Anyone who has seen NBC “Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams on the late-night talk shows knows that he is a pretty frickin’ funny guy in addition to being the comforting daddy who reads us the news every night. That’s why it was such a treat to hear that the NBC stalwart would be hosting “Saturday Night Live” last weekend. Throw Williams, the secretly hilarious heavyweight newsman, into Studio 8H, and it would seem an ideal moment for “SNL” to remind the country why the legendary program’s voice--particularly its political voice--is so vital. What other TV show can lure a mercilessly ridiculed sitting president (George W. Bush) or attorney general (Janet Reno) to do a walk-on. Thirty-plus years as one of the only outlets on television that is so fully emblematic of democracy is central to the “SNL” mystique. So it was less than gratifying to see producer Lorne Michaels totally mishandle the opportunity.
One of my favorite all-time episodes of “SNL” is from 1989, when Wayne Gretzky hosted the show. Now, I know very little about hockey, but watching the Great One stumble through lines while powerhouses like Jan Hooks and Phil Hartman danced circles around him was sensational. It was all the more funny that Gretzky was an athlete and not an actor; any line pulled off with a modicum of flourish was that much funnier. And, indeed, I’m not alone in thinking that non-actor, non-comedian hosts have provided “SNL” with some of its best moments. The sight of Michael Jordan’s reciting daily affirmations with Stuart Smalley should be proof enough. And that is precisely why Williams’s episode started with so much promise.
After a so-so monologue that really should have been a song-and-dance number, Williams’s next appearance was in the reliably funny “Bronx Beat” sketch. By simply busting out a Bronx accent, the audience was in stitches; it was a beautiful Who knew he had it in him? piece of laughter--and a formula for success that should have been replicated in wry moments throughout the show. Instead, highlighting Williams as an actually funny person was demonstrated only twice more: in his second sketch--as a washed up actor who bragged about his time on “Quantum Leap” (“I was on ‘The Leap,’ man!”)--and in a digital short that featured Williams flicking pennies at the “Today Show” hosts from his perch above Rockefeller Center. Unfortunately, that took up about 13 minutes of the show; the other 77 were the problem.
For some reason, the producers seem to have been irrationally committed to doing a Dumbledore sketch (which The New York Times reported Williams asked to be taken out of). After watching the skit, it’s tough to know if Williams was uncomfortable playing a gay wizard or if he just wanted to duck out of a bad sketch. Taking J.K. Rowling at her word and gaying up the noble wizard--Dumbledore bemoaned his ex, “Jerry,” and went clubbing at “The Man Hole”--the skit was about as intuitive as it gets: a lamentable cocktail wherein “Will and Grace” meets Middle Earth. In fact, the only thing that could have saved the sketch would have been casting Williams as the brokenhearted wizard; that would have created enough dissonance to achieve a truly comedic moment. Instead, we were stuck rolling our eyes as the goofy regular cast member went through the motions of gay Dumbledore.
But if Williams’s absence was regrettable in the Dumbledore scene, it was downright striking during “Weekend Update.” Perhaps the biggest flub of the night was not using Williams here at all. Every viewer watching had to be waiting for it; and so, every moment Williams didn’t walk on behind Amy Poehler even for just a quick laugh was a disappointment. Where was the scene with Williams trying to edge out Seth Meyers and hit on Poehler? Where was the scene with Williams hijacking the newscast or giving insulting pointers? Where was Williams as a guest commentator? And, really, why not use Williams here? Because it was expected? That seems like the time to really knock it out of the park, not to hide from the challenge. It would be like having a football sketch without host Peyton Manning or a Kevin Federline sketch without host Britney Spears. “Weekend Update” was screaming for Williams.
After an insufferable and long Dumbledore sketch, “Weekend Update,” and the musical guest (a delightful Feist), it seemed as though Williams must have been hanging out backstage having martinis for a good half hour. It got to the point where I began to wonder if Williams would reappear at all. Note to Lorne Michaels: When you have an unexpected and unique guest, he probably shouldn’t be off-stage long enough for me to alphabetize my CD collection.
And just when it seemed the mishandling of Williams as host couldn’t get any worse, “SNL” came to a crashing halt with a skit behind-the-scenes at the Democratic debate. Here was a perfect chance to prove that the show isn’t politically irrelevant, especially after an exciting start in which Barack Obama made a surprise cameo. Alas, we were left with a scene with Williams, as Williams, declaring to the Democratic candidates--sans Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama--that the media has officially decided that Clinton will be the candidate. Williams then leaves the skit never to reappear. Meanwhile, we in the audience have to suffer through the remaining candidates’ dilemma of how to attack Clinton without seeming to gang up on her, which literally ended with some shrugging and lines like, “I guess we’ll just have to go after her on the issues.” Um, yawn. It left me longing for the days of the brilliant Dana Carvey doing double-time as George H. W. Bush and H. Ross Perot, or of Hartman working his staff ragged as a tireless and hyper-engaged Ronald Reagan. Is no one at “SNL” reading the newspaper these days? Where’s their new Al Franken? Maybe working on the reliably strong “30 Rock” with Tina Fey?
I still have hope for my favorite show (yes, I’m the kind of person who reads the oral history book, mythologizes the cast, and Tivo’s every primetime special), but if one thing became clear this weekend, it is that “SNL” is having an off year. A host like Brian Williams shouldn’t be a wasted opportunity, because he’s good enough, smart enough, and gosh darn it, people like him.
Sacha Zimmerman is the Special Online Projects Manager for The New Republic.
By Sacha Zimmerman