SNL is best when it dives headfirst into what’s happening, and thus far the show has mostly shied away from current events. Presidential elections, the Gulf War, the O.J. Simpson trial and Lewinsky have provided many of the show’s greatest recent moments. This year, some of the strongest bits have focused on the terror war, but these have been few and far between. Will Ferrell’s President George W. Bush made his return in the second episode’s cold opening, promising Osama bin Ladin, “I’m gonna make you my own personal Where’s Waldo. And unlike those frustrating Waldo books, I’m gonna find you.” The next show’s opener, with Dick Cheney in an Afghan cave, wasn’t as good, but it was still funny. And Drew Barrymore, in the monologue, spoke about the anthrax that had just been found in SNL’s building (her husband, Tom Green, was in the audience in a gas mask).
The tragedy has been tackled on “Weekend Update,” which gained new life last year when it was taken over by Tina Fey, also SNL’s head writer, and Jimmy Fallon. The pretty Fey and the even prettier Fallon have made “Update” something it has never been before: sexy. And, more importantly, consistently—okay, consistent for SNL—hilarious. Fallon and Fey have cracked a fair share of terror war jokes, but one can see them stretching for news stories that don’t relate to the attack (the start of moose-hunting season in Maine, anyone?). “Weekend Update” guests have also addressed the attacks: Darrell Hammond’s Jesse Jackson explaining that he had been contacted by the Taliban when they left a hang-up on his machine and he *69ed them was easily the high point of the first episode. Tracy Morgan said that he now favored racial profiling, particularly for dudes with their heads all wrapped up that aren’t Erykah Badu. Fey and Fallon’s predecessor Colin Quinn returned to the “Update” set and contributed a lengthy and generally unfunny monologue about the attacks that unfortunately reminded viewers why he left.
At least Quinn tried. The second sketch of the new season parodied The Little Mermaid, and there haven’t been a lot of sketches more contemporary than that. It seems like SNL is changing as to not be over-contemporary, mocking such out-of-date targets as Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. There haven’t been any other serious bits about the attacks or their effects—Antonio Banderas’ plight just didn’t cut it. Most sorely missed are the political sketches that, along with the revitalized “Update,” were the hallmarks of the show’s millennial renaissance. There have been small changes—American flag lapel pins for the “Update” anchors, flag backgrounds on the interstitial hosts’ portraits, a flag in the opening credits—but they, as reminders of how the U.S. has changed, only underline how little SNL’s humor has.
The show’s inconsistency remains the same as it ever was as well. After two solid shows, the third episode, hosted by Barrymore, was just terrible—a laughless hour-and-a-half marred by endless unfunny skits, flubbed line readings and an amount of crack-ups that crossed the line from endearing to unprofessional. But that stinker was probably an anomaly. After all, it aired the day after an anthrax scare in the building, it was the third straight show after the always obsessed-over season premiere and it didn’t have a single appearance by the invaluable Morgan. And there are some signs that point to good things for the season ahead: the arrival of Amy Poehler from Comedy Central’s weird and wonderful “Upright Citizens’ Brigade” to augment newly-promoted cast members Rachel Dratch, Fey and Maya Rudolph means that this cast has the strongest corps of SNL women in memory. Sure, there’s always a chance that the terrible Barrymore episode was only the beginning. But as time progresses, the show will become more comfortable addressing current events, and I’m optimistic that SNL will be feeling the sexy all season long.