My Un-Favourite SNL Jokes


It’s a sad commentary on the way  my mind works that what I want to talk about after this weekend’s TV viewing is not the new Battlestar Galactica episode, but the lameness of the Saturday Night Live sketches. Well, every SNL episode since the inception has had lame sketches in it. But some of these sketches suffered not only from being unfunny, but from comedy techniques that the SNL writers use over and over again, usually with Disastrous Results.

The Dick Cheney sketch, for example, used one of my least favourite SNL formats: the straight man (or straight woman in this case) asks a question, gets an answer, asks another question and gets the same answer, and then proceeds to ask a series of increasingly ridiculous questions, all with the same answer. I flashed back to a sketch they did during the Clinton impeachment hearings, where Chief Justice Rehnquist is the straight man, and the joke is that the Republicans and Democrats are evenly split along partisan lines on every issue. Rehnquist keeps asking questions, hoping to find something the Senate can agree on, and finally gets them to agree that the Tracey Ullman Show was overrated. That sketch was a little better than the Cheney one because they actually did throw in some variations on the theme. Here, and in other sketches, there is nothing funny about any of Cheney’s answers (I thought they were going for something funny with the Old Yeller one, but no), so the only joke is that Diane Sawyer is looking for something that he feels sorry about. You can do a good sketch with someone giving the same answer over and over, but the writers have to come up with ways to vary the formula so it doesn’t get boring, like the Monty Python writers did with the “Argument Clinic” sketch (Cleese doesn’t just say “no it isn’t” over and over again without a break; at one point he breaks up the monotony by justifying his own behaviour — “Look, if I argue with you, I must take up a contrary position”). Here it’s clear that the SNL writers thought they didn’t have to do any variations on Cheney’s “no, I do not” response, creating a bizarre format where the straight lines are the only “jokes” in the whole sketch.

The other SNL trope I’m tired of? Songs that don’t rhyme. Seriously. Two sketches in a row, the Aladdin parody and the Andy “Still Coasting off Two Good Sketches” Samberg digital short, were built around songs with lyrics that didn’t rhyme, and this is something that SNL does a lot (like in the “McGruber” theme songs). The subtext is supposed to be that the singer is trying to cram un-lyrical ideas into a song, and therefore can’t come up with any rhymes, but while it works occasionally, it doesn’t work when they do it over and over again, and makes me just wish the writers would come up with some rhymes already.

Back to BSG for a moment: I reacted well to the season premiere, unlike Heather Havrilesky in Salon, but my reaction to it may have to do with the fact that I’m more an appreciator than a fan of the show. That is, I know it’s terrific, but the things it’s terrific at are not the things that make my heart race. It’s science fiction, it’s genre TV that takes itself very seriously, it has come to depend heavily on revelations and surprises (I couldn’t really bring myself to care who the fifth Cylon was), and it mines much of its story material from inflicting as much pain and suffering as possible on its characters  — all of which makes for great TV, just not the kind to inspire me to fandom. (Again, that’s totally a personal reaction; we all become big fans of different things depending on how we’re wired.) But since I’ve accepted long ago that the revelations and the overriding sense of gloom and doom are built into Ron Moore’s format, I didn’t really mind the extra-gloomy, extra-doomy tone. To me that’s just what BSG is.

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My Un-Favourite SNL Jokes

  1. I agree with you on the questions-with-the-same-answer sketches (though I’m happy to say I didn’t see last night’s edition). An example of where that could be done right is when John Goodman played “The Ref” in a radio show following a football game. Goodman was playing an honest, straightforward sort of guy — I think that’s where the humour turned, on the fact that he couldn’t perceive the questioners’ fury.

    Good writing beats all. These days, SNL doesn’t have a lot of good writing.

  2. Sorry, I was too busy watching Rosario Dawson breath to realize that they were singing. What didn’t rhyme?

  3. Like the 30 Rock premiere episode, I’m waiting to see when multi-year head writer Meyers is finally “forced” to hire a black actor other than portly Thompson. That first opening, post monologue, sketch wasn’t what I’d expect with this Tuesday’s upcoming history making Presidential Inauguration.

  4. I thought the line about Top Gun and Goose dying was funny. Otherwise the show was a bit ho-hum.

  5. Very astute analysis of exactly HOW SNL manages to be so unfunny. I’d noticed the “same answer” format (the Cheney sketch was so weak I was surprised to see it in the lead-off position–usually the only funny part of the show), but hadn’t really thought about how often they use the non-rhyming lyrics trope. The latter at least has some inherent funniness (it’s just been way overused).

    They did an unfunny variation on the “same answer” thing a few years ago in a sketch making fun of Ann Coulter. It’s hard to imagine an easier target than Coulter, but all they could come up with was to have her answer every question with some gibberish variation on the words “slander” and “treason” (e.g., “glander” and “bleason”). It became clear to me at that moment that “Naturday Sight Blive” “breally blucks.”

  6. I”m much more of an SNL die-hard but I agree, last weekend’s show was pretty weak, musical guest aside (seriously, one of the best bookings in years). The main reason? The writing. I find it interesting there seems to be so many more staff writers than there has been in the past (and that’s not including castmembers’ contributions), but they can’t seem to get as many strong sketches in a show than past teams.

    I actually think this season’s a bit stronger than it has been the past few years. Unlike a lot of people, I thought 2006-07 was one of the low points in the show. It’s as if the writers forgot basic sketch comedy writing techniques. The new director they hired also was a pretty bad fit for the show. But one thing I’ve always noticed is that for quite a while, the January shows have almost always tended to be on the underwhelming side, 2002’s Jack Black and last week’s Neil Patrick Harris show notwithstanding.

    I actually am starting to feel really sorry for Casey Wilson. Most of the good parts are still going to Kristen Wiig and Michaela Watkins is already making a stronger impression in two months than Casey has in almost a year.