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'Saturday Night Live' recap: Sigourney Weaver and the Laser Cats, doing their best

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How could anyone not root for Sigourney Weaver as she hosted Saturday Night Live again (for the first time since 1986)? She’s terrific in almost any movie, Avatar included; she’s got theater and improv skills that more than qualify her for SNL duty. Sure enough, this was one of the better editions of SNL this season, if only for its frequent go-for-broke attitude. (Does anyone love Jason Sudeikis in those ESPN Classic sketches as much as I do?)

The show began promisingly, with the first pretty-funny cold-open in a while. Fred Armisen as Larry King interviewed late-night hosts Jay Leno (played by a briefly-returning Darrell Hammond), Conan O’Brien (Bill Hader), and David Letterman (Jason Sudeikis, all twitchy pencil-throwing and muttered “Hee-hee-hee!”s). The amusement derived less from the late-night guys than Armisen’s way of capturing King’s out-of-it patter, complete with irrelevant references to Joey Bishop and his non-mastery of the internet.

The week’s real-life events were so numerous, Seth Meyers had to cram “Weekend Update” with quick jokes about Sarah Palin joining Fox News, the political bestseller Game Change, Mark McGwire’s steroid admission, and a moment that had Abby Elliott playing Meryl Streep as a wine-sipping egomaniac. (Impersonation quality: excellent; content quality: weird/pointless/mean. Elliott is not seen nearly enough.) The best moment here was Meyers’ cleverly written take on the late-night wars, which culminated with him speculating that it all could end with Jimmy Fallon returning to SNL, and “I cannot go back to being in one sketch every three weeks.” Meyers concluded on a rare serious note, giving viewers the Red Cross website address to make donations for Haiti relief efforts (www.redcross.org).

Weaver was a trouper, for sure. She wrung laughs out of suiting up as an Amsterdam bombshell and wiggling suggestively during one of Kenan Thompson’s Grady Wilson “love-making techniques” DVD ads. And Weaver did her best to try and salvage a few laughs from a lumpy Soul Train take-off called Disco Booty Junction.

Some of the inevitable Avatar jokes were tucked neatly into one of Andy Samberg’s “Digital Short”s featuring “Laser Cats” — ‘scuse me, “James Cameron’s Laser Cats”: The director put in a cameo pitching Lorne Michaels on his take on the long-running Samberg sketch. Weaver appeared as Ripley, leading the team through a series of extra-cheesy special effects:

If only SNL had left it at that. The more formal Avatar parody was a terribly strained, one-joke set-up, with Hader as the movie’s Jake Sully having avatar-sex with Neytiri (was that Nasim Pedrad under that blue make-up?). That was it. Poor Jake/Hader undulating in a clear box.

Weaver was a good sport and then some. Playing herself in a late-in-the-show sketch, she was supposedly too distracted to watch the Golden Globes because she was obsessively reading internet compliments and insults on her laptop. (I wonder how Weaver’s real-life husband, Jim Simpson, felt about being dragged into the sketch by being portrayed by Sudeikis.) The idea was to make Weaver seems as out-of-touch as… well, as Larry King in the cold-open sketch.

The night’s final scene was better, with Weaver doing some slippery slapstick work, playing a lounge singer draped across a piano only to discover she was afraid of the (minimal) height of the instrument. This and the Laser Cats sketches were the best showcases for Weaver, and it’s no coincidence that these were only two of the few times when the sketch didn’t depend on lazy, gee-isn’t-sex-hilarious punchlines.

Music? The Ting Tings, with their catchy pop songs — everything pared down to beats and chants — were clever fun, as usual.

This week’s sure-to-be-divisive oddball sketch came from Armisen playing Riley, a bratty, queeny teenager in a spoof of old sitcoms in which he bellowed at a Leave It To Beaver-ish family, “You bitch!” “Riley” didn’t have much of a premise, and it was a real love-it-or-hate-it piece of work, but Armisen really made the most of it:

The night came down to two things: Weaver’s energy and enthusiasm made up for the chunks of mediocre material, and, increasingly, SNL is funniest when it’s relying less on topical humor and more on crazily absurd stuff.

Agree? Disagree?

Follow me on Twitter @kentucker

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