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SNL's Norm Macdonald tribute was a reminder of the vitality the show once had

  • James Austin Johnson making his debut as President Biden in the Season 47 premiere cold open was a step in the right direction after having celebrities like Alec Baldwin play President Trump and Jim Carrey play Joe Biden, says David Sims. The cold open also showcased Saturday Night Live's largest-ever cast. "That grouping of talent is a fine example of just how deep the SNL bench is now, and how depressing it is to see it wasted," says Sims. "(Aidy) Bryant, (Cecily) Strong, (Ego) Nwodim, and (Melissa) Villaseñor are seasoned actors with years of experience being funny on the show, but they tend to get crammed into stilted sketches like this one, in which each performer tosses off a zingy one-liner about the person they’re portraying but otherwise stands motionless. Johnson’s Biden didn’t leave much of a mark, but that’s in part because of the material he was given, including rote political jabs about Democrats in disarray. As much as I appreciate the introduction of new talent, most of last night’s show was extremely familiar stuff. The host, Owen Wilson, gamely performed bit parts, did a loose Jeff Bezos impression, and satirized his work on the Pixar movie Cars. Held-over pandemic humor came in the form of a goofy school-board meeting and a talk show plagued with false-positive test results. On 'Weekend Update,' Colin Jost and Michael Che—now the longest-tenured pair of hosts in SNL’s history—turned in the same dispirited work they’ve been doing for years. Pete Davidson dropped by for a segment on the Met Gala that seemed to reflect his bafflement that he was somehow still on the show." Sims adds: "Perhaps the most unintentionally piercing moment came as Jost and Che memorialized Norm Macdonald, the former 'Weekend Update' anchor and SNL cast member who died last month. As part of the tribute, the show played a few of Macdonald’s best one-liners from behind the 'Update' desk, and I was again reminded of what a fearless performer he was, unafraid to tell jokes that might bother his bosses or leave audiences bewildered. That’s a vitality SNL hasn’t had in many years, and unless it actually embraces the punchier online energy it’s clearly trying to emulate, it likely won’t get back there."


    • James Austin Johnson had one of the most immediately impactful first episodes for an SNL featured player ever: "Coming out to the distinct sound of everybody straining to see just who was under that Joe Biden makeup, Johnson had big shoes to fill," says Dennis Perkins. "No, not Alex Moffat’s, as Alex’s indifferent and never-embraced Biden is officially no more. (Moffat got the consolation prize of playing Chuck Schumer in the cold open, which seems about right.) A presidential impression is an SNL golden ticket, and Johnson cashed in with a more interesting and inhabited Biden than either Moffat or visiting POTUS Jim Carrey pulled off. New hire Johnson was likely brought on because of his viral Trump, a sensational creation made of uncanny vocal impression with a free-form, improvisational snap. No doubt Johnson will have occasion to bust out his Trump at some point in what promises to be some even more hellish election seasons to come, but his Biden is a similarly smart and canny character, balancing exaggeration and verisimilitude in a way most SNL impressions don’t. It’s already miles better than Alec Baldwin’s Trump, and that’s without all the already clownish, exaggerated Trump-isms to play with...As for the sketch, that’s pretty good too, especially considering how dire the Baldwin stuff got, and how comparatively difficult Biden is to make funny. I came to dread SNL’s cold opens over the past five years, which is not how you want your comedy show to start. Here, apart from the novelty of a new Biden, the writing was sharper, as, perhaps, the lack of such a big, buffoonish, reliably ridiculous target to lob tomatoes at allowed the writers to dig a little deeper for the jokes. Cecily (Strong), naturally, was the standout, her (Kyrsten) Sinema continuing her agenda-stalling grandstanding by hinting that she’s deriving some deep satisfaction from being in the limelight."
    • Owen Wilson was the perfect choice as season premiere host: "As far as a return to Studio 8H goes, SNL’s decision to have first-timer Owen Wilson host its season premiere is the kind of thing that deserves an understated 'wow,'" says LaToya Ferguson. "In fact, in a surprising turn of events — considering how often SNL loves to go for spectacle — this season premiere was about as atypical as it could get: from the cold open featuring only active cast members to Wilson’s low-key monologue to the amount of screentime given to the featured players (culminating in this week’s 10-to-1 sketch). As much as SNL is able to go back to basics, that’s what this season premiere felt like at times. Wilson’s monologue, effortless and easygoing, seemed to be a good sign for what the star could bring to the table for this episode, especially as a first-time host. However, that effortlessness didn’t extend to much of the rest of Wilson’s hosting duties within the sketches, nor did the episode play too much to what one would consider his comedic strengths."
    • SNL spoofs Jeff Bezos space aspirations with his own Star Trek: Ego Quest series
    • SNL parodies The View's on-air COVID debacle
    • SNL says goodbye to Ken Aymong, one of the longest-serving producer, having served as Lorne Michaels' lieutenant since the mid-1980s
    • SNL Season 47 premiere ratings were down 35% from last year's premiere, based on early numbers

    TOPICS: Saturday Night Live, NBC, James Austin Johnson, Norm Macdonald, Owen Wilson