“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.
As was mentioned by GraphicMatt on Twitter, there’s a general rule: the more non-hosts who appear in the opening monologue, the worse the host is. So when Amy Poehler and Will Forte both pop up in the sketch, is it any surprise that Phelps’ only non-assisted delivery is a stilted and lifeless bomb of a gag that could have had potential with better execution? Yes, I love seeing William Shatner, but it was William Shatner filling time that Phelps couldn’t, even if I can’t complain about more of The Shat.
Phelps just isn’t funny. I know that seems like a really obvious statement, what with him being an Olympic Swimmer and all, but it’s painfully obvious throughout the episode that they have no idea what to do with someone so incapable of humour. The guy is genial, and he only played himself once, but the show was clearly working around him: there wasn’t a single skit where he took anything even close to a leading role, always paired with other cast members who are far more entertaining. There was talk of an Aquaman sketch that survived past read-through, but when he can’t deliver the material can he really be asked to handle something even approaching real sketch comedy?
And to be honest, none of those skits were particularly good: Kristen Wiig was quite great in her first sketch as the ridiculously out of touch quiz show mother, and Weekend Update had a couple of fun gags largely related to Fred Armisen’s political comic, but nothing clicked. We had a Digital Short that was too bizarre by half, a number of sketches that just went nowhere (Or, at least, to predictable places) and even a sketch that was identical to one they wrote for Peyton Manning and that featured maybe Phelps’ weakest performance of the night.
Even the newest cast member, Belushi-look alike Bobby Moynihan, was underwhelming: his one sketch, where he would not shut up about pepper, was the traditional (and worthless) “Single character has one schtick and gets increasingly annoying” that is way too prevalent on SNL these days.
The only thing really keeping the show afloat was that Poehler, extremely pregnant (which was hilariously part of the final otherwise boring Phelps Diet sketch), was still around to help Wiig and Jason Sudeikis pretty much run the show single-handedly. With Meyers mostly focused on writing, and Samberg having stepped back to focus on the Digital Shorts, the show felt weak from the existing cast: the Charles Barkley sketch was the only time we saw Darrell Hammond, and other than Keenan’s awesome lifts it was maybe the least funny sketch of the night. And where was Bill Hader, who is generally capable of some of the best impression work on the show?
But, Lorne Michaels likely got what he wanted: sure, Barack Obama’s scheduled appearance got canceled due to the tragedy of Hurricane Ike, but he had the other biggest celebrity of the summer as their host and, chances are, some ratings to justify similar stunts in the future. And when Jared from Subway upstages your host, chances are that you need to reconsider your strategy.
Next week brings a better choice, James Franco, but shhh – don’t tell Michaels that Tom Brady’s going to be available. (Although that isn’t fair, since he was a decent host and all, but you get the point).