Josh Wolk explains how a strong cast is being undermined by skits that rely on predictable -- and unfunny -- formats
EW.com’s five rules to improve ”SNL”
”Saturday Night Live” has been subpar this year, and you can’t blame current events for dampening its comedy (”The Daily Show” is doing just fine). It’s not the cast’s fault, either: the always reliable Will Ferrell, Rachel Dratch, and Maya Rudolph — as well as newcomers Seth Meyers and Amy Poehler — certainly make the most out of what they’re given, which isn’t all that much. The problem is that ”SNL” is too far settled into a comfortable rut of mediocrity.
But after 26 years, can you blame it for assuming that it doesn’t have to be better? After all, considering the downright unwatchable runs it has had over the years (the ’94-’95 season, which wasted Chris Elliott and Janeane Garofalo, comes immediately to mind), one wonders just how bad the show would have to get to not be welcomed back to NBC’s schedule. The frustrating thing is that ”SNL” doesn’t have to be such an underachiever, if only it would follow these five rules:
Don’t crack up. The original cast made it a solemn rule not to laugh at each other on stage: They looked upon the old ”Carol Burnett Show” sketches — where Harvey Korman would constantly dissolve into giggles when Tim Conway would so much as blink funny — as a lesson of What Not to Do. That rule has long since been excised from the ”SNL” constitution, and Jimmy Fallon is this generation’s Harvey Korman. When confronted with Will Ferrell or Horatio Sanz doing something slightly goofy, he can sometimes barely get his lines out. Yes, at times this can be infectious to the audience, but after a while it breaks the rhythm of a sketch and becomes a bit smug. It feels like the cast is more intent on making each other laugh than us. Heck, even Burt Reynolds knew to put his incessant cracking-up bloopers at the END of ”The Cannonball Run,” and not in the middle. Learn from DeLuise, my friends, learn from DeLuise.
Don’t give the host creative control of the monologue Sure, when Jerry Seinfeld or Ellen Degeneres is hosting, give them the run of the stage. But why would any right-thinking producer or writer stand back and let, say, Reese Witherspoon tell a long-winded (and, frankly, poorly told) old joke about a polar bear? On the Hugh Jackman show, the ”Robert Goulet’s Christmas Special” sketch mocked old-fashioned variety shows; yet considering the episode had begun with Jackman belting out a dead-serious Christmas carol, it really had no business making fun. Hopefully it won’t get to the point where the only difference between ”SNL” and ”Donny & Marie” is the absence of Ruth Buzzi.
Impressions need more than a fat suit. Darrell Hammond is a master mimic, and it’s always fascinating to watch him capture every gesture of people as diverse as Dick Cheney and Jesse Jackson. But impressions are not every cast member’s strong point, so why insist they do them? There are far too many sketches like the recent one where Ana Gasteyer pretended to be Joan Rivers interviewing stars at the postponed Emmys, simply as an excuse for the dressed-up cast to parade by as TV stars. A lot of work goes into slathering them with makeup and topping them off with a wig so there’s an immediate laugh of recognition (”That’s Camryn Manheim!”), but then they open their mouths and sound nothing like their targets.
The criteria for casting seems to be, if you’re fat, you play Manheim or Tyne Daly, and if you’re black, you play Oprah or Chris Tucker, and other than that, just grab a wig and pick somebody. It reminds me of skit night at my summer camp, where you’d have a camper borrow the director’s favorite sweater and then walk across the stage saying, ”I’m the director, and it’s time for lunch!” and that was the crux of the impression. I keep waiting for Horatio Sanz to turn up as Jimmy the archery counselor.
When something scores, leave it alone. There was a random sketch at the end of the John Goodman episode with Meyers and Poehler as old-fashioned Hardy Boys-ish kid detectives. It was witty and clever. But as soon as it was over, I felt a wave of sadness because I knew Lorne Michaels had heard the studio laughter and was already dictating plans to beat this routine to death by making them regular characters. The first time Kattan did the missing link Mr. Peepers, it was outrageously random, and should have been left that way: Now I dread the whole obligatory humping/gobbling an apple/wiping his lips on the guest star routine that he goes through regularly. I remain in awe of the Kids in the Hall, who, even with Michaels as their producer, managed to resist overplaying even their most popular of characters.
Break out of the tube. Have you noticed how most ”SNL” sketches are in the format of a TV show, whether it’s the QVC Doll program, the Donatella Versace show, or Celebrity Jeopardy? Often, it’s a transparent tool to package a flimsy one-joke sketch. Take the inexplicably recurring ”The How Do You Say, Oh Yes, Show,” with Chris Kattan (badly) playing Antonio Banderas, who sometimes has to grasp for the right English word. Yes, that is all there is to the idea. But if you just had him constantly saying, ”How do you say, oh yes?” without hitting you over the head with the concept with a title card, people would think, ”That can’t possibly be the whole point of this. There MUST be more.” With the title, ”SNL” is letting people know, ”Don’t bother searching: That’s the joke, and that’s all you’re getting.”
These five rules could be looked as at minor quibbles, considering they’d all be rendered moot if ”SNL” would follow this one overarching suggestion: Be funnier. But after 26 years, perhaps that request is too much to ask.