Charles Barkley Hosts the Best ‘SNL’ of the Decade! No Foolin’!

Alright, that headline is an obvious and deliberately misleading statement, you got me.  However, even more than being technically correct, this weekend’s show actually earned the distinction.  I previously stated my disbelief over the choice of Barkley, NBA Hall of Famer, current commentator and compulsive gambler, as the first SNL host of the decade.  It not only seemed completely out of left field, but even if Barkley was relevant among SNL‘s core demographic, you’d think they would have still chosen someone hipper, funnier and actually from a performing background for the first show.  At least save Sir Charles for 2010 week 2.

But I was wrong.  What I failed to realize is that Barkley was likely to succeed precisely because of his limitations.  It’s the extreme version of Christopher Walken or John Malkvovich, where the fact that it’s the host in a specific role is more of the joke than the sketch itself.  And with Barkley being a good sport ex-athlete instead of an eccentric actor, the writing staff was able to even more successfully use Barkley’s personality and performing constraints to his advantage.  It’s like the Jets plotting a game plan whereby Mark Sanchez has to just manage the game, hand off the ball for the majority of the snaps and avoid turnovers (bet you didn’t see that sports analogy coming.  Well, some of us care about football 3 weeks out of the year.  Mostly for the nachos).  And this is different from writing for an actor who just isn’t particularly talented when it comes to comedy.  Despite her SNL showing, January Jones is still a better acting talent than Charles Barkley; it’s just that SNL could use Barkley’s weaknesses to its advantage.  With Jones they could only try to minimize the damage by having her look pretty and leave the funny to the cast.

All those platitudes aside, while it was a surprisingly good episode by SNL standards, it wasn’t wall-to-wall successful, and I’d still rather see a host earn the laughs with natural comic ability as opposed to lack of it.  However, Barkley really was impressive, and set the bar high for 2010 (tall guy joke!).

Highlights:

It’s rare that I’ll tout a recurring sketch, especially one as ubiquitous as “MacGruber,” but, to give credit where credit is due, Will Forte and the staff have done a good job of keeping these fun and relatively fresh.  They obviously keep the same structure, but that’s part of the joke, and they continue to find inventive ways to fill the 20 seconds until the bomb goes off.  Barkley didn’t have to do too much heaving lifting in this iteration, just demonstrate a mixture of patience, exasperation and pity as MacGruber struggles to come to terms with his inherent racism.

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“Barkley Golf” might have been better off as a digital short because while it killed when showing taped bits of Barkley demonstrating an unorthodox, awkward golf swing (described as “someone who had a heart attack midswing and then miraculously recovered), as well as similar difficulties in remedial tasks like sweeping the floor, putting a magnet on a fridge or decorating a cake, the banter between Barkley and Jason Sudeikis as golf instructor Hank Haney felt a little flat.  It just seemed like the rhythm between the two was a bit off.  Luckily, the clips of Barkley’s herky jerky movements comprised the bulk of the sketch and more than made up for any deficiencies in live segment.

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Kristen Wiig as the ditzy, sexy, slutty ultimately disgusting new employee Shana wasn’t my favorite the first time around, and I stand by that. Both times the sketch devolved into something a bit too crass.  However, it is remarkable for giving Kristen Wiig something to do other than manic, hyper, exhausting characters.  Shana may not be your cup of tea, but there’s no denying Wiig’s talent in at least pulling off the character, and managing to exploit and then sabotage her femininity.  And then add to that Barkley sweating his way through the sketch as the company boss and this was a modest success (but seriously, how about that sweating?  Did he think he was playing one-on-one with Patrick Ewing?).  His stilted, flat delivery helped support the idea of a character who would not only not be put off by Shana’s lesser points (like her gastric issues), but rather even more turned on.

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Even rarer than touting a recurring sketch to start the recap is to compliment three recurring sketches.  However, I’m going to do that here, as they brought back “Scared Straight” with Kenan Thompson’s convict Lorenzo MacIntosh, and when it came on I couldn’t help but think that it was just about the perfect fit.  Again, Barkley didn’t have too much to do, but Kenan’s rapid fire, intense recitation of popular movie plots is not for amateurs, so the writers were wise to keep Barkley away from jumping in too often (whereas I think in her similar role with McIntosh Taylor Swift bit off a little more than she could chew), and when Barkley did interject he nailed it.  You absolutely know what to expect from this sketch – in fact, you could probably pause it and try to guess the punchlines – but it has really grown on me.  Plus, we had the cherry on top of Sudeikis doing a variation on his now trademark hop on the desk.  The sketch is worth a watch just for that.

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But if there’s anything I like more than Jason Sudeikis launching himself onto a desk it’s Fred Armisen’s visits to “Weekend Update” as NY Governor David Paterson.  Well, I’ll have to call it a tie.  But once again, Armisen shows that he’s working on a another level than most of the cast, and is still woefully underutilized.

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Other sketches of note:

  • A pretty standard but entertaining Digital Short in which musical guest Alicia Keys sends a booty call to a somewhat androgynous, possible adolescent, in a yellow pirate shirt (Andy Samberg, who else), who seemed like an un-shy Shy Ronnie mixed with Samberg’s Swine Flu expert.
  • Reel Quotes: A movie quote game show; they probably could have had something stronger after the monologue, but it had its moments (finishing a quote from Jaws: We’re going to need a bigger…shark?”).  Barkley handled himself quite well in this sketch, and outplayed Kristen Wiig both in the game and in eliciting more laughs.
  • Basketball Commentators:  A twist on the “AFC Championship” sketch from almost two years ago with Jeremy Piven, this was probably the weakest sketch of the night.  It suffered because a) it was unoriginal, and b) this version’s repeated phrase “Nothing but the bottom of the net!” is not as funny as the original, “That’ll move the chains!”  At least this time the sketch was a little more relevant because it utilized Barkley’s pedigree as an actual sports analyst.

My only complaint is that we barely saw Kenan Thompson’s Barkley impression, save for a few seconds during the monologue.  I was really hoping we’d see a new “Iconoclasts” featuring both Barkleys.

But all and all a pretty good first of the decade offering from SNL.  However, I wouldn’t get excited just yet.  They’ve proven all season that they can deliver above average material when well-rested (see the Swift and Blake Lively episodes), but they’ve had trouble stringing together strong back-to-back episodes.  So if we are to learn from 2009 then we might be in for a drop-off next week.  Then again, let’s hope that SNL‘s New Year’s resolution was “be funny at least two Saturday night’s in a row.”

Next week SNL dips into their distant past once again, bringing back Sigourney Weaver, twenty-three years since her first and only hosting gig.  It’ll be a nice change from the young starlets that have graced the studio 8H this season (Megan Fox, Swift, Lively).  Wethinks/hopes that the opportunity to write for a strong, capable, seasoned, and, yes, older female presence will yield some inspired results.  Plus, Weaver appeared in the first SNL sketch that I can remember reciting (well, more accurately, performing):

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For more on the Sir Charles post-game see Ken Tucker & Vulture

Oh, and did anyone else watch this and think “George Foreman looks good?”

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2 Comments

Filed under Analysis, Good Humor, Saturday Night Live

2 responses to “Charles Barkley Hosts the Best ‘SNL’ of the Decade! No Foolin’!

  1. Pingback: ‘SNL’ & Sigourney Weaver: Old Tricks AKA The Worst ‘SNL’ of the Decade « Jumped The Snark

  2. Pingback: Jude Law is One of Our Finest Actors, and a Look Back on the Last Three Weeks in ‘SNL’ « Jumped The Snark

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