Betty White is an extremely funny lady, Jay-Z is a darn engaging performer, and when you start listing off “Saturday Night Live” alumni like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Ana Gasteyer, Molly Shannon, Maya Rudolph and Rachel Dratch you can’t help but think back to some pretty darn memorable sketches and characters. In other words, on paper, this has the potential to be one of the strongest episodes of the series in a very long time.
However, the big question I had going into tonight’s episode is whether it will actually be able to properly do justice to this potential: White seems too old to be able to carry a full host’s load, and while bringing in a wheelbarrow full of past cast members allows her to take on fewer sketches it may also crowd out her contribution to the episode. The balance between the internet-appointed host and the likes of Fey and Poehler is not going to be easy, and I don’t know how Betty White fans will respond to Jay-Z as the musical guest.
Ultimately, the most-hyped “SNL” since the 2008 election delivers what it promises: with an absolutely journeywoman-esque performance from White and some energy from the returning cast members, the show turns in one of its most enjoyable episodes in recent memory even if the material never quite feels like it earns the talent who bring it to life.
[Full recap of Saturday’s (May 8) “SNL” after the break…]
The opening sketch has the show off to a really strong start for a few reasons. First of all, it isn’t Fred Armisen as President Obama, which is a huge boost right off the start. Second, Lawrence Welk is a really simple sketch which very easily integrates the returning cast members and White herself – there’s space for White to get her huge ovation, there’s room to show off (but not too heavily feature) the likes of Poehler, Rudolph and Gasteyer, and Wiig’s Denise is weird enough that it keeps the broad laughs coming at a time when the show is riding some momentum. The sketch isn’t interested in trying anything new, but in a show this packed a more efficient approach which announces the show’s intention is a good strategy. Throw in all of the guests getting a joint “Live from New York!” and we’re off to the races. [Grade: B+]
White’s monologue is perhaps the show’s most successful traditional monologue all season – it’s simple, it stays on point, and it doesn’t try to turn White into something she’s not. The show is not hiding her age, and the monologue embraces it by allowing White to emphasize her past in live television and the humour about a social network site for “young people” placing her in this role. The “Ouija Board” joke was a really great one, and White kept up an endearing but a little bit spiteful personality that’s just a joy to watch. It doesn’t feel like Betty White delivering an “SNL” monologue, but rather Betty White telling some funny jokes which happen to be placed in this position. Sure, I’m a little sad that the audience didn’t respond to any of her cheap pops until she got to “Golden Girls” (not even “MTM,” audience?), but she was fantastic throughout, and certainly made an early impression. [Grade: A]
With Gasteyer and Shannon both on board, The Delicious Dish seems like a no-brainer, although it begins a trend of genitalia-driven humor which becomes a tad too pervasive. The show has another ongoing sketch which engages in this sort of material (the ESPN Classic sketch), but the concept of the NPR sketch (that the audience listening on the radio has no context on the events as the double entendres pile up) is much more interesting and Gasteyer and Shannon’s understated delivery is a real highlight. Sure, Florence Dusty’s muffin isn’t able to live up to Shweaty Balls (the sketch’s unquestionable highpoint), but it was great seeing the two actresses back in familiar territory, and White had a lot of fun delivering the various lines with her usual enthusiasm. In most cases, the subtle humour got less response than the broad stuff (Gasteyer got in a wonderful line in “a whole lot of business went into this” that no one picked up on,” but this was one returning sketch I was very glad to see return. [Grade: B+]
At this point, the show starts to go downhill with the Manuel Ortiz show, a sketch which has almost zero value. The central character isn’t funny, and the repetition in its central gimmick (the dancing) means that the sketch never really evolves. Sure, Bill Hader’s dancing faces were fantastic, and I enjoyed his subtle sexual glances towards Forte during one particular dancing sequence, but none of the rest of the sketch is worth the time of anyone involved. If they were that desperate to take advantage of Maya Rudolph’s ethnicity, they had many better options that this. [Grade: D-]
It’s at this point that the jokes about genitalia become problematic, as the Gingie sketch just feels reductive. White is very entertaining delivering the “She’s a lesbian” lines, but the show can’t coast on the “old woman talking dirty” gag for too long. I thought the other actresses had a lot of fun with the sketch, but the material just wasn’t there to make it worthwhile, and the conclusion did nothing to rescue the sketch. [Grade: C-]
When it comes to Weekend Update, the three “guest” appearances were successful to varying degrees. I think that Maya Rudolph’s Whitney Houston worked best because it was given time to really develop: it’s a great impression, the kind where every single one of the singer’s tics are amped up to 11, and it had a story which Rudolph (who more than any other guest feels like she never left the show) played nicely. While I really like seeing Sally O’Malley, and the idea of Betty White as a 90-year old equivalent Dotty O’Donaghan is a fine idea, the “old” jokes felt like they had been driven into the ground by the MacGruber sketches (which I’ll get to as a whole in a bit) and the monologue, which left it feeling a little bit tepid (especially since Shannon was a non-entity after her entrance). As for “Really?! with Seth, Amy and Tina,” the jokes weren’t quite there, but the delivery (and the return of super-hot Update Fey) was fun. As for the jokes themselves, the “404 Date Not Found,” poorly protected monkeys, and Mohammed al-Corey Feldman bits were clever, but it was a gimmicky but not overly novel Update overall. [Grade: B-]
