This Week on Dear Television:
Saturday Night Lost: Maya Rudolph and SNL Nostalgia
By Phil Maciak
May 20, 2014
I LOVE MAYA RUDOLPH. From Bronx Beat to The Prince Show, her sketches were always my favorite spots on SNL. I love her goofy range, I love the way her impressions were always better, deeper, and funnier than those of staff impressionist Darrell Hammond, I love that she was (for a hot minute) in The Rentals, I love that she’s in an all-female Prince cover band called “Princess,” and I love that she is producing an army of children with Paul Thomas Anderson. And yet it was a surprise to me when NBC let Rudolph — she of the melismas, the close-up grimaces, and the Donatella Versace Show — put together an hour-long musical variety show.
Maybe it wasn’t unthinkable, but it seemed miraculous from the moment it was announced. While Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers have earned solid, even admiring, reviews for their recent accessions to Late Night thrones, and mostly everybody is excited about Stephen Colbert taking the Letterman mantle next year, these moves have also reminded us of the basic conservatism of the format. Jimmy plays more characters than Jay, Seth is maybe a little more buttoned-down than Conan, and Colbert will likely create a more welcoming space for guests than Dave, but these are all tonal shifts, not structural ones. Pope Francis seems like a way chiller bro than Pope Benedict, but he’s still exorcising people, he’s still cracking down on feminist nuns, the Catholic Church is still the Catholic Church, and The Tonight Show is still The Tonight Show. The new guard may feel new, but the thing they’re guarding is basically unchanged.
So, perhaps as a safety valve for any revolutionary energy NBC might have sitting around unused, perhaps to atone for a total makeover between 11:30 and 1:30 that included not a single woman or person of color outside of the house band, or perhaps simply because Lorne Michaels gets what Lorne Michaels wants these days, we have The Maya Rudolph Show. Modeled neither on the late night talk show structure nor the SNL sketch structure, the show, as Rudolph admits, is a direct attempt to revive the style that once belonged to Carol Burnett and the Muppets but that has now mostly evaporated from the airspace. There are musical numbers, short sketches, non-ironic addresses to the audience, ironic addresses to the audience, musical guests, and a small repertory cast featuring Fred Armisen, Andy Samberg, and Sean Hayes. (If NBC picks the show up for series — as the solid ratings suggest it might well do — it will be interesting to see if Rudolph recruits a core of players a la Burnett, or whether each episode features a new bloc of guest talent.)
All that said, the show felt weird. It’s entirely possible that this was just format shock. There was a lot of singing, there was a lot of loosey-goosey sketchery, there was Sean Hayes everywhere, and there was a whole lot of earnestness. We’re used to big opening numbers from any number of awards shows, but when Rudolph and guest Chris Parnell took a break three-quarters of the way through the episode to sing a funny, sentimental lullaby to Parnell’s newborn child, it was a little jarring. Once I eased into the moment, it ended up standing out as a high point, but it was so old as an impulse that it felt new. Here’s something we don’t see that often, here’s a way of engaging the viewer that doesn’t come around much anymore.
The skits and numbers weren’t all successful, though, and many of them relied more than I would have liked on Rudolph’s cast members. A very funny song about Maya’s first name, for instance, got many of its biggest laughs from Andy Samberg in drop-crotch pants. Granted, some of the biggest laughs on Carol Burnett were generated by Tim Conway or Vicki Lawrence, of course, but on the first episode of Rudolph’s show, I wanted a little bit more of an idea of what she was bringing to the table beyond a serviceable singing voice. Since SNL, Armisen, Samberg, Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, even Seth Meyers, have found vehicles that showcase their particular sensibilities. The Maya Rudolph Show is absolutely that vehicle for Maya Rudolph, but what that particular sensibility is remained somewhat unclear.
To that end, the aforementioned bit was perhaps also successful because it was one of the only times on the show when the comedy narrowed and became more specific. Rudolph may have been playing the straight man in this scene, but it had a perspective that was goofy, joyous, and maybe even a little acerbic. It might just be a matter of personal taste, but I was relieved when a man in a giant cartoon Y suit and a man in a giant cartoon Z suit briefly bemoaned the labor crisis for letters at the bottom of the alphabet. It was an absurd, off-hand joke — the kind that shows up at the end of an SNL episode — but it was good to see that the show could bite as well as blow kisses.
