We expect a lot from an SNL host.
Considering most of the people who have hosted the show over the years have had little experience with live TV sketch comedy prior to hosting, and the fact that SNL depends largely on the gimmick of forcing the hosts to play against type — James Bond as a construction worker who's clueless about women, for example — we nonetheless hold the hosts to a high standard, expecting them to out-funny the regular cast members and confining our excitement to our assessment of his or her comedic background. However, comedic background is often irrelevant to an episode's outcome. Some of the best hosts have been actors known better for their dramatic roles — Jon Hamm, Christopher Walken — whereas reliably funny comedians — Dane Cook, Jerry Seinfeld — had a bit of trouble adjusting their style to the speed of the show.
A more reliable indicator for a host's success is his or her credibility: Is he/she up to the task? Does he/she seem comfortable despite the circumstances? Do I want this host to succeed? My rhetorical criticism professor in college used to talk about "the five dimensions of credibility" for political figures: knowledge/sagacity, high moral standard, good will, dynamism, and similarity. I like to apply these values to SNL hosts. Seth MacFarlane demonstrated knowledge of the ins and outs of comedy with his performance during the season premiere. Tom Hanks banks on his persona as an all-around good, moral person whenever he hosts. Lindsay Lohan failed to show good will last season when it became evident she was using the gig to reinvigorate her career. Melissa McCarthy, who prat-fell down stairs and took a blast of ranch dressing in the face, was one of the most dynamic performers SNL has seen since Chris Farley. And whenever a host shares his nervousness during the monologue — as Bruno Mars did last Saturday — it's a classic example of similarity: "This is all new to me. I'm a regular guy… just like you."
Hoping to follow in the footsteps of singer-turned-host-extraordinaire Justin Timberlake, Bruno Mars' announcement as host came as a surprise to fans. While he wasn't the funniest host we've seen, he was certainly a likable one. In an episode that played largely to Mars' musical prowess and unassuming persona, being charming might have been just enough.
Cold Open: Town Hall Debate. A livelier second-round presidential debate led to a stronger parody, penned presumably by writer Jim Downey. In classic debate parody style, the sketch ran long (over 10 minutes) and included a variety of mostly enjoyable premises, like the combative confrontations between the two candidates (with Tagg Romney piping up, "Lemme at him, dad!") and the freak show of audience members asking questions (including Tom Hanks fumbling with his notes for several seconds before finally: "Libya"). With all the running gags, the focus was lifted from the actual impersonations of the men — something Jay Pharoah benefitted from. Aidy Bryant finally had a moment in the spotlight as moderator Candy Crowley, who hit Romney with the "act of terror" fact-check that prompted Pharoah's Obama to smugly step forward and drop the mic.
Monologue. Sure, it's a little cliche to resort to a musical in the monologue at this point, and the segment could have used a few more jokes, but Bruno Mars successfully cast himself as an underdog with his song. I normally hate musical guests making cameos in sketches, but knowing this was going to be an entire night of that, I decided that getting behind Mars was the only way I wasn't going to hate the next hour. Plus, look at the guy! He's a tiny, scared Filipino girl! What's not to– hold on a sec, some federal agents are knocking at my door…
Pandora Intern. The highlight of the episode was this sketch that took us inside "mission control" of music radio site Pandora, which had to resort to a surprisingly gifted intern to fill in the vocals of popular songs when the site lost power. A clever context and a brilliant way to showcase Mars' vocal impersonation skills, the sketch's rapidfire sprint through the songs and strong ending makes it perhaps the most lamentable victim of NBC and Hulu's annoying policy of refusing to upload sketches featuring licensed music (in this case, songs by Green Day, Aerosmith, Katy Perry, Justin Beiber, Louis Armstrong, and Michael Jackson… whew). You can still find the sketch posted online illegally, like he— hold on a sec, the feds are back. Ugh.
Sad Mouse. With Andy Samberg and his digital short team gone, SNL has been looking for a standalone segment to help restore its "variety show" reputation. This short film about a depressed man in a mouse costume in Times Square was the closest thing I've seen to filling that void. Heartfelt, beautifully shot, and reminiscent of some of the offbeat, early-years digital shorts, Sad Mouse provided a nice change of pace to the lineup that I hope to see more of in years to come.
