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Monthly Archives: November 2014

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We are now into the 40th season of Saturday Night Live, which is being celebrated with the same pomp and circumstance as the 100 Anniversary of World War I and the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War.

Every five year marker provides another excuse for a look back at SNL’s greatest hits.   And why not?  The skits that get shown again and again (“Schweddy Balls,” “More Cowbell,” “Chippendales,” “Lazy Sunday”) are legitimately hilarious.  But there are so many others that should be elevated to the canon.  Here are my candidates, which I’ve arbitrarily limited to the current millennium.  (Also, please note that because these sketches are not on YouTube, you ned to click on the highlighted links, not on the photo.)

In any event, here are ten frequently overlooked sketches that are as good as the classics:

Numbers 10 and 9: “What’s That Name?”:

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I have a very high regard for the two “What’s That Name” sketches in which game show contestants attempt to identify the names of people they should know, but don’t.  In addition to being hilarious, these two sketches make a profound comment on our own self-absorption, especially as it pertains to power dynamics.  In the first sketch, two ordinary people played by Paul Rudd and Vanessa Bayer can’t tell the name of people they see every day.  We can identify with the very ordinariness of these contestants, which creates that feeling of personal discomfort that is the root of great humor.

To watch this sketch click here

A follow-up sketch with Justin Timberlake and Lady Gaga playing themselves in a version of “Celebrity What’s That Name” is not quite as biting, because we can’t identify with Timberlake like we do with the Paul Rudd character, but the twist in the way Lady Gaga plays the game is a delight.

To watch this sketch click here

Number 8 “Hermione’s Growth Spurt”

Linday Lohan

Believe it or not, there was a time when Lindsay Lohan was sane enough to be the host of Saturday Night Live.  In this sketch she plays an over-developed Hermione Granger, who causes the eyes of Harry Potter and Ron Weasley to pop out of their heads.  The skit is significant because it’s one example of Seth Meyers actually contributing significantly to a character in a non-Weekend Update role.

To watch this sketch click here: 

Number 7: “Jebediah Atkinson”

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The current SNL cast is one of the weakest in generations, with only Taran killam and Kate McKinnon providing consistently hilarious work.  Here’s Taran as Jebediah Atkinson, the critic who panned The Gettysburg Address and every other speech ever made.  Next!!!

To watch this sketch click here: 

Number 6: Angela Merkel

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The aforementioned Kate McKinnon seems to have taken Kristen Wiig’s role as SNL’s go-to girl among the current cast.  Here she is as a world-weary Angela Merkel, acting like the quintessential “good” teen who just wants to have a little fun.  Like many of SNL’s best sketches, this one is extremely intelligent, depending on the viewer not only to know who Merkel is, but also German’s geopolitical position in the world.

To watch this sketch click here: 

Number 5: “Vincent Price’s Halloween Party”

Jon Hamm as James Mason

Vincent Price’s Halloween Party is a complete surprise, spoofing the pop culture icons of 1960: Gloria Swanson, Liberace, James Mason, etc.  Who’d have thought there was any comedy gold left there to mine?  And speaking of James Mason, this sketch is an SNL legend because  Jon Hamm was originally supposed to play a drunken Dean Martin, but literally at the last minute Lorne Michaels suggested that he switch the character to Mason and Hamm nailed it live without ever having rehearsed it.

To watch this sketch click here

Number 4:  “Taylor Swift PSA”

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Taylor Swift was one of those unexpectedly great guest hosts who’s full of good humor about herself and has surprising comedic timing.  Here she is as a teen who has produced a Public Service Announcement about the dangers of bad parental driving.

To watch this sketch click here

Number 3:  “Sully, Denise and Nomar”

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This sketch might be funnier to Bay Staters than the rest of America, but I’ve been laughing about it for years.  Jimmy Fallon and Rachel Dratch are Sully are Sully and Denise, the working class teens from Lexington Mass who were recurring characters on the show 13 times. In this sketch, Sully’s slutty sister (Kate Hudson) brings Nomar Garciaparra home for a date and Sully and Denise act like tweens at a One Direction concert.

To watch this sketch click here: 

Number 2: “Really? With Seth and Amy”

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In case you’ve wondered, yes, this blog is name after the SNL News commentary segment “Really!? With Seth and Amy.” Their first offering of this segment (see below) was by far the funniest.  Before Michael Vick was arrested for Dog Fighting (not funny), he was arrested for trying to smuggle marijuana on an airplane, a circumstance that Seth and Amy found completely ridiculous.  Really, Michael Vick?  How stupid are you?

To watch this sketch click here:

Number 1: “Locker Room Pep Talk”

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This sketch, with Will Forte as a coach who tries to inspire his team with an odd selection of music, is the most egregious example of an underappreciated SNL sketch.  Not only do I think it is the most underappreciated sketch, I think it’s the funniest SNL sketch of all time.  And yet it is never in the top 100 and not even available online.  I have to wonder if NBC refused to pay for the rights to the song or if there’s an issue with the Herb Albert estate, because the only place I could find it was, first, on a Korean website, which was shut down, and then on a Reddit site, from which now links to an empty page.  Now it’s available on a wrap-up article on thewrap.com.  In any event, like Taylor Swift, Peyton Manning turned out to be a surprisingly terrific guest host and boy can he dance!

