When Joseph Gordon-Levitt hosted SNL for the first time in November 2009, he was still a bit of an enigma to the audience. He had redefined himself from child star to an adult actor with serious emotional range in the indie noir Brick in 2006, and now he had just broken into the mainstream as the lovesick lead of 500 Days of Summer. But it wasn’t until Gordon-Levitt stepped onto the SNL stage for his monologue, and performed a showstopping rendition of “Make ‘Em Laugh” from Singin’ in the Rain, that we saw his amiable charisma as a live performer. Seth Meyers said on Bill Simmons’ podcast last week about Gordon-Levitt: “He has a really good, like, Walken-y, offbeat energy, and we didn’t know that until Friday of last time. I feel like we know his strengths a lot better this time.”
Gordon-Levitt returned to SNL during the best year of his career – a summer of The Dark Knight Rises and Premium Rush, this weekend’s Looper, and a supporting role in Steven Spielberg’s upcoming Lincoln. And while he gave every bit as strong a performance last weekend as he did three years ago, the episode as a whole faltered, mostly due to creative decisions beyond his control. Lorne and his producers have shifted the bulk of SNL's political material to the Weekend Update Thursday primetime specials for the time being – a move that may have backfired for two reasons: 1) Thursday’s special received an abysmal 1.6 rating, and 2) writing an extra half hour of material seemed to take its toll on the writers, resulting in a show that was atypically broad and uninspired in its humor – not to mention uncannily apolitical in the middle of election season.
In an episode that got its laughs by with stripteases and drag rather than more subversive premises (with exceptions), plus a few confusing endings, a lot went wrong last Saturday night. Still, like every episode, a lot of the sketches still came off moderately well.
Cold Open: Live with Kelly and Michael. It’s pretty risky for SNL to open an election-season episode with something that has nothing to do with politics. But when compared to some of the other odd choices this episode, this cold open seems reasonable. I appreciated Nasim Pedrad’s depiction of Kelly Ripa as a frantically productive woman-of-steel, instead of some crazy bimbo (likely thanks to one-time Live co-host Seth Meyers). There were plenty of well-crafted details describing Ripa and Strahan’s physical appearances (“We look like the poster for The Blind Side!”), though as the sketch wore on, the jabs started to feel a little mean-spirited (“I just want to put you between my teeth and carry you home!”) Hm, that’s actually pretty funny now that I type it. Bill Hader appeared as a moody Robert Pattinson – and he may have recognized Ripa’s “six-pack” as the same one he used while playing The Situation.
Undecided Voter. SNL found a new target during this election season: America’s undecided voters, who, at this point, have to be pretty clueless about what’s happening in our country if they haven’t made up their minds yet. In this mock appeal, the undecideds have some pretty tough questions for the candidates: “How long does the president serve?” “If you burp, fart and sneeze at the same time, will you die?”
Tres Equis Runner. Here’s a sketch enjoyed by 20-somethings and their more successful parents alike. Joseph Gordon-Levitt played the “King Dong” that must be "the son of the most interesting man in the world" in these two Dos Equis commercial parodies. The premise reached a hilarious breaking point in the second video when Jason Sudeikis entered as the father, the man himself, chastising his loser son: “One swim meet! You swam two laps, and then puked like a dog! They had to drain the pool!”
G.O.B. Tampons. In another brilliant spin on typical political sketches, SNL gave us this faux-commercial for a tampon designed with the general understanding of a woman’s anatomy by the gentlemen of the Republican Party. Like all classic SNL commercials, this one included some awesome product demonstrations and 3D graphics.
Weekend Update. Seth Meyers made up for his so-so performance on Thursday with a pitch-perfect “What Are You Doing?” segment aimed at President Obama, whom he feels should shut his mouth and let Romney lose the election on his own. “Nobody wants the coach to come in at half-time and say, 'Woah, that was rough, anyone got any ideas?'” Assad’s Two Best Friends Growing Up (Fred Armisen, Vanessa Bayer) remains an amusing premise despite its lack of out-loud laughs and seemingly endless supply of Middle Eastern dictators to discreetly badmouth. Kate McKinnon appeared as Ann Romney, playing the potential first lady as just as elitist as her husband. Her segment was full of hilarious details – killing her horse to meet Beyonce, Jon Voight’s cold lizard hand, Rick Perry appearing when you say his name three times. I was disappointed by Jay Pharoah’s Stephen A. Smith, a bit originally planned for last year’s season finale, but cut at dress rehearsal. Pharoah fell into the same trap of letting his delivery overwhelm the premise: Smith’s swinging between claiming dear friendship with athletes and his furious rants about them was the focus here, yet Pharoah got sucked into Smith’s vocal tics and high-pitched squeals.
The Finer Things. At the outset I worried that my “Kenan Talk Show Sketch = Bad” formula would prove correct once again, but alas, I was wrong. This sketch’s premise – that “hard” rappers these days seem more interested in luxurious champagne and clothing lines than their street roots – was fresher than any of the other live sketches of the night, though not perfectly executed. I enjoyed Bobby Moynihan’s Teddy Graham, plugging wine glass charms to help identify your pinot grigio.
