SNL: Courtney Barnett, Fred Armisen, Bobby Moynihan (CREDIT: YouTube Screenshot)


This review was originally posted on Starpulse in May 2016.

It hardly feels like Fred Armisen, one of the longest-tenured “SNL” cast members of all time (11 seasons), has ever left 30 Rockefeller Plaza. He has returned to cameo 7 times in the 3 years since departing, and he regularly collaborates with other “SNL” vets on his current regular gigs, “Late Night” and “Portlandia” (both produced by Lorne Michaels). But he has shown restraint this season, only appearing once before (to memorialize David Bowie). So while his first time as host is in no way long overdue, it is also not overkill. Speaking of cameos, several other alums also stop by, as befitting a season finale. This means that there is some squeezing out of the regular cast, but not of the good ideas. Year 41 ends on a high note.

Bernie and Hillary – “SNL” wraps up one of its wackiest political years with its two all-star impressions: one that broke big exactly as expected and the other a delightful surprise. The dance between Kate McKinnon’s Hillary and Larry David’s Bernie is as testy as the real deal. As they really explore the studio, there is a celebratory air that the show reserves only for times when it knows it has something special to celebrate. But wisely, it is not all just kissing and making up, because there is plenty of tension in this primary that the last call setting brings into focus. This is a summary of the fictionalized version of a slice of this campaign that “SNL” has managed to have its pulse on. B

Fred Armisen’s Monologue (BEST OF THE NIGHT) – Fred goes by his most particular predilections in his first monologue, with an excerpt from his (2 hours, 40 minutes-long) one-man show about his start on “SNL”: “Love, From New York, I Did Saturday’s Right Fun Fame & Fred on the 17th Floor.” (This is not the first time he has gone the one-man route.) His versions of New York and “SNL” are unmistakably archaic. They have this wild, paradoxical mix of honesty and dishonesty. It does not take Sherlock Holmes to know that this origin story did not really go down as Fred tells it, but his commitment to this dorky storytelling indicates a heft of emotional truth. When those guys who never believed in him (with their taunts of “Funny Freddy”) finally confess “We’re proud of ya,” it is genuinely touching, even though nobody actually talks like that. A-

Lewis & Clark – This is not the first time Fred has dramatized Lewis & Clark in a lo-fi manner. In this iteration, things get a little hot and heavy for Fred’s Lewis, Kyle Mooney’s Clark, and Cecily Strong’s Sacagawea (but mostly just Lewis and Clark) as they perform for a class of teenagers. From there, it proceeds a little unexpectedly, with Aidy Bryant’s teacher not calling for an end, but instead declaring it “breathtaking.” All of the students disperse, except for an especially excited Pete Davidson, who at first appears to be amped for action involving Sacagawea (Cecily, as usual, knows how to make sexy weirdly hilarious), but as she gets pushed to the sidelines, he is still ready to go. The shock value here is more silly than satirical, but there is some welcome progressiveness, as the man-on-man action, while admittedly played for laughs, is homoerotic and decidedly not homophobic. B

An SNL Digital Short: Finest Girl – Make that two sketches in a row with homoeroticism in which the joke is not that two guys are getting it on but which two guys are getting it on (Uncle Sam and Osama bin Laden in this case). But the main pairing is Conner4real (Andy Samberg) and the girl who wants him to go as hard as the U.S. military did when taking down the 9/11 mastermind. Conner is Andy’s character in the upcoming “PopStar: Never Stop Never Stopping,” so while this is essentially a glorified commercial, he gets a pass by putting the work into an actual sketch. This has the oomph of surprise that the Digital Shorts of yore thrived on, which is especially strong with that ending, a clever twist on a stock trope, wherein “It was all a dream” becomes the timelier “It was all VR.” B+

Regine – Somewhat shockingly, the only recurring character that Fred resurrects this whole episode is the astoundingly pretentious, discomfortingly affectionate Regine. Even more unexpected, she gets a huge applause, despite only ever having appeared twice before and proving to be a little divisive. It is possible that that rapturous reaction is actually for a guesting Jason Sudeikis, whose chemistry with Fred has much more to draw from than that of Daniel Craig and Christoph Waltz (who were fine, but mostly just let Fred do his thing). Sudeikis knows how to match him, which is essential, because as Regine’s only mode is over the top, she needs someone on her level to prevent her from going out of control. Also ensuring success is the viciousness of her empty bons mots. (“Oh, I love that.” “Then never mind, you ruined it.”) B

Farewell, Mr. Bunting – This filmed bit starts out as practically a shot-for-shot recreation of “Dead Poets Society.” There is nary a joke, save for Beck Bennett’s reading of the textbook stating the message in blunt form (“Poetry should not be fun,” “The arts in general are for women and homosexuals”). But talk about blunt. Shock value is as shock value does; if it is to produce laughs, it must be well-timed, and this decapitation feels surprising, but inevitable. B+

