There are four types of “Saturday Night Live” episodes: episodes where you’re legitimately excited about the host, episodes where you really like the musical guest, episodes where both the host and the musical guest seem to hold promise, and episodes where the expected quality of the episode is anyone’s guess.
If the show surrounding the variables is in good shape, none of this should matter: there will be some political satire, a few Bill Hader impressions, and your usual slew of Weekend Update jokes. However, right now the show is at the bottom of the barrel, leaning on fart jokes and Kenan Thompson more than I would have ever imagined just a year or two ago.

So it means that I’m tuning into "Saturday Night Live" tonight for Jon Hamm (“Mad Men”) and Jon Hamm only: if the rest of the show happens to pull together in his presence, then consider me pleasantly surprised.

If, however, it ends up the television comedy equivalent to Michael Bublé, then consider me destructively cynical.

[Full recap of Saturday's (Jan. 30) "Saturday Night Live" after the break]

There’s no surprise that the show goes to the State of the Union for its cold open, as it’s sort of necessary considering it is both relevant and topical. Unfortunately, the show has struggled with political material since Sarah Palin left, leaving Fred Armisen’s lifeless President Obama to carry what was just a season ago the show’s greatest strength. And while the “sketch” (if we can call it that) had a couple of fun moments (the idea of using the excessive applause to punctuate Obama’s attacks on Martha Coakley, and the bit about the end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell creating jobs via two new Bravo series), it never felt like it had a point of view: the conclusion, with Obama shrugging his shoulders about health care, seemed to take some sort of political stand, but the rest of it was all over the map.

Meanwhile, Jon Hamm’s monologue proves what we learned last time he hosted: he’s funny. It didn’t really go above and beyond that, delivering a simple idea (that he has always played Don Draper through teen comedies, home shopping, and Def Comedy Jam) and just letting it work (although it’s not exactly a new idea). I kind of miss the days when they actually gave hosts monologues, letting them actually do some standup comedy, but it was funny and more than one-dimensional, so one can’t entirely complain.

As for “Don’t Make Me Sing,” the skit has a single joke and drives it home until it dies. It’s skits like this one, which are not unfunny in theory but are simply left one-dimensional and expected to carry a good four minutes of comedy, that have made turned Kristen Wiig into a creative drain rather than a bright spot in the cast. She’s funny here, but only the first time she does she sells the physical awkwardness of the party host who needs to be the center of attention (which is totally different from every other Wiig character that wants to be the center of attention); after that point, the skit is just the same joke which wasn’t that interesting to begin with.

It was also a skit that didn’t do much with Jon Hamm, although the rest of the episode was more successful. While Hamm’s previous hosting gig let him show some more comic range than one might expect, this time around they really wanted to demonstrate how strong Hamm can be when playing against type (despite the monologue which joked about the opposite). It started with the Digital Short, which introduced the fun visual gag in Hamm, shirtless, playing the saxophone with a ridiculous haircut and seducing everyone in the vicinity as Sergio, which I got a real kick out of. However, overall, the Digital Short continued my general attitude towards the clips: I’m past the point where I expect any Digital Short to conclude in a normal fashion, as Andy Samberg’s struggle in life appears to be his inability to resist answering the question of how far they could possibly take any concept. So while I thought it had that nice gag, it’s disappointing that in the eye of the sketch the “joke” is Sergio emerging from Kristen Wiig’s womb covered in afterbirth, which takes the short from a fun sight gag to…well, something unpleasant. I understand this is the point, but isn’t “funny” enough?

It’s why the sketch with Jon Hamm as Scott Brown, seducing various Democratic Party bigwigs worked better for me, simply because it didn’t feel the need to take things too far. It was based on the same idea, having Hamm play against type in the various fantasies of the politicians as they imagined Brown seducing them with various costumes, but it just let the idea be the sketch: there was something fascinatingly entertaining about seeing a tiny Jon Hamm booty dance in jean shorts, and while it wasn’t a particularly deep sketch, or a particularly clever one, Hamm was so bloody committed to it that I enjoyed it. If it had been next week’s host, Ashton Kutcher, in a flapper dress, I would have wretched, but Hamm made it funny.

