Last week’s Saturday Night Live was hosted by Andy Samberg, who brought along a bunch of his SNL pals, including Maya Rudolph. Last night, Samberg returned the favor, by costarring with Rudolph in her first solo variety special, The Maya Rudolph Show, the buzzy vehicle that was talked about for months after Rudolph’s sitcom Up All Night was axed. With such anticipation, it’s understandable if the show underwhelms just a tiny bit – and it does. Nothing could sustain all that pent up good will and excitement, but what The Maya Rudolph Show does prove is that its headliner is far overdue for a dynamite showcase for her talents.
Variety has been pretty much dead since the 1980s, and with good reason. Our far more jaded and ironic times wouldn’t be able to stomach seeing our favorite stars in goofy getups, performing schlocky musical numbers. In the genre’s heyday, the 1970s, the variety hour was a camp goldmine – where else could you see patriotic crooner Kate Smith perform a psychedelic Beatles medley? Or a pint-sized Janet Jackson do a Mae West impression? There’s a certain allowance for bad taste and the ridiculous when a celebrity is done up in marabou and sparkles.
Rudolph knows all this, and chooses to send up the variety genre, while at the same time, lovingly pay tribute to it. The hour is stuffed with musical numbers as well as comic skits, all of which are designed to show off Rudolph’s dizzying talent. She can sing, she can dance, she can act, and she’s funny. It’s a little frightening to see just how talented this woman is. And while her performance is nothing less than perfect during her show, she’s not always supported by the best material.
Like the best variety specials, Rudolph has surrounded herself with a bunch of old showbiz pros that all share a genuine affection with the star. Sean Hayes (fresh off his canceled sitcom Sean Saves the World), Kristen Bell and SNL alumni Chris Parnell, Fred Armisten and Samberg all join Rudolph and perform with matching enthusiasm.
And Rudolph and company work best when the scripts work as hard as they do. For example, in one inventive and hilarious skit, Rudolph and Armisten play the Garmyns, a couple who voice the GPS navigation system. Bell and Samberg play young lovers who come to visit her parents, and Rudolph and Armisten absolutely kill it in this sketch (seriously, this is the kind of material that should’ve been featured on this season’s so-so SNL). Rudolph especially gets the robotic, cut-and-paste diction of the voice on the GPS – particularly when she misunderstands Samberg telling her he’s from Indianapolis, and she responds with “Anapolis,” and it takes some pretty clear enunciating for her to finally get it right (and as someone who has literally screamed out every syllable of a word in one of those things, I immediately got the joke). Samberg also got some funny bits in the sketch when he was confusedly turned around by Rudolph’s glitchy directions to the restroom (and he got a sly Prince Albert gag in there, too). What worked about this sketch is not only was the writing funny, but the performances were flawless and smooth.
And I wish there were more of those kinds of sketches, and less musical numbers. While invigoratingly performed, the hour started to feel a bit overstuffed with song-and-dance numbers (though it was great seeing The Office‘s Craig Robinson pop up). Rudolph is a consummate song-and-dance woman, and her ability to work a stage and some rhinestones would put Ann-Margret to shame, but the show relied far too often on old timey razzle dazzle, and less on the incredible comedic talents of its star.
But not all of the musical numbers felt like filler. I loved Rudolph’s lullaby with Parnell, who just had a baby. The song was a pretty, restrained song that featured some killer harmonies from the two comics, and the lyrics hilariously described all the gross, disgusting things babies do and get away with, because they’re babies. It’s a lovely number that’s just barbed enough to be pointed without being snarky.
Another good musical number had Rudolph square off against Samberg in a dance off. Samberg, suited in John Travolta white is smugly proud of his extravagant dance moves, taking up the stage because in dancing, “size matters” (there are loads of gloriously unsubtle double entendres scattered throughout the show). At one point, Sandberg’s character comes somersaulting back on the stage (the actor obviously subbed by a real dancer). Rudolph’s response is just as funny – her dancing is done in tiny, baby steps – a raised eyebrow, a flared nostril – the two extremes were really funny. Inspired by her fictional grandmother to “go small” Rudolph wins the challenge and her ghostly grandma tells her “I met Tupac today, he doesn’t curse anymore.”
Despite the general high energy of the cast and the good will and affection of the audience members, not everything worked – though nothing bombed. The $25,000 Pyramid sketch was probably the least interesting – Hayes and Armisten played comic versions of themselves, while Sandberg was paired with Rudolph’s Russian socialite, Svetlana Bolganova. The sketch primarily existed to show off her chameleon-like ability to play different ethnicities and accents, but it was a one-joke affair that had her respond to all of Samberg’s clues with “juice.”
The other lowpoint of the show was a standard, quite old fashioned doctor skit with Samberg as a patient, being put out by the staff at the hospital who respond to his complaints with verbal tics and sarcasm. Again, well performed, but not great (and tellingly this was the least enjoyable sketch of the show, and Rudolph wasn’t in it).
I don’t know if there are any more The Maya Rudolph Shows planned – and I’m not sure if this format is the best way to feature the virtuoso comedienne. She’s a wonder who can easily steal a scene with just a look; and as proven in films like The Prairie Home Companion, Bridesmaids, and Away We Go, she’s also a resourceful actress. It’s clear from The Maya Rudolph Show that Maya Rudolph needs to be on television on a regular basis. What’s unclear is if she can find the right vehicle.