by Matt Holmes
Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez died on Tuesday, March 5. On Saturday, March 9, Saturday Night Live opened with host Justin Timberlake impersonating Elton John as he sang a dedication of “Candle in the Wind” at Chávez’s funeral.
The lyrics were altered, as Elton John did after the death of Princess Diana, but to include bizarre facts about Chávez’s life, including his radio show Aló Presidente, hat-wearing parrot, and comments he made about capitalism destroying a civilization on Mars.
I think this sketch was the best thing on SNL recently.
- The sketch used the host’s talents. He sang it well, and I think played the piano part too. He sold the jokes and did a good impression.
- The sketch was topical. The live aspect of SNL allows—if not demands—that current events be used in the humor.
- The sketch was funny. It had clever rhymes, good pacing, and insight about the subject.
It’s the combination of these things that makes it stand out for me. It’s SNL being SNL.The show has certainly had some other funnier stuff, but funny is subjective. What’s funny is based on personal taste, awareness of the subject matter, how well it pans out, even your mood at the moment you’re watching it.
Saturday Night Live is a live sketch-comedy show with a celebrity host who performs in sketches. SNL‘s DNA is funny, political, timely, edgy, and flavored by the guest host. With the right mix and balance, you can watch it live or 30 years later and love it just as much.
There’s a certain timely element that gives an added impact in the moment. (You can’t even find this sketch on Hulu or NBC.com/SNL because of music rights; you actually had to watch it live.) But if something’s well-written and well-performed, it’ll hold up later.Look at the Sarah Palin sketches or Dan Aykroyd playing a hemorrhoid-suffering President Carter, outlining his plan against inflation: Preparation I.
And certainly not every sketch is going to be that mix of current events and host talents. It shouldn’t be even if it could be. There are other aspects of SNL that make up its identity.
- My point is to know thyself and be the best you.
Comedy—and art in general—are often spoken of in mystical terms. There’s an extra something that makes it all come together as more than the sum of its parts. That magical spark; it’s you. It’s the comic or group or show, etc., having a self-awareness and producing material that is representative.
There are ways to get people talking around a water cooler or tweeting, ways to get more video plays, ways to get remembered or imitated. Too often, though, these formulas can lead to comedy that is formulaic. It’s more important to be a good example of yourself.When Chappelle’s Show was about to come out, network executives said they weren’t sure if the sketch about a blind Klansman who doesn’t know that he’s black would be a good representation of the show overall. Dave Chappelle said it was a perfect representation.
When Bill Prady, showrunner for The Big Bang Theory, was working on Dharma and Greg, he woke up in the middle of the night with a perfect story, but the perfect story for Star Trek: Voyager. He got in touch with them and handed it over.
Even if something’s good it has to fit and feel right. Comedians should become tailors.
It’s a lesson to learn from any outstanding piece created out of knowing not only the message, but the medium.
Matt Holmes is an improviser in Philly. He performs a full improv comedy set with a complete stranger from the audience in Matt& (“playful and winning” –TimeOut Chicago). He also teaches improv, coaches improv groups, and co-founded Rare Bird Show (“Top Shelf Improv” –The Apiary, “arguably the best improv group Philly has ever produced” –AV Club).
Look for the next installment of “Discussing a Bit,” Matt’s monthly WitOut column, on May 1st.
Have a comedy issue or theory you’d like Matt to examine? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.