Here's how I consume "Saturday Night Live" nowadays. At 8:45 p.m., I retire to the bedroom armed with the sexy accoutrements of advancing age -- bifocals, a glass of warm milk, the latest Brokaw opus on "The Greatest Generation" -- and crash shortly thereafter. Then, on Monday morning, I check out Pop Candy to get intel on the most buzzed-about sketches and watch them on Hulu. Finally, I latch onto the catchphrase of the week -- "I'm an ADULT!" -- and repeat it ad infinitum until my wife locks me in the pantry.
None of this to say that the 2009-2010 iteration of "Saturday Night Live" isn't funny, nor that it has lost its singular ability to steer the pop-cultural conversation. During the 2008 presidential campaign, the show was as barbed and brutal as ever, doing far more to define public perception of Sarah Palin than did the combination of Katie Couric, the New York Times' editorial page and Palin herself.
What "SNL" has lost is its sense of immediacy. Prior to the viral-videos-gone-wild era (which, it should be noted, "SNL" ushered in with "Lazy Sunday"), you lived in fear of missing a Moment-With-A-Capital-"M." Now, deliverance is only a few clicks and a 30-second pre-roll ad away. Barring the appearance of an unconventional host or a killer musical act, there's no compelling reason to catch the show live.
Happily, one such host was enlisted for last Saturday's show: Zach Galifianakis, one of the few legit claimants to the funniest-person-in-the-world throne even before his mainstream breakout last summer in "The Hangover." His "SNL" promos upped the ante, showcasing more easy comic flair than has been displayed in a decade's worth of Leno bits.
In their wake, I couldn't have been more excited to see how much cheerful weirdness Galifianakis would be allowed to inflict on "SNL." To ensure consciousness well beyond the midnight hour, I chased down a handful of greenies with Red Bull; I should be able to sleep again sometime before Easter.
In the end, I wasn't disappointed. Galifianakis played the piano. He "accidentally" identified Hoobastank as the musical guest. He donned ill-fitting pantsuits and shaved his heroic beard mid-show.
But what really distinguished the episode was the liberating effect he appeared to have on the "SNL" regulars. Let's be honest: it can't have been easy for them to get revved up by the prospect of performing alongside personalities like Charles Barkley or January Jones (whose November appearance rivaled Steven Seagal's as the most comedically tin-eared in show history). With Galifianakis on board, the cast embraced the weird.
This meant that viewers were treated to the type of free-form bits more often associated with Upright Citizens Brigade than with modern-era "SNL." Men tongue-kissed dogs and each other. The "Weekend Update" segment referenced "monkey rape." A hotel bidet found itself as the centerpiece of a five-minute sketch. With the exception of the show's overdone "Today" show parody -- and really, somebody oughta tell Kristen Wiig to tone down the facial tics -- little of the Galifianakis episode resembled what viewers reared on the holy "SNL" troika of Aykroyd, Murphy and Hartman have come to expect. That's a good thing.
The Galifianakis ep also savaged the media -- namely, CNN's sad attempts at news-generation via viewer photos and e-mail reports -- with more knowing glee than usual. "SNL" even had megapundit Frank Rich appear for a cameo on the "What Up With That?" play on panelist-driven political shows... then didn't even bother to give him a line, which was probably a commentary in itself.
Anyway, at least for one night, Galifianakis restored a sense of possibility to "SNL," restored the expectation that anything can and will happen (and by "anything," I don't mean "Robert DeNiro dropping in unannounced to promote his latest legacy-diminishing performance"). This week's host, alas, is the game but less than funny Jude Law. Thus I'll tune back in on Monday morning, then rest up for May 8.
The laziest headline in recent media history is "Saturday Night Dead," regardless of whether it is punctuated with an exclamation point or a question mark (FWIW, second place goes to "His Aim Is True," overused in any item peripherally related to Elvis Costello). Well, "Saturday Night Live" still has a strong pulse and remains the country's most venerable humor institution. You just have to pick your spots, is all.