Saturday Night Live Review: "Michael Keaton/Carly Rae Jepsen" (Episode 40.17)

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<i>Saturday Night Live</i> Review: "Michael Keaton/Carly Rae Jepsen" (Episode 40.17)

Nineteenth century pop culture critic Jebidiah Atkinson’s withering criticism aside (”Saturday Night Live… the same tired characters repeating the same tired catchphrases. NEXT!”), this week’s offering was one of SNL40’s best, largely because host Michael Keaton is a comic acting wonder…on a par with his film comedy forebear, Buster…who, predictably, Jebidiah Atkinson HATED in Sherlock Jr.

Others have speculated on Keaton’s decade and half-long “absence” from the film comedy firmament (he worked after Jack Frost, but most of us shielded our eyes soon thereafter). However, the apparent drought between Batman and Birdman was not for lack of genius-level comic instincts. Keaton is that rare actor, on a par with the best of his generation (Jeff Bridges, Jeff Goldblum, John Malkovich, Bill Murray, Robin Williams), who understands how comic writing works, how it can soar with fine character acting. As such, his guest host performance on SNL is Emmy-worthy—one of the finest in the show’s four-decades-long history.

Kicking things off with a “Michael Keaton Tribute Monologue” was a good idea, especially as a 40th season hat tip to “The Chris Farley Show.” Taran Killam and Bobby Moynihan are perfect fan-boys to Keaton’s polite but beleaguered celebrity. Ultimately, the piece slips on the threadbare Opening Monologue musical number trope, but in the early going, this is a fine kick-off to a strong episode.

“Smart Home” is among the season’s best sketches as it rises above an absurd premise with deeply fascinating character acting from Keaton (as a would-be suburban inventor) and Cecily Strong (as his unflappably impressed wife). Many of us have experienced a moment like this, when cocktail party pleasantries turn to soft-pedaled madness. Keaton and Strong go for the hard-fought laughs. And it is a joy to see.

How an idea like “Easter Candy” gets to screen is the magic trick of Saturday Night Live. Love the show or loathe it, one must admit that such fantastical strangeness—even buried late in the show—is a bit of a miracle. Michael Keaton and Kate McKinnon are easy comedic bedfellows here, and one hopes to see the two collaborate again in the future.

“Ad Agency” accomplishes what traditional sketch comedy has always done best: introduce a wacky character in a familiar setting, then tell jokes. The added bonus of ad man satire, which rests solely on Michael Keaton’s shoulders, puts this sketch over the top.

Anchorman II did it better, but by focusing on lame “video reenactments” of the news of the day, “CNN Newsroom” freshens the idea…while acknowledging that there are other, non-Fox, lampoonable 24-hour news sources. (If you are watching CNN “that means you’re either sitting in an airport or you’re at home flipping through the channels and you’ve had a small stroke.”)

Mike O’Brien’s “Prom Queen” is a solid pre-tape offering from the former cast member-turned-Albert Brooks of SNL40, while “Neurotology Music Video” hilariously spoofs Scientology in the wake of the recent release of the documentary Going Clear. Both short films remind us of the strength of this season’s out-of-studio production unit. Could a hiatus week “Best Pre-Tapes of SNL40” be in the works? It should.

Here’s the thing: because so much of this episode’s material was strong, weaker sketches (“Easter Hotline” and “NCAA Tournament Cold Open”) were far less objectionable. Hell, even Weekend Update, buoyed by Taran Killam’s Jebidiah Atkinson, was solid…a high watermark for a disappointing season.

Rather than discuss the finer points of Carly Rae Jepsen’s two forgettable musical performances (“I Really Like You” and “All That”), let us turn our attention to her longsuffering but rock-solid back-up band and singers. Good show, guys. That was a completely pro performance by each of you. Though your time on the road with Jepsen will really, really, really, really be but a distant memory some day, the night you played Studio 8-H and partied with Michael Keaton at the SNL afterparty won’t.

NO. Pot jokes are not a good choice for “resident young person” Pete Davidson. And YES, “Easter Hotline” should have been cut after the dress rehearsal. NO. There was not nearly enough Aidy Bryant. YES. The Norman Reedus cameo fell flat. And NO, Carly Rae Jepsen is no Rebecca Black. But. BUT. This episode could be SNL40’s best.

Thanks Michael Keaton. It’s good to have you back.

SNL NEXT WEEK: Taraji P. Henson with Mumford & Sons

Chris White writes and directs independent feature films. His latest, a showbiz comedy about looking for Bill Murray, is called Cinema Purgatorio . Follow Chris on Twitter.