Nothing like a holiday break to get everyone back on the same page and ready with some funny sketches to open 2009's Saturday Night Live. Right? For the most part: Yes. What better way to start a new year, then, than by letting the new young kid in the cast, Abby Elliott, open the proceedings with a portrayal of MSNBC's fresh, new thing, Rachel Maddow. Although the sketch really isn't poking fun at Maddow so much as it's aiming squarely at the Blago scandal and his would-be, could-he-be U.S. Sen. Harold Burris (Kenan Thompson), with Blago (Jason Sudeikis) sporting even sillier hair than he had in his previous appearance. (Note to readers: If you cannot see the videos on Hulu, try going to NBC's SNL page.)
Your host this evening, Neil Patrick Harris, has proven himself quite the comic actor in recent years with his turns in Harold & Kumar and How I Met Your Mother. His monologue begins with a nice nod to his Doogie Howser child-actor years, revealing he almost hosted SNL in 1990 but got passed over for fellow child actor Fred Savage. But then his monologue gets hijacked by cast members making How I Met Your Mother jokes, which then itself gets hijacked by Andy Samberg's Mark Wahlberg impersonation…so he can say "Say hi to How I Met Your Mother for me?" OK. Trying too hard here. Let's get on with the show.
Is there a mandate from NBC Universal that SNL must help all of its network properties break out this year, or is just easier to poke fun at your own targets? Could be a bit of both. We opened with MSNBC, and here, we're on the set of NBC's fourth hour of Today, aka the crazed cacophony of comedy concoctions brought to you by Hoda Kotb and Kathie Lee Gifford. If you haven't had the opportunity to bear witness to this hour, then perhaps you lead a stable, normal life. For you, I'd try to explain it simply as, anything The View can do, they can do crazier, upping the ante on the chit-chat, dancing, drinking and just plain weirdness from 10-11 a.m. weekdays. That said, SNL goes straight for Gifford (Kristen Wiig) and her camera-mugging tendencies, with Kotb (Michaela Watkins) forced to play off whatever Gifford says and does, with NPH appearing as a personal trainer for the F-list. Real-life Kotb must be pleased to see how this sketch ends, and I'm sure NBC viewers will hear all about this several times on Monday.
We're in New York City, several Broadway shows have closed or are in danger due to the economic recession (and some shows that are straight-up stinkers), so the gang gets together at legendary Sardi's restaurant for a meeting to save the Great White Way. The Phantom of the Opera (Sudeikis) and a guy from Rent (NPH) preside and lead off with a Jeremy Piven joke, with a wild variety of suggestions coming from one of the Cats (Bobby Moynihan), the Music Man (Bill Hader), the "Wicked" witch (Watkins), an Avenue Q puppeteer (Elliott) who has to give Thai massages to pay the bills, two ladies from Chicago (Wiig and Casey Wilson), the Blue Man Group (Fred Armisen, Samberg and an extra extra?), a "dude from Stomp" (Darrell Hammond), a speaking and singing line for musical guest Taylor Swift as "Annie," and a racism bit involving Kenan Thompson — although you'd think (as fellow SNL fan/critic Rachel Sklar pointed out to me on Twitter last night) they would have fact-checked it and actually gotten his role right, rather than pass him off as the writer of "Miss Saigon." Because that's not even a funny wrong choice to make there. But getting the gang to all sing "Seasons of Love" is a funny way to try to wrap it up, and having the Phantom try to retort is funny and sad at the same time, as it helps bring the statement home that Broadway has to get back on track this year.
Penelope (Wiig) returns in 2009, and this time, she's invading a group therapy session, but for what malady, pray tell? Her character has evolved from simple one-upsmanship to magical truths that make you say, how'd she do that? Albeit still annoying to the point that now the other players in sketches make sure to let us know they know this. NPH plays the therapist who cannot stand Penelope so much that he gets involved in her antics, only to get upstaged when Penelope pops up in his DVD presentation. Patients played by Wilson, Thompson and Forte are caught in the middle. And yes, it turns out Penelope's best friends are, in fact, a tomato and Liza Minnelli. Which means, a Liza cameo! And, well, Liza is Liza, which makes late-night live TV such a tightrope situation, and if only they'd talked Mario Cantone into somehow breaking in with his own Liza cameo, that would make this weirdness somehow a little less awkward or at least more surreal.
