SNL & James Franco Hit Christmas Break Early: You Can’t Squint Funny

It’s getting harder and harder to write these SNL commentaries; not because I don’t have anything to say, but because I’m afraid that I’m going to sound redundant, as it seems that I have the same reaction almost every week.  Occasionally there’s a funny, or at least a buzzworthy, sketch, or a Digital Short that goes viral, or a host that either succeeds beyond expectations or crashes spectacularly, but for the most part, week in and week out it’s becoming the same show.  Starting to feel like a broken record.

James Franco had a fairly successful debut as host last season (although I can only seem to remember the glossy Gossip Girl send-up “Murray Hill“), but in the period leading up to this weekend’s show (indeed since Franco was announced as the anchor in the Blake Lively-Taylor Lautner-James Franco hosting triumvirate) it seemed there was a feeling that Franco was going to be some sort of SNL savior, that he’s developed into a comedy wunderkind.  Now, his turn on General Hospital may be generating laughs, but it’s not necessarily comedy (in fact, if you listen to Franco, it’s “performance art“).  And the very reason he was hailed for his comedic performance in last year’s Pineapple Express and his subsequent SNL hosting gig was precisely because he was playing against type.  Before that time he was identified more with his previous characters: the quiet cool of James Dean, Freaks & Geeks sensitive bad boy Daniel Desario, and petulant, moody Spider-man friend turned enemy turn friend Harry Osborne.  Franco was so successful in Pineapple Express because it was somewhat unexpected.  However, now it seems that he’s planted himself in the comedy camp, or at least as some sort of genre chameleon or Renaissance Man, moving between comedy, serious drama (Milk), daytime soap operas and Columbia University.  And with this shift, we’re now less surprised with Franco’s comedy aptitude, and then perhaps set the bar a little too high for his second SNL go-around.

Which is not to say he was anywhere near January Jones territory, not even in the same stratosphere.  He was enthusiastic, confident and capable.  But he also spent the majority of the broadcast squinting severely which gave off the impression that either a) he was struggling to see the cue cards without the use of prescription lenses, b) his eyes are particularly sensitive to the bright studio lights, or c) he was really, really high.  His giggly demeanor and off-beat rhythms didn’t help dissuade the viability of option C.  During the monologue if felt like I was looking at French Stewart, not James Franco.  But he clearly felt very at home, and up for anything (including making out with Will Forte).

But like our last recap, let’s start at the start.  And this time we’re actually going to start with the cold open, because, lo and behold, they began with a non-political sketch! (they must have read the last SNL post, where I argued that the cold open has become generally irrelevant by always trying to be relevant)  I was excited!  I thought this was a great omen, perhaps a sign of real inspiration!  SNL was not going to phone it in tonight!  But this enthusiasm was soon tempered by the fact that while the cold open was not a political (or Tiger Woods) bit, it was a recurring sketch, a new iteration of the “Lawrence Welk Show,” which we’ve seen several times before (most recently with Will Ferrell in last season’s finale).  The sketch always plays well, but as its central joke is that Kristen Wiig plays the deformed, mentally challenged, balding sister in a singing group, it just feels cheap, and kinda mean.  It’s also a curious combination, colliding the randomness of a “Lawrence Welk Show” parody with this obvious and grotesque comedy.  Feels like they could have focused on one or the other.  But let’s not get sidetracked dissecting the premise of a year old sketch.

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And then after the good-natured if average monologue in which Franco at least did make light of his GH role, the string of “Greatest Hits” sketches continued, starting with a new “Kissing Family” (first appeared on last season’s “gay themed” Paul Rudd episode, and it itself is somewhat of a less funny derivative of the 2000 “Bird Family” sketch with Juliana Margulies) and followed by another “What’s Up With That?”  We’ve already thoroughly deconstructed that sketch as more of a showpiece than a comedy bit, but it seems to the breakout hit of the season, appearing three times in four months* (but David Wain likes it, so I guess I can learn to live with it).  At least this entry featured a hostile turned dance crazy Mike Tyson (who is kind of reinventing himself as a comedy cameo specialist), and was it just me or did it seem like Jason Sudeikis’ breakdancer was especially front and center this week?  Let’s give him a spin-off!