Beyond that and an early fantastic sketch about the lives of the people who provide voices for GPS navigation systems, however, the hour was surprisingly light on laughs. The GPS skit was followed by a surreal bit featuring Rudolph and Armisen as rich jetsetters and a Rudolph-less scene with Samberg in a doctor’s office, and there was barely an identifiable joke between them. I have a lot of good will toward Maya Rudolph, but, in the absence of a really clear point-of-view or a really strong roster of jokes, the show seemed to coast on that good will. My primary emotion through most of the hour was that it’s great to see Maya Rudolph again. But that’s not a sustainable feature.
If we could identify the show’s point of view from this limited sample, it would be a point of view rooted in nostalgia. There was a confusingly bawdy send-up of fifties beach movies featuring Craig Robinson and Kristen Bell, a strange Saturday Night Fever-referencing dance off that relied, unfortunately, on a body double doing back flips, and even the opening number showcased a kind of high disco opulence.
While the hour was suffused in nostalgia for days long gone by, it was also suffused with a much more particular and (recently) widespread nostalgia. The Maya Rudolph Show has joined the growing movement to resurrect and reconstitute the Saturday Night Live cast of the early to mid-2000s. Just this past weekend, Andy Samberg’s SNL finale featured the return of Maya Rudolph, Seth Meyers, Bill Hader, Fred Armisen, and Kristen Wiig, as well as Jorma and Akiva from the Lonely Island. Premieres, finales, and holiday episodes often see the return of cast members, but this was a spectacularly complete reunion. It felt less like a set of cameos than an organized takeover, and the current cast members were left to figure out ways to appear on their own show.
Likewise, Seth Meyers’s Late Night has hosted tons of cast members and writers from those salad days, and a recent sketch brought back Will Forte, Fred Armisen, and Jason Sudeikis to perform an SNL sketch that never made it to air. (Meyers plans on making this a regular feature of his program.) From frequent references to his time as head writer to the nightly presence of Armisen as his band leader, Late Night with Seth Meyers has squeezed a lot of juice out of Meyers’s association with that cast. And this is not even to mention the fact that Jimmy Fallon is the host of The Tonight Show or that Amy Poehler and Tina Fey have a standing invitation to host the Golden Globes and recreate their generation-defining Update chemistry. It’s not just that cast members from that era have achieved success and are now ubiquitous; it’s that they’ve found success replicating many of the same rhythms and reconstituting many of the same networks that we know from early-twenty-first century SNL.
SNL is a transitory program. You can’t stay too long, and, eventually, the show is going to change. This is part of its appeal. Dennis Miller was as good at Weekend Update as Jon Stewart is at The Daily Show, but Dennis Miller had to leave and Jon Stewart doesn’t. And as good as Miller was, if he hadn’t abdicated the chair, we wouldn’t have had Norm MacDonald or Tina Fey or Seth Meyers. The hit-or-miss energy of a live show on Saturday nights can be applied to the show writ large: not everything works, but, every once in a while, it all clicks. And sometimes something is so good that it’s worth exploring how to keep it alive. Will Ferrell and Adam McKay have turned an SNL writing partnership into a veritable empire of R-rated comedy. Tina Fey exported Tracy Morgan and a number of her writers to 30 Rock. But the trajectory is always to a different medium or format.
Is it hard to imagine a sketch-based repository for SNL alums? While Hayes, Robinson, and Bell all made appearances, The Maya Rudolph Show was buoyed by the pre-existing chemistry between Samberg, Armisen, Parnell, and their lovely hostess. Is this the future of Maya Rudolph’s variety hour? Will this be our weekly space, not just to relive those golden days, but to gain access to a community of sketch comedians who do and did their best work together? (Fred Armisen has found his true soul-mate in Carrie Brownstein, but the point still stands.) Or were these appearances just a comfort blanket that will be cast away once Rudolph finds her voice in this format? Either way, I’m hopeful about The Maya Rudolph Show. I miss those days, too, and there’s nothing backwards about that impulse. (Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire try to make us nostalgic for things way worse than a good decade of SNL.) And while it’s not yet enough to hold the show together, I can’t imagine a time when I won’t be glad to see Maya Rudolph again.
Goodnight, and have a pleasant tomorrow,