Category Archives: Saturday Night Live

Welcoming the Zeitgeist: One Direction’s Saturday Night Live Invasion

One Direction’s SNL Invasion

April 8th, 2012

One of the (many) perks about being an academic studying elements of popular culture is the ability to turn any obsessive tendencies into “research.” I’ve spent the better part of the last month and a half obsessing over Justin Bieber’s “discovery” of former Canadian Idol contestant Carly Rae Jepsen and her subsequent rise to fame in America, and that became “research” when I wrote about the challenges of transnational stardom (and the awkwardness of an 18-year old mentoring a 26-year-old who has been in the music business longer than he has) for Antenna.

However, I don’t mean to suggest that I felt I needed to “justify” my interest in Jepsen’s rise to sudden fame by writing about it – the people who are following Jepsen as a fan, the Beliebers jumping on the bandwagon at the behest of their master, are just as justified as I am. That being said, though, there is a point where I want to be able to turn my interest into something more productive: while for fans this might mean writing fan fiction or creating a fan page, for me it means writing a scholarly blog post on the subject.

This brings me to the subject of this post, which is another pop culture obsession of sorts. I did not know British boy band One Direction even existed until I turned on my TV one morning to discover the band was performing on The Today Show. It was an unseasonably warm day in New York City for mid-March, but that wasn’t enough to explain the screaming throngs of teenage girls watching the performance. Even if Matt Lauer and Ann Curry weren’t pushing the comparison, it certainly evoked the aesthetics of Beatlemania (complete with the floppy hair), and the performances raised what was (to me) an intriguing question: what exactly does a boy band look and sound like in 2012?

In an internet age, the answer was only a few clicks away: Wikipedia offered some background on the band’s creation (formed as part of the British X Factor, finishing in third place), YouTube offered some clips of previous performances (including a preview of their performance on last night’s episode of iCarly), and Spotify allowed me to listen to their album, Up All Night, in its entirety over the course of the past three weeks. Pop culture curiosities are dangerous in this environment, as it’s all too easy to fall down the rabbit hole and come out the other side knowing most of the lyrics to an album of frothy bubblegum pop.

What I’ve been waiting for is an excuse to discuss the whole situation, which for me often means some sort of connection with television. Last night was therefore a golden opportunity, given both the aforementioned appearance on iCarly (which I’d consider highly logical given the band’s target audience) and their slot as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live (which I’d consider much less logical). And given that Ryan McGee has jokingly identified One Direction as my favorite band in his recap of last night’s SNL, I figure the least I can do is spend a bit of time discussing how this performance fits into my “more expansive than I initially intended” knowledge of their oeuvre, as well as ongoing controversies surrounding the show’s musical guest bookings this season.

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Saturday Night Live – “May 8th: Betty White and Jay-Z”

“Betty White and Jay-Z”

May 8th, 2010

I wrote yesterday that I didn’t think that Saturday Night Live could pull of an episode which lived up to the hype surrounding Betty White’s triumphant ascension to the position of host for this week’s penultimate episode of the season, but I’ll admit I underestimated the infectiousness of her personality and the amount of material they would choose to give her (keeping the returning alumni largely sidelined in favour of White). However, I was right in that the show didn’t really have much material for her, relying too heavily on sex jokes, her age (which worked for a while but felt overdone), and the incongruity of an old lady saying dirty/angry things for me to say that they really rose to the occasion.

As a celebration of women on “SNL,” the episode showed that there have been some funny performers from the show’s past who are part of an important legacy of comedy on television; however, as an episode of “SNL,” the episode indicated that they still don’t entirely know how to write for those women in a way which delivers on their potential.

For all of my thoughts on the episode, though, you can check out my complete recap of the show over at HitFix.com, where I run down all of the individual sketches, including the genius of the Digital Short. Here’s a brief introduction to that review, then head over to HitFix for the rest.

Betty White is an extremely funny lady, Jay-Z is a darn engaging performer, and when you start listing off “Saturday Night Live” alumni like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Ana Gasteyer, Molly Shannon, Maya Rudolph and Rachel Dratch you can’t help but think back to some pretty darn memorable sketches and characters. In other words, on paper, this has the potential to be one of the strongest episodes of the series in a very long time.

However, the big question I had going into tonight’s episode is whether it will actually be able to properly do justice to this potential: White seems too old to be able to carry a full host’s load, and while bringing in a wheelbarrow full of past cast members allows her to take on fewer sketches it may also crowd out her contribution to the episode. The balance between the internet-appointed host and the likes of Fey and Poehler is not going to be easy, and I don’t know how Betty White fans will respond to Jay-Z as the musical guest.

Ultimately, the most-hyped “SNL” since the 2008 election delivers what it promises: with an absolutely journeywoman-esque performance from White and some energy from the returning cast members, the show turns in one of its most enjoyable episodes in recent memory even if the material never quite feels like it earns the talent who bring it to life.

