Hugh Laurie has a long and distinguished career as a sketch comedian and writer. A product of that most elite of British sketch comedy training grounds, the Cambridge University Footlights Club (where he worked with Emma Thompson and Stephen Fry, and followed such luminaries of the previous generation as several of the Monty Python troupe), Laurie has perfect comedic timing and a dry and ironic wit that would even impress his alter ego, Dr. Gregory House.
I was looking forward to watching Laurie on his return visit to Saturday Night Live. His last outing as host of the venerable series was a year and a half ago. In that appearance, while I enjoyed Laurie’s monologue, a couple of the sketches, and the reprise of his fabulous folk-ballad satire, “Protest Song,” I felt at the time that the sketches written for him did not play to his greatest strengths and he seemed (very) slightly out of his element. It didn’t help that the season as a whole was mediocre at best. The sketches were silly rather than funny some had (for me) a high cringe factor.
This season, SNL is has been experiencing a bit of a renaissance (as has happened several times since the show began airing back when I was in college). The writing is sharp as is the acting — much of that fueled by political humor, giving SNL an energy it hasn’t had for a while. So I was hoping for a more satisfying series of sketches and lots of Hugh. I was not disappointed.
Last night’s SNL, it's final live show of 2008 — and it's Christmas show — was a really good outing. Hugh seemed much more at ease with the material and with being back on live television than he had two years ago. The sketches seemed to rely more on his strengths as a comedic actor with great timing, and some of them really hearkened back to his days writing and performing on A Bit of Fry and Laurie with Stephen Fry on the BBC in the 1990s. As such, most of the sketches were “situational" moments we've all encountered one way or another, bent perversely (or subversively) for comic effect, but containing an element of truth. SNL also made effective use of Laurie’s considerable musical talent (and unexpectedly nice baritone singing voice) both in the monologue and in several of the sketches.
Of course the evening opened with a pre-credits political sketch featuring our not-so-dear Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich (yes, I’ll freely admit to being a born and bred Illinoisan — hey we get to claim Obama — and Hillary, so there!) Maybe it’s because they’re New Yorkers rather than Second City folks from Chicago, but the sketch could have skewered the soon to be ex-governor a little more pointedly and with more finesse than relying on the governor’s colorful “bleeping” language. Oh well. It would have been a funnier tack trying to explain the whole situation to the British Hugh Laurie, who would does a great bewildered anyway. That would have made a remarkable sketch.
I thought Laurie’s monologue was okay, but not fabulous, and Hugh seemed a bit nervous when his first joke fell a bit flat. Telling a joke about the Dickensian nature of New York City didn't go over so well, but the remainder of the monologue was a success, especially a bit in which he gave a (minutely small) gift to a member of the audience, stingily taking back the bow. Also his medley of three-second snippets of Christmas carols (to take more would require paying ASCAP royalties) was inventive and well-well sung.
The Bronx Ladies sketch was an hysterical take on every American woman’s fascination with British-accented men. (The ladies even had Hugh on the verge of cracking up a couple of times.) The idea of fawning over the new local butcher because he speaks with that yummy English accent and said “loo” rather than bathroom, and “crisps” rather than potato chips had much truth in it. Ordinary American men haven’t a chance when a Brit’s around. Especially when that Brit happens to be Hugh Laurie.
Most of the other sketches also worked well, including a “classic” holiday dinner sketch, the sort at which no one really wants to be and everyone’s glaring at each other sullenly. That is, they were until that moment possible only in Christmas movies and situation comedies when someone starts singing a Christmas carol, thereby changing the tone from cynical to all Christmassy warm and fuzzy. This time the song was "Silent Night," done straight-up and led by Laurie's lead baritone as everyone joined in until they were all back at each others throats.
A segment satirizing wedding toasts was also effective as every wedding guest's nightmare came to life in the guise of annoying, unwanted, and endlessly boring toast-makers. I will never again believe that Hugh Laurie has difficulty going in and out of his American Gregory House accent. He easily (at least he made it seem easy, which is a gift unto itself) slipped back and forth between several regional American accents and his native (and "oh-so-sexy" as the Bronx ladies would say) Oxbridge accent.
The only sketch I thought fell flat parodied the old “dolls that become alive after lights go out” theme. Unlike the more situational sketches, it just didn’t work for me. On the other hand, I thought the final sketch about a couple writing one of those annoying holiday letter from their (now-dead) cat was very funny and right on the mark. I could only think of Hugh channeling a subversive version of his Mr. Little from the Stuart Little films during the piece.
Last time he was on SNL, Laurie reprised a bit from his old Fry and Laurie series and it would have been fun to see one particular sketch revisited on SNL this time as well. In Fry and Laurie's fourth season, they subversively parodied the Jimmy Stewart Christmas Classic A Wonderful Life — a rather twisted version, substituting Rupert Murdoch for the suicide-bent George Bailey. It was a brilliant and elaborate sketch and would have been perfect for SNL's Christmas "digital video" segment. On the other hand, it might have just been too ironic for the FOX network's biggest star to be skewering the man who owns the network.