If you blinked during the Joe Piscopo-Eddie Murphy era of Saturday Night Live, you may have missed Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ brief stint as a “Not Ready For Primetime” player. Louis-Dreyfus, future-husband Brad Hall and friend Gary Kroeger were whisked away from the Chicago-based theatre company they founded (The Practical Theatre Company), and placed in the unenviable position of carrying SNL during a period of post-original cast malaise.
Seasons 6-10 were SNL’s infamous wandering years. The show was very hit and miss during this time, with a revolving door of producers, writers, stars and would-be stars that never quite worked…serving only to deify Belushi, Aykroyd and company: the original cast!
Eventually, Lorne Michaels returned to revive the show in 1985, and in doing so, promptly fired the entire cast—including Louis-Dreyfus, who’d become a bright, if woefully unrealized, SNL performer.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ return as guest host in the show’s 41st season comes at a similar era in Saturday Night Live history. Executive Producer Michaels (now, thirty years into his SNL upfit, and increasingly consumed with Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show) has become the complacent network executive presiding over an outdated broadcast comedy show. Saturday Night Live is in need of a serious structural overhaul—much like it was when Michaels himself was brought in to fix it in ‘85.
Enter Louis-Dreyfus, who is good in her third guest-hosting stint. Solid. The material she is given is fine…a little too inside jokey at times, too swing-and-a-miss overall, but Louis-Dreyfus is no longer 8-H’s shrinking violet. She’s a hall-of-fame TV star with a hit show (Veep) who knows how to pan for comedic gold in otherwise stunted and stagnant writing. Where there is even a hint of a laugh, she consistently finds it—exploiting the opportunity and making it work. (Great to see Tony Hale making a surprise cameo in Louis-Dreyfus’ opening monologue. It’d be nice to see him host the show one of these days…)
“Cinema Classics with Julia Louis-Dreyfus” may be her best moment of the night. She plays a 1950’s screen star who, in an attempt to mimic method actor Marlon Brando, refuses to memorize her lines, preferring to read them from “hidden” places on the set. Louis-Dreyfus shows us her physical comedy side here—something she flirted with in Seinfeld a bit, but is rarely recognized for. She carries the piece, making a forgettable sketch, memorable.
Similarly, her turn in pre-tape “Pool Boy” makes a one-joke premise—a bored housewife’s over-dramatization of a pool boy dalliance—well worth watching. Though there is little she can do to save overwrought “Huge Jewelry” or bizarre-but-not-at-all-in-a-good-way “Match.com Event”—two sketches that clearly needed to be cut at dress rehearsal.
One thing about near-great “Brooklyn Democratic Debate Cold Open”: Louis-Dreyfus as Seinfeld’s Elaine Benes confronting that show’s creator Larry David… er… Bernie Sanders on tax policy serves only as a kind of inside-baseball, meta joke for comedy writers and deep appreciators. It felt like the studio audience just wasn’t recalling the various Seinfeld callbacks, and this took the wind out of the last half of the sketch.
Best thing all night? A tie, maybe. Cecily Strong’s darkly satirical “One Dimensional Female Character On Screen Time” returns to Weekend Update darker and even more satirical. This is really risky material—taking direct aim at producer-writers and fans who might be so offended so as not do business with Ms. Strong, thank you very much. The writing is preachy, hard-hitting and right on the money—and exactly what needs to be said about so many popular, bro-driven comedies. Hats off to Strong and her writer(s?). They really went for it this week.
Also terrific: “God Is A Boob Man,” a parody trailer for one of those dogmatic “faith-based” melodramas that seem to be so popular at the multiplexes these days. A pull-no punches parody of those films has been a long time coming, and Saturday Night Live goes after them with a Monty Python-like zeal.
Poor Nick Jonas. He’ll never be “The Next Justin Timberlake” with the dance moves of a Miller Lite-drunk frat boy at a gay disco. Worse, his music is instantly forgettable…more so with Tove Lo in support on “Close” than on worse-pop-song-title-ever, “Champagne Problems.”
So it was good to have Julia back for a night. She brought her A-game and helped pull out a few nice moments—not enough for best episode of the season, but certainly enough to land in the top tier of Season 41 shows.
SNL returns May 7. Brie Larson and Alicia Keys
Chris White writes and directs independent feature films. His latest is
a southern gothic comedy starring Patti D’Arbanville and Michael Forest. Follow Chris on Twitter.