Typically one can categorize a guest host’s overall contribution to an episode of SNL in one of two ways. The good ones — Alec Baldwin, Tom Hanks, Steve Martin — are beneficial to the show; their comedic skills complement those of the creative staff to produce a fun and memorable experience. The lousy ones — Donald Trump, Lindsay Lohan, Robert DeNiro from earlier this season — have a neutral effect; they’re difficult to work with and bring little the table, but at least they don’t get in the way too much.
To the fairer SNL viewer, while the host’s performance plays a large role in our overall enjoyment of an episode, rarely does it make or break it. Last episode, I found Russell Brand a little annoying, but that didn’t keep me from enjoying the well-written sketches that filled the run order that night.
Occasionally a host is so bad that he or she is actually detrimental to the show. Steven Segal and Paris Hilton are notorious examples of disaster hosts — not only refusing to be good sports but also infecting the entire 90 minutes with a venomous attitude. While you can bring down the show by being an extreme asshole, you can also bring it down by being extremely un-funny. In 2008 there was Michael Phelps. Last Saturday night there was Miley Cyrus.
I hate to trash a celebrity for putting herself out there and trying something out of her element. Of course Miley Cyrus is not a sketch comedienne. It’s not easy. What frustrates me is that many viewers will instead blame the show for not working around an awkward host. They won’t talk about specific moments in which a well-written joke or gag completely bombed solely due to Cyrus’ terrible delivery.
They won’t. But I will.
Our Time with Taboo and apl.de.app. Andy Samberg and Kenan Thompson played the two neglected members of the Black Eyed Peas in a talk show that mostly served to remind people that they were in the Black Eyed Peas. The sketch was a solid blend of jokes making fun of the singers’ names and appearances (“I am from the Matrix”) and musical gags in which the two could only sing sporadic background lyrics. I partly wish Cyrus’ Fergie could have been a cruel, frightening diva, though I’m also thankful her role was confined to an occasional walk-on and belted note.
Sound of Music. Another TCM film outtakes sketch, this time with Fred Armisen playing an over-the-top Latino stand-up comic member of the Von Trapp family. I’ve always enjoyed Armisen’s lampooning of stand-up comedy, from the walking rim shot Fericito to the endlessly ranting Nicholas Fehn. These characters ask the audience to ignore the “character’s jokes” and instead laugh at the deeper statement this character is making. We aren’t laughing at “You can call me Richie… my landlord just calls me late!” We’re laughing at all the Lopezes and Mencias out there who can’t write about anything outside of their impoverished upbringings and abusive grandmothers. It’s not easy to pull off that kind of subtlety in comedic delivery, but Armisen does it nicely.
Disney Channel Acting School. Kenan Thompson (as Raven Symone) and Miley Cyrus (herself) pitched a school to help young actors make it on Disney Channel series, emphasizing skills such as loudness, spying from a doorway, and wearing blindingly bright clothes. While all of Cyrus’ references to her party girl behavior at other moments in the night felt insincere and forced, watching her tear apart the ridiculous acting style popularized by her TV show was the kind of honest, below-the-belt self mockery I wish SNL went for more often.
Weekend Update. What a relief to have a few minutes of comedians who know what they’re doing. After refusing to do Sheen jokes before recapping other current events (if only he had exercised this patience with the cold open), Seth Meyers jumped into a fun “Winners and Losers” segment evaluating the various chip holders in the solo-cockfight that is Charlie Sheen. Jason Sudeikis had a funny cameo as the devil, commenting on the homophobic church that protests military funerals. “I hate ‘em,” he said of homosexuals, who swoop in to clean up bad neighborhoods with cupcake stores and candle shops, “but I can’t stay mad at ‘em.” Bobby Moynihan reprised his secondhand news correspondent character, whose misinformation gags are no longer as funny as the other aspects of his character, such as his suspicious glances and self-assuredness.
Les Jeunes de Paris. While I’m not sure what this was, other than a wacky crepe of a sketch stuffed with French stereotypes, it’s hard not to laugh and feel relieved that SNL can still do bizarre, purely physical pieces and make it work. Taran Killam is a physical force in the cast that we haven’t seen since Will Ferrell, and it’ll be interesting to watch his development in seasons to come.
New Products. Cyrus and Kristen Wiig play two women selling skin cream and a self-recorded rock CD — not sold separately. This is the kind of comedic tone we see when Wiig teams up with someone like Fred Armisen, where the humor is quietly tucked away in mundane details and characters with names like Virgania Horsen and Lynn Dute. If you find this humor more “weird” than “funny,” try watching more late-night infomercials and local television. And don’t feel bad if you never find it funny… I don’t think it’s meant to appeal to everyone.
Duh! Winning! Cold Open. Bill Hader starred in the obligatory Charlie Sheen parody. Some say it’s SNL’s responsibility to immediately comment on a story of this relevance, but I was hoping they would have buried the week-old Sheen jokes later in the show, or avoided a simple replication of the subject’s nonsensical rant. After a two-week hiatus, you’d think the writers could have found a more clever way to joke about Sheen than another impersonation-off talk show.
Monologue. Miley Cyrus joked about her recent drug controversy — in the way your high school valedictorian joked about all-nighters before the APs — which led into a song called “I’m sorry I’m not perfect.” Cyrus’ manufactured, studio voice clashed with the cute humility of the melody and lyrics. Besides, it wasn’t her wild party life that she should have been apologizing for.
Miley Cyrus Show. This should have been the best sketch of the night — the writing was strong, Vanessa Bayer’s Cyrus’ “comedy monologue” had better Sheen jokes than most of the ones in the cold open, and it’s always fun to have celebrities interact with their impersonators. But Cyrus just couldn’t deliver the jokes. How funny was it to have Bieber list each of his signature gestures as if they were choreographed (“Wink. Cocky nod. Point.”)? Yet, in Cyrus’ hands, it bombed, every time. The interplay between the two felt one-sided, and it never recovered the energy it had at the top.
Beastly. Like The Roommate trailer parody a few weeks back, this video parodying the upcoming inner-beauty romance flick once again expected us to find Andy Samberg making a weird face to be the funniest thing in the world.
Cruise Ship Entertainer. Cyrus played a disgruntled lounge singer on a cruise ship, singing to the tacky tourists in the audience, “You people look gross to me.” You start to feel bad for these tourists. What did they do wrong? And what’s funny about a seemingly rational character insulting an innocent group of people in such a simple, non-creative way? This sketch required Cyrus to heighten her absurdity, shifting the game off the insults and onto the character that says these insults. Instead, the only absurd thing about Cyrus was that hat.
CBS Gurney Month Promo. This week’s 10-to-1 was a promo for all the high death count programming on CBS. Indeed, is the road to the number-one network paved in corpses? It was a strong premise that was a little under-delivered in the execution. Like the first half of a Daily Show segment, the piece only reviewed the real-life examples of the absurdity, without really heightening it to new, absurd levels.
Despite an equal number of hits and misses, it’s hard walking away from this episode feeling like it was a Sheen-approved winner. This wasn’t a case of SNL not being relevant, or the sketches being boring, or the writing being lazy, or the acting feeling uninspired. The host just sucked. You could see it on Miley Cyrus’ face as she waved goodbye to the audience at the end, and the closing credits cut to commercial more quickly than usual (in the west coast broadcast, at least). She may have been a bad fit for the show, but she’s a smart enough performer that she knew it right away.
Her final spoken line of the night said it all: “Well, that’s my time. I hope I didn’t offend anybody. You’ve been a great audience.”
You have to wonder whether or not that was written on the cue card.
Erik Voss really loves SNL.