Like any authority figure, the stentorian narrators of film and television are ripe targets for comedy, and over the years, Saturday Night Live has gotten a lot of mileage out of sketches that poke and prod at the credibility we accord these faceless voices. It’s kind of a strange convention, when you think about it: a voice out of nowhere that we assume is telling the truth, whether it’s exposing a dictator’s lies or encouraging us to fry trout in Fluffo. The show’s history with this gag goes back at least as far as “Creely’s Soup,” an exceptional Bill Murray and Gilda Radner bit from the second season:
That’s the classic structure: the audience accords the narrator authority because that’s the convention when dealing with disembodied voices, then the voice is exposed as a sadist who offers no real answers. (This is a tradition that’s much older than Saturday Night Live, or indeed, television itself.) The structure works just as well in the chattier, casual tone of more modern commercial narrators, as you can see in Phil Hartman’s ad for That’s Not Yogurt from 1992:
Hartman’s friendly, helpful affect makes his insistence on not revealing the secrets of That’s Not Yogurt all the funnier. “Chonk,” from 2016, works in a similar way: you can hear the smile in the narrator’s voice, right up until it becomes apparent she’s mostly interested in yelling “CHONK” at the commercial’s hapless subjects:
Cecily Strong’s ad for Chantix plays around with this form, but goes to a very different place. In the classic version, the implied authority of the commercial’s narrator becomes actual authoritarianism: “Because the soup man said so!” For the first minute, the ad for Chantix seems like it’s going to be one of those sketches: the narrator immediately, if inadvertently, insults Strong’s character, going on to belittle her acting career. Her reactions in the first part are phenomenally good comic acting: she combines the clichés of commercial acting—her thoughtful pause and head tilt before saying, “But Chantix was different” is perfectly observed—with a genuinely good performance as a woman with the defensiveness of a failed artist, plus the brow-furrowing confusion at the announcer’s hostility that is common to all of these sketches. And then, at 1:05, Strong puts a scarf on her head and the entire sketch flips.
Up to that point, Strong’s account of her past career as an actress is depressing, but not really different in kind from, say, Kevin Nealon’s desire to know what he’s been eating, if it’s not yogurt. It’s essentially a naturalistic performance in an absurd setting. But her “nana from the old country,”—a cross-eyed, finger wagging Muppet, essentially—is not just a bad community theater actress performance, it’s utterly insane. The announcer ends up coming off as a professional just trying to get through a Chantix commercial in the face of Strong’s increasingly absurd attempts to demonstrate that she’s an actress. It’s easy to imagine a version of this sketch where Strong continues to play a run-of-the-mill bad actress rather than the worst actress in the universe, but she really went big here, and it makes the sketch. Part of the logic may be that Chantix, unlike Creeley’s Soup, That’s Not Yogurt, or Chonk, is a real product, and manufacturer Pfizer might have been unamused at a national television program implying their company is run by Bill-Murray-style sadists. The other part of it, though, is that Cecily Strong has an extraordinary range, careening in the course of this one sketch from naturalism to the broadest comedy imaginable. Saturday Night Live should give her this much room to run more often.
One more thing
You depend on Slate for sharp, distinctive coverage of the latest developments in politics and culture. Now we need to ask for your support.
Our work is more urgent than ever and is reaching more readers—but online advertising revenues don’t fully cover our costs, and we don’t have print subscribers to help keep us afloat. So we need your help. If you think Slate’s work matters, become a Slate Plus member. You’ll get exclusive members-only content and a suite of great benefits—and you’ll help secure Slate’s future.Join Slate Plus