My reaction to last night’s Saturday Night Live premiere was the same as everybody’s: the much-hyped appearance of Tina Fey as Sarah Palin was fine, and almost everything else was boring.
I don’t blame Michael Phelps for that. Phelps is not telegenic, not particularly handsome, not really a showbiz type — that’s part of his appeal, that he’s a great athlete who’s a little awkward when not doing what he does best. Anyway, there’s no reason why he should be good at hosting a comedy show, and SNL was lucky to get him, rather than the other way around; if the SNL writers can’t figure out ways to write around the limitations of a non-actor as host, that’s their problem, not the host’s.
One thing that SNL has had a problem with for a long time, but seems to be getting worse, is the non-specific nature of the writing and the characters. Comics are usually at their best when they’re given something specific to play, either a specific celebrity or political figure, or a very specific type. They’re at their worst, at least in the SNL format, when given non-specific characters like Family Member or Couple in Restaurant (have you noticed that 50% of all comedy sketches ever written involve a couple going to a restaurant where the waiters are wacky?) or even generic types like the characters in the quiz show sketch; with not much time to write or rehearse, it’s no wonder they can’t make anything specific out of these things. It’s personal taste, of course, but I find I enjoy these performers’ work more when they’re given an established character to riff on — like Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin or the celebrities on the Match Game sketch last season — rather than trying to make up a character on the spot.