SNL Recap: Charles Barkley Hosts Sports Night

When SNL announced back in December that Charles Barkley would be hosting the first episode of 2012, I, like many fans of the show, sighed in frustration. The show had built up such nice momentum, capping off the first half of the season with a superb episode hosted by Jimmy Fallon. I didn’t remember enjoying Charles Barkley’s performance when he hosted two years ago, and my initial assumption was that SNL was simply trying to score viewers from the NFL playoff game with athlete celebrity Barkley as host, as they did last time he hosted. (It worked, by the way – last Saturday’s SNL had a 7.4 rating, topping the peak in December when Jimmy Fallon hosted.)

Barkley’s comedic delivery hasn’t improved much over two years. He delivers jokes with little intonation, breaks frequently, and does little more than read his lines directly off the cue cards. However, I found his performance to be competent, at times enjoyable, and SNL is such a well oiled machine that even the worst host can’t bring it down if the rest of the team does its job.

Much in the way we expect the president to be much more effectual than he is capable of being, we give way too much credit to an SNL host. The hosts aren’t up there improvising — they’re reading lines written by a talented writing staff, playing opposite some of the most talented comedic performers in showbusiness. That’s not to say a host’s talent has zero effect on the quality of an episode; in the past I have credited Justin Timberlake and Melissa McCarthy for breathing life into the show, and there have been hosts with famously bad attitudes that dragged the whole show down with them (Steven Segal, Paris Hilton).

I don’t tune in every week to see some person who doesn’t perform comedy for a living try to do it for 90 minutes. I tune in to see what Seth Meyers, Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, Fred Armisen, and the rest of the team can come up with in a week, and I tolerate the fact that they have to have some new guy temp with them while they work their magic.

So despite my initial fears, I considered this to be a strong episode, despite Barkley’s clunky delivery and a few weak pieces on the back end, complete with a strong open, some solid sports humor, and the welcome return of a few beloved recurring characters.

What Hit

Rick Santorum Cold Open. It’s no surprise SNL opened with yet another GOP parody sketch. I imagine the cast has been eyeing the campaign closely, considering how many different candidates have peaked in the polls, and how many different cast members have had a chance to play their assigned Republican candidate on the show. Andy Samberg was the winner this week (both because of Rick Santorum’s near-win in the Iowa caucus and because he had the most roles during the episode), delivering a speech about his plans to visit all 3,000+ counties in the country, even ones the movie Deliverance was based on or others that are full of “pillow-biters and donut-bumpers.” While Samberg’s uneven impersonation may have held this back a little, the jokes — targeted at Santorum’s folksy ambition and social conservative views — were wonderfully specific: “If the lesbians don’t get me, the Mormon death squads probably will.”

Charles Barkley Monologue. A few commenters have noticed the growing trend of sports humor on SNL, a development I attribute to head writer and sports-lover Seth Meyers. After addressing the college football sex scandals and the Tebow craze in recent episodes, Meyers took advantage of having an sports commentator as host to blow off some steam about the NBA lockout, before segueing into some fun digs at Michael Jordan. Now in his third time hosting, it’s clear the writers are more comfortable writing jokes for Barkley: “Please forgive me if I eat one of you tonight. You all look like turkey legs to me.”

Chantix. We’ve seen the “pharmaceutical ad with absurd side effects” concept before, but what made this stand apart is the choice to make Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig actually hear and react to the homicidal tendencies caused by the anti-smoking medication in real time.

The NBA on TNT. SNL continued its night of sports humor with an obligatory parody of Inside the NBA, with Hader as Ernie Johnson, Jay Pharoah as Kenny Smith, Kenan Thompson as Barkley, and Barkley as Shaquille O’Neal. Barkley got in a few jabs at Shaq’s dimness (“I had to wear a baby hat once. When I was a baby.”) and while I’m not really into the NBA, I enjoyed the jokes nonetheless, especially the golf cart racing results and Hader/Johnson’s quip at the end: “We’re all black friends.”

White People Problems. No SNL castmember benefitted more from Barkley hosting than Jay Pharoah. The actor has had the fewest appearances thus far this season, and Barkley’s stint as host seemed to open up some roles for him, such as in this investigative TV show examining the petty crises of white people. And while I’ve grown weary of this “shit [insert race and gender] says” race humor meme, some of the lines helped this piece hover above the fray, such as “Awkward is a white people word that can be applied to every situation.”

