By Tom Shales
Monday, September 15, 2008
"Saturday Night Live" season premieres are almost always on the shaky side, and the 34th season debut was no exception. It took off, however, like a skyrocket.
Saturday's "cold open" sketch -- a "Nonpartisan Message From Sarah Palin & Hillary Clinton" -- rose to the occasion and then kept rising, right into the stratosphere. Former writer and cast member Tina Fey, making a brief return to the show, played the Republican vice presidential candidate, with pregnant cast member Amy Poehler doing her sure-fire, time-tested Clinton right beside her.
In the parlance of the show (and comedians generally), they "killed."
Their strong showing helped make up for the fact that Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama -- who was scheduled to make a guest appearance at least once during the program -- didn't show. Executive producer Lorne Michaels got the bad news Friday night at 10, about 24 hours after hearing from the Obama campaign that the senator definitely would appear.
"His people called and said they felt they had to shut it down because of the storm," meaning Hurricane Ike, Michaels said yesterday by phone from New York. "I pleaded with them to wait and make the decision on Saturday morning, but they felt they had to do it then. There was a sensitivity to how it would be perceived -- whether he would be criticized for doing it while disaster struck."
Did he make the right decision? "It was certainly the wrong decision for me," Michaels said. "Do I think there's an oversensitivity in this area? Yes." But Michaels said he would be happy to have Obama appear on a future show, provided a good sketch can be devised. "It was an enormous disappointment," Michaels said, "but they were very pleasant about it -- 'Please have us back again' and all that."
In the words of the announcement from the Obama camp: "In light of the unfolding crisis in Texas, Senator Obama has decided it is no longer appropriate to appear on 'Saturday Night Live' tomorrow evening."
The monologue, by guest host and Olympic swimming champ Michael Phelps, was to have been built around Obama and would have included an additional cameo by action star Chuck Norris. But Norris, too, canceled because of the hurricane, and William Shatner was enlisted as his replacement. Shatner was already en route from Los Angeles via chartered airplane when Obama dropped out; the monologue was reworked so that it would still include a Shatner cameo.
"It was great of him to do it," Michaels said of Shatner. Michaels said Obama was to have returned briefly for a second appearance, during the "Weekend Update" segment, but that was obviously scuttled, too.
Last-minute catastrophes necessitating last-minute changes and rewrites are nothing new for Michaels and "Saturday Night Live." Fey wasn't even certain she could appear, Michaels said, since she was shooting an episode of her own hit prime-time comedy, "30 Rock," all day Friday and until 5 p.m. Saturday. Because Oprah Winfrey was guest-starring on the episode, the shooting schedule could not be changed.
"She came by Friday night and we rehearsed," Michaels said of Fey. The sketch was written by "Update" co-anchor Seth Meyers with assists from Fey and Poehler, and every punch line got roars from the 400 people in the studio audience.
Poehler as Clinton: "I believe that diplomacy should be the cornerstone of any foreign policy."
Fey as Palin: "And I can see Russia from my house!"
Poehler: "I believe global warming is caused by man."
Fey: "And I believe it's just God huggin' us closer."
While Poehler's Clinton tried to speak seriously to the issue of sexism, Fey's Palin mimed posing for photos, including one in which she loaded and fired a rifle -- all the time maintaining a big, occasionally seductive grin on her face.
Michaels said that to have followed the Fey-Poehler sketch with an Obama appearance would have been a sensation. But the sketch, and Fey's dead-on impression of Palin -- to whom she famously bears a definite resemblance -- went over so explosively that everything that came after it seemed anticlimactic, even though it only took up the first five of the show's 90 minutes (including about 30 minutes of commercials).
CNN was reporting Fey's return to the show as national news Friday, as well as the planned appearance by Obama. "The entire country cast Tina in that part," Michaels said; hundreds of e-mails and letters from viewers had all but demanded that Fey play Palin, almost from the hour that Palin was announced as John McCain's running mate.
The tremendous buzz was reflected in the ratings. Early overnight figures showed the "Saturday Night Live" season premiere earned a 7.4 rating and 18 percent share of viewers watching at that hour -- the highest for a season premiere since 2001, and the highest for any "SNL" telecast since Dec. 14, 2002, when Al Gore was host. The numbers were up 64 percent over last year's season premiere, according to Nielsen "metered market" data.
Phelps sometimes looked stiff and lost in thought during his sketches, yet just as often, he brightened to the task and came through. He was perhaps funniest during the "Michael Phelps Diet" sketch, in which he outlined the contents of his 12,000-calorie-a-day intake. Earlier, he did a good job as a home-educated rube in a high school "quiz bowl" sketch.
Unfortunately, the show never again rose to the dizzy heights of those first five minutes. Asked whether the first show of a season had ever also been the best show of a season, Michaels said: "Almost never. Generally it takes us a while to shake down."
In special scheduling for the presidential year, "SNL" will be seen 10 more times prior to Election Day -- three more Saturday nights and seven prime-time specials.
Saturday night's musical guest, Lil Wayne, didn't perform his second number until the last few minutes of the broadcast, perhaps because the song had worried NBC censors. Some of the lyrics, according to the closed captions: "I like that like a lollipop . . . Shawty wanna hump . . . You'd know I'd love to touch your lovely lady lumps."
Among the distinctions of his performance, Lil Wayne wore his jeans below his buttocks while they clung for dear life in front. "I thought he was amazing," Michaels said of Lil Wayne's performance. And of the rapper's pants, the producer said: "I'm not saying you should wear yours that way, but clearly it's our job to set trends."