Divas covering other divas: Aretha Franklin does Adele, Bette Midler does the Ronettes

This season sees the return of two larger-than-life female vocalists, Aretha Franklin and Bette Midler, both of whom were missing from the recording studio for a while now. For their comeback projects, both Franklin and Midler are putting out cover records – Franklin’s will be a collection of classics from fellow divas, while Midler’s album is a set of girl group numbers.

Midler’s cover of “Be My Baby” is a very faithful remake of the Phil Spector classic. It’s not surprising that she’s successful in her homage to the Ronettes – Midler’s always been a nostalgia artist (she practically is Sophie Tucker and the Andrew Sisters combined). Her expressive voice hasn’t changed much in her absence, and is still appealing and distinct, but the best thing about the song is Midler’s empathy and ease with this kind of material.

 

Aretha Franklin takes on Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” and also does some great work. Her voice has taken on bruised quality – a combination of age and a life-long addiction to smoking. But no worries, it’s still the most soulful voice in pop music. Like Midler’s cover, Franklin also is pretty faithful to Adele’s original, but manages to imbue some of her legendary tics like the vocal sweeps, dips, and wails. And if covering one postmodern diva isn’t enough, she mashes “Rolling in the Deep” with Diana Ross’ “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” that works surprisingly well.

If these singles are any indication of their parent albums, both Franklin and Midler have some big hits on their hands.

Click here to buy/download Bette Midler’s “Be My Baby” or the full album It’s the Girls! from amazon.com.

Click here to buy/download Aretha Franklin’s “Rolling in the Deep” or the full album Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics from amazon.com.

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Legends Tony Bennett and Barbra Streisand find continued success with a little help from some (famous) friends

Ah, the duets album – a popular career route for a veteran musician to pick up some new fans by featuring trendy, popular artists of the day so that youngsters can say, “Hey! This old fogey is singing with [insert YouTube pop sensation here]. He must be cool!” Frank Sinatra’s legendary Duets album set the standard for icons to share the mic with the latest thing to show off a versatility and hipness.

Tony Bennett has been able to find renewed success on top of his late-career renaissance with a series of duets album, starting in 2006 with a pair of duets albums as well as a Spanish-language version with Latino artists. On Cheek to Cheek, the legend is paired with with dance-pop diva, Lady Gaga (who appeared on Bennett’s successful 2011’s Duets II), on a collection of jazz and pop standards.

Barbra Streisand, unlike Tony Bennett, is not a singer known for her willingness to share the spotlight. Though she released a duets album in 2002, it was merely a hodgepodge collection of tracks available on other albums. On Partners, Streisand finally records a proper duets studio album with a long list of singers – young, middle-aged, and old, that will undoubtedly please her past, present, and future fans.

On their album, Bennett and Lady Gaga (should I refer to her as “Gaga”) share a surprising chemistry that isn’t as forced as one would expect. Obviously the song selection skews to Bennett’s comfort zone: Great American Songbook mainstays like Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Billy Strayhorn, and Jimmy Van Heusen, are among the songwriters whose work was selected for the project. But that’s okay, because these are easily some of the best songs of the 20th century, and deserve a second, third, or fourth listen. And at 88, Bennett’s still a charmer. Though age has wizened and truncated his range and lung power, he makes up for it with a swinging ebullience and a verve that belies his age. Lady Gaga has a surprisingly large and supple voice, but at times, she sounds like an American Idol contestant (a good one, though) with her belting and hammy showbiz mannerisms. But together, they manage to overcome any weird Odd Couple-like issues and put together a very solid album.

The best moments on the album allow for the two singers to interact playfully. The sprightlier numbers work better than the jazzy ballads (which show that Lady Gaga, while a good stylist, has still some learning to do). Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh’s “Firefly” is a great vehicle for the two to spar with each other, as does the album’s single “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love” which has a great bass and a jazzy beat. Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing) has a fantastic, breakneck pace, and a beautiful horn solo in the bridge. The title track is also a corker of a number with a nimble string bass and both Bennett and Lady Gaga give sly, mincing vocal performances.

Not all of the album works – this isn’t a classic recording, and Lady Gaga’s solo number disappoints because it strays from the gimmick of the album, because let’s be clear, this is a very well-made, and very classy novelty record. Still, it’s commendable that both artists reach out to bridge the yawning chasm between them.

Unlike Bennett, Barbra Streisand doesn’t settle on just one duet partner, instead she sings with a diverse group of performers including Michael Buble, Stevie Wonder, John Mayer, Billy Joel, Blake Shelton, John Legend, and even a musically-resurrected Elvis Presley (we have Natalie Cole to thank for the “duetting with a dead singer” trope). And the songs listed are a mix of some of Streisand’s classics and pop standards that show off her still-vital and gorgeous pipes.

As Bennett has, Streisand looked to the current pop charts for some of the guys she tapped – her duet with neo-Sinatra Buble, “It Had to Be You” is predictably excellent. Both singers have a great ear for this kind of music. You know who doesn’t? John Mayer, who intrudes on the “Come Rain or Come Shine” with a faux-blusey guitar riff that reeks of white-breadness. A pleasant surprise is how pleasant Streisand’s son, Jason Gould sounds singing with his mom on the old chestnut “How Deep Is the Ocean.”

Singing with a singer like Streisand can be daunting because in the past, she has a reputation of steamrolling over her duet partners (just listen to poor Johnny Mathis, Michael Crawford, and gasp – Don Johnson, who wither on vinyl when trying to match voices with her). It’s when she’s matched up with an artist comparable to her stature that she gets a lot of good work done. Soul star John Legend redoes the Bee Gee-penned “What Kind of Fool” and transforms it into a gorgeous, lush ballad. Lionel Richie’s beautifully smooth vocals complement Streisand on her monster hit “The Way We Were.” And on “People” Stevie Wonder does, well, wonders, turning the simple ballad into a please bossa nova number. Babyface, who had production duties on the record, transforms Streisand’s “Evergreen” into a Whitney Houston-style pop ballad (I’m wondering why the two hadn’t worked on an album before – they seem perfect for each other).

