(Belated) Top 10 ‘SNL’ of the Decade

It was an up and down decade for Saturday Night Live, but then again it’s been an up and down 34 years for Saturday Night Live.  The show started gangbusters in 2000, taking advantage of the 2000 election and perhaps becoming more relevant than it had at any point during the previous decade (media and communication majors and political scientists will be analyzing SNL‘s Gore-Bush debates for years to come, studying how the show interpreted the real events and how the sketches then in turn affected the election).   Then the show kind of treaded water until the 2004 election when it once again made the best of the political fodder, although with the relatively benign John Kerry as a central character the political satire was not as entertaining or as incisive as 2000.  But With a mostly new cast then the beginning of the decade the show returned to prominence in 2008, most notably mining the comedy goldmine that was the renegade Sarah Palin.  However, although SNL’s strongest seasons were during the election years, the best sketches were scattered throughout the aughts, with a fair share of political material, but also crazy characters, inventive monologues, traditional bits and the now ubiquitous Digital Shorts.  Here, in a particular but not necessarily meaningful order is a very subjective list of the top ten (and then some) Saturday Night Live sketches of the decade that was.*

1. Carpool

I wasn’t blogging when this Alec Baldwin episode aired in early 2006, but if I was I would have no doubt touted it as the best show in years, and I would have been in good company. It stood out as the most buzzworthy episode since the 2004 election, and its success was due in large part to Baldwin, who excelled in sketches like a new “The Tony Bennet Show,” “Platinum Lounge” (with Steve Martin) and a Valtrex commercial parody.  But the stand out sketch, for us, was “Carpool,” a duet with Kristen Wiig.  Sharing a ride to work seemed like a good idea, until each person continuously and unwittingly brings up a painful wound from the other’s past.  Simply, any sketch that can truly sell the line “Bobby McFerrin raped my grandmother,” deserves placement on a “best of” list.  It’s the best sketch in what might have been the best episode of the decade, and perhaps the premier episode among Baldwin’s 14 turns as host  (I guess because this sketch includes a brief cameo from a  Celine Dion tune it’s prohibited from being posted on Hulu.  Luckily, some random Russian site saved the day and has no such qualms about hosting a video that includes unlicensed music from the French-Canadian ice queen).

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2. Dick in a Box

Although SNL has presented pre-recorded bits from its inception in 1975 (from Albert Brooks short films in the first season to Eddie Murphy in “White Like Me” in 1984 to Chris Farley’s manic destruction in “Schillervision Hidden Camera“), Andy Samberg and his Lonely Island partners in crime (Jorma Taconne and Akiva Schaffer) redefined the genre with their SNL Digital Short “Lazy Sunday,” (the 2nd in the series, following “Lettuce“).  “Lazy Sunday,” a slickly produced rap about going to see The Chronicles of Narnia on a typical Sunday, was the right video for the right time.  It’s clever lyrics and polished beats were instantly well-received, and it became the first SNL video to truly go viral.  If you hadn’t seen the short on the show (and you probably didn’t) you no doubt saw it the following week online, probably forwarded to you at work.  It’s likely what inspired NBC/SNL to utilize Hulu, which has now allowed the show to reach more viewers than ever before.  In fact, it’s probably what really made Hulu relevant.  But if “Lazy Sunday” gets the award for most important digital short, “Dick in a Box,” gets the medal for best of breed.  Working on the blueprint established by “Lazy Sunday,” this instant classic added the immeasurable talents of Jason Timberlake, as JT and Samberg portray Color Me Bad era crooners who have designed the ultimate gift for their girlfriends.  If “Lazy Sunday” created a storm, “Dick in a Box” set off a combination hurricane-earthquake-tsunami.  I actually accidentally sent it to a client, but it’s so good that I don’t think they really minded, probably even appreciated it (FYI, this is the uncensored version.  So ask the kids to leave the room.  Although, if you were going to let your kids watch the censored version, you probably won’t have any qualms with this one.  But, more importantly, why are you reading this blog with your kids?).

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3.  Clearing the Air

Appearing at the end of last year’s Paul Rudd episode, this Noah Baumbach helmed short film was probably lost among the fervor about the show’s many gay themed sketches.  It certainly was very different from the material that had preceded it.  It many ways, this was the anti-digital short, a throw-back, eschewing high production values and absurd situations for a stripped down, dissertation on communication and speech patterns between a group of male friends.  It almost felt like Baumbach made this video with Rudd, Fred Armisen and Bill Hader outside of SNL, and then was later asked to include the video in the show (perhaps that is exactly what happened).  It was subtle, but rather brilliant.  Unfortunately, and perhaps because it was directed by Baumbach (and maybe produced outside of SNL), the video is nowhere to be found online (not even on sketchy eastern European sites).  Hopefully that will change soon.

(Do NOT click on the play icon.  This is just a screen shot.  If you click on it you will feel dumb.)

