Even more unpredictable than the current race for the White House: what to expect from Saturday Night Live week-to-week.
Without any true breakout cast members (those who were breaking last year have been curiously culled back into the company fold) SNL is listing. It is the most famous sketch comedy television show ever, boasting of more comedic talent in front of and behind the camera than should be allowed…and apparently, more than Executive Producer Lorne Michaels knows what to do with.
But there are moments—there must be—when talent breaks through. And following close on the heels of one of its worst episodes of the season (Melissa McCarthy/Kanye West), Saturday Night Live delivers one of its best—a sure-footed, well-crafted and hilarious affair that succeeds in spite of guest host Jonah Hill’s flaws. Or maybe because of them.
Oddly enough, sketch comedy is not Jonah Hill’s thing. Hill’s a funny guy and that funny translates in movies, but his success as a comedian lies in the easy-going way he brings himself alive on screen. Jonah Hill is neither character actor nor leading man. He’s an everyday comic—we laugh at and with him, not the crazy characters he plays.
So wisely, in his fourth at-bat with Saturday Night Live, Hill embraces this…essentially handing the keys over to the people making the show, happy to go along for the ride. The best SNL guest hosts do this: movie stars playing themselves hosting Saturday Night Live. Works like a charm.
Saturday Night Live’s political writing is back to fine form with “CNN Election Center Cold Open” and the devastatingly satirical “Voters for Trump Ad.” The former giving us the predictable but enjoyable “Chris Christie is my bitch” joke for Darrell Hammond’s Trump, and the latter giving us one the season’s best pieces—a heartwarming Donald Trump ad narrated by American’s most wholesome white supremacists.
Keep in mind, Saturday Night Live invited Mr. Trump to guest host last November (the worst episode of the season, by a mile)—long before he started winning multi-candidate GOP primaries by plurality, but not before he used racially-charged political speech with impunity. Though the show has taken its shots since his appearance, it’s never attacked Trump this brutally. Apology accepted, SNL. This was a masterful sketch.
“Fond Du Lac News” is one of those Saturday Night Live sketches that many see as punching down. Essentially a parody of a small town, local newscast, it is understandable that some would perceive this as an unwarranted sleight. But to do so sells this particular piece short. There is a level of personal affection for the characters—Cecily Strong’s cornpone co-anchor, Aidy Bryant’s cheerful field reporter with nothing to report, Vanessa Bayer’s chattering meteorologist—that redeems it. These are not Anchorman assholes after all, these are your friends and neighbors fretting on television about the local sex offender. These laughs are fair, and the cast performs well despite Jonah Hill’s flubs.
“The Champ” has all the markings of a Mike O’Brien pre-tape, though without his signature dad character…so we must assume that there are other SNL writers as interested in joyfully parodying the sentimental tropes of wholesome teen movie fare and faith-based films. This is Jonah Hill’s best moment of the night—predictably, playing Jonah Hill in a story of a woebegone high school loser who finds out his recent wrestling win was, in fact, a huge hoax to increase his self-esteem—while making the perpetrators feel super-proud of themselves. There is so much to like in this piece, not the least of which is Kenan Thompson’s pitch-perfect school janitor, Mr. Ramirez.
Musical guest Future is terrific performing “Low Life” with special guest The Weeknd and “March Madness.” Future delivers great rhymes (which, incidentally, are enhanced by his use of Auto-Tune, not made less), smart pop-musicality, and a rock-solid backing band that really does take over the room—which is what great Saturday Night Live musical guests simply must do: play to the live room and win it over.
Weekend Update was strong, anchored by Cecily Strong’s “Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With at a Party” (“Leo DiCaprio is right. BEARS.”) and Jay Pharoah’s jaw-dropping Survey of Famous Black Comedian Impressions: Katt Williams, Kevin Hart, Chris Rock, Eddie Murphy, Tracy Morgan, Chris Tucker, Hannibal Buress and Bernie Mac. No doubt, this is a bit from Pharoah’s stand-up, but post-Rock-hosted Oscars, it was a great time to bring it out. Best Weekend Update joke? Colin Jost: “Bernie Sander’s campaign is so rich it’s voting for Hillary.”
“Inside SoCal: Newer One” indulges our nostalgia for the SNL Season 39 version of Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett’s “Good Neighbor”-style pre-tapes. There was a moment there where it seemed like Saturday Night Live might be moving in a Beck and Kyle direction, creatively—with more experimental, YouTube-structured, neo-absurdist work. But maybe the headiness of last season’s star-studded 40th Anniversary celebration got to Lorne Michaels. Ever since, he has tamped down most alt-comedy impulses and in doing so, dashed any hopes for the show’s creative evolution. He’s turned Beck and Kyle into Sudekis and Samberg. And this brief return visit to “Inside SoCal” serves to remind us of what might have been.
There is much to like about this week’s Saturday Night Live, much to learn if you happen to be a future guest host or musical guest (or Executive Producer). Here’s hoping Broadway-trained Ariana Grande was paying attention. She’s been tapped for both roles next week.
NEXT WEEK: Ariana Grande
Chris White writes and directs independent feature films. His latest, an award-winning showbiz comedy about looking for Bill Murray, is called
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