Every season of “Saturday Night Live” is a beast unto itself. But in my short time recapping episodes for HitFix, the time between seasons has seen the most change. Stalwarts Kristen Wiig and Andy Samberg are gone. Jason Sudeikis will join them in a few months. Three new cast members (Aidy Bryant, Tim Robinson, and Cecily Strong) have been added as featured players. Lorne Michaels finally decided to let Jay Pharoah play President Obama. These aren’t seismic changes, to be certain. The show has handled more turnover in its past. And no one expects the overall quality of the show to take a sudden downhill turn even with the aforementioned changes.
But maybe people should expect more from the show this season. At the very least, they should expect something different. I wrote up ten suggestions last week for “SNL,” and while I don’t expect the powers that be to stop production and have every member of the writer’s room read that gallery (although let’s be frank, that would be the smart thing to do!), I do expect the change in the show’s onscreen talent to inevitable change the overall makeup of the show. Such change is built into the program’s DNA, and has kept it a part of the pop culture landscape for nearly thirty years. How successful the writing of the show adapts to the new cast composition will go a long way to determining the show’s success this season.
So I’ll keep a keen eye on which cast members break out, which ones recede, and how the new combinations possible given the absence of Wiig and Samberg affect the in-sketch dynamics. The lucky first host to be part of this ongoing comedic experiment? Seth MacFarlane
, who took time to leap off his big pile of money AMASSED from his FOX animated comedies and this past summer’s surprise box-office smash “Ted” to come down and host the show for us little people. Along for the ride is musical act Frank Ocean, a writer/producer who entered the public consciousness over this past year through both his music (the album “Channel Orange”) and his personal life (announcing publicly that his first love was a man).
Will Ocean stay on stage, or join so many previous musical guests in appearing in sketches as well? Will he help pen an opening monologue song for MacFarlane? What is the future of pre-produced comedic content on the show? Will Pharaoh’s chance to shine be a mere imitation of Obama or a unique impersonation? Will the women of the cast have a chance to form their own version of the female-led ensembles that represent some of the show’s finest seasons? So many questions, and only one way to answer them: by grading each segment of the show as they happen in real time. After that, you tell me how wrong I was, how I have no business covering a show that hasn’t been funny in years, and then we do the whole thing again next week. We cool? Cool. Onto the recap!
Democratic Rally: You can put away the “Free Jay Pharaoh” cards, everyone: IT’S A NEW DAY! Nice hand off from Fred Armisen there, even if it seemed like a slight dig as well. (“Wouldn’t want THAT job!” Armisen’s warm-up speaker notes.) Obama notes that while his campaign is in trouble, but he has a secret weapon: Mitt Romney himself. “He makes me laugh,” notes Obama, and know what makes ME laugh? Pharaoh as Obama! It’s not just because he actually sounds like the President, but because he’s got the intonations, pauses, and a mixture of arrogance and amusement that at least announces the show finally has an angle in which to explore the sitting President. No more cringing during the inevitable slew of political cold opens this Fall? Works for me. [Grade: B]
Monologue: MacFarlane takes the stage, looking dapper and ready to go. He notes that he’s famous for doing lots of voices, but he’s happy to be there as himself. So, naturally, he starts doing voices from “Family Guy” right away. It’s like a Jeff Dunham performance, only without puppets. (Also, it’s amusing, which is way more than I can say for Dunham.) He then segues into a song “My Head Is Filled With Voices,” and anyone who has watched “Family Guy” knows MacFarlane has a great singing voice. It’s fairly tame, albeit pleasant, until an anti-Semitic Kermit the Frog enters the fray. Not that tame is bad, mind you. But those expecting “Family Guy”-levels of offense are probably worried that “SNL” will defang MacFarlane. [Grade: B+]
Obama Political Ad: Several disgruntled citizens rail against Mitt Romney via Bain Capital, accusing the Republican Presidential candidate of increasingly personal attacks. Kenan Thompson’s aggrieved character, who apparently left job after job in a desperate attempt to avoid the eye of Bain, made me laugh loud enough to wake the dog. Now, poor J.J. is worried Bain Capital will close down this recap and I won’t be able to afford to buy any more treats. [Grade: B]