The Lorenzo MacIntosh sketch isn’t funny because once you know the joke, it isn’t a joke anymore: the use of Willy Wonka and the Wizard of Oz is never particularly novel, and the sketch leans too heavily on White’s age to make jokes land. However, watching Bill Hader break down as White pummels him was a lot of fun, and the concluding “Wizard of Ass!” line from White was great. It’s one thing to have lines like that be punctuated by her age, but it’s quite another to have her age be expected to punch up material that isn’t actually all that funny. This sketch leaned a bit too heavily on the latter, in my view, but at least the ending delivered. [Grade: C+]
“CSI: Sarasota” is a simple idea which delivers on its central premise: we get Betty White as Vivian Caruso mocking Horatio Caine, we get Rachel Dratch’s Sy Horowitz (which isn’t really a memorable character for her, but which fits the sketch nicely), and there’s some nice laughs from that. The various recorded graphics included some particularly strong gags, especially the “giving out even harder candy” line. I don’t think it’s a particularly genius sketch, but White is game enough to carry the simple idea through to completion. [Grade: B]
Tonight’s Digital Short is perhaps Andy Samberg’s crowning achievement: yes, “Lazy Sunday” will forever remain a triumph, but this is just such a perfect piece for this particular occasion. It starts out as sweet and innocent, as the cast all sing the Golden Girls theme song in a charming fashion – considering the night’s celebration of White, and considering that Jay-Z dedicated a song to her, it’s easy to see how that might be the only statement being made here. However, for White to pull out a ski mask and break into a heavy metal rendition of “Thank You For Being a Friend” as metalheads thrash around and the cast starts fighting and getting splattered with blood was so gosh darn fantastic I don’t entirely know where to begin. The Digital Shorts work when they have a clever premise that doesn’t get driven into the ground, and this was short, clever, and a whole lot of fun. Easily the night’s highlight, and sure to be a viral video success on Mother’s Day. [Grade: A+]
The final sketch of the evening was a bizarre little throwback sketch, a simple two-hander as Tina Fey gets her only real starring role of the evening as a census taker dealing with a rather unhelpful older resident. The running gag regarding Blarfingar ended up landing by the time the sketch ended, and White was having a lot of fun with a more traditional sort of comedy setup. I think Fey was probably the least utilized out of all of the returning cast members, which is a pity considering her talent, but this was still a fine little bit which may not have had much of a point but which never really pretended to either. [Grade: B-]
The long line of MacGruber sketches were a key part of the episode, and were a nice way to revive this bit as we head towards the movie in a few weeks. What works about the sketch in general is that it is serialized throughout the episode, the story evolving and changing as the night goes on: here, we had the early discussions of please/thank you work their way into the sketches which follow, and despite each sketch following a similar template they kept building the relationship between MacGruber and White as his Nana to its eventual incestual and explosive conclusion. I don’t think the incest was really necessary, but White was a blast as the scooter-assisted grandmother who fakes her own death and has a walking problem. The MacGruber sketches are always style over substance, and this was an example where that style (due to White’s involvement) definitely carried the sketches to a satisfying conclusion. [Grade: A-]
From what I saw on Twitter, there were some negative responses to Jay-Z’s lengthy medley earlier in the program, which makes sense: the show was sort of struggling at that point, and I think people wanted more White rather than a lengthy rap performance. However, as a fan of Jay-Z (which didn’t seem to be common amongst those tuning in for “White and White” only), I thought the medley was a really fantastic performance, and the length made it part of the evening’s event atmosphere. It also helped that he cut down “Young Forever” later in the show to even out his performance time, so his eight-minute medley didn’t throw things off. Really, Jay-Z is a lot like Betty White: even if you don’t necessary like his music (or “SNL”‘s jokes), he’s got amazing stage presence, and even Mr Hudson seemed in the pocket for the evening. The show had an infectious energy about it, and I think it carried through to the musical guest on this particular night – and no, I don’t know who the girl singing the Alicia Keys part on “Empire State of Mind” was, either.
At the end of the day, White deserved those white roses: she was game for anything, more present on the show than I expected (appearing in every single sketch), and was so gosh darn endearing throughout that she deserves numerous standing ovations…for her performance. The show itself, though, doesn’t get quite the same applause: good on the show for casting her, and good on the show for showcasing her, but I think the overprevalance of genitalia humor became an issue by the end of the show, and focusing so solely on her age as a source of humor seemed played out by the midpoint of the episode.
As a celebration of women on “SNL,” the episode showed that there have been some funny performers from the show’s past who are part of an important legacy of comedy on television; however, as an episode of “SNL,” the episode indicated that they still don’t entirely know how to write for those women in a way which delivers on their potential.
***Of the returning cast members, I thought that Tina Fey and Amy Poehler both got relegated to Weekend Update when they made other contributions to the series. However, it was nice to see a nice group of strong performers playing bit supporting roles, so I think that the depth it added to the cast was perhaps more important than each of the returning women getting a showcase.
*** I was super pleased to see no “Debbie Downer” sketch – that got played out something fierce, and never lived up to the spontaneous laughter of the original.
*** It was interesting to see how the audience responded to the calculated bits of “SNL” nostalgia: Delicious Dish got a small catcall, while Sally O’Malley went over huge. I don’t know if this simply indicates that the audience wasn’t quite awake yet at that stage in the episode or what, but that’s the danger of mixing a “new” audience through White’s involvement with such blatant attempts to play on the series’ legacy.
*** Usually I’d get annoyed with a show repeating a fact over and over again, but the fact that Betty White is 88 ½ years old deserves repeating – still amazing.
What’d you think of Betty White? Did she live up to the hype? And how about Jay-Z and all of the various cameos?