Maybe I’m just happy to see the show after its summer vacation. Maybe I’m still overjoyed at the fact that the producers made the logical decision to replace Fred Armisen’s Obama impersonation with Jay Pharoah’s. Maybe I’m still in that sweet spot where a spoof of “Gangam Style” is gonna make me laugh. But I heartily enjoyed Saturday Night Live’s 38th season première, even though it was hosted by Seth MacFarlane, a man who makes me want to throttle my television, and that’s before he launches into his Family Guy voices.
As a longtime SNL nerd, I tremble with a bit of anticipation before every new season, and this time it was even more exciting because you knew one major change was coming—Pharoah’s performance as the president, which Lorne Michaels helpfully leaked to the New York Times a week in advance. One wonders whether the decision was actually made that recently, but Pharoah unsurprisingly rose to the occasion. His Obama impression is definitely stronger, and the discomfort factor that came with Armisen playing the role is gone.
He doesn’t yet have a comedic angle on the role that all of SNL’s great political impressions do, but, of course, that’s going to take some time. And given that it’s election season, I’m sure he’ll be showing up every week. I’ve always been mixed on Pharoah as a performer—his impressions are undoubtedly solid, but he’s shaky as an actor. But that can easily be put down to his age and inexperience, and as he enters his third season (his first as a repertory player) he’s better equipped than ever to really break out.
Pharoah’s first outing as the Commander in Chief was fine—why’s Obama keeping it surprisingly cool? Because baffled android Mitt Romney is doing all his work for him. It’s the first sketch of the year, you can go to that kind of place and have it appear vaguely original. Jason Sudeikis has honed his Romney a little bit, although it’s still more of a spoof than a straight-up impression. Our brief glimpse of Taran Killam as Paul Ryan saw him nailing it, unsurprisingly. I’m not expecting SNL to hit the kind of levels it reached in 2008—this election just doesn’t have the same insane vibe. But in an election year, the show needs to rise to the occasion with its political stuff, and casting Pharoah as Obama has removed the most obvious roadblock.
After that we had MacFarlane, who is not my favorite person as previously established, and he mostly did Family Guy voices and sang like a crooner in his monologue—which are two things I can’t stand. I did enjoy his Marty McFly impression, although along with Kermit the Frog and a shout-out to Farrah Fawcett, it reminded me how stuck in the past this guy’s reference points are. But I’ll admit that MacFarlane did a solid hosting job. He didn’t dominate sketches, but he was a perfectly game performer and blended in well every time. His Ryan Lochte impression was a highlight, while the sketches he had the biggest roles in were probably the weakest of the night, but I wouldn’t say that speaks particularly ill of him. Not the kind of guest host I’m clamoring for the show to bring back next year, but definitely not bad.
The Obama Bain commercial felt like a classic Jim Downey sketch, although you never know who wrote what on this show. Full of detail, slightly subtler laughs, a real political edge that has no issue nudging Obama (“I approve this message. But I’m not real proud of it,” he says), and a nice bit of surrealism at the end (Kenan’s factory worker who was seemingly hounded to the ends of the earth by Bain). Didn’t quite knock it out of the park, but I can’t fault the execution.
Having Armisen’s gruff sex advisor Roger Brush come in as the post-monologue sketch wasn’t the greatest choice, but maybe they just felt bad for taking Obama from him (really, I bet Armisen and everyone else is just relieved about it). Still, with Kristen Wiig gone, this show is suddenly deficient in a lot of its standby recurring bits (and thank God for that). Armisen will still be reaching into his rotation all year, one assumes, and Roger Brush was just the first to come out of the bag. The joke is simple, so after the first couple go-rounds, you’re done with the thing—but at least it wasn’t Secret Word.
After that came the requisite Clint Eastwood spoof, which we all knew was coming. I mean, how lucky is SNL that one of the most talked-about news events from last month was perfect fodder for one of Bill Hader’s weirdo impressions? If Pharoah hadn’t taken the Obama role and needed “introducing,” I bet this would have led off the night. Instead, we got a cute bit about Eastwood taking the chair on the road that was maybe a bit of a let-down, just because Hader’s Eastwood is so good and that thing with the chair was so weird. Honestly, the biggest laugh of the sketch was probably Pharoah’s confused audience member exclaiming, “Man, what the fuck was that!” Or maybe it was Eastwood going into the back and eating a rotisserie chicken.
Then there was the appearance of Psy, who was given the loosest of sketch concepts to ride his imaginary horse into. This was a hat shop, but it could have been a barn and the joke would have been pretty much the same. It was funny watching Thompson, MacFarlane, and Sudeikis try to be remotely funny while they waited for Bobby Moynihan (or Mr. Psy himself) emerge from the smoke. Sudeikis was probably having the most fun in the background, but this just felt like everyone at SNL had seen that YouTube video and knew they had to throw it onto week one. I don’t blame them—the excited Twitter reaction I saw confirmed they made the right call.
I could care less about Psy or Robert Brush or whatever was annoying in the first half of the show, because the introduction to puppetry sketch was . The second you saw Hader in the first shot, you knew you were in for something good (my brother, who watched the premiere with me, said, “he looks promising”). Then when he brought out his eerie puppet duplicate and started narrating his traumatic war experiences in Grenada, I pretty much lost it. Just a perfect piece of sketch writing—it escalated well, it had a great surprising sight gag in the middle (the smoke emerging from the puppet’s mouth), it didn’t really know how to end. Rest assured I watched it again the minute I woke up.
The second half of the show sagged a little bit, although Weekend Update was fine (MacFarlane’s Lochte was pitch-perfect, and Moynihan wrung expected laughs from playing Honey Boo Boo’s Mama). The debut of Cecily Strong as get-out-the-vote volunteer Mimi Morales was a little unfortunate, though. There’s nothing new to be mined from the wacky Latina shtick she was doing and, as far as I know, Strong is not Hispanic, so it’s an especially weird thing to lead with. Our other two new players, Tim Robinson and Aidy Bryant, were floating around in a few sketches, but I’m sure they’ll get their big debuts in the coming weeks.
The stuttering sketch with MacFarlane was probably my least favorite of the night—it just went on a little too long with nowhere to go. The Steve Harvey sketch that followed had one terrific sight gag, MacFarlane being “made over” to look exactly like Harvey, but then it just kept going after blowing its load so spectacularly. The “blind date” sketch actually wrung a few solid laughs out of a bare-bones concept, but also overstayed its welcome. Wrapping everything up was the Amish website bit, which lasted 30 seconds and still boasted the best of the post-Update material.
Despite all those typical SNL hiccups and a competent but hardly stunning host, I’m feeling good about this season based on what I’ve seen so far. It might just be that post-summer glow, but next week we have Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who I remember digging his last time around. Here’s hoping the streak continues.
- Obama shouts out Malia and Sasha. “I do that to remind you that I have two adorable young daughters, and not five creepy adult sons.”
- At one point, Eastwood shouts at a chair representing Mayor Bloomberg. “JUST LET PEOPLE EAT SODA!”
- Psy’s weirdness makes MacFarlane feel like a god. “Did he just scream at her butt?” “You’re damn right he did, brah! We’re gonna live forever!”
- Hader’s war vet briefly does another voice, before revealing, “He was another grunt in my platoon. Together we went house to house, spraying LIQUID DEATH.”
- Ryan Lochte knows how to introduce himself. “I was… America in Olympics.”
- Steve Harvey needs you in bright clothes. “You should be able to disappear into a tub of Skittles!”
- My two favorite Amish letter translations: R is “Fat Snake with a Sex Penis,” and S is “The River What Took My Son.”