Saturday Night Live Finale Review: Fred Armisen Hosts
This has been a fun, and weird, and uneven, and sometimes upsetting (Remember when He Who Shall Not Be Named hosted?) season, and it has been a pure joy to write about it, in both good times and bad. But as the great Nelly Furtado once sang, all good things come to an end, and so tonight we witness Season 41’s swan song-- guided by Fred Armisen, famous for his own run on SNL, his musical skill on Late Night with Seth Meyers, his IFC shows Portlandia and Documentary Now, and that time we let him play Obama because he was the most ethnic cast member SNL had.
Cold Open: Hillary Clinton celebrates her inevitable victory while drinking at a bar with a slightly bitter Bernie Sanders. The two set aside their differences for a dance together. When people talk about how much better SNL was when it was first starting out, I find that they’re typically referring to two things: the inherently rebellious nature of the early days, and/or the more quirky, homespun feel. The loss or lessening of these qualities is to be expected of a show in its forty-first year-- a bigger budget, more network support, and decades of practice have led to a pretty well-oiled machine (less rampant cocaine use among cast and crew has probably also helped matters). Of course, despite what everyone who believes SNL was better when they were seventeen will tell you, this modern high production value can be a plus. But sometimes it’s nice to be reminded that this show is mostly just a bunch of weird drama kids living out their dream-- and tonight’s opening felt like one of those reminders.
It was another political cold open in a season (understandably) chock full of them, but it was refreshingly Trump-free, as well as, in the midst of an increasingly depressing election year, surprisingly sweet. Jabs were made by and at both democratic candidates, but ultimately the two were brought together in a weird little dance number that led them from the bar set in which their scene took place through the studio audience and all the way backstage, where the whole cast danced behind them, before joining together to collectively shout the famous “Live from New York, it’s Saturday night!” Maybe it was just watching Jon Rudnitsky soak up the last moments he would ever spend on this stage, probably (NEW GUY, we hardly knew ye), but the whole moment warmed my heart. A
Monologue: Fred Armisen performs the SNL audition scene from his self-indulgent one-man show about his life. Carrying over that sense of silly sweetness from the cold open was Armisen’s monologue, which might have been my favorite of the season. Monologues are a notoriously tough part of the show to nail, as seen in all the times some poor Oscar-winner has been forced to tap dance next to a grinning Taran Killam, or pause for laughter after a joke that elicits none. But Armisen’s effort tonight worked in a way that we typically only see when stand-up comics host; it was purely him, with a particular brand of weirdness that represented the host himself, not just whatever the show felt like doing that week. Armisen’s perfectly smug transitions from character work (“Hey, it’s funny Freddy!”) into self-reflection (“Growing up in Long Island...”) were expertly timed; the rhythms were consistently just right. It was, admittedly, a little long, but that brought about more of that old-school rebellion feeling. I’m certain this one will have its detractors but for me, it really worked. A
Lewis and Clark: A trio of performers from an educational theatre group come to a local high school to enact scenes from their play about Lewis and Clark, but the plot seems to be purely about the two explorers’ plans for a threesome with Sacajawea. Especially in the latter half of this season, I’ve found myself downright baffled by which sketches get the post-monologue slot. I suppose the sketch placement matters less in an age where most people consume SNL via DVR or the internet, but this still did not feel deserving of a slot that is meant to grab those watching live. There were moments that worked-- Kyle Mooney’s enthusiastic description of William Clark as “soldier, explorer, politician, and-- BOOOO -- slaveowner!” got me, and Pete Davidson’s increasingly enthusiastic response to the increasingly disturbing scene before him was a nice detail. Overall, though, the sketch just wasn’t funny or fully formed enough, and couldn’t seem to decide how “edgy” it wanted to be. Definitely not the best the night had to offer. C
