I had better things to do than watch SNL last night, but via Oliver Willis, I did manage to see the lead-off sketch about McCain’s negative advertising. Like last week’s Sarah Palin opener, it was somewhat above the low bar the show has maintained for the last, oh, 10 years or so: somewhat funny, somewhat on-target, somewhat biting. But it’s still pretty weak tea compared to what Colbert does regularly, and what Jon Stewart could be doing, if he takes off the gloves RE: “friend of the show” John McCain.
Still, the sketch has a couple of strengths most recent SNL pieces of recent vintage lack. First, it has more than a single idea: McCain’s cluelessness about technology, the announcer legendary for having “the most sarcastic voice in the history of campaign ads,” and some fairly specific references to the McCain campaign’s recent tactics. Second, it builds: though they don’t hit him terribly hard, McCain goes from merely clueless to consciously ruthless (when he approves the “black babies” ad, after being reminded that George W. Bush won using such sleazy tactics). The announcer character also allows the writers to turn the sarcasm back onto Team McCain (on Sarah Palin: “she’s so experienced”) in some unexpected ways.
So there’s a lot more to this than the kind of one-joke, “home-schoolers are crazy,” or “that new VH1 show is dumb” premises the show too frequently employs. And if it was a little “soft” in depicting McCain as barely cognizant of what his own minions are up to, this sort of punch-pulling has been more typical than not throughout SNL‘s 35-year history. The vehemence that fueled Chevy Chase’s take on Gerald Ford, or the little-seen (because it was from the Ebersol era) satire of the Grenada invasion (in which Joe Piscopo as Reagan asks the public for suggestions of where to invade next, reminding them to “pick an easy country, so we can win”) is by far the exception, and not the rule.
But let’s consider the performance. With all the talent and resources on hand, SNL ought to be able to wring a lot out of even their weakest concepts. But one of the truly depressing things about watching the show now is how seldom they do. The performance of this (fairly strong) sketch was certainly competent, but again — should “competent” be good enough for a show with SNL‘s viewership and reputation?
Jason Sudeikis hasn’t created any Church Lady/ Tommy Flanagan/ Wayne/ Debbie Downer-style recurring characters (unless I’ve missed them), but he stands out as the only actor in this sketch, and one of the few in the current cast, who always brings his “A” game. He has the most thankless role here, but he exudes 10 times the energy and commitment of anybody else. A lot of people seem impressed with Kristen Wiig, but it strikes me that she only has 2 “speeds”: over-the-top, and barely awake. Here, she reads the cue cards with all the enthusiasm of someone taking an eye exam.
Darrell Hammond is a reliable workhorse, and never turns in a less-than-adequate performance. On the other hand, save for those impressions he does uniquely (as opposed to passably) well (notably, his uncanny Ted Koppel and his other-worldly Jesse Jackson), he discharges his duties as the show’s all-purpose mimic in what can only be described as a workman-like manner. He’s okay in this sketch, not great.
Bill Hader’s sarcastic announcer represents a funny concept (albeit one The Simpsons has already deconstructed several times). He plays it well enough, but just well enough. We don’t expect a character who is, by definition, one-dimensional to have anything more to him, but Sudeikis’s character isn’t exactly well-rounded, yet we get a feeling that the actor thought—if only for a minute—about whom this person really is; and it shows. Think of the memorable SNL characters from when the show was good (how far back you have to go to retrieve those memories probably has to do with how old you are). I never thought Emily Litella was terribly funny, and she was certainly one-dimensional, but she also had a kind of reality that Wiig’s characters, or Will Forte’s characters, or even—God bless her—Amy Poehler’s characters lack. As much as Mike Myers has worn out his welcome with the comedy-consuming public, his characters had that, too (which is why they caught on in the first place).
I don’t know that the cast is to blame for this. Some of it is the show itself. For one thing, I’ve never been convinced that the “live” aspect of Saturday Night Live served the comedy well (the hottest thing on the show, of late, have been the “Digital Shorts” — i.e., one of the few pre-filmed elements). It’s terribly limiting, and has rarely produced the kind of surprises, or the sense of “danger” that it is supposed to. (About the only memorable “live” moments have involved musical acts acting up.)
But I wonder to what degree the enervated vibe that has clung to SNL through its endlessly protracted decline results from its “institutional” status. There’s no sense of urgency to the writing or the performing. The first cast was called “The Not-Ready-for-Prime-Time Players”; now, once you’ve joined the cast, you’ve already “made it” (not that your career will necessarily continue after you leave the show). Before it became a “hit,” and then later, the first time it looked to be done for, the show’s creative team and its audience could think of themselves, with at least a little justification, as “outside” of, and opposed to, television’s mainstream. Now, SNL is one of NBC’s few Blue Chip properties. They’d be fools to ever cancel it, no matter how bad it gets — until and unless another network comes up with some viable counter-programming, but if it hasn’t happened by now….