For a show that evolves constantly, SNL does a remarkable job preserving its brand. Despite the changes in the cast, the writers, and the culture it parodies, SNL will always be that live, hip, New York-centered show that puts up a few sketches at the end of the week to try to make you laugh. There’s the “Live from New York…” throw line, the theme music, Don Pardo listing off the cast, the host walking out on stage, followed by that predictable pattern of live sketches, videos, musical performances, and the news segment. Critics put down this structure in favor of looser, more inventive sketch show formats, but given SNL’s need to change with the times, its formula is its sole remaining constant in a flurry of variables, the engine that keeps the car running while the other parts are swapped out. The familiarity is what makes SNL, SNL.
So when new performers join the cast, it’s common for them to stay on the sidelines for their first few episodes while SNL works to maintain its image. Other than a few quick cameos or larger appearances late into the broadcast, the newcomers typically sit backseat to the returning cast members, whose job it is to remind viewers that SNL is still just as funny as it always was. In the meantime, the producers will gradually fold the freshmen into the show, allowing viewers to slowly acclimate themselves to the new faces. (See: Bill Hader and Andy Samberg’s impression-off segment in their first episode.)
Then again, sometimes the changes are too big to ignore. Case in point: the season 39 premiere, in which the six new cast members were shoved front and center, forced to dance like monkeys in humiliating costumes while hazed by host Tina Fey. Fey’s joke at the end of the routine (“Thanks guys, you’re done for the night!”) was quite a misdirect — the newcomers were baptized by fire, manning the front lines throughout the night and proving, hey, maybe America doesn’t need a couple months to fall in love with a new SNL cast. With the show’s veterans bullying the pledges, SNL’s recurring “gentleman’s club” vibe took a fun, fratty turn, celebrating the show’s tradition while avoiding the awkward built-up expectations that past all-new casts have suffered. (In the cold open to 1980’s famously awful season, Charles Rocket painfully described himself as “a cross between Chevy Chase and Bill Murray.” Lesson learned.)
As a viewer who began watching SNL regularly in the mid-90s, I wasn’t sure how I would handle the biggest cast shake-up in 18 years. I was raised with Will Ferrell and Molly Shannon, spent high school with Jimmy Fallon and Tina Fey, and my college years (and since) with Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig. Sure, the show evolved during that time, but slowly. The transitions were smooth — it’s not exactly clear, for example, when the Fey-Poehler-Rudolph era ended and the Meyers-Wiig-Hader one began, or if they weren’t all the same era. But now, the cast has seen a seismic shift. Would I now become the bitter, nostalgic old timer who doesn’t understand the appeal of the new kids and reminisces of simpler times of Stefon and the Target Lady?
The answer, thankfully, is no. I laughed at this episode just as much as — if not more than — the episodes of previous seasons, thanks perhaps to a writers room inspired by new weapons in its arsenal and an alumnus host who expertly took the babies under her wing with a little tough love. This isn’t Tina Fey’s first time hosting the show and it likely won’t be her last, so she had little to lose by stepping aside and dedicating the episode to the new cast and SNL’s legacy as a whole. They certainly needed it more than she did.
Obamacare Cold Open. The episode kicked off with a familiar face — Jay Pharoah’s ever-improving President Obama — explaining the complexities of Obamacare, with the help of some clueless average citizens. It seems the writers have left behind the standard solo press conference cold open and opted for the higher energy full-cast option (last season’s Obama budget sequester cold open had an identical format), which would have been flawless had it ended a few beats sooner. Kate McKinnon’s smoking doctor berating people for sticking objects up their butts was a highlight, as was Aaron Paul’s cameo as Breaking Bad’s Jesse Pinkman, whom Obama and the background actors urged not to finish/spoil his story about his meth cook friend.
Monologue. The night’s MVP was Tina Fey, a longtime SNL star and a perfect frontwoman for the show’s “rebuilding year.” Her sarcastic trip through memory lane of her (fake) recurring characters — Queef Latina, Reba MacEntired, The Lady with No Theme Song — set an appropriate, self-deprecating tone: 1) the show’s approach to characters is indeed a little formulaic and 2) one obviously doesn’t need hit characters to be an all-time great SNL star (though Fey’s Sarah Palin impression certainly didn’t hurt), so hey, go easy on these new guys. Fey’s insight into SNL due-payments extended into a lecture for the new cast members of the long-held policy that newcomers have to dance in ridiculous outfits behind the host during the monologue — which, of course, Fey ordered them to do. “Remember, it was your dream to work here,” Fey taunted as they shook and shimmied in humiliating gold spandex. “I hope your father isn’t watching.” The heartwarming reality of the bit is, wearing silly costumes and sharing the Studio 8H stage with Tina Fey was their dream, and it was exciting to see it finally happen for them.
