Monday, October 01, 2012

Nine Great SNL sketches from the 2010-2011 season

This article was written in 2011 but never got around to being published unfortunately. Please excuse its tardiness 
SNL has faced a lot of criticism for being bland and repetitive as of late but I firmly maintain that whether you find SNL lame or cutting-edge, it’s always been consistently infused with equal parts lameness and cutting-edge material. SNL recruits from among the best comics in the world for their writing staff and even in an off-year, it would be virtually impossible not to have a few good sketches.

After browsing through the entire SNL season this afternoon (thanks Netflix), I’d like to present nine notable exceptions to the rule from this season:

  1. Sketch: Miley Cyrus Show with Johnny Depp (From the Bryan Cranston episode)
SNL’s Achilles heel has long been their inability to resist running a good concept it into the ground. But while you may by tired of the Miley Cyrus Show after four viewings, you have to admit that the skit jumped out at you when you first saw it. For a variety show which overuses the mock talk-show concept, that’s nothing to shake a stick at.

One great thing is you don’t have to know anything about Miley Cyrus to appreciate the skit. Vanessa Bayer’s monotoned character is a fill-in for any commercialized starlet and it’s remarkably sharp from the creepily uneasy relationship with her father to the lack of historic pop-culture awareness (To guest  Johnny Depp: “I’ve been a fan of yours going all the way back to Willy Wonka”).

I also thought the bombardment of questions all at once (although somewhat similar to Australian comedy show, “The Chasers”, who has the character “Mr. Ten Questions”) was very strong. Points also go to the writers for working in a brick joke (when an earlier joke doesn’t come to fruition until much later) at the end: “Oh you’re from France? Did you know that…”

2. Christine O’Donnell Gets Vetted (From the Amy Poehler episode)

SNL’s opening politically-tinged sketches exist out of habit and can feel stale. Many of them are written by Jim Downey who has been with the show since the '70s so that's little coincidence.

I loved this one, however, because like the Cyrus sketch, it was just as hilarious if you didn’t have any idea who Christine O’Donnell is. The premise was gold regardless of the specifics of current events: Two campaign strategists sent to help a candidate manage her PR fiascos discover she has twice as many ghosts in her closet. Rewatch this sketch and take notice of how completely unexpected its twists and turns are: A strategist saying “this campaign is going to be a real dogfight” segues into a reveal that O’Donnell was in fact running dog fights herself. Great work by Jason Sudeikis as straight man and Kristen Wiig as O’Donnell.

3. Hassles at the Globe Theater (from the Gwyneth Paltrow episode)

This sketch poses the question of what it would be like if the hassles of our modern moviegoing experience (i.e. excessive previews, cell phones, oversized concessions) existed in Shakespeare’s time. It’s an incredibly simple premise and might not seem to offer much, but a creative approach brought out lines such as “In case of fire, the emergency exits are nowhere, so please make your peace with God” or “Please be sure to silence your falconer.” Because a black-eyed peas song was used, the sketch is not available online due to licensing issues, so please enjoy this transcript:

4. The mom’s boyfriend talk show (Jane Lynch episode)

A great example of how a good sketch is supposed to escalate and surprise the viewer as it goes on. A kid (Andy Samburg) wants to interview his mom’s one-night stands (Jason Sudeikis) and turn it into a talk show. At first glance, the sketch seems like a cute but tired concept and given that the show is overly reliant on mock talk shows, I wouldn’t have expected them to have taken it any further. Then suddenly, the sketch morphs into something entirely different: When the son casually mentions that this is the 100th episode of his show, this prompts the boyfriend to suddenly do the math and realize he’s in a lot of trouble. Panic ensues as the skit ratchets up into a whole new level of chaos and hilarity.

5. Mort Feingold: Celebrity Accountant (Helen Mirren episode)

That this hit sketch from last season was only repeated once this season might have more to do with the limits of the cast to churn out celebrity impressions on cue than anyone deciding that once a season was an appropriate number (When has that ever happened?). The sketch is essentially an excuse to package together a bunch of impressions, topical jokes, and one-note gags under the guise of a cheesy stock character played by Andy Samberg. The punchlines aren’t all showstoppers, but they’re enveloped into the flow of the sketch such that it all fits together seamlessly. For example, when Mort Feingold counters Ricky Martin’s announcement that he’s gay with a mediocre line like “I got news for you, I’m Jewish,” he hams up the line and it segues to the next jingle, so there’s hardly anything lost on the viewer.  The skit also shows how talented and deep the cast can be with nearly everyone getting a chance to shine.

6. Catherine meets the Queen and King (Host Anne Hathaway)
As some Americans were soaking up the glamour of Prince William’s royal wedding and other Americans were scratching their heads about what was so monumental about a wedding in England, SNL took the opportunity to slay the golden calf that is the British royal house in hilarious fashion. Bride-to-be Catherine Middleton (Anne Hathaway) discovers in her first private meeting with the Queen and Prince Phillip that they are really thieving low-lives with cockney accents.

7. Stars of Tomorrow (Scarlett Johansson episode)

Scarlett Johansson and Vanessa Bayer play two of the greatest actresses of children’s theater according to various talking heads in this mockumentary. But when we actually see the actresses, they turn out to be terrible. It's a good reveal and one that makes sense to the small slice of the audience who's ever seen children's theater. The actresses hilariously ham up monologues from “Forrest Gump,” “The Color Purple,” “On the Waterfront” “A Few Good Men” and “Brokeback Mountain.” 

8. Osama Bin Laden’s video will

SNL can be so unimaginative with their opening sketches that I half-expected the episode following Bin Laden’s death to result in another Obama or Biden press conference. Instead we had a more imaginative alternative: Osama’s video living will in which he asks that due to his deadly fear of fishes he asks that noone bury him at sea. Other highlights include his trust of the Pakistani government and how diluted his estate will be when diluted among 750 grandchildren and 11,000 nieces and nephews.

9. Livin’ Single (Host: Russell Brand)

Vanessa Bayer was a great addition to the cast this season (not to take anything away from the other new arrivals) because she has good instincts as an actress. This sketch works entirely because she sells it. First, she sells us on being a woman who’s so fiercely proud of singledom that she can inspire other single women in her own talk show. Then she sells us on being someone who’s slowly being seduced out of it all by Russell Brand. Taran Killam's character fits in a little awkwardly here: He comes off as too much of a loser to look elsewhere for a date, but it's hard to tell if that's the point of his character.

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