Sex After 50: Whoa, Cecily Strong gets the lead in her first sketch? Oh wait, of course not. While she’s in the fake opening credits for the sketch, we get one of Fred Armisen’s least appealing recurring characters, Roger Brush, instead. (A whole summer to think up ideas, and we’re back to this awful excuse for comedy.) While we got a Strong fake-out, we do get Tim Robinson in his first onscreen appearance as MacFarlane’s boyfriend. He even gets a line! The one highlight here? Kate McKinnon’s brief appearance near the end of the sketch. I wouldn’t mind a spin-off of that spinster. Otherwise? Completely forgettable. [Grade: C-]
Clint Eastwood…And Chair: C’mon. You KNEW this was coming. It’s a fairly rote take on the comedic equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel. But by the time Eastwood sang a duet with an invisible Jon Voight, I was finally into it. Too bad that’s pretty much exactly where the pre-produced sketch ended. Maybe we’ll get a series of these tonight? I understand this was probably a topic that couldn’t be done live. But the type of awkward, pause-driven humor that would have ensued would have been right up Norm MacDonald’s alley. [Grade: B-]
Lids Club: Apparently, mostly douches work at Lids. Noted. Also there? Internet sensation Psy, there to perform “Gangham Style” when the boys get down on the job. Is this the appropriate point to note that Bobby Moynihan is portraying Psy, even though Psy is Korean? And is now a good time to note how the fact that “SNL” doesn’t have a single Asian male on the show to portray Psy is indicative of the show’s casting diversity issues? Psy himself eventually appears in the segment, because of course he does. Oh joy. Here’s one of those sketches that will be out of date in about three weeks. I’m sure there are plenty who enjoyed this in the here and now. But whenever “SNL” creates sketches that only accentuate how largely monochromatic its cast is compared to the varied landscape of comedic talent available, it’s just slightly depressing. [Grade: C-]
Introduction to Puppetry: Remember that earlier Dunham reference? Apparently I’m a prophet. Anthony Coleman, dishonorably discharged in the early ‘80s, creates a puppet named Tony through which he can reveal his darkest days as a soldier. Coleman is the type of character that Will Forte once did in his sleep. (That’s not a knock on Hader. I just miss Forte.) MacFarlane’s teacher keeps trying to rein in Coleman, to no avail. Coleman is a fantastic comic creation within a strong comic premise. On top of that, the sketch builds Coleman’s puppetry in a way that it makes sense for Coleman to eventually start having a three-way make out session with his puppet and Vanessa Bayer’s “shop ‘til you drop” puppet. Props as well to Bayer for the understated way she sells her desire at the proceedings. Oh, “SNL”, you anger me so, and then drop gems like this. [Grade: A]
Frank Ocean takes the stage to perform “Thinking About You”. He has old-school arcade games onstage as set dressing, which automatically makes this the greatest performance in “SNL” history. (They are generic arcade consoles, ostensibly due to prohibitively expensive costs to use “Millipede”.) Given how many artists give frenetic-bordering-on-spastic performances in order to sell themselves to the large “SNL” audience at home, Ocean is content to sit on a stool center stage and let the audience lean in. The spare guitar line that opens the song gives way to a more expansive, haunting arrangement as the song progresses. Ocean’s falsetto is packed with emotion as the song ends. Really strong performance by Ocean. [Grade: A-]
Weekend Update: Honey Boo Boo and “Mama” from “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” take the stage to discuss how their show got higher ratings than either political convention. (That’s not true, factually, but let’s ignore that in favor of Bayer and Moynihan.) It seems like many in the audience don’t know that “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” is subtitled. Bayer is fine here, but it’s Moynihan who steals this segment. MacFarlane then appears as Ryan Lochte as swimmer-turned-TV-critic. Just watch: in real life, Lochte will probably take all our jobs now. (Sorry, Sepinwall. Sorry, Fienberg. Sorry, anyone who reads.) Also? “Oh man, it feels so weird to be dry,” sounds like something the real Lochte would actually say. Strong finally makes her first actual appearance in-show as Mimi Morales. Strong is playing a Hispanic woman because, well, no Hispanic women in America are apparently good at sketch comedy. (According to “SNL”, apparently. Sigh. I know. Moving on.) Strong is fine in this role, and my concerns about her role here have nothing to do with her and everything with those in the power to hire a more diverse cast in the off chance they need to portray a Korean rap star or a Hispanic political activist. This isn’t affirmative action. It’s common freakin’ sense in 2012. As for Seth Myers, he seems much more energetic than near the end of last season. Let’s see how long this lasts. [Grade: B-]
