What an amazing feat it is to put on a live 90-minute show every week, I couldn’t be more impressed by the talented group of people who work on “Saturday Night Live.” My sister and I, along with our friends Ellen and Greg (thanks for the photos, Ellen!) spent eight hours in the celebrated Studio 8H at Rockefeller Center this weekend and I loved every second of it.
We knew when we first arrived that something was up more than just the regular show. We heard that Hillary Clinton might be making an appearance but no one we asked would confirm it. Long before the dress rehearsal we watched one of the actors block Hillary’s “rebuttal” to the debate scene but after the audience for the rehearsal came in they did a fake ending to the opener with Amy Poehler and Fred Armisen as Hillary and Barack saying “Live from New York…It’s Saturday Night!”
The swarms of Secret Service agents who soon appeared on the scene were a giveaway even before we caught sight of the real Ms. Clinton. One agent stood on the studio floor staring straight at us the whole time Hillary was on. I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if I had pulled something out of my pocket during her bit. There was no direct way to get to our seats in time so would the agent have simply shot me dead if he thought I was a threat to the Senator? I was mightily impressed by Hillary’s performance. She seemed relaxed and personable and endearingly self-deprecating. Who knew that Hillary Clinton could be so funny? Although I think that ship has sailed, her presence on the show was still a good move for her campaign and image. The minute she finished she was whisked out of the studio and back to her plane for more all-important schmoozing in Ohio and Texas.
The quality of the sketches on “Saturday Night Live” has always been spotty, even during the show’s glory days. To be honest, I worried during the dress rehearsal that the show was going to be awful. Bits ran on way too long, some sketches were painfully unfunny, and some made no sense at all. I think the current group of performers is top-notch, but they can only do so much with the material they are given. Yikes, I thought, disappointed, why does Wilco have to be on such a weak episode? Miraculously, in the hour and a half between the rehearsal and the live broadcast, sketches were rewritten at breakneck speed, cut entirely, or moved around, and the final show was one of the tightest, funniest, episodes I’ve seen in years. How do they do that? Especially with the crazy pressure of the ticking clock? During the live show, I sat in my seat terrified during every scene change. The Presidential Debate set was right in front of the main stage so the stagehands had to take it apart and remove everything during the brief opening credits including the huge carpet on the platform so that Ellen Page could come out and do her monologue. They made it with only seconds to spare. Even more nerve-wracking was when they had to construct a whole new set during a short commercial break. One little mistake could have spelled doom but somehow it all happened without a hitch.
The performers’ costume changes from scene to scene were also mind-boggling. The second Ellen Page finished her monologue a woman grabbed her by the hand and yanked her so hard that I thought her arm would come out of its socket. As every character walked off whatever set they were using, people would appear to immediately start pulling off their wigs and costumes. You really need nerves of steel to work on that show, I’m amazed they don’t have more glaring mistakes. I thought everyone on this week’s episode was superb. My favorite sketches were the Peter Pan number (we were sitting right next to the contraption that was making Ellen Page fly and every time she was lifted out of the frame she’d ram into the bleachers!), Keenan Thompson’s Virginiaca shopping for “booty pants” at the Baby Gap with her step-baby Ellen Page, and “The Other Boleyn Girls” promo (radically cut down after the rehearsals).
Unlike some of the previous casts, this group seems incredibly supportive of each other and like they are having a fantastic time. During Fred’s Nicholas Fehn bit during “Weekend Update,” Amy Poehler was laughing hysterically (off camera) at Fred’s “political commentary” but then was able to switch to full Jane Curtin irritable mode when they went back to a two-shot. Oh, how I love Amy Poehler. When Ellen Page’s energy was lagging towards the end of the show, she and Seth Myers stood behind the camera jumping up and down and waving to help keep her going. It was such a sweet gesture. Amy’s husband, the talented Will Arnett, came by for both of Wilco’s numbers, and the two of them, along with much of the cast, stood off-camera and watched Wilco's performances with great enthusiasm, dancing in the wings.
I thought both of Wilco’s songs were great (how cool to have our friend Dave “Max” Crawford heading up the horn section) and I loved that Jeff wore his dazzling Nudie suit during their performance of “Walken.” He mentioned my sister during that song (changing the lyric from “You” to “Sue”) and wore three buttons on his guitar strap, two showing my nephews Spencer and Sammy, and one showing Barack Obama! About an hour before the show, the New York Times website leaked Hillary’s appearance on the show and practically made it sound like she’d be in direct confrontation with Wilco:
In what is perhaps not the greatest bit of show business timing, Mrs. Clinton will be sharing the Saturday Night Live bill with Wilco, the popular alt-country Chicago band which has become one of the biggest boosters of – you guessed it, Mr. Obama.
Sorry, New York Times, there was no brawl between Hillary and Jeff, but the way NBC shot Wilco’s songs, we did wonder for a minute if they were trying to crop out Jeff’s Obama button. It was hard not to think of all of the incredible musicians who have appeared on that stage during the past 33 years as well as all of the amazing cast members and guest hosts who have graced that studio. And still present, like the patriarch he always was (even before he was old enough to be everyone’s dad), was the legendary Lorne Michaels. Unlike the very friendly cast, I was a little scared by Michaels, and I was forever stepping out of his way in the narrow NBC hallways. He was the only one dressed up in a fine suit and I found him a little intimidating. Several times I saw him taking various actors off into a room to discuss something and they always looked a little panicked as they followed him. During the live broadcast he appeared on set before every scene and often shook the hands of the cast members. The longevity of the show AND Lorne Michaels is astounding.
Rudy Giuliani’s bit went a little better during rehearsals and I couldn’t help but notice how far his political star has fallen, even as reflected by how his puny Secret Service entourage compared to Hillary’s ever-present SWAT team. Not having watched the show in a while, I couldn’t get over how excellent the current cast is, not an ounce of deadweight in the lot. My only complaint is that they need more women, especially if Maya Rudolph doesn’t return. In addition to the brilliant Poehler, Kristin Wiig made me laugh in every scene (how on earth did they make her so hideous as “The Other Other Boleyn Girl?”) and newcomer Casey Wilson seems like she’ll be a good addition. We’ve appreciated Fred Armisen’s demented humor ever since he worked at my sister’s bar in Chicago, but the way Will Forte, Bill Hader, Darrell Hammond, and Jason Sudeikis were able to disappear into their characters also evoked the best years of SNL. They’re all great, from head writer Seth Myers to Keenan Thompson (I loved his reaction to Poehler’s “Dakota Fanning Show”) and the always funny Andy Samberg (his Diablo Cody cross-dressing bit was dead-on).
Brian Williams sat next to us and laughed at the spoofs of him in the Clinton-Obama Debate and in Robert Smigel's “TV Funhouse” cartoon. Other celebs in the audience included “Mad Men’s” John Slattery with his wife Talia Balsam, and self-described Wilco stalker Catherine Keener.
The after-party was held at some ultra-hip restaurant in Chelsea and was packed. In addition to the “Saturday Night Live” cast and crew, many stars of other NBC shows were in attendance including cast members from “30 Rock” and “The Office.” We didn’t get home until 4 am.
Jesus, I haven’t fawned this much about NBC since “Howdy Doody” went off the air. Maybe I can snag an invite to next week’s SNL starring Amy Adams. In the meantime, what the hell am I doing writing in my blog with New York beckoning? Still have one more Broadway play to see…