Episodes: Celebrity Jeopardy is the best thing Saturday Night Live has ever done


I am, generally speaking, not a fan of sketch comedy. I've been trying to figure out why recently. It seems like a foundational part of many people's comedy upbringing, but for me, I'm just missing the part of my brain that might be into this stuff. Maybe I got there too late. I never had the Saturday Night Live phase as a 12-year-old.

But reading my colleague Caroline Framke's excellent dissection of the technical wizardry of Key & Peele (a show I love) made me realize how much of this just boils down to technique. SNL and its many, many children are programs where viewers go in knowing there's going to be a certain ratio of hit to miss. Most sketches are going to boil down to one or two big jokes, which will be repeated endlessly. Within the limited confines of a sketch, that's really all you have time for. But if you find the jokes funny, or the characters amusing, or the satire on point, that's fine. It's what you came for.

Key & Peele (and its many Comedy Central children), on the other hand, is primarily interested in each sketch as a storytelling unit. Every sketch on the show is a little story, a three-panel comic with a setup, a build, and a punchline, usually told in technically virtuostic fashion. Even something as simple as this bit where Ray Parker Jr. tries to sell you a compilation for songs from movies other than Ghostbusters earns its laughs through how precisely it apes the late-night infomercials it's mocking. And even here, there's dramatic tension, between Parker's insistence on his own greatness and the way he has to keep explaining that these songs have never before been heard by anyone other than the studio heads who rejected them.

I realized a long time ago that I'm primarily interested in comedies insofar as they tell stories, which is pretty different from the way most people absorb them. (I think most people just want to laugh.) I get a little antsy when the storytelling cuts corners, or when it doesn't present conflict, or when it lavishes endless love and adulation on the characters for no reason. And that really throws me for a loop with sketch, because so much of it really is just about delivering the big jokes in as many ways as possible, before moving on to something else.

All of this is long preamble to saying that I think SNL's finest achievement might be "Celebrity Jeopardy."

I realize that while most people enjoy the sketch, it's probably fairly low on the list of "key SNL moments." I also realize that I'm exactly the right age to have had these sketches endlessly playing in junior high, high school, and college, which surely impacts me somewhat. But what "Celebrity Jeopardy" does is unlike anything else in the SNL canon: It's a Wile E. Coyote/Road Runner cartoon.

Yes, there are other sketches on the show that play off this dynamic (how could there not be), but there are few that have the level of weird pageantry and mythology "Jeopardy" does. The slow, curdling frustration between Alex Trebek (the perfect, endlessly straight Will Ferrell) and his many contestants never fails to amuse, and every time you see that "Jeopardy" set, there's the set-up for something downright existential. Maybe Trebek will get Connery this time? Nah. It's not the way the world works.

But maybe it could be? When Norm MacDonald went on that tweetstorm a few months ago about the plan for an Eddie Murphy-plays-Bill Cosby gag in the SNL reunion version of "Jeopardy," he was mocked slightly for his analysis of the sketch as being about hope. But I think there's something to this. The idea of someone who wants something so badly and will never get it is an endless well for comedy, one that drives half the relationships in Looney Tunes and Peanuts, and it's so primal that you'd think it would drive a lot more of sketch. But it's rare to see it executed to the level of "Jeopardy."

"Jeopardy," in short, tells a story, but it's a never-ending story. It's one filled with conflict and tension and all of the things we want out of good drama, but it's also one where things are so simple that they can be described in a handful of words. You don't even really need to know the show or celebrities being made fun of, and the impressions don't need to be particularly good. You just need to know that one man is trying to keep his goddamn show under control, and the yahoos around him insist on ripping it away from him.

There's a beautiful futility to that, but there's also a strange optimism. Trebek, after all, keeps coming back. He doesn't stop. Someday, he'll get that right answer. Someday, Charlie Brown will kick the football.

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Episodes is published daily, Monday through Friday, unless I don't feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox Dot Com.