SNL Recap: Helms or No Helms

When you think about the marketing strategy behind SNL, the celebrity guest host is, in its most basic form, ratings bait. Sure, a number of talented performers bring a new life to the show (see: Justin Timberlake, hosting the season finale on May 21!!!), but when it comes down to it, the host on SNL isn’t that different from, say, Matt Damon on 30 Rock this season or Ricky Gervais on The Simpsons a few years back: an attempt to excite new potential viewers into boosting the weekly numbers and reassuring advertisers. Lorne Michaels discovered this formula in the first season: They came for the host, but they stayed for the Bees.

If the star is the bait, the hook is the show itself, the one created by the regular cast, writing staff, and crew. That’s why repeat viewers continue to tune in each week — we care less about watching the host stumble through lines as we do about the jokes Seth Meyers will do in Weekend Update, the new character Kristen Wiig has up her sleeve, or the ridiculous Digital Short we’ll link on Sunday morning.

So I ask of you, regular followers of SNL, why do we still put so much on the host? I will admit that I too get excited to see that Tina Fey, Steve Carrell, or Alec Baldwin is coming to host the show, despite the fact that I can see them on the same network every week but at a more convenient hour and in funnier roles. If you care more about the celebrity host than you do about Kristen Wiig, Seth Meyers, Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, Andy Samberg, and the other true stars of the show, then maybe SNL isn’t for you. Try Dancing with the Stars.

My opinions here are a response to the criticisms (here and here) I’ve heard of last weekend’s episode, that the host — The Office and The Hangover 2 star Ed Helms — was barely in any of the sketches. I agree that the show made more use of Helms’ baton twirling and banjo picking skills than his comedic delivery. But as I said in response to the same comments made about the episode hosted by Brian Cranston in October, I really don’t give a shit.

I love Ed Helms, and I’m glad I get to see him every week as Andy Bernard in The Office. This week, SNL didn’t need him to do anything more than play a supporting role and bring the crowd. And it ended up being a great episode, Helms or no Helms.

What hit:

The Situation Room Cold Open. The episode opened with a parody of the CNN Wolf Blitzer (Jason Sudeikis) news show focusing on President Obama (Fred Armisen) bragging about killing Osama bin Laden at an immigration speech. Most Obama cold opens are light on jokes and rely too much on Armisen’s delivery to carry the piece. This was no exception, but here the strategy worked, mostly because Armisen found a looser, more absurd version of the Obama character, which was more at home for a performer who is great at playing stale stand-up comedian characters.

Corn Syrup Commercial. It’s become common for SNL to re-air old faux-commercials, especially when we’re in the late stretch of the season. I don’t hold it against Lorne for dusting off this one, giving Nasim Pedrad some much-deserved screen time.

What’s Up With That? When I saw the crew arrange the set for this sketch during the commercial break, I sighed and wished SNL would stop shoving leftovers in front of us for the night’s lead sketch (the prime-time slot after the cold open, monologue and first commercial break). What started as a clever twist on the standard talk show sketch has started to feel worn and tired. Luckily, the writers ventured into new, meta-territory this time: first with bewildered guest Paul Simon actually calling out the host’s overlong musical numbers, and second with the real Lindsey Buckingham coming out and jamming on his acoustic. It was nice to see them finally blow the lid off this sketch.

Ambiguously Gay Duo. Robert Smigel’s old TV Funhouse cartoon (voiced by Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell) made a comeback for the homoerotic heroes. In a twist that should have come sooner, the cartoon switched to live action, with Ace and Gary played by John Hamm and Jimmy Fallon, and Colbert, Carell, and Helms playing the villains. I’m not exactly sure why Colbert and Carell didn’t just play Ace and Gary, but the short turned out to be such a wonderful blend of the homoerotic visual gags from the cartoons and glossy action sequences from modern superhero movies, and Hamm and Fallon were so great in the roles, that I didn’t mind.

Poker Night. Four buddies sit around a poker table, drinking and singing along to Cat Stevens’ “Wild World,” each recounting warm memories that have dark twists. It’s a great structure that SNL has used a few times, previously with the four singing along to “Danny’s Song” when Rainn Wilson hosted in 2007 (you won’t be able to find the videos anywhere online because they use copyrighted music). The details are hilarious and the singing a charming palette cleanser. And the twist at the end — previous versions included the men suddenly shooting up the place or tearing off their pants — capped the piece well.

Ann Margret. Kristen Wiig plays in this flat-joke “impossible task” sketch featuring 1960s starlet Ann Margret unable to accomplish simple tasks without bursting into frenetic go-go dancing. At first I was a little distracted by the sexist undertones of Helms’ eye-rolling straight man, but I later gave in to the simple fun of the sketch.

What missed:

Monologue. After a few jokes about looking like a married man and being recognized from The Hangover, Helms went into an anecdote about wanting to be baton twirler when he was a child. Helms seemed a little stiff and uncomfortable, and the story was just a long, drawn out setup to a lame sight gag of Helms in a leotard.

Weekend Update. Seth Meyers’ jokes weren’t as sharp as they’ve been in the past, and none of the character cameos hit particularly strong. Bobby Moynihan’s Secondhand News Correspondent wasn’t as on edge as he normally is, Jay Pharoah’s self-aggrandizing Will Smith just seemed like a series of cut Donald Trump jokes, and the always adorable Garth and Kat felt a little underwhelming. I realize these pieces are improvised live, which is an impressive feat, but I feel like the two could have made some bolder physical gestures during the songs.

One-Take Tony. In a generally well-executed period sketch, Andy Samberg plays a classic Hollywood actor who claims to be able to nail a scene in one take despite clumsily slipping all over his lines. Here was a fantastic character worthy of Monty Python, but the sketch didn’t hit for me, I think, because of the casting. Samberg was an odd choice, as he rushed through Tony’s breaking moments rather than letting us see his struggle to keep it together, as Wiig does with her panicked Judy Grimes or Hader with his fragile Stefon. This was the only time I felt that Ed Helms was underutilized — he frequently falls into a smiling, nervous klutz as Andy on The Office, and would have been a fine choice here.

Republican Ad. The 10-to-1 piece had Helms playing a generic, anonymous Republican candidate making his case for the GOP nomination. This was a great premise that I feel like they could have gotten more mileage out of, maybe with images of the stereotypical GOP candidates or some more jokes. Instead, it felt like a sketch that had been watered down last minute for time or other practical reasons.

Overall I thought there was some nice variety and texture in the night’s sketches, with a few reprisals reintroduced in fresh, interesting contexts. While I am a little sad that Ed Helms’ talents were underutilized, I cry rivers for the performers and writers who worked on SNL for entire seasons without getting a chance to prove themselves.

What do you think? Did Ed Helms general absence hurt the episode for you? Does a celebrity host play a bigger role than I’m giving him or her credit for? In how many sketches does a host have to be in order to sufficiently host an episode, especially when you consider the half hour gap during the first musical guest performance and Weekend Update when the host is typically absent anyway?

If you want a more active host, brace yourself for next week, when SNL will probably know exactly how to use Justin Timberlake in every sketch. Until then!

Erik Voss really, really likes SNL.

SNL Recap: Helms or No Helms