Sunday, November 12, 2006

TV: Saturday Night Dead

Here's a fact: those working in comedy can be the most thin-skinned. That may surprise you because they're so quick to laugh at others (we are as well, before anyone thinks we're condemning). But that's reality. In July of 2005, we (Ava and C.I.) reviewed Mad TV. One friend with the show still harps on the review. He's not "angry," he's not "mad." He's "more peeved." And for the last sixteen months, it's come up repeatedly.

We'd noted here when Mad TV actually invented characters as opposed to yet again spoofing the over spoofed. We'd said we'd take another look and do a review because sketch comedies get stronger and get weaker all the time. He didn't want that. He wanted us to review Saturday Night Live.

We weren't interested. As he pointed out, we like Tina Fey. He took to calling us "Tina-sters" which, we thought, indicated why Mad TV so often fumbles the joke -- "Feysters" would be much more amusing. Saturday morning, he was on the phone griping that Mad TV had "gotten the treatment" but not SNL. To get him off our backs, we agreed to watch that night's live broadcast.

How bad could it be? Yes, Fey was off the show doing 30 Rock, but they had a few episodes under their belt, things should be gelling, right? And Alec Baldwin was hosting -- for the 13th time. (They said on the show it was the 13th time. A friend swears it was Baldwin's 14th time hosting.)

Actually, he wasn't so much hosting as he was standing around. That was due to the fact that SNL played out like it was in its final season. The shovel's been grabbed many times, the plot dug, but it's bounced back before. If it does, even slightly, this time, without major staffing changes, it will be a shock.

Let's be really clear for our Mad TV friend who plans to stay up until our review is posted, SNL today makes Mad TV look like the Gilda-Curtain-Belushi years of SNL. Now he can go to sleep and dream happy.

For the rest of you? (Which includes two friends with SNL.) We could start with the low point except for one thing -- there were multiple low points. So let's start with the high point. The musical guest who performed three songs. The first opened with something like, "Heeeey-aye-eeh-ooh-woah-wooh" and that was just the just first word.

Ladies and gentleman, representing Team USA in the vocal gymanstic, Christina Aguilera. Aguilera was in heels, hat and suit. The song was your basic nonsense but she, her four dancers, three backup singers and nine-plus-member band turned it into an event. The second song featured her showing off her softer side and high-range. It was marred only by the fact that the lyrics to the song appeared to come straight out of the spiral some tenth grader used as a journal. (Not as a poetry book, as a journal. End rhymes and meter were tossed aside for free-association rambles.) Her last performance was a duet with Tony Bennett, the master of understatement. Aguliera was at her best when she was shaking her hips and making fun of that move.

We're not fans of vocal gymnastics (Aguilera does have the pipes, there hasn't been anyone like her since Mariah Carey first hit with "Vision of Love") and we actually groaned when we heard her named as the musical guest. But she put on a show. She's matured into a strong live performer. Now if only someone could explain to her that running the scales isn't required for every song.

The writing of the skits ran the scales too, in it's own ways. It didn't take you to heights of new laughter but it did try to squeeze in every reference someone could think of -- shout outs passing for funny lines.

How awful the writing is was driven home in a skit where Baldwin played Saddam Hussein. This wasn't a 'comment' on the trial -- the days of that sort of bravery ended long ago and Jim Downey would probably tender his resignation (yet again) if someone even tried to address the realities of the trial or to mock the way it was played out by the mainstream press.
What was it?

Saddam meets with two of his lawyers. If you're thinking one is Ramsey Clark, don't say that too loudly. Those involved in the skit would probably shoot back, "Who's Ramsey Clark?"

Early on, Saddam/Alec said, "I feel like a contestant on American Idol and all the witness are Simon." Did you chuckle? Probably not. And that line may have been the funniest of the shout-outs. They also got in shout-outs to Welcome Back, Kotter, Law and Order, O.J. Simpson and Boran. They just didn't make room for any jokes.

Someone felt Saddam saying "Welcome Back, Kotter" was, in and of itself, so delightful that it needed to be repeated multiple times and actually creating a joke or a sketch was unnecessary. They were sadly mistaken.

Name dropping also was supposed to replace the need to be funny in a skit where Alec Baldwin and Kristen Wiig played two co-workers who car pooled. If hearing claims that Celine Dion rescued a teenager or that Bobby McFerren raped a grandmother tickles your funny bone, then you may have laughed loudly and frequently. The rest of America was probably reaching for the remote.