Finest Girl: In the return of the Digital Short, Andy Samberg’s Pop Star character Conner4real performs a song about a girl who insists, with increasing detail, that Conner “f*** her like the US government f***ed Bin Ladin.” I consider myself a Lonely Island defender; I found I’m on a Boat genuinely funny, and Lazy Sunday is my favorite running song (for real-- try it out next time you’re on a jog). But tonight’s Lonely Island (well, actually Conner4real) showing was not my favorite. Pros included the pitch-perfect casting of Vanessa Bayer and her toothy smile as the girl with the Bin Laden fetish, as well as the fact that, as with all Lonely Island songs, this was catchy as hell. Cons included the fact that beyond the initial shock of Bayer’s request, there weren’t enough places to go to sustain a three-minute song. The Lonely Island works best when their songs have no real message at all. I’m on a Boat and Lazy Sunday are so enjoyable because they aren’t saying anything; they exist to make you laugh with the sheer randomness of a couple of white dudes angry-rapping about totally mundane topics. Perhaps tonight’s song wasn’t really political beyond the fact that it discussed an event in U.S. political history, but it still felt like an unnecessary attempt at “edge” that didn’t click for me. Regardless, this dumb song is still in my head, so it succeeded there. C+
Regine: A man brings his opinionated, smug new girlfriend to a party with his friends, where he displays all the ways she orgasmically convulses from a single touch-- making his friends increasingly uncomfortable. Debbie Downer was a great character, but that’s not why I remember her. I remember her because the mental image of brightly-colored-polo-wearing Jimmy Fallon, Horatio Sanz, and Lindsay Lohan (Hey! Remember 2004?) attempting to cry-laugh their way through their lines is permanently etched in my brain. Fred Armisen’s character Regine isn’t one I was particularly hoping to see tonight; I find her smug commentary (“So what were you talking about before we got here, economic breakdown in Venezuela?” “Not exactly.” “Oh? Why not?”) quite funny, but her constant convulsing at the touch of her boyfriend is a little too broad for my taste. But the thing about that kind of broad physical comedy is that it’s hard to resist when you’re in close proximity to it-- and tonight, it got the better of the cast in the scene, causing even stalwarts like Vanessa Bayer to giggle through their lines. Cast laughter is infectious, and though it didn’t significantly change my thoughts on Regine, it did increase the entertainment value of the sketch as a whole, if only slightly. (Oh, also: Jason Sudeikis! Welcome back!) C+
Farewell, Mr. Bunting: A parody of Dead Poet’s Society recreates the movie’s iconic final scene, with a surprise ending. You should go watch this sketch right now if you haven’t already, because I don’t want to go all “guy at Border’s at midnight who skips ahead to the last Harry Potter page and tells everyone who dies” on you and spoil the fun of the surprise.
You back now? Great! Hey, remember when Pete Davidson’s head got cut off by a ceiling fan?! This, again, felt like a return to that old school SNL vibe-- very off-the-wall, silly, a little rebellious-feeling-- but combined with those pitch-perfect production values the show has today. The comic timing here was outstanding-- the sketch held for several minutes with very few direct punchlines, all to build to one big, surprising one, and ending with a silent pause, holding on each blood-soaked student, followed by Armisen’s, “All right. I’m gonna take off. You guys have my email and everything, right?” provided the perfect final beat. This was so weird in such a great way, and a triumphant finale to a season full of strong pre-taped sketches. A
Weekend Update: The Update desk has struggled to find its identity in the past few years, facing several cast shakeups, an increase in faux-news competitors, and Colin Jost’s deepy punchable face. This season has shown anchors Jost and Michael Che settling into a solid groove, with several notable outings at the desk; unfortunately, tonight wasn’t really one of them. Jost and Che started strong with sharp jokes on the NRA’s endorsement of Trump (Trump is like a gun, Jost claims, because “we think he’s gonna make us feel safe and strong, but he might end up accidentally killing us”), but it was mostly downhill from there. The ending of the segment, in which they did all the jokes deemed too edgy to use throughout the season, was a bit of a let-down with its not-that-edgy jokes, and the choice to end the season with Kenan Thompson’s Willie, of all the great recurring Update characters to choose from, is a mystery. It was fun to get a Maya Rudolph cameo, though, with her deeply Maya Rudolph-y impression of recently impeached Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff. I don’t know much about Dilma Rousseff, and Maya didn’t really change that for me with her indecipherable speech, but Maya Rudolph with a weird accent, no matter how indecipherable, is near always a delight.
