Charles Barkley
Credit: NBC

Charles Barkley didn’t exactly bring his A-game to last night’s forgettable episode of Saturday Night Live. Perhaps NBC had just worked him too hard all day long (before heading to Studio 8H, the basketball legend contributed as a football commentator) because despite having some passable moments and being an all-around gracious host (at the end of the episode he gave a nice shout-out to the hardworking SNL cast) something was still amiss last night.

It certainly didn’t help matters much that — thanks to the do-or-die game between the New Orleans Saints and the Detroit Lions — the episode got off to a late start. (11:51 p.m. ET, to be exact.) It helped matters even less when the cold open, featuring an unconvincing Andy Samberg as Rick Santorum (not even the sweater vest could save it) ran nearly seven minutes long and didn’t provide a big laugh until the very last line: “Maybe one day, after I’m gone, my grandchildren can look me up on Google… and there’s something different from what there is now.” (Seriously, kids, don’t Google Santorum.)

Barkley used the opening monologue as an opportunity to poke fun at his recent weight loss (“Twenty five years later, I decided to do something about it”), his fellow NBA legends (Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and Muggsy Bogues all got dunked on) and the post-lockout league itself (“Ever since I left, the NBA has been crap and everybody’s broke.”) But as it turns out, an unscripted Barkley is much funnier (albeit, often unintentionally) than a scripted one. I think I was just mostly hoping Barney would challenge him to a re-match right off the bat, but I had no such luck. Watch it here:

The fake SNL commercials are typically dependable for a laugh, but last night’s riff on nicotine-curbing drug Chantix was strong in its concept (mocking drug commercials in which the side effects sound far worse than the actual problem you’d be taking the pill for) but not so much its execution from the Kristen Wiig and the always-dependable Bill Hader. (Sorry, but that guy can do no wrong in my eyes.)

An inevitable Inside the NBA sketch followed and what should have been a slam dunk (Barkley played his infamously toneless co-host Shaquille O’Neal, while Kenan Thompson revived his role as the infamously over-pronouncing Barkley) was a missed shot. To be fair though, there were a couple of rebounds during the bit (“I’d rather be watching Free Willy 2 than Kazaam 1“) and, of course, Hader who broke up Thompson and Jay Pharoah when his Ernie Johnson declared “We’re all black friends!”

The “White People Problems” sketch felt a little bit late to the game (the joke’s been a hash tag and Tumblr for quite some time) but it certainly had its share of it’s-funny-because-its-true zingers (“Awkward is a white people word that can be applied to every situation.”) Still, Fred Armisen’s ingenious Portlandia is making it hard for anyone else to capitalize on what “White People Like” right now, let alone do something even half as funny. (Heck, this sketch even lifted a joke about free-range chicken concerns almost directly from a Portlandia ep.)

I let out my first hearty laugh of the night (yep, it took that long) when they poked fun at all of those absurdly-named college Bowl games. It was as though they let Hader’s Stefon come up with his dream line-up when Samberg announced the Phantom Menace in 3D Radio Shack Croissant Bowl, the Ruby Tuesday Hanes Her Way Prejudice Bowl, the Mucinex Arizona Beef Council Pencil Bowl, and my personal favorite, the Skechers Shape-Ups How I Met Your Mother Trojan Minis Bowl, which pitted three dogs against 100 bats and was presented by City Slickers 2: The Legend of Curly’s Gold. (Who in their right mind wouldn’t watch that one?!)

I would have been thrilled had SNL opted to rattle off more fake Bowl game names for another four or five minutes rather than make viewers endure the painful Barkley-in-drag sketch that followed. The writers must have missed the monstrosity that is Work It, because there’s no excuse for the awkward (I guess we do use that word for everything) and unfunny mess of having Barkley play a woman who has come out of the closet, much to the surprise of her friends and boyfriend. And much like Work It, the sketch was offensive to women, men, gay, straight, and anyone with a sense of humor. Please, oh please, let this outdated “comedy” trend end soon.

However, the basketball legend redeemed himself in the Charles Barkley Post-Game Translator app sketch that followed. (Why do I have the feeling I’ll see it a couple hundred more times on SportsCenter today?) While it wasn’t so much a translator as a way to make fun of all the ridiculous non-answers coaches and athletes give during press conferences (“You don’t make the playoffs, you’re a loser” Barkley translated to Jets coach Rex Ryan) I’d still download it. Of course, it wouldn’t be nearly as helpful as the Mom Translator. That thing would have been a lifesaver over the holiday break.

Sir Charles wasn’t the only one making a three-peat to SNL last night: Kelly Clarkson made her third appearance as a musical guest to the show. It was no surprise that Clarkson sounded spectacular live (as she so often does) during her performances of “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)” and “Mr. Know It All” but was anyone else surprised and disappointed that SNL didn’t use Miss Independent for a sketch about her recent Ron Paul support controversy? Although, keeping in line with last night’s apparent missed opportunities theme, I suppose it was unfortunately quite fitting.

It’s going to be mighty difficult for SNL to top the Weekend Update from Jimmy Fallon’s spectacular episode when Tina Fey and Amy Poehler dropped in, but there were some highlights during last night’s installment. Aside from the ho-hum turn from Wiig as Michele “Crazy Eyes” Bachmann, there were much appreciated appearances from Armisen’s rambling political comedian Nicholas Fehn (how is he not a character on Portlandia?) and Bobby Moynahan’s tremendously funny Drunk Uncle to balance it out. (“You press one for English!” and “Girl with a dragon tattoo? Not in my house!” were among some of his best outbursts.)

A visit from Paul Britton’s wonderfully weird Lord Windermere, whose demented whimsy made Barkley understandably break during the sketch, was the final tolerable moment of the night. The rest of the episode painfully chugged along with the Adult Video Awards In Memoriam sketch, which was as surprisingly graphic as it was depressing, the baffling Digital Short (no mixed messages here, Convoluted Jerry is a dud) and the virtually laugh-free Mayan calendar finale. (However, I still maintain that the season’s absolute worst sketch was Anna Faris‘ abominable fireman calendar sketch. Maybe SNL should just steer clear of calendar humor from here on out.)

I happen to like Barkley, but to quote Sir Charles himself this episode was pretty darn turrible. His acting, as well as the writing (many sketches seemed to just abruptly end) fell flatter than a deflated basketball. It certainly wasn’t the start I was hoping to see Saturday Night Live get off to in 2012, especially after that strong finish they had in 2011. But, I’m still optimistic about next week’s episode with Daniel Radcliffe as host. So, what did you think about last night’s SNL, PopWatchers? Am I being too hard on the episode and Barkley? Or do you agree it was a pretty disappointing outing? Which sketch stood out the most? Would you shop from Charles Barkley’s Ann Taylor clothing line or download his translator app? What did you think of Kelly Clarkson’s performances? Share in the comments section below.

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Episode Recaps

Bowen Yang
Saturday Night Live

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

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