Yesterday, late-night television historian Bill Carter tweeted that Lorne Michaels himself had told him that Saturday Night Live was indeed auditioning black female comedians to join the show's cast in January. According to Carter, the final auditions will be held on the SNL stage Monday night. Calling the auditions "secret" is a slight misnomer, as all SNL auditions are held in extreme secrecy. Comedians and sketch writers are mysteriously summoned to Michaels's fortress of Lorneitude, where they go through the various gauntlets, like doing impressions and performing original characters. Exactly how Michaels selects the tributes is protected by the veil of silence that cloaks the show. It's harder to critique the selection process when the selection process isn't very well understood. I mean, comedy is subjective, and whatever instincts steer Michaels are sometimes dead-on. Other times? Not so much. Ever since its inception, SNL has been accused of losing its mojo with every new batch of cast members. Although Michaels places himself as the untouchable magistrate of his empire, it's obvious he keeps his ear to the street on some level, even if underlings on the NBC payroll, like so many fawning Stefans, are the ones feeding him info about hot UCB troupes and up-and-coming stand-ups.
Whenever an SNL cast graduates, the audience naturally feels slightly ill at ease — it's an acknowledgement that we've all lived through another contract length. By the time they are seniors, the most successful cast members have amassed a roster of catchphrases and clips they can put on their GIF résumé when they trod out into the real world, hungry for good roles in movies. You forget what it was like to see baby Kristen Wiig or tiny Bill Hader appear onscreen for the first time, because you've become so accustomed to their faces and characters. The familiarity offered by the gang of pseudo-friends who haunt the televisions of homebodies every Saturday night is one of the big reasons SNL was criticized for adding five new white guys to the latest iteration of its cast. As we head into 2014, the success of television shows Scandal and Sleepy Hollow and the box-office success of The Best Man Holiday proves that audiences don't only tolerate diversity in their mass media: They crave it. Late-night TV, which lulls viewers toward sleep, has to be simultaneously edgy and corny in a very particular way, and since premiering in the '70s, SNL has always explored humor about race and racism. This year it became obvious that it's impossible to discuss race in a critical and hilarious fashion with barely any minorities in the cast.
SNLbrought back their 1990s sketch about infamous salesman Bill Brasky over the weekend. Will Ferrell came back for the bit, but Tim Meadows — who participated four times from '96 to '98 — was nowhere to be seen. Meadows quickly detailed his feelings on the matter on his Facebook wall: "I guess it just dawned on me that I mean NOTHING to them ... I'm just being overly sensitive. It doesn't matter in the long run. I'm grateful for what they did for me." Later: "I will never watch SNL again" and "Fuck them." Even later: "I talked to a friend on the show who said it WAS a last minute sketch. I acted like a baby. I'm happy for all of my friends success and will always be grateful and proud to have been a part of SNL." Settled, then.
This weekend, Lady Gaga hosted SNL for the first time. She had appeared as a musical guest twice, once with Ryan Reynolds and once with Justin Timberlake, and popped up in couple of digital shorts ("3-Way (The Golden Rule)" always deserves a link), but it's kind of surprising she hadn't been a host before, especially during her 2008-09 promotional circuit for The Fame. Her excitement at joining the cast for a night was palpable, as though a 19-year-old Stefani Germanotta had taken over, and she approached her gig with earnest eagerness. In fact, a lot of Saturday's material seemed tailored to Gaga-esque themes, revolving around precocious theater kids and what it means to age out of relevancy (not that Gaga's over the hill by any means, but the way she played a septuagenarian had enough layers to reveal she'd thought a lot about it). She rolled over to allow us (and R. Kelly) to perform push-ups on her abdomen and poke fun at her image, and even when she was striving a little hard to make her eyeballs THIIIIIS BIG as a dorky Apple Genius, she committed to everything she did as a double-duty host and musical guest (and she didn't hang on the cue cards at all, impressively).
Don't even tell me you didn't catch SNL's immaculately detailed Wes Anderson tribute/homage, The Midnight Coterie of Sinister Intruders. (It happened on Ed Norton's episode a couple Saturdays ago, and it's embedded again here for the uninitiated.) Despite an insane amount of work going into the short film, the final product barely made it to air. Director of photography Alex Buono shared a long, technical blog post explaining the entire production, and it's pretty remarkable. Choice quote: "The spot was literally still loading into the switcher as it was being broadcast out. Holy crap." [h/t A.V. Club]
Responding to critics is never easy to do, nor is it often advisable. Sometimes it's better to ignore your detractors, or to change your behavior instead of getting caught up in a conversation about whatever it was you did that offended them in the first place; other times, the people yelling at you are making some good points, and you really have no choice but to answer them. Saturday Night Live has caught a decent amount of heat this past season for continuing to resist diversifying its cast, particularly by failing to cast a black woman while still keeping six white men in the ensemble, and finally found itself in the position of deciding whether or not to chime in. Kenan Thompson and Jay Pharoah have offered different takes on the problem, with Thompson unpopularly claiming that the show has failed to find more people, especially women, of color who are "ready", while Pharoah seemed more into the idea of looking around a little bit harder (and suggested Darmirra Brunson). When Kerry Washington was announced as a host, it was reasonable to assume that we could finally see Michelle Obama appear in a sketch and that — just maybe — the show would address the controversy, but I didn't expect that we'd get a scrolling-text PSA about it.
