Will Ferrell Returns to SNL, Wrapping the World in a Warm, Familiar Comedy Blanket
Before DVRs, part of the charm of Saturday Night Live was that it created a sort of community of viewers — granted, the kind of community who didn’t have anywhere to be on a Saturday evening, so not necessarily a club you wanted to join four times a month. Its jokes became like prehistoric viral culture, a consolation prize to rehashing the best moments of the weekend’s rager. It gave you something to talk about at brunch (brunch sucks; I’m saying “brunch” hypothetically) at the dining hall if you’d been stuck inside all weekend writing a term paper and had missed the physical experience of the club, the bar, the house party. Its relevance has always been at least partially related to the repetition of catchphrases, pratfalls, and goof-ups, within the show (legions of “What Up With That”s, “MacGruber”s, “Church Lady”s) and without (the far-reaching effects of “More Cowbell” made it leap from the mirror like Bloody Mary; “More Cowbell” essentially slimed out of our televisions and entered society in 3-D). Ever since Saturday Night Live has been available for consumption as Sunday Morning Hangover or Wednesday Afternoon Lunch Break, and perhaps even more so since the introduction of the digital short in 2005 (Lettuce), it’s become somehow more satisfying to revisit, even as it so often revisits itself. That’s why this weekend’s episode with host Will Ferrell, and a self-fellating celebration of the 100th digital short, was so good.
The opener featured a sulking, adolescent Joe Biden (Jason Sudeikis) pouting at his model train in his bedroom and awaiting the arrival of his supposedly imaginary friend George. Of course, the George in question was a reprisal of Ferrell’s Dubya, who delivered some greatness (but just enough — the sketch never dragged) while holding a hoagie on a plate and sipping an O’Doul’s. It’s easier, if possible, to laugh at the memory of GWB as it recedes into history: shooting butterflies with a shotgun and jabbing at the phrase “mission accomplished” as what the former president said when he didn’t feel like talking about something anymore is way less suicide-inducing than it once was. The memory of Ferrell’s caricature is potently nostalgic, a reminder of how helpful SNL can be when you’re stuck in the middle of a war that left so many feeling like we were being served a plate of tainted salmon night after night for many years and told we couldn’t leave the table until we’d finished it.
The host’s monologue, featuring Will Ferrell’s mom (who looks like she must have given birth to him at age 10 or something — lady, what night cream do you use? DM me in 30 years), didn’t require singing, which I always appreciate. The Nasaflu parody ad hinged on the one-note barking-sneeze Ferrell, as Kristen Wiig’s flu-ridden husband, delivered over and over again. Being able to get laughs at the same HWAH! noise six or seven or 8,000 times is tough, and something probably only Ferrell could have pulled off. He did. Another alum, Ana Gasteyer, returned for a Marty and Bobbie Culp appearance at an LGBT prom sketch: the ever-hot mic, a mash-up of “Rumor Has It,” “Super Bass,” and One Direction, and a bald cap on Ferrell that made him look like a Kanamit made for a cool and refreshing cocktail. It wasn’t as much a gigglefest as it was a TV dinner, familiar and pleasant.
Will Forte also showed up, as ESPN Classic’s Greg Stink in a ’90s-era broadcast brought to you, as usual, by Stayfree maxi pads (you know, when your uterine lining looks like the elevator from The Shining). What will always keep this sketch fresh for me is the undercurrent (overcurrent, really) of how machos like to envision our periods: At one point, Stink talks aspirationally about the ability to “let ‘er rip” — LOL. It rips itself, boys. Ferrell shows up as a faulty-earpieced anchor on location waiting outside of OJ Simpson’s house, chatting on a Zack Morris cell phone with somebody or other about the dimensions of his penis (width: a McDonald’s straw) and taking swigs from a flask. No tie-in between If I Did It and menstrual accoutrements, but you can’t have everything.
Or maybe you can. The hundredth installment of the digital short had absolutely everything a person could have hoped for: Booth Jonathan scaring himself because he’s a man and he knows how to suck his own dick, Shy Ronnie, Jon Hamm as Sergio, dicks in boxes, Justin Bieber, musical guest and supercrush Usher, and of course Will Ferrell (endorsing the song/sucking his own dong). It was the kind of video that was so crammed with goodies that it probably bears watching again. (Go do that now. Get your kids or your grandma out of the room and pleasure yourself all over again. If that didn’t get you in the kind of mood to appreciate Ferrell in a spectacular tiger hoodie/jacket as he introduced Usher’s first song, “Scream,” I can’t help you become a good person and you should probably just sew your eyelids shut and die.) Incidentally, Usher was rocking a Krush Groove–era aesthetic that really worked for him. He wasn’t wearing leather pants, as I thought upon first glance, but he may as well have been. Any pants Usher wears immediately become leather, or maybe sharkskin.
