to be discredited when hidden camera footage reveals them to be weeping cowards in those moments. I love it when the writers translate fresh observations into sketches, but at times it felt like it was bogged down by slow setups and not enough payoff moments. That said, Carrey’s meltdown to the “mouth cam” was hilarious.
-Weekend Update. A series of great jokes by Seth Meyers combined with some character cameos. Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader shared some overall weak banter as bitter Nancy Pelosi and crybaby John Boehner. Bobby Moynihan reprised his awesome Secondhand News Correspondent character, with his paranoid looks and shady sources (“my fireworks guy, Johnny Eyebrow”). Finally, Andy Samberg and way-to-finally-get-out-there Taran Killam made slapstick appearances as a bird and fish who survived the mysterious Arkansas plague and had sex — in a line that’s more beautiful than funny — “where the top of the water meets the bottom of the sky.”
-Amusement Park Ride. Jim Carrey, Taran Killam, and Bill Hader combined their well-oiled physical talents as creepy animatronic singers on an amusement park ride. Anyone slightly familiar with The Twilight Zone could see where this one would go, but the threatening gestures by the robots set to that goofy music made for a highly enjoyable sketch. Unfortunately the final gag looked like it was muddled by technical problems. Live television!
-Psychic Medium. Jim Carrey played a celebrity impressionist turned medium who, rather than channeling deceased spirits, does his old routine. We were treated to Carrey’s Jimmy Stewart, Billie Holiday, and Alan Thicke of Growing Pains fame (leading a giddy Jason Sudeikis to exclaim the night’s best line: “No one does a Thicke!”). Although it felt like a sketch originally written for Bill Hader or Jay Pharoah, Carrey’s impersonations and hand-holding gags made the sketch his own.
-A Taste of New York. In a rare occurrence, the “10-to-1” sketch was the night’s funniest. Jim Carrey, Fred Armisen, and Kristen Wiig played a band of shaggy-haired junkies (“from an area called ‘Between Avenue B and Avenue C’”) crooning a “Comfortably Numb”-esque number about stolen TV sets, drag queens, and “a family of rats nesting in a baby crib” called “Can We Stay With You?” to baffled tourists. Wiig nearly cracked up while singing, “When I went to the drug store, they called the cops on me.” With pieces like this and the Stefon character, SNL writers have gotten mileage out of the topic of “tourist New York vs. the real New York.” They’re really onto something, here.
-Monologue. Carrey kicked off 2011 with jokes about having a positive outlook during apocalyptic times. The routine was a moment when the writers’ wit and Carrey’s physical humor didn’t exactly blend. It was sweet seeing Carrey propose to a woman in the audience, though I couldn’t tell if the moment was improvised or not.
-Black Swan Parody. The centerpiece sketch was a parody of the ballet thriller, in which the most integral line in the script was: “Carrey Enters.” Basically, the writers, perhaps assuming that In Living Color had no scripts whatsoever, allowed Carrey to prance around in a tutu for 5 minutes. There were some redeeming gags, such as Carrey seductively slipping his finger — then his entire fist — into his mouth.
-Grady Wilson’s Tantric N’ Tasty. More creative sexual positions from everyone’s favorite sexed-up old timer. One day, my All That hero is going to prove me wrong and play a character that’s not “the straight guy” or one that’s been around since Finesse Mitchell was still on the show.
-The Worst of Soul Train. In the night’s all-play sketch, cast members performed lesser-known numbers from the legendary music program. As a white guy born in the second half of the 80s, the context was a little lost on me, but I still enjoyed lyrics like “I just saw my best friend die on the dance floor,” “Can I see one titty?” and Ocean Billy’s “Get out of my car… get into my trunk.” Overall the piece felt more like an excuse to get actors more stage time than something the audience might actually enjoy.
-Hair Restoration Commercial. Come on, SNL! This is the second time this season this once-funny commercial for a clinic that fixes balding with pubic hair plugs has been re-aired instead of fresh material. SNL does this from time to time, probably due to last-minute sketch cuts, but it just seems lazy. It also ran right after the monologue, i.e., prime real estate normally reserved for the strongest sketches. My guess is that it ran as a placeholder for a sketch that didn’t get finished in time. The digital short, maybe?
Hats off to Jim Carrey for bringing his A-game but rarely overshadowing the rest of the cast. Whether by letting rookie Vanessa Bayer get her laughs at the side gags in the Psychic Medium sketch, or keeping his cool when the camera cut away too early and stepped on his joke in the 10-to-1, Carrey was a team player the whole night. While he was often the funniest person on screen, he never let us think he was the only funny one.
Bookended by two great sketches about life in the big city, tent poled by a strong Weekend Update, some great physical gags and memorable lines, and helmed by a hilarious and supportive host, I’d say SNL had a fantastic start to the new year.
Oh, and the Black Keys were great too!
Erik Voss really loves SNL.