September 29, 2013

THE SKED SEASON PREMIERE REVIEW: “Saturday Night Live” with Tina Fey


After almost 4 decades (!) on the air, it’s a little silly to describe any given SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE episode, or even season, as “critical” or “vital.”  Nevertheless, this is a big transition year for the show, with such veterans as Bill Hader, Jason Sudeikis and Fred Armisen (on top of Kristin Wiig the year before) gone, Seth Meyers heading out at midseason to take on Jimmy Fallon’s 12:30AM talkshow slot, and a half-dozen fresh-faced featured players making their debuts.  Tonight’s season premiere, more than any in memory, addressed that fact directly.

Tina Fey’s monologue, after a few mild gags about her lack of trademark characters when she was a cast member, brought on the newbies for the initiation ritual of having them silly-dance behind the host.  (They are Beck Bennett, Kyle Mooney, John Milhiser, Mike O’Brien, Noel Wells, and Brooks Wheelan.  For fans of demographics:  all but Wells are male, and they’re all white.)  The bit would have been funnier if Fey could actually sing or dance, able to illustrate what she was supposedly talking about, but there were some laughs in her insults to the rookies.  And bonus points for the gratuitous slam at Katie Holmes.

Better was New Cast Member Or Arcade Fire?, a mock game show (with Kenan Thompson as host, a spot he rarely had when the old cast was around) where Fey had to guess which of each pair was which.  For those of us who don’t know the members of Arcade Fire all that well, this was actually fairly challenging, especially since one of them turned out to be capable of a decent DeNiro impersonation.  Lorne Michaels supplied the punchline by cameo-ing and not even knowing who Kenan was, let alone the new cast–and after 40 years, who could blame him for mixing up his eras?

Also in transition:  Weekend Update, which brought on Cecily Strong to co-host with Meyers, the plan presumably being for her to take over the gig once he exits if she proves herself up to it.  Strong was a little tight with the cue cards, and the writers didn’t seem sure whether they wanted her to play it straight or to incorporate her “Drunk Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Talked To At a Party” character, but it was a fairly sharp Update, with good zingers aimed at Low Winter Sun and the Barnes & Noble Nook reader.  Fey appeared briefly for a passing the torch bit, and Bobby Moynihan did Drunk Uncle, this time with a cameo by Aaron Paul, who appeared several times on the show more or less as Jesse Pinkman, here called Meth Nephew.  Unfortunately, new cast member Kyle Mooney, in his first solo shot, bricked it with what was presumably an existing character of his, a stand-up comic who turns any news story into a crappy comedy club joke.  Getting real laughs from a “bad” comedy act is tough to pull off; this felt like too many SNL characters from the past, and got few laughs.

As for the non-changing of the guard parts of the show, the pretaped pieces were by far the strongest.  Best of all was a Girls parody with newcomer Noel Wells terrific as Lena Dunham, and a truly inspired Vanessa Bayer as Zosia Mamet.  The premise was that Fey’s Albanian immigrant joined the group, and her incomprehension of the self-obsessed, trivial problems around her was legitimately hilarious.  “You are lower than dog,” she told Kate McKinnon’s Jessa upon hearing about her sexual hijinks, and she was stunned to learn that Hannah wasn’t 15 years old.  A parody commercial for EMeth electronic pipes (with, naturally, Aaron Paul) was also very well done.

The live sketches, not so much.  The cold open was yet another political bit where almost everyone in the cast steps to the mike to deliver a 30 second gag, in this case citizens (including Jesse Pinkman) presented by Jay Pharoah’s President Obama to speak about health care.  Best beat:  everyone, including the President, not wanting Jesse to spoil what happened to his friend the high-school cancer patient who became a meth cooker.  Another everyone-gets-a-line sketch was about all the groups that get to pre-board airplane flights these days, which got its only laugh from Kenan Thompson’s impossibly large carry-on bag.

The post-Update half-hour was particularly dim.  A hopeless sketch about stuffed animals given prominence in an old movie should never have made it out of (or into) dress, and a black-and-white “commercial” for used Model Ts gave Mike O’Brien not much in his first featured sketch, while Fey played deadpan crazy.  The 12:55AM sketch provided some rescue with a new ex-porn-star commercial, this time with Bayer and Strong selling “Manuel Blondix” (or as Fey’s character had it, “Manilow’s Blankets”).  They’re like Roy’s Royces for your feet!  They’ll make you feel like you’re drinking lobster right out of the sink!

In all… another season of SNL, with a few terrific bits, more that were mediocre, and some that were painful.  The only new cast member to make a positive impression was Noel Wells and her Lena Dunham imitation, but there’s plenty of season ahead.  Next week, one way or another, should be interesting:  host and musical guest Miley Cyrus.

PS:  The big announcement at the end of the show that it was going to “run long” for an additional Arcade Fire concert was misleading, as the live portion only lasted a minute or so, leading into a taped star-studded half-hour with cameos from, among others, Bono, Ben Stiller, Aziz Ansari, Michael Cera, Bill Hader, Zach Galifianakis, and–need it even be said–James Franco.  It may well have been a time buy by the band and its label.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."