SNL Recap: Ben Stiller and the Live Component

One of the downsides of living in Los Angeles (thankfully I can count them on one finger) is the fact that I live three hours behind the rest of the world. After reading “RIP Lil’ Sebastian” tweets around 5:30 p.m. on a Thursday last May — over two hours before I would have a chance to watch that episode of Parks and Recreation — I now have officially warned all my east coast friends to keep their damn mouths shut until Friday morning. Lately I’ve been shutting my laptop, skipping outdoors, basking in the warm California sun, and avoiding the cold-hearted east-coasters’ attempts to cast their time-shadows on me.

But year-round sunshine doesn’t change the fact that, for the roughly 57 million Americans who live west of the Eastern and Central time zones, Saturday Night Live is not, as its title promises, live. That declaration at the end of the cold open every week is the reason I defend SNL so passionately to my friends and colleagues who have written it off as “past its prime,” “not as funny as Stewart and Colbert,” or, as a family member once put it, “crap ever since they fired Ms. Swan.” It’s not fair to hold a live broadcast to the same standards as you would a pre-recorded show. So much of what makes us laugh at TV comedy comes in the delivery, the timing, the editing — things that can very easily go wrong in a live show.

That said, SNL’s “live component” is also its secret weapon. The fact that literally anything can happen — say, Sinead O’Connor tearing up a picture of the pope, or Chris Farley’s ass falling out, or Bill Hader cracking up while playing Stefon — is what makes SNL so dangerous, and so exciting. The show exploited that power last week with Melissa McCarthy’s explosive physicality, which, while still such a pleasure to watch three hours after the fact, would have been even more exhilarating to experience knowing that ranch dressing hit McCarthy’s face the precise moment I saw it in my living room.

What can I say? I’m an old soul, and this Farnsworth contraption tickles me down to the bone!

Unfortunately, SNL didn’t play to this strength in last weekend’s episode, hosted by Ben Stiller. While most of the pre-recorded pieces (the digital short, faux-commercials) worked great, most of the live sketches felt sluggish, unoriginal and predictable, especially when compared to the fresh, well-executed live pieces we’ve seen on the show thus far this season. It’s great to see SNL produce content with viral potential, but those live sketches are still the heart of the show.

You may argue that, like in past episodes with Bryan Cranston and Ed Helms, the show didn’t effectively use the talents of the host, which resulted in a lackluster episode. As someone who would actually prefer if SNL didn’t bring in a new host and musical guest each week, they can make the host sit in the studio audience for 90 minutes for all I care. I’ll be impressed if they just find a way to be really funny live. SNL didn’t really pull that off this time.

What hit:

Monologue. The night’s most successful live piece occurred during the monologue, when Stiller, who was light-headed from fasting during Yom Kippur, was visited by Jewish Willy Wonka (no, not Gene Wilder). Andy Samberg’s Wonka took Stiller on a musical tour of his “Land of Jewish Foods,” and once again the talented prop department at 8-H didn’t disappoint: Matzah ball soup pools, deli mustard fountains, dancing dill pickles. It was an over-the-top concept that SNL embraced fully — and such a satisfying alternative to the stiff Jewish jokes Stiller opened with.

Lincoln Financial Runner. If the episode’s strength was its pre-recorded videos, these hilarious faux-commercials for Lincoln Financial, in which airplane passengers had uncomfortable interactions with the future versions of themselves, were the episode’s backbone. It was nice to see SNL include a runner in the episode lineup, something it hasn’t done very often in recent seasons.

Digital Short: V-Necks. Another great digital short this week gave us Samberg and Stiller facing off in an epic V-neck battle, which hopefully gave American Apparel a clear warning to keep their men’s shirts necklines in moderation.

Underground Festival: Columbus Day. While we’ve probably seen these Dr. Supersoak and Lil’ Blaster commercials enough times to know what’s going to happen to Ass Dan, these “quick list” sketches always go over well. Who wouldn’t get excited about an appearance by hit ABC sitcom Dinosaurs (without the costumes)?

Tinyballs. The 10-to-1 sketch this week was a parody trailer of Moneyball. In this version, Brad Pitt (Taran Killam) reinvigorates a baseball program by making its players take steroids. I enjoyed the direction this premise took, and the piece was short enough to keep us surprised by the heightening.

What missed:

Mitt Romney/Chris Christie Cold Open. The show opened with a sketch in which Mitt Romney (a noticeably rehearsed Jason Sudeikis) dealt with an unenthusiastic group of Republicans who preferred Chris Christie (Bobby Moynihan) to be their nominee. There were a few nice moments here (Romney admitting his voice “sounds like a black comedian doing a white guy voice”), but overall the piece was low energy and took too long to get to Christie’s entrance, which was the real premise there.

Fox and Friends: Hank Williams Jr. The issue I had with this straight parody of Fox and Friends is that not enough of the SNL demographic ever watches the Sunday morning Fox News program (besides via clips on The Daily Show) to appreciate the parallels, the way we enjoyed direct parodies of the widely seen Palin/Couric interview and the Christine O’Donnell “I’m Not a Witch” ad. Fred Armisen’s saluting fact-checker and the joke-packed list of corrections whizzing past the screen at the end couldn’t save the wandering, unclear premise of this sketch.

Best of Both Worlds. Samberg played tough guy/Broadway star double-threat Hugh Jackman (the real version of whom appeared later as Daniel Radcliffe) in a talk show celebrating actors with “two sides!” I was never crazy about this premise when it aired last season — the “trend” they’re parodying seems a bit manufactured instead of observed from valid examples in pop culture. Also, the old “real celebrity confronts impersonator” gimmick always feels hacky to me.

Weekend Update. It was a surprising miss for Weekend Update this week. Seth Meyers’ jokes felt a bit off, though I did enjoy his harsh takedown of pet owners, despite the angry groan from the studio audience. Perhaps because of it. The funniest thing about Kristen Wiig’s pancake-obsessed event planner Nan Washingtom was her name, and I was a little let down by the decision to have Stiller appear as Derek Zoolander during the Stefon segment. Stiller is such a talented character actor — can’t he play something other than his old film characters?

Shanna: Halloween Party. Wiig and the writers have painted themselves in a corner with the gross-out seductress Shanna; there’s only so many things you can do on network television to humorously shrink a boner before the character starts to feel overdone.

Bruce Springsteen DVD Set. Stiller appeared as Springsteen in a commercial for a DVD set called “Just the Stories,” featuring only the Boss’s anecdotes in between songs during concerts. I liked the premise, but the execution lacked the odd, Stefon-specific details that a sketch like this needs to work.

While I do wish we saw more from the guy whose own sketch comedy show won a writing Emmy, my bigger problem with last weekend’s episode was the weakness of the live pieces and the general lack of originality with the sketch premises, specifically in sketches that I thought didn’t even hit the last go-around. Jason Sudeikis won the statistical horse race this week for most frequent appearances in sketches, and I particularly enjoyed his out-of-sketch reprise as Hank Williams Jr., singing the show off to commercial.

What did you think? Does the SNL “live component” make any difference to you while you watch it? Are there any other east-coasters-turned-west-coasters out there who have noticed a drop in excitement whenever you see “Recorded from a previous broadcast” appear on screen during the opening credits? Did SNL miss an opportunity by casting Stiller in supporting roles and by filling the night with old sketch premises? And anyone else not surprised by Eddie Murphy’s no-show?

I’ll see you next week, when Anna Farris will host with musical guest Drake.

Erik Voss is a writer and performer living in Los Angeles. He performs with his improv team Natural 20 at the iO West Theater.

SNL Recap: Ben Stiller and the Live Component