‘SNL’ Review: Sarah Silverman’s Racy Return

SNL shifts into a different gear when a comedian hosts the show. In the early days, comic-hosts like George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and Steve Martin were every bit as much a part of the show’s countercultural brand as the cast members were. 40 years later, SNL has become part of the mainstream, with a product so formulaic that today’s most innovative comics define themselves by how different they are from the comedy institution and the network TV legacy it represents. Popular comedians often struggle to bridge the gap between their delivery and the SNL machine, where the multicam format and demand for immediate laughs often leave little room for nuance. Sometimes the two are incompatible, like when Jerry Seinfeld brought in his own writers or Russell Brand’s larger-than-life persona outshone everything on screen. Other times, the two sides meet in the middle, producing such delightfully offbeat fusions as Zach Galifianakis in “Darrell’s House” or Louis C.K. in “Lincoln.”

Sarah Silverman is a unique case. The megastar comedian is also a returning SNL cast member, which often lends itself to a specific kind of episode, with the host playing old characters and reuniting with contemporaries. However, Silverman was only on the show for one season, with no classic bits fans were expecting to see again. This freed Silverman to be her provocative self – at least, as much of her provocative self that the NBC censors would allow – and push SNL out of its pander-y, predictable comfort zone into some more dangerous territory. The night’s first half featured Silverman in a Fault In Our Stars parody as a girl with Ebola, followed by Silverman as the late Joan Rivers, followed by a video about whites sad over losing their racial majority, followed by a sketch skewering society’s fixation with watching women tear each other apart. And while not all of the daring concepts paid off, overall, Silverman’s rep as a blue comedian gave SNL permission to play with fire. Hopefully that will be something it stops waiting for permission to do.

60 Minutes Cold Open. Despite Jay Pharoah’s well honed impersonation of President Obama, apparently the writers still don’t have enough confidence in the character to use him in any context other than what amounts to a late night desk piece – in this case, Obama on the social media superiority of ISIS, reading off funny tweets: “We will destroy the infidels. #ThankYouJeter.” Despite the static energy of the execution, the sketch gets points for a clear concept and strong jokes (“Why is the CIA on Tinder?” “That’s not important.”), but I felt like Taran Killam’s walk-on as an incompetent Secret Service agent suggested a far more interesting subject matter for a cold open.

Monologue. Comedian hosts are typically given an endless amount of time for their monologue, which makes sense considering monologue jokes are what they do for a living. Sarah Silverman’s, which clocked in at 8 minutes, wandered from bits about Yom Kippur to her trademark blueness (featuring a fun cameo by longtime SNL cue card guy Wally Feresten), followed by Silverman sitting on the lap of a woman in the audience and fishing for compliments. But the monologue really kicked into gear when Silverman began taking questions from the crowd, each time cutting to an out-of-context clip of Silverman as a featured player 20 years ago: “Wow, is it pretty girl in the audience night?” The sight gag was one of the more interesting things we’ve seen a returning SNL alum do for a monologue, and I wouldn’t have minded if this was all Silverman did for the segment.

The Fault In Our Stars Trailer. Right out of the gate came this hilarious parody trailer for a Fault In Our Stars sequel in which the lead character (Silverman) gets Ebola. Kudos to SNL having the balls to make light of two sensitive topics – a tearjerker about teens with cancer and a disease everyone is currently terrified of – and for not burying it late in the run order. Taran Killam was perfect as the hearthrob caught in an uncomfortable situation. And while the video took a little while to get to the reveal, overall the sketch was exactly the kind of material SNL needs to do more of: bold, relevant, well produced, and above all, funny.

Joan Rivers. In theory I love this pitch: Sarah Silverman plays Joan Rivers in heaven, roasting all the other fallen comedy greats. But man, poor execution led to this sketch being a real misfire. Yes, few comics are carrying on Rivers’ torch more than Silverman is, and the script took several steps to avoid coming off as offensive (notice we didn’t see Robin Williams on the dais). But Silverman’s uneven impression and sloppy delivery tripped up this tight-wire act, turning it into a slow motion trainwreck where it was tough to make out whether the sketch wanted us to laugh at Rivers’ jokes face-value, or at the hacky nature of Friars Club roasts. In the end, this sketch just depressingly reminded us of how much of a great we lost in Rivers.

Whites. Mike O’Brien and Tim Robinson wrote this video featuring stereotypical white people celebrating their last hurrah before losing their racial majority in America. O’Brien is no stranger to making fun of “white culture,” which has been a go-to for SNL when addressing race in sketches. But in this… PSA?  Faux political ad? Screw it, doesn’t matter… the tone was perfect, from caucasian anthem “Hey Soul Sister” to whites’ love of hiking and camping. Best of the Night.

Forgotten TV Gems. While I appreciated the gender themes in this failed soap opera in which women are actually nice to each other, the clip-show format with Kenan Thompson’s host Reese De’What (whom we’ve seen so many times he won’t qualify for this season’s Stupid Name Registry) stymied the pacing, forcing the beats into slow setups and twists that we could see coming a mile away. The script focused more on Thompson’s side bits than actually playing the game, which perhaps would have played out better in an alternative format, like last week’s excellent “Bad Boys.”

