Monday, November 14, 2005

Saturday Night ... CLEAR! ... guh-thunk ... Live

It's all too obvious to watch the current Saturday Night Live and draw a contrast with the 1980s special NBC aired this weekend. The buzz right now isn't good, from the ever-snarky TV Squad to the wholly unwarranted rip from Lance Armstrong's hometown paper.

And it's always in vogue to say it's not as good as it was in the old days. My dorm had plenty of idiots who would wander into our commons room while we were watching SNL, proclaim that it sucked ever since Belushi (John) left, and wander back out, leaving us to enjoy Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman and Jan Hooks at their peak.

These people are usually wrong. Sometimes, they have a point.

Yet here's what we learn from the 80s special: The show is going to have peaks and valleys. Even good years have bad patches. If you ever happen upon an entire show with the original cast, you know what I mean. Good sketch, so-so sketch, bad drug humor, musical act, bad drug humor, so-so sketch, credits.

Being an SNL fan means taking the bad with the good. It's sketch comedy. The "bad" comes in five-minute doses. It's not like being stuck in a theatre watching Cocktail. Trust me -- I've been there.

All this said, SNL needs a shakeup.

It may be more a question of attitude than personnel. The show this year has been sloppy -- bad performances, uneven writing, technical glitches, etc. They're trying to bring in new cast members, and yet Amy Poehler seems to be on screen for 89 of 90 minutes. (I like Poehler a lot, but her characters run together when she's in every single sketch.)

The new cast members -- even "new" guys who are in their third seasons like Kenan Thompson -- need more time, and that may mean pushing out a couple of the veterans. Horatio Sanz and Chris Parnell are in their eighth seasons, which equals Phil Hartman's tenure. As Hartman's Clinton (or maybe Darrell Hammond's Clinton) would say, "That is wrong. That .. is .. just ... wrong."

(Speaking of Hammond -- I don't mind that he's hanging around for Season 11. As it stands now, they can't afford to let him go.)

Individually, I like this cast. It's just too large, as is the writing staff. Don't have 50 people throwing out off-the-wall ideas in an attempt to make something catch Lorne's eye. Have a smaller group of people who know that what they do HAS to be good.

Forget the "featured player" caste system. Cut four, five, six people from the "main" cast, shove the four featured players into the main cast and make them all contribute.

They still might need a breakout person. No one's going to be lining up to buy the "Best of Will Forte" DVD. (OK, I might, if it's big on Tim Calhoun and light on "The Falconer.")

They'll also need to can a lot of the recurring characters. Debbie Downer was great once, not so good twice. I'm always up for seeing Hammond's Chris Matthews yell back and forth with Forte's Zell Miller, but they can only tap that well so many times. Besides, they may never top Forte/Miller yelling about running up to a tsunami and punching it in the face.

It's tough to say "clean house." They're still putting out a lot of good sketches, like Lance Armstrong's attempt to write a song for Sheryl Crow or the "Good Morning Meth" sketch from the Jason Lee episode. (The skateboarding monologue in Lee's hosting stint is one of the best monologues ever, seriously.) But then again, that was true of the disaster years as well.

Because there's one thing that's always true of Saturday Night Live. It beats the hell out of MAD TV.


Neel Mehta said...

If I may play Lorne Michaels for a minute -- whee, look at my mad skateboard skillz! -- the problem with fixing a sketch comedy institution is that no one can agree on what's funny. (Well, except that Morgan Stanley ad in the premiere, which kicked ass.)

For example, there are three items in your post that I disagree with:

1. Lance Armstrong's musical ode. I thought it was lame, but part of that was having to watch Sheryl Crow again, for whom I have absolutely no respect. I think he's funnier when he's a jerk, like in that Triathlon interview or against Bill O'Reilly.

2. Tim Calhoun? Seriously? It was excruciating the first time, and he keeps coming back. (I don't care for the Falconer either, but at least the bird squawking sound effect is funny.)

3. "Jan Hooks" and "peak" in the same sentence? Sorry, but she's a serious drop-off in comedic talent after Dana Carvey and Phil Hartman.

The point, of course, is that we find different things funny, and get even more picky about it when we get older. It's not really cool to like SNL anymore, which is why they keep trying to attract young, unfunny people to host.

I agree that a smaller cast would help, but these people think they ARE ready for prime time, so they're harder to keep them in the fold.

bdure said...

That's true -- I'm sure you could line up any two Kids in the Hall fans, picked at random, and they'd have different likes and dislikes.

You and I disagree not so much on Lance's comedic skill (I also liked the O'Reilly sketch), but on Sheryl Crow. I find her music listenable, not great, but I generally like *her*.

The Falconer was pretty good once or twice, when the stories seemed a little more reasonable at first and THEN turned absurd. The notion of this overwrought guy turning his falcon loose to get help, only to see the falcon spend the evening at a college party, was pretty good. But now it has to start out absurd and get ridiculous, which is what we had this weekend.

I thought the whole Carvey-Hartman cast was excellent. Maybe I would've tired of Victoria Jackson if she had been in every sketch, like Amy Poehler today, but they used her pretty well.

But Jan Hooks was great. Period.