This “Weekend Update” was far superior to last week’s: Time’s breastfeeding cover was skewered in a “Really?!” segment (these, admittedly, have lost a lot of their impact since the departure of Amy Poehler) and a Liam Neeson edition of “Get in the Cage” with Nicolas Cage/Andy Samberg (again with the Kanamits) were highlights. Because I am the only person in the world who could watch “What’s Up With That” a million more times, its cousin “C-SPAN Funkytown Debate” swooped in next to offer Kenan Thompson an opportunity to half-sing, half-speak his way through a disco debate as mayor of Funkytown, Dr. Silky Delicious. Ferrell, an opponent called Captain Catfish, was accompanied by his running mate Mr. Galactic Fantastic (Usher), and then there was Nasim Pedrad as straightwoman candidate Janet Nichols. Ferrell’s Catfish sort of reminded me of a stanky, Boogie Nights twin of his character Ashley Schaeffer on Eastbound and Down, and watching Usher weave behind him in a shoulder-jerking dance and Elton John sunglasses was immensely satisfying. These sketches are their own breed, and not for everyone: Instead of a punchline, you get a weird picnic lunch of comic characters parading under a disco ball, and Jay Pharoah in a diaper sucking a pacifier. Maybe “disco” is the new “bees.”
The one relative dud of the night was a promising concept. “Broadway Sizzle” could have achieved greatness (the concept of Broadway buffs on public access is ripe), but it seemed to lose its footing even though Ferrell (who seemed to be losing his voice a little, but fought on admirably) soldiered through two songs intended for women, “Pear Trains” (he was evocative enough about the pears, but really missed illustrating the trains) and “Damn It, Pam.” This sketch revved and revved but never zoomed off the way it was supposed to. Also, this was Bill Hader’s only sketch in the show, and all he was given was a pair of shoulder pads in a shiny suit. Where is Vinny Vedecci? Why was I robbed of seeing Bobby Moynihan petulantly perched on Will Ferrell’s lap? Do I have to conjure this in my dreams tonight just to get by? Luckily, this was followed by Usher’s second song, “Climax,” during which he tortured his eyebrows, hung out in an impossibly high register, and impregnated everyone. When he took off his jacket, your birth control pills were replaced by tablets of ecstasy. Use backup.
Finally (or almost finally, because a repeat of “Almost Pizza” was delivered to our doors at the close of the show — now more relevant because of its “Just taste it!” overtones?), we were handed a new incarnation of the anniversary-party sketch. I like these. Will Forte appeared as a creepy, dark-spectacled party guest in favor of the sanctity of heterosexual marriage (he won’t say Obama’s name, so he says it backwards: Amabo; he sticks in a Hussein for good measure), and Wiig’s ailing attendee, Gail, speared the formidable dragon of finding hilarity in an oxygen tank. Ferrell didn’t have too much to do in this one, but he did manage to wipe the mic of its Gail germs for his second toast and hit whatever mysterious joke there is in the situation of mistaking a bank for a JoS. A. Bank store. Was he funny in this sketch? Or was seeing Ferrell up on a stage using a subspecies of his Ron Burgundy voice just enough of a mental trigger to conjure up everything funny he’s ever done? It’s hard to make the distinction, and making it might be beside the point. Episodes like this one are what SNL is all about: an institution that’s weathered some pretty bleak times, hit incredible highs, and created its own bizarre theme park out of a weekend wormhole. In 10 years, after you’ve given birth to the earbaby you conceived during “Climax,” maybe you’ll find yourself on the sofa watching the 220th digital short. No matter how infinitesimal the shot of Michael Bolton as Jack Sparrow is, wedged between 2016’s viral hit and some weird nod to a sketch from 1982, you’ll get it. You’ll still swear that it’s not as good as it was back when staying up past 11:30 was effortless, in your free and funny youth, but it might have more depth. More cowbell. The same funny mashed potatoes, which always surprise you at how they stand up to reheating.
Mick Jagger is next week. Maybe he’ll show up as a Kanamit. Or maybe he already has.