An awful lot of people aren't going to know what to do with themselves by the middle of this week, when the realization dawns that it's finally over: the pop culture marathon known as Campaign '08. For Saturday Night Live, which shoved its way back into the center of conversation this fall, the end of the presidential trail is going to be particularly daunting.
This week's show, which featured the unprecedented sight of one of the major candidates giving up precious time the weekend before the vote in order to appear, illustrated the challenge facing SNL perfectly. People will be talking Monday about John McCain's game appearance, about the (presumably) final go-round for Tina Fey as Sarah Palin, and about Ben Affleck's hilarious takedown of Keith Olbermann. But the remainder of the 90 minutes rarely rose even to the level of average, and the sudden if not unexpected departure of new mommy Amy Poehler is looking more than ever like a gaping wound that could take a season or two to heal.
McCain, the only person to double as a party's nominee for president and SNL host, first showed up in the opening sketch alongside running mate Fey/Palin. The premise was that in contrast to Barack Obama, who was able to buy up a half hour of airtime on multiple networks last Wednesday, the McCain campaign is less flush with cash and had to make do with hosting a QVC special. "Look, would I rather be on three major networks?" asked McCain. "Of course, but I'm a true maverick: a Republican without money. And I'm not like my opponent. My only showbiz connections are Jon Voight and Heidi from The Hills."
McCain made pitches for a set of pork knives--"they cut the pork out!"--and for "McCain fine gold," displayed by wife Cindy. He also reminded viewers that "all undergarments are non-refundable." Fey was more of a bystander here than in most of her Palin appearances, though at one point she used a stage whisper to announce that she was "goin' rogue" and was selling t-shirts advertising her run for president in 2012: "Just try and wait until after Tuesday to wear 'em, okay? Because I'm not goin' anywhere. And I'm certainly not goin' back to Alaska." One assumes that the campaign had some veto power over the sketches McCain would appear in, so it's mildly surprising it would go along with something that seems to give credence to the reports of tension between McCain and his veep.
McCain made a second appearance during Weekend Update, notable for two reasons. First, there were some audible boos from the audience when he was introduced, a real SNL rarity. Second, Seth Meyers introduced McCain by noting he was trailing in the polls, and the candidate proceeded to discuss new strategies that might rectify this, such as the Reverse Maverick ("Where I just do what everybody tells me") and the Sad Grandpa ("That's where I get on TV and go, 'C'mon, Obama's gonna have plenty of chances to be President! It's my turn! Vote for me!'"). It's standard practice for figures in the news to come on SNL and poke fun at themselves to show they can take a joke; McCain's last appearance on the show back in May was a winner in that regard. But only three days before the election would seem to be a bad time to admit you're running behind.
As for Affleck, whose previous SNL history is best remembered for the way he poked fun at the end of his relationship with Jennifer Lopez, he used his monologue to refer to his long history of work of behalf of candidates who eventually lost, prompting the well-known liberal to issue an endorsement of McCain. Later, during a rare sketch featuring a guest host mostly working alone, Affleck played MSNBC's Keith Olbermann, long overdue for a parody. While the voice wasn't quite down, and big chunks of the audience seemed not to be familiar enough with Olbermann to know what about him is funny, Affleck captured the Countdown host's self-righteousness and hyperbolic streak, delivering a "Special Comment" attacking his co-op board for rejecting him on account of his cat. "How dare you sir, how dare you!" Affleck/Olbermann boomed.
A parody of The View was noteworthy for Affleck's impersonation of Alec Baldwin and for Kristen Wiig's hysterically bubbleheaded Elisabeth Hasselbeck, but the fact that both Joy Behar and Whoopi Goldberg had to be played by men (Fred Armisen and Kenan Thompson respectively) illustrates just how thin the female bench is at SNL right now. Wiig isn't bad, but a revival of her Target cashier sketch and an Update appearance as "Aunt Linda" were unfunny variations on the same basic character.
Saturday Night Live has finished up a truly grueling stretch of seven live shows and three primetime specials in just eight weeks. But its renewed position at the top of the comedy heap is due in large part to two people, Fey and Poehler, who won't be around when the show comes back live in two weeks. The remainder of the season could be a real struggle.