Children, gather ‘round, and I’ll tell you a tale of the long-long ago – when dinosaurs roamed the earth, and every episode of SNL wasn’t stuffed to the gills with celebrity cameos. Today, these amusing guest appearances are an essential part of Saturday Night Live’s DNA – especially when a former cast member returns as host.
So it’s no surprise that last night’s Will Ferrell-led episode featured surprise appearances by Ana Gasteyer and Will Forte, as well as Will Ferrell’s adorable mom and Battleship star Liam Neeson. But a special, 100th anniversary Digital Short was what really catapulted the show into the cameo-choked stratosphere. This nostalgia-palooza also injected excitement into an episode that was pretty by the numbers. (The only real shock: No “Celebrity Jeopardy” sketch. Damn you, Trebek!)
Will Ferrell’s next big project is The Campaign, a political comedy that opens in August. But since the movie’s debut is still several months away, it wouldn’t have made much sense for Ferrell to plug it now. Luckily, Ferrell’s got a famous impression that also serves as a tacit Campaign promotion: his George W. Bush, who has apparently been roaming the hallways of Obama’s White House since he got lost chasing a butterfly in ‘09. Ferrell’s genial, dim-witted Bush is a great foil for Jason Sudeikis’s petulant Joe Biden – and pairing them as fratty, overgrown Calvin and Hobbes analogues (Obama thinks Biden’s friend “George” is imaginary) in the cold open was a stroke of genius. Get your damn pants on, we’re about to bomb blabbity blee blee blah blah:
After a sweetly absurd monologue tribute to his incredibly young-looking mom (“I want to cover you in Super Glue and roll you in flowers. That’s not bad, right?”), Ferrell did some advanced yelling in a cold-medicine commercial parody. And then came a classic sketch from the host’s impressive repertoire – but not the one you were probably expecting.
Both times Ferrell previously hosted SNL he trotted out his Trebek for another installment of “Celebrity Jeopardy.” Tonight, though, the writers gave Darrell Hammond’s Sean Connery a break by calling in another ringer: Ana Gasteyer, who joined Ferrell once again to perform a dorky medley of popular songs as the Culps. Seeing these two together reminded me of a simpler time, a time when music-rights issues didn’t prevent NBC from posting a clip on the Internet (because NBC wasn’t posting any clips on the Internet). So even though I can’t prove it to you, take my word on this one: Gasteyer’s still got it, and nobody says “swagger” quite like Ferrell as Marty Culp.
I’ve never been a big fan of SNL’s “ESPN Classic” sketches. The central gag (“The recent past is inherently hilarious! Also, women playing SPORTS?! Joke city!”) is way too easy, and the structure (Kristen Wiig stretches in a goofy outfit; Jason Sudeikis says something absurd about a feminine hygiene product) never varies. So even though I was pleased to see Will Forte make a guest appearance, this segment didn’t click for me – especially since the addition of Ferrell as correspondent Randy Feather seemed like a pretty huge afterthought. But hey, if the idea of someone rhyming “uterine lining” with “The Shining” tickles your fancy, the Ladies Long Drive Championship probably hit your sweet spot.
It’s been six and a half years since SNL aired its first-ever Digital Short – not “Lazy Sunday,” but a goofy clip of Andy Samberg and Will Forte discussing a friend’s death while chomping on enormous heads of lettuce. As of last night, Samberg and his Lonely Island crew have created 100 of these clips. They celebrated the occasion in true Digital Short fashion: by inviting back MVPs like Michael Bolton, Justin Timberlake, Natalie Portman, and Jon Hamm, then getting them together for a huge centennial blowout. The running joke about these stars wanting to, uh, pleasure themselves was sort of beside the point – it would have been enough just to see Justin Bieber and Shy Ronnie in the same room.
Both Maya Rudolph and Jimmy Fallon’s hosting stints earlier this season included Weekend Update cameos by Amy Poehler – and Tina Fey showed up on Fallon’s show as well. Alas, last night we had to make due with an installment of “Really??” performed by a lonesome Seth Meyers, as well as a “Get in the Cage” segment with Andy Samberg’s Nicolas Cage and the real Liam Neeson. But this second feature was no consolation prize: Samberg’s impression of the onetime Oscar winner is one of SNL’s most consistently funny recurring bits, especially when the actor starts describing his own appearance. (Tonight’s best line: Cage has “the skin of a sun-dried gremlin, with the oaky tan and chaotic hairline of a Puerto Rican Beetlejuice.” Bonus: “And that is why we leave one chair empty at Passover.”) If Neeson had been a little more animated, the whole thing might have gone from good to great – but either way, Samberg knocked his portion out of the park. I’m adding him to my Christmas card list; I send the notes in April, when you’d least expect it!
An amusing “Update” was followed by a trio of duds: “The 2012 Funkytown Debate,” a groovy slog that combined dull political humor with “What Up With That?”; “Broadway Sizzle,” a joke-free public access show parody; and a plodding anniversary party sketch that recalled the plodding “Funeral Remembrances” sketch from Ferrell’s last hosting stint. The first two proved that singing a line doesn’t automatically make it funny. The last showed that characters have to be more than folks in goofy outfits who spout non sequiturs. (Though for what it’s worth, I do have a soft spot for the weirdo Forte plays in these sketches.) At least the Funkytown sketch gave us the indelible image of musical guest Usher strutting around in a shiny cape and giant pimp hat.
And hey, speaking of Usher – the R&B star acquitted himself well, dancing smoothly while performing two of his newest club-ready jams. I feel a little weird knowing that he gets drunk on the thought of me naked, but hey, I guess that’s just Usher being Usher.
All in all, Ferrell’s show was a solid effort – if not an insta-classic like Maya Rudolph’s, or a season highlight like Jimmy Fallon’s. Do you agree with my assessment? Or do you think that the dead weight after “Update” dragged last night’s show down?
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