In live comedy, it’s a cop out to blame the audience. But sometimes, audiences just seem so damn stupid.
SNL relies on its studio audience more than any other live audience TV comedy does. Sitcoms like The Big Bang Theory or Whitney certainly require audience laughter to give their punchlines extra weight, but they can always go back in post and use only the takes that got the biggest reactions, or simply pad them with a pre-recorded laugh track. Talk shows, like Conan or The Colbert Report don’t use multiple takes or laugh tracks, but their format allows the camera to cut back to the host, who can easily riff his way out of a bombed joke.
SNL has no such luxury. As a live show, the jokes get one shot with the crowd. If they don’t hit, the show has to take it in stride and awkward move forward. Without a studio audience, most of their sketches — shot in traditional multicamera sitcom format with three-wall sets — would feel slow and lifeless. Those of us at home need it, because we are children of Seinfeld, Friends and Home Improvement, shows that conditioned us to react passively and wait for someone to tell us when to laugh. And even though we’ve evolved at deciding for ourselves what’s funny, while we watch SNL the laughter effect remains significantly Pavlovian: when the studio audience laughs, we’re more likely to laugh out loud; when the studio audience does not laugh, even if the sketch appeals to our personal tastes, we still feel uncomfortable and impatient.
For these latter moments, critics use words like “cringe-worthy” and wonder “What were they thinking?” I sincerely doubt that Lorne Michaels and Seth Meyers would have such poor taste as to run sketches that would bomb so hard. The truth is, for all their instincts and experience, they still have no clue what will hit. The only gauge they have is the studio audience at dress rehearsal a few hours before airtime, which is a completely different audience than the one for the live broadcast.
As we found out last episode, the studio audience is a fickle beast. SNL has suffered through stone-faced, easily offended audiences as well as annoyingly ticklish ones. Last week’s host, the ruggedly handsome Channing Tatum, presided over a studio audience that behaved much like the ones I suspect he faced as a male stripper early in his career — a past SNL exploited a bit too much and backfired when Tatum couldn’t enter a sketch without a few giddy hoots from the ladies in the house. I have to wonder about the uproar SNL would have caused had they whored out Katy Perry back in December as they did Tatum last Saturday.
Still, this episode had plenty going for it, and despite a studio audience that seemed distracted by their curiosity over when a shirtless Channing Tatum would come back out, I enjoyed several of the sketches and found myself pleasantly surprised at a few moments.
Cold Open: Newt Gingrich, Space President. In what was easily my favorite cold open of the season, the writers took the traditional political commentary and rocketed it to a ridiculous place — a cheesy sci-fi TV show in which Newt Gingrich (played by Bobby Moynihan) is the president of a moon colony. The strength of this sketch was its point of view — this was a show produced by Gingrich, allowing us a glimpse into his unabashedly self-aggrandizing and wife-collecting mind. Bill Hader’s Reagantron 3000 was a fun treat, and the line “May divorce be with you” deserves all the applause it received and more.
Monologue. Tatum kicked off the night’s obsessive focus on his background as an exotic dancer by going over the “ground rules,” asking for tips to help get him through nursing school. Tatum then recognized some familiar faces in the crowd — embarrassed, closeted fans from his stripper days, including Fred Armisen as a man named Leslie who eventually succumbs to Tatum when the host ripped his shirt open. If only the striptease had ended there.
NBC Football Promo. This isn’t the first time SNL has made fun of creepy, bottom-third promos (see the excellent Mark sketch when Will Ferrell hosted in May 2009), but still I enjoyed this fun, fresh take on the trend. In this “mission impossible” style sketch, the NBC NFL commentators were unable to relax for their simple promo shoot, instead doing a stiff, intense gaze at the camera. I particularly enjoyed the choice to avoid the argument typical in these kinds of sketches, having Moynihan compliment the hosts throughout: “Guys, you are nailing this!” There was also some great weird conversation filling the beats: “My little brother was born with no mouth.” “That must have been hard.” “Yeah, he doesn’t like to talk about it.”