Many years ago, Nicole Kidman and Mike Meyers played children and this skit was an attempt to ape that one but with adult characters and without humor.

TV Fun House we'll take a pass on because describing it to anyone who didn't see it may leave them with the mistaken impression that it was wild, zany and funny. It was none of the three.

Another staple, of course, is Weekend Update. Amy Poehler and Seth Meyers now co-anchor. On a recent episode of How I Met Your Mother, the topic of "crazy eyes" was discussed (watch out for the dates with crazy eyes). Though no one on that show had them, Poehler does. She always looks like someone who's been off her meds for at least 16 days. Despite that, she got a laugh for a well crafted line about the elections: "In an ironic turn around, Iraq brought regime change to the US."

The rest of the time she continued her annoying habit of popping her eyes and bearing down on words as though thrusting them at an audience makes them funny. Meyers seemed to think a squint was funny. It wasn't and it played out like Chevy Chase: The Middle Years. Jimmy Fallon, young and bone-thin, could get away with the little boy quality. Meyers is too old, too thick and not cute enough. Wardrobe also needs to help him find a jacket that fits.

What's most wrong with the current show is awful writing. It's not a question of timing or performers needing to grow comfortable with one exception. Wiig needs to. She was flat out awful throughout most of the show and we'd still be wondering how she got hired were it not for her character Aunt Lynda (Culture Critic) during Weekend Update. Give her funny lines (which will require new writers) and Wiig may actually have a great deal to offer.

We could give you a rundown of every skit and what was wrong with it and why. We could offer, for instance, that Amy Poehler saying "Dang!" a lot with a bad wig on her head doesn't make her Britney Spears and doesn't make the skit funny (especially when played opposite a bump on a log). We could explore how the fact that K-Fed and Britney were the topic of two bits indicates that the writers need to consider reading something other than Page Six of the Post. We could note that we were told "The Out of Breath Jogger from 1992" wasn't even funny in dress and no one knows how it made to air (panting "George Bush totally barfed on that Chinese Dude . . . Crystal Pepsi!"). We could note that the funniest performers they have on the show were the most underutilized (including Maya Rudolph and Will Forte). We could note that a skit that's not funny with Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin doesn't become funny by adding Martin Short and Paul McCartney to it nor by name checking Tom Hanks, John Goodman and Paul Simon. However, it does, yet again, underscore the fact that women are rarely multiple hosts. Lily Tomlin hasn't hosted since the 80s. Her crime must have been actually being funny.

But we want to zoom in on why the show sucks. The spirit of Amy Poehler.

With Fey to prop her up, they made history as the first woman-woman anchor team for Weekend Update. Fey's no longer around and every skit Poehler's in plays out like that embarrassing, laugh-free, never ending interview she did with Janeane Garofalo on The Majority Report. Garofalo, who is funny, tried to save her repeatedly even as the listeners who blogged were calling for Poehler's head with the kind of venum not present since Peaches bombed on the show. Poehler wasn't grabbing any life preserver, thank you, she was bound and determined to sink all on her own. "Hey lighten up guys, politics is dumb." That's not a direct quote. That is the attitude she exhibited while attempting to make jokes (about everything but politics) on a political talk show and boring the hell out of every listener she wasn't angering.

We winced when we heard that interview and watching the show, we were reminded of it because Poehler truly is stupid and she embodies all that is wrong with the show. (Jim Downey assists with that.)

During Weekend Update, Poehler told a joke about how the meeting between Bully Boy and Nancy Pelosi this week had gone well, "though, just to rub it in, she left early to have an abortion."

Did you chuckle?

Well if you did, congratulations. SNL is back to the Norm McDonald/Jim Downey crap. You remember that, right? The unfunny attacks were only surpassed by the Colin Quinn period which seemed to think the Clinton Chronicles were factual. Let's clear it up for Poehler who read the joke, Nancy Pelosi can't have an abortion. At sixty-five, she no longer ovulates. Nancy Pelosi has never stated she has had an abortion so we'll assume she hasn't had one. The joke wasn't funny.

And here's the thing, when it was Republicans, the joke was about something they actually did. Donald Rumsfeld, being moved out of his office, said, "You go into a moving job with the movers you have." That's a reference to his real-life groaner about going to war with the military you have. See that's what Poehler and the other idiots on the show do. When it's time to spoof Republicans, they are fact-based.