I don’t expect every sketch to be genius, as that’s an unfair standard, but I want them to bring something new to the table. So I thought letting Bill Hader play an alien posing as a sportscaster again in Game Time with Randy and Greg was inspired if only for Hader’s performance (with Wiig being overused, he’s the real MVP), while Hamm and the other “Gregs” were up to the challenge of mimicking his great body language. The final sketch, meanwhile, was fascinating to me in terms of its position as a meta-sketch which followed up on the “Closet Organizer” commercial parody that aired earlier in the episode. It wasn’t that funny, per se, but it was novel, and I was so taken with the idea of doing a follow-up sketch that it at least felt like the show was trying. The one complete dud of the night, Fred Armisen as the annoying court stenographer (using a typewriter) who couldn’t find her crackers, didn’t work because it had no ambition: I care less about the show being funny than I do about the show trying to find new ways to achieve that goal.

Weekend Update, of course, remains as it was before, which is to say pretty safe and simple. With the one-host format, Update loses some of its rhythm, so I like moments when Seth’s joke-telling becomes either short (like the iPad joke: “Apple released a thing that does the stuff that its other stuff already does.”) or long (like his riff on the GOP being stupid enough to challenge Obama, who they claim is “all talk,” to a debate) – it reminds me, yes, that I wish someone was sitting next to him to react or join in, but it keeps things from seeming too monotonous. This is especially important when the “guests” leaned towards the uninteresting (Nasim Pedrad as Sonia Sotomayor, eliding any actual content in relation to the Supreme Court’s decision on campaign finance reform) and the broadly topical (Bobby Moynihan as an orange-paint covered Snooki, furthering the “Jersey Shore” phenomenon) without really delivering much in the way of their own comedy…although, okay, Snooki as a pylon with a wig on it was at least a fun sight gag.

As for Michael Bublé, I’ll give them points for stylistic connections: Mad Men is all about (complex) nostalgia, and Bublé is nothing if not a pastiche of famous musical styles, so pairing Hamm and the Canadian (we’re sorry, America) crooner makes sense. And while his music is far from my personal taste, being backed by extensive horn/string sections made things more interesting, and the man looked like he was enjoying himself. He’s a showman at the end of the day, and while some people have trouble performing on the tiny SNL stage he treated it like it was a huge crowd in Las Vegas. Sure, he’s obnoxious, but I prefer that to awkward. And when he acquitted himself well in the Hamm and “Bubbly” skit, singing his way through being held hostage and forced to shill for the Pork/Champagne joint, and when he brought out the great Sharon Jones for the second song, I quite liked the guy, even if his music remains an acquired taste.
In the end, it’s a solid return for the show: there was only one complete dud, some of the scripts showed either an oddball sense of humour or an attempt at trying something different, and Jon Hamm threw himself into the various skits with enough abandon to make this Mad Men fan crack a smile on more than one occasion.
I’ll take it.

Stray Observations


** Not much to say about the American Enterprise: Barnes and Noble skit: simple joke, drawn out into a few minutes. It tests whether taking a Weekend Update joke and giving it a sense of self-importance and two minutes of airtime will make it more humorous: you be the judge.

** I understand that the host needs cue cards to some extent, as they’re not trained for this – however, the regulars shouldn’t be as dependent on them as they are, and I thought that Nasim Pedrad was especially bad with this during Weekend Update: if they’re going to go to wide shots, they need to actually look at the person they’re supposedly talking to, not just staring at the camera (aka the cue cards).

** I thought that the various stylistic images of Hamm spread throughout the episode (I guess they’re technically bumper images) were a lot of fun: all very colourful, playing against the dour expectations we have based on Don Draper. The chicken suit one was particularly bizarre.

** Considering the “Mad Men” cameos last time (from John Slattery and Elisabeth Moss, who has since that point married Fred Armisen), it’s understandable we got none here: next time, perhaps (which seems likely, considering they brought back Hamm for no promotional reason this time around).

 

What'd you think of Jon Hamm's second time as "Saturday Night Live" host?