Last night SNL debuted the first of its election-season prime-time programs, "Saturday Night Live Thursday Weekend Update," featuring an opening sketch and an expanded "Weekend Update." The opening sketch spoofed Tuesday night's presidential debate, featuring former cast-member Chris Parnell returning as a stopwatch-happy Tom Brokaw, Darrell Hammond as a wandering, semi-senile John McCain and Fred Armisen as Barack Obama (including a cheap shot about Bill Ayers that rang a weird note, but more on that below). Special guest star Bill Murray — introduced and chyroned as "William Murray" as a questioner from the audience — got a special round of applause (Murray, as most are aware, is a former SNL cast member).
The "Weekend Update" section featured Amy Poehler and Seth Myers in their traditional anchor roles, along with a financial expert played by Kenan Thompson and, in a wackier turn, lovably loopy castmember Will Forte and Armisen again as 80s super-duo Hall & Oates. Videos below; some light commentary/analysis below that.
(1) Presidential Debate, featuring Bill Murray and Chris Parnell:
(2) Update Thursday: "Really?! with Seth and Amy" and "Fix It!!"
(3) Update Thursday: Hall and Oates, "You Make Me Feel Brand New"
Here's my takeaway: Overall the show was solid, but not special — that is to say, it was just a cut from the SNL formula plopped into prime time. Which worked, but didn't kill as it could have if it had felt more like a show planned specifically for the half-hour format. Also, you can afford a weaker bit like "Fix It!" (based on a one-note joke) within a longer show, but it sticks out much more within a spare half-hour. This is something that the Daily Show and Colbert Report have perfected, the joke-per-increment-of-airtime ratio (and, in a different way, actual half-hour news programs, which cram ridiculous amounts of information into the broadcast). I think the half-hour format for SNL could be a killer show, and perhaps when they're not reeling from four live shows in a row with news breaking right up until airtime, they'll have time to fine-tune the formula.
On the substance: I gasped in the opening sketch when Bill Ayers came up. Here's how Armisen-as-Obama referred to Ayers:
"My best friend and my mentor, former Weather Underground leader and unrepentant terrorist William Ayers."
It couldn't have been written better by Michelle Malkin. Or Sarah Palin. Look, I recognize that mocking McCain means needing a counterpart for Obama. The problem is, the McCain jokes worked because they rang true. McCain referred to Obama as "that one" during the debate, so they riffed on that. McCain just referred oddly to a crowd as "my fellow prisoners," so they riffed lightly on the old-man-senility thing by having him address people with blatantly different names. McCain wandered all over the townhall, so they spoofed that (that was also spoofed by Conan O'Brien, Jay Leno, and Jon Stewart). So all of these are things that rang true.
But the Ayers thing did not — mostly because it's not. If it had been phrased as a question by someone in the audience, or stated by McCain or Brokaw, and Obama's denials had been comically overstepped (like, say, if he denied a relationship with Ayers and the chyron read "Obama: Ayers is my best friend"), then that would have rang true. But in this case, the impulse to 'fairness' in the form of balance led to a joke that was not only unfair in its untruth, but unfunny for the same reason. As Andy Borowitz said at last weekend's New Yorker panel, "the idea of balance in satire is the opposite of satire."
- I liked the simultaneous question ask-and-answer bit in the debate sketch (especially how all you could really hear between Obama and McCain were the words "change" and "maverick")