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'Saturday Night Live' Pronounced Dead On Arrival

Season premiere meets low expectations.

by Mark D. Johnson
October 11, 2002

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'Saturday Night Live' Pronounced Dead On Arrival_Mark D. Johnson-Season premiere meets low expectations. When “Saturday Night Live” debuted in 1975, back in the heyday of the variety show, there was a good deal more sketch comedy on television than there is now, which makes it all the more irksome when “SNL” so frequently stinks to high heaven. The show has had its ups and downs over its 28 years, and after a string of humorous political skits in the wake of the 2000 presidential election, it now seems headed back down to familiar lameness. When there are so few alternatives, it’s a downright shame that this NBC dinosaur can’t figure out how to be funny.

Last weekend’s season premiere featured guest host Matt Damon desperately trying to get the show off the ground as joke after joke fell flat. His first-segment skit as Justin Timberlake having a tiff with Britney Spears was embarrassing to watch (and presumably embarrassing to perform). Damon’s most promising moment came when he portrayed Hannibal Lecter as an outcast college student, but the sketch ultimately failed to live up to the funny premise. Other skits, in particular the one with recurring character Brian Fellows, were excruciating. Over the past decade, the cast has specialized in creating characters that are far more irritating than amusing.

“SNL” is often praised for its political satire, and that has indeed been one of its more worthy elements, thanks in recent years to Darrell Hammond’s Clinton and Gore impersonations. After a major news event which lends itself to satire, viewers anxiously await “Saturday Night’s” take on the matter. With no such events making headlines last week, the opening skit made light of the Bush Administration’s determination to make war with Iraq, featuring Chris Parnell as news anchor Tom Brokaw interviewing Hammond’s Dick Cheney via sattelite, as Cheney rode a bomb a la “Dr. Strangelove” destined for Hussein. Apparently no one is ready to take over departed cast member Will Ferrell’s role as Bush impersonator. While I enjoyed the impersonations, the material was lame throughout.

Another area where the show often excels is commercial parody, but the three fake ads from this episode all bombed. The first two involved hunters taking aim at two recent ad icons that have become annoying: the AFLAC duck and AT&T’s Carrot Top. The idea may provoke a smile, but not the actual comedy piece. The third commercial was too vulgar to describe here.

“Weekend Update” with Tina Fey and Jimmy Fallon often has potential, and sometimes even a clever quip, but when compared to the current events humor of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” this segment comes up short as well. The Robert Smigel cartoon could have been a funny take on reality TV, but descended into raunchiness at the expense of The Smurfs. That leaves the musical guests to contribute the sole redeeming segments of the show. If you like the musical performer of the week, that’s likely to be the highlight for you. Bruce Springsteen gave a solid performance and was a good choice for the season premiere.

I keep hoping that “SNL” will grow up some day and offer consistently funny entertainment. We all know that won’t happen though. At least not in producer Lorne Michaels' lifetime.

Channel Hopping...
  • “Life With Bonnie” (reviewed 9/19/02) just got a lot funnier. No, wait – they’ve only added a laugh track. Apparently someone thought we needed to be told what was funny, an indication that the network is not entirely comfortable with Bonnie Hunt’s sophisticated style of comedy. The result is an obnoxious intrusion that detracts from the show’s loose approach to dialogue, and the two don’t mix well. On the plus side, “Bonnie” has been picked up for a full season after a strong start (though numbers have been declining slightly). ABC also ordered a full season of “Less Than Perfect,” which follows “Bonnie.” “Perfect” stars Sara Rue as a slightly overweight office employee who has a crush on her boss. Rue has a winning personality and the show makes a good companion for “Bonnie.”

  • This week, Jay Leno gave us more reason to watch David Letterman: Wednesday’s show included Jay’s interview with two genital contortionists who star in an L.A. stage show called “Puppetry of the Penis.” Though the two men did not perform any part of their act, in which they contort their privates to resemble various objects or animals, it prompted the Salt Lake City affiliate to pre-empt the broadcast, and provided further proof that the “Tonight Show” staff equates naughty body parts with comedy. (Unfortunately, so does the majority of the late night viewing audience, as Jay continues to beat Dave in the ratings.) “Puppetry” may not be a sexual performance per se, but it can’t be good for society to promote this kind of thing, can it? Anyone care to defend the "Tonight Show" here? Write to editor@partialobserver.com.

  • Speaking of the male member, the first non-celebrity "Fear Factor" of the season had contestants eating the lengthy private parts of water buffalo, elk, and deer. Is NBC trying to replace Fox as the bad boy of network TV? Still proud as a peacock? By the way, has there ever been a show that wastes more time than "Fear Factor"? The three stunts can actually take up as little as ten minutes of the show. The rest is dull padding. And they stretch this out for ninety minutes for celebrities. It is a clear waste of the viewer's time as well.

  • ABC has cancelled “Push, Nevada,” the quirky mystery show that pushed viewers away in droves. Maybe all it needed was a laugh track.

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