'Saturday Night Live' season premiere review: Alec Baldwin, Tony Bennett, Herman Cain, and comedy of promotion

We bring to Saturday Night Live standards for funniness that are different than those we apply to everything else on TV. We cut the show a lot of slack for simply getting a 90-minute live show up and running every week. SNL has been on so long, it’s embedded a kind of reflex action in generations of viewers: If the studio audience thinks a sketch is funny, we’re liable to read more funniness into it than may be there, and any cast member or host who does a good celebrity impersonation is granted a degree of immunity from criticism, since impersonations have been the one consistent element that SNL goes back to time and again with the greatest degree of success.

So it was on the season premiere, hosted by Alec Baldwin. The cold open was just an excuse for the cast to roll out its latest political impersonations, and we learned that Kristen Wiig does a good Michele Bachmann, while all Kenan Thompson needs to do is put on a bald wig and speak normally to get away with a Herman Cain that delighted the real Herman Cain. Talking to the hosts of Fox and Friends Sunday this morning, Cain — right now the grinning winner of the Florida straw poll — laughed heartily at the Kenan clip that merely focussed on his Godfather pizza, rather than his positions, and said eagerly, “I love it! I’m going to use that in my campaign: ‘If you vote for me, I will deliver!’”

Of course Cain loved that clip — it raised his profile, and its the satire was so toothless, no one was criticized, no policy positions were skewered. It was just a nice big network-sized plug for politicians struggling for national attention, for the supposedly-younger-than-average audience that tunes in to SNL.

The season premiere was as mediocre as most editions of SNL have been unto the days of John Belushi, but, again, quality doesn’t matter in this context — it’s much more the feeling of comfort and affection we have for various performers, characters, and sketches. This week, that affection paid off most handsomely for Baldwin’s wonderfully warm-hearted Tony Bennett impersonation.

It’s both a finely affectionate tribute to the singer and a sharply written conversation between Baldwin/Bennett and Seth Meyers that contained amusing lines with precisely the right touchstones for a man of Bennett’s generation — the way Ryan Gosling and John Garfield might exist in a simultaneous continuum for Bennett, and a visit to Don Rickles’ house is an occasion for fond, ribald Thanksgiving memories. Baldwin has the vocal timbre and speech cadences of Bennett down so perfectly, it’s as soothing a pleasure to listen to as it is to hear the actual Bennett sing.

In a similar vein, the night’s other best moment was the lost audition tapes for Top Gun, with Baldwin’s Al Pacino and Bill Hader’s Alan Alda among the strikingly good impersonations.

What SNL does best is promote things: Its own cast (boy, mustn’t Wiig feel as though she’s back in the harness for another season, working too hard after the big-screen success of Bridesmaids?), Presidential candidates based on the utterly apolitical determination of who does the best impersonation, and the now-rare practice of letting a network audience see a music act perform at least two songs in real time. If Alec Baldwin ever runs for mayor of New York, he’ll have a readymade pop-culture platform; too bad for whoever might run against him — he or she will probably be impersonated by Fred Armisen.

Note: Be sure to read Aly Semigran’s full recap of the Saturday Night Live season premiere:

‘Saturday Night Live’ recap: The return of the king (a.k.a. Alec Baldwin)

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  • tg

    Haven’t been much of a fan of SNL for many yrs but do check in with a host or musical act I like…..thus a double reason to record last nite. I tho’t it was actually well above average with some good, honest laughs. Alec’s Tony Bennett was hilarious as was the Top Gun sketch. I tho’t the only sketch that was a flat out bust was the last one. Other than that I’d give the premiere a solid A-. OH…and Radiohead made their pretty blah cd sound much better live.

    • lisa g.

      I must be nuts because I enjoyed it! I thought pretty much every skit was funny, a rarity for snl !

      • quan

        I really missed Stefon, but Bill Hader is so insanely good at Alan Alda’s voice it sort of makes up for it.btw,I’m a doctor,33 ,rich but still single.It’s hard to get a girlfriend in my town ,most of them like my money more than like me.I just want to find my true love.so i uploaded my hot photos on wealthybar .c om under the name of hotlove2.u dont have to be a millionaire,but u can meet one there. ..if you girls see this comment,i hope you will check my photos out there.maybe you are the one whom i’m looking for!!!

