SNL Recap: Helen Mirren and the Never-Ending Flat Joke

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Something interesting happened to me while watching the latest episode of SNL. For most of the sketches, even some of the funnier ones, I found myself wondering, “Wow, this sketch is taking forever!” I later went online to check the runtimes, expecting lengths in the 5 to 7 minute range, and instead I discovered most of them fell between a reasonable 2 to 4 minutes.

Has YouTube reduced me to a jittery, impatient viewer, waiting 30 seconds into a video before whining, “When are they gonna get to the fireworks factory?” and resolutely clicking on that thumbnail of a polar bear cub with his head in a bucket instead? Rather than blaming my decaying attention span, the answer can be found perhaps in the structure of many of the night’s sketches. Comedy nerds assemble!

Full-length sketches (i.e., non-blackout sketches) typically take on one of three heightening patterns. The most common is an arithmetic progression, in which a comedic premise is introduced and heightened in a predictable pattern (Model A). That model can be transformed into a geometric progression, where the comedic premise is quickly and surprisingly escalated to a chaotic breaking point (Model B). Finally, there is the “flat joke” pattern, where a simple idea is introduced and repeated ad nauseum, without heightening (Model C).

The third pattern type is used rarely, maybe only once per episode, usually to differentiate the episode’s pacing from sketch to sketch. You’ll see it in sketches where the initial premise is so simple and weird that merely repeating it is funny enough, or sketches where the writers quickly fire off a list of items (often a short commercial or video). This episode had at least three, and they were all a minute too long. The result? The show ran out of steam far too often.

But enough of the analytical bullshit. Who hosted this episode again? Oh that’s right, Helen Mirren. Other than the monologue and the digital short, the Oscar winning actress didn’t get a whole lot of screen time. Of course, that’s fine by me (I tune in for the comedy, not the movie-plugging celebrities), but if you’re going to reduce your host to a supporting role, at least make sure it’s in an episode with finely tuned scripts. I’m not sure SNL pulled that off.

What hit:

Monologue. After joking about how SNL burned out all its “queen” sketches on Elton John, Mirren joined the men in the cast in a musical number called “There Ain’t Nothing Like A Dame.” Songs are always a great way to open the show, and thanks to the tight musical timing of the performers and the tempo of the song, we could actually hear the jokes in the lyrics.

Celebrity Taxes. Andy Samberg played Mort Feingold, an elderly Jewish accountant doing taxes for celebrities while insulting them. What started as another typical celebrity panel sketch became an interminable flat joke, with the cast flying through 10 different celebrities, including Paul Brittain doubling as James Franco and Johnny Depp. Luckily, there were several funny gags — Samberg’s glasses flying off, Tim Burton turning his receipts into a “dream spider,” etc.

Digital Short: Helen Mirren’s Magical Bosom. Nasim Pedrad discovers the hallucinatory magic of touching Mirren’s breasts. This ridiculous premise treated us to a montage of blossoming flowers, leaping dolphins, and dunking Teen Wolf, taking us eventually to a place of heavenly bliss.

Fox and Friends. Taran Killam, Vanessa Bayer and Bobby Moynihan play the dimwitted and fact-less hosts of the ultra-conservative talk show on Fox News. It’s not the first time Fox and Friends has been called out on its bullshit, but I appreciated the jokes — their fact checker is a senile veteran, one of them doesn’t know what “eclectic” means, the run on how America needs fat kids to play comic relief in Disney movies and Modern Family. The corrections text scroll at the end was a flat joke that didn’t last long enough; pause the screen and you’ll see some good lines in there.

Underground Festival: Easter. SNL reprised this flat joke commercial featuring all the absurd acts at an underground music festival, including groups named Sneaky Priest, Mrs. Potato Dick, and as always, Ass Dan.

Perspectives Photo Studio. The best sketch of the night was a commercial for a photo studio offering to help men take more professional cell phone pictures of their penises. Here is a weird new social trend that SNL effectively exposed, with every gag hitting strong. The Seth Meyers cameo (and the reference to his Martha Stewart interview) was icing on the cake.

What missed:

Presidential Address Cold Open. President Obama (Fred Armisen) discusses the last minute budget deal. SNL is clearly still stuck in the old way of thinking with these presidential cold opens, that you don’t need as many jokes because the audience will already be laughing at the impersonation of the president. Unfortunately, Armisen’s Obama is not Will Ferrel’s Bush or Darrell Hammond’s Clinton, so these pieces always come across as long and unfunny. That being said, the staff had less than 24 hours to write and rehearse this sketch, so it is what it is.

Mary Shelly. It turns out that the author of Frankenstein based the character of the monster on her flat-topped, neck-bolted landlord. While I liked this premise, there’s really only one joke here, and they didn’t get much mileage out of it.

Weekend Update. A surprisingly weak routine of jokes was almost saved by a hilarious James Carville (Bill Hader) interview, in which the charismatic Democratic strategist referenced Lou Bega and discussed his upbringing by eels in the Mississippi River. Kristen Wiig’s harried Southwest flight attendant was another bright spot, but Kenan Thompson’s Pierre Escargot — uh, I mean Jean K Jean — was simply underwhelming.

Best of Both Worlds. This talk show sketch featured Hugh Jackman (Samberg), Gerard Butler (Killam) and Ice Cube (Thompson) discussing their masculine personas while balancing their love for musical theater. I’m not sure there’s enough “evidence” in pop culture — other than Jackman and Butler — to make this premise comedically valid. Again, I’m bugged by the reliance on the tired talk show format; why not see a sketch where Hugh Jackman keeps breaking into song while playing Wolverine on set? Maybe because this whole premise is two years old?

The Roosevelts. This parody of the historically inaccurate The Kennedys gave us a drama that suggested Eleanor Roosevelt conspired with Hitler to start WWII, she was a lesbian with Marilyn Monroe (who actually would have been 5 years old), and Teddy Roosevelt was black and a spy for the Russians. I didn’t mind the premise and I enjoyed some of the jokes, but the live format stilted the timing, and an edited video would have hit closer to home as a parody of the actual show.

Strip Club. This 10-to-1 sketch about a DJ at a dumpy strip club focused too much on Jason Sudeikis’ character and not enough on the absurd biographical trivia of the dancers. The whole piece ran too long and the energy was too low.

Overall, not a great episode when compared to some of the others from this season, including what I’m already going to assume will be a fantastic episode with Tina Fey on May 7. There were some great moments in there, but most of them got dragged under clunky, glacial scripts — while Helen Mirren got left on the sidelines. Thank goodness for her breasts, though.

What do you think? Do you wish Mirren was given more to work with, or should she work on her American accent a little first? Did the sketches run a little long to you guys (and not just to those of you who feel that the sketches always run too long)? And shouldn’t Bill Hader’s cameos as Stefon and James Carville get him some Emmy recognition? And how ‘bout those graphs, eh?

Erik Voss really likes SNL.