To put it delicately, I am not one of Saturday Night Live‘s biggest fans. To my mind, the 35-year-old NBC show long ago turned from a showcase for cutting edge comedy to a worn-out old dinosaur, incapable of pushing beyond the restrictions of its hopelessly dated-format (with the exception of the occasional “Digital Short”). Over the past decade or so, the inherent strong points of a weekly-sketch-comedy show like SNL have been trumped by other forms of media. Animated shows like Family Guy and Robot Chicken utilize short-parodies of other shows, films, and celebrities while avoiding the pacing-issues that haunt a quick-turnaround live show.
The rise of the internet has created a comedy show equivalent to the 24-hour news cycle which allows bloggers or YouTube comedians to respond to topical events far more quickly than a program that airs once a week. Then there is The Daily Show, which – whatever its biases -– possesses an up-to-date sensibility and nuanced sense-of-humor (and is broadcast four times a week), which make “Weekend Update” look about as fresh as an Ed Sullivan monologue.
On the other hand, the last decade or so of SNL‘s run has produced some of its most talented luminaries. While the casts of the early-’90s produced middlebrow movie stars like Mike Myers and Adam Sandler, the comics who left the show in the 2000s have turned to less mainstream but more groundbreaking forms of comedy. With the exception of Will Ferrell, who has managed to effectively straddle the line between lowbrow slapstick and more complex character-based humor with surprising ease, most of these grads have gone on to work on and star in critically-adored shows with so-so viewing figures on the same network that launched their TV careers. Whether it’s Jimmy Fallon with the Lorne Michaels-produced Late Night or Amy Poehler with the Office-surpassing Parks and Recreation, many of these former SNL-ers have gone on to make some surprisingly satisfying television after spending years in the world of hit-or-miss sketch comedy.
Of these comedians, none has created a more complete aesthetic and tone than Tina Fey with 30 Rock, her meta-comedy about the staff and stars of a fictional, SNL-resembling sketch-comedy show called TGS With Tracy Jordan. Tracy Jordan, a coddled star who Fey’s Liz Lemon has to keep happy by giving in to an endless list of crazy schemes and demands, is played by SNL-alum Tracy Morgan. This character, along with the deliberate blurring Morgan creates during his various talk show appearances between his real life and Jordan’s fictional activities, has made Morgan one of the most popular comic actors working today. While many of Morgan’s fans are surely familiar with the work on SNL from 1996 to 2003, there are probably many others who, like me, will find themselves viewing his Saturday Night Live: The Best of Tracy Morgan DVD knowing the actor mostly from his work on 30 Rock, and thus may find themselves a little unprepared for what they see on it.
The initial thing a first-time viewer may notice about this set of sketches is that it does nothing to alleviate many of Morgan’s detractors’ greatest fears about him. Morgan has often been accused of adopting “Minstrel show”-type methods in his comedy, with critics accusing him of “cooning” to get laughs from the predominantly white, college-educated audiences of shows like 30 Rock, on which he plays a crazy African-American who loves strip-clubs, cannot perform basic human tasks without the aid of his posse, and has occasional problems with speaking English.
While it can be argued that “Tracy Jordan” is a parody of the public’s perception of black celebrities, and one that is used to subvert those expectations on multiple occasions, it’s harder to make that case for this set of sketches. Of the 20 clips collected on this DVD, there are only five in which the humor does not rely in some way on Morgan’s status as a black man, and of those five, one features him as a homeless man, a second has him play a porn star, while another has him portraying a marijuana addict.
Even if a viewer is not apt to be offended by a black actor being so routinely cast as a pimp, an alcoholic, or a lover-of-booty, he or she may still find fault with the one-dimensional nature of much of the comedy on display here. The two, “Safari Planet” skits which feature Morgan as a dim-witted, egotistical nature-show host called Brian Fellows, are almost unwatchable, thanks to the writers’ apparent conviction that the idea of an effeminately-dressed black man yelling out “I’m Brian Fellows” at inexplicable moments was enough to carry an entire sketch.
Also incredibly lackluster are a bit where he plays a black pimp who meets (of all things!) a white pimp played by Vince Vaughn, and “Talkin’ to the Stars”, in which Tracy’s hedonistic activities as a black celebrity are contrasted with the milquetoast hobbies of his white cohost, as a bewildered Jon Stewart looks on. Then there is the “Movie Theater” piece, which is based on an (incredibly fresh-and-original) joke concerning black people and their apparent tendency to talk loudly during movies, and which for some reason Samuel L. Jackson agreed to join Morgan in.
Other sketches, however, succeed despite their blatant reliance on black stereotypes. The “Astronaut Jones” segments aren’t funny just because of Morgan’s demands that comely alien women “drop that green jumpsuit and show me that phat ass”, but also because of the hilariously bizarre opening theme song sung by Morgan with childish glee. The “Uncle Jemima’s Mash Liqour” may rely on the idea that Aunt Jemima would naturally have a lecherous, alcoholic husband, but Morgan carries off the role with such conviction and timing that it becomes one of the highlights of this collection.
Other good moments come in segments where Morgan is asked to do an impression (surprising, given that most of his success has come from playing exaggerated versions of himself). One could argue that funny and/or accurate impersonations are the one thing that SNL is still unique in offering, as the unusually high-ratings induced by Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin sketches during the 2008 election seem to indicate. In Morgan’s case, a sketch where he portrays a version of Maya Angelou who has decided to start writing greeting cards works wonderfully (despite Morgan’s occasional tendency to stumble over teleprompted lines). A Hardball spoof in which he plays an wingnut version of Harry Belefonte (and in which John McCain plays a wingnut version of John Ashcroft) is also surprisingly funny, thanks to dead-on caricatures all around and Morgan’s character’s insistence that “Osama bin Laden is a House Negro.”
Still, there isn’t much here that doesn’t fall a distant second in funniness to an hour spent watching clips on (the also-spotty) Funny or Die or 15-minutes of Robot Chicken. Again, this isn’t any one person’s fault so much as it is the natural result of a format which forces writers to produce enough material to fill an hour every week with only that week to write it, gives the actors minimal time to perfect timing and character traits, and then hopes the jokes will still be funny to an audience that’s seen them all before on their funny coworker’s blog.
I have great respect for sketch comedy and improvisational comedians, but perhaps a major television network is not the place for it anymore, no matter how great a springboard to bigger things it may be for comics from Second City or the Groundlings. On the other hand, without the last decade of SNL, there’d probably be no Parks and Rec and certainly no 30 Rock, so I can’t say I’m completely unhappy it still exists. I’d just rather watch Tracy Jordan than Brian Fellows, any day of the week.
Speaking of Tracy Jordan, the extras on this DVD provide an interesting look into how Morgan’s comedic persona has evolved over the years. His (eerily laugh-less) SNL audition tape is included, in which Morgan comes off as just another cool, young, New York comic with some funny stories about getting into trouble with his friends and a gift for physical humor. A couple of early Late Night (with Conan O’Brien) appearances are also featured, which make doubly clear the fact that there is a sane individual behind the SCRAM-bracelet-wearing, t-shirt-losing madman who makes the talk-show rounds these days, which should be disappointing but is actually somewhat comforting.
As much as I love Tracy Jordan, I wouldn’t want to find myself somehow stuck in the way of one of his unpredictable impulses. That is, unless Griz and Dot-Com are real, as well.