So here’s the not so dirty secret about Andy Samberg: He wasn’t a particularly strong live performer during his time on “Saturday Night Live.” That didn’t particularly matter, since his contributions to the preproduced form under the “Digital Shorts” moniker represent the single most important part of the show during his tenure. That is nothing to sneeze at. But unless “SNL” goes all in all pretaped segments tonight (which, you know, maybe?), we’re going to get some live sketches in which Samberg is the featured player.
But maybe that’s a good thing, since tonight will be the last night for certain cast members to sell themselves to both the show and the public at large. Nasim Pedrad’s time is probably over, in that “Mulaney” has been greenlit by FOX. (Oddly enough, you don’t hear ANYTHING overt about this in the press, even though recent departures such as those involving Samberg and Bill Hader received months of press attention.) But beyond that (officially unconfirmed) departure, some of the cast members hired this season have to be worried about their position in the overall hierarchy of the show. If Samberg serves as pretaped ringmaster and ensemble member in live pieces, that opens up space for the featured players to make their case. If this is “Samberg And Other Former Cast Members And Also Maybe Timberlake Because Why Not Showing Up”, well, then “SNL” will go out celebrating its past without having any plan for its future. It’s pretty much as simple as that.
One final time this Spring, I’ll be liveblogging the proceedings, assigning grades to each segment. One final time this Spring, the clear line between “objective grades” and “subjective grades” will be a difficult one to see for a few of you. As a side note: I’ll be back next week with a list of the twenty best sketches of the season. I’d love to hear about your top sketches in the comments below, in addition to your thoughts on tonight’s episode. See you at 11:30 pm EST when we kick things off properly.
A Message From Solange And Jay-Z: The two release another statement saying everything is cool between then, but Kenan Thompson’s bodyguard is there to ensure she doesn’t attack him again. They also have audio on the infamous elevator video, which explains the attack as Solange getting a spider off of Jay-Z. They also take video revenge on the security guard from the hotel that released the tape. The crowd eats this up, and things go into overdrive when Maya Rudolph appears onscreen as Beyonce. At this point, I’m onboard with the audience reaction, since Rudolph is such a pro that she makes the other three look bad by comparison here. Everything before was…fine, but nothing terribly funny and featured some ridiculously slow pacing. If nothing else, this might have been the first cold open in show history to feature four African-American actors and not a single Caucasian one. That’s neither here nor there in terms of the comedy, but it’s something pretty amazing considering the controversy with which this season started. [Grade: B-]
Monologue: Timberlake can’t be there in person, but that didn’t stop him from sending a picture of him flipping the bird to Samberg. (That counts as far as my predictions go, because I make the rules, darnit.) Samberg mocks his live sketch prowess, so apparently he’s reading this live recap while hosting the show. Andy is quite the multitasker. Seth Meyers appears to help Samberg break Bill Hader’s total number of impressions. So, of course, Bill Hader shows up, as does Martin Short, because there’s no way that any of the current cast members are going to see as much face time as they did in the cold open. It’s all perfectly fine, but distressing as a signal of how this show might progress. Strap in, nostalgia fans: It’s gonna be a night. Whether or not it's a good or bad night is a matter of your tolerance for old versus new during a season finale. [Grade: B]
Camp Wicawabe: Aidy Bryant and Kate McKinnon are young summer campers hosting their own talk show. They love gossip, getting in trouble, and freeze pops. Samberg plays the camp prankster, a seven-year old whose ideas of wild times includes putting his bare butt on trees. The primary humor comes from the two girls trying to make sense of anything Samberg’s character says: They desperately want to seem cool, but are so naïve that most his exploits (as tame as they are) fly right over their heads. There’s no real driving force behind this sketch, which is a problem for a post-monologue segment. This season has found the show unable to consistently put strong sketches early in the show. It’s not a fun trend to observe. [Grade: C+]
When Will The Bass Drop?: Samberg is a DJ, and you’re not gonna believe this, but he refuses to let the bass drop for an absurdly long period of time. He does everything BUT drop the bass: he plays Jenga, he accepts credit card payments, and plays with a tiny desk sandbox. But those in the club don’t seem to care, all just reveling in simply being in the presence of his greatness. Once he does press the “Bass” button, nearly everyone in the crowd starts to explode, as Lil Jon’s “Get Turned Up To Death” mantra proves prophetic. This…is definitely a type of Digital Short that defined that era. Just as we fondly remember certain sketches in shows that otherwise stunk, we also forget all the Digital Shorts that weren’t on the level of “D$ck In A Box.” Sadly, this was a pretty mediocre return of this “SNL” subgenre. Oh well. It happens. [Grade: C-]
Confident Hunchback: “Cool Guy Alert: Is is me, or am I great?” Samberg’s Quasimodo has confidence to woo all the ladies in the local bar, except Esmerelda. This sketch lasts about ninety seconds, which is a good thing, as it really didn’t have a second gear. So points for brevity, even if the content itself wasn’t all that great. This…has not been a good season finale so far. [Grade: B-]
St. Vincent takes the stage to perform “Digital Witness.” Of all the unique sets that musical guests have brought to “SNL” this season, this might be one of my favorites. It looks like the coolest locker room 1987 ever produced. As for the song itself, I’ll confess this is my first time hearing it, and everything except the chorus (which sounds like a mash-up of Depeche Mode and Dr. Dre/Tupac’s “California Love”) sounds cacophonous in all the wrong ways. Still, I’m willing to bet there’s a lot of interesting stuff going on underneath the surface that a few more listens would unveil. And I certainly appreciate St. Vincent’s pantomime, as it helps me decipher more lyrics than I would have otherwise. [Grade: B-]
