SNL Recap: Zach Galifianakis is a Dangerous Man

Trying to inspire the young cast and crew of NBC’s latest late night variety show experiment, Saturday Night Live’s first head writer, Michael O’Donoghue takes a can of spray paint and in big bold letters plasters the word “DANGER” on the office wall. Thirty five years later and the show is still struggling to live up to O’Donoghue’s need for edge.

Some years are easy. The danger spills out in the form of incisive commentary, maybe implying that the leader of the free world is not sufficiently competent to hold office. Other years, when the country’s gears may not be turning completely smoothly, but are without such obvious kinks, SNL is challenged to be that voice that disrupts the status quo. In 1975, airing a live show with unknown and untested actors was dangerous. Debuting with a sketch about racial tension, with frequent racial slurs, was dangerous. Andy Kaufman lip-synching to a recording of the Mighty Mouse theme was dangerous. America may be over the excitement of the live element, and the current leader of the free world may be of mixed race, but with his second hosting stint, Zach Galifianakis plays that Kaufman-esque role, with no fear and no sense of routine, that gives us just one glimpse of a version of SNL that values danger over tradition.

The Monologue:

As is typical with a stand-up host, the monologue was a performance of selected bits from Galifianakis’s famed set, however he still managed to make this seem fresh. Weeks ago, Russel Brand delivered a stand-up monologue that fulfilled the standard technique of story-telling with a few tangential pitstops for jokes. This week, Galifianakis’s list of non-sequiturs came off as an instant reminder that when he is on the show, he sees the host’s duty as making the audience laugh, no matter the method. It’s a bit less tidy, but following one-sentence jokes about maybe having murdered his grandmother with a full length lip-synced song and dance number, dressed as little orphan Annie, do more for the audience’s excitement for what’s to come than even the best joke about living with Katy Perry could. Isn’t that the point of the monologue?

The Sketches:

Selection Sunday:

The cold open was a pretty fun mapping sketch with the framework of the March Madness college basketball bracket coverage draped over the — surprisingly more excessive than usual — various number of absolutely crazy people that have been dominating the airwaves lately. The insane individuals were given seeds and pit against each other in an actual madness tournament. While the idea has its roots in basic sketch form, the combination of the fun connections to the NCAA tournament (North Africa’s #1 Seed going to no-brainer Muammar Gadafi), great impersonations (Andy Samberg does a terrible and yet spot on Dick Vitale), and a reoccurring game of awful descriptions (“Nick Cage, who looks like he’s always just witnessed a murder”) attack humor from enough different angles that this sketch was an easy winner. Speaking of, Bill Hader’s Charlie Sheen impression was amazing, and yet just short enough that I can’t complain about them making the so-quickly-tired joke about the guy. In fact, this was the only Sheen reference of the night.

This sketch is also an example of something SNL does very well. The writers have the ability to take a step back and comment on the general synchronicity of what’s going on today. Often when they try these sketches the ideas seemed forced together, but the connections were strong here.

The Talk

As soon as I caught a glimpse of CBS’s new daytime talk show, The Talk, I began anticipating the SNL sketch. Well, here it was, and it was a bit of a letdown. The first minute or two of this sketch weren’t about anything; there were hints of calling the show out as a rip off of The View but that certainly wasn’t the focus. The jokes that were landing, “She’s like the British William Shakespeare,” couldn’t sustain the piece. The admittedly fantastic impersonations were not enough — though, I appreciate Nasim Pedrad helping me decide how I feel about Sharon Osbourne (enough already). It wasn’t until Galifianakis showed up, a frustrated fan of The View who mistakenly ended up at this taping instead, that I felt there was a point to this scene.

Also, how sad is it that they had to write off the appearance of real life costar of The Talk, Holly Robinson Peete, because SNL doesn’t have any black women on the cast?

Scared Straight

It’s been a long while since SNL has pulled out this old gem and for the first time in just as long, the saving grace of the sketch is not Bill Hader trying to stifle his laughter while Keenan shakes him by his flannel. Instead, the addition of Galifianakis as a Hannibal Lecter-esque co-inmate was the real source of humor. Placing Galifianakis in a storied, reoccurring sketch like this perfectly shows the dangerous energy that he brings in direct contrast to the safety of this scene. We’ve seen the sketch dozens of times before but this time finally feels different. Galifianakis plays the role with this raw funny energy that instantly reminded me of Will Ferrell (or to a lesser extent Will Forte). Even when the sketch returns to its established formula and references famous films, the writers go a little further than usual, get a little more playful, and have Galifianakis’s character actually reference The Hangover. I really think the stimulation from a host like this challenges Seth Meyers and the rest of his writing staff to step up a little more and find ways to break out of the mold a bit. This sketch definitely featured some of the dirtiest jokes SNL has had in a while.

