‘SNL’ Recap: Louis C.K. Saves New York

Despite reaching televisions across the country, SNL is at its heart a New York show. The Mayor Bloomberg bits, the subway jokes, and the references to the Dr. Zizmor ads resonate more with the studio audience in 8H than the millions of viewers watching at home, some of us on a three-hour delay in different time zones. Bill Hader’s Stefon character is largely inspired by the city’s seedy underground club scene, and the writers — many of them staples of New York’s stand-up and improv community — share an on-edge, claustrophobia-induced comedic language.

Louis C.K. speaks this language. As a comedian who honed his craft in New York clubs like Caroline’s and the Comedy Cellar, C.K., along with his show on FX, has been praised for his acute observations of city life. Hours before SNL went live last Saturday, he posted an email to his fans describing his feelings about hosting the show in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, and what it was like shooting exterior shots (probably for the amazing Lincoln short) in powerless Greenwich Village:

Its pretty impossible to describe walking through these city streets in total darkness. It can’t even be called a trip through time, because as long as new york has lived, its been lit. By electricity, gas lamps, candlelight, kerosene. But this was pitch black, street after street, corner round corner. And for me, the village being the very place that made me into a comedian and a man, to walk through the heart of it and feel like, in a way, it was dead. I can’t tell you how that felt. And you also had a palpable sense that inside each dark window was a family or a student or an artist or an old woman living alone, just being int he dark and waiting for the day to come back. Like we were all having one big sleep over, but not so much fun as that.This is how a lot of the city is still. I know people in queens, brooklyn, Staten Island, new jersey, all over, are not normal yet. And not normal is hard.And here at 30 rock, these folks are working so hard this week. There are kids in the studio every day, because members of the crew and staff had to bring them to work. Many people are sharing lodging. Everyone is tired. But there’s this feeling here that we’ve got to put on a great show. I’m sure it feels like that here every week. But wow. I feel really lucky to be sharing this time with these particular good folks here at SNL.

This sense of urgency to provide comfort to a devastated New York echoed the first episode after 9/11, when Rudy Giuliani stood on the SNL stage with city relief workers, Lorne Michaels asked for permission to be funny again, and Giuliani famously quipped: “Why start now?” It’s nice to see New Yorkers come together in the wake of tragedy, and SNL was emblematic of that unity. Louis C.K.’s naturalistic, straight-man style may have put him at odds with a show fueled by big characters and punchy one-liners, but his deep connection with the city of New York made him right at home.

What Hit:

Bloomberg Cold Open. SNL thankfully took a break from the election-themed cold opens in favor of a simpler parody of the Sandy responses by Mayor Michael Bloomberg (Fred Armisen) and New Jersey Gov. Chris Cristie (Bobby Moynihan), specifically Bloomberg’s famously expressive sign-language translator Lydia Callis (Cecily Strong). Strong got a lot of mileage out of the gag, which was heightened to a hilarious new level with Nasim Pedrad’s shrugging and thumbs-upping translator from New Jersey. The writing was laden with solid topical humor (I’m speeding through this recap just so I can watch my recording of Homeland) and it was impressive to see SNL dedicate a cold open to a simple, well executed game.

Monologue. Traditionally, comedian SNL hosts spend the monologue doing some of their material, and Louis C.K. followed suit. I preferred C.K.’s monologue to those of Russell Brand, Zach Galifianakis, and Dane Cook — partly because it was shorter and more self-contained than theirs, but mostly because I just like Louis C.K. more. His story about helping an old lady at the airport was heartfelt, hilarious, and a perfect way to introduce himself to viewers who might be less familiar with his comedy. (Yes, Splitsider readers, there are people out there who don’t know who Louis C.K., Dan Harmon, and Nick Offerman are. Terrifying, I know.)

Fox and Friends. This parody of the ultra-conservative Fox News talk show and its dimwitted hosts hit all the same predictable notes as its previous appearances, but the jokes landed nicely this go-around (“…piranhas with AIDS, which I call parades!”), with Taran Killam, Vanessa Bayer, and Bobby Moynihan settling comfortably in their characters. Jason Sudeikis made a cameo as Donald Trump, whom he had less success replacing impersonator Darrell Hammond than in his take on Chris Matthews. And once again, the best jokes came in the corrections that flew up the screen at the end, of which you can find the full list here. My favorite: “There many black people, not just one who is a master of disguise.”

