Tom Shales on Season Debut of 'Saturday Night Live's' 'Weekend Update Thursday'

By Tom Shales
Friday, September 18, 2009

It was "live from New York," but it wasn't "Saturday Night." Even so, a half-hour version of "SNL's" "Weekend Update" feature opened with the same seven-word incantation that starts the full-length show on, logically enough, Saturday nights.

In the new world of upside-down and inside-out television, especially among the bewildered and befuddled networks, "Saturday Night" can happen on a Thursday night if it helps fill a gap in the NBC schedule, which is what "Weekend Update Thursday" does, expanding from the seven- or eight-minute sketch that has been an "SNL" tradition since the first show, in 1975, to about 23 minutes (not counting commercials) of political satire and other topical comedy for prime time.

Folks who are always trashing "SNL" as not being funny anymore will not like "Weekend Update Thursday" except to the extent that it gives them another piƱata to puncture. It would be awfully hard to argue, though, that the current cast doesn't include some fracturingly funny, hugely gifted performers, including Amy Poehler, returning to the show even though she has a sitcom ("Parks and Recreation") airing later in the evening.

Although co-anchor (and senior writer) Seth Meyers tried to upstage her, Poehler was as sparklingly watchable as ever on Thursday night. Both showed professional pluck when a mistake in the control room resulted in the wrong picture coming up during the make-believe newscast.

"Ooh, that was good!" Poehler exclaimed as she and Meyers rode out the flub. Meyers joined her in referring to the technical blooper as not embarrassing but "exciting," perhaps because, even though it is mostly live, "SNL" has had a remarkably low number of blunders over the years. These days even late-night shows like Conan O'Brien's and David Letterman's get a certain amount of postproduction tinkering between the time they stop taping and the moment when the show goes on the air.

The glitch on the season premiere merely added to the spontaneity of the show, and offered a bit of proof that it really is happening while you watch it (or happened seven seconds earlier, in case it is being monitored by network censors for objectionable language).

Situated prominently in the "cold open" position (before the opening credits) on the first "Update" of the season was a bit of fanciful conjecture on how Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) came to make such a colossal fool of himself during President Obama's health-care speech last week. Wilson is the guy who shouted out "You lie!" after Obama said government health-care benefits would not go to illegal immigrants. "SNL" put a funny and essentially nonpartisan spin on the issue, an interpretation that made Wilson as much a victim as a culprit.

One surprise in the sketch was participation by Darrell Hammond, the show's brilliant, versatile impressionist who has been barely visible in recent seasons. It seems only a matter of time before he and "SNL" part company. But producer Lorne Michaels, reached briefly in his office after Thursday's show, said of Hammond, "I like having him here and I think he's great on the show." Michaels conceded he is "not very good at goodbyes" and indicated Hammond may be around through the end of the season.

Naturally there was comment in the "Update" premiere about the other big fat blunder of the week, Kanye West's unseemly interruption of MTV's Video Music Awards so he could dispute the choice of a winner in one category. In their segment called "Really!?!," Poehler and Meyers advised West not to make similar blunders in the future: "If you see an old lady holding a 'World's Greatest Grandma' mug, don't slap it out of her hand."

"Weekend Update Thursday" is in the leadoff position for an all-comedy night on NBC, the other bookend being the nominally new "Jay Leno Show" at 10 p.m., which has definitely had its moments since its premiere Monday night -- just not nearly enough of them.

Michaels said he found the "Update" premiere to be "bumpy" but said most shows are bumpy on their first time out of the gate. Plans call for three "Updates" to air between now and Christmas, three more in early 2010 and three next spring. But if the ratings are good, Michaels said, there could be additions to that schedule.

There were probably almost as many solid laughs in the half-hour "Update" than in the rest of the comedy lineup put together, so it definitely gets the night off to a rousing, riotous start. The big problem for the Thursday night show and the regular Saturday night edition will be the absence of a presidential election and of such colorful characters on the national stage as Sarah Palin.

Then again, you never know when a Kanye West will pop up and commit an outrage, or when a loony congressman will run amok and dominate headlines for several nights in a row. A seemingly stratospheric rise in the number of goofs and gaffes in the air should keep "Update" well-stocked for weeks and weeks to come.

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