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Irish Independent
Irish Independent

Brendan Gleeson is game for a laugh but the problem with Saturday Night Live is never the host – it’s the show itself

Brendan Gleeson. Photo: Niall Carson/PA

For a non-American, hosting Saturday Night Live used to be considered a prestigious gig that set the seal on their stardom. An invitation from SNL was the equivalent of being told: “You’ve cracked America – come and join our club.”

The list of Irish stars who have hosted the show is a short but distinguished one. The results have been distinctly mixed, to say the least.

In 1995, the year of The Usual Suspects, Gabriel Byrne, accompanied by diddly-eye music and with two SNL cast members dressed as a bottle of whiskey and a potato dancing behind him, delivered a monologue that celebrated the Irish in America while simultaneously taking a pop at Irish stereotypes – although a sketch with Byrne as Keith Richards hosting a cookery show was the real high point.

Pierce Brosnan in 2001, when he was still James Bond, was poorly served by a dismal sketch featuring him and Jimmy Fallon as gay, mincing clothes-shop assistants that seemed to drag on forever.

Fiddle music, a leprechaun and other painful Paddywhack clichés abounded when Liam Neeson hosted SNL in 2004. The same year, Colin Farrell – who has a natural gift for comedy most of the others lack – overcame initial nervousness and sparkled in a couple of half-decent sketches.

But for any Irish star, the primary aim is not to sink to the level Saoirse Ronan did in her excruciating stint in 2017. Her song about the right way to pronounce her name (yawn) was merely a warm-up for a cringe-inducing, watch-through-your fingers sketch about Aer Lingus.

Even the usually easily amused SNL studio audience seemed equal parts embarrassed and bemused by jokes about dogs on the runway and an inflight menu consisting of nothing but potatoes.

Never mind Ronan; how did the writers ever let something so atrocious escape from a script meeting?

And so, to Brendan Gleeson, who hosted this week’s show. Opening his monologue by admitting he’s not a natural joke-teller, Gleeson called for his mandolin and played a tune by Barney McKenna (not a name I never expected to hear on SNL), interspersed with mild stories about his family.

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A mention of his “weird and wonderful” co-star from In Bruges and now The Banshees of Inisherin, Colin Farrell, saw the man himself gatecrashing the party and needily asking Gleeson who his favourite co-star was.

“Paddington Bear,” came the reply.

A mediocre sketch about the film featured Gleeson in drag as one of two old women whose job is to read Marilyn Monroe’s fan mail

But how about his favourite co-star whose name begins with a C.

“Cillian Murphy.”

It was lacklustre stuff, but at least there were no dogs, potatoes or leprechauns.

Rather better was one of the show’s regular “Please Don’t Destroy” segments, with Gleeson as a high-school senior who reveals his secret to his buddies.

“Remember when I told you I was 17? I’m 67. My name is Séamus O’Sullivan.”

But what about all the times he scored them drugs?

“Those were blood thinners!”

Good, silly fun, although it petered out, as a lot of SNL sketches have a habit of doing.

A mediocre sketch about the film Blonde featured Gleeson in drag as one of two old women whose job is to read Marilyn Monroe’s fan mail.

The single gag, stretched to snapping point, was that all the letters call Monroe a “whore”. Gleeson makes a good doddery old biddy, though.

Far worse, by some measure, was a sketch with Gleeson as an official hosting a committee meeting to come up with a catchy new slogan for Denver. The agenda is disrupted by one of the women revealing she’s had her eyes replaced (she wears those stick-on boggle eyes you find in joke shops).

Aimless and unfunny, and giving Gleeson nothing at all to work with, it dragged on far too long and went nowhere.

A spurt of welcome daftness was provided by Gleeson as a warrior leader who doesn’t know how blood oaths work (“We don’t do blood oaths in my tribe”). Instead of lightly cutting the palm of his hand, he makes a deep gash and starts spraying blood over everyone.

It’s a gag SNL has used several times in the past, but Gleeson and the cast members were clearly having fun. So were the audience.

A late bright spot featured Gleeson as an old man who accompanies his actor grandson to get a headshot, only to find the photographer wants to photograph him instead. Farrell reappears, playing himself, and the two men end up striking hilarious poses and featuring on a magazine cover.

Gleeson was game, and as watchable and amiable as ever. The problem with Saturday Night Live is never the host, though; it’s the show itself. It’s been on the slide for years.

The only consistently funny segment is "Weekly Update”. Elsewhere, the writing is generally poor, the sketches are long-winded, the humour obvious, and the attempts at political satire tame and toothless.

Then again, looking at some of the sketches on YouTube from the supposed golden age of Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Chevy Chase et al, you have to wonder if it hasn't always been overrated.

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