Tina Fey enlivens a solid, but unexceptional season opener of ‘SNL’

Now that 30 Rock is over, Tina Fey has a lot more time on her hands, and one of the things she decided to do to pass the time is host the season premier of Saturday Night Live. This isn’t Fey’s first return to her former haunts – she won an Emmy a few years ago for her series of spot-on impressions of Sarah Palin. And it’s always interesting when former SNL stars return to host after years of success – often they make these returns when there has been major cast turnovers, so even though they once were cast members of SNL, they no longer feel like a natural fit; that being said, unlike the latest starlet, action hero, athlete, or pop star, SNL alum still are talented comedians, so they often can roll with the new vibe of the show.

Fey’s return has the feeling of a legend coming back home – it’s similar to when Steve Martin or Chevy Chase made sojourns to 30 Rock in the late 1980s or 1990s. She’s become somewhat of a comic institution, though she hasn’t been frozen in amber. But she still feels a bit isolated from the cast, which is due to her fame as well as her seasoned skills, which help her steal the show easily from the others. Though this isn’t a hard task when the material of the first show of this season was pretty safe and solid, livened up by solitary moments of genuine laughter, mostly due to Fey.

The cold open has Jay Pharoah do his very good Barack Obama impression, though the skit itself is just so-so. The joke is the Obama administration has done a poor job of explaining Obamacare to its constituents, and therefore there’s a whole lot of misunderstanding as a result. In a faux townhall meeting, the president is presenting a series of testimonies from “real Americans” except in the reality of the skit, no one vetted these dummies, so each is even more damning to the president than the next. It’s one of those skits where it seemed the writers were thinking “I think we should have everyone do something.” So one-by-one, cast members file on stage, step up to the lectern and say something stupid about Obamacare. Aidy Bryant – a very talented comedienne – has a decent bit about being excited about being so, just because she can now afford healthcare; Bobby Moynihan grouses about his deadbeat son sponging off healthcare and not getting a job; Taran Killam does a decent Ted Cruz/filibuster/Dr. Seuss joke; then Aaron Paul pops in from Breaking Bad in a bizarre cameo in which he almosts spills the finale of his show – in the midst of all this business, some of which was chuckle-worthy, my favorite SNL cast member, Kenan Thompson stepped up as the Obama Care mascot, Obamacare Oscar, who starts a jingle, “Easy as 1,2,3” before continuing, “4,5,6.” He then injures himself during  a dance break, but doesn’t have health insurance because it’s too expensive. I love Thompson just for these kinds of performances – he has a lovable goofiness, with an layer of sly irony, just beneath the veneer of wackiness.

What’s interesting about this skit is just how hard it is to find something to tease the president about – it’s hard when the president is a smart, intelligent, accomplished guy who’s just a wee-bit boring. He doesn’t really have any vocal tics, and because he’s a good speaker, he doesn’t have the malaprops that befell folks like George W. Bush or Sarah Palin; because Obama’s likable, it’s hard to jab him too hard, like SNL could with Hillary Clinton, who had a huge likability liability.

So the end result is that the political comedy doesn’t land quite as hard as it could.

But the audience was with the cast and judging from her rapturous reception, the audience was also with their hostess for the evening. Tina Fey had a bit of a banner year – even though 30 Rock ended and her latest film Admission flopped, she won a final Emmy for her writing as well as stealing the Emmy broadcast with her BFF, Amy Poehler.

Perhaps high on the good press she received from her winning turn at the Emmys, Fey’s monologue delivered – even if it felt a bit like a standup act. She started off things with a hilarious nod to all her recurring characters. What’s that you say? “What recurring characters?” Exactly. Fey is always first to admit that she doesn’t do characters, so the send up of all the inane recurring characters that SNL sometimes is guilty of having (The Copy Guy, Pat, the Effeminate Heterosexual, the Caveman Lawyer) is excellent because it shows that the writers of SNL aren’t scared to poke fun at their own show. Then she brings on the 6 new cast members who are put through a hazing ritual of having to dance stupidly behind the host – Fey has a pretty savage aside in which she points out that Will Ferrell had to do the same thing when Katie Holmes exaggerated her tap dancing skills when she hosted. The musical number was great and the newbies had to shimmy their money makers in gold lame short-shorts and matching tuxedo jackets.

The first sketch of the evening was a spoof on the HBO series Girls. Fey was brought on as the newest member of the group: Blerta, an Albanian widow. This wasn’t the most original idea – Central and Eastern Europeans are dour! But Fey’s great as the stooped, wizened woman who survived war and migration, only to have to suffer through the inane dialogue of Lena Dunham.

