Andy Samberg is the latest – but one of the lest memorable – SNL cast member who returns to Studio 8H. It’s clear that Samberg’s a talent – a genuine talent, but it’s also clear that he’s better in small doses, and he wasn’t as strong as the top tier performers, some of whom showed up in last week’s season finale. It felt a bit strange to see so many former SNL comics stroll on the screen, and it also felt a bit strange to see Sandberg and the current cast showed up by the vets.
So the show opened with a sketch that made fun of the Jay-Z/Solange elevator brawl. Jay Pharoah trotted out his technically-proficient Jay-Z, while Sasheer Zamata did a bland Solange impression. Pharoah’s a virtuoso, and his performance was unimpeachable, but poor Zamata is saddled with a celebrity that is so under the radar that no one knows if the comedienne is “getting” Solange. The sketch moved at a decent pace, and the part where Jay-Z and Solange narrate the infamous tape was good for some laughs, but quickly the show was stolen by a cameoing Maya Rudolph as Beyonce. When Rudolph marched in to the screams of the audience members, the sketch became something more. Rudolph has a great celebrity to impersonate: the self-involved, eccentric diva is a great image to lampoon (she even came with her own wind machine). Rudolph’s quick appearance proved just how strong the performer was (and I’m really excited about her variety show).
Then Andy Samberg came on for his monologue, which was okay, except he was dropping names like a crazy man – Justin Timberlake was given a shout out (but there will be no “D*ck in a Box” sequel – the pop star is in Russia). Sandberg’s monologue dealt with his lagging number of impressions versus former cast member Bill Hader. Seth Myers strode on the stage and the two ran through names – lots of 80s references, by the way – but Hader then comes on to defend his crown as king of the impressions. And as if Hader, Myers, and Rudolph wasn’t enough, Martin Short walks on. Poor Sandberg, while a genial, presence, was overwhelmed by the combined wattage and good will of Myers, Hader, and Short.
The first sketch of the evening was also the best, and it featured two of the strongest players in the current season: Aidy Bryant and Kate McKinnon, who play two overzealous, naughty kids, who revel in behaving badly and being subordinate. Bryant and McKinnon both are incredible actresses and are the season’s best at creating full, 3-dimensional characters. The sketch is set at Camp Wicawabe and Bryant and McKinnon are two ten-year olds who are hosting a show of some kind (it’s not clear if it’s a TV chat show). The duo even has a house band, six-year old Joseph who plays the xylophone (played with charm by Kyle Mooney). Samberg shows up as a sexually-curious prepubescent who’s schtick is putting his butt on everything. Cecily Strong also makes a funny appearance as a disgruntled lunch lady (who may also be a pedophile – I dunno, I never laugh at those kinds of jokes). The sketch works because the two main characters are well-drawn out and have lots of motivation and a great back story – they revel in being “bad” – in fact because they’ve had so many demerits, they have to go to bed at 2.15 in the afternoon. When Sandberg’s randy cousin shows up and mentions the libido-laden pranks he’s pulled, McKinnon and Bryant are both joyfully oblivious and ignorant of what he’s talking about. I also love that Bryant’s major act of subversion is not eating fruit because her parents aren’t around to watch her.
Samberg’s first digital short – his strength – is set in a club. Samberg plays Davincii, a play on Avicii. The joke is the idea that a DJ can become a pop star and hero. He’s doing all sorts of nonsense on the stage (frying an egg, playing computer games, even having a heart attack), teasing his audience before pressing the bass button. His fans are losing their shit – and when he finally hits the bass and the crescendo hits, the audience members start to blow up – literally – and some start to kill themselves, and Davincii floats over his dead audience. Well done, but not a huge laugh-getter, and the digital shorts sort of betray the whole point of a live sketch show.
Then we have a Hunchback of Notre Dame skit – what if he was a big ole douche? It was a one-note joke that poor Samberg couldn’t elevate.
Weekend Update was a bore again – poor Strong is being dragged down by Colin Jost. He’s a talent behind the scenes, but is a bit of an energy-suck. Thankfully Kyle Mooney livened things up with his strange Bruce Chandling character – the sad sack comic with his hackey punchlines. I know this character isn’t everyone’s favorite, but I like him – I enjoy the weirdness and the awkwardness of Bruce – there’s a desperation. It’s not a laugh-riot but it’s a great character study. Poor Bruce goes through his shitty act, and his line of self-deprecating jokes segues into some confessional self-loathing, before he seesaws back to the terrible jokes, again.
