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.