Tom Shales on 'Saturday Night Live in the 2000s: Time and Again' on NBC

POLITICAL FUN: Fred Armisen as Barack Obama and Amy Poehler as Hilary Clinton in the 'SNL' two-hour look-back.
POLITICAL FUN: Fred Armisen as Barack Obama and Amy Poehler as Hilary Clinton in the 'SNL' two-hour look-back. (Dana Edelson - NBC Universal, Inc.)
By Tom Shales
Tuesday, April 13, 2010

You know you're getting older when -- well, first off, when you read almost any story that begins "You know you're getting older when." But you also know it when you not only never heard of the musical guest on a given "Saturday Night Live" but never heard of the host, either.

Then again, so what? "Saturday Night Live" has nevertheless proved itself as wily as the crocodile and just as adaptable. It even faced and met the Internet revolution with "homemade" taped segments called "Digital Shorts," some of which (including "[Bleep] in a Box") have gone spiraling viral.

Still great, still going strong, still the target of cavalier carpers who claim it hasn't been good since 1975 (or any other year, picked perhaps at random) and so don't know that the current cast contains some of the most engaging, original and versatile talents in the show's history. One of them, Kristen Wiig, is a key member of the new women's vanguard that has helped "SNL" shed its old boys' club reputation and reinvented the show for the 100th time.

Ironically, Wiig gets little airtime and is particularly ill-served by "Saturday Night Live in the 2000s: Time and Again," a two-hour reminiscence airing at 9 p.m. Thursday on NBC. If the show has a theme, it's that the first decade of the century was arguably the most difficult for the show's cast and writers (though not for the show itself, since it narrowly escaped being canceled in the '80s).

The reason is that the decade was so heavy with bad news and a general aura of disenchantment and deep melancholy that it made a satirist's job more difficult, especially if the satire has to be commercially marketable.

This is the neat trick that producer and creator Lorne Michaels has always brought off with such assurance and style, and the easy way to summarize SNL in "the 2000s" (or the Aughties, as I prefer to call them) is to say, by gosh, he did it again.

And the evidence is in the special -- the spotlight shining on such tremendously gifted performers as Tina Fey, who has capitalized on her "SNL" fame with great dispatch -- and had a good night Saturday when she returned to host; Wiig, few of whose best characters are seen on the special, unfortunately; Andy Samberg, who has one of the great comedy faces of our time and whose Digital Shorts have brought young viewers to the show who might otherwise have shunned it; Seth Meyers, the masterful head writer who shouts and grins too much as "Weekend Update" anchor but still delivers the goods laugh-wise; and guest performers who've included Barack Obama, John McCain and Sarah Palin during "SNL's" utterly lustrous political "coverage."

This is in addition to stalwarts such as Darrell Hammond, who doesn't seem to do many impressions anymore but whom Michaels has said he "likes having around"; Kenan Thompson, who has shone brightly in the mad "What Up With That" sketches and many others; and the triple threat of Fred Armisen, Will Forte (soon to be seen in a "MacGruber" movie spun off from a continuing segment) and Bill Hader.

Even when "SNL" fails in some aspect of execution, it nearly always succeeds in the discovery of new talent. Witness yet another "SNL"-spawned superstar who appears in the special though he left the series in 2001 to make occasionally riotous movies, Will Ferrell. In his first years on the show, some of us -- tiring of that "cheerleaders" sketch he did with Cheri Oteri -- underestimated his breadth and depth, but Ferrell's sense of the infectiously absurd seemed to blossom gloriously as the years went on. He is now one of the greatest comic stars alive.

One excerpted sketch, in which Ferrell plays an office worker who shows up for work in a stars-and-stripes thong and "USA" T-shirt, ostensibly to show patriotism but showing something else entirely (including a portion of his anatomy seen in late-night but blurred here for prime time), demonstrates how far Ferrell will go for a laugh and yet maintain a berserk comic dignity.

"Saturday Night Live" certainly does lowbrow comedy, but the thing about the show -- and this can be traced directly to the Michaels influence and the Michaels mystique -- is that even its low comedy is high-class.

"The 2000s," written and directed by Kenneth Bowser, is the first of the several "SNL" retrospectives that is not heavily dependent for its style and substance on a certain best-selling book about the show that was published in 2002. What, me biased? Just 'cause I co-wrote the book (with James Andrew Miller)? That has almost nothing to do with the fact that I may have considered those alleged specials arguably to be shameless rip-offs, perhaps.

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