SNL Recap: Justin Timberlake Proves Old Sketches Can Do New Tricks

One of the most common complaints you hear about SNL is its tendency to rely on recurring sketches. Last week, during the commercial break, I spotted the crew setting up the burnt-orange walls of the “What’s Up With That?” set and groaned, “Great, more leftovers.” In an age when young comedians are coming up with brand new characters and premises in their improv classes every week, and when FunnyOrDie is rolling out fresh, original content for us to laugh at every morning, we wonder why the best sketch comedy show on television can’t do the same.

SNL, as a live, weekly variety show, seems almost designed for topicality and political satire. No other comedy show can mock celebrities and politicians by actually embodying them as characters — an advantage it has made great use of over the years. But that difference reveals another important aspect about SNL, specifically, its foundations in The Second City and the “revue” mentality of sketch comedy.

While The Second City may not be producing as many future SNL stars today as it did in the 1970s, its sketch show format — in which the cast uses improvisation to generate ideas for scenes and characters, rehearses and hones those scenes and characters, and then adds those scenes and characters to their repertoire for their “revue,” in which those scenes and characters are played over and over again until they’re worn out — still runs through the veins of studio 8H. In the past decade, the popularity of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report have eased the “court jester pressure” off of SNL, which, other than in the cold open and in Weekend Update, has turned inward and embraced its stock character roots.

And that’s because recurring characters work. Audiences love familiarity. We paid big money at the box office last weekend to see Hollywood’s most versatile actor reheat his dustiest character (many of us goaded by Andy Samberg’s equally dusty music video format a week earlier).

Who are we to call an entertainer lazy for cashing in on a brilliant concept? I love “What’s Up With That?” I love Jack Sparrow. I love The Lonely Island’s music videos. And I loved absolutely everything about last weekend’s SNL, helmed by host extraordinaire Justin Timberlake, despite the fact that pretty much every piece was a recurring sketch. It was the finale to a great season, and SNL pulled out all the stops for what turned out to be a delightful “best of” show.

What hit: Everything! Now, I admit I have a personal bias in favor of the show, and of course some sketches were better than others, but every sketch worked. Let’s take a look:

Dominique Strauss-Kahn Cold Open. In the only fresh, topical piece of the night, Kenan Thompson and Jay Pharoah played Riker Island convicts who lectured the former IMF chief (Taran Killam) on complex financial topics. While the sketch could have used some straight reactions from Killam, it was refreshing to see a clever, well-executed concept that avoided both Obama and more jokes about the rapture. Bonus points to Pharoah for succeeding in a non-impersonation role.

Monologue. Justin Timberlake gave us an overture by singing a song about… how he’s “Not Gonna Sing Tonight.” Both a strong comedic concept (I know you guys did this kind of thing first, BriTANicK, but it’s not specific enough and too clever an idea not to share) and a well delivered performance by Timberlake, this piece reminded us early on how at home Timberlake is in the writers room.

Liquorville. Kristen Wiig played the Chris Parnell role as the lame promoter (this time as a giant teabag promoting a tea salon) facing off against the hip, singing and dancing Timberlake (a bottle of beer, urging us to “bring it on down to Liquorville”). With Wiig’s new star power and a studio audience that was way too friendly with “teabag” puns, this sketch lacked a straight character, but they pulled it off nevertheless. Lady Gaga made a funny third-act entrance in a cork-headed costume that wasn’t too out of character for the flashy star (and which may have flashed a little too much to make this clip available online… shame).

Herb Welch. Bill Hader brought out his hilariously jaded, veteran (literally) field reporter, thumping subjects on the face with his microphone and prematurely throwing it back to the anchor. In between mauling Timberlake, barking old-timey insults at Sudeikis (“Suck an egg, you mannequin!”), and lamenting a cremated colleague (“They burned my friend…”), Hader nearly broke character a few times. I never hold it against Hader for losing it during a sketch — who wouldn’t laugh while playing a character so nuanced and ridiculous as Stefon or Herb Welch?

Digital Short: 3-Way (the Golden Rule). Samberg and Timberlake reprised their goatee-rocking 90s R&B crooners from “Dick in a Box” and “Motherlover” in another great music video, this time defending the long-honored swinger tradition and spending more time on early-90s references. Lady Gaga made another cameo as the third wheel to the homo homies. Any part of me that may have been annoyed by yet another reprisal permanently vanished at “helicopter dick.”

