Considering that Ryan Phillippe’s cultural cache has never quite been the same since his split from Reese Witherspoon, and the fact that Ke$ha is a commercial construction rather than an actual artist, this week’s episode of “Saturday Night Live” feels particularly misguided. However, if you break it down a bit further, you realize that it is actually driven by two of the most common “SNL” justifications: Phillippe is starring in the big-screen adaptation of the show’s “MacGruber” sketches, and Ke$ha is the sort of internet/club sensation that could potentially draw in some new viewers. There isn’t really any comic or artistic reasoning behind their involvement (although Phillippe was perhaps my favourite non-Matt Dillon part of “Crash”), which leaves us to sort of accept that nepotism and blatant attempts to try to leverage flash-in-the-pan success stories are part of the show’s cultural legacy just as much as legitimate comic talent and particularly engaging sketches. 

A full recap of just how strong (hint: not very) an episode of “Saturday Night Live” with such handicaps can be after the jump… 

There are times when “Saturday Night Live” opens with something topical, but doesn’t actually bother to tell any jokes about that particular circumstance. The Volcanic Eruption could arguably have resulted in a sketch about stranded travelers or something of that nature, but the show doesn’t actually want to focus on the eruption: it wants to focus on Kristen Wiig’s pretty dull Bjork impression, and wants an excuse to use Bill Hader’s rather wondrous Richard Branson. The sketch, unfortunately, spends too much time with Fred Armisen’s limp Larry King and continues to use topicality as an excuse to wheel out lame impressions as opposed to actual comic inspiration. [Grade: C-] 

I’ve got the give the monologue some credit: while it does nothing to indicate whether Phillippe is actually a competent host, which to me is the number one priority of this part of the show, I thought the idea of various "SNL" characters campaigning for their own movie was sort of clever, an adjective I don’t get to use for this show very often. Sure, the very idea of the Target lady getting her own movie makes me want to vomit, but the “Dick in a Box” bit was much better, and I thought the “What’s Up With That” conclusion was a lot of fun (and I liked seeing the character outside of the predictability of that particular sketch). The meta quality of the monologue may have completely ignored the host, but it was refreshing in its honest approach towards the show’s recurring characters, and that’s something at least. [Grade: A-] 

I’m officially over the ESPN Classic sketches: they’re the same jokes and the same bits over and over again, and whatever humour was found in Sudeikis and Forte’s performances has entirely run out. The “Today Sponge” was not the worst of the feminine hygiene/contraception products that have sponsored the sports action, but this just isn’t a complex or interesting enough structure to support the recurrence rate they’re currently operating at. However, if the sketch’s function was demonstrating that Ryan Phillippe is buff, I give them points for the foreshadowing of the sketch with the Men’s Health cover being shown in the monologue. [Grade: D+] 

Okay, so the actual content of the Hip Hop Kids was pretty lame, but I won’t tell a lie: I think it’s  one of the more “solid” sketches the show has done recently, entirely because of Andy Samberg’s straight man. He got all of the sketch’s most interesting jokes: rather than the joke being how funny it is to see kids trying to use hip hop to attack bears, the joke was how no one was paying attention to the one person speaking in hip hop terms but doing so logically. “The odds is probable!” got a big laugh from me, and his advice about the difference between figurative and literal was central to the sketch in a way which wasn’t driving a single, repetitive gag into the ground. Yes, the rest of the sketch was pretty uninteresting, but I laughed, and Phillippe was solid as J Style. [Grade: B] 

There are two types of Digital Shorts: those which are actually clever, and those which aggressively think they’re clever and try to shove that cleverness down your throat. Samberg’s blonde-haired sexual predator wasn’t funny, Phillippe added nothing to the sketch, and while I appreciated the breaking down of audience perception by showing the stand-in as someone clearly not Samberg it didn’t actually make any of it funny. [Grade: D] 

The Mort Mort Feingold, Accountant for the Stars, sketch is really an example of “SNL” being honest with itself: it doesn’t spend any time building characters, boiling its celebrity impressions down to a single punchline and giving Samberg’s Jewish accountant pretty much nothing funny to say. The sketch is all about rapid fire impressions (none of which are particularly good) and the various jingles for the eponymous accountant (none of which were particularly memorable). I was impressed with the physical transformation of Ryan Phillippe into Robert Pattinson, but the jokes surrounding the "Twilight" star and his co-star Kristen Stewart just weren’t there. [Grade: C-]

I don’t know if the Shake Weight Commercial DVD commercial is new, but I thought it was a pretty good execution of a pretty darn easy joke – it doesn’t do anything that the internet hadn’t already done as soon as the genius of the commercial went viral, but I thought the simplicity sort of worked in its favour. Since it’s the first time I’ve seen it, I’ll grade it anyways. [Grade: B+] 