Weekend Update. We saw a noticeable improvement in the two-liners from last week, though it still seems to take a few of them before Colin Jost finds his rhythm. But once he and Michael Che dug into a riff on Ebola in Texas, things really got rolling: “Who goes to Texas and Africa?” Kenan Thompson made a fourteenth appearance as his bumbling Al Sharpton (XIV), which, with all the mispronunciations, read more like Bobby Moynihan’s Secondhand News Correspondent bit. That said, I do immensely enjoy any time the writers give Thompson long, nonsensical anecdotes to get through: “In my neighborhood, we got Ms. Tompkins. All day long, Ms. Tompkins sits on her porch, and if she sees somebody who ain’t supposed to be there, she gives the neighborhood call – coo-coo-coo, coo-coo! – and then Dirty Willy the Wino crawls out of the sewer and chases you down to the next subway stop. They need a Dirty Willy at the White House!” Later in the segment, Sarah Silverman and Kate McKinnon appeared as Garage and Her, a feminist music duo who performed a song assigning a female gender to pretty much everything. While a few of the jokes were amusing – “A baby is a lady and plant. A plant can have a boob.” – overall this bit fell a little flat.

River Sisters. The night’s sole successful live sketch was this scene with Cecily Strong, Sasheer Zamata, and Sarah Silverman as miserable Tina Turner singers on a shoddy river cruise in Nebraska. The three’s musical skills brought a fun energy to the Cellblock Tango-style structure, with each of the women recounting the sad journey that landed them in this gig: quitting a dream job at Google, having to work off an ex-husband’s shrimp buffet bill, getting tricked into a 90-month contract. Due to the sketch’s use of Tina Turner’s song, the sketch is nearly impossible to find anywhere online (try here), which is a shame, considering it was one of the few entertaining moments in the episode that wasn’t pre-taped.

Airport Drive. Another live sketch that you won’t find online is this scene with Sarah Silverman as a woman confessing to her brother that she had an affair, just to find her boyfriend (Bobby Moynihan) hiding in the backseat, waiting to propose to her. While the reveal landed nicely, the sketch quickly ran out of places to go, other than Adam Levine (who made way too many cameos this episode) singing about wanting to go to Pizza Hut.

Poem. This fun short film featured a weird love triangle between strangers (Kyle Mooney, Sarah Silverman, Beck Bennett) as they discover their shared passion for an obscure type of beat poetry. Like in last season’s “Ice Cream,” Mooney and Bennett use a cinematic trope – not the dialogue in the scene – as a jumping off point, with characters suddenly completing each other’s sentences and launching into a beautifully composed montage. Mooney’s “Kick… my… butt,” and the sudden violence of Bennett slamming the Mooney-dummy in the head with the bat, gave this odd sketch some solid laughs as well.

Vitamix. The 10-to-1 sketch was an infomercial for the ridiculously overpriced Vitamix blender that devolved into a bitter argument between friends (Sarah Silverman and Vanessa Bayer) over their financial situations. I admire this sketch for making this scene so unapologetically grounded, even if it meant sacrificing quick laughs in the process and ending on a downer. And hey, what good is the 10-to-1 slot if it can’t explore how kitchen products symbolize the class divide?

Additional Thoughts:

  • Some have pointed out that “River Sisters” bears an uncanny resemblance to a sketch performed by the Groundlings’ Sunday Company. These kinds of accusations come up fairly regularly for musical sketches, as many online comedians believe that any sketch that merely features a given song has categorically “ripped off” another sketch that also features that song. Claims of joke thievery tend to be overblown (aside from red-handed perpetrators like Carlos Mencia), and parallel thinking remains a very real phenomenon that too many comedians pretend doesn’t exist. However, even though the two sketches seem different enough to have had separate conceptions, they’re also similar enough that I imagine had SNL producers seen the Groundlings video, with the actresses in the same costumes, they wouldn’t have put “River Sisters” on the air, just to avoid this situation. We don’t know who wrote the SNL piece, but ex-Groundlings Taran Killam and Mikey Day are on staff – a connection that must be impossible for conspiracy theorists to ignore. Either way, perhaps it’s for the best that “River Sisters” isn’t online.
  • I was happy to see Colin Jost and Michael Che take a break in the middle of Weekend Update for a quick bit on the things each of them can and can’t say, as men of their races. I’ve said before that packaging Jost and Che as a Chevy Chase / Richard Pryor pairing would be a smart way to go, and I hope SNL sticks with it.
  • Like last week, the best sketches were pre-taped videos – which speaks both to the strength of SNL’s film unit (headed up by Rhys Thomas and filled with talents like Matt & Oz, who directed both “The Fault In Our Stars Trailer” and “Whites”), but also to the show’s increasing inability to produce solid live sketches. This is a trend we noticed last spring, and considering SNL is one of the few shows that still bothers with the restrictions of a live broadcast, it would be nice to see it celebrating its tradition of live comedy more in its 40th season.
  • Kenan Thompson received the lion’s share of screen time this week, with an especially on-point Terrence Howard impression that we’ve never seen before. And after stealing the headlines last week, newcomer Pete Davidson was totally MIA this episode, restoring the status quo for freshman screen time. See you in January, Pete.
  • Best: “Whites.” Worst: “Joan Rivers.” You’ll See It Online: “The Fault In Our Stars Trailer.” Worth It For The Jokes: Cold Open, Weekend Update.
  • I realize that the graphic after “Joan Rivers” was intended as a respectful tribute, but following that mess of a sketch, and the fact that it went right into another sketch instead of fading to commercial, it came across as a desperate attempt by SNL to cover its ass. And honestly, if the show really wanted to pay tribute to the comedy legends we lost over the summer, waiting until Week 2 seems a little disingenuous.
  • Although we don’t get to see a whole lot of Bobby Moynihan anymore, he still knows how to make his lines count. Putting Adam Levine in “Airport Drive” was worth it just so we could get to this line: “Don’t you yell at Adam Levine! He has done nothing wrong!”
  • I’ll see you next week, when Bill Hader will host, with musical guest Hozier.

    Erik Voss is a writer and performer living in Los Angeles. He hosts the Evil Blond Kid podcast and performs on the house teams Wheelhouse and It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way at the iO Theater.

    ‘SNL’ Review: Sarah Silverman’s Racy Return