Real Estate Agents. Tim Robinson got a shining 10-to-1 moment again this week as part of a husband and wife realtor team with Nasim Pedrad, asking local vandals to stop defacing their billboards with crude graffiti. The premise reminded me a bit of a similar gag from The Office, but the contexts and characters are different enough so I still enjoyed it. I was surprised how graphic the jokes became, even for a sketch airing at 12:55 a.m. For the west coast and online versions of the sketch at least, the last moment was censored out – most likely because Gordon-Levitt started to write “I love penis” on his father’s poster – leading to an awkward transition while Robinson was in the middle of a line. (Did this happen for the east coast broadcast as well?)
Monologue. Joseph Gordon-Levitt followed up his amazing “Make ‘Em Laugh” performance in 2009 with this inexplicable homage to Magic Mike – a movie that premiered three months ago, has long since left the radar, and had no involvement whatsoever from Joseph Gordon-Levitt. The sad thing is, when actual Magic Mike star (and actual former exotic dancer) Channing Tatum hosted last February, his striptease-centered cold open actually had a premise to it – that Tatum kept spotting closeted fans from his erotic dancing days in the audience. This performance, on the other hand, just reeked of shameless, pandering bullshit. (I did enjoy the moment when Bobby Moynihan ripped his vest off to reveal a second vest.)
Private Detective. After a third of the sketch’s run time had passed (long setups plagued a number of sketches that night, including Hypnotist and Undecided Voter), Bill Hader finally revealed himself as a PI whose “surveillance photos” are actually goofy caricature drawings. The premise worked okay, but the sketch never journeyed much deeper than a few drawings – when it was set up perfectly to go in some truly dark directions. While the PI’s short-term money making schemes helped pepper the dialogue, the random twist ending wasn’t shocking enough to pay off, leaving the audience feeling confused.
Hypnotist. To give you an idea of what kind of episode this was: Taran Killam appeared twice on stage Saturday night, and in both times, he took his shirt off. Here, he played an audience volunteer who knowingly played along to Gordon-Levitt’s hypnotist’s embarrassing commands despite repeatedly winking to the crowd that he was in on the joke. It’s certainly a clever premise, but before we could really figure out who was aware of what and why characters were doing what they were doing, the sketch went into Mad TV territory and poor Kenan got humped.
Pub Stories. NBC and Hulu didn’t release this sketch as its own clip – most likely for its inclusion of The Beatles' “You Gotta Hide Your Love Away” (played by Mumford and Sons) – but you can still see it as part of the full episode for some reason. This setup is one of my favorites from recent seasons: A group of dudes sit in a bar, singing along to a classic song, while sharing f-ed up anecdotes from their lives. But this rendition was the weakest yet. Other than Sudeikis’ vibrator tale, the stories felt underwritten. In past versions of this sketch ended with some bizarre reveal, like the men pulling out big machine guns or wearing skirts. Here, however, the actors awkwardly joined Mumford and Sons as they took the song out into the studio audience (a move I loved in the “C U When U Get There” 10-to-1 sketch from Jonah Hill’s episode last season, when it closed the night out and felt genuinely organic), but here it felt forced, like an lazy excuse for not coming up with an actual ending for the sketch.
Evelyn. Also during Bill Simmons’ podcast, Seth Meyers agreed that SNL normally has two options for athlete hosts: let them play themselves, or put them in drag. Joseph Gordon-Levitt possesses far more comedic talent than Michael Phelps and doesn’t need to do this crap to get laughs. I love Fred Armisen’s weird, late-hour musical sketches more than anyone, but this song by two parents to cover their daughters’ many flaws for a prospective date just wasn’t hitting, and made even more unbearable by Gordon-Levitt’s dancing. The song did have some funny lyrics tucked in there, most notably McKinnon’s lovely, “She was hiding inside me!”
Despite the comparatively high number of "hits," this was a weak episode. I hate to agree with any part of Tom Shales' scathing review last week, but SNL has indeed put itself in an difficult situation with these Weekend Update Thursday specials, in which the weekend episodes include less political humor and the writing staff is stretched thin. Veteran writers Paula Pell and John Mulaney were not in the writers room for this past week either. And while we're on the subject of writers, it's worth noting that Jay Pharoah has been increasingly gracious toward SNL writers in his post-episode tweets, a development I suspect is due to tensions in previous seasons after the actor failed to credit writers during press interviews for his sketches. Gossip!
What did you think? Do you feel the episode lacked political humor, or were you satisfied with the Undecided Voter, G.O.B. Tampons, and Meyers' "What Are You Doing?" segments? Were you annoyed by the episode's tendency towards broad humor, or was Joseph Gordon-Levitt just doing his job as a host and putting it all out there? What do you think Seth Meyers meant by Gordon-Levitt's "Walken-y, offbeat energy?" Did Lorne make a mistake by not giving Jay Pharoah's President Obama any airtime last week (Thursday or Saturday), to give the young actor more opportunities to hone his impression?
I'll see you next week, when Daniel Craig will host with musical guest Muse.
Erik Voss is a writer and performer living in Los Angeles. He performs on the improv team The Cartel at the iO West Theater.