To watch this sketch click here and scroll down: 

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CORRECTION/ADDENDUM

I was chastised by my wife for leaving out a family favorite — “Tim Tebow Meets Jesus,” in which Jesus (Jason Sudeikis) visits the Denver Broncos locker room during one of Tebow’s prayers of thanksgiving after another amazing victory (boy does that seem like ancient history now).  Jesus asks the team to try a little harder so he doesn’t always have to intercede on their behalf. Hah.  This bit should rank as the funniest final-sketch-of-the-night.  Did Lorne Michaels not realize just how funny this was?  It was so undervalued that the guest host that night — Jimmy Fallon — didn’t even appear in it.

In any event, to watch this sketch, click here.

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Mindy and Danny

You know what trigger warnings are, right?  They’re written cautions that are supposed to prevent people from experiencing post-traumatic flashbacks if they come across a subject that might upset them.  So consider yourself trigger-warned: this piece describes the sexual behaviors of modern sitcom characters.

Normally I’m not this squeamish about discussing sitcom plots but I was given pause by a recent episode of “The Mindy Project,” which revolved around whether Mindy and her current love interest would engage in anal sex.

Really? Fifth base in a sitcom?  This is what we’ve come to in the world of sophisticated situation comedy?  Mindy Kaling herself was quick to defend the episode as boundary-pushing and valid because “we [i.e. the writers] wanted to acknowledge that everybody deals with this but nobody wants to talk about it.”  Really? Only in a Hollywood writers’ room would there be a consensus that “everybody” deals with anal sex.

People have been complaining about sex on television for decades and it’s been a long losing battle for conservatives, religious groups, and family organizations.   The more they protest the more sex there is.  There’s so much sex now that no one even bothers to track it any more.  The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, which used to fund annual studies on sex on TV, has been out of the sex racket for almost a decade and no one has taken their place.

Just like you don’t need a weatherman to tell which way the wind is blowing, you don’t need a foundation to tell there’s more sex on TV than ever before.  Just last week, MediaPost’s own Adam Buckman questioned whether there was much of anything that couldn’t be shown on TV these days given the graphic sex scenes on a recent “Sons of Anarchy” episode.   The sitcom world is not quite as porny as basic cable dramas but it’s still a pretty smutty place.

Way back in the more innocent 1990’s, when there was a loud debate about the sexualization of television, The New York Times wrote a definitive piece reporting that three out of four shows in the so-called “Family Hour” (8:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.) contained sexual references – an average of 3.1 per episode. Network executives were quick to defend themselves by pointing out that most of these instances were jokes, flirting or kissing, but hardly any actual sexual intercourse.  The working assumption was that talking about sex was OK but that promiscuous sex would render a character unlikable.

And then came “Sex and the City,” a pay TV show about four single gals on the make in Manhattan, reveling in shoes, champagne and casual sex.  They just didn’t talk about it, they actually did the deed – a lot!  But rather than recoil at the tawdriness of this lifestyle, millions of viewers – mostly women – embraced the show, making it a massive hit and raising the sex bar for all other cable and broadcast sitcoms.

Of course, “Sex and the City,” “Mindy” and like-minded shows function as fantasies, reflecting none of the reality of actual sexuality as it’s lived by real people.  The Daily News calculated that during “Sex and the City’s” six seasons the four main characters had sex with 94 men and one woman.  That comes out to about 5 sexual partners per character per year.  But according to the Kinsey Institute, the average woman in the 30-44 age range reports having just four male sexual partners in her lifetime, not 5 per YEAR as on “Sex in the City.”

What is it about sitcoms that lend themselves to sex-based subplots? One clear answer is that the networks are desperate to attract young single viewers with a lot of disposable income, the ones who are much sought-after by advertisers.  And how better to capture those hormone-racing eyeballs than to offer a turbo-charged version of the modern dating world?

But even more to the point, the sex farce, which features multiple romantic pairings and recombinations, has been a staple of popular entertainment since at least Georges Feydeau’s plays graced the Parisian stage in the 1890s. For a while the cinema, via the screwball comedy and the RomCom, was home to the sex farce, but as the film world has gravitated to blockbusters, serious indie films and animated kiddie movies, the sitcom has now become the primary outlet for humorous stories about romantic misadventure.

The truth is, there’s something inherently funny about sex because people lose their self-control, expose their vulnerabilities and generally become ridiculous in the throes of passion.  What happens on TV is just an extremely heightened version of what happens in actual romantic entanglements, and while it’s not funny to the person it’s happening to, it’s frequently funny to an outside observer.

