Sunday, February 10, 2013

SNL - "Justin Bieber"

Season 38, Episode 13

Justin Bieber hosts and performs, and it’s not as bad as one might expect.

Cold Open – Super Bowl Blackout: Just to get this out of the way, it must be acknowledge that this sketch owes some of its DNA to an old 90s sketch which saw some morning show hosts go crazy when the teleprompter stopped working. (Indeed a saw some people on Twitter reference this sketch when the lights went out at the Super Bowl and the commentator were left vamping for half and hour.) This sketch doesn’t go to such extremes as that one, and given how often I push SNL to go weirder, this tameness would usually disappoint. However, what makes this sketch work is the interplay between characters (especially Thompson’s commentator and Killam’s sideline reporter) as well as the specificity of jokes. Pointless, empty vamping, cheesy on-air promos, and bottom-of-the-barrel scraping commercials all add up to a perfect blend of jokes. 

Monologue: It was inevitable that with an artist like Bieber, the show would at some point have to acknowledge the temptation to pander to the audience, if just not outright pander to them, so it makes a good idea for a monologue. The problem is that it’s hard to if the monologue is mocking audience pandering or actually doing it. Sure, the script makes sure to undercut every little romantic thing Bieber says by pairing it with a random (and usually incorrect) fact about black history, but it is also leans far to heavily on the pandering (joking or not) to not feel insulting to the audience.

The Californians: As always, I’m just going to link to my review of the first one of these. (That gag with Hader’s character having a string of dramatic reaction shots was somewhat inspired, though.)

Justin Bieber Body Doubles: This is a solid, if simple idea for sketch, and its familiarity could have been an anchor around its neck, were it not for the shots that it took at Bieber’s public persona. Of course, some of these, like Bieber’s dance moves and changing singing voice were really just excuses for him to Bieber to display his actual talent, which ended up taking the bite out of the sketch. But that being said, there were still some good critiques that went unchallenged, like Bieber’s feminine looks and his attempt to act “black”. And the ending twist of McKibbon showing up as Ellen (who blends into with the rest of the Bieber impersonators) made a great closing laugh, even if it was a bit too out of left field.

Bravo Spinoffs: Of course, mocking the fact that Bravo has so many pointless reality shows and that most of those show are just spinoffs is a relatively easy joke to make. What makes this one work is two-fold. First, the sketch gets how channels like Bravo try to sell these show on the backs of their subjects’ minority status, be it along lines of race, sexual orientation, or gender, even if their real claim to “fame” is their tangential relationship to actual famous people. But one it got bored of that, the sketch just went weird, making up the most ridiculous premises for these type of reality shows (like house plants, or vampires). There must have been a strong temptation to make this sketch just all weird ideas, but the combination of these two approaches gives is weight and keeps it from getting stale. (Bonus points for the logical ending, which ends up cycling back to where the whole thing started.)

Weekend Update: In addition to Seth Meyers’ usual shtick, we also got…King Richard’s Best Friends from Growing Up, the latest iteration of this stale gag, which has been used every time a tyrannical ruler comes up in the news. We get it; they’re scared to speak out. And ending every one of these by having Meyers adopt the same tone of voice, a move that’s ironically meant to be unexpected, is just getting old…Then there was Corey, the One Black Guy in Every Commercial, which seemed like it was meant to be a criticism of how the media treats race, but instead ended up being a mockery of the sameness of commercials in general. Honestly, the later tactic is fine, but it knowing the show went the softer route just hurts a little bit. (And did anybody else think Thompson looked like Echo Kellum in that get-up? Talk about distracting.)

“Say More Stuff”: SNL’s history with musical based sketches is a bit spotty (see: “Tell Him”), but this one worked pretty well as long as it was clocking along in the “dumb jock is a terrible date” vein, which seemed to be perfectly sending up the musical that the titular song was aped off of. However, the closing twist that he was only eleven felt like too much shock humor added to quickly, especially when the original direction of the sketch was working out just fine.

The New Miley Cyrus Show: Given the positive audience reaction to these sketches, I’m surprised (and of course thankful) that they haven’t appeared more often. I’ll have to credit it to the writers attempt not to wear out the material (okay, that’s probably not true), and the existence of this iteration to the fact that Cyrus has undergone so many changes recently. The format of this sketch is still the same (crappy monologue, banter with Billy Ray, awkward guest interview), but by having the sketch become “The New Miley Cyrus” and deal with her changes as she enters adulthood, it at least feels a little bit fresher.