Weekend Update. Perhaps the spellbinding musical performance by Bon Iver mellowed out the audience, but while responding to Seth Meyers’ great-as-usual jokes, they seemed a bit, as Lana Del Ray would say, “stiff, distant, and weird.” Moynihan’s full-throttle Guy Fieri helped pick up the energy with some hilarious tips for Superbowl snacks, including cooking hot dogs “over your shirt flames.” SNL then made a risky move by bringing out Kristen Wiig as disaster musical guest Lana Del Ray, in a bit that simultaneously mocked the singer, the haters, and the show’s uneven track record for musical guests. While I wish they had taken a more decisive stand on Del Ray’s performance, I was glad they addressed it at all.
Bat Mitzvah Dance. Tatum got to show off his moves again — this time with his clothes on — as the dance partner to a girl named Rebecca (Nasim Pedrad) at her Bat Mitzvah. The dance alternated between innocent and downright dirty, as shocked family members watched in horror. The buildup was far too long, bogged down with a number of non-sequitur Jewish jokes, but the choreography and chemistry between Tatum and Pedrad made it hit for me.
Exercise Commercial. In the funniest sketch of the night, Tatum and Wiig were fitness experts selling an absurdly complicated exercise machine in a poorly executed infomercial. I’m a huge fan of production value humor (popularized online by the work of Good Neighbor). The two interrupted each other, threw randomly heavy towels, and said things like “You can have it all, everything inside of us!” This one’s worth watching a few times.
Getting Freaky with Cee Lo. Even Col. Nasty couldn’t save this unwelcome return a sketch that embodies everything fueling the fire for the SNL haters out there: Kenan Thompson-hosted talk show sketches, musical intro numbers, lazy musical outs. To be fair, Kenan’s Cee Lo and Tatum’s McConaughey were strong impersonations, and the writing of this edition was better than par, with Cee Lo describing himself as a rehydrated California Raisin and letting it slip that he travels the country in search of his dad. I just couldn’t get behind this sketch.
Downton Abbey on Spike. If you follow John Mulaney and Seth Meyers on Twitter, you probably figured it was just a matter of time before SNL did sketch about Downton Abbey, the British period drama on PBS, here by having a macho announcer for the Spike network try to describe the show. The premise felt half-executed to me — I would have liked to see what Spike’s version of Downton Abbey would look like instead of just hearing the announcer misrepresent the actual show.
Secret Word. Another standard Secret Word sketch featured Hader as the sexist game show host, Wiig as the former Broadway star Mindy Alice Grayson, and Tatum as an astronaut haunted by an alien encounter. There were some fun moments, but overall this concept is suffering from fatigue.
Tom Brady & Janet. Tatum played the Patriots quarterback at a Ruby Tuesdays, fending off a brassy woman named Janet (Moynihan). The self-described “flesh cube” needed to be fleshed out a bit more. Janet had some memorable jokes about safety pins and “Sham-whaaaaats,” but unlike Melissa McCarthy’s proud, forward female characters from earlier this season, it was never very clear what motivated Janet’s behavior. I love Bobby Moynihan and I’m thrilled that he finally had an episode that showed his range, but this character seems a bit one-note.
Strip Club. The night was zero-for-three when it came to recurring sketches, and this return to Bongo’s Clown Room male strip club, with Jason Sudeikis as a dirty disc jockey, was met with hostility by the audience. After seeing Tatum used as a sex symbol in the monologue, the Cee Lo sketch, the Bat Mitzvah dance, and the Tom Brady sketch, doing this piece as the 10-to-1 seemed in poor taste. I’m hesitant to describe any joke as “cringe-worthy,” but the Sudeikis’ character’s defense of Jerry Sandusky was worth at least a few of them.
In some aspects this episode was a little frustrating, with three unwanted reprises of recurring sketches, a run-order that capitalized too much on Tatum’s willingness to bear it all, and a studio audience that wet themselves at even the slightest glimpse of skin. But in other areas were signs of hope: a high concept cold open, a good night for the typically underused Bobby Moynihan, and a slew of great one-liners. And despite the over-provocative performance, Tatum was a fantastic host — bringing enthusiastic physicality to every sketch, playing against type when necessary, and hitting all the necessary punchlines. Exercise Commercial, in particular, wasn’t easy to pull off, yet Tatum did just fine.
What did you think? Were you annoyed as I was by the strip club atmosphere of the episode? Did the studio audience seem a bit off to you? What did you make of the mixed message of the Lana Del Ray segment? Were you sad to see Paul Brittain no longer in the show’s lineup?
I’ll see you next week, when Zooey Deschanel will melt the hearts of those of us who are not yet cool enough to be over her, with musical guest Karmin.