As with any Streisand album, some bombast is expected – no it’s required. She still has the lung capacity to pull off those diva high notes. On West Side Story‘s hopeful ballad, she trades Broadway belting duties with Josh Groban, and Andrea Bocelli proves to be an ideal partner on the ridiculously swooning and overproduced “I Still Can See Your Face.”

Not all of Partners works – Blake Shelton proves to be a forgettable partner, and it feels like he was added because of his high profile due to The Voice. Also Billy Joel – not a personal favorite of mine – shows up to pretend that his “New York State of Mind” is a good song (and yeah, ending the song with a tiny riff from Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” shows just how sucky his song is in comparison). And I wish Elvis Presley and Barbra Streisand got together when he was alive, because that would’ve been awesome – the creepy, from the grave performance of “Love Me Tender” is unsettling.

Still, despite these minor bumps, Partners is yet another solid triumph in Streisand’s discography, and it edges out Bennett’s Cheek to Cheek because while his album feels like a gotcha gimmicky grab to entice curious listeners, Streisand’s album feels pretty organic (though some of the duets were recorded separately).

Click here to buy Barbra Streisand’s Partners from amazon.com.

Click here to buy Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga’s Cheek to Cheek on amazon.com.

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‘Modern Family’ starts to show its age and wear in the fifth season

Modern Family won five Emmys for Outstanding Comedy Series for its first five seasons. The voters got it right, I’d say for the first three seasons, but it’s criminal that the fifth season bested more worthy contenders like Louie or Veep (not to mention that the vastly superior Parks and Recreation wasn’t even nominated). My issue with the automatic wins for the show isn’t because the show’s bad – it’s not. Even at its most mediocre, it’s still better than most sitcoms on TV, but the fifth season felt like it had equal moments of lulls and highs. One cannot expect shows to be on top of their game forever, and the first three seasons of Modern Family are classic TV and cement a legacy that the creators – Christopher Lloyd and Steven Levitan – should be proud of.

That said, it feels like a lot of the fifth season of Modern Family was simply lazy phoning it in. The major story arc has Cameron and Mitchell finally get married after gay marriage becomes legal in California. While that’s a great way to fold in a potentially-difficult social issue into a MOR sitcom, it becomes problematic when the gay couple about to get married come off as irritating as fuck. The writers struck gold when they cast Eric Stonestreet as the effusive and demonstrative Cameron and Jesse Tyler Ferguson as the uptight Mitchell. The two actors share a great chemistry and Stonestreet is a marvelous physical comedian. The two also have a mastery of the snarky one-liners – unfortunately, the writers exploit the talents, having Cam and Mitch engage in bitchy verbal slapfests throughout the season as the stress of planning a wedding takes a toll on their marriage. I’m not saying they should be lovey-dovey, but judging by the fifth season of the show, Mitch and Cam can barely stand each other. The sniping – while sometimes funny – undermines any kind of emotional truth or value.

While the gay marriage arc is the most developed, there are other story lines that tie the episodes together. Claire and Phil Dunphy are dealing with Luke’s first day of high school, while Haley is still trying to find herself after getting kicked out of college, and Alex is feeling the pinch of growing pains. And Claire finally returns to the workforce, getting a job working for her dad’s closet manufacturing company.

I was always a little mystified why Claire didn’t work outside the home for the show’s run. It made no sense, and made the title of the show Modern Family a bit off-point. As Claire, Emmy-winner Julie Bowen is often very solid, though she can rely too much on being very brittle. She does do a mean slow burn though (Bea Arthur would’ve been proud). As her man-child husband, Phil, Ty Burrell is easily a first among equals, being able to levitate a lot of the material – even the ho-hum ones. And the child actors are growing up nicely – Sarah Hyland as Haley especially had a strong year in the fifth season, imbuing her character with a vulnerability that makes her flailing sad and relatable. As the over-achiever, Alex, Ariel Winter does some good work, as well, even being gifted with an episode that essentially worked as a one-woman show during which she opened up to a therapist after having a meltdown at a birthday party. Nolan Gould’s also good, though it’s clear that the writers are struggling to figure out what to do with an adolescent Luke.

Though their story lines are much lighter in the fifth season, Ed O’Neill and Sofia Vergara still offer some of the heartiest laughs. O’Neill as patriarch Jay has always been able to impart a deep intelligence to all of his performances, even when playing the proudly idiotic misanthrope, Al Bundy on Married…with Children. His work is so understated, that he often gets forgotten, but that’s unfair because he’s an integral part of the show. And as Gloria, Jay’s gorgeous trophy wife, Vergara has perfected her Lucille Ball-meets-Charo act. Gloria has been stretched out and broadened throughout the five seasons to capitalize on Vergara’s outstanding skills as a comedienne, but unfortunately, the writers have shortchanged her on deeper, more emotional moments (it’s not surprising that the actress was snubbed at last year’s Emmy nominations). In the Jay/Gloria story lines, the two are raising a little kid, while helping Gloria’s teenaged son Manny (Rico Rodriguez) navigate through high school. Like Luke, Manny’s life has changed significantly, but it seems to be for the better: his dandy affectations and eccentricities actually make him popular with his classmates.