[For my complete recap of Betty White on SNL, click here.]

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A Grey Area: How Will We Gauge the Success of Betty White, SNL Host?

A Grey Area: Betty White, SNL Host?

May 7th, 2010

How will we gauge the success of Betty White as Saturday Night Live host?

It’s a question I’ve been grappling with for a few days: I’m going to be recapping the episode for HitFix (which I’ve been doing for a few months now, although I’m not sure I’ve mentioned it outside of Twitter), and since those recaps tend to run-down sketches rather than pontificating on the episode as a whole I have been struggling with how to boil my complicated thoughts down to just a paragraph or two.

I’m not going to argue that White isn’t an inspired choice to host the show, or that the fan campaign to get her the gig wasn’t a fine use of social media, but is the simple fact that the octogenarian is hosting the show enough to make this “successful”? NBC would certainly hope so: the show has gotten huge amounts of publicity, and “listening” to fans has given the network and SNL a certain credibility in circles where their key demographics hang out. However, if the show doesn’t live up to expectations for whatever reason (White being underutilized, White being given lame material, etc.), does this negate SNL’s willingness to listen to the fans? Are the 500,000 people in that Facebook group withholding their opinion of this event? And are they even going to watch it live?

I obviously don’t know the answers to all of these questions, but I want to talk a bit about how precisely the internet is going to respond to a much-talked about episode of a series which people are otherwise not talking about.

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Saturday Night Live – “November 7th, 2009 – Taylor Swift”

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“Taylor Swift”

November 7th, 2009

There was one question on everyone’s mind when it comes to Taylor Swift’s hosting stint on Saturday Night Live: Kanye. It’s really the only thing of any note, and to be honest it’s probably the only reason that she was asked to host in the first place. There is no question that Swift is charming, and that her confidence behind the microphone is beyond her years, but she isn’t a comedienne. While she is the kind of musical artist who could easily be integrated into a single skit (or even two), she’s not the kind of artist who could go beyond the typical list of hosting gigs (playing a celebrity with vague resemblance, playing herself, etc.).

So, as such, what works about this week’s episode is when the show plays to Swift’s strengths, placing her behind a microphone or in settings which don’t have the pressure of live comedy. When the show asks her to do much more, the stilted cue card reading rears its head, and you realize that beneath the glossy exterior she really is a teenage girl with a beautiful voice but without acting training.

Which isn’t a huge problem if the show around her is even the least bit funny, but that’s asking a bit much of SNL these days.

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Season Premiere: Saturday Night Live – “Megan Fox and U2″

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“Megan Fox and U2″

September 26th, 2009

Saturday Night Live was last Fall’s biggest pop culture sensation. With Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin impression saving the show from a weak Obama impression, and Thursday timeslots building the show’s reputation, it built to some of its best numbers ever and its cache went beyond viral internet sensations written by Justin Timberlake/Lonely Island and into the show itself.

But suddenly, coming back this Fall, there is no election to provide a new impression that will keep people tuning in, and the Thursday shows are less a chance to built momentum and more a chance to burn material that might have been saved for the Saturday show under different circumstances. So while this week’s Weekend Update Thursday was somewhat tepid, it was still pulling away people and ideas that could have been put to use here.

This is all relevant because the start of Saturday Night Live’s thirty-fifth season is a collosal failure of comedy, an endless string of one-joke sketches which feel the exact opposite of culturally relevant. If the goal of this episode was to remind us that Saturday Night Live was capable of being funny even without Sarah Palin or a political climate which welcomes satire, then they have not succeeded: perhaps unfairly handicapped by a host who can’t actually act, and perhaps feeling too secure with a musical act that knows how to put on a good show (but, really, didn’t live up to that), the cast and crew of Saturday Night Live delivered a complete and total dud, one where we expect a Judy Grimes-style “just kidding” at the end that says what we’ve seen is some sort of big mistake.

And that’s probably not the best way to reassert your cultural relevance.

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SNL: Weekend Update Special Edition – “Episode One”

An NBC Special

Well, you can’t say that Saturday Night Live doesn’t have guts. Perhaps, though, they could use a lesson or two in comedy.

In a season where Saturday Night Live is emerging as a cultural powerhouse in an election year, tonight’s special was a chance to further the show’s cause with some politically topical humour that captures the things that have made SNL work this season.

That thing, though, is Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin. And the one thing absent from tonight’s episode of SNL Weekend Update: Special Edition?

Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin.

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Season Premiere: Saturday Night Live – “Michael Phelps and Li’l Wayne”

“Michael Phelps and Li’l Wayne”

September 13th, 2008

A week from today (Since it’s now Sunday as I write this), Amy Poehler and Tina Fey are each nominated for Emmy Awards for their individual comic performances (I’ll have Emmy coverage all week! Exciting!). So it seems like a sound strategy to take the two individuals and place them in front of a camera to open this the umpteenth season of Saturday Night Live.