I always found the Weekend Updates to be vehicles for the correspondences. Along with Bruce Chandler, we got Get in the Cage, Samberg’s recurring Nicholas Cage impression. Paul Rudd, a genial, comedic actor, very popular with SNL, comes on as well and he and Sandberg’s Nick Cage trade some funny jabs.
Then came the centerpiece of the episode – the Vogelcheck family. Samberg shows up to introduce his boyfriend, played by Taran Killan, to the Vogelchecks. And each Vogelcheck starts to make out with the other. It’s not a terribly well-written skit, but it’s a highlight because Kristin Wiig, Fred Armisten, Hader, Rudolph and Rudd all pop up. The audience in Studio 8H probably lost all their shit as each comic was greeted with explosive ovations. The joke was that these creepy, overly affectionate people get worked up over Michael Sam’s kiss with his boyfriend when drafted by the St. Louis Rams. It’s a great joke, pointed and relevant, but it’s buried underneath the mammoth talent and good will of SNL vets marching in. Killan and McKinnon are the only current members who show up, and McKinnon matches the other comedians note-for-note, while Killan offered a great straight man role (no pun intended), and it was refreshing to see him not play gay as a Bravo TV character. The sketch was a mess, but a fun one – what with Armisten barely keeping it together, Hader motorboating Wiig, and Rudolph giving McKinnon mouth-to-mouth resuscitation – there was little structure, and it was just an excuse to see some really funny people do some silly stuff…
The rest of the show was a bit of a letdown. Waking Up with Kimye was so-so. Pharoah was good as Kanye West and Nasim Pedrad, in her first appearance, plays a gleefully stupid Kim Kardashian. Poor Bruce Jenner is skewered mercilessly by Taran Killan with a too-pulled expression, reminiscent of Catherine O’Hara’s from For Your Consideration. Sandberg is wasted as a flamboyant wedding planner – the issue with his performance is that he wasn’t quite flamboyant enough and it was a strangely toned down performance.
The other digital short was a Lonely Island number about guys hugging girls – Rudolph has a cameo as a drug-pushing Oprah, and Pharrell Williams also comes up – it’s not a hilarious sketch, but as with the other digital short, it’s very competently done.
Samberg then showed up as Legolas from The Hobbit, to order food from Taco Bell. A really boring sketch that was pure filler.
Another dud was Samberg’s Blizzard Man sketch with a surprisingly game 2 Chainz. I never found Blizzard Man all that funny.
The show rallied in the end with the exporn stars, this time pushing Bulgari (pronounced “bivglari”). I love this sketch and I think Vanessa Bayer and Strong are great – like McKinnon and Bryant, the two comediennes are very funny, and create real characters. Wiig and Sandberg float in as porn stars who were once conjoined twins – Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle (wait for it) Dong. I never liked it when the guests float into the sketch (except for Jamie Foxx’s fantastic turn when he hosted) – I find it intrusive, and Wiig and Samberg do nothing for the sketch. Even though the joke is predictable, the ladies kill it.
The goodbye was great because we saw some of the SNL greats hugging and waving goodbye. It was interesting to see some of the newbies who didn’t do anything in this episode – Rudd had a bigger presence than Brooks Whelan. I also loved seeing Rudd and Rudolph have their moment on the stage – I always thought they were pals, and it’s nice to see them together.
This season was a strange one – some highs (Melissa McCarthy) and some lows (Jim Parsons). But more than the peaks and valleys, there were lots of lulls, with mediocrity ruling. Few of the new performers made strong impressions – I’m not sure if any will survive – Brooks Bennett, Mike O’Brien, and Kyle Mooney should all stay on – each proved in the limited time they were allotted that they are strange and distinct enough to add some much-needed eccentricity to the show. Sorry, Brooks Wheelan, Sasheer Zamata, Noel Wells, and John Milhiser – you all are a talented bunch, but I don’t see you all coming back.
But it would be a mistake to assume that if a comedian doesn’t do well on SNL, she isn’t talented. Lots of some greats failed to make much of an impression: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Laurie Metcalf, Robert Downey, Jr., Christine Ebersole, Janeane Garofalo, Chris Elliot, Casey Wilson, Chris Rock, Keenan Ivory Wayens have all been sub par SNL cast members.