In my recap of last May’s SNL season finale, I argued that the show’s reliance on recurring sketches may not be such a bad thing. Audiences love familiarity, and recognizing a successful idea and finding clever ways to reintroduce it (while watering down its original ingenuity) is what made this country great, goddamn it. Only fellow comedy writers feel dirty about reheating old material — meanwhile, the home audience could watch Conan pull that Walker Texas Ranger Lever for hours.
One of the reasons I’ve been so supportive of SNL in recent seasons is its increasingly appropriate use of recurring sketches. Last weekend’s Emma Stone-hosted episode, for example, led with seven sketches that were all versions of premises the show has already done, and I thought all of them felt 100-percent earned. It seems like the show’s writers and producers have stumbled upon a healthy system for bringing back old premises, and below are a few ground rules that appear to be guiding them:
1. The sketch must have been a huge hit the first go around. SNL typically only brings back a sketch if there is some demand to see it again. When we first saw Penelope or Gov. David Patterson, it was all anyone talked about the few days after, so it made sense to give them encores. (Sure, no one ever spoke fondly about Deep House Dish. The popularity of Kenan Thompson talk show sketches in the writers room will forever be a mystery to me.)
2. The sketch needs to be far back enough in our memories that seeing it again comes as a pleasant surprise. If I had more time on my hands I would research all the recurring sketches from recent years to see how much time went by between each occurrence, and what connection that has to the sketch’s popularity over time. For now, let’s just say no more than twice a season is a safe bet.
3. If the sketch is centered on a character, then that character must be emotionally grounded. SNL lately has churned out a cache of absurd characters that are anchored by real human emotion. Judy Grimes, at her core, is simply a nervous wreck. Herb Welch is a bitter, scorned veteran. Bedilia wants her parents to be her best friends. There are always a few one-dimensional Gilly’s poisoning the well, but luckily Kristen Wiig threw her down one.
4. The sketch shouldn’t rely solely on shock value. Few sketches are more an example of the law of diminishing returns than the Lawrence Welk pieces, where Wiig appears as the mutant sister Dooneese. Seeing her enormous forehead and baby hands the first time was a hilarious twist. Now that we know what’s coming, the sketch doesn’t really have anything to fall back on. The best recurring sketches find ways to reinvent the twist, such as the anecdote-based “Wild World” sketch in the Ed Helms episode last season.
5. The sketch should be overwritten, not underwritten. The best all-time recurring sketches feature Pulitzer-worthy imagery and coin new vocabulary, as opposed to tent-poling the script with predictable catchphrases. The writers cram so much fresh detail into the average Stefon or Judy Grimes piece that if you laugh, you’ll likely miss a few jokes. That’s the brilliance of Judy Grimes: for every instance of her catchphrase (“justkidding”) there’s a new, fresh joke popping up from right behind it.
With these guidelines SNL has successful employed the use of recurring sketches in recent seasons, and in last Saturday’s episode, proving that you can get away with doing old material… as long as it’s still funny.
GOP Debate Cold Open. At first, I groaned when this looked like yet another reenactment of news events, as many of the GOP debate sketches have been this season. However, Rick Perry’s transformation into Lenny from Of Mice and Men was a brilliant choice — the kind of “show-don’t-tell” observations I wish SNL did more of during political sketches.
Monologue. Just when I began to remember that the upside-down Spider-man gag had been done before (when Kirsten Dunst hosted the episode in 2002), SNL confirmed it and turned the tables back on Emma Stone and the producers of the new Spider-man movie: “Yeah, but aren’t you just doing the same movie from 10 years ago?” It was a refreshing moment of self-awareness, making all of Andy Samberg’s botched fly wire gags worth the while.
Secret Word. Of all the recurring sketches we saw this episode, this 1960s game show might be the closest to its expiration date. Still, Wiig was as entertaining as ever as washed up Broadway star Mindy Alyce Grayson, and this version found some fun in revealing Hader’s host’s misogynist side. Stone was also great as an airheaded, puppet-tonguing pageant queen.
