Early Returns Are Promising In 'SNL's' Thursday Campaign

By Tom Shales
Friday, October 10, 2008

In television, success breeds success, which can then breed excess. So far, "Saturday Night Live" is still at the success-success level, a happy fact of life celebrated last night with the first of three prime-time specials keyed to the forthcoming presidential election. Explosively funny and running riot from start to finish, "Weekend Update Thursday" -- "live from New York" last night -- may have disappointed viewers hoping to see Tina Fey's already legendary Sarah Palin impression; Fey appeared, but only in promos for her sitcom "30 Rock," which is derived from backstage life at "SNL" and returns for a new season on Oct. 30.

In her absence, "SNL" Executive Producer Lorne Michaels and his merry band of writers and performers carried on splendidly, dividing the show into a 10-minute parody of the most recent debate between Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain and a 20-minute version of the "Weekend Update" feature that included jokes about the economy, O.J. Simpson, Bollywood and other topics in addition to the campaign.

All the performers are riding high on the rousing reception they've received since returning for the new season, a hugely renewed enthusiasm that is a tradition for the show in election years -- though this year, it seems, more than any other. With the nation focused on the candidates and their manipulations, "SNL" has tailor-made targets that seem especially ripe. Eight years of George W. Bush really weren't a great boon to the show; he seemed hard to satirize, and not even the show's master impressionist Darrell Hammond could work up a really, wickedly accurate imitation of him. Bush turned out to be his own best parody, a self-satirizing figure who seemed to thwart friendly spoofing.

At any rate, last night's 30-minute "SNL" seemed to have 90 minutes of sure-fire comedy crammed into it, the regulars drawing energy from their own luster. The debate spoof featured Fred Armisen as Obama, delivering answers in a dispassionate, monotonous singsong staccato, and Hammond as McCain, flashing abrupt and inappropriate grins, boasting obsessively about his maverick status in the Republican Party, and referring to Obama with such demeaning terms as "this character here," "Junior over there" and "pee-pants over here."

Those phrases were inspired by McCain's strange use of "that one" to refer to Obama at one point in Tuesday night's "town-hall" debate appearance.

Former "SNL" cast member Chris Parnell returned to do his impeccable impedimentary impression of NBC anchor emeritus Tom Brokaw -- who, as in the real debate, was insatiably fixated on time limits for candidate answers as if this were a sacred charge he must dispatch with religious fidelity. Armisen's Obama or Hammond's McCain would start to answer a question and Parnell as Brokaw would shout, "Your time is up!" -- interrupting them and hurrying on to the next question.

As the debate began, "Brokaw" explained that undecided voters who made up the studio audience had proposed a long list of questions from which, Brokaw said, "I have chosen the eight least interesting."

Playing one of the debate audience members was one of the show's distinguished founding jesters, the great Bill Murray (identified as "William"). The mere sight of him precipitated a wave of affectionate and sentimental satisfaction. His question, typically for him, was not about the economy or foreign affairs but about the Chicago Cubs, celebrating a century of not making it to the championship.

The "Update" segment, longer than it is on a normal edition of the show, was handled with their usual cheerful brilliance by Amy Poehler and "SNL" head writer Seth Meyers, with a guest appearance from cast member Kenan Thompson as a venerable economist whose prescription for a madly malfunctioning Wall Street was a simple, shouted "Fix it!"

Did the political jokes have a little less bite than usual? Maybe, possibly, perhaps -- but they were funny, that's the issue, and funnier than Comedy Central's overpraised Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert even on their best nights.

Reached yesterday at his office (at 30 Rock, of course), Michaels said he couldn't promise that Fey as Palin would appear on the next prime-time special, set for next Thursday. One of NBC's "30 Rock" promos spotlighted Fey's Palin routine and used it as a come-on for the sitcom. Fey herself may be getting tired of all the fuss, since she's been working hard at being funny for well over a decade; she's not just Sarah Palin, after all.

And yet the public adores her in the role and who knows -- maybe there'll be little demand for the impression once the November elections are over. Until then, "Saturday Night Live" can be relied upon to lighten the load of all the grim economic news and all the troubling political news with the best satire television can televise -- proving that even a farce can be turned into a funnier farce by people who know what they're doing and appear to love doing it.

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