Basic Training: MacFarlane is a drill sergeant who is crippling self-conscious about his stuttering. It’s a simple premise for a sketch, but delivered by all involved with a crispness in its execution that lifts the proceedings above normal fare. From phrasing questions in a way that confuse the cadets to dropping into song in order to overcome a difficult word, the sketch offered MacFarlane plenty of notes to play within the short timespan. The stuttering got a little too much near the end, but that was the logical progression for the sketch to make. Will anyone remember this sketch tomorrow? Probably not. But it was perfectly fine in the moment, and didn’t make me cringe. So there’s that. [Grade: B]
Style Makeover: MacFarlane’s look in this sketch is Stewie Griffin via The Iron Sheik from WWE. Thank you, Image That Will Haunt My Dreams For A Month. Thompson’s host makes over MacFarlane in his own image, from clothes to dating advice to ultimately offering the couple an all-inclusive trip to see the African premiere of “Think Like A Man”. The audience ate this sketch up, but it felt from this vantage point that the sketch made its point once MacFarlane appeared onstage. After that, it simply milked time until it ended. Thompson had plenty of energy, and MacFarlane and Bayer seemed game as the couple on the show. But ultimately, the description for this sketch could read, “Funny suits are funny!” [Grade: C]
Blind Date: Nasim Pedrad Speaks! Amen! I was just making my “Free Nasim Pedrad!” sign, since my “Free Jay Pharoah!” one no longer seems necessary. Unfortunately, Pedrad is speaking within a sketch consisting of two people that start every sentence with, “Look, I’m like…” Faaaaantastic. Aidy Bryant makes her first in-show appearance, getting in on the already dull premise. Thompson’s waiter stands in as audience proxy, but it’s not enough to lift this one-note sketch up from the muck. Tossing a Quagmire reference into the final line just shows how much they were scraping the bottom of the barrel on this one. Frank Ocean, please play me a song. It’s so cold and lonely here in the final half-hour of the show. [Grade: D]
On cue, Frank Ocean reappears to perform “Pyramids”. Imagery of Cleopatra meld into a modern-day setting filled with drugs, depression, and a crazy soundscape that feels almost interplanetary. Halfway through, John Mayer plays a guitar solo as Frank Ocean plays “Donkey Kong”. I know I’m getting a little old to be up this late recapping “SNL”, but it’s probably too early to start hallucinating during these. What? That actually happened? Oh, whew. [Grade: B]
Wooden Spoon Warehouse: This isn’t really a sketch so much as a chance to hear Amish people describe URLs in wacky ways. It would die as a four-minute sketch, but at barely 45 seconds, it’s pretty great. I’ll never be able to look at an “R” without thinking “fat snake with a sex penis” again. And since it’s the first letter of my first name, I know have to legally change it. Awesome. [Grade: B]
Best Sketch: “Introduction to Puppetry”
Worst Sketch: “Blind Date”
Best Surprise: Tim Robinson performed admirably in his first show, seemingly getting more material than Taran Killam and Jason Sudeikis. He never took anything off the table, and occasionally added something to it. Not much more you can ask there.
Worst Surprise: In terms of overall feel, “SNL” is still a show currently dominated by sketches in which one character dominates the proceedings as the expense of everyone else on stage. Sometimes that’s fine, like in “Puppetry”. But more often than not, the sketches can feel lopsided. And aside from “Blind Date”, I’m not even sure we saw two women talk to one another in a sketch all night. That’s just odd.
Least Surprising Surprise: Everything I noted earlier about the racial composition of the cast. I’m a broken record at this point. And “SNL” is free to hire whomever it wants to hire. But tonight marked the second time that a Caucasian female’s first big appearance on the show featured her playing a Hispanic character. (McKinnon debuted last year with a Penelope Cruz impression.) “SNL” doesn’t think this is a problem. I’d be willing to guess more viewers than simply me do think it’s a problem.
What did you think of the “SNL” premiere? What did you think about the start of the Pharaoh-as-Obama Era? Did the Psy/Mimi Morales moments bother you or did you roll with the proceedings? Sound off below!