When it's time to spoof Democrats, they aren't. They're so tickled with their lame stereotypes (as Poehler was when Garofalo was interviewing her) that they don't think it has to have any resemblence to real life. (Polar said as much in that interview.) It's the kind of thinking that leads them to think having Saddam Hussein shout out "Welcome Back, Kotter" is somehow funny.

And it goes to what was the worst skit of the night. The opening.

Nancy Pelosi (played by Wiig) is delivering a speech. It has nothing to do with Pelosi (other than Wiig putting on a wig and being called Nancy Pelosi). It was a bunch of cheap shots that even Rush Limbaugh would hold his nose at but because, like Polar, they're kind-of left and kind-of concerned about the world around them, they think they can get away with this shit. So they flash photos of Pelosi's supposed picks for committee chairs with 'funnys' like for "agriculture, this naked hippie . . . and his old lady" or "another Black guy."

The shit included an assistant for Pelosi, Dana. A man in S&M drag towing his "slave" on a leash
-- his slave who is "a human ashtray." It's as though they heard the right-wing and mainstream cry of "San Francisco Democrat" and thought, "Okay, we're kind-of left, we can go to town here."

The jokes about the administration had to come with the ability to be foot noted and fact checked. With the Democrats, they just went to town inventing things. Which is how you got Pelosi, a woman too old to get pregnant, rushing off to have an abortion.

Tina Fey isn't Hannah Arendt, but she does have a mind and she does use it. She brought SNL back to the living. Polar & co. seem to think that the height of topical comedy would be to do a Brady Bunch sketch that they could insert Britney Spears into. Fey (remember, we've been dubbed "Tina-sters"), appeared on the show in the opening monologue with Alec Baldwin and Tracy Morgan. No surprise, that was actually funny. It was also a promo for 30 Rock which, in five minutes, provides more laughs than were to be had in the 90 minute Saturday Night Live.

The problem isn't a rhythm. So the solution isn't, "Give it time." The problem is the writing. It's not funny. It's doing what Square Pegs was accused of which is sprinkling in pop-cultural refs to grab laughs it didn't earn. What was false about Square Pegs is true of the current Saturday Night Live and Lorne Michaels & co. should be embarrassed . In 1985, Michaels returned to producing the show and scored a ratings and critical hit with the season premiere -- a hit he didn't feel comfortable with because the humor came from the host, Madonna, and the episode existed as a show case for her (including Madonna doing a parody of a Joan Collins type -- with chin thrust far out to minimize sagging). He was right. He didn't deserve the praise. When the following episodes were broadcast (without Madonna) the show sucked.

But Alec Baldwin, who has been funny consistently on the show, was reduced to the nice tour guide this go round. He was likeable. Tony Bennett, in a skit, got in a funny ad-lib and Baldwin's spark was there. The rest of the time? Cut out the likeability and he could have been Freddie Prinze Jr., MC Hammer, Linda Hamilton, Robert Conrad or any other host that the cast had to work around because the host just wasn't funny.

When they're wasting Alec Baldwin, there's a problem with the writing. We're told that the problem is known. Knowing it and even publicly admitting it may be a first step in some program, but doing nothing isn't fixing this program. Poehler needs to go. Not just from the anchor desk, from the show and she needs to take Grandpa Armisen with her. (Forty next month, so much for the once young-and-hip show.) His I'm-so-funny routine might hack it on The Carol Burnett Show where breaking character and cracking up on camera was seen as 'delightful' but isn't that among the reasons Horatio Sanz was fired?

We missed Grandpa's bit as Hugo Chavez earlier this year but two friends with the show swear the skit would have been funny if Armisen and Poehler (as Kim Jong Il) hadn't blown it by repeatedly finding one another so damn amusing.

Poehler's not the only one who needs to go. Seth Meyers needs to leave the anchor desk as well. He's not suited for it. You either make your mark or you don't. Recycling Chevy and Jimmy bits doesn't cut it. Turn the desk over to Rudolph, Forte or Andy Samberg who, though lost for most of the show, had a moment with Baldwin that carried weight. (Samberg also played the out of breath 90s guy. The skit wasn't funny but, it should be noted, he committed to that character as well.)

None of the above matters if you don't fire some of the writers (Meyers is head writer). They aren't cutting it. Lorne Michaels is now producing everything he once hated. He is part of the very thing that he once rebelled against. Pink slips are coming, but he's fooling himself if he thinks he can't wait until the end of the season.

Until then, the joke is Saturday Night Live -- that anyone thinks it's worth watching. The only one that's happy about that is our friend at Mad TV.
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