      • Leslie

        the only really funny parts were Baldwin’s Tony Bennett, the Red Flag Commercial, Thre Top Gun bit and the Who’s On Top game show, everything else fell pretty flat….the worst being the “All My Children” bit unfunny, too long, and a horriblle Susan Lucci impersonation by the new chick (I always forget her name!)

      • lisa g.

        I laughed at pretty much every skin n hadn’t drank any alcohol.

      • lisa g.

        *scene

    • Logistics

      You haven’t watched a lot of SNL… OR WERE YOU PUSHED?!?!?!

      • Jen L

        Lol!

      • Saphron

        I know!!! Thank you!! That was classic SNL, to me.

  • Carl

    I was pretty disappointed. Baldwin stumbled over his lines and while there were amusing bits, nothing hit home (at least with me). C-.

    • Tom Strong

      The opening GOP debate was hilarious.

    • LOL

      Good show. Nice season opener.

    • sue d

      Surprised that he kept messing up his lines. Poor job.

      • Mike

        It’s the beauty of LIVE TV. Everyone is bound to do it. He should be commended for being able to continue after stumbling.

    • Tom

      Funny my daughter wanted to watch it so I DVR while we were waiting for it to come on I said to her before it started the first skit is going to be making fun of the GOP debate and make fun of every republican they possibly can at once. BAM there it was. Left or Right leaning my point it has become so predictable

      • Nedved

        Casey: I am so jealous that you are SO’s dream girl I thuoght SO and I would last forever. However, I am glad that his heart has been won over by such an amazing, extremely talented, and classy lady. Keep up the good work!

  • anonymous

    Ken, what gives? First we have Jeff Jensen taking over your Fringe post. Now we have Aly Semigran stepping into the SNL seat.

  • JP

    Can’t wait for the actual recap, I wouldn’t even say this is a review. You touched on about two sketches from the whole show. There were actually quite a few funny moments, did you even watch it?

  • TopherGraceSucks

    So long as they keep Topher Grace from hosting I will continue to watch

    • K

      Out of the blue, mean, and hilarious.

  • Anonymous

    I thought is was actually really funny. I think Ken’s just being too critical. But, I guess that’s his job.

    • Matt

      I think the metric we should use is “was that funny?” – that’s what matters for a comedy show. That was one of the stronger episodes in the past year and a half. The soap opera sketch was goofy and crazy, the “Red Flag” commercial was hilarious (and in my opinion, apt), and contrary to some opinions, I found the debate sketch hilarious. I think the point was that the majority of the candidates are crazy, boring and/or feckless – if that was indeed the point, it would have been missing the mark to go into great detail skewering their policy. In a way, that is highly critical – they were completely dismissing the candidates! I don’t know how you could get more critical.
      I find the genetic makeup of the EW writer interesting; intelligent, versed in critical theory, but plagued by guilt for their enjoyment of pop culture. They rarely dissect the novels, films and other literature that beg such dissection, but instead try to blow apart instances of pop culture to justify their enjoyment of them.

  • Ben

    Really? I thought this was one of the best episodes in years. I laughed a lot more than I usually do and loved almost every skit.

    • lisa g.

      Ita, Ben!

    • Etched

      I have to agree. I think I laughed during every sketch, which is something I don’t think has happened in years.

  • Will T.

    MadTV was better SNL in its best days. No college age kids care about politics or political satire. Lorne Michaels is stuck in the Watergate era.

    • Jane

      It’s true, college age kids don’t care about political satire – which explains why Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart have such trouble reaching this particular demographic.

      • Kosta

        Nice.

    • Marc

      “No college age kids care about politics or political satire”…a rather large segment of Jon Stewart’s fanbase might disagree with you there.

  • Captain

    I only caught the All My Children sketch but it was a cute idea. It got some genuine laughs from me but ultimately it was the same joke over and over again to the point where they had no way to end it. Also, Vanessa Bayer in that sketch was the perfect example of what not to do. As a theatre kid, every improv workshop I’ve ever taken has said the same thing regarding impressions “never say who you’re trying to impersonate.” If you have to say “Hello everyone, I’m Susan Lucci,” you’re not doing a very good job.

    • La Lucci

      I thought that it was a spot on impression.