*UPDATE: This was the third “What Up With That” in three months.

Then I saw the intro for the next sketch and thought we were about to receive a new Vinny Vedecci, yet another rehash, so I decided to take a break and turned the TV off.  When I returned I did discover it was not a mock Italian television bumper that I saw but a fake Dominican television promo leading into the “Manuel Ortiz Talk Show,” which turned out to be a one-joke pony (all the guests dance when entering or exiting the set), but at least gave Fred Armisen some screen time, and a chance to entertain us with a typically flawless performance.  I did especially enjoy when Kenan Thompson’s stagehand confirmed with host Ortiz that they did, in fact, have bottled water for the guests.  It was throwaway line, but gave a little more personality than just “everyone dances!”

The procession of recurring sketches than took a little break and resumed with “Vincent Price Christmas,” which featured a requisite phenomenal impression from Wiig, this time as Katherine Hepburn, Armisen’s fabulous and flirtatious Liberace, and Franco reviving his breakout role as James Dean.  Ken Tucker thought that Franco “didn’t have to stretch, reprising his James Dean impersonation from a 2001 tv-movie,” however, what seemed weird to me was that Franco was doing a more affected Dean impression.  It was more of an impersonation than an embodiment, the latter being what Franco accomplished in the tv-movie.  I think it would have been better if he played Dean as straight and as faithful as possible, not embellishing his deep-but-shallow, contemplative tough guy stereotype.  And, while in a vacuum the sketch would probably work really well, now that we’ve seen it so many times it was just all very predictable.

The best sketch of the night would have to be awarded to “Fraternity,” a simple but effective piece that plays on the typically ridiculous tests and tasks of Hell Week.  Turns out most frat brothers are illiterate and have no concept of where babies come from.

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In our last post we talked about the 12:50am slot and “Potato Chips,” the inevitable reckoning between Jason Sukeikis, who has recently been dominating the time slot with his peerless delivery and uncanny ability to elevate mediocre material, and Will Forte, who has traditionally lorded over the last sketch with absurd premises and even more absurd performances.  “Potato Chips” turned out to be a marriage of the two forces, and more or less worked out.  This week the pendulum swung back to the Forte school with “Jerry, Carl & Troy,” a spin-off of “Fart Face,” which is basically the litmus test to learn if you’re for or against a typical Forte sketch.  This sketch didn’t approach the inanity of “Fart Face,” but, like in any Gilly sketch, the high point was Forte repeating a line in deep baritone, in this case , “Carol, hold my calls.”  The rest of the sketch, debating the merits of giving dildos as Christmas presents, not so much.

BUT, a curveball!  That was not the last sketch of the night.  No, it was surprisingly followed by another retread (get the theme here?), “Mark Wahlberg Talks to Xmas Animals.”  It was kind of odd to see this bit at the end of the night, as it usually comes in the middle of the show tacked onto another sketch and it’s only really a half-sketch, not having enough of a premise to last beyond a couple minutes.  It’s more of a quick laugh bumper or space filler than a full-fledged sketch, especially a Christmas episode closing sketch.  But there it was, and that was how SNL ended 2010.  With a squint and a whimper.