Bowl Madness. College football fans started noticing the shameless cross promotion of bowl season the moment dot-coms started piling their names on top of legendary bowl games. This sketch excellently lampooned the trend of constant, ridiculously named bowls (“Ruby Tuesday Hanes Her Way Prejudice Bowl”) and the attempt to sell any match up (“three dogs versus 100 bats”) as the game of the century.

Weekend Update. Seth Meyers helmed a strong news segment, complete with a wonderful Darth Vader joke and visits from two of my favorite recurring characters. Kristen Wiig delivered her swan song as Michelle Bachman, who now that her campaign is suspended, could enjoy some long-awaited blinking. Then we were treated to Fred Armisen’s hilariously unable-to-get-to-the-point political comedian Nicholas Fehn, whom we haven’t seen in at least a year. And finishing the segment was another great performance by Bobby Moynihan as Drunk Uncle, mumbling nativist gems like “You press one for English.”

Wyndemere. Another great return of a recurring character came in the form of Paul Brittain’s gleeful 17th century aristocrat boy, Cecil Wyndemere, this time crashing a game day party. The strength of this sketch rests in the endearing relationship between Wyndemere and Jason Sudeikis’ father character, who has clearly become best friends with the little guy and favors him over his real son. I also enjoyed Barkley’s soft spot for the child, though I wish he didn’t look macho-grossed-out when he cradled Brittain.

What Missed

Joann’s Announcement. I just couldn’t get behind this sketch in which Barkley played a very manly woman coming out to her friends and submissive boyfriend, played by Brittain. I normally try to put political correctness aside in the name of humor, but mocking a lesbian’s physical attributes just doesn’t generate enough comedy for it to be worth the while. I did particularly enjoy the surreal details peppered throughout the sketch, such as the prospect of knowing someone for “200 days” and the line “Let’s all look at the picture above the fireplace and give Joann and Chad some privacy.”

Charles Barkley App. The audience’s temper for sports humor had run short by the time we saw this sketch about an app in which Barkley sums up the rambling BS of post game soundbites. I liked the concept for its simplicity, but Barkley’s jabs at the coaches and players were less jokes than they were blatant opinions.

Adult Video Awards In Memoriam. I enjoyed several things about this award show tribute to deceased porn stars, including the name Kristal Butt, Armisen’s screenwriter and Taran Killam’s Tristan Fun, or “Gay for Free,” whatever that means. But in an age when pornography has become so fragmented into highly specific genres, making jokes about pornography as a whole feels a little outdated. I have to compliment the music, though, which was strangely beautiful.

Digital Short: Convoluted Jerry. I was confused over why they even called this sketch a “digital short” — it had the same look and format of any of the greatest hits album commercials the show has done in the past. There was nothing particularly funny about Samberg’s Convoluted Jerry, and I think we’re all a bit tired of digital shorts making jokes about years-old Christopher Nolan movies and the gag of bluntly stating the reference topic directly at the camera.

New Mayan Calendar. The 10-to-1 sketch rounded out a weak second half with a lame concept about how the Mayan calendar is over complicated and not meant to be taken literally. I feel like there is a funnier way to address the Mayan calendar topic, and this sketch just felt like a waste of elaborate costumes and set pieces.

If you turned off your TV early enough, this was a very strong episode. Charles Barkley seemed more comfortable than in the past and gave it his all, and since the rest of the cast and the writers gave theirs as well, it ended up being an enjoyable experience all around. Even Barkley, during the goodbyes, gave due credit to the cast (or to Kelly Clarkson’s band, depending on who he was pointing at):

“I’m gonna give a shout out to these guys, because you guys have no idea how hard they work, and to do this every week, they must be crazy.”

What did you think? Did Charles Barkley’s performance bring down the episode’s quality for you? Are you comfortable with the growing trend of sports humor in the show’s sketches? Do you think Jay Pharoah would have been as present in this episode had Barkley not been the host? Or Paul Brittain, for that matter? Do you secretly hope as I do that Wyndemere gradually charms every person he comes into contact with, leaving Andy Samberg to watch on bewildered while the whole world chases him, hoping to pinch his buttocks in hopes to hear that darned riddle?

I’ll see you next week, when Daniel Radcliffe hosts with musical guest Lana Del Ray.

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: Charles Barkley Hosts Sports Night