Fred Armisen is the sixth former SNL cast member to return to Studio 8H as a host and he did not disappoint. Armisen’s style of comedy is super old school – and owes a lot to Martin Short (who is starring in an upcoming variety show with fellow SNL alumni Maya Rudolph), and no where is Short’s influence more apparent than in Armisen’s excellent monologue that had the comedian share a bit of his fake one-man show with the audience. Armisen expertly pivoted from hackey voices to smarmy schmaltz, all while peddling a cliched tale of leaving Long Island for Manhattan, and becoming a star. It’s exactly the kind of thing Martin Short excelled at, and it’s exactly the kind of thing that Armisen’s so fantastic at: smarmy showbizzyness that has a simmering layer of devastating irony – five minutes of Armisen is more potent at Hollywood-deflating than an hour of Ricky Gervais’ increasingly-toxic material. The straighter Armisen played the scene, imbuing it with calculated/crass pathos, the funnier it became. To drive the point home, Armisen has to micromanage everything, from an audience member’s reaction to the dimming of the lights at the close of his monologue. A terrific start to a mostly-terrific show.
The cold open was as usual, a political sketch, with Larry David returning as Bernie Sanders, and Kate McKinnon back as Hillary Clinton. David and McKinnon are pros are great – it’s interesting to see how McKinnon has had to develop her character, as Clinton’s road to the nomination seems harder and harder to get. No longer is she gliding towards the White House with entitled confidence, but she’s dragging a bloated and lumbering campaign, while Sanders keeps adding more weight to it. It’s also nice to see the writers ding Clinton – pointing out that despite her lead in the delegate count, she’s losing states to Sanders. Sanders’ position as a populist also gets tweaked and there’s something so endearingly silly about the Vermont Senator’s dream of having a tuna fish sandwich…on a croissant, like the fancy people do. SNL will never be known as a devastating source of trenchant political comedy – the Sarah Palin stuff notwithstanding, most of what passes for political humor on the show is decent impressions, catch phrases, and mining tabloids for supposedly topical material. That in this season David and McKinnon are called upon to create real characters is impressive.
Anyways, on with the rest of the show.
It felt like a good episode from Armisen’s tenure. The best sketches used Armisen to the best of his abilities, and despite his singular talent, he’s also a great team player, rarely ever showboating or showing up his teammates.
The sketch that’s getting the most attention is the pretaped Dead Poets Society spoof, “Farewell Mr. Bunting” that has Armisen playing a beloved teacher who is leaving his classroom – but instead of the “Oh Captain, my Captain” recital that took place in the Robin Williams weepie, we get an orgy of decapitations, as Pete Davidson’s student climbs on his chair to join in on the goodbye Mr. Chips moment, he stands too close to a ceiling fan slicing his head off, which leads to a gruesome game of hot potato as the head is tossed from one screaming student to another. While I’m not as enamored with it as everyone else in America, it’s a funny sketch.
Another pretaped sketch that scored was the return of Andy Samberg and Lonely Island. It’s obviously a plug for Samberg’s new movie Popstar, but the short – “Finest Girl” – is just the sort of thing that Lonely Island is great at: a Justin Timberlake/Justin Bieber amalgam of top 40 pop with some seriously f’d up lyrics, this time about a young lady who has a “killing Osama bin Laden fetish.” Samberg’s pop star alter ego (again a weird mashup of Timberlake and Bieber and every other whimpering wannabe soul man) is great fun and even he – as self-involved and deluded as he is – takes pause at his paramours obsession with Bin Laden.
Popping in for a well-received cameo was Jason Sudeikis in a Regine sketch. I never found drag terribly funny, but I do like the perennially-put upon Regine who is reduced to a pile of quivering flesh whenever Sudeikis shows her any physical affection. Sudeikis is totally committed to his character, plowing through, despite Armisen’s Regine writhing and turning all over the place.
Another recurring sketch, the Student Theater Showcase, scored points. Some find this sketch one note, but I like it. The kids are always doing their best to be politically correct and they strenuously try to expand the minds of their audiences. As funny as the kids are, it’s the parents – particularly Vanessa Bayer – who are the best, reacting to their kids’ nonsense with annoyance and shame.
The Weekend Update was okay – but notable for the fantastic return of Maya Rudolph as recently-impeached Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff. Brazilian readers can school me if Rudolph’s accent was credible (I suspect not), but yet again, she brings the funny by portraying the embattled politico as someone who couldn’t give any fucks about losing her job, and sees her impeachment as an excuse to party. Just as Samberg was appearing to promote Popstar, I suspect that Rudolph’s appearance was killing two birds with one stone: honoring her friend Fred Armisen’s return as well as reminding folks of her upcoming show with Martin Short. Either way, we don’t need an excuse to see Maya Rudolph, and she needs to come back to host.
There was an escape pod sketch that worked solely because of Arimsen’s needling comic persona – and for its attention to strange details (i.e. Armisen’s character picks City Slickers 2 as his movie of choice when escaping a doomed space ship). The writing wasn’t anything special, but the scribes must’ve realized that having Armisen play one of his nudniks would be enough.
The only bad sketch – and it was pretty bad, with a noxious premise – was the Lewis & Clark sketch. Kyle Mooney and Cecily Strong join Armisen as an acting troupe that is hired by Aidy Bryant’s middle school teacher to perform the Lewis & Clark story. The performance devolves into some ugliness about Mooney’s character being raped by Armisen – I don’t know how many times comics will blunder to try and make rape funny. It was a dark and unnecessary moment in an otherwise bright show.
So, the 41st season of SNL was so-so. I’m thinking that it will be the final season for Sasheer Zamata, which is a shame because she is a bright and funny comic, but was woefully underused. New guy Jon Rudnitsky should also look around for a new job as his inaugural season seemed rather in auspicious. Leslie Jones, Pete Davidson, and Michael Che should all be bumped up to the main cast – each proved to be invaluable. I’m also thinking that Kate McKinnon’s star is on the rise, and it won’t be long before she follows Kirsten Wiig’s trajectory.