Courtney Barnett – “Nobody Really Cares If You Go to the Party” – With an album title like Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit and a song with a chorus that goes, “I wanna go out but I wanna stay home,” Australian rocker Courtney Barnett could very well be the originator of a hashtag movement entitled #SoAmbivalent. She is, however, not indecisive about good, solid rock music composition and purposeful, angular staging. B+

Weekend Update – Their chemistry and righteous indignation a given at this point, Michael and Colin spend their final Season 41 outing getting in their last few Trump digs. Presumably, there will be plenty more to get to in the fall, but there are some that just have to be gotten to now. This time the focus is on the 2nd amendment and Trump’s reckless certainty in times of crisis, with quite the simile in which Colin contends that the Donald is himself like a gun (“we think he’s gonna make us safe and strong, but he might end up accidentally killing us”). They also clear the docket of some jokes proposed earlier in the year that were initially considered too harsh. There are a few good ones in the mix (especially the lone Asian student named “Kung Fu Panda”). None of them, however, are really any more objectionable than usual. At least they inspire a memorable Che-ism (“Who do you feel sorry for?” he asks the audience, as they gasp when Colin implies that Jared Fogle will be forced to perform oral sex on his cellmate). Michael and Colin’s Grade: B
Weekend Update: Dilma Rousseff – While Brazil has been in the news plenty, its recently impeached president is hardly a recognizable figure in America. So Maya Rudolph’s spin on her is less about anything specific to Rousseff and more about Rudolph’s propensity for a fast-talking, faked take on a Romance language (her hopeless attempts at pronouncing “mosquito” are reminiscent of the Nuni’s), with some drunken beach-going thrown in for good measure. This portrayal is hardly sharp, but it is so energetic that it cannot help but inspire a few laughs. B
Weekend Update: Willie – Kenan’s eternal, infernal optimist stumbles into telling stories in which he is adjacent to civil rights activism, but not doing much to help. Police let loose the hoses on him, which he deems an acceptable replacement for the public pool, and then even more concerning, he throws rocks at Jackie Robinson instead of the Dodgers’ opponents. This is a slightly different spin on this hapless fellow, one that does not paint him so well, but it inspires more goofy exasperation than indignant frustration, as his guilelessness is still at full throttle. B

Escape Pod – The awkwardness of social niceties is perennial in comedy. It works especially well in dramatic situations in which such politeness can usually be done away with, and it can be exacerbated by automated technology that has no feel for manners. This tale of a team of astronauts facing certain death understands all that and goes to a place that most likely nobody has ever actually experienced. The idea that an escape pod is tricked out with so many amenities is joke enough. Putting those amenities in action in a crisis situation is where the story comes in, and what a silly, but pointed, story it is. B

Woodbridge High School Student Theatre Showcase – The latest edition of the pretentious theatre kids features Larry David, which is a smart decision. But then oddly, he gets up and leaves after only the first scene. He plays that last-straw frustration well, of course, but it would be nice to have it last longer. Luckily, Vanessa and Kenan’s parent characters are quite reliable to keep this troupe just enough in check. (A highlight: the show is dedicated to Prince, but Michael Jackson’s picture is on the program. Intentional to make a “point,” perhaps?) As for the performance, the kids keep on being creative and upping the ante of extremity (rich people are buying bodies and elections at rich grocery stores!). B+

Courtney Barnett – “Pedestrian at Best” – While Courtney Barnett goes through this existential crisis of a song, she is not so out of her mind that she cannot pull off a series of cool turns of phrase. The same root and meaning applies to the title and “put me on a pedestal,” while the exacting ex’s of “exceptional” and “exploit” bring the heat. She is on fire. B+

The Harkins Brother Band – This all-out honky-tonk performance at the 38th St. Community Center is the latest in a distinguished line of fictional “SNL” bands across many genres featuring Fred Armisen (perhaps most famously the Blue Jean Committee). The size of the group also calls to mind the epic performance of “Fly High Duluth.” And the season-ending placement, with every cast member and every guest star appearing, is reminiscent of “Goodnight Saigon.” The Harkin Brothers may unfortunately be a footnote compared to all those, because with the show running late, this sketch is cut short after just a few minutes. The size of this number indicates that the original intention must have been to go at least twice as long. Still, it is never not nice to see literally everyone on stage. B

Notes & Quotes:
-Hillary, after sharing a laugh over Bernie’s schmuck move of insisting people ignore her emails: “I do not like humor, but that was funny.”
-Fred claims to have “grown up” at “Saturday Night Live,” which must be a relative term, because, at 35 years when he joined the show, he was on the older side for “SNL” rookies.
-Fred’s voice for his mother appears to be the same that he uses for Nina on “Portlandia.”
-Best couplet from “Finest Girl”: “You’re harboring a fugitive/THAT ASS!”
-“What are you celebrating? Averageness?”
-“A man streamed the birth of his son live on Facebook, and it’s been viewed more than 50,000 times, weirdly all by Che.”
-“And that’s why now, I spell hero with a capital Zachary.”