Review: Jack Black Saves 'SNL' Season Opener

By Roger Catlin,
The Hartford Courant - 10/6/03

The 29th season premiere of "Saturday Night Live" couldn't come soon enough - at least to cash in on the California recall so rife with comic possibility.

So it began immediately with Darrell Hammond's impersonation of Arnold Schwarzenegger, all prosthetic chin and Austrian accent, the same approach he used at the Emmys. What made the opening gambit work was in the writing, though, which homed in on the frontrunner's vague and incomplete manner of speech.

The season debut can reliably depend on a summer's worth of potential material. But after the Arnold, and one-joke twist on "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," it looks like they had exhausted topicality.

The season opener is always a good harbinger of what to expect from a show that's long served as cultural touchstone. The presence of new cast members - introduced as "featured players" in recent years - fails to offset the void left by the recently departed.

The latest cast defections - Chris Kattan and Tracy Morgan - left a larger than expected hole, felt even deeper when Will Farrell paid a cameo visit in the opening monologue. You could almost feel everyone begging: "Stay, Will, stay!"

But almost total credit for saving the episode goes to host Jack Black, bringing a visceral power and somewhat crazed conviction to every role in a way not seen on "SNL" since John Belushi.

On the weekend his "School of Rock" would make him a major box-office fixture, Black was making a return appearance as host, and "SNL" writers were right to feature him in just about every skit. But some were so flimsy, they'd involve Black, as sommelier, tasting wine, doing nothing but sipping and spit takes with no punchline. Best was his appearance as a longhaired chef heading a cooking class for an assortment of oddballs.

Musical guest John Mayer was more a flavor of the month, whose name the self-styled rock expert Black couldn't even pronounce (he called him "Myer" at first). Fronting a good band, Mayer looked like a young Matt Dillon, with the rasp of a young Robbie Benson and the grimaces of a young braces-wearer.

Black was almost more musical, performing as both a folksinger and in one of those opening monologues that included one of those overused backstage walks.

As convincing as he was in every appearance, Black made the rest of the young cast seem inexperienced by comparisons in their wan impersonations of Wanda Sykes and Rush Limbaugh. Hammond, for his part, never returned to the show at all. After opening the show, his killer Donald Rumsfeld impersonation, which went over even bigger at the Emmys, was left waiting in the wings.