Lorne Michaels called adding a black woman to the cast a "priority" in an AP interview last week, which I certainly hope it is, especially after Washington's episode. It wasn't just that she was funny and poised and showed her range, but that the constraints of approaching material without a female person of color had been temporarily lifted. The fact that we're having a conversation about it is good, but the need for that conversation is disheartening.
Last week, I broke my hands writing about Miley Cyrus's SNL double-duty hosting gig. Electric currents ran through my fingers from my very soul, and I typed 580,000 words without blinking. I thought, I should scale back. I told myself, Shut up, you're on Page 95. I couldn't stop, and I wouldn't stop, and some gigantic cosmic force had to step in my path and holler CEASE, BLOGGER. That force was Bruce Willis. Brevity is now my friend.
It's not that I have anything against Bruce Willis. I like Willis so much that I own a copy of his 1987 R&B album, The Return of Bruno, and have listened to it more than twice. Was I skeptical of this hosting choice? Maybe. Willis has nothing to promote at the moment, with Sin City: A Dame to Kill For lingering in post-production and Red 2 disappearing in the rearview mirror. A host without a vehicle doesn't necessarily spell disaster, but it seemed like weird timing. After SNL wakes up from its hiatus nap on October 26, Edward Norton — another actor with no current merchandise — is set to headline, which is strange enough that I have no choice but to assume that the government shutdown's ripple effect has extended to Hollywood like a butterfly flapping its wings in the Congo. The unfortunate casualty of employing an emcee with nothing to shill is that everything seems strangely post-dated (I see you, Armageddon reference), and the episode seemed like it dropped out of a wormhole, a mediocre object with no spatial or temporal relevance.
Last December, Nielsen announced it had partnered with Twitter to create a ratings system based on tweet chatter. The press release seemed as though it had been written by aliens or robots, even more so than the usual PR statement: You know, everyone's "looking forward to collaborating with Twitter ecosystem partners on this metric" and "we are pleased to see Nielsen and Twitter join together to provide a comprehensive measurement system that will allow us to employ these social networking tools to their full advantage." Humans! We welcome with excitement the diplomacy of your hashish tags and will feed them into the mouths of our processing units, releasing the data into your atmosphere from the seven Earth days before today's rising heat orb.
Yesterday, the results of the first Nielsen Twitter TV ratings were released, crowning the third season premiere of Scandal with the first-place position after the show received 713,000 tweets. MTV's Miley: The Movement came in second, with the Cyrus-hosted episode of Saturday Night Live ranking third.
The Twitter TV metrics include not just missives fired off in a program's honor, but also the audience of listeners who are exposed to those missives (Scandal-related tweets reached 3.7 million feeds). There's a sizable discrepancy between the Twitter TV rankings and Nielsen's analog system: The only shows predicted to appear in both top-10 lists are The Voice (one spot for each of its two weekly episodes) and Dancing With the Stars, which both creamed Scandal’s Nielsen-box numbers despite being dwarfed by its social buzz.
In the span of less than a week, Miley Cyrus got into a cyber fight with Sinead O'Connor, was the subject of a New York Times piece defending her against critics, and pulled double duty hosting and musical-guesting on SNL. Everyone seems to be joining forces to put Miley through Olympian-level trials while staring so hard at her that anyone else would spontaneously combust under such scrutiny.
At times it feels deliberate, as though we're trying to edge Miley closer to what haters are predicting will be an inevitable train wreck. She lobbed some insensitive tweets at O'Connor, referencing via screengrab and the text "Before there was Amanda Bynes" a public meltdown the Irish musician had in 2012, with which she drew criticism from pretty much everyone, not least of whom was O'Connor herself; still, Cyrus offered (OK, somewhat cheekily) to meet up with O'Connor to talk in person. Amanda Palmer got involved, as did Simon Cowell, if only by proxy. It was a train wreck, for sure, but Miley seemed to duck out before she could incur too much damage. She doesn't spend a lot of time on introspection. She's too busy. And anyway, too much introspection is dangerous for a performer who's running his or her own game: Miley's dancing on the edge, so she knows better than to look down.
