The 38th season of SNL was not its best. After Mick Jagger sang Kristen Wiig off the show last year in an emotional farewell (Andy Samberg and Abby Elliott departed with her), this season’s exits — both rumored and confirmed — were given a subtler treatment. This season's 21 episodes were occasionally brilliant, but more often they seemed to belong to a kind of blameless nowheresville in need of some substantial bulldozing. The veterans — Fred Armisen has been kicking around for 10 seasons, while Jason Sudeikis became a featured player in 2005 — have appeared understandably tired; the death of the Digital Short haunted bad episodes, whispering, "Remember me fondly?" from a corner of the ceiling. The writing was not universally bad, but it was uneven, perhaps even more so than in previous seasons. And whereas Wiig’s exit was somehow gut-wrenching (which
"Ruby Tuesday" "She's a Rainbow" can be), when Bill Hader and Armisen bid good-bye to Lorne Michaels & Co., it felt like the right time for them to go. Sudeikis is probably out as well, and head writer and "Weekend Update" anchor Seth Meyers will only be able to stay with the show through the fall until he takes over Late Night, which means that next season has no choice but to attempt an evolutionary leap. Again. It might be auspicious: Kate McKinnon and Cecily Strong have proven to be formidable additions to the roster, and Taran Killam and Bobby Moynihan have each hit their stride; there’s also the opportunity to bring in more people of color, wackier writers, and to mess with the format in a way that might shake the stale cooties out of the sheets a little bit. You have to know when to leave the party, and this mass exodus seems to indicate that it’s time to flip on the lights and survey the room. Being the host of this kind of show isn’t exactly a thankless exercise, but the host was not the point. Ben Affleck was tasked with competing for attention not only with musical guest Kanye West, whose head was basically spinning on his neck in a self-consuming Yeezus rapture-state (love you, ’Ye), but the departing cast members' curtain calls. Did he succeed? Of course not, but he wasn’t meant to.
The cold open was a huge improvement over last week’s. Thompson, who is poised to become the show’s veteran performer, brought his phonetically confused Al Sharpton impression to Politics Nation. He addressed conspiracy theories, confused Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell for Matthew McConaughey ("Senator McConnell seems like a real laid-back fella"), and finally presented a bar graph ("bar grap-pah") to a frowny, antiquely dressed member of the Western Slope Conservative Alliance (Hader) contrasting the IRS’s level of harassment of white people over the past 20 years with how much it annoyed black people "yesterday." So quit grousing, tea partiers.
Affleck’s monologue touched on the lack of fanfare afforded him for achieving Five-Timers status — Bobby Moynihan’s halfhearted attempts at celebrating with a shirt bearing the number 5 and a couple of pitiful bars of a song pale in comparison to Justin Timberlake’s welcoming — and his ominous thanks to Jennifer Garner in his Oscars acceptance speech, which "people on the Internet" took the wrong way. Enter Garner, who almost falls off her shoe before issuing a backhanded defense ("I would have said 'Thank-you to my wife, our marriage is a gift'") and then catches Affleck reading a sentimental thank-you from a cue card (this was not the only time he was too conspicuous with the cards, by the way). Both halves of the couple seemed a little nervous about throwing their personal lives into the spotlight, but since Affleck wasn’t promoting an upcoming project, it was probably the best route to take. By the way, what were the mumbles and whispers between them before Garner left the stage? I want to #realtalk this relationship so badly that I was disappointed that Affleck’s monologue wasn’t part of a very serious documentary.
It was inevitable that Argo would get the sketch treatment, and "Iranian Film" put a pretty good spin on it: President Ahmadinejad had "no choice" but to create his own response to the movie, "Bengo Fuck Yourself," starring Ahmadinejad as Affleck. Unfortunately the Boston accent doesn’t come easily to him, and he has to repeat "park the car in Harvard Yard" before each line. Affleck seemed a little smug as the sound engineer, but that might be unavoidable in a joke that pokes fun at your Oscar. My one caveat is that we can’t forget about Gigli unless the world lets us, and the world is not cooperating. Let it die, people. It was too good for this world.
