It had been 24 years since Bruce Willis hosted Saturday Night Live. And the cast he worked with in 1989 was loaded, with Phil Hartman, Dennis Miller, Kevin Nealon, Dana Carvey, Mike Myers making up the repertory.
This year, there are far fewer obvious stars. Taran Killam has serious promise, and this might be the best group of female cast members since the late-90s (Kate McKinnon and Cecily Strong are terrific), but it's a rebuilding year. Bill Hader, Jason Sudeikis, and Fred Armisen are gone, and they might have each appeared in every sketch over the last four years. The new guys are still trying to figure it out, and some of the characters, impressions, and bits feel a little forced.
Still, despite all the inexperience on the table, last night's show was the best of the young season. The pre-recorded segments were fantastic, including "Boy Dance Party," which will be the biggest SNL song since the Lonely Island left the show, and "Beer Pong," a hilariously weird lampoon of the omnipresent college party movie. Willis was able to lampoon his tough-guy persona well in a Black Ops sketch and an (otherwise 15-years-too-late) Armageddon homage. And the cold open managed to tie together two timely subjects—the government shutdown and Gravity—in a way that should at least be creatively admired.
But before we get to the sketches, one quick thing: I went to the show last night because I got stupidly lucky and won the SNL ticket lottery in my first-ever attempt. This is highly unusual. When I shared this news with a co-worker who has now lost out five years running, a look of pure rage came over him that was, frankly, alarming. I know I suck. I hate me too.
So I feel like it's my duty to at least pass along some of the behind-the-scenes stuff that makes going to SNL an absolute bucket list item for any comedy fan. Feel free to skip this.
- They'll probably catch you if you try to buy a ticket. All SNL tickets are complimentary of NBC. They're explicitly non-transferrable. Nevertheless, tickets will often pop up on Craigslist, especially when a high-profile guest star is hosting. (Like Louis CK last year.) I wouldn't trust them. Your ID and email are checked repeatedly by NBC staff, and they'll throw you out of Studio 8H if they have reason to believe you bought your ticket. So it's not worth it.
- You can sit on the floor. The bulk of the seating is around 12 feet above the set, in a small semi-circle that faces the stage. There are maybe 50 seats on the floor. The chairs look like they were brought over from the local PS 49, but the sight lines are terrific. NBC pages pluck lucky folks out of the main line to sit there. And as best I could tell, they were looking for young-ish, reasonably well-dressed couples that would give the crowd an appearance of a 50-50 male-female split. So if you're in your late-20s to early-30s and ever get a chance to go, bring someone from the opposite sex and don't look like a slob. You might be on TV.
- The set is tiny. But they make use of every square inch. For the cold open NASA sketch, Strong and Killam hung from wires on a green screen at the stage's far-left end; Kenan was situated at a mission control set temporarily set up in front of the band. After "Live from New York, it's Saturday night!" and the opening credits rolled, a team of people tore down mission control just in time for Bruce Willis to walk out for his opening monologue. It was insane. But nearly every commercial break brings about a similar burst of activity.
- The best part of the show is the lead-up to the cold open. The band has stopped playing its warm-up set (which begins 30 minutes before the show), and all the lights cut out of the room. They count down a minute, then 30 seconds, then 10—and it's on. It's quiet, and must be unbelievably intense for the performers.
- That MTA clock in the intro? It doesn't work. Before the monologue, a production assistant climbed on a ladder and physically turned the hands to 11:30. Before the show's end credits, he changed them to 1 a.m. I don't know why I was so fascinated by the clock.
- It's always been a marvel how the cast members handle costume changes over the super-short commercial breaks. The truth is a little less magical. Many times, they're forced to sprint from the stage to their dressing room. Bobby Moynihan did it after the monologue, and Willis was led by hand each time by a jogging PA.
- The cue cards are still hand-written. And color-coded to differentiate the actors' lines.
- Lorne Michaels may be God. When he walks out, you feel his... aura, or something. He sometimes will say a word to a cast member before their cue, and you feel empowered. The guy has run this ship for nearly four decades for a reason. He's still involved.
Alright, onto the sketches.