UPDATE: Saturday Night Live, the show that Deadline commenters love to beat on like it owes them money, last night completed a first half season of shows that improved dramatically over the season opener. I have watched since SNL launched in 1975, and to me it has always been like hitching your wagon to a sports team. Some years, you enjoy winning seasons fueled by great talent rosters; some years you suffer through rebuilding seasons. I trashed the season opener, but noted the potential. In fairness, I’ve seen enough to say: this group of writers and performers of Saturday Night Live has gelled so quickly I only wish Lorne Michaels, and not Phil Jackson, was rebuilding the New York Knicks.
After losing stalwarts Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, Fred Armisen, Andy Samberg and Jason Sudeikis, Michaels last season added too many newcomers – with not enough racial diversity – and didn’t know what to do with them. Most are gone.
I don’t see a weak spot in this cast. Vets Vanesa Bayer, Jay Pharoah and especially Bobby Moynihan, Taran Killam and Kenan Thompson (his Al Sharpton is always funny) show no signs of overstaying; Kate McKinnon, Cecily Strong, Aidy Bryant and Beck Bennett are growing; newcomers Kyle Mooney, Sasheer Zamata and Pete Davidson are off to solid starts. Leslie Jones is a shot of life who has perhaps the biggest breakout potential of anyone, as evidenced by her turns as the Weekend Update relationship counselor and “Black Annie” in a parody of the new movie. Everybody finds their moment, without crowding out anyone else. The writing is quirky, unpredictable.
As for the show’s signature, Weekend Update: after a rough start, Colin Jost and Michael Che are hitting stride with a pseudo-newscast that is biting fun. Moving Strong off the anchor desk was smart. You can’t look at it as a demotion, if you watch her work in skits and when she shows up on Update as The Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started A Conversation With At A Party; or The One-Dimensional Female Character From A Male-Driven Comedy, all of which she couldn’t do if shackled to the anchor desk. Strong is just part of an array of characters that has saved Update from beating Moynihan’s Drunk Uncle and Anthony “Secondhand News Correspondent” Crispino into the ground. Jost and Che have become much more comfortable playing off them.
Che and Jost are establishing their own quirky style. SNL‘s off-the-wall filmed segments have filled the gap left by Samberg’s Digital Shorts, which no longer felt fresh and disruptive by the time he left.
As for the individual episodes, the one hosted by Jim Carrey (McConaughey’s rambling Lincoln car ads) and Martin Freeman (The Office: Middle Earth) were funny from start to finish, with not a weak skit in the bunch. Not every episode kills (last night came close), but there are more laughs late in the show than I remember in past years where they killed time with weak skits. Even NBC’s decision to give the 10 PM slot to episodes featuring the original cast has served as a helpful reminder that hey, those immortals weren’t always as funny as you remember, and that this isn’t easy.
Quentin Tarantino once told me that his retirement from directing will come when he hits a wall that only a few helmers like Tony and Ridley Scott avoided: they are among the few, Tarantino said, whose next film might not be good, might not be their best, but could be their best. Mounting a live show every week is a very hard task, and not every episode is going to nail it.
With the current cast and writers, you feel once again that they might. It is too easy in this cynical age to simply say everything sucks, but most who do that don’t pay enough respect to the difficulty of the creative process. What SNL has done in a short time is enough to keep us tuning in every week, just in case they hit that high mark. But what the hell, I’d still follow if it was a train wreck, like I do the 5-24 Knicks.
EARLIER: ‘Saturday Night Live’ Debut: Who Directed This Hot Mess? Sept 29 8:17 am PST
Imagine you start the 4oth season of Saturday Night Live, armed with a game host in Chris Pratt, a bundle of funny skits, and a couple of laugh-worthy pre-recorded bits. And still the show kind of sucks? That is what happened over the weekend, for the most inexplicable and unforgivable reasons. Live TV is always going to elicit its share of flubbed lines due to nerves, but you would think in preparing for the first show, there would be ample rehearsal time. We’re used to hosts undermining skits by relying on cue cards, but can’t the cast members learn their lines?
Why was Kyle Mooney staring off into the distance during his skits? Is he most comfortable reading off cue cards in the mezzanine level? Darrell Hammond had plenty of outrageous moments during his long run on SNL. Why did he go Perry Como with a delivery so mellow it was hard to hear him? Doesn’t he know we are already struggling to stay awake? The announcer was loud. Then, new Weekend Update anchor Michael Che displays as cue card reading delivery so robotic that it seemed like he wasn’t told about his new job until 11:45 PM.
There are signs this season could be good. Kenan Thompson and Kate McKinnon didn’t have enough to do, and the show continues to underplay Sasheer Zamata, added last January after an outcry for racial diversity. She’s as good as she is underutilized, but the cast will be better. Enough of the skits were good to imagine a sharp writing staff that will improve. There was serious irreverence, like the skit where NFL players introduced themselves, and instead of reciting their college, listed personal crimes. The best line was left to newcomer Pete Davidson. After other players described violent crimes, he went one better: “Willie Sampson. Treason.”
Davidson delivered the show’s funniest bit, an off-color Weekend Update rant that has been amply described elsewhere. If the sole newcomer’s debut is anything to judge by, he might have the awkward delivery and wacky sensibilities that made Adam Sandler so good. But Seth Meyers always made those bits funnier, and that’s what Jost and Che lack right now and need to work on. The cast has to get to know their lines better and Che needs to rehearse because iPhone’s Siri has a less robotic delivery than he displayed Saturday. The show has been a work in progress for 40 years, and there is potential here for good things ahead.