Sunday, January 30, 2011

TV: Just not funny

Last night, Saturday Night Live opened with a confusing sketch of Suze Orman delivering a response to Barack Obama's State of the Union address. Watching, we wondered what was the point of the skit? But then, we quickly shrugged because, after all, what's the point of Saturday Night Live anymore?


A one time cutting edge show became flaccid, long, long ago. But it could still, from time to time, provide a sharp jab of comedic humor. That all ended with the ascension of Seth Myers to head writer. Now the long running show is nothing but a never-ending embarrassment.

Barack Obama gave a State of the Union address. In times past, regardless of who was president -- Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton or George W. Bush -- it would have been comic gold. But back then, head writers were interested in comedy. Myers, who donated to Barack's presidential campaign, is interested not in getting laughs but in protecting his candidate.

It may help Barack's 2012 rollout but it doesn't do humor any favors.

Instead of addressing the speech, SNL used the opening skit (their most watched spot every episode) to present Kristen Wiig doing her Suzy Orman routine but in a longer wig and supposedly portraying Michelle Bachman as she stammered and fumbled through the, again, most watched skit of the program.

Michelle Bachman, for those who don't know, delivered a response to the State of the Union Address last week on behalf of the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party and CNN carried it live (on TV, only CNN carried it live). The speech quickly became a media joke with many laughing about how US Rep. Bachman didn't know which camera to face and delivered the entire speech to the wrong camera.

Actually the joke was on CNN because anyone who is at all familiar with live TV knows you immediately switch to the other camera when someone is being carried by the wrong one. "Go to camera two! Go to camera three! Get me something!" should have been the cry from the CNN control room. The fact that it wasn't has two obvious meanings, CNN can't do its job or CNN found the attempt to turn Bachman into a joke too tempting to pass up. Neither meaning speaks well of CNN.

And certainly a live show like Saturday Night Live is well aware of camera mix ups and who is responsible and how they are fixed. But they chose to play dumb and pretend that the joke was Bachman.

Michelle Bachman wasn't even delivering the Republican response. That was done by It Boy Paul Ryan. To be clear, Saturday Night Live hiding behind Paul Ryan for state of the union humor would have been very sad as well. Lucky for them, they were able to work out all their Mommy issues using Bachman.

Neither Ryan or Bachman leads in the House. But aiming low, at soft and easy topics, allows SNL to be meaningless as well as unfunny.

Meaningless? When you can't comment on the events of today -- on a live show, no less -- what do you do?

Why you hit the nostalgia button. Which is why we suffered through not a skit about kids learning science but a skit about a 70s TV show where kids learned about science. Not a spoof of horror movies, mind you, but a skit about TCM airing a horror movie. The distance, the detachment, went along way towards routing out the humor.

Big laughs were never going to be found in a balloon rubbed on a man's groin, granted. But putting everything in flashback ensured that the comedy was even less pertinent. Sort of like the soft focus way they gingerly approach Barack.

Despite devoting the opening skit to Bachman, Seth Myers just knew more guffaws were to be found in Bachman so he made her a joke in his floundering "Weekend Update" -- an update so bad that if you get very silent you can hear the cries of "Come back, Kevin Nealon, come back!"


Somewhere among all the dick jokes, including a product called El Shrinko, we figure most viewers turned off thirty-five minutes in as they grasped that this was one of those really bad broadcasts. Saturday Night Live does appear to be having an ever greater number of those episodes this year, yes.

And possibly it has to do with with whom they select as hosts? We have no problem with Jesse Eisenberg per se. He appears to be a gifted character actor. However, we're fully aware that gifted character actresses don't really get to host SNL. Betty White is pretty much the only big name, non-babe woman ever to host that wasn't a child and, for White to be booked, a massive online campaign had to be launched. And Betty White still qualified as a media It Girl at the time she was booked. You have to go back to 1979 for the last and only character actresses (plural) to ever host (Maureen Stapleton in May, Bea Arthur in November). In the many years since then, there's been the occasional nod to the non-leading lady -- in other words, Rosie O'Donnell and Rhea Perlman both got to host -- well, Rhea got to co-host with husband Danny De Vito. That's really it and we're talking 31 years since Stapleton and Arthur.

If the criteria were actually being funny, we'd guess that Rhea, and not Sarah Michelle Geller, would have hosted the program three times by now. And it's really something to watch how far the show will go to avoid booking funny women who don't qualify as 'babe. For example, many an SNL skit has been killed by the I-can't-read-my-lines-on-the-cue-cards work of sports stars. Yes, SNL hosts have included, for example, John Madden, Andy Roddick, Peyton Manning, Michael Jordan, Walter Payton, Joe Montana, Michael Phelps, Charles Barkley, Fran Tarkenton, Derek Jeter, Wayne Gretzky -- the list is endless. If you're a male athlete. If you're a female? In November of 1989, the year she retired, Chris Evert became the first and last female athlete to host the program. Figure skater Nancy Kerrigan hosted in March of 1994 for those who want to stretch the limits of "athlete" and ignore that she was booked solely for being a tabloid victim. In what world are the Williams sisters, butt of so many SNL jokes, not hosts but Rudy Giuliani repeatedly is? And do you really want us to talk about the (male) politicians who have hosted? And how no female ever has?

When we bring up facts like that to some SNL friends still with the program, we're told none of that matters, that SNL's only job is to be funny. As we noted at the start, it's failing there as well.

Ava and C.I. note, 1-31-11: Third paragraph from the bottom has been reworded for clarity.
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