Steve Buscemi on ‘SNL,’ and Bobby Moynihan’s Mastery of the Isolation Play
This happened the last time Steve Buscemi hosted. It was fourteen years ago, he had never hosted SNL before, and back then he also did a monologue playing off of his status as a character actor. The bit didn’t come off nearly as well as last night’s version, and not just because last night he was able to tout his leading-man status in Boardwalk Empire. Back in ’97 he did a strained bit where some of the SNL players got up on stage with him and they all riffed off of some improv suggestions. The joke was that Buscemi’s no comic chameleon, he epitomizes the virtue of doing one thing really well, but, hey, he’s gonna go ahead and give this whole sketch-comedy thing a whirl anyway.
The thing they did during the monologue last night was masterful, even if Buscemi had to bring nothing more to it than some perfectly pitched exasperation. A bunch of the SNL players popped up from the audience in sequence, pretending to be character actors, to ask Buscemi how they could elevate their status from niche-role performers to headlining stars—you know, like Buscemi has recently done. They hit on all the right roles: the clumsy best friend in romantic comedies (Abby Elliot), the magical African-American character who gives advice (Keenan Thompson), the guy in war movies you just know is gonna die (Bill Hader), the sassy female judge from many a legal thriller (Jay Pharoah), the dude who loses his girlfriend in a movie but tells the new guy, “Hey bro, you take care of her” (Andy Samberg), the granny character who says dirty and/or hip-hop things (Nasim Pedrad), the helpless girl from horror movies who can’t find her friends (Kristen Wiig), and the guy in stoner buddy movies who says, “I know what we have to do: Ve-gas.”
That last one was Bobby Moynihan. It was the least inspired of the lot, but that doesn’t matter. He did his usual thing—what’s now become established as his usual thing—and came with a brilliant character on “Weekend Update.” It was a new character, one he’d never done before, an inspired archetype called Drunk Uncle. I could tell you all about it, but it’s not that kind of joke. He did a holiday bit pertaining to Thanksgiving, but I hope the Drunk Uncle finds more occasion than just the holidays to come around. He could join a proliferating pantheon of other characters and impressions Moynihan performs, each one a jewel perfectly distinct from all the others. He does these characters in all different modes and contexts and formats, but nowhere are they better exploited than as set pieces on “Update.”
I’ve come to think of the “Update” turn as equivalent to basketball’s isolation play: clear away one side of the court and let a player make or break the play according to his own individual talents. Moynihan’s Anthony Crispino character has made six turns on “Update,” gossiping about the news in an inspiredly mangled way, information misheard and then mispronounced in ways whose sophistication goes well beyond Gilda Radner’s old Emily Litella. There’s also his famous Snooki impersonation, the Jersey Shore girl done up in orange spray-tan; he’s done four of those. These bits are all fresh, every time. There are more of them, there are always more of them, and last night provides hope that somehow, improbably, there always will be.
If Moynihan’s Drunk Uncle was the best single bit from last night’s show, then Buscemi brought the most consistency. And his consistency, strangely enough, was founded not on his creepiness but on his response to creepiness—either others’ or others’ response to his own. This might be strange but it’s not surprising. SNL hosts have always welcomed the show as an opportunity to play against type. If he played exasperated/annoyed/impatient in the opening monologue, then he did so in at least two other places as well: as a frightened Commissioner Gordon in the “SNL Digital Short,” always caught off guard by a Batman who can find him at any time, and often does, usually the worst time; and as a college-athletics coach who has been vetted for sexual predation, simply because he exudes that aspect about him, in the wake of recent abuse scandals. The latter is not entirely playing against type, of course, except insofar as it allows him to make a commentary on typing’s limitations. Buscemi can do his work on the limitations, while Moynihan brilliantly exploits typing’s potential. That’s how the game is played, when it’s played from every angle on the court.
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