Some additional notes:

  • You’d assume that SNL would be obligated to do some sort of Jersey Shore parody, and they came through with Bobby Moynihan doing a fine Snooki impression on “Weekend Update” (although it seemed like a mix of Snookie and his own Snagglepuss).  However, mocking Jersey Shore is almost antithetical to the idea of the Jersey Shore.  The show is in it of itself a mockery, and making fun of it is really just legitimizing it.  And there’s really no need to parody the Guidos and Guidettes, because they doing a superior job of doing it themselves (see: Conan, Leno).
  • Feels like Nasim Pedrad has developed a real level of comfort.  She hasn’t quite broken out yet, but perhaps it’s around the bend.  Week to week, from playing Mrs. Ahmadinejad to Tiger Woods Mistress #15 to one of the Lawrence Welk dancers, she’s showing some veteran skill and reliability.  Nothing flashy yet, just good, solid work.
  • Was this show lacking some Sudeikis?  A direct correlation to the ho-ho-hum effort?  Let’s Look at the facts; best moments of the night: Sudeikis’ ridiculous breakdancer and “Fraternity,” his biggest role of the night.  I think that speaks for itself.  Sukeikis in 2010!

And since I was knocked out by Strep throat last week and was unable to comment on last week’s Taylor Lautner outing, I did want to follow-up with some quick(ish) thoughts:

1. Lautner was actually rather impressive.  He didn’t demonstrate any real comedy acumen, but he was surprisingly comfortable and almost over-eager to poke fun at himself.  I had assumed he’d be wooden and awkward, but he proved quite fluid.  I doubt he brought anything to the literal table, besides a request to show off his martial arts skills (as he demonstrated in his monologue), and he should stick to those kinds of roles, but he didn’t embarrass  himself (unintentionally).

2. That being said, while I still don’t think she had the best episode of the season, Taylor Swift need not worry about being usurped as “best Taylor of the season.”

3.  We mentioned Nasim Pedrad’s performance as Tiger Woods Mistress #15 earlier in this post.  It was one of the bright spots of the episode.  However, it was a little curious because that character was so good, and seemed so well-developed, that it almost seemed like a shame to waste it for a one-time “Weekend Update” spot.

4. In another surprise, the last sketch featured neither Forte nor Sudeikis, and instead served as Jenny Slate’s first big sketch since F-bombgate.  “New Doorbells,” had a bit of a shaky start, as Slate seemed to slightly struggle in finding her rhythm, especially with the character’s strong accent.  Unlike Pedrad, Slate hasn’t quite shown the same degree of comfort, and while she’s in no way a disaster or in any danger, I think she is still finding her footing.  She did appear to locate her groove once “Doorbells” got going, and just carrying a sketch on her own without slipping up (cursing or otherwise) is a step in the right direction.  She always seems to be embraced by a senior member of the cast during the goodbyes, so I’m sure she’s well-liked and hopefully we’ll see big things from her in 2010.

5.  Speaking of Slate, did they put her in braces for two sketches?  That seems unfair.

6. Fred Armisen just killed it as Native American stand-up comedian Billy Smith.  Far and away the best of the night.  Between Smith and Nicholas Fehn, Armisen has cornered the market on inept comics.

7.  Finally, Sudeikis in a trio of sketches as the PGA Tour commissioner, introducing new golf innovations in the wake of Tiger Woods’ indefinite hiatus.  Wasn’t the most successful outing, and with Sudeikis out there by himself it fell a little flat, felt quiet.  But I liked the moxie; it was kind of a high wire act, as the character slowly descends further into alcoholism and desperation, and Sudeikis no doubt still did more with it than anyone else would have been able to.

SNL is officially on Christmas Break now, and they’ll return on January 9th with a rebroadcast of a 1993 episode hosted by Charles Barkley supplemented by brand new musical performances from Alicia Keys (because I cannot imagine there is any good reason for Charles Barkley to be hosting a new show in 2010, unless Kenan Thompson will be playing Barkley for the entire episode).  Rest assured, however, that Jumped The Snark, will be taking no such extended breaks (unless something comes up).

1 Comment

Filed under Analysis, Discos and Dragons, Saturday Night Live, Yankee Swap

One response to “SNL & James Franco Hit Christmas Break Early: You Can’t Squint Funny

  1. This is an awesome post, I’ll be sure to add your blog to my morning routine 😀

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