How long is a year in cultural terms? Or maybe a better question is, when a public figure disappears from a show for a year after a tearful good-bye, at what point does his or her return become what you want it to be? The problem with inviting Kristen Wiig back to host SNL 12 months after her departure to reprise her roles — as Gilly, improvisational songstress Kat, Doonese, a Californian, and the Target Lady — is that we haven’t had enough time to miss them yet. The best sketches of the night were the ones that featured Wiig in roles we hadn’t seen her in before (scuttling across the ceiling as a Korean water ghost!), but SNL is predictably self-referential, so Wiig’s best-of collection was practically obligated to appear. It didn’t make for a bad show, especially because of Wiig’s matchless energy and the obvious joy on the cast’s part to get to play with her again, but the laughs you get from being borne back ceaselessly into the past are always tempered with a little sadness, like showing up to your one-year high school reunion. Being reminded of the events of a year ago lacks the potency of real nostalgia as well as the fresh promise of something that straddles the present and the future, a sketch that works so well the first time around that you crave more of it (and then repeats four times after you’ve grown unable to stand it anymore). Wiig is still one of the best comediennes out there, but occasionally she was upstaged by her own homecoming.
The cold open was terrible, but the good news is that everything improved from there. C-SPAN’s coverage of the Benghazi hearings is trolling for ratings, so Jodi Arias (Nasim Pedrad) and Ariel Castro (Bobby Moynihan) appear to testify as special guest stars. The audience sounded pretty chilly on this little joke desert, but I’ll give it points for being brief. Wiig’s monologue, during which she sang “I’m So Excited” and danced herself backstage, was charming enough: misidentifying her former cast mates and dressing room, Tasering Kenan Thompson twice, and happening upon a pregnant Maya Rudolph making out with Jonah Hill in the closet (“We’re trying to make a baby”) were high points. Gilly’s moment was over in a blink, which was good news for me over in the Gilly-averse corner. It’s nice that Wiig is poking fun at her camera-1, camera-2 amnesia after such a short absence, but if you didn’t already figure that you were in for more old than new sketches, this monologue killed any lingering doubts.
The 1-800-FLOWERS parody that followed was just about perfect: Kate McKinnon, playing Wiig’s mom, hassled a waiter to sleuth out whether there were nuts in her eggs Benedict, searched her memory for the name of a mattress store (“the owner killed himself!”), lost her debit card, and issued a three-point maternal scathing backhand (“Are you sure you don’t want to keep [these flowers], because your apartment is so sad?”) with terrific aplomb. McKinnon and Wiig play so well off each other, it’s a shame they didn’t share more overlap when Wiig was still in the cast. After the ad, it was time for another long drive on a dusty freeway with an installment of “The Californians.” I love “The Californians,” as you may know, but even I have to admit that I’m ready to retire from its agave margaritas and 405-exit lifestyle. What I once interpreted as a special breed of Southern California existentialism has become more like a contest between blond(e) wigs to see who can make the other actors bust up first. Wiig’s accent has officially gone rogue, and even her Survivor-Reynold mustache and hat disguise weren’t doing it for me. Even the Magic Mountain reference, even the Town Car mix-up that involved Neve Campbell. I felt dead inside. To save me, Maya Rudolph entered the “Spanish-style mini-mansion” as Keitha, the matriarch of Stuart’s “second family in Marina Del Rey.” She accidentally brought “The Californians” a new dimension of SoCal problems, namely the sticky-lip-gloss-and-long-extensions conundrum. How hard did I stare at that strand ensnared in the web of her pout during the close-ups? So. Hard. These tight, lingering expression shots really needed to be taken to level next. “The Californians” always felt, to me, as though it was too big for its cage; Stefon and Drunk Uncle have the same effect. How do you take a sketch and nurture it through an evolutionary process instead of just tethering it to the same joke pole to march around in a circle whenever you want it to?
I don’t know if I could ever get sick of “Aw, Nuts! Mom’s a Ghost!,” however. I’ve already watched it three times, so my internal Nielsen ratings place it just below the “Dead Giveaway” video, and that’s saying a lot. Wiig plays the mother of Haley (Cecily Strong) and Max (Moynihan, flexing his muscles a lot in this episode as various sixth graders) who became a mool-gwishin after being drowned by a Korean businessman following an affair. While there was nothing particularly timely about this sketch (well, maybe Mama?), it was my favorite offering of the night by a mile. Wiig’s timing and tone — flipping from soul-sucking ghoul to sitcom mom in “don’t tell dad” mode — helped the whole thing land even better than it already would have, plus Strong got to bust out her snotty preteen in a much more dynamic way than she does on “Girlfriend Talk Show.” Projectile vomit and humans crawling across ceilings like evil gray crabs really never fail to impress me. I thought I felt the same way about “The Lawrence Welk Show” and Dooneese, but it was a little less impressive than it used to be despite a pretty good gag that featured Dooneese’s disfigured hand reaching out of frame and appearing to grab at Sudeikis from the other side. Armisen, introducing the singing sisters while dodging bubbles, advises that “if a girl has a favorite finger, she doesn’t need a man,” and I laughed when a crustacean attached himself to Doonie’s crotch (“he found my down-there”), but perhaps the bloom is off this rose. Sudeikis even seemed a little wooden and unengaged during this trip to the Finger Lakes. Maybe we should erect a little tombstone for Dooneese: Nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands. R.I.P.
