Last November, mixed martial arts fighter Holly Holm shocked the world when she landed a wicked kick on reigning champ Ronda Rousey’s head—effectively knocking Rousey out in the second round and claiming the title of Ultimate Fighting Championship Women’s Bantamweight Champ.
Many Saturday Night Live fans were scratching their heads when Rousey was announced as an upcoming guest host, but it actually makes perfect sense. Rousey is a sports brand in her own right and, no doubt, many of her fans tuned in to SNL to watch—if only to see if she can still stand.
But Saturday Night Live, even on the ropes, is a tough gig. Guest hosts must arrive with some modicum of performance talent and experience…a set of technical skills that go beyond a good-natured sense of humor and the ability to read cue cards. Though Rousey was certainly well intended in her Saturday Night Live debut, she ultimately loses by disqualification. She’s simply not ready for this stage.
How do you parody Sarah Palin’s bizarre Donald Trump endorsement press conference? Ultimately, this is the problem with Tina Fey and Darrell Hammond’s “Palin Endorsement Cold Open.” Though both veteran performers bring their A-game and it’s fun to watch (Sarah makes an absurd, non-sequitur statement, The Donald responds with a wry aside…the gist of which is this woman is bat-shit crazy.), the parody plays as political comedy comfort food, and it never quite rises above. In fact, there is the sense that none of this is parody at all. It’s documentary. Palin and Trump are two people who appear to be quite popular and beloved with a certain audience despite their unhinged demeanor. Perhaps a more acerbic approach is called for…something more evolved, something dark. Still, as is, the sketch carried the show through a dreadful Ronda Rousey Monologue to the evening’s would-be highlight: “Screen Guild Awards.”
Art awards are dumb. That includes Emmys, Grammys, Oscars and Tony Awards. Indeed, the entire E.G.O.T. pantheon represents a frivolous, self-congratulatory, unevolved part of our popular culture: all of us—artists and audience—at our worst. But no amount of intellectual understanding can change the fact that big-time art awards endure and thrive. They matter. Because not having a monarchy doesn’t mean that Americans don’t crave royalty. Celebrities are our kings and queens. So it’s really weird that so many our most celebrated movie royals are white.
To this end, Saturday Night Live properly goes in for the kill in a rowdy, deeply satirical, bench-clearing sketch that gives us the most inconsequential white actors nominated for (and winning) a Best Actor award over high-achieving black actors. But why hold back, SNL? Why the thinly veiled references to Creed, Straight Outta Compton, Beasts of No Nation and the various actors and writers who’ve been snubbed? It’s a great idea for a sketch, and precisely the kind of topic Saturday Night Live should take on, but it ultimately plays a little shy…even coy. Has SNL become the Hillary Clinton of the entertainment industry: the ultimate insider posing as reform-minded rabble-rouser?
“Bland Man,” a reprise of one of last season’s best sketches (“Farm Hunk” with Blake Shelton), is a timely send-up of ABC’s The Bachelor, now in its 20th season. (Yes, you read that right. Twenty seasons.) In the sketch, Taran Killam basically plays himself—SNL’s token bland white guy—in a series of faux-intimate encounters with would-be Loves of His Life. Kate McKinnon and Aidy Bryant are standouts in a sketch that smartly mocks the banal bachelor as much as his desperate suitors.
Just when you though Beck Bennett and Kyle Mooney had been relegated to wig-wearing, fill-in support players, the episode ends on a very funny 10-to-1 sketch that might have been better on film. In “Football Party,” Beck and Kyle play office weirdoes who are casually invited to a Super Bowl party by a co-worker (Ronda Rousey)...only to reveal that they know nothing about football, parties, or any kind of social interaction at all. It’s fun to see the “Good Neighbors” together again after a season that has turned most of its attention to Kyle. (Added Bonus: Rousey’s best acting of the evening.)
“Teacher’s Trial with Ronda Rousey,” a sketch where two female teachers are being tried for sexual abuse of a male student—while the boy testifies that a 5-hour threesome with these two hot teachers was pretty much awesome—begs the question: what if the abused teen in the piece was a girl, and the two teachers were men? How funny would that be? Indeed, this is a sharp satire of a lamentably sexist double standard in our society. But. Did you catch it? Or just laugh because, damn! Pete Davidson hit that! Sharper writing could have clarified the issue. (Unless, of course, no satire was intended. And damn! Pete Davidson hit that! was the punch line.)
Weekend Update worked nicely with more #OscarsSoWhite fire fueling the segment’s strongest material, and Kenan Thompson’s indomitable “Willie” wrapping things up on a high note. Leslie Jones’ latest keep-yelling-until-they-laugh monologue still feels like it belongs in a comedy club, microphone in hand, an emcee bit between headliners. This is disappointing, as Jones has proven to be one of this cast’s most impressive screen actors. She really shouldn’t have to do these bits anymore. Jones has earned her spot on this stage and the Saturday Night Live writers need to figure out how to give her material that can fulfill her promise.
If your unusually coddled, only-child, musical theatre and art double-majoring cousin put on a senior year “showcase” that her entire family had the misfortune of attending (including both grandmothers) you might have some idea of what it felt like watching Selena Gomez perform “Good for You/Same Old Love” and “Hands to Myself.” If you are inclined to support your cousin’s efforts to “express herself,” then you were probably impressed with both listlessly sung and bafflingly choreographed numbers. If you are getting so sick of attending family-supportive events where everyone indulges your moderately talented cousin’s attempts to make art, then you probably think Selena Gomez needs to stop wasting your uncle and aunt’s money, drop out of school before its too late, and get a job at the mall for a year to collect some much-needed life perspective.
Selena Gomez was, without a doubt, the worst SNL musical guest of the past five seasons. However…recent seasons have seen a consistently diverse and fascinating selection of musical guests at Studio 8H. This was a complete aberration. So we’ll give them a pass.
Even in strong seasons, we expect the occasional listless and drifting Saturday Night Live episode. But after a couple of wobbly, “watch anyway,” seasons in a row, episodes like this one feel particularly exhausting. There is a palpable lack of mission that permeates the proceedings. Yes, the work is getting done, but it is as though no one understands why anymore.
Perhaps it is SNL’s resident Sarah Palin impersonator who should be brought in next season to right the ship…to remind all of us why.
SNL returns February 6 with Larry David and The 1975.
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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