A Heartfelt Ode To The Funniest Thing On The Internet: ‘Liza Minnelli Tries To Turn Off A Lamp’
It's an iconic 'Saturday Night Live' sketch which deserves more recognition.
One of the funniest things on the entire internet, and probably the best sketch from Saturday Night Live is ‘Liza Minnelli Tries To Turn Off A Lamp’.
It’s genuinely perfect comedy for me — a long descent into gentle madness, as we watch Kristen Wiig’s oddball impersonation of famous actress and singer Liza Minnelli struggle and ultimately fail with one of the strangest foes in comedy, a stubbornly lit lamp. The stakes? Why, to make it in time to see Cats, of course. What a premise!
What a thing to to watch.
It’s strange and it’s bold and it means nothing at all. It’s a talented actor (Wiig) being an absolute idiot — but with power and purpose. It’s a spangly lady yelling nonsense at you. It’s everything I love in comedy.
Since it aired, the sketch has apparently gained cult status in some corners of the internet — at least the corners I frequent — and I think we should pause and watch it right now.
Great! If that’s all you want from this article, that’s so fine. But if you want, I’m going to see if I can explore some of the reasons it’s so funny, because nothing makes a joke funnier than pulling it apart and sifting through its guts to discover how it works.
thinking about her*
*the liza minnelli tries to turn off a lamp sketch
— honor 🗻 (@sixcago) October 14, 2019
The Kristen Wiig Of It All
First off, we have to acknowledge that in its current incarnation, this sketch could only be done justice by Kristen Wiig.
You might be sensing a theme here, but there is no actor that brings me as much joy as Kristen Wiig, and her characters on SNL have been routinely iconic and strange. Sue loves surprises? Target Lady? Penelope? Gilly? They’re all amazing.
As a physical comedy actress she’s unparalleled, all long weirdo energy and perfectly elastic face. I have a rule that truly funny people have the most malleable faces, and hers is astounding. This particularly deranged version of Liza Minnelli is more Wiig than perfect impersonation.
I’ve never found any trace of Kristen Wiig talking about this sketch, but I often think back to the genesis of Target Lady, which began life as a character when she was with the LA sketch comedy the Groundlings, and eventually made its way to TV on SNL.
Wiig says that she was inspired to create the sketch after she was served by a cashier at Target with a particularly “eggy” voice. That’s it. Target Lady’s voice, as a result, is something glorious and weird. Nobody in the world says “almond” like her.
A lot of her characters have something “eggy” about them — a trait, or voice, or movement that Wiig focuses in on, and blows into absurdity. She finds the thing that she finds unique, different or funny — the game — and she develops a character out of it, like an enormous silly tree from a seed.
every so often i remember the existence of the snl sketch where liza minnelli tries to turn off a lamp and my day gets a little bit brighter
— colonel_BOOstard (@_colonelbastard) October 9, 2019
Which brings us to the subject of Wiig’s impersonation — star of broadway, film and cabaret, Liza Minnelli.
I’m a big fan of the film Cabaret, and also Arrested Development, so I’m AWARE of Liza Minnelli as an actress, but not hugely as a personality — but even I can see that SOMETHING in her mannerisms, in her public persona, or at least in her perceived persona has been picked up by Wiig for this impersonation.
It’s more blurry watercolour than realism — but it works, because Liza Minnelli is already mythological in presence, legendary in pop-culture. The idea of Liza Minnelli is being lampooned, being imitated, more than the actual person, and that’s… incredibly funny. It’s recognisable and hilarious, without being specific. The vague cabaret nature of it all, the kicks, the jazz hands — all broadly Liza. There’s a reason they chose Liza Minnelli from 1982 — it’s Liza at her most iconic, and legendary.
Although, I discovered in my research that the forum users of Broadwayworld.com, like “Broadway Bob”, absolutely HATED Wiig’s impression of Minnelli.
In fact, I discovered that despite the vaguely legendary status that Lamp has today, it seemed like almost nobody liked it back in 2012.
Vulture’s recap of the episode was mostly positive, but they said: “I appreciated the simplicity and enjoyed Wiig’s antics, but a sketch that should have had the brevity of last week’s Fireplace pieces instead ran two minutes too long.”
Liza Minnelli Tries to Turn Off a Lamp
— Jennywise 🎈 (@jennifercwalk) October 12, 2019
The AV Club called it “a miserably boring bit where Wiig did a Liza Minelli routine (which is just one step away from her Secret Word routine), while TV Line continued on that theme with this savage review.
“Like many other SNL misfires, this sketch relied too heavily on one motion and a lot of sound effects. Unfortunately, Wiig’s actions never really synched up with the orchestra, making the already boring skit fall flat. Hill spoke about five words throughout, and after Liza’s parade of acrobatic dancing and vocal tics, the skit ended with her turning off the lamp — but nothing happened. They may have missed the performance of CATS, but no one seemed too upset about it. I just want my five minutes back.”
This SNL skit where Kristen Wiig plays Liza Minnelli trying to turn off a lamp fundamentally changed me. pic.twitter.com/f4yWXcMWur
— keaton kilde (@keatonkildebell) November 2, 2018
You Tell That To Debbie Reynolds!
But, the thing is it’s very funny — extremely funny.
And in my opinion, the point where the switch from an amusing Kristen Wiig character, into a unique and attention-grabbing sketch, is this dialogue exchange:
“I don’t know, Liza, it’s probably pretty simple.”
“You tell that to Debbie Reynolds!”
When Jonah Hill’s (quite amusing) straight man becomes as equally confused as us, it rockets the levels of absurdity into the stratosphere. Liza Minnelli trying to turn off a lamp isn’t just odd to us — it’s odd in her own reality. It’s odd everywhere. We SHOULD be confused and scared.
Has the SNL writer responsible for "Liza Minelli Tries to Turn Off a Lamp" been honored with a Lifetime Achievement Emmy yet?
— Zack ✨🌈🔪 (@zackpaslay) September 24, 2019
“Remember that?” she asks, floating around the room.
“Remember what?” “Chain-ball, k-chain, remember that? Oh, Atlantic City, I choked on a shrimp!”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Nobody knows what she’s talking about — the sketch works when we let go of the desire to understand this character and her world, and simply enjoy her struggles — the almost impossible goal of a fabulous showbiz lady trying to turn off a lamp.
Will A Fosse Neck Do It?
There’s a barely controlled, manic energy to Wiig’s performance, which absolutely powers the pace and energy of the sketch. I’ve watched it without sound, and it’s still very good — but the out of sync, discordant jazz orchestra adds to the chaos.
someone asked a few weeks (days?) ago what the best SNL skit in history is and after much ruminating i have decided it is LIZA MINNELLI TRIES TO TURN OFF A LAMP
— Anthony Oliveira (@meakoopa) July 12, 2019
Kristen Wiig’s version of Liza Minnelli’s jazzy dancing is inherently good — the fosse neck? It does it. But it’s equally as charming when she fails to hit some of the beats, clearly improvising weird moves on the fly. She breaks almost immediately, and is barely suppressing laughter.
Wiig says that once she breaks on stage, she’s done — and the things that cause her to break aren’t that she finds herself funny, but that she gets a kind of birds eye view of just how ridiculous the situation she’s in is — and that’s the best summary of this sketch: a ridiculous situation we’ve all found ourselves in.
Patrick Lenton is the Entertainment Editor at Junkee. He tweets @patricklenton. He’s gonna miss Cats!