‘Maya & Marty’ is More of a Playground for the Performers Than an Effort to Elicit Laughs

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Conceived during Saturday Night Live’s 40th anniversary show in 2015, NBC’s new variety show Maya & Marty is taped live in the same studio as SNL, and its first episode, which aired last night, felt like a warm-weather version of the Saturday night mainstay. Hosted by Maya Rudolph and Martin Short, the hour-long show wasn’t terribly exciting — or, frankly, funny — but it has an appealing looseness befitting a summertime sketch show.

Last night’s show began with a pre-recorded skit (can we still call them “digital shorts” if they’re not on SNL?), which found Rudolph tearfully bidding farewell to her astronaut husband, played by Tom Hanks — only to keep running into him around town. She eventually realizes he hasn’t left for a five-year mission in space; he’s just been hanging out with a buddy all that time.

It felt like a promising opening — it wasn’t a lame musical number, the sketch was funny, and the choice not to open with political satire set the show apart from SNL. But as the hour progressed, Maya & Marty began to feel like SNL Lite. At the show’s best moments, it felt as if the adults took off for the summer and left the kids the keys to 30 Rock; at its worst, it felt like a rehash of the lackluster writing and reliance on star power over laughs that’s plagued SNL in recent years.

After the opening skit, Rudolph and Short entered the set through shiny gold doors at the back of the stage, as if they were entering Rockefeller Center itself. Maya & Marty has a snazzy set — its gold and brown color scheme, which resembles a ’70s hotel lobby, is warm and inviting. Rudolph and Short have already proven their chemistry, and the two can lob jokes back and forth as naturally as tennis pros warming up before a game.

It’s less clear what role costar Kenan Thompson is supposed to play; the duo brought him out onstage at the beginning, but he didn’t appear to share hosting duties, instead showing up in sketches throughout the hour. Thompson is among the more reliable SNL cast members — he’s been there the longest — but did Maya & Marty really need to kick off the live portion of the show with a spoof of Little Big Shots, giving us yet another rendition of Thompson as Steve Harvey? The character is already overused on SNL; at least the skit, in which Short and Jimmy Fallon played a pair of overexcited, redheaded twin brothers, seemed to make the players laugh.

Throughout the first episode, the performers appeared to be having more fun than the audience. Larry David sat down for a pre-recorded interview with Short as Jiminy Glick, the character he premiered on The Martin Short Show (and later got his own series on Comedy Central, Primetime Glick, which ran from 2001-2003). “When does this Larry David start, and where does the real Larry David stop, and when do we get to the stop part?” Glick asked.

Like SNL, Maya & Marty featured a musical guest thirty minutes into the episode; like SNL, that musical guest was Miley Cyrus; like SNL, Cyrus showed up again in a skit in which she was largely obsolete. I did appreciate the sense of play that prompted Rudolph to join Cyrus for a performance of “I’m a Woman” (right after Cyrus sang, “I’m Your Man”; Madonna much?).

But most of the sketches went on about twice as long as they could have. A bit in which Rudolph, as Melania Trump, shilled “Melania’s Edible Diamonds” was funny for about 40 seconds; Kate McKinnon did a Heidi Cruz impersonation that looked and sounded almost identical to her Hillary Clinton. A “Goodnight Moon” spoof toward the end also overstayed its welcome.

Despite a star-stuffed premiere episode, the funniest moments didn’t necessarily involve big names. One of the funnier sketches was a PBS-style Memorial Day documentary special, “The War in Words: Letters from the Front,” in which Rudolph played a war wife who writes maddeningly spare letters to her exasperated husband (“I worry the knock-knock joke structure does not lend itself to letters”).

The best part of the show was the last number, a fantastic tap-dance routine featuring cast members from Broadway’s Tony-nominated Shuffle Along. It’s not just that it was an exciting, expertly choreographed and performed sequence — it was an ingenious move to showcase a Broadway musical, something most people don’t have the opportunity to see on the regular, if at all. It was one of few moments on Maya & Marty when I felt like the performers were working hard to entertain me — and not one of those performers was a big-name star.

Maybe hyping celebs — Steve Martin and Tina Fey are guests on next week’s episode — is the only way to get people to tune in to live TV these days. But the Shuffle Along number pointed toward the possibilities of a show that’s like SNL, but not SNL. Comedy thrives in dark corners; Maya & Marty has the opportunity to mix the best of both worlds — the star magnet that is executive producer Lorne Michaels and the slightly off-the-radar Tuesday night, summertime slot. But so far, the show feels more like a playground for the performers than a polished effort to entertain.