SNL Digital Short! There were actually two films tonight, but the first gets the official label and it's cute, simply executed, with NPH appearing at a keyboard to play the theme song to his kid-wonder TV hit, Doogie Howser M.D., with the rest of the SNL cast popping up on accompanying instruments in doc outfits and wigs. No words. Only a sole tear from NPH at the end to help sell the nostalgia. I'm guessing it's not online yet because of the music rights?! C'mon! UPDATE: NBC got the rights Wednesday night, and here is the SNL Digital Short of Doogie Howser.
Taylor Swift appears for her first song, "Love Story," and she's 18, right? What amazed me more than that were two things tonight: 1) How she played to a crossover audience from her country fans tonight, looking and sounding more like a young rocker, and 2) How cute she looked at the end of her first song, genuinely excited by the moment of getting to play on SNL, despite the fact that she has played to many big crowds over the past year or two.
Weekend Update opens with a revised voiceover noting it's only Seth Meyers for now behind the anchor desk. For how long, though? Thompson gets to bring his Charles Barkley back to address his recent DUI arrest in Arizona and his excuse that he was just on his way to get amazing oral sex.
That's followed by Will Forte, who as a college sports fanatic, wrote a song to express his love for the BCS football system and other "awesome" things. For reasons I have yet to explain, I love how Forte tends to use the same melodic cadence for all of his Update songs. Did not love how his "S my D" riff made for a double whammy sex joke (playing right after the Barkley bit). But did enjoy how he held onto an "F" until he found out for sure he couldn't complete the F-word on the air. "Can we switch to HBO for a second?" Nice.
The "Two First Names" talk show here is an example of a premise that not only allows many members of the cast to contribute celebrity impersonations, but recognizes that perhaps it doesn't need to go anywhere from that premise (in this sense, reminding me of the Christopher Walken family reunion). NPH hosts as himself, with Jamie-Lynn Spears (Elliott) and David Lee Roth (Armisen) singing the theme song (based on "Say My Name" which may be the reason you don't see it online?! argh), and appearances by Phil Seymour Hoffman (Sudeikis), Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Watkins), Jamie Lee Curtis (Wiig), Tommy Lee Jones (Hammond), Michael Clarke Duncan (Thompson). Daniel Day Lewis (Hader) gets kicked out because Day isn't the same as Dave. We get an in-sketch ad for Kangol hats by Billy Bob Thornton (Samberg) and, in a non-related role, Joey Pants (Forte). NPH: "Well, that's our show!" (Note: Couldn't they have squeezed in Wilson as, say, Rachael Ray?)
There's a sketch about two southern gossip girls (though not GG gossip girls!) played by Wiig and NPH in an air-traffic control tower,and Forte as a flirty boss. But it's really just about the sight gags as Wiig and NPH try to conduct their conversation with giant fingernails. That's it. Let's move on.
We get a play on Frost/Nixon, with producers deciding to follow that successful interview with Frost/Other People. NPH plays Frost. Hammond does a good Langella/Nixon. In a nice touch, Sudeikis plays the flak assisting all of the victims, from David Bowie (Hader) to David Crosby (Moynihan), Paul Lynde (Armisen), and Fred "Rerun" Berry (Thompson). Hey, hey, Rog! What's Happening?! Nicely played.
Taylor Swift's second song rocks even more than the first.
We end tonight's edition of SNL with a digital short that shows what really might have happened with some of the Burger King Whopper Virgins. Armisen, Watkins and Moynihan play the "virgins" who don't know what to do with their burgers. Wiig tries to translate. NPH plays the BK rep. BK may enjoy this merely for the exposure, based on their recent PR tactics, even if may not make it onto NBC's web sites.
OK, SNL fans. See you next week with Rosario Dawson and Fleet Foxes!