Saturday night limp?

Broadsheet writers discuss "SNL" comedian Maya Rudolph's return to the show as Michelle Obama.

Published October 26, 2008 4:19PM (EDT)

"Saturday Night Live" sure misses its former players. Whether to remind us of its impressive legacy (or its current slump), the show keeps bringing back favorites from years past to spoof the current election cycle and juice up ratings (or, at the very least, Internet hits).

Last night marked the return of the divine Maya Rudolph, taking a turn as Michelle Obama. In case you missed it, "The Barack Obama Variety Half Hour" (posted below) featured musical cameos from such Democratic figureheads as Nancy Pelosi (Kristen Wiig) and the Rev. Wright (Kenan Thompson). Rudolph's return, in particular, was less triumph than understatement. A disappointment? Par for the political course? Broadsheet writers discuss her appearance below.


Sarah Hepola: Not only is Maya Rudolph one of the show's most versatile female performers (like, ever), but she's also dating (and has a child with) one of my favorite filmmakers. In short? I have a soft spot.

What a drag, then, to see how toothless her return appearance as Michelle Obama was. Does the audience really know and care so little about the potential first lady that the writers have nothing to spoof? Instead, they just handed Rudolph the microphone and told her to sing. (Which she did during Weekend Update as well, in a sweet tribute to Amy Poehler, who missed the show to have her baby. I mean, Rudolph's got a killer voice -- she's the daughter of soul singer Minnie Riperton, after all -- but a character actress of her caliber can do much more than that.)

Meanwhile, Fred Armisen's limp Barack Obama has been one of the show's great disappointments. Given the electric material at their fingertips -- "spread the wealth," "That One,"  a certain $150K price tag, Ashley Todd's ridonculous faked attack or (at the very least!) the adorable Obama girls' tendency to trample over their parents' lines while onstage -- this opener sure did feel creatively bankrupt.

As always, I loved Darrell Hammond as Bill Clinton, who stole the show with his brief rendition of the Simple Minds classic, "Don't You (Forget About Me)."

Judy Berman: Whoa, that was beyond awful. What was poor Maya Rudolph even doing there? Her guest spot was almost as anemic as Sarah Palin's last week. Did we really need to see one of "SNL's" all-time greatest impressionists (see Rudolph's Donatella Versace sketches) utter a few half-assed lines as a strangely flat Michelle Obama? I mean, I can see writing a bland Cindy McCain character, but it's pretty clear that Michelle has her fair share of personality.

And I agree with Sarah about Fred Armisen's Barack Obama. I don't even understand what he's trying to do with that character. Barack certainly has a distinctive way of speaking, but Armisen isn't even approaching a realistic rendition of it. He sounds meek and nerdy. Is that Armisen's intention? And if so, why?

In general, the impressions were bad. I don't even think "SNL" did its research, because I used to work with Bill Ayers (in the terrorist trenches of educational publishing), and that guy wasn't even trying to look like him.

To me, the problem with the skit is that it was comedy about people not being funny. Sketch shows try to do this all the time. Generally, I think it's lazy (they don't have to come up with real jokes) and very rarely succeeds.

Mary Elizabeth Williams: I don't envy Maya Rudolph. I don't envy any woman, in fact, who attempts to do political parody in a year when Sarah Palin has handed Tina Fey the comic keys to the kingdom. As the lip-glossed better half of "The Barack Obama Variety Show," Rudolph gamely brought her Ashford and Simpson best to the table. But the sketch itself was, like so many of "SNL's," a merely amusing idea that never developed into a full-blown, well-executed bit. My only laugh came from the Gnarls Barkley-esque "White Devils Be Craaaaazy."

Palin may be a riper subject for parody, but as the likelihood increases that we're going to spend the next four years with Michelle Obama in the White House, I'm willing to give the show's writers ample time to develop her as a character.

Katharine Mieszkowski: Wow. If this is what we have to look forward to from "Saturday Night Live" during an Obama-Biden administration, its ratings are going to tank. Will a nation hungry for satire have to turn to Fox News?

Tracy Clark-Flory: That was pathetic. Michelle Obama -- or, rather, the media's handling of her -- is a comedy gold mine! Why not lampoon the media's curmudgeonly response to her sarcasm, or spoof a certain cable news network questioning her patriotism? Without Tina Fey or Amy Poehler (or, ehem, Don Draper) on "SNL," I will have to turn to FOX News for laughs.

By Sarah Hepola

Sarah Hepola is the author of the New York Times bestselling memoir, "Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget."

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