OK, the breast is tired -- so's Janet on 'SNL'

By Phil Rosenthal,
Chicago Sun-Times - 4/12/04

In a world where no bad deed goes unspun, Janet Jackson has tirelessly sought to sell her new CD in recent weeks by arguing that the show-stopping display of her right breast during the Super Bowl halftime show was yesterday's news.

Nothing she has said or done in this campaign, however, has been as convincing as her turn over the weekend as host of NBC's "Saturday Night Live," which proved Jackson's mammary to be tired and old and no longer all that exciting.

The same quite possibly may be said of Jackson herself, but this TV critic will defer to music experts and CD sales on that count. ("Damita Jo" is her first CD in 15 years not to debut at No. 1 and its first-week sales of 381,000 units trails her last album, 2001's "All for You," by 224,000 units. The trade paper Variety calls it a "debut malfunction," but her fans undoubtedly will argue it's too early to write her off completely.)

What is indisputable is that Jackson's much-anticipated "SNL" -- which scored the show's highest overnight ratings in more than a year, according to NBC -- existed in a strange "Twilight Zone" time warp. Some of it was as fresh as this week's news cycle, but some felt months old and other parts far older than that.

Much was made of the fact that it was telecast live and not on any kind of tape delay, as if Jackson were going to flash TV viewers again and give Congress and the FCC another excuse to go berserk. Yet there were times when those tuning in late could be excused for mistaking this for one of those decade-old reruns NBC airs in the wee hours of Sunday mornings or peddles to cable.

"SNL" alum Tracy Morgan, awaiting official word that NBC has dropped "The Tracy Morgan Show," was back to resurrect his insipid "Brian Fellow's Safari Planet" for his own amusement, if not ours. And it was peppered with just enough 9/11 references to suggest the sketch had been gathering dust, even if it hadn't.

Also back was former cast member Chris Kattan for a reprise of what once was a self-indulgent annual holiday tradition, the mechanical Nairobi Trio-esque performance of "I Wish It Was Christmas Today" with Morgan, Jimmy Fallon and Horatio Sanz (all of whom squandered the comic possibilities of belittling "American Idol" resident sniper Simon Cowell, who weakly played along).

Never mind the six-year-old Michael Jordan Bulls jersey Morgan sported, the weary '70s era sketch about how things go better with cocaine or the send-up of the dark realities behind the old Cabrini Green comedy "Good Times," which, though it did feature Jackson for a couple seasons, left the air 25 years ago.

Things started with promise as Jackson sank some fake-teeth into the role of National Security adviser Condoleezza Rice, preparing for her 9/11 Commission testimony last week with Vice President Dick Cheney (portrayed as always with a Strangelovian glint by Darrell Hammond). Cheney urged her to ''flash a boob'' to distract everyone.

''Just one headlight, real quick,'' he said. ''It does two things. You win over the liberals, plus, it's a distraction for the press. I guarantee that's going to be the headline, not the bin Laden thing.''

Jackson's Rice -- not to be confused with Maya Rudolph's Rice, who showed up later, during Weekend Update -- protested this would be inappropriate. ''There are other forums" for that sort of thing, she said, "like pay television or national sporting championships."

Then, of course, came the hearing and she went through the motion of exposing her pixilated, bra-covered breast and saying, "Live from New York, it's 'Saturday Night.' "

If that wasn't enough to jackhammer home the point, Jackson opened her monologue by asking if anyone happened to see the Super Bowl, then showed "home movies" that included a little girl whose bathing suit top came undone. A "swimsuit malfunction," she called it.

But this was an "SNL" in which anything worth doing was often worth doing twice. What Jackson left us with on "SNL" was no flash and mostly pan. Most disappointing of all was that Jackson and/or "SNL" lacked the nerve to have the actress/singer do something alongside Amy Poehler's ruthless impersonation of embattled brother Michael Jackson.

Up until now, this had been a very good season for pop-star hosts on "SNL." Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake and Nick Lachey and his Cher-like wife, Jessica Simpson, had fronted some of the best editions of a typically uneven batch.

More than simply willing to parody their own images -- as Jackson tried in playing one of her fans who complains about the high price of her concert tickets and knows every possible rumor about the performer -- they gleefully savaged others.

Aguilera's Kim Cattrall and Timberlake's Ashton Kutcher were, in fact, as good as anything "SNL's" actual cast offered all season, and this, in fact, has been a generally good season by "SNL" standards.

By comparison, Jackson cracked herself up with her impersonation of Paula Abdul as vacuous and relentlessly upbeat but came off as mechanical and stale. It could have been salvaged if it had been paired with Cowell's cameo rather than dropped into a reprise of a Prince-hosted talk show sketch from February, but it wasn't.

So the funniest thing in Jackson's entire show was an Italian vineyard sketch in which the whole point was to see how often a certain phrase could be repeated through a cartoonish accent while trying not to trip over the line and arouse Congress and the FCC.

Their response over Jackson's top has been over the top.

Now we should all be over it.