I’m not privy to the type of “water-cooler talk” that you nine-to-fivers are — you could say I’m more of a water-bowl kind of guy — but I’m guessing that Monday’s chit-chat revolved around Saturday Night Live’s triumphant Betty White episode.
Any idiot with a blog can tell you that, for the better part of the “aughts,” SNL has been lazily written and poorly acted. Making things worse, Lorne Michaels insists on regularly scheduling guest hosts who are “young” and “cool” instead of “funny.” This year’s list of guest hosts included Megan Fox, Gerard Butler, Taylor Swift, January Jones, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Taylor Lautner, and James Franco… all before New Year’s Day.
I say all this as a self-admitted SNL snob. I came of age during the golden years of SNL, when the cast included Phil Hartman, Jon Lovitz, Dana Carvey, Jan Hooks, Victoria Jackson, and Dennis Miller, and I had no social commitments on the weekend. SNL was something not just to watch, but to absorb and record, much like the Denver Broncos’ season or a Stephen King novel.
So I get a little upset, and take it a little personally, when the show devolves into the unwatchable mess that was the previous week’s episode (with Gaby Sidibe as host).
Unbelievably, facebook — fucking facebook — fixed all that. If you haven’t seen the episode, watch it on hulu (they also have several skits from the dress rehearsal that didn’t make air). I’ll let the Globe’s Matthew Gilbert sum it up (he’s an actual writer):
The weekend’s “Saturday Night Live’’ was the most consistently good episode of the series in years. Ooh, what a little Betty White can do… Every sketch was funny and had forward momentum — qualities that are generally missing on the show these days. I can’t remember the last time I didn’t want an episode of “SNL’’ to end.
The writing was still a little lazy — lots and lots of gay jokes — but every sketch, even the one whose entire premise was essentially White repeatedly saying “because she’s a lesbian,” killed. My personal favorite was the last sketch of the show, in which Tina Fey played a census-taker knocking on the door of Betty White’s apartment. While essentially a remake of an old Timothy Meadows – Christopher Walken bit, it showcased just how funny the show can be when writers think outside the box of fart jokes (it’s possible Fey wrote it herself):
TF: How would you describe your race or ethnic origin?
BW: Well… superior to Asians. But not as intelligent as blacks.
TF: Let me clarify. Which of the following describes you: White, Asian, Hispanic, Pacific Islander…
BW: Ohh!! Pacific Islander!! Let’s try that. And don’t skimp on the rum.
TF: What is your last name?
TF: Can you spell that for me?
It was a brief reminder of the days when phrases like “son of a vondruke” were coined. Alas.
What really got me, though, were the moments that bookended the show. When White made her entrance during the cold open, the studio audience went nuts. When she said her thank-yous to wrap up the show, the cast members gave her flowers (and my allergies must have started to flare up…). In between, the six returning female cast-members all seemed more than willing to cede the limelight to her. For ninety minutes, SNL created a bond between the stage and audience that radiated through the television and wrapped everyone in warmth, laughter, and overall bonhomie — with an 88-year-old woman as its figurehead. It was a powerful reminder that when the show is really good, it’s one of the very few culturally transcendent forces around. And it’s damn funny.
Here’s hoping the show can keep its forward momentum going (the season finale features Alec Baldwin, who’s usually quite good). Here’s hoping facebook’s newest campaign — getting Carol Burnett to host — works, too. And here’s hoping that White’s turn as guest host signals a pardigm shift for SNL, and makes Lorne Michaels think more about booking funny guest hosts than simply popular ones.