As I wrote earlier, the big gay wedding dominates the fifth season. This means that we get some social commentary, though little of it is terribly pointed or trenchant, but that’s okay, we don’t expect Modern Family to proselytize. If anything, the show works its ass off to show how normal and average gay couples are. In fact, of the three couples on Modern Family, Mitch and Cam are the least affectionate and last demonstrative. They raise their daughter, Lily (the brilliant scene-stealer, Aubrey Anderson-Emmons) and live a suburban life (remember how bored Claire was when she went out on the town with them?). All of this admirable, but it feels a bit craven to bleed out any love, passion, and sexuality from the relationship, and replace it with bickering: at times, Mitch and Cam resemble a gay take on The Lockhorns. And the big gay wedding episode? Well, it’s not the event that it’s meant to be, even though it’s a two-parter, loaded with recurring guest stars and topped off by a tear-jerking voice over by Claire, the easy jokes and the episodic nature work against the emotion (though the image of Jay and Gloria walking Mitch down the aisle seems right).

As with the other seasons, there are some big names who stop by – Nathan Lane returns as Pepper, Mitch’s and Cam’s (and Jay’s, for that matter) pal who plans the wedding (and does so without any kind of deference to good taste); Justin Kirk is Mitch’s skeevy, feckless boss; Andrew Daly’s Cam’s principal; Fred Willard comes back as Phil’s goofy, pop, Frank; Adam DeVine creeps Jay and Manny out as Gloria’s choice as nanny; Peri Gilpin uses her throaty growl as a hooker Fred hired in error; Jordan Peele stops by as Jay’s nemesis, vying for a great parking spot; Jesse Eisenberg guests as an annoying eco-activist; Jane Krakowski battles Gloria to edge Manny out of a Washington, DC trip; Stephen Merchant, Fred Armisen, and Patton Oswalt appear in a Vegas-themed episode; and as Jay’s best buds, Shorty and Darlene, Chazz Palmintiri and Jennifer Tilly guest star in one of the show’s brightest episodes. Also fan favorite (though not mine), Rob Riggle’s recurring Gil Thorpe appears in the season as well, to needle Phil. The big names usually do very well, but the stunt casting does feel a bit Here’s Lucy at times.

If I sound down on Modern Family it’s only because I was spoiled by its excellence in the first few years. By now, it’s merely a good show, when at one point it was an excellent one. These slides in quality are inevitable, and it’s clear that the limitations of the show are starting to come out. Namely that with a cast this large, it’s difficult to give each character equal growth and development. Which is why we see Claire becoming more interesting and complex, while poor Gloria is regressing. I’d love to see Gloria struggle a bit with her own middle-aged crisis, and it’d be nice to see her get a job (her lady of leisure is a bit strange – she doesn’t even do good work). In one episode, she boasts that she’s so busy she’s the “How can she do it?” Gloria, except I know how she can do it: she’s got buckets of money, help, and a son who is willing to mother his own baby brother. This criticism is no knock against Vergara, who is still my favorite comedienne, and who does some fantastic work, but she really deserves more.

The sixth season has quite a hefty task in that it must restore some of the goodwill lost by the unevenness of the fifth season. This means giving Jay and Gloria more to do than simply harp on their age difference, her beauty, and his money. This also means making Mitch and Cam behave like a married couple and not to coworkers who don’t get along. I would also like to see Haley figure out her life – having her be a somewhat sad sack living in her parents’ basement is too limiting. Too often, the writers rely on the “Haley’s the hot one, so she’s also the dumb one” joke – an unfortunate trope that needs to be buried (sexuality and intelligence can coexist). Still, the sixth season does hit some great highs – the aforementioned Las Vegas episode encapsulates what made Modern Family so wonderful: it’s a well-constructed farce with hilarious writing, sight gags, and energetic, heartfelt acting. More episodes like “Las Vegas” are needed to return the show to its early glory days.

Click here to buy Modern Family: Season 5 on DVD from amazon.com.

 

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Bill Hader makes a triumphant return to SNL

Bill Hader and Hozier Bumper PhotosTwo weeks ago, Sarah Silverman returned to her old stomping grounds for a great turn at hosting SNL. Last week, Bill Hader came back. Unlike Silverman, Hader enjoyed a fruitful and successful tenure during his time. A beloved performer when on the show, his return highlighted just how much the show has changed (and not for the better). Hader’s presence let viewers imagine that they were watching SNL during one of its stronger seasons when he was a cast member.

The cold opener was an awful way to open the show. Bobby Moynihan starred as Kim Jong Un, it a weird performance that was energetic and fully-committed, but ultimately stupid. Thankfully, he doesn’t do a racist yellow-face minstrel act a la Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but the all-white cast of the sketch only highlighted that despite the show’s push toward diversity, there are still blind spots, and it would’ve helped  if maybe an Asian-American comic or two would’ve been part of the ensemble. It should give Lorne Michaels a hint that maybe sporadic jabs at diversity won’t work, and that concerted enduring efforts would work better.

Bill Hader’s monologue was good. He shared a bit of his back story (neat trivia bit: Will & Grace diva Megan Mullaley star discovered him) and then admitted that he couldn’t sing. Then his Skeleton Twins costar Kirsten Wiig showed up and pushed him to sing. He’s reluctant, insisting that he can’t, but his pal ropes him into a song with her pleasant voice, only to be horrified by Hader’s low and flat drone, which is very off-putting. Then Broadway legend Harvey Fierstein joins the pair, and urges Hader to sing like him – because Hader’s a great impressionist, he mimics Fierstein’s gravely rasp and the two duet joyfully.

I normally hate musical monologues, but I love, love, love Harvey Fierstein, so I thought the monologue worked really well. I also think it’d be great if Fierstein host a show, too. I know that he’s not exactly part of the zeitgeist at the moment, but he’s a funny guy and just the sort of “out of left field” celebrity that would’ve been booked in the first few seasons of SNL.

The first proper sketch had Hader’s Cold War-era reporter Herb Welch return. I always liked this character, even if the joke is immediately apparent. His casual racism and misogyny is pretty funny in a Mad Men sort of way, and Hader’s spot on. The sketch had Herb at a high school covering a virginity pledge story. The funniest spot has Herb mistaken Cecily Strong’s abstinence activist as Latina, which has him speak bad Spanish to her and sing out, “from the bodega to the boardroom.”