Weekend Update: New York comedian Bruce Chandling (Kyle Mooney) arrives to offer up his views on summer. Chandling is not the new Nicholas Fehn, but it’s in that anti-comedy vein all the same. Still: We’re seeing Kyle Mooney live onstage, which is more than you can say for most of the current cast tonight thus far. On top of that, it’s actually one of his better solo appearances all season, with Chandling’s dip into darkness a bold note to play. (Credit where credit’s due: Cecily Strong holds down her half of this bit with great aplomb.) Afterwards, Samberg and Paul Rudd appear for “Get In The Cage.” Cage actually refers to Colin Jost as “Seth,” which is unintentionally a fantastic comment upon how much Jost has not stepped out of Meyers’ shadow to this point. Samberg’s Cage is reliably great, with lines such as, “Don’t sass me, Clueless!” serving as instant winners. And with that, “Weekend Update” ends for the year, with Jost and Strong not even getting more than a rushed goodbye before the show cuts to commercial. Seems somewhat fitting, although this might have been the strongest “Update” of their short tenure, making this rushed ending feel unfortunate. [Grade: B+]
The Vogelchecks: And the parade of former stars continues! Kristen Wiig, Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, Paul Rudd, and Maya Rudolph return for this crowd-pleasing sketch. Meanwhile, Kate McKinnon and Taran Killam get the great honor of appearing in a segment in a season in which they are actually cast members. The alumni, meanwhile, are having a blast, with Hader/Samberg overtly trying to make Armisen break during his “serious” speech two-thirds through the segment. This was a sketch designed for those in attendance, and as such it was a roaring success. For those of us at home, it might have felt like more of an inside joke. Your mileage may vary, naturally, but nostalgia that incorporates rather than excludes the current cast feels self-congratulatory. It doesn’t continue any traditions so much as keep the show locked in its own past. [Grade: A-/C, depending on your proximity to the stage]
Waking Up With Kimye: Samberg appears as the wedding planner for the upcoming nuptials. He’s blatantly reading cue cards, but he neither adds anything nor takes anything away here. This might be the last time we see Pedrad’s Kim Kardashian, so soak it in, people. This is…pretty much like every other version of this sketch, but with one notable exception. It’s weird that the one sketch in which a lot of cast members could appear (as members of the extended family, as in past iterations) opts out of that and simply shows Killam as Bruce Jenner. Do we even know if most of them are in the building at this point? I want to give them all hugs at this point and let them know, “Good Will Hunting”-style, that this isn’t their fault. [Grade: C-]
Hugs: Tatiana Maslany opens up another Digital Short classic trope: The hip-hop parody homage, this time with Pharrell lends his presence and pipes to this ode to the “upper-body grip.” Look: This would be a decent-to-fine ep were this airing when I started recapping the show four years ago. And season finales traditionally have a little more guest power than others. But there’s something offputting about the show seemingly speeding away from this season before it officially ends. [Grade: B-]
Legolas Tries To Order At Taco Bell: I love that the production staff had to built an authentic Taco Bell chain restaurant for thirty seconds worth of sketch. America! As far as these quickie “Random Person Orders Food” sketches go, I think I’d rather have Jason Segel’s Andre The Giant impression. Still, we now know Bobby Moynihan isn’t dead, so that’s a plus. [Grade: B-]
Superhits Studios: 2 Chainz appears to reintroduce The Blizzard Man to the “SNL” world. Much like with “The Vogelchecks,” this is about audience anticipation of what’s to come rather than any comedic surprise. The best thing here? 2 Chainz, whose enthusiasm is the only thing keeping this trainwreck from being completely unwatchable. I’d say more, but it’s like beating a dead, unfunny horse at this point. [Grade: D]
St. Vincent returns to perform “Birth In Reverse.” As a performance, I love what these four do onstage: It feels like The Talking Heads in terms of arch performativity, in which standard tropes get reduced to their essence and then get robotically reproduced as commentary upon their inherent unnaturalness. (The two guitarists moving back and forth in opposite directions? Hysterical and awesome.) As a song? There’s a lot more to grasp upon first listen here. Mostly, I can’t believe an act this avant garde can still get a slot on the show. Props to “SNL” for that, unless they had no idea who they actually booked and are watching this all in a dumbfounded manner. [Grade: B+]
Bulgari Watches: At some point, the writers/performers involved with this sketch decided that making every other word completely indecipherable was the way to keep this series funny. This was a wrong approach. There are still some good jokes here (especially the “cowgirl” one), but by the time Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dong (Samberg, Wiig) hit the stage, I’ll confess I’ve already checked out. What a sad season finale. Along with the Jim Parsons episode a few months back, this might have been the worst one all season. Ensuring I now never want to see another iteration of the Ex-Pornstars, one of my formerly favorite recurring sketches, is just icing on the cake. [Grade: C-]
Best Sketch: Weekend Update
Worst Sketch: Superhits Studios
Why Spend So Much Time Hating On Former Greats, McGee?: Because the show has one huge problem right now: It is way too in love with the idea of itself. Bringing back past cast members and former recurring sketches is not just about reminding the audience of what it used to love, it’s also about the show propping itself up by leaning on what used to work rather than experimenting with what might work. Look above: Only three sketches featured overtly new premises: the cold open, the camp sketch, and the hunchback sketch. And you could argue those three were just variations on existing templates. With other programs currently responding more quickly to events in the world (such as "The Daily Show"), others breaking into new forms of sketch writing (such as "Review"), and others offering up coherent comedic world views (such as "Inside Amy Schumer" and "Kay & Peele"), “SNL” will have to look long and hard at itself this summer to figure out where it stands as it enters its fifth decade of existence.
What did you think of the finale? As bad as listed above, or enjoyable for all the familiar faces that reappeared? Sound off below!