Crossing the Finish Line, 'SNL' Shows Some Late Kick
By Tom Shales
Monday, May 19, 2008; C01
Loping, romping and sometimes crawling to the finish line, "Saturday Night Live" ended another season on NBC with a show that featured Sen. John McCain, the likely Republican presidential candidate, in fine comic fettle, with the regular cast members' fettle even finer. Although the written material was spotty, the cast managed to have a party with it, and the viewing nation responded.
Based on Nielsen overnight ratings from 56 metered markets, "SNL's" season finale -- hosted by actor Steve Carell -- scored better than any show on any network in prime time that night. The 5.4 rating/13 share (roughly 6 1/2 million viewers) was also the best showing for an "SNL" season finale in three years. This was, of course, an abnormal season, with the writers' strike shortening it by five shows and some episodes being run twice in the same month.
Next season, its 34th, will be unusual, as well, because of the presidential election and the fact that "SNL" seems most heavily watched when political passions are running high. Normally, the show would return for a new season mere weeks before Election Day, but to make the most of the event, "SNL" will return in September (possibly as early as Sept. 13), with occasional Thursday night prime-time political specials also scheduled and a "Presidential Bash" special set to air Nov. 3, the night before the election.
It's a heavy load, but the current cast -- expected to return intact in the fall -- can handle it. "SNL" can boast one of the best and most resourceful ensembles since its legendary and now iconic first five years, when John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Garrett Morris and other founding funsters burst upon the American scene, ran riot and changed TV comedy almost overnight.
While the current cast lacks a powerhouse ringleader like Will Ferrell, the comic talent seems more evenly distributed and the dead weight more scarce than in many a season past.
As has been noted here and elsewhere, the cast is especially strong on the female side, which in the past had been the weaker sex. Amy Poehler is a dynamo whose raw energy and determination can rescue all but the most miserable material. She will be back next season, an NBC spokesman said yesterday, but will be taking some weeks off for maternity leave. Her baby is due in the fall.
Kristen Wiig, another astoundingly versatile performer, really blossomed this season and is expected to return next. She has developed a repertory of quixotic characters who are fiendishly funny even though they'd be intolerably irritating if encountered in real life. Wiig didn't have quite as much to do as usual on the season finale, though one audience member said she did the show's warm-up very effectively, singing instead of telling jokes. She also brightened up the very last sketch in the show, a musical spoof about a couple (Wiig and Carell) planning for their first child. It was a lot better than the very first sketch in the show. Carell proved an especially hard-working host, appearing in more of the sketches than many hosts have done.
Wiig and Poehler, both tremendous talents, have managed a neat trick often cited as one of Lucille Ball's signature feats: being funny and attractive at the same time. Newcomer Casey Wilson, added as a featured player when the show returned after the strike, may be promoted to cast member in order to handle some of Poehler's chores when she's away.
Among the male cast members, Andy Samberg is easily the least expendable, having made a name for himself in the "SNL Digital Shorts" that air each week and then move to the Internet. Samberg can do outrageous farce or subtle spoofs. Darrell Hammond, who has been with the show longer than any other cast member, continues to contribute inspired and definitive impressions of showbiz stars and political figures.
McCain won't be joining the cast, of course, having other preoccupations, but he did a first-class job in two appearances on the season finale. It was strange that Executive Producer Lorne Michaels chose to open the show with a childish skit about naughty names and not, as has become a tradition this season, with a political sketch -- especially with McCain conveniently right there in the building.
In his first appearance, McCain sat at a vaguely presidential desk and addressed "My fellow Americans" (twice, having been drowned out by applause the first time) and suggested that when choosing the next president, Americans should look for "someone who is very, very, very old." The segment was written by James Downey, who has authored most of the "cold open" political sketches.
McCain showed up again during the mock newscast "Weekend Update," denouncing, among other things, a "device that can jam 'Gaydar.' " He also reiterated the assertion that he has "the oldness necessary" to be president. One thing that might get old quickly -- and maybe already has -- are jokes about McCain's age, many of them recycled Ronald Reagan lines. But if McCain himself makes them, they can't be considered very offensive.
Usher, the way-cool pop star, performed twice, the second song being by far the more impressive. It was inventively choreographed, replete with two slinky babes who not only walked but danced in what looked like the highest heels on the planet. Any higher and they would have surely gone face first into the floor.
"SNL" season finales are rarely among the best shows of whatever season is being completed. The exhaustion of the entire company, those before and behind the cameras, seems palpable even to us out here in television land. But viewers sort of share in this rather than merely observe it. Certainly the old hip boast that "I never watch 'Saturday Night Live' " seems like ancient history now, and the exhilarating excellence of the current cast is probably the chief reason why.