After the Herb sketch we get a pre-filmed fake movie trailer, The Group Hopper – a post-apocalyptic sci-fi film based on a YA book. Pete Davidson and Sasheer Zamata star in this funny spoof on all of the tropes that include Davidson being thrown endless bags of duffel bags and the weird esoteric minutia that plagues these kinds of movies. The production values are fantastic and the fake trailer is beautifully done.

The spoof of Hollywood Game Night was another winner. Kate McKinnon does a very good Jane Lynch. Cecily Strong was also solid as Sofia Vergara, while Taran Killan was adorable as Christophe Waltz. But the real stars of the sketch were Hader as Al Pacino and Wiig as Kathie Lee Gifford. Wiig’s Kathie Lee is a sarcastic, mugging mess, gripping a bottomless glass of wine. Though Hader was hitting the cue cards a bit, his Al Pacino is always hilarious. The gist of the sketch is that the show’s ridiculous. I never watched HGN, but from judging from this sketch, it seems to be a ridiculous show. The sketch is reminiscent of Will Ferrell’s Celebrity Jeopardy sketches. By the way, did Lynch really win an Emmy for Hollywood Game Night???

After that, the best sketch of the night comes up. I always feel a bit hairy watching those charity commercials, where a rich, white celebrity roams around a poverty-stricken village, guilting viewers into sending checks. Hader is Charles Daniels who insists that for only ¢39, a village would be saved from famine. The condescension is expertly skewered, with the poor villagers having to school these patronizing dummies that maybe these campaigns may not be the most efficient or helpful way to combat poverty.

Because this season saw another death of a SNL great, Jan Hooks, I was curious to see how the episode would deal. Wiig and Hader somberly introduced a wonderful, but surprisingly sad, musical parody that Hooks and the late Phil Hartman starred in, Love Is a Dream. It was beautiful and especially poignant because both Hartman and Hooks died much too soon. Though I would’ve chosen another sketch that shows off Hooks’ prodigious talents (the diner sketch with host Alec Baldwin would’ve been great), but it’s sweetly appropriate. It also reminded me a bit of Steve Martin’s tearful tribute to Gilda Radner, when he introduced their 70’s sketch “Dancing in the Dark.”

Weekend Update has become the part of the show when I go get a soda or something. I stuck around because I knew that Hader would bring back Stefon. And he did. Surprisingly, I wasn’t as enamored with the return as the audience. The joke has become very predictable: Hader’s Stefon is asked to suggest some choosy night spots, and instead of giving practical advice, he comes up with some insane underground clubs. John Mulaney returns briefly from starring in/writing/producing his so-so sitcom Mulaney to break up Hader. I get that people like this Carol Burnett-esque nonsense, and even I like it when SNL cast members break, but this feels more like pandering than anything.

Pete Davidson returns, too, after a triumphant Weekend Update with another small sample of his great stand-up, this time, joking about buying a gold chain, and the absurdity that it entails. What does he do with all of his extra swagger from wearing the chain? Finish his dinner. Davidson will be a star and I can’t wait to see more of his work.

Another Hader favorite returned in the next sketch: Anthony Peter Coleman, the Grenada vet who suffers from PTSD, and who takes puppetry classes to deal. The Anthony Peter Coleman sketch was the only highlight in the Seth MacFarlane sketch, and in this episode, it’s a high point, as well. Poor Anthony and his puppet Tony both struggle with terrifying memories, horrifying poor Taran Killan’s naive puppet teacher (does anyone do horrified better than Killan?). The sketch goes into a Deer Hunteresque moment when Tony the Puppet is crawling through the jungle with his friend, who steps on a landmine and gets blown up into snowy bits. And when Moynihan’s puppet sings the Sesame Street theme song, Anthony joins in, droning “can you tell me how to get, how to get the nightmares to stop?”

The late-in-the-night sketch was another great installment by Beck Bennett and Kyle Mooney who do some great weird stuff. As with the duo’s other work, it’s not a knee-slapper, but it’s so well done and subtle, that it makes me wish the show did more like this. In their “Inside SoCal” Public access show (it will remind viewers of Wayne’s World), Bennett and Mooney host the skuzzy and sad lives of the burnouts that live in their Southern California area. Hader steals the scene as a stupid who’s trying to interpret art.

The final sketches are usually the worst, but this episode ended on a surprisingly high note. It was a Cat in the Hat sketch, with Hader as the Cat, who joins a home where Cecily Strong is the mom and Davidson and Bryant are her two cute kids. The only thing is, the Cat and Strong’s Linda have a history. Obviously things are awkward as it’s clear that the Cat hasn’t gotten over Linda. Now, the bestiality thing is gross (as is the implication that Bryant’s dancing little girl might be part cat), but it’s a funny sketch, with the Cat’s whimsy slowly turning into a melodrama.

 

The 40th series of SNL is off to a solid start. Though the Chris Pratt episode was just, “eh” the Sarah Silverman and Bill Hader twofer was pretty great. Next week, yet another comic great is hosting: Jim Carrey. Carrey got his start on In Living Color, so he’s a sketch comedy vet (though his hyperactive mugging does make him sorta steamroll over his costars). Hopefully, he’ll be able to dial down his megastardom and be a team player.

