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.
There are some hosts who create legitimate characters, people who are allowed into sketches as their own individuals. However, you can tell when a host is largely being protected, like in The View sketch. There is nothing really funny about her portrayal of Kate Gosselin outside of the hairstyle, which isn’t much of a joke, and the lines Swift are given are forced and never really connect. Instead, the sketch becomes a grab bag of bad jokes, excuses for Thompson/Armisen to play women, and a chance to get in a “Nicholas Cage is poor” joke in the end. There is no activity in the sketch, no moving parts that could alter our expectations: we were given The View with Kate Gosselin and Nicholas Cage, and by golly that is what we were given.
Swift was better when she was given more material (like in the Penelope sketch, where the June character was more simple but still clearly different from Swift’s personality), or when she was allowed to be either far away from her comfort zone (like her crazy eyed Scared Straight Counsellor) or directly within it. Her monologue, which was the real danger zone in terms of a tired Kanye West joke, was charming because it let her have her guitar on stage, and it had her singing as opposed to reading. “Monologue Song (La La La)” was self-aware (acknowledging the former loves of her life along with her current rumoured one in Taylor Lautner), charming (both in the self-awareness and in the cute joke in the opening about staying up late at night to watch the show during the era of Bill Hader and Andy Samberg), and legitimately catchy (La La Laaaa). And when they got to the Kanye joke at the end, she delivered it with just the right balance of being above the event but also wanting to get in a dig at the fact that the joke was necessary in the first place. It was a sharply written piece to open the show, and was perhaps the episode’s (live) highlight.
Meanwhile, the episode’s other highlight (as per usual) wasn’t live at all. The Digital Short, “Firelight,” was only one joke, but like many Digital Shorts it separates itself by being entirely committed to that gag. The integration of Taylor Swift and Bill Hader (in Frankenstein monster getup) into Twilight was legitimately impressive, and as someone who just recently watched Twilight (it was on, I was bored) the way they took the various lines and only made them funny by changing vampires to Frankenstein monsters was clever. Swift was also really impressive here, really capturing the breathlessness of Bella and the false romanticism of many of the film’s lines. It was simple but well-executed parody, which is more than I’ve come to expect of SNL these days.
As for Swift in the rest of the show, playing herself was where she seemed most comfortable, but that sketch (Hollywood Dish) was largely Hader and Wiig overacting and Swift reacting, which seemed more comfortable for her. Similarly, the TRAAAPD sketch was a fine example of a scenario where she was more a narrator than an actress, although she got to play the physical reactions to the various gags as well. There was no moment where Swift made a bad SNL host, but there was also no point where she was able to fade into the cast other than in the “Firelight” Digital Short. There was just no point where it wasn’t Taylor Swift playing a part, and no point where she was able to exude the sort of confidence that makes her live performances so engaging (if not that close to the original recordings). She’s got enough energy to fit in with the comic setting (the final skit was silly and unfunny but she was totally game), but she’s not going to sustain the show on her own.
The rest of the show felt about as limp as SNL has been as of late. The opening sketch had some great line readings by Bill Hader and the clever mouth-shift (from left to right) from Kristen Wiig, the Swine Fever gag was overdone but clever enough, and Weekend Update had the always welcome return of Amy Poehler for “Really?! with Seth and Amy,” but nothing felt even close to fresh or relevant. Kristen Wiig is still able to sell Penelope (who always needs to out-do everyone), but the character has been played out to the point of actually frustrating me as opposed to not just not making me laugh. The one sketch that I thought was actually pretty clever was the “Scared Straight w/ Movie Plots” skit that at least had a fun concept even if the execution was a bit uneven (and got repetitive around Back to the Future). Plus, I won’t lie: it wasn’t a sketch, but “Bunny Business”‘ collection of musician parodies worked because of how perfect Kristen Wiig’s Natalie Merchant was and how a few (like Armisen, Hader, and Swift) gave it their all even if the impressions were uneven.
Overall, though, it’s just another episode of SNL: generally uneven, highlighted by a Digital Short, and failing to reverse the show’s continued irrelevance in a non-Election year. But yet, who can’t help but be warmed by how darn earnest Swift is when she talks about how this is the best week of her life? I can’t hate the show now. Thanks a lot, Taylor.
- Weekend update had a couple of good jokes (the opener about the Yankees and Bloomberg stimulating the economy by buying a World Series and an Election was clever), but it was dragged down by two legitimately terrible guests in Fred Armisen’s stupid headline guy and an awful Sarah McLachlan impression.
- I think my favourite thing about “Firelight” is how it actually makes sense: if you extended the parody out, you’d find a Doctor at the center of the family of monsters who is in some way different from the rest. So it was even more logical than it might have seemed at first (although I’m kind of ashamed to know enough to discern this).
- I know Swift was likely in heels, but she really does Tower over people – Andy Samberg looked really short by comparison.
- Speaking of Samberg, he had a busy night, playing straight man in two separate sketches and pulling the Nicholas Cage impression off.
- On a completely random aside, since it was brought up on Twitter that Swift sort of reminded them of Lauren Graham, considering that Graham is starring in Parenthood in the new year NBC’s synergy police would be smart to get her a hosting gig on SNL: irrelevant or not, I’d be watching.