Andromeda Galaxy: Faced with certain death and only enough room for one person in the escape pod to the nearest surviving colony, a group of humans in space are forced to elect which of their members will survive through a random drawing. But upon entering the escape pod, the chosen member is forced to sit in front of his dying friends and choose which luxurious options he would like for his pod flight, from meals to in-flight entertainment. This was a fun little sketch that would have made way more sense in the Lewis and Clark spot. Perfectly in sync with Armisen’s weird sensibilities, the skit was a good, quick start to the night’s second half. Though it featured the common sketch comedy problem of not quite knowing how to end, Armisen’s whole bit in the escape pod was a great use of escalating comic tension, with his initial disdain at the thought of abandoning his friends turning into delight at the prospect of watching City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly’s Gold. A strong showing proving live sketches can be funny even if they don’t involve recurring characters or game shows (Take note for season 42, SNL writers!). A-
Woodbridge High School Student Theatre Showcase: A group of high school drama students put on a smugly “gritty” show for an audience made up of their embarrassed and annoyed parents. This is one of my favorite recurring sketches, and one the cast is really smart about not using so often we get sick of it. It’s a good example of a sketch that hews very closely to a formula, but works well because there’s enough room for surprise in it (think Stefon). Tonight included several highlights, my personal favorite being this scene in which a girl introduces her parent to her prom date, only to slowly reveal that the girl is a lesbian, her parent is transgender, and all the characters were Asian the whole time; after each reveal the cast members pop out to exclaim, “That’s good.” This is one of those sketches where you can tell the cast has a blast writing and performing it, and it shows. A-
The Harkin Brothers: A community center concert features an old school southern rock band singing about summer days. This episode had a bit of a rocky middle, but it began and ended with strong notes of that scrappy, weird side of SNL that endears us to it after all these years. One of my favorite things Fred Armisen brought to his time at SNL were the fake bands he fronted, from Ian Rubbish and the Bizarros to The Blue Jean Committee, in sketches that were played more for charm than any overt punchline. Tonight featured the reveal of The Harkin Brothers, an early 70’s style southern rock band who sang a smooth song about a summer day in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Every season 41 cast member was on stage, joined by all the night’s former castmate guest stars (and Carrie Brownstein!). It was a truly heartwarming end to the season. A
Quotes, Extras, and Final Thoughts:
Hillary’s worst nightmare? “A mandatory spa day.” Bernie’s? “Waiting over an hour at Lenscrafters.”
Bernie would like a beer that is “a new brand that people are flocking to. Something refreshing and revolutionary.” Hillary would like “whatever beer no one likes, but gets the job done.”
Before beginning his one man show, Fred excuses himself to change his jacket. The costumer brings one onstage for him-- which turns out to be exactly the same as the jacket he is already wearing.
I really appreciated the detail of Aidy Bryant’s teacher character in the Lewis and Clark sketch meeting the theatre troupe at an Italian restaurant where she was enjoying a “meatball salad.”
THOUGHTS ON THE MUSICAL GUEST: I really enjoyed Courtney Barnett’s stripped-down, rock-and-roll performance, but I’ve also seen Taylor Swift live, so I am definitely not cool enough to give any further commentary. I’ll ask my local record shop employee who has a podcast about ghosts how I should feel and get back to you. THIS HAS BEEN THOUGHTS ON THE MUSICAL GUEST
I enjoy a surprise appearance from an old cast member as much as the next SNL viewer, but they may have been a bit too prolific tonight. I’m always glad to see Maya and Andy, but not at the expense of the current cast members-- I could have used more Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones appearances to tide me over until Ghostbusters.
Two amazing longform bits tonight. First, Che’s rant on the NRA’s fear of Hillary repealing the second amendment: “Look, NRA, no one is trying to take your guns away from you. We understand how much you need them for the apocalypse, and your daughter’s wedding, and to fry bacon on. Look, it’s easy for me to say because I’m from big, fancy New York City and I never have to musket a possum in the face for supper, but I assure you, nobody is trying to take your precious guns away from you, except maybe a curious toddler-- which ironically is why Hillary Clinton is trying to prevent this.”
Second, the textbook chapter Beck Bennett is forced to read by his evil headmaster in the Farewell, Mr. Bunting sketch: “Poetry should not be fun. It should be oppressive and the reader should hate it. Poems are from 100 years ago. They were written by a bunch of dead men to punish children. The arts in general are for women and homosexuals. When you read a poem, you should never feel emotion. In conclusion, poems stink.”
The Woodbridge High School Theatre Showcase is titled “America the Beautiful: Question Mark?” and ends with a Q&A “amongst” the cast.
In all sincerity, it has been such fun watching and studying and reviewing this past season of SNL, and I am so grateful to any and all who have read along. Have a beautiful summer!