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R.I.P. Jan Hooks – SNL’s stealth genius

Actress/comedian Jan Hooks at 40th Emmy Awards Photo by: Alan Light

Saturday Night Live lost yet another alumni at a young age: Jan Hooks, the brilliant impressionist/comedienne who was a high point during the 1986-1991 seasons. A fantastic and wonderfully talented performer, Hooks was the kind of cast member who was reliable for elevating a sketch with her virtuoso talent for mimicry and comedy. Like the late and great Phil Hartman, Hooks was a consistent thread through her tenure, who always was on hand to sell whatever character she was playing. Unlike Gilda Radner or Jim Belushi, Hooks never became a “personality” and didn’t endear herself with her viewers by being charming or adorable. Instead, she killed in every sketch she was in, completely immersing herself in the characters she was playing. As an actress, she was able to give subtle performances, blending into the story, or she could stand out with a more outlandish character. With Nora Dunn, she created the Sweeney Sisters – a singing lounge act that performed/mutilated medleys of pop standards in weddings or hotel lounges. Hooks was also a virtuoso at playing rural Southern ladies, be they hard bitten waitresses or rough-around-the-edges housewives. She also was an expert mimic, honing fantastic impressions of Hillary Clinton, Tammy Faye Bakker,  and Kathie Lee Gifford, among others.

And because she was a comedic chameleon, audiences never really got to warm up to Jan Hooks, and so unlike Jon Lovitz, David Spade, Chris Rock, or Phil Hartman, she never really broke out of her SNL fame. She was revered by her colleagues and fans saw her as arguably the funniest female cast member since Gilda Radner, but she never created a comic persona that could’ve been spun off into a career of big budget buddy comedies.

So even though she never reached the heights of Adam Sandler or Mike Myers, she wasn’t exactly biding her time once she left SNL. Hooks joined the cast of Designing Women for its last two seasons, joined 3rd Rock From the Sun in a recurring role (that won her an Emmy nod), and in her last role of note, she played Jane Krakowski’s selfish onscreen mother on 30 Rock. The roles capitalized on Hooks’ ability to play the darker, more perverse aspects of humanity. The shape-shifting talent of her SNL days gave way to an edgy, nervy comedic presence that reveled in exploring the uglier depths of human nature.

What Jan Hooks brought to SNL was a remarkable talent to make any sketch work. Phil Hartman was called “the Glue” because of his ability to keep the cast together and to bring gravitas and intelligence to his work. But Hooks was just as integral to the show’s renewed quality, sharing many of the same qualities as Hartman. It’s not a coincidence or accident that Hooks and Hartman were often paired together. Both were blandly good-looking, with the kinds of malleable faces  and prodigious talent that made them easily outshine their costars or melt into the background when necessary. Jan Hooks was a master at subtly and intelligent comedy, and a genius that deserves to be an icon.

 

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Sarah Silverman has a great night on her return to ‘SNL’

Whenever a SNL alumni returns, there are raised expectations: it’s guaranteed that if Tina Fey or Amy Poehler make a return, their episodes will be great and Maya Rudolph’s return is still the standard by which all other former cast members should strive. But what about SNL performers who didn’t do so well during their time on the show? Julia Louis-Dreyfus had two triumphant turns as host, proving that even if a comedian fails on SNL that doesn’t mean she isn’t a talent.

Sarah Silverman has the dubious distinction of having one of the least successful tenurs on SNL. A writer and featured performer during the show’s 19th season (1993-1994), Silverman had precious little screen time and was summarily fired. She went on of course, to greater things, and has since become of the leading stand-up comics working today. So, it’s a little “If my friends could see me know” to see Silverman grace the screen once again on SNL but this time as host. Ostensibly to promote her new album, We’re All Miracles, Silverman brought a grace and versatility to her stint, and made it a good-to-great episodes with only a few missteps (none her fault).

The cold open was predictably, an Obama sketch, and yet again, the writers don’t know how to tease the president. In a fake 60 Minutes, Jay Pharoah gets to trot out his technically perfect, though at this point soulless, impression of the president. It’s difficult to make fun of President Obama because despite any arguable issues with his job, he’s a likable and smart guy with little-to-no idiosyncrasies. He doesn’t have a weird voice, nor does he have any lampoonable verbal tics or mannerisms. He’s a sleek guy with such control over his public image, that he leaves little room for folks to needle him, so the writers are left to lob toothless jabs at his job performance, particularly the ISIS crisis in Syria and the breaches in security at the White House.

Thankfully, the cold opening was brief, and we got a killer monologue from Silverman. That’s the benefit of having a stand-up host: she can bring it when it comes to introducing the show. Often stand-ups use the monologue as a way to try out material, and it’s essentially a small part of their act. Louis C.K. did an amazing bit about misogyny and women’s rights during his last turn, and Jamie Foxx did a memorable bit about race. Silverman’s monologue was wonderful, because she was able to adapt her distinct voice and persona to a wider audience. She talked about her brief and undistinguished time on the show, and the writers did a cute bit where she answered questions from the audience, only each audience member was a baby-faced Silverman from 1993 acting as a plant in the audience. What’s so great about the sketch is that (a) it was a great way to summarize just how bad Silverman had it during her time on SNL and (b) the questions were completely weird and out of context. At one point a younger Silverman asks the present-day Silverman about leaving Wilson Phillips (by the way, if a Wilson Phillips reference doesn’t date some viewers, I don’t know what will).

Because Silverman’s so well known she has some fun with her naughty image, at one point showing one of her cue cards which has been redacted to such an extend, all that’s left is “black guy” and “god’s mouth” and a whole lotta black bars. I also love how she bristled at the label “blue comic” and preferred “important comic.”

During her monologue, she also stepped out into the audience and sat on the lap of a game audience member, Lindsay, with whom Silverman bantered. The comedienne used her patented ironic sincerity to fish for compliments and have awkward conversations about App ideas, getting drunk at a party, and reassuring Lindsay about her prettiness.

Nothing reached the heights of the monologue, but that’s not surprising. Though Silverman has proven herself a strong actress (she even scored an Emmy nod for her work on The Sarah Silverman Project – though she was playing a fictional version of herself), she has such a strange and distinct point of view, that one always wants more of that when she’s on screen.

