Brian Williams, Showing That An Anchor Can Be Light

(Courtesy Of Nbc - Courtesy Of Nbc)
By Tom Shales
Monday, November 5, 2007

Brian Williams neither took nor gave a pie in the face when he made history this weekend as the first network anchor to host NBC's "Saturday Night Live." Williams is NBC's, too, and the gig was supposed to help loosen up and polish up his image, making him not just an anchor but a friend.

While it wasn't the most hilarious "Saturday Night Live" ever done, the "mission accomplished" banner can probably be raised insofar as Williams's image goes. He was able to keep his dignity and get laughs, too -- especially when spoofing himself and his need to keep his dignity, ironically enough. One of the funniest bits was an "SNL Digital Short" purporting to show a day in the life of the anchor; his activities included making a gushing phone call to himself, standing outside the building and waiting for someone to recognize him, and, later, dropping pennies from a window in the GE Building onto Al Roker and Matt Lauer as they attempted to do the "Today" show far below in Rockefeller Plaza.

Although Williams did host the show and appeared in several sketches, he was not the one to shout "live from New York, it's Saturday Night" during the "cold open" that begins the program at 11:30 p.m. That honor went to presidential hopeful Barack Obama, who came out from behind a Barack Obama mask as part of a post-Halloween sketch.

That sketch was one of two to lampoon Democratic candidates. Cast member Amy Poehler, laughing hysterically, played Hillary Clinton, who said Democrats should support the candidate "no matter who she may be." Horatio Sanz, who is no longer in the regular cast, returned to play a look-alike Bill Richardson. Darrell Hammond did his usual superb impression of Bill Clinton, and so on. It did seem odd that throughout the evening, and despite "SNL's" reputation for political satire, there were few if any mentions of George W. Bush or any other Republicans, and there were virtually no jokes at the expense of the president, whose popularity rating stands at a miserable 33 percent.

Other sketches in which Williams appeared included an episode of "Bronx Beat With Betty and Jodi," a mock talk show featuring Poehler and fellow regular Maya Rudolph. Williams capably played a slow-witted Bronx firefighter whom the gabbing women largely ignored. In another sketch he played a veteran actor on a youth-aimed drama series, "Riley's Way," as allegedly seen on the low-rated CW network; the actor, who kept boasting of having appeared years ago on "Quantum Leap," objected strenuously to the fact that the teenage performers were moving on to a spinoff and he was being dumped.

Nothing brilliantly funny, but no disgrace, either, and Williams comported himself like the versatile good sport that he apparently is. He only really stumbled in a silly sketch about a man who wins $15 million in the Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes and refuses to register even the smallest amount of excitement despite the elaborate exhortations of Kristen Wiig as the prize giver. Williams just stood there with his head lowered as if trying to read cue cards and mumbled what little dialogue he had. The sketch was saved from failure with a predictable but energetic finish.

As has been unfortunately the rule so far this season, the "Weekend Update" segment of the show, normally a highlight, has been lamentably weak. Perhaps new writers have taken over the chore and are grappling uneasily with the assignment. Poehler and co-anchor Seth Meyers do a spirited job and certainly appear comfortable in the roles but the segment has been more disappointment than delight.

Among the other highlights of the show were yet another appearance by Poehler, this time as the elfin Dennis Kucinich during a spoof of the recent Democratic debate at Drexel University, which Williams did in fact moderate -- that is, he did the real debate and the fake debate. Williams made the most of a sketch in which he argued with NBC News executives about attracting a younger demographic to the "Nightly News" viewership. Williams insisted that his new version of the show's opening should prevail; it was a funny parody of the credit sequence from a James Bond movie, with Williams, of course, in the Bond role, sporting a tuxedo and flashing a pseudo-sexy macho grin.

During his opening monologue Williams said that both he and the audience were probably wondering, "Now, is this really a good idea?" Happily for all concerned, it turns out that it was.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company