Eddy: It just now occurs to me how often SNL goes to the “meet the weird member/friend of the family” setup, doing it what feels like every third episode or so, and using practically the same set each time. How much each individual sketch ends up succeeding usually depends on the specific idea at play, how that idea plays out, and (most importantly) how long that idea goes on and how the sketch decides to end it. In this case, the idea (Killam plays a brother who harasses his sister’s new boyfriend over a slip of the tongue) doesn’t look that strong on paper, but is brought to life thanks to Killam’s performance. Where things go slightly off the rails is when it switches to an exchange between Eddy and his father, a fake-out emotional bickering that doesn’t really pair up that well with came before it, even if the fact that it’s a fake-out makes it thematically relevant.

Justin Bieber’s Valentine’s Day Message: This is another instance of show playing around with the idea of pandering to the audience, but this one works a lot better than the monologue did. By making the contrast between Bieber overt sexuality and the thing that is undercutting it (in this case, his weird impromptu roommate Taco, and a few other random happenstance) clearer, the sketch doesn’t wade around in such ambiguous territory and is able to make its jokes pop more. Of course, given that the sketch tries to make a comedic through-line with Taco and still wants to through in a bunch of other “unsexy” things sort of ruins its momentum, but that’s a lesser problem, especially when most of the jokes land.

Valentine’s Day Abstinence Dance: I don’t really know what to refer to this recurring sketch as, but it’s continues to be one of my favorites, as it allows the show to deliver a sketch that is full of weird jokes while still having a solid structure. The structure this time around was the abstinent couple played by Bieber and Pedrad’s repressed, twitchy girlfriend. It was Pedrad who provided the bigger laughs of the two, as Bieber had a strange way of selling his closing lines, which I believe were meant to appear dorky and stupid, in a overly-sexualized manner that ended up undercutting the comedy. (Of course, the female portion of the audience also shriek every time he did so, which may be coloring my interpretation of his line-readings.)

I can’t believe I’m about to type this, but Bieber actually did a solid job hosting tonight. Granted, you could see the show working around his obvious limitations, especially when he just played himself or was the straight man, but he also clearly put a lot of work into what he did and (even more importantly, after Adam Levine’s disastrous acting last episode) refrained from reading the cue cards too much.  Who would have thought that SNL would right it ships after two disastrous outings with an episode featuring a double-duty pulling host.

Best Sketch – Valentine’s Day Abstinence Dance
Worst Sketch – The Californians

Possible New Trend – Is it just me, or are the cold open getting stronger this season? Granted, for the two prior episodes, this also meant that they ended up being the best of their episodes (because what followed them was so terrible), but kudos to the writer of those for putting it more effort or finding out what works or whatever.

Quotes, Etc.:

“And as a favor, I ask that you don’t come back to me, because I have nothing else to add.”

“I’d like to offer an apology. I’ve been told we ran out of proper commercials and had to run a weird one.”

“You can’t ‘back to you’ me, I just ‘back to you’-ed you. Back to you!”

“Well I have to correct you there. Steely Dan has the best fans in the world.”

“I mean, some of them are girls.” “Yeah, that’s out A-Team.” “And that guy’s black, he’s not fooling anybody.” “Yeah, neither are you.”

“Ok look, I lost Saddam. I’m not losing you.”

“I drive men craaaaazy…also to the airport.”

“Sure, take your time fellas. Go on an all-male camping trip, rub some stick together, sew some badges on your sash, and then let us know if you’re comfortable with gay Scouts.”

“However, the image will erase itself after 10 seconds, which, if you’re teenage boy, is more than enough time.”

“Then, he I saw him sneak a look down my blouse. Then he started crying, saying ‘Where are the puppies? My friends told me there would be puppies.’”

“He said he would stay for just one night. Three months later, and I’m like ‘just get use to Taco.’”

“If you get shot with an arrow this holiday, that is not Cupid. There is a hobo out in the parking lot with a crossbow.”

“Amphibians and reptiles are killing each other, and all to the sounds of ‘Baby Got Back.’”

“Back in my day, we had a venereal disease called ‘Montezuma’s Grenade.’ You have sex, and then you explode.” 

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