Tom Shales reviews tonight's retrospecial,'The Women of "Saturday Night Live"'

Before the 36th season of "Saturday Night Live" premieres this weekend, we look back at the cast members, characters and sketches that have sustained NBC's gray lady of late night for over three decades.
By Tom Shales
Monday, November 1, 2010

While fans of "Saturday Night Live" wait for the show to gel in a so-far unsettled and uncertain new season, NBC dives back into archives for another prime-time retrospecial, this one devoted to "The Women of 'Saturday Night Live' " in all their hilarious glory. Or much of it, anyway.

To sweeten the proposition, the special (at 9 on Channel 4) begins with a new, seven-minute sketch lampooning those "Real Housewives" reunion shows as seen on the batty Bravo cable network. Andy Cohen, the actual host of those shows, plays himself as do "The Real Women of SNL," a luminous group that includes such stalwarts of seasons past as Julia Louis-Dreyfus (piped in from Los Angeles), Cheri Oteri, Ana Gasteyer, Molly Shannon, Maya Rudolph, Rachel Dratch, Tina Fey and the outspoken Nora Dunn.

A more correct title for the special would be "The Living Women of 'Saturday Night Live' " because although Laraine Newman was lured back before the cameras for the sketch and some new interstitials, none of the great old Gilda Radner sketches were included in the (incomplete) copy of the show made available for preview. (Jane Curtin wasn't in evidence.) Maybe it was deduced that all the best sketches from the first five years have been played and replayed enough times and that the focus should be mainly on new generations of SNL gals. Er, ladies. Er, young women.

(Maybe youthful members of both sexes should simply be called "Guys." Already people often address a crowd of both sexes as "you guys," so it wouldn't be that much of a stretch).

There's some tweaking of both feminist and male chauvinist canards in the new sketch, which degenerates quickly into a session of gripes and accusations, the women playing absurdist versions of themselves. "I am a countess," Nora Dunn declares. "You are garbage," Rudolph says to Oteri (or maybe vice versa) after one is accused of "pulling" the other's "weave" off. They're performing the way the "real" characters perform on those shows and even get rewarded with canned laughter and applause. "Reality" television, bah!

Rudolph accuses Kristen Wiig -- herself a one-person stock company -- of choking her dog, Amy Poehler complains there is still a restraining order against her for having tried to ram three of the other women with a limousine, and Tina Fey renders the most godawful song, "I Wanna Spend Some Time Witcha" from her new CD, in a near-perfectly godawful way.

Having been thoroughly corrupted by cable, the women in the sketch all have some junk to plug -- Shannon pushes low-fat cocktails, Gasteyer shills for a skin-care line made with an unmentionable ingredient, Louis-Dreyfus hawks "eco-friendly slip-on earrings" and Poehler notes proudly that they have all made "sex tapes," which are also, of course, for sale.

After that rowdy beginning, the parade of fondly remembered sketches from past seasons hurries by, with an emphasis, for better or worse, on the more lewd and racy -- and just plain dirty -- sketches that make you wince and laugh at the same time or sometimes, just recoil. There are two major pieces built around innuendo about oral sex, one of them also a well-deserved smack at NPR not for the idiotic way it has treated commentator Juan Williams (that's too recent, of course, for a retro show) but for just how dull it can be. It's one of those two-woman talk show sketches in which the double entendre is audaciously outrageous.

Then, later, Christopher Walken, one of the absolutely most enigmatic guest hosts to log multiple visits, is seen in a replay of "Welcome Colonel Angus," a baldly ribald sketch set in the Deep South -- at an old plantation called Shady Thicket -- with each new line of dialogue more insanely suggestive than the last, the actors having high times with the hoary obviousness of it all.

And of course, on the far brighter side, there had to be a sketch in which Fey does her cherishable and imperishable impression of Sarah Palin, this one doubly great because Poehler does Hillary Clinton. There's a genuine satirical richness to these portrayals; they do go beyond simple impressions of the old school -- you know, Jimmy Cagney saying "you're the guy who shot my sister" and Cary Grant burbling "Judy Judy Judy" and so on.

"Saturday Night Live" has advanced the art of the impression immeasurably, even with Darrell Hammond now departed from the cast. On the other hand, there can be grievous relapses, as on the most recent SNL episode. The whole show was pretty lame, but a sketch supposedly parodying a relic from TV's past -- Vincent Price's Halloween special -- was just agonizingly witless. And none of the impressions seemed apt, much less clever.

But then again yet again (follow the bouncing pendulum) -- people are still talking, at least in smart circles (we're guessing, of course) about the sensational impression of Denzel Washington that newcomer Jay Pharoah did on another recent "SNL." Pharoah did his Eddie Murphy on Saturday night's show, also great. Pharaoh's is the kind of electrifying talent that can help recharge the batteries of everybody on the show -- at least, here's hoping.

But the topic at hand is "The Women of Saturday Night Live," having come into their own in the '90s and early aughts, most notably perhaps when Fey became head writer on the show, co-anchor of "Weekend Update" and a sparkling performer besides. Complain though we may about "Saturday Night Live," the show is still the greatest training ground for comic talent around -- and Monday night's special belabors the obvious with inarguably entertaining results.

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