The first time Lady Gaga appeared on Saturday Night Live in 2009, she showed up for three minutes to have a catfight with Madonna. Now she's the host, the musical guest, and the bigger star. On Saturday night's show, Gaga went full-circle, making fun of her own music's resemblance to Madonna's hits. But the moment was just a blip on the screen, during a night when Gaga rarely left the stage. Turns out that SNL is an ideal showcase for one of Lady Gaga's greatest strengths as a performer: creating characters. The "Applause" singer, who once appeared on the show as a block of tofu, convincingly played an old lady, an awkward kid, a helicopter parent, a computer geek, a Blockbuster employee's fever dream, and the inspiration for Marisa Tomei's character in My Cousin Vinny.
Lady Gaga was also one of the most self-deprecating hosts in recent memory, opening the show with a parody called "I'll Take Your Cheap Applause," pretending to a be a has-been version of herself, and even bringing up that old hermaphrodite rumor. (If you didn't catch the line "I got my tuck just right," then you have not been watching nearly enough RuPaul's Drag Race.) She's fearless on that stage, no matter what she's doing, and her presence seems to have inspired a heightened zaniness in the SNL cast. R. Kelly showing up didn't hurt, either. On to the sketches!
Cold Open: Rob Ford – Toronto mayor Rob Ford is basically an SNL character already, so this was a "go big or go home" moment. Fortunately, Bobby Moynihan can do big. With his chins doubled and his voice raised half an octave, the comedian channels the disgraced mayor as he holds a series of disastrous press conferences. Ford tries to stealthily complete a drug deal during one appearance, only to blow his cover by shouting, "Whoa, that's a lotta crack!" During another, he drunkenly breaks into song and knocks down the podium with a swan dive. It's Bobby's impression that makes this one work; he takes the mayor's giggling, blustering, weirdly aggressive persona, and jacks it up a notch or ten. If people aren't comparing Moynihan to Chris Farley yet, prepare for them to start now.
Waking Up with Kimye – I don't know why it took six episodes for SNL to get around to a Kanye West/Kim Kardashian sketch, but Waking Up with Kimye was worth the wait. Nasim Pedrad and Jay Pharaoh absolutely nail the funniest thing about this pairing: Kanye's futile effort to make the world see Kim as an artistic genius like himself, despite all evidence to the contrary. "I've turned this woman into an artiste, a philosopher, an intergalactic icon of creativity," boasts Pharaoh's Kanye. "I'm also blonde now!" exclaims Pedrad, in her perfectly nasal Kardashian voice. During one segment of Kimye's fictional morning show, Kim holds up a macaroni necklace that she made. "Y'all hear that? She just changed the game! Food is jewelry now!" shouts Pharaoh, which is as funny as anything Kanye ever tweeted (and that's saying something). Gaga comes into the scene as Karen, a nerdy Apple Store employee whom Kanye berates for using the title "genius" without "earning" it. Karen is nonplussed by his criticism, particularly when he attacks her outfit. "Honestly, I don't care about fashion. I think people who try too hard with their outfits are maybe hiding something," says Gaga, smiling oh-so-sweetly into the camera.
Whaat? The Worst Cover Songs of All Time – Inspired by the Counting Crows' version of "Big Yellow Taxi," which somehow still gets radio play, Taran Killam (as Adam Duritz) introduces an anthology album of the worst cover songs of all time. Lady Gaga allows herself to be the punchline, presenting "Born This Way" as a "bad cover" of Madonna's "Express Yourself." But it's also a terrific excuse for the cast to bust out their most random musical impressions. My dearest hope is that someone is now making a GIF of Aidy Bryant as Adele (covering "Theme from L.A. Law"). Also, whichever staff writer had the 3 a.m. idea of Lil Wayne (Jay Pharaoh) and Susan Boyle (Kate McKinnon) performing "We Didn't Start the Fire" deserves a pat on the back, and a nice long nap.
Paxil : Second Term Strength – In the grand tradition of SNL pharmaceutical commercials (see also: Excedrine for Racial Tension Headaches and Annuale for once-a-year periods), this one suggests a remedy for President Obama's slump. "It's the only antidepressant strong enough for an embattled second term," says the voiceover. "With Paxil, you'll feel like you're giving a speech at a college campus in 2008." There's a Republican-strength version, too.
Weekend Update: Famous Speech Critic Jebidiah Atkinson – This bit is ripped from an unlikely headline: On Thursday, a Pennsylvania newspaper printed a retraction of its 1863 review of The Gettysburg Address. Taran Killam joins the Weekend Update Desk as Jedbidiah Atkinson, the unapologetic critic who panned Abraham Lincoln's most famous speech. (The "first draft" of his takedown begins "Four snores and seven yawns ago . . .") Even the President's appearance didn't impress him. "Too lanky, big nose, and don't get me started on that beard," he sniffs. "What was her name, Mary Todd?" It's endlessly fun to watch Killam lob bitchy one-liners at history's other famous speeches ("Give me liberty or give me death? Death, please.") It's even more fun to watch him try to keep a straight face after his final joke (a comment on FDR's "Day Which Will Live in Infamy" speech) goes utterly south. A missing line on the teleprompter, perhaps? Whatever happened, Taran ad-libbed his way out, and turned a sketch that could have been snide and New Yorker-y into one that's legitimately hilarious…ass.
Old Lady Gaga – There's something extraordinary about watching a pop star at the height of her fame imagining her own descent into obscurity. It's so odd that the audience actually seemed conflicted about laughing; a few times during this sketch, they broke out into pitying "aww"s instead. Gaga plays an elderly future version of herself, now forgotten and living in a small apartment with only her Grammys to keep her company. Trying to jog building supervisor Kenan Thompson's memory, she plays "Poker Face" on the piano and holds some deli meat up against her neck ("Does this look familiar?"). Finally, she succeeds in impressing him by putting a telephone on her head. "Wait a minute – you know Beyonce? Empress Beyonce? All hail!" Thompson cries, wagging a "Single Ladies" finger in salute. Of everything she did tonight, this is the character who convinced me that Lady Gaga might have a future in acting. She brought legit pathos to this character; not something we see too often on SNL.
Enter The Rosé Zone – NFL RedZone is a channel entirely dedicated to the best moments from football games; SNL's proposed ladies' version is dedicated entirely to the bitchiest moments from reality TV shows. "Let's face it: an hour of reality television has basically only three minutes worth watching," Cecily Strong points out, correctly. Aidy Bryant adds, "I don't care about their back stories – I want to see women destroy other women!" Honestly, I'm not even sure if I should be laughing, because I would watch the shit out of this channel. Fortunately, there's a real version. It's called The Soup.
Given the cultural domination to which Lady Gaga aspires, it's inevitable that she'll try her hand at an acting career. Did tonight's hosting stint prove that she can do it? Not entirely. As a comedienne, Gaga hasn't quite tapped into that ferocity that she achieves when she's performing a song. Nevertheless, I like watching her, and she went to some risky places, rock-star ego be damned. Competing with her musical self for attention, Gaga put up a very good fight.
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