Something intriguing seems to be happening to Saturday Night Live. There’s no denying that the departures of Fred Armisen, Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, and Seth Meyers have overall drastically muted the show’s comedic palette, throwing it into a transitional funk. You’d think that booking names like Jim Carrey, Woody Harrelson, and Cameron Diaz to do some of the heavy lifting would help ease new cast members and writers into viewers’ minds. Instead, these recent episodes have felt mostly constrained by a soberness that’s prevented the 40th season of the program from finding its rhythm. But then it was announced that former cast member Chris Rock would return for the first time since leaving SNL to host the November 1st episode, with Prince as musical guest, what unfolded was one the show’s most engrossing episodes in a very long time, turning this transitional phase into a spectacle of its own.
When it’s working, SNL captures something about our shared cultural consciousness, reshapes it, and then telegraphs it back into pop currency. It might be that a particular sketch hits just the right notes or discovers humor in a place where it didn’t exist before. It could be that a certain musical performance confounds your expectations about an artist for the better. But rare are the times when the show manages to spin these possibilities into something not even Lorne Michaels could have predicted. Sometimes the most vital SNL episodes are also the most divisive.
Perspective is key. It’s an obnoxious cliché that SNL is out of touch, that it just isn’t what it used to be. Romanticize the John Belushi era all you want, but consider this: Where else on TV do you get to experience the momentousness of “live” performance the way that SNL enables it? The sense of risk and anticipation that—not despite Standards and Practices or the disclaimer “Recorded Live from an Earlier Live Broadcast,” but because of these things—a stage has been set to capture something that can’t be recreated? Taking into account the mechanics of generating a fresh batch of material in one week’s time, and factor in a host and musical guest who are willing to cede their celebrity status to the whirlwind of production, it’s not hard to see why, four decades in, even SNL’s creative misfires continue to define pop culture. This includes the show’s notoriously unforgiving music stage. Being detached from any visible chemistry with the studio audience, combined with a sound mix for broadcast TV that tends to roughen or magnify subtleties of the music, can make some well-known acts appear like distorted versions of themselves, while leaving newer ones nowhere to hide. Here, the seams of composure and talent can dissolve into something compelling and artful, or become wincingly clear. Even the Giants of Rock Past aren’t invulnerable, as the strained mawkishness of Paul McCartney’s appearance in last year’s Christmas episode revealed.
On one level, Rock’s appearance evoked the kind of anticipation that surrounded respected contemporaries like Zach Galifianakis and Louis C.K. during their most recent SNL appearances. All three possess such well-honed, recognizable stand-up comic voices that put them at odds with the group dynamics of SNL’s brand of sketch comedy. But whereas Galifianakis and C.K. might deliver some winning original material in standup mode at the top of the show, they could also yield their sensibilities to the show’s writers and cast, and let the sketches play out for better or worse (Galifianakis often seems to be the more competent sketch performer of the two). As a former featured player who struggled to find his bearings at a time when fellow cast mates Adam Sandler, Chris Farley, and David Spade were hitting all the right notes, Rock doesn’t have this luxury. Unlike Galifianakis or C.K., Rock brought with him the expectation that here was an opportunity for him to revise his own chapter in SNL history, and perhaps stake a new claim for the future of the show’s black performers in particular.
As sketch after sketch played out, Rock’s performance starkly confirmed why leaving SNL to forge his own path as a comedian was the best career move he ever made. Watching him struggle to find his flow and hit the beats of jokes was so distracting that his occasional flubbing of lines was the only thing pushing sketches forward. What we saw wasn’t a former cast member tapping the vigor that imbued his stage presence in the early ’90s, but a discombobulated Rock too stuck inside his head. The mitigating difference is that now Rock was visibly surrounded by more black performers than he ever was during his time on the show. This in itself was genuinely exciting to take in, because despite his limits as a sketch performer, Rock’s exit from the show—arguably more than Eddie Murphy’s or Tracy Morgan’s—showed that SNL would never live up to its creative scope unless it becomes a more viable place for underrepresented minority voices to flourish.
The real defining moment of Rock’s return was his opening monologue. A tight set of standup comedy that parsed a cluster of sensitive material including the Boston Marathon bombing, the construction of New York City’s Freedom Tower, and gun control, it was the funniest and most self-assured Rock has ever appeared on the SNL stage. Within a few short minutes, he blazed through some well-crafted material that by turns induced mild groans and won some huge laughs. Watching Rock confidently pace through setups and punchlines, it occurred to me that while it would be one thing for a comic to pull off this mastery of comedic rhythm for a captive audience in a club or theater context, it’s something else entirely to pull it off on “live” television for a national audience. From start to finish, Rock managed to dismantle the gaucheness that typically weighs down SNL monologues to show why he’s as great a standup comic as he’s ever been.
As for Prince, pulling together a one-off, eight-minute performance might seem gimmicky to SNL cynics and nostalgics clutching their vinyl copies of 1999, a sign that he’s finally capitulated his artistry and musicianship to the pop currency it once ennobled. With two new albums to promote, what better way to get some coverage? If only Prince were that simple. For all of his earnest politicking on creative property rights and the consumptive maw of the music industry, Prince is at his most compelling and vital when he’s in full view of the pop mainstream, making music that doesn’t hedge himself or his audience. His 2007 Super Bowl halftime show revealed just how far he’s willing to go, simultaneously professing the magnitude of his musical vision and, for once, winning an audience big enough to accommodate it. That he recently reconnected with Warner Bros. after 18 years and regained control of his back catalogue only shows that even Prince has a limit for insufferable artistic pretension. If this still isn’t enough to remind you what Prince is capable of, just meditate on the fact that Purple Rain turned 30 this year.
Which is why this SNL performance was transfixing in a way that others seldom are. “Y’all ready?” he uttered from behind a keyboard, easing into the silky R&B of the opening number. More than a cue, he was addressing himself as much as his audience. Over the next seven-and-a-half minutes, Prince and his all-female backing band, 3rdEyeGirl, strode through a multipartite performance that embraced the challenge that so many other acts try to evade: how to turn the claustrophobia of the SNL music stage into a drama of pressure and release.
It happened in phases. After setting a sensual, delicate tone with “Clouds,” he disappeared briefly into a darkened stage only to reappear, outfit changed, guitar in hands. The band then exploded into the first bars of “Plectrumelectrum,” stacking Zeppelin-style riffs into a wave of sound, or almost: Prince noticed his guitar wasn’t plugged in. As the opening phrase drove to an end, in a move that somehow managed to turn a fuck-up into a flourish, Prince waited for the right second to set his guitar pick between his lips, gracefully reach for the electrical lead, and connect it just in time to land the riff. The moment charged the rest of the set with a striving that wasn’t there before, merging “Plectrumelectrum” with the breathlessness of “Marz” and the snarl of “Anotherlove” into more than the sum of their parts. Taking it all as of a piece, Prince sounded more self-aware and direct than he has in years. What made this performance so rousing was that he seemed to be testing that musical point of view, reaffirming for his audience something that we haven’t experienced in a while, which is that Prince’s pop dynamism is most powerful when it’s being earned, not given away.
That it was Rock who reportedly requested that Prince be the night’s musical guest gave the impression that, together, they had a vision for their return to SNL. Whether or not it was executed the way they intended, what matters is that they transposed the creative impulse behind that vision into the sweep and dimension of the SNL audience. As a display of pop ambition, you couldn’t beat it.
Watch Prince’s performance: