- - Tuesday, May 22, 2012

“Saturday Night Live” has seen its fair share of brilliant performers. John Belushi, Chevy Chase and Bill Murray in the early years; budding movie stars including Eddie Murphy and Mike Myers later on; crass Adam Sandler and crazy Chris Farley; literate Tina Fey and laughing Jimmy Fallon.

And none of them got the emotional, high-profile send-off reserved for Kristen Wiig on Saturday’s season finale of SNL, hosted, for the first time, by Mick Jagger.

The departing cast member — red-hot in Hollywood after her hit last year with “Bridesmaids” — was serenaded with not one but two Rolling Stones classics performed by Arcade Fire, gently led through a courtly ballroom step by none other than Mr. Jagger himself, then spun through an extended procession of teary last dances with members of her SNL family, including a pas de deux with the show-runner who has seen it all, Lorne Michaels.

I wonder how Jason Sudeikis and Andy Samberg — also reportedly leaving the show after this season — felt being relegated to sidemen to this kind-of-funny mediocrity.

Don’t get me wrong: Miss Wiig is a talented writer. “Bridesmaids,” which she coscripted and starred in, was fresh and funny and nabbed her an Oscar nomination for best screenplay. And her appearances on the big screen are typically entertaining; she was a standout, for example, in Mike Judge’s “Extract.”

Kristen Wiig (Associated Press)
Kristen Wiig (Associated Press) more >

But her SNL characters were embarrassing — arch, one-note messes.

There was Dooneese, the small-handed, randy, inbred member of the Meryl clan who tormented the Lawrence Welk show; Kat and (with Fred Armisen) Garth, the Weekend Update regulars who (painfully) made songs up as they went; and Mindy, the Broadway legend-in-her-own-mind who couldn’t help but say the secret word on the game show Secret Word.

And Gilly. Oh, Gilly. It’s clever because she’s a little kid who is played by a 30-something and says awful things! Get it? Over and over and over.

There isn’t a single memorable character in the bunch. There’s no one who, in two years when Miss Wiig returns as the guest host, will inspire audiences to cheer when they appear. There’s no Samurai (Belushi) or Buckwheat (Murphy) or Church Lady (Dana Carvey). With the possible exception of Gilly — generally considered the worst of the bunch, even by Wiig fans — none of her characters is on a first-name basis with audiences.

Sure, there have been other SNL send-offs, but they they’ve tended to be less schmaltzy affairs staged for bigger stars.

Miss Wiig joined the show in 2005, and some are saying that she was a standout performer who got the show through tough times. But mightn’t that be getting things a little backwards? Perhaps the show was on the skids in part because Miss Wiig was the one carrying the load.

Let’s be honest: Andy Samberg did more to pull SNL out of its funk with his off-beat, youth-oriented “Digital Shorts.” Any one of his comedic confections had more pass-around value than Miss Wiig’s entire oeuvre. His “Lazy Sunday,” “Natalie Portman Rap,” “I’m on a Boat,” “Laser Cats,” etc. — these were the videos that children were emailing to each other the next day. This is what folks were tuning into on Saturday nights or watching on Hulu the next day if they’d had something better to do the night before.

And say what you will about Mr. Sudeikis — a friend described him as “workmanlike,” the classic backhanded compliment — he’s literally the only guy currently on the show who can do a decent political impression. His Biden is great; his Romney is hilarious. If the show is losing him before the election, it’s a real blow.

Furthermore, Mr. Sudeikis has shown a bit more range than Miss Wiig. On the evidence of his performances on “30 Rock” and “Eastbound and Down” and his roles in hit movies like “Horrible Bosses” and “What Happens in Vegas,” there’s a decent chance that Mr. Sudeikis will have a better post-SNL career than Miss Wiig.

But on Saturday night, Mr. Samberg and Mr. Sudeikis were reduced to background extras, faces in the crowd that was herded onstage to render homage as Miss Wiig twirled in the spotlight, showing off moves like Jagger and holding back tears as the eyes of the nation were upon her.