Weekend Update. Seth Meyers fired on all cylinders with an on-the-money “Really?!?” piece on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s affair, noticing that all his movie titles make perfect New York Post headlines. Samberg’s Nic Cage dropped by with Bradley Cooper for another great “Get in the Cage” segment, with ridiculous gems like “In the words of my fellow actor and life coach, Mel Gibson: Prepare to die from human bites!” Then, in a fitting end to a season of resisting the Weekend Update’s City Correspondent’s pleas, Meyers finally gave in to Stefon and walked off with him into a “beautiful nightmare” of sunburned old men braiding their hair.

What’s That Name? Bringing back a wonderful premise from the Paul Rudd episode last December, this Hader-hosted game show had Timberlake and Lady Gaga (playing themselves) having to remember the names of one-night stands and random fans. While Timberlake, playing the straight man perfectly, drew blanks, Gaga (in a performance that, combined with her other two cameos of the night, made me seriously reconsider my position against musical guests appearing in sketches) proved to have spot-on recall skills. Timberlake’s blank at former N’SYNC member Chris Kirkpatrick (Killam) was both heartbreaking and awesome: “Chartie?”

Amusement Park Ride. This reprise of Killam’s season-defining sketch put Sudeikis at odds with menacing singing robots on a broken-down carnival ride as they try to hit on his girlfriend. Unfortunately the robot physicality didn’t hit as strongly as it did in January’s Jim Carrey episode, but the creepy flirtations were a nice heighten atop the original premise. As with the “Old West” sketch from the Elton John episode in April, the writers discovered that a little lovin’ between Hader and Sudeikis makes for a fine closing button.

Secret Word. Yet another Hader-hosted game show reprise, here in the 1960s taboo program with Wiig as the washed up Broadway starlet and Timberlake as an unimpressive hypnotist. Wiig was great as always (“The New York Times said, ‘Not now.’”) and Timberlake made the most of an admittedly limited role. Probably the night’s weakest piece in relation to the others, but this may have been the best version of it since it first aired.

Barry Gibb Talk Show. The night’s 10-to-1 sketch was the most dated reprise, featuring Jimmy Fallon and Timberlake as the falsetto-talking Gibb brothers. The political banter was updated to include the rise of China and the global financial crisis, but Fallon’s temper was short as ever. Is it just me, or has Fallon gained some comedic confidence from his experience on Late Night? Where was this Jimmy Fallon 10 years ago? His spastic performance here made me forgive his utterance of the night’s only rapture joke. Fallon’s chemistry with Timberlake is what made this sketch work in the past, and this outing was no different.

My only regret is that the night ran a little short — it was clear that Fallon and Timberlake were trying to fill time during the 10-to-1, and the goodbyes ran way longer than normal. I remember thinking that a sketch had been cut last minute, and sure enough, NBC posted this web exclusive of a dress rehearsal sketch in which Timberlake took some sharp jabs at himself. It was a shame this didn’t make it into the final show, but I’m glad we got to see it anyway.

When it comes down to it, Justin Timberlake is simply a fantastic performer, and as those of us who grew up watching him on MMC know, has a comedic energy that ups the game of those around him and fits perfectly into the format of TV sketch comedy. While I’m not typically one to give so much credit to the host for a good show, Timberlake was a perfect choice to lead the cast and writers in entertaining us with some of the funniest sketches from this season and seasons past. And best of all — this episode received SNL’s highest season finale ratings in 7 years (just as much if not more due to Lady Gaga — who was spectacular in both the sketches and in the musical performances, by the way — as popular host Justin Timberlake). This means a ton of people got to see how great a show SNL still is, even after all these years. Nielsen ratings don’t normally warm my heart this much.

What did you think? Did you mind an episode that was heavy on recurring pieces? Am I being too easy on some of the night’s weaker moments? Does Bill Hader get a free pass for cracking up in the middle of sketches? And seriously, how badly do you want Justin Timberlake to be a permanent cast member on the show? Stop wasting your time doing shitty movies like The Social Network, Timberlake! Get your ass over to 8H! And bring Donald Glover with you!

It’s been such a pleasure for me to review this show for the past few months, and it’s so great to follow SNL as it’s hitting another hot streak. Keep a look out for my upcoming Season 36 wrap-up piece, where I’ll dole out some superlatives and discuss the future of the cast members.

Erik Voss really loves SNL.

SNL Recap: Justin Timberlake Proves Old Sketches Can […]