Stand-up comedian and former Saturday Night Live writer John Mulaney has a sorta-autobiographical sitcom that has gone through some ups and downs — mostly with NBC — before getting a series order from Fox this week. Entertainment Weeklycalls Mulaney "one of the most promising-sounding pilots from earlier this year." Splitsider, in an impassioned piece from May titled "Why NBC Will Regret Not Picking Up Mulaney," wrote that "it was a good pilot and … the series had enormous potential." The latter went on to argue that NBC's biggest loss wasn't so much the series but Mulaney himself — co-creator of Bill Hader's Stefon, 31-year-old candidate for prime-time stardom, and deliverer of great joy. So congrats, Fox! You got yourself a John Mulaney!
Saturday Night Live has died and been reborn more than a handful of times over the ages, and there's no doubt that this season is a "rebuilding year," as the premiere's spirit guide and host, Tina Fey, suggested. Over the past two seasons, the show has bid good-bye to Andy Samberg, Kristin Wiig, Abby Elliott, Jason Sudeikis, Bill Hader, and Fred Armisen (plus last year's newbie Tim Robinson, who has been bumped from featured player to staff writer, and Seth Meyers, who exits in February). The amount of concern this causes you is probably largely based on how familiar you are with the results of past recasting adventures and how dedicated you are to staying up to speed on fake commercials. We have witnessed disastrous eras over the course of SNL’s long history: This vintage New York magazine feature paints a very severe and depressing portrait of the 1994-95 period, another transitional year, which player Janeane Garofalo called "the most miserable experience of [her] life."
The announcement of this season's six new cast members was met with some frustration — again, SNL had shied away from plugging any diversity into its universe, adding five white men and one lone white woman to its roster. Maybe this was an honest assessment of the talent base (somehow I doubt it), maybe it has to do with Lorne Michaels's mysterious star radar, or maybe it's just plain lame. To be fair, the rookies performed well (when they were allowed to), with a negligible amount of visible jangled nerves. When an episode decides to highlight Michelle Obama or Kim Jong-un in a skit, though, I'm going to shred it. J-Pop America Funtime is over.
Robert Smigel joins Bill to talk about the mystery of Da Bears movie that will never be made, as well as his many Conan/SNL memories and his recent Emmy for his successful "Night of Too Many Stars" show (which raises money for autism education). Oh, he also tells us about the origins of Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog:
With our two-part preview of the new comedies and dramas on the networks' fall TV schedules released into the wild, the Grantland staff has gathered to offer its recommendations for returning series. So warm up your DVRs, because that's a thing you need to do for the recordings to stick inside the magic show-saving box.
Parks and Recreation (September 26)
Andy Greenwald: One week from today, Parks and Recreation will begin its sixth season with a one-hour episode, partially set in London. The show will be greeted with quiet huzzahs by its fans and admirers, lovingly GIF-ed and Tumbled by its diehards, and generally ignored by the world at large. The next morning, it will be revealed that somewhere between 2 million and 4 million people watched it, a number that is neither good nor bad. The sun will then set and rise again the following day.
There's something both noble and unfair about the quiet brilliance of Parks and Recreation. As the fortunes of NBC have crashed and burned around it, the show has never wavered from its core principles of consistency and quality. For much of its past three seasons, I'd argue that Parks has been the best show on network TV — comedy or drama. It has the strongest, most cohesive cast and the warmest spirit. Where other series strive to maintain a fragile status quo, Parks approaches change the way Special Agent Bert Macklin approaches a locked door. It's never less than good; it's very often great. To steal a line from Amy Poehler's indefatigable Leslie Knope, it's the rare show that one can both like and love.
Thanks to 2013’s epic cast exodus — Fred Armisen, Bill Hader and Jason Sudeikis are out; Seth Meyers leaves in February to take over Late Night — this was already one of SNL’s most carefully scrutinized, action-packed offseasons ever. And it just got another interesting wrinkle: as the New York Times reports, Lorne Michaels has selected Meyers's heir on the "Weekend Update" desk. Well, sort of.
Michaels has picked Cecily Strong to, for now, cohost "Weekend Update." It's a startlingly fast rise for the second-year cast member, but not that surprising of a move: the Girl You Wished You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With at a Party bits were instant classics, and her ease on the desk was evident. Says Lorne: "Cecily, from the first show, was right there. She exploded."
The plan is for Cecily and Seth to share the desk until February, at which point — well, at which point they might just keep sharing the desk. Because Late Night doesn't do a Friday show, Meyers could conceivably roll through Studio 8H that night and prep for "Weekend Update." That seems like a tall order, especially for a man attempting to launch a new talk show, that most fraught of entertainment endeavors. But you can understand the motivation: Meyers is too good at "Update" to just let him go. Then again: It sounds like, if things work out, Strong might get the desk all to herself by the end of this season. Crazy.
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.