4. Palin/Hillary Opening

As I noted above, I only chose one political sketch, and this one, a joint address from Tina Fey’s now iconic Sarah Palin and Amy Poehler’s already classic Hillary Clinton, stands above the rest in terms of accuracy and resonance.  You could argue that this sketch, along with their re-staging of the Palin-Couric interview, were principle in turning much of the country against Palin, and in effect helping to sink John McCain’s presidential bid.  And there might have been other political sketches during the decade, like the Bush-Gore debates, that displayed more clever and biting satire, but in no other situation did an SNL characterization of a political persona have an impact the way it did with Palin.  With Fey’s performance, it’s still hard to divorce the real Palin from the SNL Palin.  And truth be told, to this day I’m not even sure how different the two are.  That’s how good this was.

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5. Inside the Actor’s Studio with Charles Nelson Reilly

If you’re a frequent reader of Jumped The Snark’s SNL recaps then you’ll know that we’ve become evermore disenchanted with recurring sketches (looking at you, Gilly).  However, we’ll make an exception for Inside the Actor’s Studio, because Ferrell’s work here as creepy James Lipton, like his rare straight-man work on Jeopardy, is a wonder.  And, unlike some other recurring sketches (still looking at you, Gilly), these don’t feel like fill in the blanks rehashing of earlier bits (even though each iteration comes with the standard Actor’s Studio questions, like “what is your favorite word?”)  Perhaps what helps these sketches from feeling trite is that they mock the routine of Lipton and the actual Actor’s Studio.  But while we could have chosen from the Actor’s Studio archives Tobey Maguire as Screech or Kate Hudson as Drew Barrymore, the choice for us was really a no-brainer: Alec Baldwin as Charles Nelson Reilly.  Nelson Reilly has long been a favorite of ours, even since we saw him drinking and smoking on Match Game reruns in the early 90s (back when we didn’t know any better and thought he was just delightfully flamboyant).  Combining Baldwin’s impressive Reilly with Farrell’s spot-on Lipton made this  an instant classic.  For us, this makes the list on premise alone.  One word: Scrumtrulescent.

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6. Hogwarts Academy

Remember when Lindsay Lohan was the object of desire for just about every heterosexual male in the country?  Well, I know it’s hard to believe, but it happened, and it peaked right about the time she appeared as a newly post-pubescent Hermoine Granger, who returns to Hogwarts after summer vacation significantly more well endowed.  What made this sketch effective, besides the fact that it was well written, acted and paced, is that it managed to skew two phenomena firmly planted in the cultural zeitgeist, our nerd love of Harry Potter and the burgeoning of Lindsay Lohan as a sex symbol, our Marilyn Monroe.  Little did we know that five and a half years later Emma Watson could fulfill both those needs, and instead of being in on the joke Lohan would be it (Bonus points to Horatio Sanz’s for his portrayal of Hagrid the gamekeeper and to Rachel Dratch for gamely taking on Harry Potter himself)

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7. Debbie Downer

This sketch shouldn’t have worked.  The premise nor the jokes were particularly funny.  And by this time we had already grown a bit tired of seeing Jimmy Fallon and Horatio Sanz crack each other up during sketches.  But against those odds Debbie Downer became maybe the sketch of the mid 2000s for SNL.  It was the one you had to see, just as YouTube was starting to become as natural to us as turning on the TV.  What made it work was that it was just about the biggest train wreck in 30 years of SNL, the kind of sketch they’ll replace with the dress version for the West Coast broadcast.  But since it was not just Fallon and Sanz who cracked, but the entire cast that broke into uncontrollable giggling, the laughter became infections, in the studio and then at home.  Watching Rachel Dratch struggle to maintain her dour Debbie Downer shrug amongst the chaos was the cherry on top.  As this sketch appeared in the 2nd half of the show, it’s a shame that they quickly brought it back in the first sketch position early the following season.  They should have known that the first Debbie Downer was lightning in a bottle, that it succeeded precisely because it failed.  It wouldn’t work again because if the cast broke character a second time then it would seem forced, and if they didn’t then the audience would realize the rest of the sketch isn’t that amusing.  Oh, and keep an eye on Sanz and the waffles (Also, notice Lohan again.  Did you know she hosted three times over three seasons?  She was the Justin Timberlake of the mid-2000s.  My, how far she’s fallen).

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8. Save Broadway

Maybe an odd choice, but I felt like this list needed at least one full cast sketch, and this piece starring Neil Patrick Harris as sorta himself definitely fits the bill.  For those of us who were in NYC during the theater strike it was a dark time, and SNL was the first to come out say it’s okay to laugh again.  And with strong impressions all around, including musical guest Taylor Swift (before she became a double threat), this was straight ahead SNL at its best.  It’s their equivalent of a big Broadway production number.