    • JMB in FL

      I think the idea was to show Lucci’s “diva”-ness and insistence that she is the center of attention. Maybe I’m off base here?

      • Matt

        You are on base. I thought the same thing as you.

    • rose

      I thought the idea of having her say “Hello everyone, I’m Susan Lucci,” to the people she works with everyday was funny. It showed that she cared so little about them that she didn’t know them and therefore had to introduce herself. And it also was a big “look at me, I’m a celebrity” in case anyone didn’t already know. It was a way to show she was a self-centered diva. In other words, it was part of the joke.

    • ltchy

      “l work the fan. …or was l PUSHED?!”

    • K

      Vanessa Bayer is terrible. The only thing she does well is the Miley impression, and even that is more grating than funny.

      • bootsycolumbia

        Vanessa Bayer’s Miley impression isn’t good either. There was another actress who did Miley the season before, but she was let go from the cast. I can’t remember her name, but she was hilarious.

      • abadstroller

        Something about her performances makes me cringe.

      • Matt

        Weird, I love her. I’m a dude, and yeah, I do think she’s beautiful, but I find her to be funny, and I think her Miley impersonation is hilarious.

      • Shannon

        Oh, I love Vanessa Bayer! She’s hilarious but with a light touch, and I think she’s one of the most versatile female cast members they’ve added in a long time.

      • Phil

        Agree, Vanessa is absolutely marvelous. She’s got strong, diverse talents, she’s pretty, and has a killer smile that lights up a room. She was a perfect choice to add to the cast.

  • Lauren

    Did we see the same show? I thought this was a great episode, definitely on par with Timberlake’s finale. Bad mood Ken?

    • Ron Paul

      I have had it with Justin Timberlake. He’s not funny; there is no talent there with that s.o.b., Justin Timberlake. He’s no actor, he’s no comedian, he’s no singer. Go away, you s.o.b., Justin Timberlake. And take your unintelligent fans with you.

      • Matt

        Ha – I kind of agree, without the anger. Timberlake just does whatever sells, so I don’t have a lot of respect for him. I wish SNL brought back more Baldwin (every year), Fey, Ben Affleck (his SNL’s are great), and, if she sobers up, Lindsey Lohan, who always delivered.
        Beyond that, they should embrace the niche (NBC as a network shoud, too), and go for good actors who can do comedy, instead of stunts like Paris HIlton, Jeff Gordon Et Al.

  • Annie

    I hate it when anyone states SNL hasn’t been funny since….(insert time when you were about 18-21 years old/ and or mention Belushi). What people find funnhy can and does change and while my generation really appreciated Adam Sandler or Will Ferrall, my dad thinks it hasn’t been funny since the original cast …. granted, it’s wonderful when a skit can speak to everyone, but it’s a little unfair to demand or expect it.

    • Marc

      Agreed! Same thing with music; some folks honestly believe that popular music died the day the Beatles broke up (and I’ll bet their parents thought the same thing when Glenn Miller’s plane went down).

      • Phil

        Well, yeah, it did for them. And a lot of other people. What’s it to you? And the term “popular” music? Kind of begs the question, doesn’t it? Popular to whom? There, answered it for you.

  • Bonnie B.

    I actually thought it was hilarious. I did think the very last sketch, with the dying wishes of the soldiers was a bit flat. I was happy with it.

  • Me

    Not sure why I still watch SNL….I may stop this year. I’ve been waiting so long for it to be funny. Seth’s ego is so enormous I’m surprised he can fit it in the building.

  • steph

    I really missed Stefon, but Bill Hader is so insanely good at Alan Alda’s voice it sort of makes up for it.

    • K

      Yes to this. Bill Hader is the all-star of this show. Which reminds me, is Jay Pharoah off the show now? Where was he?

      • abadstroller

        Hader has mad impressionist skills!

  • Chris

    Saturday Night Live hasn’t been funny since Nick Kazurinsky left.

    • @Chris

      If you’re such a fan of Mr. Kazurinsky wou’d be well served to learn his first name…Tim….

      • anonymous

        Hahaha. Busted !

      • Chris

        Hey, you got me. But I still think Brad Carvey is overrated.

      • Phil

        Nicely done acknowledging the counting coup, Chris, and giving us all a second laugh. Given how some comment forums disintegrate into name calling, you are a class act!

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