One of the most difficult forms of comedy to execute well is live sketch. I think even the most casual comedy consumers can agree on this. When you see live sketch comedy at a theater done well, it’s magical. When it’s bad, it’s not just bad– it’s excruciating to watch. And this is why I root for Saturday Night Live every year. I understand how impossible it is to deliver topical, incisive and funny live sketch comedy week after week to millions of viewers, a large portion of which watch just to see you fail so they can tap angrily on their keyboards the next day on website comments sections. People love to see SNL fail.
I don’t love to see it fail. Which is why it pains me to say how weak SNL‘s first episode of season 40 was. I began live blogging it and then stopped because honestly I barely had anything nice to say and didn’t want to fill the digital pages of Laughspin with knee-jerk negative reactions. I planned the live blog because I had assumed I would have plenty to celebrate, this being the start of the historic 40th season of Saturday Night Live. But, I wimped out. I wanted to re-watch the sketches over the weekend to make sure my initial reactions weren’t ill-conceived. They weren’t. The episode was disappointing.
When the funniest parts of an iconic sketch show episode comes from two stand-up comedians basically doing stand-up behind the Weekend Update desk, that’s a signal something is systemically wrong with the show. Writer Leslie Jones (who’s not even part of the cast) and Pete Davidson (a 20-year-old comedian making his first appearance on the show) were excellent. By the end of the episode, third-year player Aidy Bryant had also pulled off a few solid performances, but only after flubbing three lines during the cold open when she played CNN anchor Candy Crowley. She was in good company, though, since host Chris Pratt moments later messed up the lyrics twice and played a wrong chord during his monologue song.
The monologue led to SNL‘s first parody commercial of the year. The product? Boner pills! What’s up, 1998? As if birthing the 13th million boner pill joke since Viagra hit the market 16 years ago wasn’t bad enough, the twist to the tired joke was so inside-Urban Dictionary that I can’t imagine even 25 percent of SNL‘s demo even understood what the hell was going on when Cecily Strong told her husband (Taran Killam), “You’re able to achieve an erection, and that’s great but I need more than that. I need you to get turnt.” For those of you who don’t spend half your day on Buzzfeed or on hip-hop websites, “turnt” is a newly accepted phrase that means getting drunk or high or both– but it’s like a very “urban” version of getting drunk, whatever that may mean. Hence, it’s hilarious to see super white people Taran Killam and Aidy Bryant getting “turnt.” And I get it. SNL is making fun of how stupid the concept of “turnt” is. The problem is it’s not funny when most of your viewers have to do research to understand the bit. And also, boner pills. The bit should’ve been left as a digital exclusive for relevant sites to pick up and drive traffic back to SNL‘s presence on NBC.com and Yahoo!.
The first proper sketch of the night featured Chris Pratt as He-Man and Taran Killam as ThunderCats leader Lion-O, both 1980s cartoon heros. The sketch centered on second-year player Kyle Mooney as a friendless boy who celebrates his birthday alone, wishing his favorite action figures came to life. When his negligent mom (Aidy Bryant) retires for a nap, the young boy gets his wish. Add Cecily Strong as the boy’s annoying sister and musical guest Ariana Grande as He-Man’s female counterpart She-Ra and some mutual male crotch patting and you’ve got yourself an awkward sketch made more awkward by Mooney’s constant, distractingly obvious reliance on cue cards and what seemed like his confusion as to when the sketch was actually over.
The animal hospital sketch from 2013 with Josh Hutcherson made a return with Chris Pratt playing the Hutcherson role alongside Cecily Strong and Kate McKinnon. While it’s hard to figure out why the concept – a vet clinic wherein employees tell clients to fill out forms about their pets being dead — was brought back, the performances on Saturday were solid.
The first Weekend Update of the season started out rough, with new co-anchor Michael Che flubbing twice during his first joke and once again later in the segment, which would eventually rebound with a few quality laughs, thanks to the aforementioned Leslie Jones and Pete Davidson. Like I said at the top of this post, I get that live televised comedy is hard. I also get that this is Che’s first Weekend Update appearance after leaving the SNL writers room for the Daily Show and then returning to SNL.
But we’re talking about reading off a prompter. I’d like to believe once you get to SNL and Daily Show status, you’ve become pretty intimate with a Teleprompter. And if you aren’t, I’d like to think you’d do little else other than practice reading a Teleprompter. And here’s a relevant sidenote: If you ever watched a taping of The Daily Show or The Colbert Report, you’ll know those shows are shot as if they’re live. The taping begins at a certain time and it’s done in 30 minutes the same way you’d watch it that evening on Comedy Central. I’ve seen more than a few of these tapings and correspondent flubs are almost non-existent. The end result you see on television are almost first takes 99 percent of the time.
Check out Weekend Update below, which also features a nice appearance by Cecily Strong’s recurring character The Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started A Conversation With At A Party and Kenan Thompson, who injects some desperately needed experience on screen.
I wish the following segment, which proved the best proper sketch of the night, was earlier in the show. It features Aidy Bryant and Chris Pratt in the midst of an adorably hilarious flirt session at a local bar. It also features Kyle Mooney’s continued love of staring at the cue cards (see first photo above).
After touching on the NFL controversy yet again, SNL wrapped up its first episode of season 40 with this absurd sketch about a group of video game testers.
So Saturday Night Live isn’t off to a stellar start. But it can only get better, right?