Why does ''SNL'' usually offer a dismal debut? Ken Tucker says new castmembers can't make up for the absence of two important regulars and a dearth of pointed satire

By Ken Tucker
Updated October 08, 2002 at 12:00 PM EDT
Saturday Night Live: NBC

Saturday Night Live

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Why does ”SNL” usually offer a dismal debut?

As the book “Live From New York” — the new, crackling history of “Saturday Night Live” — reminds us, “SNL,” which began its 28th season this past weekend, has nearly always been greeted with moans about how this year’s cast cannot compare with the previous years’ casts. Critics and fans have been saying this ever since Chevy Chase left after the show’s first season. Thus it behooves me to say… boy, this past Saturday’s season-premiere “SNL” was a stinker.

You can forgive host Matt Damon — he was clearly looking forward to the challenge; he’d mustered a few things that probably crack up his pals in private, like a fair Mike Tyson impersonation. He made me laugh — the one time I did so all night, in fact — with his impersonation of a screechy Axl Rose doing a food commercial.

But the rest of the time, the material he was handed was just dreadful, such as a way-too-long sketch that had him playing Hannibal Lecter in his freshman year at college, complete with a call from mom to lay off the fava beans because they gave him “the toots.”

Beyond Damon, though, the show demonstrated how much the departures of iron-man performer Will Ferrell and plucky Ana Gasteyer are being felt. Left to handle the political-satire sketches virtually alone, Darrell Hammond and Chris Parnell could do little more than reprise old impersonations (Dick Cheney and Tom Brokaw, respectively) in skits that lacked any sense of, well, history.

The pre-credit sequence that depicted Hammond/Cheney atop a nuclear bomb headed for Iraq was a visual reference to the ending of Stanley Kubrick’s dark movie satire “Dr. Stranglove,” but the sketch never made any comic use of that metaphor, to pay off in good doomsday humor.

I love Tracy Morgan’s wifty, petulant animal-lover Brian Fellow, but the Fellow spot on Saturday was badly botched, full of mis-cues and lifeless punchlines. “Weekend Update” coasted on the charm of Tina Fey and Jimmy Fallon, a normally forgivable sin in the middle of a season, but, coming back from a summer packed with political stories, this amounted to a needless embarrassment.

The sole comic high point was comic-animator Robert Smigel’s clever conflation of Anna Nicole Smith’s weekly E!-channel slob-fest with ”The Smurfs,” resulting in an appropriately crude ”The Smurfette Show.” And musical guest Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band added class and weight to an often pointlessly vulgar, airless 90 minutes.

But what about the rest? David Letterman has already parodied Dr. Phil better than “SNL” did this weekend, and poor Darrell Hammond should never be forced by the writers to use the phrase “It’s my bad” ever again. And what was up with not one but two product placements of US magazine in two super-lousy sketches?

Then again, maybe that’s what contributed to their lousiness: writers who spent their summers reading US magazine instead of the newspapers. If the show doesn’t snap together for this Saturday’s Sarah Michelle Gellar-hosted edition, people are going to start making jokes about driving a stake into “SNL”‘s heart — if that organ can be located.

What did YOU think of “SNL”‘s season premiere?

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Saturday Night Live

The original late-night comedy sketch show from the one and only Lorne Michaels.

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