The second skit, an airline sketch – was also not exactly wheel-creating, but it was charming. Airlines and airplanes are pretty popular among sketch comics – and all the clichés and tropes were pulled out and made fun of – in Fey’s sketch, she and Killam are flight attendants announcing the boarding of a flight, and going through a particularly convoluted and complicated boarding procedure, where various classes of people have priority boarding. It’s funny – especially the part about the foreign passengers who are instructed to rush and push their way to the gate despite not being called. Fey and Killam are great, Poker-faced throughout the proceedings, but it’s Thompson who steals the show as the passenger trying to bring on carry-on luggage that obviously will not fit into the overhead baggage compartment – and he’s seen wheeling in a suitcase the size of a refrigerator – it’s a great sight gag that produces the biggest laughs in the so-so skit. Then it plunges into some nonsense romance bit where Killam and Fey are suddenly lovers, but she does get a great line to close: “Now boarding all lovers with stars in their eyes.”

The next sketch was a game show parody, with increasing MVP Kenan Thompson as the host. Fey is the “special celebrity contestant” on a show where she has to tell the difference between the new cast members and the members of the musical host, Arcade Fire. It’s a dopey sketch, that rides on the premise that the band mates and the comics are hipsters so it’s confusing for someone like Fey who is above and beyond all that. The show moves forward with easy hipster jokes, but ends on a funny note when executive producer Lorne Michaels shows up, and even he can’t tell the difference, and he hired the new guys. So his guess? “The black guy.” Thompson’s offense is awesome – he called it a “humbling round,” which brought a smile to my face. The exchange at the end was funny when Fey, disappointed asked, “Do I win anything?” to which Thompson angrily replies, “Don’t you have enough?!”

The requisite fake ad came next and it was pretty good – jumping on the e-cigarette craze, the ad was for e-meth. It was well done and some of the new cast members got to flex some of their comedic muscles – and yet again, we get to see Paul from Breaking Bad.

The “Weekend Update” segment had Seth Myers teamed up with Cecily Strong – a good choice. Strong is a great performer, and a smart one, too. Her contributions to the last season’s “Weekend Update” sketches were always solid. Strong was obviously going through a tiny amount of growing pains, and relied too much on delivering her punchlines in a “funny” voice, but she acquitted herself very well and had a good, easy chemistry with Myers, who can do this kind of stuff with his hands tied behind his back.

We got two characters that stopped by the “Weekend Update” desk: Kyle Mooney’s Bruce Chandling and Moynihan’s Drunk Uncle.

Mooney’s Bruce Chandling is this very hacky comic who schtick is throwing out stale, one-liners and terrible punch lines about well-trod subjects like the differences between Los Angeles and New York. The jokes aren’t supposed to land, so none of the jokes got much from the audience – which is the point of the character, but then I didn’t really understand why we were watching a purposefully bad comic, until Mooney got to drop the mask a bit and show the vulnerability behind Bruce’s facade – but none of that lasted long enough to make much of an impact, so it was all a bit confusing.

Moynihan’s Drunk Uncle is a crowd pleaser, and his Archie Bunker style malaprops are good for a laugh (“Sofia Viagra”), but I never thought he was an amazing character, despite his popularity. In this episode, he tackled the subject of “Back to School” by claiming a hard childhood of practically Dickensian proportions. His monologue sprinkled with his misuse of pop culture references and slurring descended into absurdity, and then Paul reappeared as Meth Nephew and it became official: I was tired of Aaron Paul.

The show had a pair of decent sketches that allowed Fey to shine, despite the mediorcity of the material. In PBS Cinema Classics sketch, Fey, Killam and Bryant are starring in a 40s melodrama that is hampered by oddly-placed stuffed animals (taxidermy-stuffed, not F.A.O. Shwartz-stuffed) because a taxidermist blackmailed his way into a job on the movie set. Fey was very funny – she does the brittle, mannered,1940s actressy stuff really well.

The second sketch – far more interesting – had Mike O’Brien – my favorite of the new guys because of his awesome 7 Minutes in Heaven Web series – play Rick of Rick’s Model T’s – an old timey commercial for the world’s first commercially available automobiles. The premise is that Rick has thought of a great gimmick: used cars, and is employing a kind of marketing concept never used before – pretending to be crazy. The only problem is, instead of a hot car girl, he’s got his dour, depressed wife, who may have killed a few people. Again, a very silly idea, saved by Fey and O’Brien who worked really well together.

The show’s final sketch was another commercial with the reformed porn stars. This time they were trying to push Manolo Blahniks (pronounced “Manual Blonde Dicks”). Despite its rigid formula and its obscene use of double entendres and smut jokes, I always like this sketch – maybe because Strong and Vanessa Bayer are always so committed to their performances. This sketch was no different than any other – they stumble, dazedly through their lines, mispronouncing everything, while trying to emulate a lifestyle of glamor and success. Fey is dragged out, and though she doesn’t add anything to the sketch (her appearance is far too brief), she has some fun lines as well – and her pronunciation of Manolo Blahniks as “Manilow’s Blankets” was pretty funny, especially if you watch her explanation of the name.

So all in all – not a spectacular show by any means, nor a triumphant return for Fey – I’d argue the most wonderful return of an SNL vet had to be Maya Rudolph’s hosting duties in 2012. Fey also has done better before, but she also had stronger material. Still, it was an enjoyable start to an incredible 39th season.

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