Enough, Already, with the 'Surprise' Cameos on Saturday Night Live

Nothing ruins Saturday Night Live more than a "surprise" walk-on. Oh, sure, bad writing and a bad host can doom an individual episode, but nothing kills the spirit of what SNL is trying to accomplish more than a walk-on by a formerly mocked subject -- and the ramifications can last well beyond the episode in which it airs. Enough, already!

You'll recall this past week, when real-life Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg made an appearance in the monologue with host Jesse Eisenberg and Andy Samberg -- the former of whom play Zuckerberg in The Social Network and the latter of whom plays him on SNL. I suppose, in a way, this meeting was culturally significant. But something crucial happens anytime a real person shows up as him or herself on SNL: They no longer are the joke, but rather become part of the joke. Unfortunately, something is always lost and it's painfully awkward -- not in a good way. What follows is usually an uncomfortable exchange between the cast-member and the one being parodied, "Oh, hey, it's you! What ... a ... surprise" -- uncomfortable because, most of the time, either one of them wishes that that they were doing anything else other than this sketch. Moreover, the sketch itself is usually subpar because no one wants to use his or her best or most scathing material when it's going to be overshadowed by a "surprise" cameo.

In fairness, Zuckerberg's appearance was uncomfortable but, for the most part, harmless. When this becomes really problematic is when it involves politicians. Now, I'm not saying that political figures shouldn't host SNL, but they should never come face-to-face with their cast-member counterparts in character. Ultimately, it's more fun to watch politicians poke fun of themselves; it's not fun to watch politicians destroy any semblance of a harsh parody by appearing on-screen with her doppelganger for political gain, as Sarah Palin did on the Oct. 18, 2008, broadcast.

Not getting into a political debate here, but what made Tina Fey's portrayal of Palin so great (other than the uncanny physical and vocal resemblance, of course) is that Fey pulled no punches and was downright sinister in her portrayal. Fey has since gone on record numerous times to acknowledge her disdain of Palin; as recently as November, while accepting her Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, Fey said of Palin: "And, you know, politics aside, the success of Sarah Palin and women like her is good for all women... unless you're a gay woman who wants to marry your partner of 20 years. Whatever. But for most women, the success of conservative women is good for all of us. Unless you believe in evolution."

As far as Fey is concerned, Palin is certainly not in on her joke, but the perception of that changed in 2008 when Palin was trotted onstage -- with Fey dressed as Palin. Palin's cameo undercut Fey's portrayal, though it hardly undercut the viewership; the Palin show remains the highest rated episode of Saturday Night Live since 1995 and a milestone in a tradition that also includes Bob Dole meeting Norm MacDonald, Alex Trebek meeting Will Ferrell, Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci meeting Jim Breuer and Alec Baldwin, David Paterson meeting Fred Armisen, and Mark Wahlberg meeting Andy Samberg. For Christ's sake, even the real Joey Buttafuoco made a cameo in 1994, prompting then cast-member Chris Elliott to say, "That was the lowest point for me at SNL".

We all get it: The people being mocked want to defuse the mockery by "being a good sport" and participating. But even if it's funny (which it never actually is), the entire purpose of the joke in the first place is lost. Do you want to know why Will Ferrell's George W. Bush impression still holds up relevantly? It's because George W. Bush never made a walk-on cameo while Ferrell did his impression. Hopefully this Saturday night, with Dana Carvey hosting, there will be no surprise appearance by George H.W. Bush. In Zuckerberg's case, his appearance wasn't even a surprise; news of his cameo was leaked a couple of days before the live show. It's become so commonplace that it's become almost the way to retire an impression.

I have no idea if it's planned that way, but once the subject is in on the joke, there's nothing left to do but retire it. I've got a better idea: Retire the cameos instead.

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  • bvi says:

    Tina Fey is a sniveling bitchy cross between Lucille Ball and Rosanne, and no matter how you look at it, its awful.

  • zooeyglass1999 says:

    I'm glad to know Sarah Palin reads Movieline!

  • johndakota says:

    George HW Bush did appear on SNL "mocking" Carvey for his impression back in the 90s when Carvey hosted. It didn't really work then either.

  • skimpyshorts says:

    Wait, what do you have against Lucille Ball? Do we need to break out some fisticuffs?

  • Triolet says:

    SNL itself is the problem...
    It has been cruising on it's rep for the last 30 years. Sure, there have been the occasional outstanding performer from time to time, but most of the good ones have moved on to bigger things, (can we say Mike Myers, anyone?)...
    However, I think Crusty the Clown captured it best with his "NYPD Shoe" sketch, (i.e. lame joke, lame actors, canned laughter, etc.), on the Simpsons. (Which is another show that may have already "jumped the shark", with it's "topical humour" versus timeless funniness. By this, I mean that the older Simpsons episodes created universally relateable situations to get the message across vs. the episodes where they make fun of a given situation or person who happens to be in the public eye at the time. Sure, it makes it more topical, but when they rerun six months down the road, no one remembers the root of the matter...
    If SNL can get some of "the juice" back by bringing on cameos, then why not? If it is in the "joke's" interest to defuse the rancour directed at themselves by making the cameo, then go for it. Too often people get into roles that are hard to break out of, (i.e. this is why so many former child stars do soft porn roles after their shows go off the air, to show that they are more than just a wise-cracking kid, who sound like a 60 year old jewish guy from Vegas)...
    Basically, the cameos are one of the few things that is keeping SNL afloat, ('cause the writing and acting, certainly isn't)...

  • blizzard bound says:

    I thought Hilary Clinton and Amy Poehler were pretty funny together.
    Unlike you, Mike, I often find it fascinating when the object of the impersonation meets the impersonator -- you can see what aspects of the original person the impersonator has amplified or distorted. Or physically, what he or she has exaggerated. From an acting or aesthetic or philosophical point of view, it can be interested to compare the mocked and the mockee.

  • blizzard bound says:

    hmm, i guess that would be the mocked and the mocker.
    or mockee and mocker.
    sounds like a generic name for a buddy movie.

  • stakeit says:

    A lot of people dissing SNL, but I think it's awesome. Yeah, it's not funny all the time, but usually there's something to laugh at every week.
    And the cast is amazing and they still go on and do great-great things. '30 Rock' or 'Parks and Rec' ring a bell?? Not to mentions that the best comedians (and Robert Downey Jr 🙂 ) were at some point involved with SNL
    Although, I don't like it either when politicians come on the show, 'cause it is obviously for their own gain...
    But my point is, that being a unique TV show that has been on air for 36 years is not easy, so give them a break and also be grateful you have something to talk about.

  • Scraps says:

    How can you not mention Janet Reno busting down the wall on Will Ferrell? The walk on cameos can stay as long as we can put a stop to the marginal musical acts appearing in sketches.

  • Sue Ann says:

    It removes the satirical element by having the "real people" appear, who are never as funny or entertaining as their impersonators, because these people don't usually realize what's funny about themselves in the first place. (A sketch about the Octomom, great...ripe with ideas. But to ever have her on would be uncomfortable for, I would think, everyone involved. Like she's saying "Yeah, isn;t my sad, tabloid life a pathetic joke? I'm in on the joke. Where's my paycheck?") Having Cheri Oteri play Judge Judy was funny, because she could take Judge Judy's personality and play it to the hilt. But when Judge Judy walked on, and "took over," it completely killed it. Stopped it in it's tracks.