Vampire Weekend gave a solid performance all around. I was actually surprised by how much I liked it, considering that I have turned into Johnny Hates-It-All this season. Their first track, “Diane Young,” the first single from Modern Vampires of the City, used vocal distortion and a sax played by a man in a top hat (things to look at! And no “HEY” in the chorus!), and while “Unbelievers” was pretty good, nobody wore a top hat. Here’s Steve Buscemi singing “Diane Young,” because I love you. It supplies the hats you crave.
“Weekend Update” interrupted its zing-packed stream of one-liners (regarding the NRA’s line of purses with hidden handgun pockets: “If there’s one thing women are good at, it’s quickly retrieving something from their purse”) with a guest spot from Anthony Crispino (Moynihan), the secondhand news correspondent. Crispino’s not really my jam, but I do prefer him to Garth and Kat, who stopped by in flaired-out pink vests and white turtlenecks to wow you with their improvisational songs. Their upcoming album of Mother’s Day music (“Mom, Uh-Huh, You’re the Bomb”) was mostly unintelligible (I wrote down “there’s every time for mothers but no time for nyuamothers,” and that was during a time when I still thought I could understand any of the words that were coming out of Armisen and Wiig’s mouths simultaneously at all), and this sketch just makes me mad. While I think SNL could play with improv more than it does, Garth and Kat’s visits always feel like an acting exercise to me, like watching a tape of people play Zip Zap Zop. For some reason, the Target Lady doesn’t produce the same worn-out reaction, and this sketch holds up better than the rest of the relics from days of yore. This time, the Target Lady busts into her cashier position “ready to rock” and battles with her blood sugar (staving off the crash one half-almond at a time) as she gets dazzled by deodorant and realizes that not all lesbians wear vests. After alienating her customers (Thompson and Bayer) with her ignorance about what maxi pads are used for, her personality drives them away to shop at the opulent oasis of Kohl’s (Bayer leaves reluctantly, asking Thompson “Who are you, Donald Trump?”).
The next sketch, during which Wiig and Bryant massacred Jason Sudeikis’s back with acupuncture needles, gave the show a lift when it really needed it. Every time new material appeared (besides the cold open, of which we must never speak again), it was so refreshing. After lighting a relaxing stick of incense, Wiig inserted some “starter needles” to help her assistant Daphne get the hang of things, but it looks like Daphne could have used an extra Eastern medicine training course to complete her degree, because her first puncture inspires a thin stream of blood to come spurting out of her patient, and There Will (Only) Be (More) Blood. Between applying compression with a ShamWow and giving Sudeikis sips of “ancient Chinese medicine water” (his own blood), the two women dump some of the excess spray out the window, surprising a passerby who exclaims “What is this, blood?” Bryant subdues an alarmed Sudeikis by explaining that it’s just “cool street talk, like ‘yo, wassup Blood?’” After Sudeikis’s bandages (excuse me, “spiritual masking tape”) bubble and explode, Wiig and Bryant run off to join the clinic director (Armisen) in Mexico. Bryant and Wiig give surprisingly understated performances, given the context of the scene, and I will be remastering this sketch when I release my collection of scary/gory SNL hits this Halloween, right along with “Mommy Water Ghost.”
“Double Date” had a script that would have scared me on paper: Wiig and Strong on a double date with sixth-grade boys (Moynihan and Tim Robinson), getting pretty sauced and spitting innuendo-laden game as the kids keep leading the conversation back to Jet Skis and dinosaurs. Surprisingly, it was totally successful, maybe because it steered clear of anything too shocking beyond what was inherent in the premise. Robinson, in what I think might be his best performance so far, orders “noodles with lots of butter” (“such a guy, right?”), and Taran Killam as the enthusiastic waiter laughing his apron off after hearing a story about burping after too much root beer (“WHAT!? WHAT?!?!”) was a good addition (and reminded me fondly of the glice heard ‘round the world). This sketch highlighted what had been clear all night: Wiig really is a joy to share the stage with, an unselfish performer who let Moynihan, Robinson, and Strong shine instead of gobbling up this scene for herself. The show closed with a send-up of the Bravo star vanity-single phenomenon, in this case unknown, rising star housewives and an album that was so hastily assembled its title is “Classy Sexy Elegance.” Despite the humor inherent in a Craig T. Nelson mention (“you played Coach on Coach” has gravitas in Auto-Tune), I wished that this sketch had featured real Housewives to laugh at, instead of fictional approximations. Look, at least we didn’t end with more Gilly. That was my fear all along.
Though there were more than a couple of bright spots, how warmly you received Wiig’s return depended on the fondness you have for the ghosts of casts past. The live audience seemed to appreciate rehashed material, but I have a feeling the viewers at home wanted more spark. Either way, Wiig did her best. After a few more years without her, who knows? We may even be ready to head back to the rattan tables and sun-kissed Chardonnays of “The Californians.” Just let it become vintage. Next week, the season finale features Ben Affleck and actor Kanye West. Here’s to the future.