Girls. Noël Wells was the first of the new cast members to earn her keep, with a pitch-perfect Lena Dunham impression in a superb parody of HBO’s Girls. With Cecily Strong as Marnie, Kate McKinnon as Jenna, and Vanessa Bayer as Shoshanna, the cast delivered hilarious impersonations of the bratty New York twenty-somethings. The sketch was elevated from great to brilliant with the addition of Tina Fey’s Blerta, a shaken, world weary Albanian refugee with OCD (“Old Cow Disease”), who found her outfit “in a fire,” and who dealt a swift satiric blow to the show’s fixation with trivial, first-world Millennial drama. Lena Dunham herself approved, tweeting that the parody was “a true honor” and praising the current lineup of women in the SNL cast. Sketch of the Night.
Airport. While air travel humor always smells a little hacky, you have to hand it to the writers for packing this mockery of boarding zone order with so many gags, with jabs at foreign people who ignore attendants and swarm the gate, and people who clap when the plane lands, ringing especially true. Some of the jokes were lost to timing issues, but Bobby Moynihan’s slow saunter up the counter as a farter made the sketch for me.
New Cast Member or Arcade Fire? The writers found a new angle to address the cast’s new faces with this clever game show premise that had Kenan Thompson and Tina Fey — more or less playing themselves — distinguishing between new cast members and members of Arcade Fire. Echoing previous seasons’ “What’s My Name?” and “Dylan McDermot or Dermot Mulroney?” this sketch put the contestant (Fey) on trial, not to mention the viewers, for our poor recognition skills. Perhaps the funniest running joke of the sketch was Thompson’s outbursts at the new cast members, who tried to impress Fey with silly voices and compliments: “Shut up! That’s something you have to earn!” Lorne Michaels provided another amazing moment when he too failed to identify the new cast member, looking at Kenan and asking, “It is the black one?” Well played, Lorne.
E-Meth. SNL unleashed its latest fake product, just in time for the finale of Breaking Bad: E-Meth (a parody of the e-cigarette), a vaporizer that allows meth addicts to smoke crystal in a socially acceptable way. In addition to giving us another taste of Aaron Paul (was the guy hanging out in the office all week?), we were treated to some fun sight gags, including Kate McKinnon lying face-down in a “big ol’ tire” and Brooks Wheelan running around sans-pants in another man’s living room.
Weekend Update. Besides the new cast members, the biggest unknown of the season was how Cecily Strong would fair at the Update desk, and the verdict is… quite well, actually. I am reminded of the first couple months at the desk with Seth Meyers, and Amy Poehler before, and Tina Fey and Jimmy Fallon before them, and I distinctly remember occasional stumbling over words and flatlining jokes. Which can be expected, because reading jokes handwritten onto cue cards minutes before (they don’t even use teleprompters at SNL), and 100-percent nailing the delivery, is no easy task. But Strong made it through with no major screw-ups. She even added her own flair, acting out some of the punch lines in a character voice. She still has a little ways to go before she completely masters the timing, but I think it’s clear we have nothing to worry about with a Cecily Strong-hosted Weekend Update. Overall, this episode’s segment had plenty of great moments, including Tina Fey giving Strong the advice a veteran inmate would give a first-day fish: “Keep your head down, do your time, and on the first day, go up to the biggest guy in the yard and punch him in the face.” Kyle Mooney made his big SNL debut as hack comedian Bruce Chandling — a familiar bit that we’ve seen in a few incarnations by Fred Armisen, but a promising introduction to an actor known for a slightly offbeat energy. Bobby Moynihan closed out the segment with a triumphant return of Drunk Uncle, whose wandering rants included the gem: “The only blurred line I see is our border with Mexico.” We probably could have done without a third Aaron Paul cameo, but hell, when Jesse Pinkman’s in the studio, why not put him in every sketch?
Cinema Classics. Perhaps the weakest sketch of the night was this look back at a 1940s film in which the director’s brother-in-law was a mentally challenged taxidermist, resulting in distracting stuffed animals in the background of every shot. I enjoy any premise that involves animals — and who can resist a squirrel holding a tiny basketball? — though the sketch took a little long to get off its feet, and the “mentally challenged” component felt totally unnecessary.
Used Car Commercial. Mike O’Brien had his big SNL debut (if you don’t count the dozens of cameos he’s made over the past few years) as an old-timey used Model-T salesman shooting a “promotional film.” Although a few of the jokes were lost in the timing, O’Brien effectively channeled the dark, crackpot joy the writers have with these clever period pieces. That said, Tina Fey stole the scene as O’Brien’s off-her-rocker wife Daisy: “I gave all my babies to the well.”
Porn Star Commercial (IV). I’m beginning to think that these sketches always air in the 10-to-1 slot not because they’re unfunny, but because Lorne is worried the network will raise hell if a sketch this risqué airs any earlier than 12:50 am. Vanessa Bayer and Cecily Strong’s airheaded former porn stars making commercials to get free stuff last lost some of the magic, but while the shock value of their “getting banged” stories has worn off, the idiotic mispronunciations are still hilarious: “You’ll think you’re drinking lobster straight out of the sink!”
I’ll see you next week, when rising tween star Miley Cyrus, daughter of Billy Ray and lead from Disney’s Hannah Montana, will host and perform as musical guest.