Having not yet had the pleasure of attending a gay wedding — ticktock, friends! Stop giving away the milk for free! — I can only wonder at how accurate "Xanax for Gay Summer Weddings" is, but if there’s one thing that’s bound to make anyone feel small it’s being in the presence of a lot of "immaculate pastel suits" performing choreographed dance routines to Beyoncé’s unreleased singles. Pass the drugs, because even $40,000 party favors aren’t going to make you feel any less insufficient as a human being for having unfabulous nuptials (perhaps marked by your "grandmother call[ing] Obama the n-word — in her toast"). Grooms Sudeikis and Killam releasing white doves into the audience and their chemically altered serotonin receptors was an image I’ll take with me to my next rehearsal dinner.
Even though Hader reliably nails old-timey characters, the next sketch felt like a misuse of his talents, especially considering that we’re about to be deprived of them FOREVER (!). The setting is New York, 1933: Hader, as an unemployed and ill-suited gentleman, is delivering a pep talk to his sausage-curled companion Primadonna (McKinnon), reassuring her that their hardscrabble life is due to turn around. ("Every morning it’s gonna be pancakes stacked as high as the ceiling. Don’t that sound swell, Primadonna?") Affleck, channeling Jimmy Stewart and not doing much else, interrupts to offer Edward a job at his factory, but the particulars of the employment opportunity (work at 8 a.m.? "What if we make it, like, 10-ish?") convince Hader to stick with his current position as a criminal armed with a brick "made to look like a baby, see?" I wished that this sketch’s slot could have been occupied by Vinny Vedecci instead, but I won’t spit in the face of a line like "No offense, mister, but hinge-maker ain’t exactly the password for poontang." McKinnon revealing herself to be a middle-aged hooker instead of Hader’s young daughter ("I’m 40") was a great moment; her presence is one of the show’s biggest attributes, and her likability can rival even Hader’s. I hope someone’s already writing her her very own Stefon.
Rhyming catchphrases and (in this case, teased) heterosexual male makeouts are old SNL standbys, so it wasn’t surprising to see them marched out for the next scene at New Beginnings summer camp, a destination that pairs lanyards with gay conversion therapy. Affleck plays camp director Marvin, a convert himself, who now serves as living proof that "hetero is better, yo." The shots of the campers were brief enough to keep the clichéd flamboyance of sass-hands from getting too offensive, and Killam’s siren-like arts and music counselor was weirdly transfixing, a hypnotizing swirl of feathered fans and a T-shirt shredded and beaded in true camp fashion. When Affleck and Killam threaten to eat each other’s faces with lust, I can’t help but hope that Garner has already left the studio. I need a special Xanax for these sparks. Affleck also plays well with Vanessa Bayer as his perpetually church-bound wife, Deirdre. This was one of Affleck’s strongest performances of the night, though I might have liked to see the material push the boundaries a little further.
Oh, I’m sorry, did I say I wanted boundaries pushed? How about Kanye West performing "Black Skinhead" and making you feel shitty for ever having exchanged money for goods, while images of snapping dog jaws induce seizures? Affleck introduces this performance as if he’s deeply sad on some level for what’s about to happen, maybe because there was lots of yelling ("Agh!") and hypocrisy (in what universe is Kim Kardashian "not for sale"?). Don’t be sad, Ben! This was a deeply unpleasant yet surprisingly fulfilling musical set! Looking back at the musical performances of the season, Kanye’s ranks up there with Rihanna’s in terms of using the buzzworthiness of SNL to get weird with the projection screen and making a statement, even if, in Rihanna’s case, the statement was merely "fractals." Though I do not believe that my main purpose in life is to shit on folk bands appearing on late-night shows, a person doesn’t stay up past midnight in honor of a medium-good, straight take on a tinkly song he or she has already heard six times in the car on the way to the grocery store. A person stays up late to turn to his or her companion and say, "What the hell is this?" Bingo! His second song, "New Slaves," previously seen on the faces of buildings, also employed visual effects, this time appearing as a projected video of Kanye’s face. Watching West, claustrophobically bound to his tiny spotlight, go on about the Hamptons is good enough brain food for me. Is this about Gatsby, this defiling of the Hamptons spouse’s blouses? And how can my heart love something that my ears hate? West’s constant back and forth with his own ego is pretty much the most fascinating spectacle you could hope for in a musical guest set, a form of performance art that seems at once totally controlled and accidentally subtextual.