Weekend Update was perhaps the least interesting edition in a long time: while Will Forte’s Father Swimcoach Scoutmaster was a nice mix of fun and disturbing which worked in the show’s favour, none of the actual Update jokes seemed very effective, especially when the Volcano/Larry King jokes had been folded into the cold open. Bill Hader’s James Carville is the same as it always is, and I thought the second hand news correspondent was a decent idea, but none of it seemed like it was really trying very hard. It just seemed like a lazy Update segment, with very little dynamism outside of Forte’s speedo/sash/collar-wearing pedophile. [Grade: C] 

Until its conclusion, the Breakfast at Tiffany’s sketch was pretty much a series of disturbing but uninteresting gags which would get infinitely better as soon as everyone (including myself) sang along to Deep Blue Something’s most enjoyable song. However, I’ll give “SNL” some credit: it’s ballsy to suggest that Tea Party protestors rape coma patients, eat Pandas, and masturbate on Chat Roulette. Sure, it’s not actually a nuanced parody of that particular political phenomenon, but I guess this is all the show can handle in a non-election year. [Grade: C] 

I’m always happy to see an “SNL”  sketch which tries for some sort of concept, so having Fred Armisen’s brash producer take over for the normal host of Teen Talk was at least something approaching an actual idea. Of course, they didn’t actually do much of anything with the idea, but Ryan Phillippe and Andy Samberg both did a pretty good job of impersonating teenage boys. I think the sketch might have been funnier if not for the Father Swimcoach Scoutmaster bit earlier, which placed the sketch in an entirely different (and disturbing) light – it didn’t help that the “I can’t hear you!” bit wasn’t actually, you know, funny. [Grade: C+] 

Bill Hader has become the show’s go-to game show host, and “I Got This!” offered a concept which allowed Jason Sudeikis and Will Forte to practice their angry yelling as they fought over restaurant bills. And I’ll give the sketch credit for remaining pretty short, and ending on a logical note (as nobody wants to foot the bill for Grandma’s stay in a retirement home). However, it just wasn’t substantial enough to turn into anything, and these sort of slight sketches just aren’t memorable. [Grade: C] 

I’ve been wondering when “SNL”  was going to try to turn the Under-Underground commercial into a sketch: it’s one of their cleverest commercial parodies, even if they didn’t have to work very hard considering how ridiculous the source material is. And while I don’t necessarily think the sketch captured the particular wonder which was the original parody, I thought the “Magical Mysteries” song was just off the wall enough (why are pants different than shirts?) and relevant enough (playing off the Insane Clown Posse’s song about miracles) that it was probably the closest the episode came to something that could live beyond this hour and a half (outside of mockery, at least). [Grade: A-] 

And then we get to Ke$ha, who performed both “Tik Tok” and “Your Love is my Drug.” TV writer Denis McGrath made an important observation when he tweeted that Ke$ha should really save her money, the same advice that Mort Mort Feingold gave to Shaun White during an earlier sketch. While at first I was impressed with the fact that she wasn’t lip synching, I realized that she’s able to sing live because the songs don’t actually require any musicality, bizarre exercises in rap-singing which are just as painful on the recordings as they are live. While Ke$ha’s music works in a club environment where the beat is the primary source of musical enjoyment, there is just nothing in the vocals to make her worth watching or listening to, and so she leans on gimmicks (Astronaut Band! Playing Lasers Like a Piano! Black Lights! Tribal Paint!) which only welcome comparisons to Lady Gaga who can both actually sing and put on a far more impressive stage show. While you can see a logical place for someone like Justin Bieber to settle in order to have an actual music career, Ke$ha has been crafted entirely within a short-term niche to the point where I expect that this “Saturday Night Live” appearance may be the beginning of the end of her fifteen minutes of fame. 

As for Phillippe, he was fine: the show didn’t ask him to do much in the way of comedy, but he acquitted himself fine even if he was only there because of the fact that he’s starring in a franchise comedy. While Ke$ha is trying too hard and buying into her success, Phillippe never acted like he was anything more than a C-List actor whose most substantial recent impact on popular culture was when he broke up with his Oscar-winning wife – I respect that. 

Other Thoughts 

*** I, like the Thrilla Killa Clownz, remain confused about erasable pens. 

*** I’m not actually that interested in seeing the MacGruber movie – I’m with D’Andre in that a 90-second sketch can’t possibly turn into an interesting movie. That said, I think it could probably end up being pretty funny, and I might discover it on cable one day and enjoy it for what it is. I may not care to see it, but it’s not a disgrace or anything. 

*** Next week has Gabourey Sidibe, who is at the very least an engaging presence , and MGMT, who despite some lukewarm responses to their sophomore effort are still leagues better than Ke$ha. I’m currently wondering whether MGMT might play either “Time to Pretend” or “Kids” alongside one of the new album tracks, considering the sense that there isn’t any comparative track to those hits on the new album.

 

What'd you think of Ryan Phillippe? And Ke$ha?