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Tom Shales reviews the opening show of SNL's 36th season

By Tom Shales
Monday, September 27, 2010; C01

One of the less-than-hallowed customs at "Saturday Night Live" is that the first show of a new season never turns out to be the year's best, or even "one of." As it happens, the 36th-season premiere of "SNL" that aired Saturday stands only a minuscule chance of violating that tradition. And yet, as these annual autumnal curtain-raisers go, this one was no clinker, no dud, no washout.

It sufficed satisfactorily and had a happy smattering of high spots.

Of four cast members added over the summer, only one got much chance to shine: Virginia native Jay Pharoah, who demonstrated his prowess as an impressionist with spoofs of box-office behemoths Will Smith and Chris Tucker. Left dangling, however, was the matter of whether Pharoah will become the show's new resident Barack Obama, consigning Fred Armisen's imitation to the scrap heap.

Pharoah has been cited in blogs and press reports as an apt Obama, but this suggests that celebrity impressions have to be race-specific -- that only Hispanics can play Hispanics or, say, Eskimos Eskimos. To counter that notion, longtime cast member Kenan Thompson, who is black, popped up in a dream sequence as executive producer and series founder Lorne Michaels, who is white. (Of course, by another "SNL" tradition, anybody in any given cast can "do" Lorne Michaels; just extend your lower lip, grasp a glass of white wine, and let your words come out as if being squeezed from a shammy.)

There was no faux-bama on the season premiere, and even though former cast member Tina Fey was among the many alumni making cameo appearances, she didn't do her impression of Sarah Palin, a hit bit that all America loves. Instead, Fey joined her former "Weekend Update" co-anchor Jimmy Fallon, now the ingratiating star of his own late-night talk show, in a daffy dada dream sequence that interrupted host Amy Poehler's monologue.

Poehler is also, of course, a former cast member with her own series -- "Parks and Recreation," airing Thursday nights near Fey's "30 Rock," which Michaels produces. Confusing, isn't it? Poehler was also seen last week in a rerun of last season's stellar and stupendous "SNL" Mother's Day edition, starring ultra-beloved guest host Betty White.

This is beginning to sound like "Six Degrees of Separation."

Anyway, in yet another demi-tradition semi-typical of "Saturday Night Live," probably the worst sketch on the show, "Bronx Beat With Betty and Jodi" (with Poehler, musical guest Katy Perry and lustrous alumna Maya Rudolph) aired in the first half hour, while one of the best and most lavishly produced sketches, "The Even More Expendables," a movie spoof, didn't show up until the last half hour.

Even the most ardent "SNL" fans may be adrift in their own dream sequences by that time, determined to watch the rest of the show via video recording the next morning. "Even More Expendables" featured Armisen's terrific impression of comic Eugene Levy (tongue-tied Dad in the "American Pie" movies); Andy Samberg done up as a macho Brigitte Nielsen ("I'm a dude"); Thompson as singer Tracy Chapman; and one of the new kids, apparently, as the famous Jet Blue flight attendant who got sick of mouthy passengers and resigned via a plane's emergency escape chute.

As for the rest, a heavy reliance on jokes about bodily excretions, gay stereotypes, boobies and pubes made for 90 minutes of largely cheap laughs, although during a seemingly endless (no matter what economists say) recession, cheap laughs may be as good as any.

Also, crude humor can be dressed up and redeemed by inspired performances -- Poehler's, for instance, as the feisty heroine of a typically melodramatic Showtime series. She's a belligerent one-legged babe who insists she has two, and who has fits of flatulence as laugh insurance. Apparently bringing a conclusion to Fred Armisen's long-running and extremely irreverent impression of David Paterson, New York state's blind governor, the real Paterson showed up during "Weekend Update" and spoofed the spoof, with Armisen at his side. "Saturday Night Live" has, since its earliest days, shamelessly flirted with bad taste -- and sometimes taken a wicked delight in heaving itself over the line, rather than just tiptoeing up to it.

It can't be easy to stay cheeky and audacious for 36 seasons when television has become overrun with caustic comedy, and the Internet is just awash in it. "SNL" once had the battlefield all to itself, of course, and can still lob a grenade that hits with a nasty splat -- as when Poehler, during "Update," said that the trio of judges to be seen this season on "American Idol" are "otherwise known as Coffin Nails 1, 2 and 3." The most daring comedy on the season premiere was a mock commercial for the new "Mosque at Ground Zero," a lower-Manhattan party spa just perfect "for your gay wedding."

Small print at the very end of the spot said it was "paid for by the Republican National Committee" and intended to warn America that "It Could Happen."

Kristen Wiig was wonderful as always, especially in an absurdist sketch about two women engaged in a contest to see who could wear the smallest hat. With Will Forte having departed after eight seasons, surviving male cast members have, to coin a phrase, their work cut out for them. And important work it is -- no, really. For all the predictable ritualistic laments that it's "no longer funny" or has passed into a safe complacency, "Saturday Night Live" still reigns as one of network television's most reliable risk-takers.

The most predictable thing about it is that it will be funny, and quite possibly hilarious, and that it will therefore make you glad you stayed home, and stayed up.

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