We watched "Saturday Night Live" so you didn't have to

If you're like us, you have an on-again, off-again relationship with NBC's "Saturday Night Live," a show that's more cultural tradition than entertainment series.  At this point we wonder if NBC would ever cancel it.  It'd be like canceling "The Today Show."  This coming season will be the show's 38th.

In middle school and high school, the show was a pretty big deal for us.  We'd watch with our friends so we'd have something to talk about on Mondays, so we'd feel cool and hip.  But then once we got our driver's license, we sometimes had better things to do on Saturday night with our 11th grade friends.  This continued in college, though there were those Saturday night keg parties with the show playing in a dark corner.  We'd take a look.  But as we grew older, got a job, found a serious significant other, starting paying bills, there were many other things to do than keep track of the rotating cast and newest catch-phrases on "SNL."

Earlier this summer, while staying home to take care of Littlest Fry for a month, we had the opportunity to watch several episodes of "Saturday Night Live" back to back, clearing out hours of shows stacked up in our DVR.  We saw a lot of hosts, some surprisingly game (Mick Jagger, Daniel Radcliffe), some predictably mediocre (Lindsay Lohan), some predictably strong (Jimmy Fallon, Will Ferrell).

Here's what we learned.

1. Bill Hader is a genius.  And Stefon is perhaps his best creation, even if part of the appeal comes from watching him crack up.  He cannot get through these segments without losing it.  And we cannot get enough of him losing it in these segments.

2. It's easy to mock "SNL" when it seems lazy and lame, which it often is.  Sketches go nowhere, no one seems able to even try to learn lines, and every bit seems to be a variation of a tired TV talk show parody.  Some of this is surely a function of the demands of creating 90 minutes of content every week.  But some of it surely also complacency.  Even so, when the show is good, it's very very good:

"Almost Pizza" commercial

"The Californians"

"Disney Housewives"

3. Our favorite bit remains "Weekend Update."  It's often where the strongest, clearest jokes live, perhaps because they don't have to be stretched out into five minute sketches.  And while Seth Meyers seems at times to be polarizing, we like him.  So it was something of a let-down when Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, and Jimmy Fallon came back to the "Weekend Update" set for a joke-off to see which "Update" team could offer the best gag.  A strong idea.  But disappointing in execution.  Maybe you can't go home again.

4. It was a sweet dance send-off for genius Kristin Wiig on her last show, but we will not miss the strange recurring bit she shared with Fred Armisen in which they were a singing duo and she never knew the words.  It was funny for about 90 seconds.  And then it wasn't.  They mostly seemed to be amusing each other rather than the audience.

5. Keenan Thompson is funny, people.  And it's even more funny that he refuses to modulate in voice in any way from sketch to sketch.  No matter who he's playing, the dude sounds exactly the same.  (But we have had enough of the Scared Straight sketches and the awkward riffs on prison rape.)

6. We just don't get Fred Armisen.  He's funny sometimes, we suppose, but mostly he seems very smug and condescending.  He's his own best fan.

7. Taran Killam would seem to be the next break-out cast member.  He nails everything, doesn't he?

8. Abby Elliott will not be missed.  We never understood the reason for Elliott's presence on the cast.  And frankly, seeing her name in the credits often irritated us, especially when the more-talented Jenny Slate was axed last season.  All Elliott really offered was a dead-on Zooey Deschanel impersonation.  Though good, that's hardly a qualification for steady comedic employment. 

9. Jay Pharoah could be the next Abby Elliott if he's not careful.  If Elliott's a one-trick pony, Pharoah's so far maybe a three-trick pony.  He can nail Denzel and Jay-Z, but so what?  Is there anything more in the tank?

10. If there's no Andy Samberg, what will become of the "SNL Digital Short"?

11. The most artistic part of the show is surely the beautifully composed bumper photos of the guest host that run between segments.  The photographer is Mary Ellen Matthews and she's a genius.

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