Personal Faves: Maya Rudolph Hosts ‘SNL’

Instead of ending the year with a slew of Best Of lists, BlackBook asked our contributors to share the most important moments in art, music, film, television, and fashion that took place in 2012. Here, Joe Reid writes about Maya Rudolph’s return to Studio 8H as host of Saturday Night Live.

Since the beginning and the "Not Ready for Primetime Players," Saturday Night Live has always boasted something of a familial atmosphere. Even when—as has been documented often—those families were fucked-up and quarrelsome. The eras of SNL close ranks around themselves in our memory, though, and even when the reality resists it, we write these narratives anyway. This is why I will never not be fascinated by what goes on during the goodbye hugs at the end of each episode. Such a great peek into family dynamics. This sense of family on SNL has been especially strong on the last several years. The overlapping Tina Fey/Seth Meyers eras have been characterized by constant opportunities for crossover—on 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, Late Night With Jimmy Fallon—and a sense that graduated cast members are welcome back at Studio 8H any time.

And yet even by those standards, Maya Rudolph’s hosting gig last February felt especially familial. In the nearly five years since Rudolph ended her time as a cast member, she’d been back several times, but this was her first gig as host, and the sense of rallying around her for her big moment was palpable. Despite the fact that she was already starring in a sitcom on NBC, there was no reference made to Up All Night (the same would be true of Christina Applegate’s hosting gig in October, helping to cement Up All Night as one of the great "is that still on?" sitcoms of our time). It was the previous summer’s Bridesmaids that provided the boost in stature for Rudolph to host herself. Bridesmaids was a big influencer on SNL last season. Melissa McCarthy had been on to host in October, and the success of the film was probably that last push that Kristen Wiig needed to declare this her last season on the show. Which meant, in addition to Rudolph experiencing an old home week, there was also a sense that she was helping to usher Wiig into that great Beyond-SNL phase of her career, a sense that was only galvanized by Amy Poehler’s extended cameo.

Everybody figured Poehler would be back for a reprise of Bronx Beat, her and Rudolph’s popular recurring sketch. Betty and Jodi fell right back into their world-weary rhythms (it feels like Hoarders was a phenomenon created specifically to be gabbed about on "Bronx Beat"), and it only felt appropriate that their guests would be the sound guys played by Andy Samberg and Justin Timberlake (one of the more popular recurring hosts of the Fey/Meyers era, keeping us on trend). 

NEXT: "The 2011-12 season had turned into Senior Week at high school."

Both Poehler and Timberlake would show up again during the show: Timberlake as Bon Iver in an "At Home with Beyonce and Jay-Z" sketch (though he would later TOTALLY puss out by carrying an "I <3 Bon Iver" sign during the goodbyes), and Poehler in her triumphant return to Weekend Update, and specifically to "REALLY??!! With Seth and Amy." That Beyonce and Jay-Z sketch was one of those treasure boxes filled with random fantastic celebrity impersonations, specifically Taran Killam’s Brad Pitt and Nasim Pedrad’s Nicki Minaj (which tragically was never paired with Kristen Wiig’s Bjork before Wiig left the show). But it was the return of "REALLY??!!" that sold the homecoming theme better than anything else. Seth and Amy had such great chemistry together, and his happiness at having her back for a week was practically radiating through the TV.

With Wiig and Samberg on their way out the door (and Jason Sudekis rumored to be as well), the 2011-12 season had turned into Senior Week at high school, with sketches seeming loopier and more likely to devolve into a pile of giggles. Wanton character-breaking like that can often test an audience’s patience with the show (see: the entire Jimmy Fallon-Horatio Sanz era), but for viewers who knew what was up, the season felt like watching fantastically funny old friends have a well-deserved goof-off day. (That day lasted 22 episodes, but whatever.) Thus the appeal of something like "Super Showcase," which consisted entirely of Wiig and Rudolph using weird voices to make them (and Bill Hader) laugh. The fact that Vanessa Bayer—new, still-trying-to-prove-herself Vanessa Bayer—was the only one to hold it together only strengthened the "Senior Skip Day" impression. 

NEXT: "The entire episode was consistently strong, a near-impossible feat for SNL."