Weekend Update

Usually, Update is one of my favorite parts of the show, but this was a weak outing. The only joke that made me chuckle was about Seth’s Catholic girlfriend taking longer to open than Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. Kristen Wiig’s Julie Taymor was okay, but Wiig thrives in high energy roles, and this plain, kinda boring character just wasn’t enough to save the segment. Also, I’m glad they mentioned the Red Cross support thing, but trying to make it as unobtrusive as possible, quickly jamming it in right before commercial made it come off as obligatory. It’s a big deal and viewers would’ve given them the leeway to not awkwardly rush it.

Catchphrase Kings of Comedy

It’s hard trying to make something that is pretending to be funny actually be funny. This rundown of ridiculous catchphrase standups had some pretty great moments and was a fun showcase for a ton of characters from most of the cast, but when something was funny, the fake laughter and quick editing of the video made it hard to actually find a moment to laugh.

Digital Short: Zach’s Assistant

This premise sort of felt like an idea pitched by a network exec: “Zach Galifianakis plus children! Hilarious!” But Galifianakis’ treatment of the kids as adults, reacting to them seriously and with gravitas, ended up working. Although that one kid that kept insisting that he isn’t good looking, that was just sad. I liked the fart-joke, “Live from New York!” self-lampoon that unfortunately the audience didn’t seem to get.

Where’s Noodles?
Something about seeing parents struggling to explain complex concepts to children always makes me giggle. Watching parents trying to explain animal autoerotic asphyxiation apparently cracks me up. NBC, unsurprisingly, isn’t sharing this clip. The sketch was a hair too long, though, with that unnecessary (and a little too weird) dog monologue at the end.

Celebrity Scoop

The only complete bomb of the night. There were a few well-written jokes in there but no one could get this sketch going. The idea that Canadian television has moose for producers was fun. Zach tried to milk that weird sound thing his character had and while it didn’t work, this is exactly the kind of risk that I appreciate him taking.

Corn Syrup Commercial

While I doubt that most people have seen the commercial that this video was parodying, I just loved the setting of a child’s birthday party and the anger with which Pedrad told Wiig’s character to “shut her mouth.” Also, apparently, a little butt crack can go a long way.

Titanic

This was another funny idea that didn’t pan out. The piece seemed a bit underwritten, like the audience would be satisfied with just seeing Galifianakis dressed as a woman. That late in the show, it was hardly unexpected. In fact, the most shocking moment, sadly, was when the actors shifted around a bit and we saw that Abby Elliot was actually in this sketch. The tagging at the end of the sketch with the National Women Day joke was a final attempt (and you’ll see SNL succeed with that last minute save a lot) but this time it wasn’t enough.

The Goodnights

I normally would not include the host’s “good bye” at the end of the show as something that could hit or miss, but that’s just one more way Galifianakis changed things up this episode. Having shaved his head into a mohawk during the last musical performance, he was able to get one last good laugh out of us when he claimed that he’d done it for a Mr. T sketch that had been cut. Even the actors, who had been looking mighty serious at the end of the night (Abby Elliot looked awfully down), got a chuckle out of the last second change of pace.

Final Thoughts:

When the host is featured in every part of the show except the cold open, Weekend Update, and a short video at the end of the night, it’s clear this week won’t be focusing on the strength of the cast’s supporting players. After a couple of weeks where it seemed like all the SNL actors were getting their share of the limelight, this week most of the show rested on the shoulders of Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, some Kenan, and a lot of Zach. Was Taran Killam missing completely?

What’s worth noting about this is that the night had about a 50/50 hit to miss ratio. Again, only one sketch was actually tough to watch. That’s about as strong an episode as I think we should hope for (in the current format) and they achieved this by relying heavily on one of the most unique comedians in the game.

The last time Galifianakis hosted people said the writers didn’t know how to write for him. Based on this appearance, I say that’s exactly what they need. If Galifianakis becomes a yearly host who challenges the writers to shake off their 35 year old traditions, then it’s worth it. The future might become a dangerous place, but that’s a good thing.

Filup Molina can be stalked at or around iO West in LA.

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