Lincoln. In the best piece of the night, Louis C.K. played himself in his FX show Louie… as Abraham Lincoln. Given the upcoming film, the timing was appropriate, and the clash of context played out perfectly: an awkward bar conversation with a newly emancipated slave, bickering with Mary Todd before going to the theater, a set in the Comedy Cellar about how the entire South is trying to murder him. I loved how easily this could have fit in an actual episode of Louie — the handheld camera shots of 1860s characters was such a delight, as was the image of Lincoln jogging up the subway stairs for the title sequence. Check out below for an extended director’s cut:

Weekend Update. Seth Meyers lit up the room with some great jokes about the storm and the election, giving us the fun image of New Yorkers riding surviving giant rats to work. Jason Sudeikis stopped by as Mitt Romney (in what seemed like a placeholder segment in case one of the actual candidates wanted to stop by the show… no luck). Sudeikis had some solid moments, specifically comparing Romney during the GOP primary to someone rushing a fraternity. Aidy Bryant finally had her debut at the Weekend Update desk as a social media expert analyzing crass and ill-informed online posts. While I enjoyed the premise — media outlets waste too much time trying to make news out of idiotic tweets — the character didn’t give Bryant too much to work with. Cecily Strong reprised her “Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With At A Party,” apparently joining Kate McKinnon as a new cast member who’s here to stay. Strong’s performance here wasn’t as memorable as her first appearance as the character, but I still enjoyed rambling, easily distracted rants, and her misplaced activism: “Seth, can I sing a negro spiritual real quick?”

Hotel Fees. After Weekend Update, Louis C.K. experimented playing against type for a few roles, with mixed results. Here, he played an overly thorough hotel concierge, listing the bizarre room charges on a guest’s bill. This was the most clear-cut game premise I’ve seen SNL do in a while (my guess is it was written by UCB veteran Neil Casey, who could be seen giving C.K. notes during the commercial break peek-in), with a simple idea heightened linearly. While the dialogue felt a little low-energy, the specifics of a vial of Argon and a missing stuffed bobcat (costing 12 cents) helped keep this afloat.

Last Call. The final sketch of the night saw a drunken hookup between two barflies (played by C.K. and McKinnon). The conversation was full of bizarre details, from the name “Dan Pants” to a lunch of baby food and candy corn. The slow, disgusting kiss between the two — at one point McKinnon put her whole mouth around C.K.’s nose — made this sketch.

What Missed:

Australian Screen Legends. This take on Turner Classic Movies celebrated the greats of Australian cinema, who routinely spoiled dramatic moments with goofy, folksy Aussie banter. The premise seemed a bit irrelevant, and the switches to the silly jokes weren’t hitting, so thankfully this sketch didn’t run too long.

Mountain Pass. When Louis C.K. appeared on Jimmy Fallon last week, he mentioned that there would be one sketch that he dreaded so much, it had to be in the episode’s final lineup:

I knew there should be one thing in it that I really don’t wanna do. When I think about this one sketch, I go, ‘Oh, God. That’s gonna be awful.’ I get really, really a little dizzy and ill… It’s the one that I said, ‘Please don’t cut this sketch’ because I hate it.

I think it’s pretty clear that this sketch, about a mountain traveler with an obnoxious ram horn searching for a man named Zog, was what C.K. was referring to. The premise was so bizarre — at one point C.K. broke character and looked off stage — it’s clear that this sketch was intended to be a complete train wreck.

Overall, this episode was a best-case scenario for Louis C.K., a beloved figure to many of us, but someone whose humor we worried might struggle coming through on SNL. But C.K.’s New Yorker comedic sensibilities proved to be a natural fit. This episode was cathartic on two levels: firstly, to see one of New York’s most important institutions bounce back after a devastating storm, and secondly, to see one of America’s favorite comics come full circle on a show he was once rejected from, later co-wrote short segments for, and is now enough of a household name to host.

Thankfully Taran Killam made it back to New York in time for the show, but Tim Robinson was completely absent, and Jay Pharoah made only one short cameo. Bill Hader was also atypically underused. (Killam, Hader, and Robinson are the only cast members with children, and given the mess that the city was in last week, their lack of screen time may have been due to them being such great dads.) Meanwhile, this was another big episode for Kate McKinnon, who seems to be emerging as the new Kristen Wiig.

What did you think? Was Louis C.K. your dream SNL host, or did his characters tread too closely to himself? Did SNL miss out on an opportunity to do more political material in a weekend before the election, or have the election jokes run their course? And what are the chances Louis C.K. will devote an episode of Louie to his SNL experience when his show finally resumes in 2014?

I’ll see you next week, when Anne Hathaway will return to host with musical guest Rihanna.

Erik Voss is a writer and performer living in Los Angeles. He performs improv on the Harold team The Cartel at the iO West Theater.

‘SNL’ Recap: Louis C.K. Saves New York