There is no more boring complaint than “ ‘Saturday Night Live’ used to be funnier.”
Comedy fans have probably been saying this since its second minute on air. To be fair, the show also wallows in nostalgia. In the spring, “Saturday Night Live: The Exhibit” will open in New York with props, scripts and other artifacts from popular sketches. For its 40th anniversary (a celebratory special is scheduled for Feb. 15), “Saturday Night Live” has been turning memories into merchandise. I’m not sure who needs a Hans and Franz water bottle ($13) or a box of Colon Blow ($16), the cereal from a 1980s fake ad parodying high-fiber breakfasts, but that person surely exists.
Are these tie-ins a little tacky? Maybe. But “Saturday Night Live” hasn’t been counterculture for a long time. Lorne Michaels runs a corporate juggernaut, and a ruthlessly effective one, with satellites in NBC late-night talk, where two former cast members, Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers, are winning the ratings battle. As the second half of the season starts on Saturday, with Kevin Hart as the host, “S.N.L.” is showing hopeful signs of emerging from its latest transitional stage.
This season started slowly with lackluster shows, including episodes featuring Chris Rock and Sarah Silverman. (Talented stand-ups often don’t make for hosts as good as more nimble actors.) But while the writing remains hit and miss, the last five episodes have been much better, and a strong core of performing talent is coalescing.
Kate McKinnon is the anchor, a reliably inventive and dynamic performer who steals every scene she’s in. Like Will Ferrell or Chris Farley, she can make something out of nothing. Her eyes have a cartoonish expressiveness emphasizing the intensity of her characters. In her hands, a banal sketch about desperate singles meeting up at last call in a bar is transformed into a screwy performance with baroquely filthy innuendo. Her range is dizzying — from her severe Angela Merkel to a gently eccentric cat lady — but her masterwork is an infectious impression of Justin Bieber.
It’s a parody of his unearned swagger, but the real delight is watching her enjoy the character’s rubbery, lip-pursing physicality. She makes being Justin Bieber look more fun than he does. Like the best “Saturday Night Live” impressionists” — Dana Carvey or Bill Hader — she captures a few tics but focuses less on accuracy than on heightening them into something all her own.
The key to Mr. Michaels’s success, along with his gift for finding talent, is his capacity to adjust without losing the essence of the show. In response to criticism of its lack of diversity, he hired several African-American women. And after years of leaning heavily on the improv world, he added an infusion of wise-guy talent from the New York stand-up scene: Pete Davidson and Michael Che.
Mr. Davidson has brought an unpolished, slumping charm to his appearances. Mr. Che and Colin Jost, the hosts of “Weekend Update,” still seem tentative and lacking in chemistry. But Mr. Che did a nice job weighing in early with a joke about the rape accusations against Bill Cosby. Adopting a stern tone, he addressed the veteran comic directly: “Hey, Bill Cosby, pull your damn pants up.”
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The most promising newcomer has been Leslie Jones, who joined the staff as a writer last year but was added this fall as a featured player. She can be wooden in some scenes — a sketch in which she played Chris Rock’s wife was a train wreck — but when she speaks directly to the camera, she adds a jolt of charisma, energy and necessary recklessness.
Ms. Jones, Ms. McKinnon and Aidy Bryant (who remains underused) all shone in the mock video about the glory of going home for Thanksgiving and being taken care of by your parents. “Saturday Night Live” has always been a deceptive title, but preshot and edited sketches are now the clear highlight, a majority of the bits that go viral.
Rap parodies of ridiculous machismo are fast becoming the most hackneyed joke on the show, while the most creative films have been by Mike O’Brien, whose minor-key weirdness and even melancholy tone are refreshing amid the show’s broad pop culture satires. His breakout was “Grow a Guy,” a spoof of “Weird Science”-like movies about a lonely man (Mr. O’Brien) who makes his own friend, played by James Franco. In this and a deft zombie parody that didn’t air but was released online, Mr. O’Brien carefully roots the scene in reality, laying the groundwork for a shift into the surreal. “S.N.L.” would benefit from more of this kind of change in pace.
The show is at its most unsure with topical material, a problem that may become more serious when presidential campaigns really get going. The show struggled to find ways to deal with Ferguson, Mo. (An Al Sharpton sketch was tepid.) And bringing back Mike Myers’s Dr. Evil to poke fun at North Korea, Sony and the “Interview” debacle was a disappointing stunt. But what hurts most is that the show’s competition has gotten better. Just as network sitcoms and dramas have been eclipsed by prestige cable shows, so has “S.N.L.”
Whatever you think about “Key and Peele” (Comedy Central) or “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” (HBO), each is a coherent show with a specific vision. “Saturday Night Live” is a sloppier operation, a cacophony of voices and styles jumbled together. And compared with so many tightly made, consistently funny half-hour sketch shows elsewhere, “Saturday Night Live,” which has to fill much more time on an accelerated schedule, seems glaringly inconsistent and lacking a strong point of view.
But its hit-or-miss quality control has always existed; the raggedness is part of its signature and success. For a corporate juggernaut that draws the best talent in the country, “Saturday Night Live” still brings the imperfections and excitement of kids scrambling to put on a big show.