By Ken Tucker
November 14, 2010 at 01:21 PM EST
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Scarlett Johansson presided over a convocation of crickets during this week’s Saturday Night Live. It’s been a while since the show’s sketches elicited so few laughs from the studio audience. Johansson herself was as enthusiastic and adroit as could be expected under the sorry circumstances. She even wrenched a few laughs out of the evening’s final sketch, a deadly commercial for ceramic busts, on the strength of her reactions alone. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The trouble began early on. Judging from the near-silence from the very start of the Millionaire Matchmaker parody, the studio audience seemed not to have seen the show. Perhaps SNL should take this as a hint that it might occasionally poke fun at something other than another TV show. (For those lucky enough to have missed that Bravo stinker, I can vouch for the precision of Johansson’s version of Patti Stanger — hey, it’s my job to watch everything at least once.)

When it came to ridiculing niche cable programming, SNL fared better with “Stars of Tomorrow,” a supposed TLC show about child performers, featuring fine performances by Johansson and Vanessa Bayer as kids performing scenes from plays and movies that were too mature for them.

The one-joke premise of “The Manuel Ortiz Show,” with Fred Armisen as the frenetically dancing host, is the pidgin-Spanish of the participants, which included Johansson. I realized that since SNL first introduced this occasional sketch, Sophia Vergara on Modern Family has cornered the market on accent-humor.

Another scene, located in “St. Katherine’s Middle School,” consisted mostly of various performers gathered around Marvin (Kenan Thompson). The joke was that he kept getting dumped out of his wheelchair, and then he yelled a lot while prone on the floor. It was one of those stare-at-the-ceiling embarrassing sketches; when it was over, Thompson rose and exited so fast, the show didn’t have time to go to the commercial, and the awkwardness stretched on for a few seconds more.

Let’s see, what was good? I laughed at the notion of MTV as “Maternity Television,” overrun, in the wake of the success of stuff like 16 and Pregnant, with new shows such as I’m Snooki and Pregnant and Cribs, featuring… cribs.

There was a fun deconstruction of Unstoppable, thanks to Jay Pharoah’s excellently pitched Denzel Washington impersonation, and dialogue that broke down the premise of the new action movie as the umpteenth variation on the old pro versus the plucky newbie (the always-good, under-used Taran Killam as Chris Pine).

In fact, if you combine Pharoah’s Denzel with his version of Kanye West during “Weekend Update,” Pharoah wins the week’s Most Valuable Player award. (Jason Sudeikis’ George Bush was solid, too.)

Music guest Arcade Fire sounded wonderful — Win Butler, Regine Chassagne, and company’s grand sonic attack filled the SNL studio. They were also mighty welcome during the “Digital Short,” the week’s best bit of media satire. Framed as a live MSNBC broadcast of a U.N. General Assembly address by a group of music-making students, Andy Samberg inveighed against the United Nations’ ineffectual role in world problems (“Darfur — what are you doing?”). Arcade Fire entered mid-way through to add to the zaniness, as the screen crawl ran lines such as “Developing: Arcade Fire proposes mass shirt-ripping.”

This was, ultimately, one of those editions of SNL that felt as though the writing staff was exhausted and just needed a week off. Best of luck to you next week, host Anne Hathaway!

What did you think of this week’s Saturday Night Live?

Twitter: @kentucker

The original late-night comedy sketch show from the one and only Lorne Michaels.
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  • Saturdays at 11:30pm
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  • 10/11/75
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