‘SNL’ Review: Andy Samberg, with a Little Help From His Friends

SNL transforms when a former cast member returns to host. The regular format is stretched to make room for a massive SNL reunion, with classic bits and endless cameos by other past stars of the show. Usually this homecoming makes for an exciting night of television, with Lorne Michaels trotting out one of his prized horses to remind us of the joy this show has brought us over the years.

In this case, it reminded us how atypical of a cast member Andy Samberg was. His monologue joke that he appeared in “100 digital shorts and six live sketches” had a ring of truth: unlike all-star alums Will Ferrell or Jimmy Fallon, Samberg was largely a wildcard player, making his mark in videos or the occasional impression (where the joke was often how off the impression was). As much as I enjoy him as Jake Peralta on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, I’m not sure what SNL would have looked like with Samberg as the leading man, without Bill Hader or Kristen Wiig to do the heavy lifting while he danced on the fringes.

Producers must have shared that doubt, with an apparent gameplan to make Andy Samberg shine by recreating the exact conditions of his time on the show. Samberg appeared in two Digital Shorts, reveled in old setups like “Get in the Cage,” “The Vogelchecks,” and “Blizzard Man,” and shared the stage with several of his former co-stars: Bill Hader, Seth Meyers, Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, and Fred Armisen, as well as cameos by Paul Rudd, Martin Short, and Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer of The Lonely Island. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with turning back the clock to an era when the cast was particularly stacked, and the trip down memory lane gave us several hilarious moments.

However, the fact that Samberg didn’t quite hit it off with the current cast points to one of two somewhat concerning conclusions. It may be a case where Samberg was a circumstantial sensation on SNL, and the rich afterlife of hosting appearances by Will Ferrell, Jimmy Fallon, and Tina Fey may just not be in the cards for him. But the more likely – and more alarming – explanation is that the present situation on SNL right now is so dire that the only way producers can guarantee fans a satisfying season finale is to call in the old guard to save the day.

That latter conclusion will certainly be on producers’ minds as SNL’s embattled 39th season limps across the finish line.

Solange and Jay-Z Cold Open. This may have been a frustrating episode for viewers uninterested in tabloid headlines, between this cold open about Jay-Z’s elevator scuffle and “Waking Up with Kimye” about Kanye’s wedding plans. And while I think this scene could have played up the subtextual tension lingering between the two even more (which was hinted at nicely with Kenan as a bodyguard ready to jump in), I did enjoy their coverup for the attack via a new audio dub over the surveillance footage: “Oh my god, there’s a spider on you!” “Kick it!” Maya Rudolph’s cameo as Beyonce gave us the first of many long applause breaks for surprise cameos, which took up a solid third of the night’s airtime, by my exaggerated estimate.

Monologue. The impression rivalry between Andy Samberg and Bill Hader dates all the way back to their first episode in 2005, so it was a nice callback to see it surface again here. Hader’s return (his first since leaving, hopefully not his last) meant Samberg coming up short once again, despite having a solid Bettlejuice and Osama Bin Laden: “Nonononono!” Of course, Hader wasn’t the only cameo here – Seth Meyers went to the trouble of a 20 second walk down the hall, and Martin Short proved yet again to be SNL’s delightful little servant, always on call to deliver roses or wait tables in the Platinum Lounge.

Camp Wicawabe. Normally I’m on board to see Aidy Bryant and Kate McKinnon teamed up in anything, but this summer camp talk show hosted by two troublemaking girls left me scratching my head. The characters were clear and the crowd ate up Andy Samberg’s sophomoric stunts, but the humor just seemed a bit tame, like we were (to borrow from the digital short that followed) waiting for the bass to drop.

When Will The Bass Drop? A welcome return of The Lonely Island’s digital shorts saw Andy Samberg as Davvinci, a club DJ who builds up crazy levels of anticipation among his fans by withholding the bass and then literally blowing their minds by finally dropping it. The video was such a hilarious buffet of surreal visual gags (including an awesome Indiana Jones reference) that it deserves at least one additional viewing. Best of the Night.

Confident Hunchback. In a muddy sketch that seemed to air a little too early in the night, Andy Samberg played the classic Victor Hugo character, but working a pub with a sudden swagger. While Samberg’s confidence created some amusing moments (“Ooh, fedora… nope, not for me!”), the charm of the bit seemed to run out of gas quickly, especially when it wasn’t clear whether that charm was working on the women in the bar.

Weekend Update. Despite getting through the joke reads, when it came to closing out the season with any sort of chemistry between them, it seems like Colin Jost and Cecily Strong just gave up. (Fans certainly have… on Jost, at least.) Kyle Mooney livened things up with a reappearance of the hack New York stand-up Bruce Chandling (II), who made huge strides since his first appearance all the way back in the season premiere in September. Mooney’s eye rolls and general pacing seemed to echo Bobby Moynihan’s delivery – whether it was that or audience’s increased familiarity with the freshman cast member, Bruce was golden here, especially when he took a sudden dark, emotional turn at the end of his routine: “I get scared because the Grim Reaper is knocking at the door… and I kind of want to answer it.” Andy Samberg closed out the news segment with the return of his always-solid Nicolas Cage (VII), who berated Paul Rudd and dished out some of his weird, graphic self-descriptions: “Roaming his mansion in a silk kimono, cursing the gods in some lost language.”