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9. Two A-Holes at a Crime Scene

This is really a distinction awarded to this series of sketches as a whole, as I’m not sure one really stands out from the rest; I just happen to like this particular version with Kevin Spacey as an exasperated detective (I guess a play on his LA Confidential character?).  What lands this sketch on the list is that it’s largely responsible for propelling Jason Sudeikis out of everyman straight guy status into a heavy hitter.  It’s also notable because it features an appealing Wiig character that stands in stark contrast to her usual gallery of hyperactive weirdos (notice how Gilly, Penelope, or the Target Lady are nowhere to be found on this list).  They haven’t done another 2 A-holes since the Mad Men parody with John Hamm, and that’s for the best, because the bit definitely ran its course.  But it had a nice, douchey, run.

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10. Glengarry Glen-Christmas

Alec Baldwin nearly won an Oscar for his soliloquy in Glengarry Glen Ross, barreling in and dominating a scene that features several Hollywood legends and a few up and comers.  It was a less than ten minutes, but it left an indelible mark.  Baldwin didn’t have nearly the same caliber of acting talent to match up again in this Santa’s Workshop parody (no offense to Seth Meyers, Poehler, Dratch or Armisen), but, like his work in the film, he charges with full intensity, only serving to make his smoldering performance stand in even greater contrast to the setting (he was so in character that he accidentally quoted the original speech instead of the modified-for-elves material.  But even that worked).  Even in an elf costume, Baldwin is fully committed.  With its clever adaptation, this sketch is nearly just as memorable as its inspiration.  This, along with his two other pieces on this list,  prove that SNL in the aughts was the Alec Baldwin Decade.

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And 10 More (In No Particular Order)!

Virgania Horsen’s Hot Air Balloon Rides: If not for a wealth of quality Digital Shorts this would have made the Top Ten.  But it’s quite different from the usual brand of shorts, and is probably my favorite Kristen Wiig character.

NY Story: Scorcese & Perez: Simply one of the oddest, brilliant things they have ever done.

MySpace: Another large ensemble sketch, but in this one most of the cast play creepy Internet pedophiles!

Andy’s Dad: A rare music-free digital short.  Proves that love has nothing to do with age.  Or gender.  Or social norms.

Bronx Beat: This one’s for my mom.  Someone showed her this sketch and for months she went around asking “are you Sioux?” without really knowing what she was talking about.  Kinda like when she tried to quote Wayne’s World in the early 90s.

Out of Breath Jogger From 1982: Completely captures the mood of the era: Cold War panic, Reaganomics, short shorts.

Ladies Billiards: Shouldn’t have been this funny (thank you, Jason Sudeikis).

Cork Soakers: What? Sometimes silly is good. And I can tolerate a little Fallon/Sanz giggling.

Kaitlin at the Mall – Much like Wiig’s characters, Poehler’s Kaitlin is a little overwhelming, but you can’t help but appreciate her talent.  By the end, you’re exhausted for her.

MacGruber w/MacGyver – Probably could have chosen any MacGruber set, but this series with Richard Dean Anderson’s MacGyver just has the most sentimental value.  MacGruber has become somewhat a parody of itself, and sometimes feels more like filler than real material, but it still manages  to find novel ways of entertaining us.  Whether or not it can sustain a movie, that’s a whole other story (but, apparently, it can).

And if that didn’t satisfy your craving for end of the decade comedy lists, check out The Huffington Post’s 25 Funniest Sketches of the 2000s.

*A few notes on the selection process:

– I made an effort to include different types of sketches, i.e. political sketches, cold opens, monologues, regular sketches, digital shorts, commercials; however, after compiling my initial list I realized I had not chosen any “Weekend Update” spots.  I think that may have been because Hulu doesn’t include most Update pieces in their archive of SNL clips, and instead group the Update excerpts in a separate section.  In addition, there have been so many great Update bits that integrating the best into this list might have proven too much of a headache.  Perhaps a distinct Update list would then be in order.  We’ll see.

– For recurring sketches I limited their presence to one clip.  However, the sketch I chose does not necessarily represent the best sketch from that series, but does indicate a general level of excellence for those recurring sketches and/or characters.

– The above also applies to political sketches, so I only selected one Sarah Palin piece.

– I don’t think this came up, but if it had I would have also tried to include only one sketch per episode.  But, like I said, I don’t think that was an issue.  Which speaks to the general consistent inconsistency of SNL (neither especially hilarious or terrible for more than a sketch at a time).

– Again, this is all one very subjective, hastily assembled personal list.

See you again in 2020 (when all items on the list will be “What up with that?)”!


Filed under Lists, Saturday Night Live

3 responses to “(Belated) Top 10 ‘SNL’ of the Decade

  1. Steve

    yah my parents LOVE saying “are you sioux” too… not sure what the appeal of that is to old folks

  2. Pingback: An ‘SNL’ Holy Trinity: Politics, Jon Hamm & Sports: AKA An ‘SNL’ Hamm Sandwich « Jumped The Snark

  3. Pingback: More Jumped The Snark Nostalgia: Best ‘SNL’ of the 00s « Jumped The Snark

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