The first proper sketch of the evening is a trailer for the sequel to the weepfest The Fault in Our Stars, except instead of cancer, the heroine has Ebola. Silverman and Taran Killan play the tragic lovers. It’s a good parody – Killan’s romantic lead is increasingly reticent to consummate his relationship with Silverman’s stricken character, and at one point he even dons a hazmat suit for their love scene. It’s a hard sketch to laugh at though because thousands have died from the disease, and the number of those infected is slowly growing in the U.S. I appreciate that the folks on the show are trying to be edgier – and this fits in perfectly with Silverman’s brand of humor – but again, this might be a case of too soon (though I do have to say when the announcer was reeling off the raves, the WHO’s blurb “Plausible” was funny).

The next sketch was a funny one – but also very touching. Silverman appeared as Joan Rivers, who was hosting a roast in heaven. It makes sense that Silverman paid tribute to the comedic legend, because after Kathy Griffin, Silverman is probably the comedienne with the most direct influence from Rivers. Never known as a great impressionist, she did a good job adopting Rivers’ throaty bray as she slayed other dead celebrities – though the panel on the dais was a bit strange: Cecily Strong as Ava Gardner (though I thought she was playing Elizabeth Taylor), Kyle Mooney as Steve Jobs, Maroon V’s Adam Levine as Freddie Mercury, Pharoah as Richard Pryor, Sasheer Zamata as Eartha Kitt, Kate McKinnon as Lucille Ball, and Bobby Moynihan as a deliriously oblivious Benjamin Franklin. It was a sweet sketch (Rivers and Silverman were pals), and I loved how it ended with a still photograph of Rivers. And though Silverman dominated the sketch, Moynihan sold his part, as well, playing up how clueless Franklin would’ve been to all of Rivers’ jabs (it was also interesting to hear Silverman launch one-liners like Rivers did, because Silverman’s style is much more story-based).

After the Joan Rivers tribute came another good pre-taped sketch, this one celebrating white privilege. While it lasts. Again, as with the Ebola jokes, the reception to this sketch will depend on viewers’ tolerance, especially in light of the shooting deaths of black people at the hands of white assailants. The conceit of the joke is that even though white privilege is here, its shelf life is limited, and the expiration date is impending. I’m glad that SNL is looking at these kinds of issues – just a couple years ago, people were pointing out that the show itself was guilty of enforcing white male privilege by the lack of black comediennes on the cast.

And from racism we move onto sexism with a hilarious sketch “Forgotten TV Gems” that brings back Kenan Thompsons goofy Reese De’What, who is hosting a show about (rightfully) forgotten TV shows. This time it’s Supportive Women, a Dynasty-era soap that trades in the bitchiness and cat fights of soaps for support and enlightenment. Instead of backstabbing each other, the female characters on Supportive Women watch out for each other and have each other’s back. Obviously as a soap, it’s terrible and doesn’t work – the effect is jarring. Strong, Silverman, Aidy Bryant, and McKinnon all do funny work as the various characters all of whom have melodramatic story lines. Instead of cold glares into the camera, the women offer syrupy grimaces and smiles.

After that funny sketch comes the first ho-hum one, not surprisingly, it’s Weekend Update. And also not surprisingly, it’s the correspondences that do better than Colin Jost and Michael Che. I hate  that I keep harping on that, but man does Jost need to go back to just writing. Che has gotten over some of the stumbling of last week, and he’s got a good, smooth delivery – I like the guy. Jost, on the other hand, is like a floating void. He’s probably an ace writer (though he’s yet to prove that as well), but as a performer, he still needs some acting classes. The jokes are all topical and in the news – mainly the Secret Service problems and Ebola – Che got to land a great joke, “Who goes to Texas and Africa?”

Thompson returned as Rev. Al Sharpton. I love Thompson, but I don’t understand what the Sharpton joke is. The way Thompson plays him, we’re to understand the civil rights activist is dumb? I never got that. I get that lots of people find him grating – some may accuse him of grandstanding, but I never felt that he was more prone to malaprops or shocking laps in judgement and intelligence. Still Thompson is energetic (something needed for the soporific Weekend Update), and he does get Sharpton’s voice right. The writers also life an old Murphy Brown joke by having Sharpton mistaken his network, MSNBC as “Miss NBC – NBC for ladies,” something Frank Fontana said on an episode of Murphy Brown (and only a geek like me would remember that).

The other guests were Silverman and McKinnon playing a militant feminist music trio. The joke was that these overly earnest women found everything in the world was a woman – cats, dogs, guitars, everything. The funny thing about the conceit was just who serious and PC the two ladies were – Silverman had the white woman dreds and vaguely ethnic clothing, while McKinnon sported a purple coif and a nose ring. The duo called itself Garage and Her (it’s pronounced Garache – it’s Himalayan). It’s great to see two pro-women feminist comics like McKinnon and Silverman tease the self-serious and self-indulgent nonsense of a lot of privileged white middle class feminists – Kathy Najimy and Mo Gaffney did something similar and to devastating effect in their Kathy and Mo Show: Parallel Lives concert.

After Weekend Update, we were gifted with a rom-com skit. Silverman and Mooney meet cute on a park bench, but their burgeoning love is interrupted by her brutish boyfriend, who proceeds to pummel Mooney, but still applying the same icky-sweet rom com cliches, like twee soundtrack music, montages, and finishing each other’s sentences, as he kicks Mooney’s ass. It’s not a high-larious sketch, but again, it’s one of the weirder things that SNL has been putting out that I appreciate. I like when the writers try for something a bit off even if it doesn’t pay off in guffaws.

Usually last sketches are the dumb ones that are dumped for those who are barely paying attention, but this episode had an excellent closer – a fake infomercial for a Vitamix blender that quickly devolves into a simmering, passive aggressive dual between Silverman and Vanessa Brayer. The two play suburban moms who are enjoying a juice, courtesy of the blender, but when Brayer reveals the $650 price tag, the conversation turns from how great the blender is, to just how dire Silverman’s financial situation is. The sketch has laughs, but more importantly, it’s performed beautifully – both Silverman and Brayer do some great, subtle work.

