‘SNL’ Recap: Will Ferrell Delivers Amid High Expectations

After Jimmy Fallon and Maya Rudolph’s spectacular stints hosting SNL earlier this season, I proposed (only somewhat facetiously) that all episodes should be hosted by former castmembers. Fallon’s episode was a gleeful trip down memory lane, complete with cameos by Tina Fey, Tracy Morgan, Rachel Dratch, and Horatio Sanz, and Rudolph’s might have been the highlight of the season, with the multitalented actress bringing the best out of the cast and crew to with her own masterful performance. I expected this episode would be the closing argument to my former-castmember-hosts proposition.

So was it? Sure, so long as I get another closing argument at some point.

We were given a solid, albeit predictable episode: predictably strong in the first half while weak in the second; predictably laden with cameos by other former castmembers and reprisals of characters from Ferrell’s era; predictably celebratory for remaining at the center of the pop culture universe over the years. Of course, Ferrell’s presence makes anything immediately funny (except maybe Broadway Sizzle), but for whatever reason – high expectations or simply lightning evading the bottle for the writers and actors – this episode didn’t ignite as we all hoped it would.

What Hit:

Biden Cold Open. My favorite political sketches tend to be the ones that remove the podiums and take place anywhere other than the oval office. Here, Vice President Biden (Jason Sudeikis) was portrayed as a teenager angry with President Obama (Fred Armisen), for getting all the credit for his support of gay marriage. I love the “Obama as responsible dad, Biden as fuckup son” analogy drawn upon by the likes of Seth Meyers and The Onion. I assumed we would see Ferrell’s Bush come out at some point, and I enjoyed the natural camaraderie that existed between he and Biden: “I used to catch grief all the time from President Cheney.”

Monologue. Ferrell kicked off the night by bringing his mother up on stage and attempting to give a script-free Mother’s Day tribute. His rambling contained a few laughs, but I have to admit I was hoping for more of a spectacle, and the piece treaded too closely to Chevy Chase’s infamous birthday cake bit. Nevertheless, Ferrell’s tugging at the heartstrings won me over.

Cold Commercial. In this one-note sketch, Ferrell plays a husband who interrupts a commercial for cold medicine with a terrifyingly loud sneeze. It was a simple premise, but well executed, particularly thanks to Ferrell’s dumb innocence.

The Culps. Ana Gasteyer reunited with Ferrell in their wholesome song parody team Marty Culp and Bobbi Mohan-Culp, here serenading high schoolers at a gay pride event. Aside from Bush, Culp was Ferrell’s only reprisal of a character from his time on the show, and although I missed his Robert Goulet and Harry Caray, I was reminded instead of Ferrell’s strength as a team player (his other famous SNL roles include straight-man Alec Trebek in Celebrity Jeopardy and halves of other duos like the Spartan Cheerleaders or the Lovers). Ferrell and Gasteyer delivered as always, updating the Culps’ source material to include Adele, Nikki Minaj, and LMFAO. (Seth Meyers tweeted Sunday that the sketch couldn’t be posted online due to music licensing issues.)

100th Digital Short. With Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone’s absence from the show, this season has been relatively light on digital shorts, making this a somewhat odd time to celebrate the greatness of the recurring segment. The Lonely Island boys were in on the joke, however. Throughout the delightful cameos by Michael Bolton, Jon Hamm, Justin Timberlake, Natalie Portman, and Justin Bieber, was their central theme: “Tonight, we’re gonna suck our own [bleep]s!” And hell, why not celebrate the guys who brought us Dick in a Box, Laser Cats, and Shy Ronnie? The image of Natalie Portman tossing a baby off a building is well worth a few inflated egos.

Weekend Update. A bright week for Seth Meyers shone even brighter thanks to a merciless breakdown of Time’s infamous breastfeeding cover photo in a “Really!?!” segment and another epic visit from Andy Samberg’s Nicolas Cage (joined by Liam Neeson), who seems to plunge one ring of insanity deeper each time we see him. This time, we got to meet “The Fixer” and hear Cage’s new Dickensian self-portrait: “the skin of sundried Gremlin, and the oaky tan and the receding hairline of a Puerto Rican Beetlejuice.”

Anniversary Toast. I didn’t mind this throwback to the classic “parade of freaks” toast sketch, in which Ferrell played a deadbeat wannabe psychic who lives above a suit store, while Forte reappeared as his blond creeper and Bobby Moynihan (in his only memorable appearance of the night) as his badass microphone-dropper.

What Missed:

ESPN Classic. I was a big fan of these three-sketches-in-one pieces, where glib sports commentators cover women’s sporting events while plugging crude taglines for feminine hygiene products. Unfortunately, this time, the only plate to remain spinning was Will Forte’s best-name-ever Greg Stink. It also seemed odd to reprise a sketch that came about after Will Ferrell left the show.

Funkytown Debate. I don’t know what it is about SNL’s obsession with the outrageousness of funk culture, but I immediately tune out to these kinds of sketches, whether they take the form of the barely tolerable What Up With That or the obnoxious Gettin’ Freaky with Cee Lo. I appreciated the attempt to ground the premise with the political debate context, but it quickly fell apart to serve the standard catwalk of bizarre names and costumes.

Broadway Sizzle. You know something’s wrong if Bill Hader’s first appearance is three quarters of the way through an episode. He and Wiig played co-hosts of a Broadway talk show in which three-name up-and-comers sang audition songs (including Ferrell as a clean-mouthed lad who accidentally sings women’s numbers). Even to a Broadway enthusiast, the premise was unclear, and the laughs were few and far between.

Cut from dress rehearsal was this fun Weekend Update segment in which Bobby Moynihan plays a self conscious Incredible Hulk.

Also cut last minute was this dysfunctional Grady Wilson sex video sketch.

Will Ferrell is without a doubt a true comedic talent – perhaps the finest of our generation – and it’s always a pleasure to see him return to his old stomping grounds. He was consistently funny throughout the night, though, unfortunately, few sketches stood out in any memorable way. The writing staff certainly deserves credit for the cold open and everything about Weekend Update, but otherwise they seemed stretched thin, perhaps expecting Ferrell to play more of his old characters and instead having to awkwardly fit him into supporting roles of unexciting new sketches. For me, Will Forte stole the night, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed he’ll get to host the show to promote the release of MacGruber 2.

What did you think? Did Will Ferrell give you everything you had hoped for as an SNL host, or were you expecting another season-topper? Are our best digital shorts behind us? And after a big night for Jason Sudeikis and Andy Samberg, can we expect a Kristen Wiig highlight reel in next week’s season finale, considering the three’s rumored departure? In fact, should we expect any comedic pieces at all in next week’s concert episode, when Mick Jagger, Arcade Fire, Foo Fighters, and Jeff Beck will be in the lineup?

Erik Voss is a writer and performer living in Los Angeles. He performs with his improv team The Cartel at the iO West Theater.

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