SNL Recap: Dana Carvey’s Night of Nostalgia

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A large part of the appeal of SNL is its rich history. Sure, most people tune in for the comedy, the guest host, and the live aspect, but older viewers watch it with the same enthusiasm small-town folks follow their local high school football teams. It may never live up to the “glory days,” but for a brief period it spoke for their generation in a way nothing else could, and they’ll never forget it. To them, SNL isn’t just another comedy program. It’s a tradition.

This past weekend’s episode, hosted by alum Dana Carvey (1986-1993), felt like that family reunion where your uncle gets drunk and starts telling you stories revealing a hipper, wilder side to your father. It was both cathartic homecoming and a gateway to self-discovery: “This is how we got here.” The older viewers got to revel in nostalgia, while the younger crowd gazed in awe upon the now-wrinkled faces of the legends passed down to us from clip shows on VH1.

What hit:

Wayne’s World Cold Open. Mike Myers teamed up with Carvey in a reprisal of one of the most popular recurring sketches in SNL history. Wayne and Garth recapped this year’s Oscar nominated films, stopping frequently to giggle at barely-double-entendre titles like “Winter’s Bone.” The jokes worked as well as they used to, and Myers and Carvey, now more seasoned comedic performers, played up the sketch’s subtext to greater effect, referencing Abbott and Costello and the Rule of Three’s. It was great to see Myers and Carvey reunite after the rumors of their falling out while shooting the Wayne’s World movies.

Monologue. At first Carvey opened by joking about how out of touch he is with his teenage sons (the kind of cheesy “dad humor” that I’ve never enjoyed about his stand-up), but the host soon got to the point by calling out the “good ol’ days vs. now” elephant in the room by singing “‘86 to ‘93 was the best!” with an equally-smug Jon Lovitz. While the musical timing was off at times, Carvey gleefully embraced the narcissism and references to his old sketches. And while you may not have agreed with the song, its tone was pitch-perfect.

i-Sleep Pro. While I was annoyed that SNL re-aired a video from a previous episode, the commercial for a “black noise” sleep machine with settings like “muffled Tyler Perry sitcoms” and “old lady complaining about foot problems” was nonetheless a hit. SNL seems to be making a habit out of trying to shock the audience with fake commercials — last week’s was criticized by GLAAD, and this week’s seemed to suggest that domestic disputes are as common to black culture as bass music. Though unlike last week, this sketch’s execution was smart and funny enough to make up for the racy subject matter.

Church Chat. I applaud SNL for not merely shoehorning old Carvey sketches into the show and instead finding logical justifications to reprise them — as they did here with the Carvey’s Church Lady expressing her passive-aggressive outrage at reality TV sex symbols like Snooki and the Kardashian sisters. While the character, especially the twist of having her aroused by Justin Bieber, was a hit, two things struck me about Carvey’s performance. Firstly, his hard milking of “Isn’t that special?” and the Superior Dance at the end reminded me of an era when NBC put so much pressure on SNL to develop characters with memorable catch lines, and how thankful I am that we’ve moved past that era. Secondly, there were several moments in this sketch (and the entire night), when Carvey improvised lines and gags — something rare on the show these days. Like a teenager playing with his old toys, Carvey clearly missed his old days in studio 8H.

Speaking of nostalgia, did anyone else get mushy when Church Chat and Wayne’s World opened with the pre-recorded Phil Hartman audio tracks?

Teen Crisis Hotline. SNL’s weekly impersonation-off took the form of a hotline for troubled teenagers with celebrities giving terrible advice. Luckily, all of the impersonations were spot-on and relatively fresh: Hader’s Alan Alda, Carvey’s (dated) Mickey Rooney, Fred Armisen’s Ice-T, Abby Elliot’s Anna Farris, and Jay Pharoah’s Eddie Murphy, which was so good that Pharoah awkwardly flubbed the last joke of the sketch.

