Friday, March 27, 2009

Seeing Tom Davis recall what he could of his years as a key writer for Saturday Night Live, both in the 1970s and in the late 1980s and early 1990s, in an appearance promoting his memoir "39 Years of Short-Term Memory Loss: The Early Days of SNL from Someone Who Was There," at the 92Y Tribeca tonight, really reinforced a critic's conviction that Lorne Michaels really does sometimes suck all the air out of comedy on the show.

Case in point -- Tracy Morgan's recent return as host, in which the opening sketch where he has trouble clearing security to get into 30 Rock was probably the only good piece Morgan was in. Morgan's old recurring character -- this points to Michaels' penchant for recurring characters ad nauseum -- Brian Fellows, was never all that funny. Since Morgan's part on "30 Rock" and that show itself, became a hit, it's become all the more evident that Tina Fey knew far better how to tap Morgan's ability to be absurd. Morgan also shines when he's a guest on Letterman as well. It almost seems like everybody but Michaels knows what to do with him.

Anyway, back to Davis. He did note Michaels' love of recurring characters, adding that he much preferred having the cast serve the idea of a sketch rather than the other way around, which is what happens with character pieces showcasing a performer instead. And in a couple old clips Davis had as part of his appearance, one saw the perfect case in point -- one of the "Franken & Davis Show" segments Davis wrote with old partner Al Franken, which imagined a male beauty pageant featuring the duo, with Belushi, Aykroyd and Bill Murray interspersed among several extras, all as contestants. Belushi had one little line thanking the host -- albeit delivered as if he were a kid thanking his mommy; and Aykroyd and Bill Murray had no lines at all, merely holding a punching bag for Franken to run into repeatedly, acting like a football player for his talent.

Delightfully stupid as this bit was, it had way more laughs than anything misusing Tracy Morgan. Davis in his middle age does give a sense that he could have been a cantankerous pain-in-the-ass to Michaels as a writer, but Davis' convictions about comedy could have been more on the mark.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Jimmy Fallon

Caught up to the premiere of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon from last night, and it's actually a lot more promising than I thought it would be. The only segment that was really weak was the "Lick It for Ten," that had three audience members licking a lawnmower, a copy machine and a bowl of goldfish (not even the inside of the bowl) to win $10. And all three licked pretty tame surfaces, like the outside of the mower and the copy glass -- it wasn't like Jimmy made them get in there with the toner or the engine oil.

Also in the gags at the top of the show was a bit about blonde Connecticut moms, that was also just O.K. ... The strongest parts of the show came largely through its guests, namely a classically awkward cameo at the beginning by Conan O'Brien, still around to clean out his office; and guest Robert De Niro mocking Jimmy with his own impersonation. Another highlight was actually provided by Justin Timberlake, taking Fallon's Barry Gibb as a jumping off point for a few musical impersonations -- of John Mayer and Michael McDonald -- that were dead-on. It reminded viewers of Kevin Spacey's appearance on SNL parroting Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Christopher Walken and others.

The Roots, who have gotten a lot of press for becoming the house band for Fallon's show actually very nearly saved the "Lick It for Ten" segment, playing some sexy funk music under the action. And in backing Timberlake's impressions, and at other points in the premiere episode, showed they can pull from a vast repetoire to complement the host.

Fallon's show isn't quite as good as Conan O'Brien became over the years, but it's definitely not a Chevy Chase crash-and-burn train wreck. (Anybody remember that?)