What a treat to see Amy Poehler back on "Weekend Update," specifically "Really!?! With Seth and Amy." This season has had some very strong "Updates," and this was no exception: On President Obama learning of the IRS scandal from television, Seth quips that he assumed the president "already knew how Breaking Bad ends" before handing the stage over to Amy for a cop/bacon joke. I even got kind of emotional watching her deliver a floating-hand high-five when the camera returned to Seth, but maybe that was compounded by psychic signals that started interfering with my attention to let me know that Stefon’s big good-bye was on its way. One of the many appealing aspects of Stefon has been his unrequited love for Seth, so his immediate dismay upon seeing Amy (such a small "hey" as a greeting) was particularly poignant. Stefon, it would seem, has reached the end of his rope trying to get Seth’s affections, and after plugging his last New York hot spot (featuring "human magic eight balls" — midgets, of course, who happen to be Stefon-magnets), Stefon breaks it off with the news desk forever to marry someone who respects his nightlife recommendations and loves him for who he is. Seth has no choice but to confront his real feelings for Stefon, following Amy’s urgings to "follow [his] heart," and chase Stefon to his wedding ceremony, where he reenacts The Graduate. Stefon’s wedding is a grand mash-up of the greatest hits of his sub-underground social circle (Alf, a coked-up Gizmo, Menorah the Explorer, DJ Baby Bok Choy) — even, as predicted, Affleck as Stefon’s screenwriting partner and brother. Stefon’s groom, Anderson Cooper, can’t match Seth’s devotion, even when he employs his signature 360 fight move, so the happy new couple beat it back to the "Update" desk to celebrate their union with a handful of confetti-tossing recurring characters like Drunk Uncle and the Bar Mitzvah Boy. Though Stefon was not even my favorite Hader creation, there was no more appropriate way to say good-bye. Celebratory and heartwarming without being overly sentimental, it was a fitting send-off for the Prince of Jelly Bones.
Why am I strangely drawn to "Greg’s Funeral"? Is it because of the magical powers of Ben Affleck’s facial hair (in this case, a prosthetic mustache)? Sudeikis opens this sketch as the funeral director presiding over the ceremony (or "gang-up session," depending on whom you ask) to honor the memory of Greg Pulino, a man universally known for being an "awful human being" with a notably wide penis. When Greg’s Mexican uncle, also played by Affleck, takes the mic to counter arguments that Greg’s death was "mysterious," it’s quickly apparent that Greg is alive and masquerading as his own relative because he owes everyone a lot of money. There was something slightly underbaked about this script, but I don’t care. Affleck defending stealing dog food because he had been "abandoned by society" ("someone — have you thought of this? — they needed protein!") and reveling in his crystal meth use after being outed as dead Greg ("I’m back on the ice, so suck on that you dumb babies") was completely charming to me, and his attack on this sketch was finale-worthy to say the least.