I’m not a fan of Maroon V, so I skipped through the band’s performances, so I can’t judge just how much they sucked. Overall, I was impressed with this episode – especially after the surprisingly mild Chris Pratt episode of last week. I like that Silverman was able to strut back onto the SNL stage with swag because she is a comedic superstar at this point. During the goodbyes, she gushed her thank yous, including Lorne Michaels – the guy who presumably hired and fired her. Next week we have another former SNL star, this time Bill Hader, who unlike Silverman, had a glorious run on the show – I know people are praying that Stefon makes a return.

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Chris Pratt does his best on a decidedly so-so season premier of ‘SNL’

It’s no surprise that last season was a bit of a slog for Saturday Night Live viewers. And evidenced by the huge purge of cast members and various shakeups, Lorne Michaels felt it too. So I watched last week’s season premier of SNL with some higher expectations. Not only was SNL being rebooted and fixed up, but the host was Parks and Recreation star Chris Pratt, probably the nicest and most joyful comedic actor on the planet, who seems like a perfect fit for a show like this. So I was really disappointed by the episode. Instead of being a goofy laugh-riot, the 40th season opener was sprinkled with weird pacing, flubbed lines, and actors hitting the cue cards something awful.

The show opened with a skit about the NFL PR disaster. Aidy Bryant did a so-so Candy Crowley impression – it’s not her fault that I wasn’t impressed. I mean, what does a Candy Crowley impression look like? She did get some sly quips in her introduction as she described her weekend of Nora Roberts novels and a “crack team of Korean ladies” dispatched to “rehab” her feet.

Hans and Franz State Farm ad – huh?

Pratt appeared in the cold open as NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. Strangely, the audience was silent when he first appeared (maybe they were all cheered out from earlier? I dunno…) Anyways, Kenan Thompson then appeared as Ray Lewis and Jay Pharoah came on as Shannon Sharpe. The skit worked okay mainly because Thompson’s funny performance as Lewis who kept deflecting Crowley’s questions about child abuse by a rambling explanation of childhood education.

The skit finally gets some (much-needed) bite when Goodall introduces a new campaign for the NFL, “Take Back the Night! We Fight 4 Women,” but Goodall misreads the poster and announces “We fight women!” confused about the “4” in the poster.

As an opener, the skit worked okay – and offered some good laughs at the NFL’s expense. The NFL would be slammed a few times more throughout the show, but the jokes could’ve been a little bit more pointed – the focus seemed to paint the NFL as a hapless victim of its players.

The credits ran and it was strange to see just how many people were pushed off from last season. Michael Che and Pete Davidson were added, and former SNL castmember, Darrell Hammond took over for Don Pardo’s announcing duties (thankfully not by doing a Pardo impression – and kudos to the folks at SNL for the touching silent tribute).

For his monologue, Pratt did a serviceable job, with a neat allusion to Chris Farley’s Matt Foley by mentioning that while in Hawaii, he “lived in a van down by the river.” He made some jokes about his famous weight fluctuations, and introduced his wife, Mom star Anna Farris in the audience (the funny pair should host together), who hosted the show twice.  He then busted out with his guitar and stumbled through a funny song that was better because of his enthusiasm than the decent lyrics. Normally I hate musical numbers in the monologue, but Chris Pratt’s adorable Parks and Rec character Andy is a musician, so I was okay with it.

After the monologue came a fake ad for erectile dysfunction medication – Cialis Turnt, which turned patients into crunking hip-hop superstars. It’s a very silly sketch that took advantage of Aidy Bryant’s go-for-broke quality.

After the break came a strange skit and the first dud of the evening, and because it was so early in the show, that wasn’t a good sign. In the sketch, Kyle Mooney played Danny and Bryant was his suburban mom. Danny just had a birthday, but no one showed, so he transferred his desire for friendship toward his He-Man and Lion-O action figures, who come to life after he blows out his birthday candle. Pratt was He-Man (complete with a pageboy wig) and Killan was Lion-O (with a weird tan line on his arms, as if he spent the summer on the beach wearing gardening gloves). The joke was that He-Man and Lion-O weren’t like their cartoon selves, but instead stupid, Frankenstein’s monster like duds who crashed through walls and discovered their libidos. Music guest Ariana Grande pops up at the end as She-Ra, and then the three just start shredding the kitchen into pieces, before Bryant shows up, randy at the sight of the two muscular superheroes purring, “mama’s wish done come true.” It was a confused sketch that suffered from some strange timing – and Mooney obviously relied on the cue cards.

The following sketch set at possibly the world’s worst vet office was better. Cecily Strong, Vanessa Bayer, Pratt, and cast standout Kate McKinnon were nurses who were syrupy and Southern, but their kindness belied a shocking number of pet fatalities at the office. While not an outstanding sketch, it was funny and Strong and Pratt were good, and there were some good one liners such as Pratt’s description of a parrot uttered its last few words before dying: “pizza…pizza…and then nothing.” As with the other sketches, something felt off with the pacing, but the performers raised the material significantly.

Pratt’s success with Guardians of the Galaxy meant a fake trailers for upcoming Marvel movies, with the joke being that Marvel couldn’t do anything wrong as the films’ superheroes were getting more improbable and ridiculous – a pastry chef, an office chair, bus passengers, ghosts dressed in tuxedos, but the biggest laugh came from Bryant as “Pam” – a smiling everywoman (who even gets her own sequel, “Winter Pam”). Even the image of Pratt dressed in Princess Leia drag from a Marvel redo of Star Wars couldn’t take away from just how joyfully silly a Pam movie from Marvel would be (though I would watch both Pams).