Having said that, there’s more than a little bit of laziness in creating so many sex-related story lines.  It’s a crutch, like using bad language in a stand-up routine.  As far as I can tell, there’s a “Rule of Six” for sitcoms: if there are six or more unmarried characters on the show, at least two pair will hook up during the first two seasons.  It happened on “Friends,” “The Office,” “Parks and Recreation,” Community,” “Girls,” “The New Girl,” “Mindy,” and dozens of other sitcoms.  Nature may abhor a vacuum, but not as much as a showrunner abhors an unattached single character.  Too often, alas, when the characters hook up, it’s because the writers have run out of other ideas.

 

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Election Day. Finally! That’s the time the American electorate sink back into their couches, easy chairs, and Barcaloungers to witness that great rite of American democracy: watching news coverage that aligns with their world views.

In that regard, the award for least surprising news report of the year has certainly already been won by The Pew Research Center,which reported two weeks ago that “when it comes to getting news about politics and government, liberals and conservatives inhabit different worlds.”

Duh — this is about as surprising as those scientific studies that uncover the rather obvious “fact” that good-looking people get waited on faster in stores.

Through the use of an online survey, Pew put some numbers to the phenomenon of Americans watching news according to ideological inclination. The researcher found that 47% of “consistently conservative” Americans get most of their news about government and politics from Fox News, while “consistently liberal” Americans get their news from a wider variety of sources, including CNN (15%), NPR (13%), MSNBC (12%) and the New York Times (10%).

This survey almost certainly understates the disparity between blue and red viewers — and I have to wonder why the reporters who covered this story seemed to believe the numbers really told us anything. There’s a major tip-off that something’s wrong when you look at the results for the whole sample: supposedly CNN is the major source of news for 16% of Americans, while Fox is the runner-up at 14%.  But the Nielsen ratings, which are a lot more accurate, tell a completely different story, given that Fox’s audience is multiple times larger than CNN’s.

For the sake of argument, though, let’s assume that the data are “directionally” correct, even if the actual numbers are off. If I were NPR and The New York Times, which purport to be honest brokers of the news, I’d be a little worried. America is telling them that their reporting leans left. If the only people who get their news from you are “consistent liberals,” that’s a narrow demographic. Yet they don’t seem to care, having heard the same complaints for years and shrugged them off. After all, they’re the New York Timesand NPR; THEY’LL decide when their reporting is skewed.

For the sake of democracy, it’s a shame that the media has broken down along ideological lines and that some of our most respected news institutions are considered the enemy by a large segment of the population. It would be a lot easier to run this country if we could all agree on a common set of facts and priorities. But with ideologically split news sources presenting alternating realities, blue and red voters can’t even speak the same language.

For this I blame the big three networks themselves. For decades they had a monopoly (a triopoly?) on TV news — and, like theTimes and NPR today, shrugged off allegations of bias. Year after year conservatives would rail against media distortion, and year after year the networks would magisterially reply that they reported the news straight and that conservatives just didn’t understand that the role of journalism was to report uncomfortable truths wherever they found them. Somehow it never seemed to worry them that liberals found network news programs highly congenial to their taste, while conservatives despised them.

A low point was reached after the 1994 election, when the Republicans unexpectedly (unexpected by the press at least) won control of the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time in more than 30 years. ABC’s Peter Jennings, one of the Big Three anchor mandarins at the time, had this to say in a subsequent radio commentary: “Some thoughts on those angry voters. Ask parents of any two-year-old and they can tell you about those temper tantrums: the stomping feet, the rolling eyes, the screaming. It’s clear that the anger controls the child and not the other way around. It’s the job of the parent to teach the child to control the anger and channel it in a positive way. Imagine a nation full of uncontrolled two-year-old rage. The voters had a temper tantrum last week…. Parenting and governing don’t have to be dirty words: the nation can’t be run by an angry two-year-old.”

So voting for a Republican Congress is the equivalent of throwing a temper tantrum? No wonder conservatives embraced Fox News when it debuted two years later. Would Rupert Murdoch have even launched Fox News if he hadn’t perceived a massive market opportunity among conservatives who hated what they derisively called the “mainstream media”? Maybe. Maybe not. It certainly costs a lot of money to launch a new network if you aren’t sure you can attract a lot of disaffected viewers.

With Fox raking in the viewers, MSNBC — which had launched in 1996 as a hipper, more technologically focused version of CNN (the MS does stand for Microsoft, the original launch partner, after all) — eventually evolved into a liberal alternative. That hasn’t worked so well, in part because, well, why do you need a liberal alternative to Fox when you already have the three broadcast networks?

Looking back at what the networks have wrought, it’s not as if it would have been impossible to build a news organization that maintained the respect of all sides. According to Pew’s own research, The Wall Street Journal is more trusted than distrusted by all ideological sides. If even one of the network news organizations had tried to achieve that as a goal in the 1980s, we might not have ended up with the ideologically driven news channels of today.

Unfortunately, it’s too late to put the toothpaste back in the tube.  Red and blue versions of the news are here to stay.