Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Heart of Saturday Night

This weekend’s episode of Saturday Night Live was like all modern-era SNL episodes – touch and go. With Nicki Minaj as musical guest and hosted by Jesse Eisenberg, it was strange at times, funny at times, and also prone to cricket chirps now and then. It got me thinking about the series as a whole and the power of the guest host to influence each episode. Especially when that guest host is unmercifully awkward.

I equate SNL with my childhood; I should get that out right off the bat. It was a source of great anticipation for a young Giaco. I waited all week for the one night where I could stay up really late and watch the show. Once, when I threw an ill-timed temper tantrum on a Saturday evening my punishment was “No Saturday Night.” The show was visceral and immediate and hilarious to a younger me. It felt raunchy, like something I shouldn’t have been watching. But I slipped through some parental loophole each and every Saturday night. I have only vague memories of my early nineties SNL experience (aka the glory days). I remember a sketch involving ugly people on the beach. I remember Jon Lovitz dressed as the devil. I remember Norm Macdonald and Dennis Miller running weekend update. I remember, above all else, Wayne’s World.

It’s easy to see why I’m often disappointed with modern Saturday Night Live. My base, early childhood memories are filled with some of the best the show ever had to offer. And my early teen years followed that up with an easy to digest “new school” of Will Ferrell’s and Cheri Oteri’s. They weren’t as subversive as the stars of my childhood years, but then, subversive wasn’t what I wanted out of my late night sketch comedy at age 14. How could today’s cast’s (or any future cast’s) attempt at the sacred art of SNL live up to my standards?

I give modern episodes a very simple rating system. Was it mostly funny or mostly not? It’s no Congo rating system, but it works for me. This week’s episode with Jesse and Nicki was mostly funny. The cast and writers knew they were dealing with a serious and specific type of actor. They didn’t leave Eisenberg room to elaborate or improvise because they knew it could spin out of control. They used Nicki expertly. It’s funny how much a host and musical guest can change the episode.

Look at an episode of SNL starring a dramatic actor and it’s completely different from an episode starring a comedian. Compare that to an episode starring a sports star and it doesn’t even feel like the same show. This is because the writer’s have learned to work with the host’s abilities, and it came through quite clearly in this week’s episode.

Jesse Eisenberg’s monologue was a bit of babbling. They let him do his “I’m awkward” stuff and it played pretty well. We were even presented with the three levels of awkward right off the bat. First, there’s the Jesse Eisenberg level of awkward. He’s endearing, he’s squirmy, he rambles and corrects himself, he is in constant flux. Then we were presented with another style of awkward. Andy Samberg pretended to be Mark Zuckerberg. This was funny guy playing awkward for laughs. It was broad “I’m being a nerd” comedy, but Samberg has a way of taking that Farrell fraternity farce and turning it into something with a little more meat on its bones.

Finally, we were presented with full on awkward. The real Mark Zuckerberg came out on stage and did a little bit of back and forth with Jesse Eisenberg. It was painful to watch. Zuckerberg is not, by nature, a hilarious man. Neither is Jesse, but he’s an actor who can read lines smoothly. I found myself holding my breath while Zuck talked, waiting for it to be over. I don’t mean to harp on the monologue, but this balance of painful awkward and funny awkward would dictate the rest of the show. (Plus, let me state one more time, good LORD Zuckerberg is painful to watch!)

The sketches were at best clever and at worst pretty forgettable. Standouts included the aforementioned use of the musical guest. A good old fashioned scorching of Mark McGrath, and the newest track from The Lonely Island, a digital short called “The Creep.” Nicki Minaj, people acting like creeps with pencil-thin mustaches, and John Waters? In a song?!?! Yes please.

All in all the show moved fluidly, and I stayed up for all of it (which is a whole other, complicated measure of the success of an SNL episode). It’s not the SNL of my youth, but when I really think about it, I don’t actually remember the SNL of my youth. See, I was too young.