Grande then did her first song and it was okay. I’m not a fan of the singer – she’s decent and the song was okay dance-pop. A sorta Janet/Mariah/J.Lo lite.

The biggest news of the show was the Weekend Update. Last season Weekend Update got some knocks because of the nonexistent chemistry between Colin Jost and Strong. Unfortunately, Strong was axed in favor of writer Che. And while Che did a very okay job (just okay – but it was his first time, so he deserves some more time to develop), Jost shouldn’t be sitting at that desk. Not only was his performance blah, but the jokes were really poor – Hillary Clinton and Cuba Gooding, Jr. jokes were particularly moldy.

As if to remind the audience just how much better she was than Jost, Strong returned as her recurring character, the Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With at a Party, that particularly noxious kind of person that one runs into, who feels she’s an expert on everything. Ostensibly there to muse on the Ebola outbreak, instead she wandered off into tangents laden with malaprops, awful metaphors, and terrible self-involvement.

Leslie Jones makes a welcomed return, as well. Her bit was about how cool she was being single, and the material was pretty funny and Jones sold it. I’d love to see more of her – and I love, love, love her take on singlehood: “I don’t like it, so much as I’m used to it.”

Then something truly great and wonderful happens: Pete Davidson shows up and kills it in a hilarious stand-up bit about a game he and his friends used to play: how much money would they take to perform fellatio on a guy. The material was funny and his delivery was brilliant. This was a moment when a star was born.

Finally, Thompson came on to soulfully croon “Oooh Child” as Che and Jost offered some solace and comfort to President Obama in light of his low approval numbers. The jokes were good and Thompson’s optimistic lyrics were becoming more and more realistic (“things will probably not get worse now”).

What was clear from this episode of Weekend Update was that it was Strong, Jones, Thompson, and especially Davidson who made the sketch work. Jost and Che were both weak links – Jost needs to be pushed back to behind-the-scenes work.

After Weekend Update, we got another Bryant-heavy sketch, in which she played a woman who flirted shyly with Pratt at a bar. Not sure how to approach him, she took advise from one of her girlfriends and instantly turns into a Nicki Minaj-like rapper who extorts the beauty of her “big fat ass.” Pratt’s wallflower of an office worker responds in kind by spitting out salacious rhymes, as well. It’s a good sketch that is predictable and a little easy, but there were some cute details – I loved how Bryant’s character went to Wellesley College only to sing about her “big fat ass.”

After this sketch came easily the most original piece in the episode. A spoof on 90s multi-cam sitcoms with Pratt, Mooney, and Beck Bennett as a trio of friends a la Friends or Full House. Pratt’s character is a loner who gets involved in a gang and is badly influenced by his new friends. The thing is the gang is made up of three 10-year-olds. Complete with a laugh track and sappy musical cues, the strange sketch worked not because it was hilarious, but because the writers and the actors were trying to do something original and interesting. There were some great tropes of TGIF sitcoms like the treacly music during apologies as well as anodyne conflict (“This is a fight,” Pratt helpfully fumes before storming off to his room). The acting is gloriously deadpan and there are some really messed-up edits and blocking (which seem to spoof low budget sitcoms). I liked that even if I didn’t laugh all that much, I appreciated just how weird and ambitious this sketch was.

Another NFL sketch followed that had the male stars play football players, each who would announce his crime as he introduces himself. The actors played a few characters each. I have to be honest, I didn’t think the sketch was all that interesting or funny.

The final sketch was another dud – this time Bobby Moynihan, Sasheer Zamata, and Davidson play participants at a video game focus group. The conceit of the sketch is that the characters in the video game – Pratt and Bayer – egg the players on, before going off on their own very dramatic soap opera (with shades of Beauty and the Beast). Davidson easily swipes the sketch without really doing much, though there wasn’t all that much to steal in the first place.

By the end, when Pratt was taking his bows with the cast, I was sad for the show. It’s obvious that the quality was on par with the mediocre 39th season. One bright spot will be Davidson (who got pushed out in the front during the bows – really classy of the castmembers to do that, btw).

For the show to work at this point, I think Lorne Michaels will need to look back at why certain seasons popped while others fizzled. Some of it is political landscape – left-leaning SNL doesn’t know how to tweak liberals and President Obama’s pretty likable, regardless of his politics, which makes it harder to make fun of him.

Interestingly enough, the show has a lot going for it – namely McKinnon and Bryant. Strangely, the former was pretty absent for most of the episode (maybe the showrunners want to avoid a female cast MVP a la Kristen Wiig). Killan, also someone who dominates was underused. Another problem that this season has is a bloated cast – too many performers often thin out a sketch and leave little-to-no room for many of the actors. Case in point: the very talented Zamata who appeared in a couple of sketches, but wasn’t given a chance to make much of a mark – again, a shame because when given a chance, the comedienne proves to be very funny. Failing on SNL may be a public failure, but it doesn’t always mean the performer isn’t good – Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Laurie Metcalf, Christine Ebersole, Janeane Garafolo and Robert Downey, Jr. were all members of SNL and each had a hard time making his/her mark during his/her tenure.

Next week another former castmate/writer, Sarah Silverman, is hosting. Like Louis-Dreyfus, et al, Silverman is a very talented comic who – for a number of reasons – couldn’t hit her stride during her time. Since then, Silverman’s gone to become a minor legend and icon of sorts. And the week after Silverman, Bill Hader returns. Hader, unlike Silverman, had a triumphant run on the show. The contrast couldn’t be more pronounced. It’ll be interesting to see the upcoming episodes to see just how well these alumni blend in a cast that is largely made of performers they’ve never met.

Pratt, on the other hand, won’t be remembered as a particularly good host (which is a shame), but then again, he wasn’t the disaster that Jim Parsons was, either. It’s a little surprising that he felt lackluster given that he’s one of the funniest men working in Hollywood today. All in all, not a great way to start a season that’s supposed to be rehabilitative.

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