Affleck’s hypothetically fat penis stuck around to guest-star in another offering from the Swarovski Crystal girls (Bayer and Strong) as Girth Brooks, which, by the way, is the name of a real porn star (NSFW further reading here). Hawking Herman’s — excuse me, Herpes excuse me, Hermès — bags, the former X-rated video ladies invoke their customary personal experiences to market merchandise to anyone who’s ever thought she was having sex with E.T. when in reality she was boning "an old Chinese man on a bike." I never want this sketch to get old, especially when there are so many unsettling images to unpack (Bayer’s eye getting sucked out by a butt). Affleck, wearing cowboy gear and holding onto a rope, made a number of false exits ("Did someone say how’s it hangin’?") before he alighted in front of the camera for a spell to boast about his "man jiggles," which reside in pants that, like Snickers, are "packed full of nuts and ... always satisfy." In theory, I hate mustaches, but damn you, Affleck, you got me.
In the fourth wedding-adjacent reference of the night (I’m counting the Garner-Affleck monologue, because otherwise how could I make this about Four Weddings and [Greg Pulino’s] Funeral?) and Hader’s last real sketch, Shawna’s engagement party featured a gang (Hader, Sudeikis, Armisen, Moynihan, Affleck) of choked-up policeman relations trying to deliver celebratory toasts without dissolving into sad-dad wails. At first I assumed that this was going to somehow relate to Boston, a place so reminiscent of stoic cops and the battle between man and squelched emotions, as exemplified by Sean Penn’s acting face in Mystic River, but unfortunately it wasn’t that specific. Chowder would have helped. This may have been a commentary on the decision to keep things light in the face of a huge turnover, but it wasn’t quite a winner.
Luckily, Armisen’s Ian Rubbish and his band the Bizarros (Killam, Hader, and Sudeikis) filled the void when they took the stage to perform "It’s a Lovely Day," reassuring the audience that the band plans to continue to play together after they exit (I had a momentary, minor heart attack that Killam was leaving because of his inclusion in the band, but I think he’s just musical). Armisen’s guitar strap bore the message "I Heart LM" — presumably Lorne Michaels — and as Aimee Mann, Steve Jones (the Sex Pistols), J. Mascis (Dinosaur Jr.), Carrie Brownstein (Sleater Kinney and, of course, Armisen’s Portlandia), Michael Penn and Kim
Jordan Gordon (Sonic Youth) took the stage, the focus shifted to Armisen’s exit and the void he’ll leave behind. Much focus has been dedicated to Hader’s departure, but Armisen deserves a lot of credit for keeping SNL edgy (oh, Regine) and unpredictable over the course of his substantial tenure, as well as having given us melodic gems like the Bjelland Brothers' ode to sparkling apple juice. "It’s a Lovely Day" steered clear of parody, closing the show on a more serious note to best prime you for the long, tearful good-bye shots that ran behind the credits.
As footage of the cast hugging and burying their heads in each other’s shoulders to ooze saline and murmur played, one man stood out as being alone, unhuggable. He was half-smiling, half-side-eyeing, and he looked distinctly out of place. He was Kanye West, and he seemed to be cynically asking you what you felt so sad about. It’s all show business, after all. The show must eat its young, or at least push them out of the nest, to survive. Between each blink of the "NOT FOR SALE" sign was the message: Saturday Night Live is not a marriage or a relationship, but a machine. Its ancient heartbeat is sustained only by an internal refreshing mechanism that forces you to invest in a gang of unfamiliar comedians, time after time, and then to watch their final three-minute sketches waiting for some heaviness or finality that never quite arrives. Unlike a show with an established fictional world and fleshed-out narrative, you can’t become attached to a character. You can only fall in love with skill, and timing, and the sort of marketable traits that a performer hopefully carries with them throughout his or her career. SNL is intended to be a promising beginning, never a be-all, end-all accomplishment. Hader, Armisen, Sudeikis, and Meyers have all proven themselves to be standouts, and now it’s time to see who and what else is out there, hiding in plain YouTubeable sight. Affleck’s induction into the Five-Timer’s club was a quiet affair. He did not get to be the recipient of doves and confetti. His role seemed to be a reminder: The host is often superfluous. The core of the show is the cast and writers, and it is their skill that determines the ultimate outcome of the whole enterprise from season to season. Let’s hope we’re in for a good one.