(I know I hate on Pharoah a lot in these recaps. To give the guy credit, he’s clearly very talented and he does a number of impersonations extremely well, and considering he’ll probably succeed Fred Armisen in the role of President Obama, he has a bright future ahead of him. But here is the guy everyone was talking up at the start of this season, yet he has repeatedly shown his inexperience as a live performer by flubbing lines and missing cues. There is a such thing as rookie nerves [Jenny Slate dropped the F-bomb in her first SNL appearance], yet all the other newcomers — Vanessa Bayer, Taran Killam, Paul Brittain — have delivered their precious few lines perfectly this season. I think you’re great, Jay — just get it together, man!)

Weekend Update. Seth Meyers bounced back this week with the help of a nearly perfect joke routine and Paul Brittain as the contently busy James Franco. It was a relief to see Brittain finally get a chance to shine, with a series of funny breaks from traditional Update structure, including Franco trying to deliver a joke, hold the cue cards, and clean the desk at the end. Character-extraordinaire Kristen Wiig had a rare miss this week as disco-queen-turned-meteorologist Angela Dixon.

Pageant Preview. Kenan Thompson and Carvey played hosts of a creepy, hotel-convention-room Texas girl’s beauty pageant. Thompson and Carvey read through the girls’ naive bios: “Her favorite thing to do in the morning is wake up.” “She likes to play with her dog ‘Basket,’ and loves to pretend-vacuum. She hopes to one day real-vacuum.” “She’s 5 and she knows it!” While the writing was of the excellent quality of a typical Stefon piece (I wouldn’t be surprised if Simon Rich and John Mulaney also wrote this one), I only wish we had heard these jokes being delivered by each of the girls.

Bad News Commercial. Abby Elliot starred in a commercial as Deidre Wurtz, a ditsy downsizing expert. Imagine if Wiig’s Virgania Horsen’s character did what George Clooney did in Up in the Air. Elliot’s stone-faced, no-excuses tone made this character a hit.

What missed:

The Roommate. This parody trailer of the horror film put Justin Bieber in a dorm room with Andy Samberg’s creepy-awkward roommate. I’m sorry, but I just don’t find Samberg’s drooling creep characters funny. There’s really nothing impressive about them, other than, “I’m just going to make a weird face and speak with a weird voice.” Compare that with the nuance of Wiig’s, Hader’s, and Armisen’s character work. Thankfully they kept it short and had a few good jokes (the roommate is played by Sir Ben Kingsley; the trailer ends with him looking at the camera and shouting the movie title). I do love the recurring gag of camera mugs (See “The Miley Cyrus Show.”)

What the hell was Justin Bieber doing in the sketches, anyway? He wasn’t the musical guest (Linkin Park was, and their production design was Kanye-awesome), and he has no connection to Dana Carvey. To me, it was just another instance of an unfunny musical star stealing comedic thunder. Stop ruining The Daily Show and SNL for me, Bieber.

Live with Regis and Kelly. Carvey and Nasim Pedrad’s impersonations (and later, Wiig’s Kathy Lee cameo) weren’t enough to carry this hastily-written sketch. I did enjoy the confused banter between Regis and his producer (Killam), and the gag of Kathy Lee storing white wine in her microphone.

Sports Bar. Unfortunately, this week’s 10-to-1 sketch was in the exact appropriate time slot. I love that the show let Armisen run wild with another “weird musical group” piece — this week he led Boy George-style synth-pop group The Fingerlings singing “Embrace me!” in front of a bar full of baffled Packers fans. But rather than having confidence in the oddness of the song lyrics, as they did before with the successful “Can We Stay With You?” junkie piece, the sketch cut too often to reaction shots of a pouty Jason Sudeikis. The only way this off-beat style of humor works is to embrace it and sell it hard, not center it around a straight character, as if it was a traditional straight-vs.-absurd structure.

Overall, another great episode. The sad reality about Dana Carvey is unlike many of his SNL contemporaries, he was at his best when he was in sketches on SNL. His performance during this episode suggested his awareness of that truth, and he shined brighter than we’ve seen him in years. And if you ask me, kicking ass on SNL is good enough.

What do you think? Am I being too hard on Jay Pharoah? How do you feel about musical stars appearing in sketches — should I just shut up and let them have their fun? And did this episode make you wish SNL was more like it was in ’86 to ’93?

I’ll see you next week, when Russell Brand hosts the show with musical guest Chris Brown.

Erik Voss really loves SNL.