And the result was great comedy from two great comics. Fey’s Palin impression is almost scary, and the resemblance created some sort of twilight zone scenario wherein the two people melded together. And Poehler, as usual, nails Hilary Clinton’s desperation and, now, resignation. The skit was consistently funny, ended right when it should, and even broke the Fourth Wall.

YouTube: Palin and Hilary on Sexism (SNL)

But Saturday Night Live has a problem: Fey isn’t a castmembers, or a producer, and is literally only doing the role because she can and because she’s willing to. Poehler, meanwhile, is pregnant and will be gone from the show in a few months. And while Kristen Wiig continues to steal almost every sketch she’s in, the show is still uneven to the point of concern: if you stopped watching after the opening you might have renewed faith in SNL, but as the episode wears on there’s not much else to get excited about.

Especially not lifeless Michael Phelps.

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Saturday Night Live (September 29th, 2007): Lebron James and Kanye West

Through the joys of YouTube, but perhaps not for long, I’ve been able to get a glimpse at what Saturday Night Live brought to the table in their season premiere. The episode always presents the show’s biggest challenge, in that the quality of the season to come will be judged based on this hour and a half. This year, it will be judged based on three qualities: its cultural relevance, its musical guest and, of course, its Digital Short.

Kanye West

Champion/Everything I Am

Stronger/The Good Life

Skit: Kanye West the Awards Crybaby

Ummm…why didn’t Kanye West host the show? Based on this clip, he is infinitely funnier than Lebron James. I’m guessing it was probably a time commitment issue, which kind of sucks, but Kanye West is a funny, funny guy. And the performances are good…the freestyle is a little bit off, as I prefer the actual lyrics of Everything I Am, but what can you do? In other news: “Give a black man…give a SHORT black man a chance” from the skit is pretty well hilarious.

Pop Culture Sendoff 

SNL does High School Musical [YouTube Link]

Ummm…this is not funny. It’s clear that Andy Samberg is being treated like the star of SNL now, but James is rather unfortunately unable to embrace the skit’s real comedy. It’s a rather lazy High School Musical parody that, even with a strong performance from Samberg, never feels like biting satire. In other words, Mad TV could have done this sketch. That’s not a compliment.

The Digital Short 

SNL Digital Short: “Iran f. Adam Levine” [Youtube Link]

A sendoff of Mahmoud, the lovable president of Iran, this digital short is something that many of them have not been: genuinely well-produced and going for a fairly subtle form of comedy. The song is actually fairly catchy, especially with Levine doing the chorus, and the piano riff is apparently from Aphex Twin’s Avril 14th.

And the skit is funny! Mahmoud is performed wonderfully by Fred Armisen, the Jame Gyllenhal cameo is great, and it’s just a very enjoyable piece of comedy. I don’t expect a viral sensation, but I certainly enjoyed it.

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Reviewing the Finales: Saturday Night Live (May 19th) – Zach Braff & Maroon 5

Due to unforeseen circumstances, I wasn’t actually able to watch Saturday Night Live, well, live. However, while my overall thoughts will have to wait, here’s some YouTube videos which are providing a bit of a preview. I’ll try to keep the videos alive over time, but I offer no promises.

[Special Thanks go out to YouTube user Wings1914 for another week of fantastic YouTube SNL work]

Zach Braff’s Monologue – A New Jersey State of Mind

I like it. It involves singing, actual comedy, thumbs up.

SNL Sigital Short – Rufus: Dog Love

Good use of dialogue, strong use of adorable dog, a bit gross in the end, but quality overall.

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Saturday Night Live (May 12th 2007): Molly Shannon & Linkin Park

There is something to be said for the fact that SNL’s host makes a difference each week. The entire concept of having a celebrity host is really a flawed one; it brings in big names, and ratings, but the comedy itself can often falter. When you have someone come in who doesn’t have comic timing, the show basically falls apart. It limits what the writers are able to work with, and it basically handicaps the program. It’s why the show has so many legacy hosts: Christopher Walken and Alec Baldwin each have fantastic comic timing, and the result is that they’ve each hosted numerous times. It’s also why, often, the show likes to bring back former cast members to host after they’ve made it big.

Well, Molly Shannon (IMDB) returning isn’t exactly because she made it big (The movie she’s promoting, Year of the Dog, is still fairly smalltime), but the fact remains that it’s a smart decision from a creative point of view. Well, okay, from a comic point of view, as relying on her past hit characters isn’t exactly “creative”, but the fact remains that Molly Shannon can do what few hosts can: flawlessly interject into sketches without it seeming forced. She can star in one, taking it over completely, and yet effortlessly play a supporting role when it is required of her. But did it result in a good show?

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