SNL Recap: Daniel Radcliffe, Timid Host on a Ballsy Night

It’s frustrating when SNL plays directly to our expectations. When a former castmember comes back to host the show, for example, it’s almost certain that there will be at least one reprisal of an old sketch (Jimmy Fallon as Boston teen Sully, Dana Carvey as the Church Lady, Will Ferrell as President Bush, etc.). Seventy-five percent of the cold opens this season have been GOP parodies, and half of the episodes have opened with Jason Sudeikis as Mitt Romney.

Of course, I love an unsurprising comeback of the Barry Gibb Talk Show as much as anybody, but while watching 90 minutes of live sketch comedy, pieced together in less than a week, I like surprises. And not “Hey, Target Lady! Haven’t seen her in a while!” surprises. I want to see Lorne, Seth, and the writers approach the entire lineup with the same reckless disregard that they do for the last few minutes of the night, where sketches are selected with the precision of Pollack.

One thing that surprised me about last episode was how bold some of the sketches were. What began as some familiar self-parody in the monologue evolved into some genuinely risky moments, some that brilliantly hit too close to home for the studio audience, others that felt mostly for the amusement of the cast… and just came across as uncomfortable for the rest of us.

Unfortunately, SNL’s nerve didn’t make up for an overall uncomfortable episode, hosted by a soft-spoken and tongue-tied Daniel Radcliffe, who made the most of a few wonderful sketches while barely surviving several other inexplicable ones.

What Hit:

Golden Globes Promos. Jason Sudeikis gave us another taste of his amusing Ricky Gervais impression in a sketch that parodied NBC’s attempt to bank on the Golden Globes host’s overhyped low blows. I think they could have gone a little meaner than suggesting Selena Gomez get a green card or a few dog put-downs — then again, I suppose painting Gervais as not as cruel as he’s made out to be was the point.

You Can Do Anything. This talk show celebrating the “incredibly high self esteem of the YouTube generation” was the first time I watched SNL and thought, “Wow, they just destroyed me and all of my friends.” Although I doubt most SNL viewers get as much an ego boost from double-digit views on a blog in a single day as I do, but in an age when American students rank 25th in math but are #1 in confidence, this sketch couldn’t have been more uncomfortably honest (notice the studio audience’s tepid reaction). Overwhelming sarcasm can only sustain a sketch for so long, but jabs like “You’re self-promotional, and everyone loves that,” will be enough to make me feel a bit less proud every time I check my Google Analytics.

Spin the Bottle. This short took a familiar premise – spin the bottle gone wrong – and had some dark, twisted fun with it, forcing Daniel Radcliffe to kiss revolting hobos, or as they prefer, “homeless bozos.” Kenan Thompson’s spaceman-fearing, suspicious powder coughing smoocher was my favorite.

Harry Potter Epilogue. For anyone who ever wondered what Harry Potter did for the rest of his life after saving the world, the answer is wander pathetically around his old campus, living in the past and hitting on students half his age, ala McConaughey in Dazed and Confused. I thought it was a hilarious direction to take the character… let’s just hope the actor doesn’t suffer the same fate.

Weekend Update. It was a good night for puns at the Update desk. Some good jokes from Seth (including an appropriate nickname for a fumbling Mexican organ transplanter), followed by the return of Vanessa Bayer and Fred Armisen as the scorned childhood friends of Kim Jong Un (Muammar Gaddafi in previous versions). While this bit is a little too subtle for a laugh-out-loud reaction, I still enjoy their cautious, lean-across-the-dinner-table delivery. And the highlight of the night came when Radcliffe appeared as Casey Anthony’s dog, who fears for his life. A lot of good lines here, and I especially loved the applause at the “It’s rough” pun.

2112 Play. I appreciated the cast’s commitment to this bizarre sketch about a theater company from the future presenting a “Carousel of Progress” type show about life in 2012. The details were delightful — apparently in just 100 years, wolverines will be domesticated, we will be able to switch ethnicities while we sleep, and New Zealand will peel off the earth and float into outer space like a Band-Aid. And jokes about assassin Taylor Swift will always be too soon.

Exit Polling. One of two Kristen Wiig sketches later in the show that mocked the political process without the need for candidate impersonations was this one about an absurd pollster assaulting a voter with questions like “Are you a robot?” and “Do you like my new laugh?” As usual, Wiig amazed me with her performance here. I’m not sure other cast members could have nailed the timing on the age bracket joke as well as she did.