Weekend Update. Seth Meyers' jokes were a little more uneven this week, and his "Do's and Don't's" segment didn't go over as well as his "Really?!?" and "What Are You Doing?" bits have in the past. Weekend Update was saved by a reliably funny Stefon, who made a much-anticipated return to the show (John Mulaney, who writes the segment, was absent from the writers room for the first few weeks this season). The details were especially hilarious this round, with Stefon taking us into his terrifying home life ("7 p.m. Okay. I wake up… I go home…"), and Hader completely losing it after revealing the punless name for Jewish Dracula.
Brad Pitt Chanel Ad Runner. In a painful four-part runner, SNL parodied Brad Pitt's spot for Chanel perfume. Taran Killam's impression of Pitt has been great in the past, but this sketch's quieter, softer energy restricted Killam from relying on some of his vocal handles, resulting in a strange, Derek Zoolander-y Pitt. Combine that with four (four!) beats of one-note, unfunny premises, this was an uncomfortable through-line for the episode that should have been cut after the first instance.
Haters Talk Show. While the writers did an admirable job customizing a sketch to Mars' talents in the Pandora Intern sketch, here, the results were not as successful. In this Jerry Springer-esque talk show, Bobby Moynihan and Bruno Mars dressed up as a trashy mother and daughter talking back to a hostile studio audience. The premise felt pretty dated and the jokes broad, as if SNL was trying to make the most of Mars' limited character abilities. The unwarranted boo-ing of Tim Robinson's psychologist was a nice twist, however.
Amusement Park Ride. This reprisal of the sketch about creepy amusement park animatronics failed to reach the heights of its previous two versions (with Jim Carrey in January 2011 and Justin Timberlake a few months later), mostly because we could see the physical comedy coming now, and the sketch didn't really do anything new with the heightening. Remind me to save a screencap of Jay Pharoah's face on the tombstone for when the guy gets let go from the show in four years.
Yeti Point. This sketch about tourists being warned about sexual predator yetis never gained any momentum due to a heavy reliance on an unfunny camera-stare gag and some awkward tip-toeing around the subject of yeti rape. Too soon, guys.
Under-Underground Election. Despite this being the only appearance by Nasim Pedrad this episode, I could have done without this worn send-up to alternative hip-hop culture, especially with all the leftover political jokes shoehorned in. I did enjoy the Ass Dan death tribute bit, as always.
While this episode could have used a few more bright spots, especially in the back nine, the back-to-back combo of Pandora Intern and Sad Mouse — two of my favorite things SNL has done all season — along with Bruno Mars' likable charm, Stefon, and a decent cold open were enough to save this episode for me. I was most impressed with the writers' attempts to actually make use of their host's talents, rather than try to fit him into straight man roles in sketches that had been sitting on the shelf for weeks. It was a good night for newcomers Aidy Bryant, Tim Robinson, and Cecily Strong, and veterans Jason Sudeikis and Bill Hader carried most of the sketches on their shoulders.
One of the most exciting moments of the night for me was the announcement during commercial break that Louis C.K. will be hosting the show on Nov. 3 (with musical guest Fun). C.K. worked on the show in the 90s, helping Robert Smigel write the TV Funhouse cartoons, so it will be interesting to see the comedian return to SNL now that he has a more mature, refined style of humor. And given that the show will air a few days before the election, we're bound to see at least one cameo by a presidential candidate, right? I mean, how long are they going to keep shafting us? I swear, if Obama and Romney don't drop their campaigns immediately and fly to 30 Rock to perform some stiff, awkward bit on the SNL stage, I'm coming after both of — oh come on, feds, I was just kidding!
What did you think? Were you a victim to Bruno Mars' charm, or did he come off as a creepy little Filipino girl? Was the town hall debate parody everything you hoped it would be, or were you disappointed it didn't make any "binders full of women" jokes? And how long of a delay do you think NBC put on Tom Hanks after he pulled a Jenny Slate on Good Morning America? Gotta keep an eye on that guy.
I'll see you in two weeks, when Louis C.K. will host with musical guest Fun.
Erik Voss is a writer and performer living in Los Angeles. He performs improv on the Harold team The Cartel at the iO West Theater.