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.