Jul 3, 2014
You Can’t Go Home Again: John Goodman Should Never Go Back To SNL
When I was a boy, my uncle owned a pro shop in a tennis club. I used to go there with my cousin almost every day to steal soda and walk around aimlessly, sometimes for hours. It was kind of a sacred ritual, just going for walks and skirting the limits of what my uncle would let us get away with. But when I was 11, my uncle quit. Nothing felt right about going there anymore, largely because I no longer had diplomatic immunity. About 13 years later, I went back to see if it triggered any happy memories. I immediately regretted the decision. It was dark, deteriorating and empty. It just reminded me how fast a decade can go by. I will never go back.
I expect John Goodman had a similar experience, coming back to Saturday Night Live last weekend after a 12-year hiatus. It was such a familiar routine all those years ago. But it’s all wrong now. As the credits roll, we see photos of the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed cast, self-consciously wacky and upbeat, as Don Pardo, a man nearing a hundred years on earth, announces their names. The juxtaposition is shocking. We see happy young performers with their whole lives ahead of them, but we hear a man who covered World War II for NBC, sending his introduction from 2500 miles away in Arizona and conveying only weariness. Enter John Goodman.
He approaches the stage with the unmistakable air of a king returning from exile to find his kingdom a charred, uninhabitable desert. He’s there, as vital and brilliant as he was in the 90s, but there’s an emptiness in his eyes tonight, a knowledge that he has no cast to bounce off of, no one bitter or old or dangerous enough to stand up to him. He talks for a time and then he sings a song. “All I want for Christmas is booty,” goes the refrain, but he sings it and he does not mean it.
John Goodman is an alcoholic, sober only a few years. He used to require alcohol between scenes just to stave off delirium tremens. So he knows terror and anguish inside and out, to the point where such emotions are routine. It is miraculous that he did not die in 1996 and is on this stage at all. And so sketch after sketch fails, because none of the writers or actors on this show seems to be aware how powerful terror and anguish are as comedic tools, how enduring they can next to the fleeting and ephemeral nature of wackiness.
In the night’s first live sketch, Mr. Goodman, who played Satan in Barton Fink, is a snowflake in a Christmas musical. He has an inner monologue of superficial embarrassment, as his co-stars struggle with very normal and boring feelings of self-consciousness and unreliable genitalia. There is no pain. None of the fire and brimstone Goodman knows so well. There is only self-conscious cuteness. As the show progresses, it becomes clear that none of the cast can tap into the pathology and doom that are second nature to Goodman and the cast members of yesteryear. Everything starts to feel like a Twilight Zone episode, with our host at the peak of his powers but reduced to talking to the walls, expecting them to somehow speak.
As the show lurches toward its end, we find Goodman playing a couple alcoholics. But the writers and performers don’t know the darkness of that particular disease and have never confronted the void like Goodman. At one point he plays “Drunk Uncle’s Drunk Uncle,” a man so drunk that he mutters a racial epithet about Chinese people and then gets moderately emotional. All the while the cast reacts with wackiness and crooked smiles, which is baffling, because they should be terrified of him.
A while later, John Goodman, who drank so much hard liquor over 30 years that he should not be alive, is made to perform wearing a dress. He is in a dress, like a woman, you understand. The clothing a woman might wear, a man is here wearing.
There is one sketch where Goodman plays a firefighter, giving household fire safety tips to some school kids. Throughout, it becomes increasingly obvious that all of the school kids will probably start fires. Here, the show’s deficiencies in casting become clear. The only thing this sketch needs to be funny is a cast member who looks capable of starting a fire for kicks. Molly Shannon always seemed crooked enough to be plausible in roles like that, but here we find people who try too hard to be wacky and get dependable, routine laughs that do not suggest darkness. Our host is left dead in the water, carrying the show through stage presence alone, and the sketch dies. There’s no danger. The show needs a Charlie Rocket, just a doomed leading man liable to accidentally mutter a bitter “fuck it” once in awhile.
I am not suggesting the entire show needed to be a one-man play about a Southern Gothic man-out-of-time, having a reluctant conversation with the devil (though, come on, that’d be all-time). But the show needs some performers who have more range, who are a little bit older, a little bit broken, and can be left to be broken. The waste of John Goodman’s talent was appalling. I hope he never goes back.