Vogelchecks VI. I really began to wonder what year we were in during this reprise of SNL’s favorite sketch about overly affectionate families, with Kristen Wiig, Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, and (eventually) Maya Rudolph joining Andy Samberg as he introduced his new boyfriend to the lip-locking family. Despite how much fun the cast members seem to have with this bit (I’ve never seen Armisen lose it like that), the sophomoric gags started to wane on me when they last ran it in 2011 with Jason Segel. However, the sketch hit a nice stride when Hader expressed his disgust at Michael Sam kissing his boyfriend – just to motorboat Wiig immediately after.

Waking Up with Kimye III. I’ve gone back and forth on this Kimye talk show bit (written by Michael Che), and while I’m sure SNL could come up with more interesting setups to show Kanye’s creative frustration with his brain-dead fiancee as they plan their wedding, ultimately Nasim Pedrad won me over: “What do they always say to you in Italy?” “Leave!”

Hugs. A second and somewhat less necessary digital short saw the Lonely Island boys (accompanied by Pharrell, Tatiana Maslany, and Maya Rudolph as Oprah) bragging about the number of women they’ve… hugged. The video gave us some nice visuals, but considering “Hugs” has already been out there as a track from their Wack Album, ultimately it felt like little more than a cross-promotional stunt.

Legolas at Taco Bell. One type of setup that Andy Samberg seemed to enjoy from his SNL days were these short, self-explanatory premises – “And now, Mark Wahlberg talks to animals!” or “And now, an out-of-breath jogger from 1992!” Despite the totally bizarre scenario, watching Legolas order chalupas at Good Burger Taco Bell didn’t give us the payoff that Andre the Giant ordering ice cream did.

Blizzard Man V. In case the carte blanche Lorne gave Andy Samberg wasn’t obvious enough, here was 2 Chainz recruiting Samberg’s classic Blizzard Man to lay down the hook for his new track. Even if we knew what was coming the moment he walked in, Samberg still makes the bit work. But in a night already packed with gags from 2007, here was one I didn’t need to see again.

Pornstar Commercial VI. Capping off a night of sketches we’ve seen one too many times was Cecily Strong and Vanessa Bayer’s former porn stars, this time selling Bvlgari watches. Sure, it’s still moderately funny to hear Strong and Bayer totally butcher the brand name and drop weird lines like, “You’ll never have to stop a stranger in the street and ask, ‘Are you my dad?’” But six of these sketches in two years is more than plenty, and I think we’d enjoy them a lot more if SNL waited a year to bring them back. In these desperate times, don’t count on it.

Cut from Dress: Testicules. Other than a fun closing visual, this beautifully shot French commercial for a cologne for your balls was a little too light on laughs to make it into the live broadcast.

Additional Thoughts:

  • Best: “When Will the Bass Drop?” Worst: “Hugs.” You’ll See It Online: “When Will The Bass Drop?” “Hugs.” Worth It For The Jokes: “Camp Wicawabe,” “Waking Up with Kimye.”
  • The number of recurring sketches seemed high this episode – pretty much everything starting with Weekend Update on was a concept we’ve seen or heard before – but that’s par for the course anytime a former cast member makes his/her first return, as well as for season finales and premieres, when viewers who aren’t watching week-to-week (and thus haven’t seen these bits as much as we have) are more likely to tune in.
  • Cecily Strong topped the screen time leaderboard this week, with Weekend Update, “Pornstar Commercial,” and small appearances in “Confident Hunchback” and “Camp Wicawabe.” Meanwhile, four featured players got shut out this episode – John Milhiser, Brooks Wheelan, Noel Wells, and Mike O’Brien – each with only small cameos in “When Will the Bass Drop?” That’s not a promising position to find yourself in for the final episode of the season. (Stay tuned for an article adding up everyone’s share of screen time over this season, which will run later this week.)
  • While we’re talking numbers, this episode scored a rating of 4.0, which is the lowest rating a season finale has received in years. That’s also about the average from this season, which saw about an 18% decrease in the average from last season and dropped into the 3-range four times (when it never did so last season). Of course, SNL isn’t going anywhere, but I’m sure there are a few suits at NBC who aren’t too happy with those stats.
  • “Camp Wicawabe” seems like the kind of sketch that I would really be into (especially with one of the girls being named Cambria, which is a font, not a name), but like the camp sketch from the last season finale with Ben Affleck, it just never took off for me. That said, I really loved the tributes to the three kids who had to leave camp early: “Tiffany Waller-Wostein. She can’t poop anywhere but her own house, so her parents had to pick her up because she was full.”
  • With appearances in “Get in the Cage” and “Vogelchecks,” I like to think Paul Rudd finally got the fun SNL experience he was hoping to get last December, which ended up being the season’s worst episode largely because Rudd didn’t have Samberg, Hader, Wiig, Rudolph, and Armisen to play around with. Glad you got some redemption, Rudd.
  • With this being my final review of the season, I would like to say how much of a pleasure it has been writing these posts, as well as reading your comments (and in some cases, arguing with you). Some of you may know that back in October, Splitsider disabled comments on all posts – except SNL episode reviews, which have typically seen a uniquely intelligent level of discussion from commenters. So thank you for your insights and your civility, minus the occasional troll… shoo!
  • But this isn’t goodbye just yet. Every day this week we will be running season-in-review articles, starting tomorrow with a list of our favorite sketches from Season 39.
  • Erik Voss is a writer and performer living in Los Angeles. He hosts the Evil Blond Kid podcast and performs on the house team Wheelhouse at the iO Theater.

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