Herb Welch. Jaded, phone-it-in veteran newsman Herb Welch, my pick for best new character from last season, made his season 37 debut, appearing even more bitter than normal. The old-school insults were fun as usual (“Oh, this lady… shouldn’t you be changing hotel linens?”), and I enjoyed the microphone/purse jousting between Hader and Stone. Maybe not the funniest Herb Welch outing, but still a strong sketch.
Les Jeunes de Paris. Another favorite from last season, this French dance frenzy took a little long to get off the ground this time. But by the end, Taran Killam and co. hit all the right ridiculous notes to make this a thoroughly enjoyable reprise.
Cry Music. It’s a shame that some of the best SNL sketches will never see a life beyond their initial live broadcast because of the costs of royalties for copyrighted songs. (Watch it in the slightly sped-up YouTube link before NBC takes it down.) In this sketch, office workers discover that Adele’s “Someone Like You” sets the perfect backdrop for sobbing alone at your desk and shoveling down some Haagen Daz. Placed at the end of the night with the sketch below, it was nice to see two fresh premises do so well.
Technology Hump. The 10-to-1 sketch was a show in which people acted out porn sex scenes using devices (smart phones, iPads, digital cameras) as puppets. I loved the premise, and it was nice to see SNL go all out with such an edgy idea. It was the perfect combination of danger, funny and just plain weird that I love to see in the 10-to-1 slot.
Digital Short: Wish It Would Rain. Samberg played a rock ballad singer in a melodramatic music video, waiting for a cliché downpour that won’t come. Samberg has gotten mileage out of anti-climactic premises before, but this one missed the mark. Normally these digital shorts are packed with absurd heightening, but there was none here. Man, I wish they’d make a memorable digital short this season.
Weekend Update. Too many of Seth Meyers’ jokes seemed a bit corny this week, and Jason Sudeikis’ cameo as the devil — appalled by the sex abuse scandal at Penn State — didn’t hit either. I never buy the argument of “too soon,” but in this case it feels like the controversy is so complex that any attempt to simplify it in terms of “right and wrong” by a comedian (that includes you, Jon Stewart) seems naïve and will alienate too large a percentage of the audience to make the joke worth it. Update’s silver lining came in the form of a delightful return of unprepared songwriters Garth and Kat, who were joined in their wandering, improvised lyrics by “back up singer” Chris Martin.
Bridal Shower Gifts. Stone played Wallace, a fish-out-of-water guest at a bridal shower who goes off the deep end with overly-provocative gifts. The premise was fine and I appreciated Stone’s frank honesty as the character, but in general her delivery — her voice, timing, appearance — seemed a little uneven. It was a rare misstep for a performer who was otherwise a strong host. A nice bonus to see some writers (including recently hired writer and Splitsider porn-parody-reviewer Sarah Schneider) make cameos in the sketch.
Another strong episode, with a great performance by Emma Stone, some thankfully reprised recurring sketches, some awesome concepts for the original sketches, and a hilarious literary reference to shake up the standard political cold open. I didn’t mind the cameos by Coldplay in the sketches as much as I thought I would… I’m willing to admit that Chris Martin could have helped out with the digital short.
What do you think? Do you agree with my checklist for recurring sketches? Any other rules you can think of? Are GOP Debate, Secret Word, Herb Welch, the Devil, Garth and Kat, and Les Jeunes De Paris past their prime? Any other recurring pieces you want to send to Overdone Character Heaven with Buckwheat, Gilly and Penelope? Was Sudeikis’s rant about Penn State too soon or tonally inappropriate for you, or should I care so much about victims of sexual molestation that I should find that piece funny? Do your eyes well up while belting Adele’s “Someone Like You” on the drive home like mine do? The right person’s out there, and we’ll find them, right guys? Right? Man, I gotta go…
I’ll see you next week, when Jason Segel is hosting with musical guest Florence and the Machine.
Erik Voss is a writer and performer living in Los Angeles. He performs with his improv team Natural 20 at the iO West Theater.