We bring to Saturday Night Live standards for funniness that are different than those we apply to everything else on TV. We cut the show a lot of slack for simply getting a 90-minute live show up and running every week. SNL has been on so long, it’s embedded a kind of reflex action in generations of viewers: If the studio audience thinks a sketch is funny, we’re liable to read more funniness into it than may be there, and any cast member or host who does a good celebrity impersonation is granted a degree of immunity from criticism, since impersonations have been the one consistent element that SNL goes back to time and again with the greatest degree of success.
So it was on the season premiere, hosted by Alec Baldwin. The cold open was just an excuse for the cast to roll out its latest political impersonations, and we learned that Kristen Wiig does a good Michele Bachmann, while all Kenan Thompson needs to do is put on a bald wig and speak normally to get away with a Herman Cain that delighted the real Herman Cain. Talking to the hosts of Fox and Friends Sunday this morning, Cain – right now the grinning winner of the Florida straw poll – laughed heartily at the Kenan clip that merely focussed on his Godfather pizza, rather than his positions, and said eagerly, “I love it! I’m going to use that in my campaign: ‘If you vote for me, I will deliver!’”
Of course Cain loved that clip – it raised his profile, and its the satire was so toothless, no one was criticized, no policy positions were skewered. It was just a nice big network-sized plug for politicians struggling for national attention, for the supposedly-younger-than-average audience that tunes in to SNL.
The season premiere was as mediocre as most editions of SNL have been unto the days of John Belushi, but, again, quality doesn’t matter in this context – it’s much more the feeling of comfort and affection we have for various performers, characters, and sketches. This week, that affection paid off most handsomely for Baldwin’s wonderfully warm-hearted Tony Bennett impersonation.
It's both a finely affectionate tribute to the singer and a sharply written conversation between Baldwin/Bennett and Seth Meyers that contained amusing lines with precisely the right touchstones for a man of Bennett's generation -- the way Ryan Gosling and John Garfield might exist in a simultaneous continuum for Bennett, and a visit to Don Rickles' house is an occasion for fond, ribald Thanksgiving memories. Baldwin has the vocal timbre and speech cadences of Bennett down so perfectly, it's as soothing a pleasure to listen to as it is to hear the actual Bennett sing.
In a similar vein, the night's other best moment was the lost audition tapes for Top Gun, with Baldwin's Al Pacino and Bill Hader's Alan Alda among the strikingly good impersonations.
What SNL does best is promote things: Its own cast (boy, mustn’t Wiig feel as though she’s back in the harness for another season, working too hard after the big-screen success of Bridesmaids?), Presidential candidates based on the utterly apolitical determination of who does the best impersonation, and the now-rare practice of letting a network audience see a music act perform at least two songs in real time. If Alec Baldwin ever runs for mayor of New York, he’ll have a readymade pop-culture platform; too bad for whoever might run against him – he or she will probably be impersonated by Fred Armisen.
Note: Be sure to read Aly Semigran’s full recap of the Saturday Night Live season premiere: