Saturday Night Live Review: “Chris Rock/Prince”

(Episode 40.05)

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<i>Saturday Night Live</i> Review: &#8220;Chris Rock/Prince&#8221;

Just over halfway through Prince’s unprecedented 8-minute set on Saturday Night Live it hit me: The Purple One started in 1975, too.

Yes, The Artist Currently Known as Prince and SNL are, professionally, the same age. Granted SNL broke through earlier, but both are entertainment institutions that have made lasting and valuable contributions to American pop culture over the last 40 years. Both SNL and Prince have influenced so many other greats, have frustrated and baffled fans over the years, and both soldier on, working well past their expiration date.

So why does Prince seem so creatively fresh, so artistically vital in his career 40s, while SNL seems so tuckered out?

Granted, such a comparison isn’t exactly apples to apples. Prince has been one of the most eccentric, free-spirited voices in pop music since his start. His is one man’s artistic vision, with that man pulling all the levers and pushing every button. Saturday Night Live is a finely-tuned sketch comedy machine, a network television stalwart, an example of tried and true process applied to mildly changing variables week to week.

But still, what if SNL could work like Prince and his new, all-female band 3RDEYEGIRL? Prince’s performances are improvised—every song, every concert created on the spot for the audience at hand. He is backed by jazz-trained musicians, masters of their instruments and of pop composition and spontaneous arrangement. 3RDEYEGIRL is His Royal Badness’ ultimate funk-rock ensemble, set and ready to implement his musical vision on the spot.

Presumably, SNL’s core cast is hand-picked by Executive Producer Lorne Michaels for their sketch comedy chops, honed in tiny improvisational comedy theaters, stand-up clubs, and at weekly sketch shows only a handful of friends ever see. These people represent the sketch comedy equivalent of 3RDEYEGIRL. SNL could work like Prince’s band, but it does so rarely… hardly ever. But it’d be fun to see it try.

There were some non-Prince highlights in the Chris Rock-hosted episode (the pre-taped “Swiftamine” ad comes to mind: a product that calms the anxiety of adults who find themselves liking the new Taylor Swift album), but they were few and far between. Mostly, we saw poorly-conceived sketches joylessly executed… almost as if the cast was in a really foul mood, but collectively realized that the show must go on!

The low point? The interminable “The Couple” sketch where Rock and recently added cast member Leslie Jones play a bickering middle-aged married couple preparing to leave on an anniversary date. I’m all for mishaps and mistakes on SNL, but I can’t remember ever seeing a dead-air gap like the one that happened in this sketch (the gaffe was not necessarily Jones’ fault, but the camera stayed locked on her close-up, so it seemed like it was). This kind of error during an already tanking sketch feels like a thank you, goodnight! moment. I think we all would have preferred that the show just stop at that point. (Interestingly enough, this gaffe has been edited out of the online version of the sketch.)

The 10-1 sketch “Women In the Workplace,” a spoof of 1990’s era, HR department training films, mirrored the equally poor “Vlog” piece that happened earlier in the show. Both sketches put forward such bone-tired jokes (white people are awkward around black people, dads can’t handle their teenage daughter’s budding sexuality), then relentlessly ran them into the ground. As if pushing harder would eventually make them funny.

Chris Rock’s monologue is what most people will be talking about, though. And depending on your personal taste, you will either raise a glass to Rock’s fearlessness, or smash one in frustration. Yeah, he went there: last year’s Boston Marathon attack. And it was brutal. But was it funny? (The Jesus’ birthday jokes were brilliant, by the way. BEST LINE OF THE NIGHT: “Hopefully business will pick up by his crucifixion!”)

ISIS competing on “Shark Tank” was dark, but very funny… maybe the best sketch of the night. And the oddball “Robbers” pre-tape brought a little Beck (Bennett) & Kyle (Mooney) life to the listless post-Update part of the show.

“How’s He Doing?”—the recurring sketch where a panel of African-Americans are asked what it’d take for them to not support Barak Obama (answer: nothing will turn them off to Obama) was an edgy, funny piece of writing and performing that seemed to suit this week’s guest host to a T. But its premise also applies to how one might judge this episode and its host.

What would it take for fans of SNL to not like Chris Rock as a guest host of the show that launched his career back in the 1990s?

A few tasteless Boston bombing quips, an unwavering commitment to several tired comic premises, and a technically disastrous sketch about an anniversary couple bitching at each other that goes on twice as long as Prince’s extended set… would that be enough to turn you off to guest host Rock?

To quote Rock’s popular SNL character Nat X: “I’ve seen better acting in Tough Actin’ Tinactin!”

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.

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