Headz Up App. This unnecessary but enjoyable commercial at the end of the night featured an app that prevents you from colliding into things while your head is down staring at your smartphone.

What Missed:

Mitt Romney Cold Open. I wouldn’t mind the fact that this is the sixth time this season an episode has opened with a Mitt Romney piece if the sketch was actually funny. Instead, the attempts to mine humor from Romney’s out-of-touch personality and his enjoyment of firing things never dug deep enough, and we were left with a cold open as bland as its target.

Monologue. Radcliffe didn’t waste any time addressing his reputation as the boy wizard and SNL’s history parodying the character. He then tossed a few friendly disses at the writers for their tendency to do obligatory topical pieces, worried about possible sketches of Dumbledore working in a Harry Pottery Barn or Jersey Shore: Hogwarts (complete with a lightning bolt tattoo on the Situation’s abs). But for me, the monologue is all host — and I found to be Radcliffe to be a little stiff and very soft-spoken most of the night, undercutting several jokes.

Target Lady. I couldn’t believe my eyes when they resurrected Wiig’s first character on the show (and therefore Wiig’s first hated character). I’ve secretly always had a soft spot for Target Lady, though not enough to fight Radcliffe’s mulleted stock boy for her, and at first I wondered if the decision to bring her back after a few years absence might mean something drastic — say, the revelation that her Target branch is in a snow globe and her entire existence is in the psychopathic imagination of Gilly. This sketch had more scripted jokes than I remember its predecessors having, but in general, there was too much going on, with competing absurdities layered on top of each other.

Delaware Fellas. They couldn’t get much mileage out of this clash of context between the Jersey Boys musical and the state of Delaware, which seemed to run out of trivia 45 seconds in. It seemed as if the writers felt obligated to include a Broadway-themed sketch due to Radcliffe’s recent stint in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, but unfortunately we know too little about both contexts to make this sketch relevant.

Glenda Okones Runner. In another strange lineup decision, a runner was crammed into the final third of the show rather than spaced evenly throughout the night. I enjoyed the premise, as well as Wiig’s fearless mayoral candidate Glenda Okones, who decided to release a series of self-directed attack ads. Only the second of the three was strong enough to stand on its own, though, and I wish all three had been combined into one sketch.

The Jay Pharoah Show. In the most peculiar sketch of the night, the under-casted Jay Pharoah hosted an uninspired interview of Radcliffe. In some ways the polar opposite of “The Chris Farley Show,” in which a starstruck Farley spent entire interviews fawning over his guests, Pharoah instead waited for the sketch to end, occasionally doing one of his standard impersonations. I assume the joke here is that people view Pharoah as a one-trick pony (“Parodied what most folks think of me tonight..and I can mold and shape the creation into whatever I like.. #Perfectsense” he tweeted afterwards). It seemed like the studio audience wasn’t in on the joke (neither were several critics, apparently), so the sketch could have used a blunt call-out line or two to make the game clearer. I’m a little surprised that Lorne allowed such a personal, meta premise on the air. Also, I’ll sympathize with Pharoah’s reputation as a one-trick pony when he proves to me that he’s not one. This sketch didn’t do that.

Some episodes of SNL are fun to sit back and enjoy, while others may be a bit more thought-provoking, hoping that we’ll at least appreciate them. This episode was one of the latter. While I enjoyed many parts of this episode — Radcliffe as Casey Anthony’s dog and the image of a 27-year-old Harry Potter playing Quidditch by himself, making cheering noises — I’ll remember it more for the creative risks it took with the You Can Do Anything and Jay Pharoah Show sketches than I will for Daniel Radcliffe’s uneven delivery.

What did you think? Did you give Radcliffe more credit for his performance? Were you as confused as I was to see the return of Target Lady, the late-in-the-show runner of political attack ads, and by whatever the premise was of The Jay Pharoah Show? And most importantly, now that SNL has called me out, will I forever hate myself for spending hours and hours every week blogging and self-promoting?

Find out when I retweet this article!

We have a few weeks off to rest during that long-overdue late-January holiday, so I’ll see you on February 4, when Channing Tatum will host with musical guest Bon Iver.

Erik Voss is a writer and performer living in Los Angeles. He performs with his improv team Natural 20 at the iO West Theater. He too has never been punched.

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