Where’s the Applause?

Lady Gaga Disappoints on ‘Saturday Night Live’ (But She Tried Hard)

Lady Gaga is here for the applause. Good lord, has the ARTPOP pop artist made that epically clear. Pulling double duty as host and musical guest on this weekend’s episode of Saturday Night Live, she even confessed she’s not afraid to pander to get it, and pander she did. If only it worked more often.

“There are two kinds of applause: the kind you earn, and the kind you get by pandering to the audience and saying things like, ‘Give it up for New York,’” the singer explained in her opening monologue. “I am a fan of both.”

Lady Gaga knows how to put on a show. The splashy 1930s-inspired ode to “Cheap Applause” she sang during her monologue proved just that (and made a convincing case for casting the singer as Roxie Hart in a future production of Chicago). Her talents also stretch far beyond her vocal skills and ability to titillate the masses with wackiness, a truism on display throughout the night and proven by the effortless chutzpah with which she threw herself into the acting sketches. Gaga also knows how to make fun of herself, the paramount trait in a SNL host and one that the performer flashed in naked view several times throughout the night.

Gaga boasts the triumvirate of attributes that should make for a stellar SNL outing, but the episode never managed to fuse her skillset and with intelligent sketches that properly capitalized on her fearlessness as a performer. There was some applause--earned, pandered, or otherwise--and Gaga’s willingness and chops were undeniable throughout the night. But while the outing had a potential to win a standing ovation, it concluded to polite golf claps.

Oddly enough, the two standout sketches of the night targeted Kim Kardashian, another celebrity devotee to the fame-as-religion church Gaga attends. “Waking Up With Kimye” is the morning talk show of our nightmare, co-hosted by Jay Pharoah’s Kanye West and Nasim Pedrad as Kim Kardashian. Gaga played a mousy employee at the Apple Genius bar, who West trick into appearing on the show as a guest. She does an admirable Improv 101 characterization of “nerdy girl”--hunched shoulders, darting eyes, and squeaky voice--as Pharoah’s West amusing berates her for job title: “You do not deserve to be called a genius!”

In a bit during the sketch about Kim Kardashian’s fashion, Gaga gets a pretty spectacular dig at herself. ““Honestly, I don’t care about fashion. Sometimes I think that people who try too hard with their outfits are maybe hiding something,” she says, punctuating the line with a self-aware mug for the camera, definitely earning the applause this time.

The other Kardashian-hitting sketch didn’t feature Gaga, but is so good it deserves the same applause. A spoof of a sports bloodlust TV series that recaps only the touchdowns, tackles, and big, violent moments of football games, “Rosé Zone” applies the same treatment to a more female-friendly medium: vapid reality TV. The show curates the best bitch slaps, nonsensical arguments, and catty insults from the women of reality TV. Why the need? “Sometimes women be standing around and thinking,” one proponent of the show states. “Life’s short, and I shouldn’t have to watch Rob Kardashian talk about his sock line.”

Gaga took some shots at her own public perception a couple of other times throughout the night. “Worst Cover Songs of All Time” was one SNL standard that just rotates through the cast’s celebrity impressions, this time with famous singers covering songs that are horrible fits for their voices: Rick Ross (Kenan Thompson) doing “Cups (When I’m Gone),” Adele (Aidy Bryant) doing the L.A. Law theme song. In a nod to critics who think she cribs from a certain other female pop icon, Lady Gaga performed Madonna’s “Express Yourself.”

A late-in-the-night sketch imagined what becomes of Lady Gaga decades from now when her glory days are over, a darkly comic look at what befalls a Fame Monster when there’s no more fame to thrive on. It’s 2063, and senior citizen Gaga is desperate for a hint of recognition from the the superintendent of the building she apparently lives in. “Sorry, I’m more of a classic rock guy: One Direction...the Smiths, both Willow and Jaden.”

Gaga acquitted herself extremely well throughout the night, without a hint of stiffness that plagues out-of-the-box hosting choices like Katy Perry or Charles Barkley. She also made wise song choices for her two performances. “Do What U Want” and “Gypsy” are easily the two most straightforward, palatable pop songs from ARTPOP, an album that’s otherwise a cacophonous whir of tricks and ticks, some of which work better than others. Wearing a leotard with an oversized collar that seemed to bloom from her neck and starting with nothing but a piano and grin on her face, there was a fun, Elton John-like joy and silliness to her “Gypsy” performance, while the sweaty slow-burner “Do What U Want” was pleasantly spastic. It also featured R. Kelly and Lady Gaga simulating sex on stage, if that’s something you ever wanted to see.

But despite what was obviously a best effort, there was an unshakable feeling that Gaga and the SNL staff treated her work at 30 Rock as a sort of summer theatre camp, with the resulting product resembling a hastily patched together--and disappointingly amateur--showcase at the end of the week. The vibe was especially apparent in sketches about a child-star acting camp and overzealous parents at a fourth grade talent show, which seemed to constrain Gaga’s talents with broad, stock characters. A skit about an oddball co-op board seemed to serve no purpose other than to showcase Gaga’s spot-on, and very specific, impression of Marisa Tomei’s performance in My Cousin Vinny.

As Gaga reminded us at the opening of the show, she “came for the applause,” which is a coincidence, as we also came ready to applaud what should’ve been a thrilling and strong night for SNL. There’s something to be said for the old college try given by the “Bad Romance” singer. But this round of applause is stopping only halfway around the circle.