The entire episode was consistently strong, a near-impossible feat for SNL. At 90 minutes worth of crammed-together sketches, perfection is an unattainable goal. (It also means that even the worst episodes can be redeemed by one great sketch, so it works both ways.) But Rudolph’s episode was remarkably steady: the cold open about racist "Lin-sanity" is so much more dated than anybody ever thought possible (it’s only been ten months but feels like ten years) but it also nailed that moment in time. The "what would it take for African Americans to not support Obama?" sketch was better than what usually gets tossed out at 12:45 AM. "What’s Up With That?" is never going to be for everybody, but it manages to get me every time, if for no other reason than the gleeful look on Sudekis’s face while he’s doing the running man. But, fine, say that’s the one "bad" sketch of the night. It’s more than redeemed by something like Maya Angelou’s prank show, if only for the part where Angelou assures Dr. Cornel West that her goof on him was not an act of malice but an act of whimsy. 

But really, what are we even talking about? Why did I just spend all that time talking about the rest of the episode when the show attained perfection via 30 short seconds in the second-last sketch? Not even the full "Obama Show" sketch. Just those perfectly calibrated Cosby Show opening credits. My favorite moments from those credits, in order: 1) Maya as Michelle Obama as Clare Huxtable, wagging her index finger at the camera; 2) Maya as Michelle Obama as Clare Huxtable dancing; 3) Jason Sudekis as Joe Biden as Theo Huxtable dancing; 4) Fred Armisen as Barack Obama as Cliff Huxtable doing the thing with the fingers; 5) Fred Armisen as Barack Obama as Cliff Huxtable dancing around Agent Conners. In the months since, I have watched those credits roughly seven thousand times. They don’t lose their luster. I only regret that the tag at the end of the sketch, where Poehler shows up as Hillary Clinton to lip-sych Ray Charles in parody of the greatest moment in Cosby Show history, isn’t available online due to the scourge of our time: music rights. MUSIC RIIIIIIIGHTS!!! [shakes fist]

It was only fitting, really, that this particular episode of Saturday Night Live was highlighted by a parody of one of television’s great families. Here’s hoping there’s one more of these homecoming episodes before Meyers, Hader, and company all move on. When does Kristen Wiig’s next movie open, anyway?

Follow Joe Reid on Twitter.  

‘SNL’ Opening Skit Puts Sign Language Interpreter Front & Center

You could tell from a mile away that Saturday Night Live was going to use Lydia Callis, Mayor Bloomberg’s American Sign Language interpreter, in their opening skit. But was it … funny?

Callis became an overnight celebrity this week for her animated facial expressions as she interpreted ASL for Bloomberg during his many press conferences regarding Hurricane Sandy. But as journalist Lilit Marcus   wrote over at the Atlantic, much of the coverage of Callis was patronizing to ASL speakers.  Marcus is the child of two hearing-impaired parents and was dismayed, if not entirely surprised, that the hearing world seemed to think Callis was there to provide goofy entertainment:

Yes, Lydia Callis’ facial expressions and large, emphatic signs are a bit unusual among interpreters, but they’re not incorrect. Most interpreters have a difference between the way that they sign for large groups and the way that they sign for small ones. Callis’ sign style reminds me more of the way that interpreters translate at Broadway shows or at college graduations, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong or that she’s doing it for attention. She’s signing for a room full of reporters, but the closeness of the TV camera blows her signs up and makes them more pronounced. If someone went on TV speaking English with an unusually high-pitched voice, I doubt they’d get their own Tumblr chronicling all of their vocal patterns.

I’m in agreement with all this, especially because Marcus is a close friend and I’ve long heard her make comments such as these. So of course I worried whether SNL would be respectful of ASL-speakers/Callis. I’m happy to say in the opening monologue last night, Cecily Strong, the actress playing Callis actually signed real words in ASL amidst her joke signs, like signing "Obama" by gesticulating big ears. Nasim Pedrad played a Jersey-fied interpreter to Bobby Moynihan’s Chris Christie and just made a lot of Italian-American hand gestures — which I found funny because it was so absurd.

The only thing that I thought SNL got wrong was joking that Lydia Callis was bringing "pizzazz" to the press conferences. It may have been a funny opportunity to make jazz hands for the words "pizzazz," but again, it reinforces the idea that an ASL interpreter is there for entertainment.

Here’s the skit below:

Contact the author of this post at Jessica.Wakeman@Gmail.com. Follow me on Twitter.