Part of the genius of SNL's design is how effectively it underestimates its audience's patience. Despite the show's ongoing popularity, it's rare that all of its viewers stay tuned in until the goodbyes at 1 a.m. — "Our competition is sleep," one cast member once said. In the early years, Lorne adopted a strategy of front-loading the lineup with the stronger, more topical sketches, leaving the last half-hour (when even NBC's censor guy has stopped paying attention) for off-beat pieces, filler sketches in case the episode runs short, or sketches in which Fred Armisen sings.
Of course, now that more and more people are watching SNL sketches at their own convenience online, and in whatever order they want, this strategy is becoming increasingly obsolete. It's not uncommon these days to see a few dark premises crawl into the first half of the show, sometimes to great success ("Puppet Class" from the Seth MacFarlane episode). This trend also owes some credit to the Digital Short innovation, where Andy Samberg's short films were so popular that even his most bizarre clips were granted early time slots. However, the old-school formula is still set very much in stone at SNL, and most of America won't miss much if they turn off their TVs after Weekend Update.
Such was not the case last weekend, when action-star Jeremy Renner hosted an episode with one of the weakest starts I've seen in quite some time, just to find its footing later on and cross the finish line with the audience firmly on its side. Having already written off the episode, I was shocked during the goodbyes at how many sketches I actually enjoyed, in retrospect. So if you're one of those viewers who turns in after Seth Meyers' last joke, consider sticking around. And if that's too hard for your sweepy wittwe eyes, or you're way cooler than me and actually do stuff on Saturday nights, just go to bed and then read my recaps to find out which sketches are worth watching on Hulu. Deal?
Hometown Vacation. Sometimes SNL is just so on point with their fake commercials. Just in time for millions of young people to go home for the holidays, this "vacation resort" style ad for your hometown couldn't ring truer. The details of "the deepest TV ever sold" and "scratchy, bleached-stained towels from 1994," not to mention how alone and bored we often find ourselves during our holiday vacations, were equal parts hilarious and depressing, knowing this is what we have to look forward to.
Situation Room: Petraeus Sex Scandal. If these parodies of cable news shows (see also Fox and Friends, Rachel Maddow) are ever successful, it's not because of the impersonations or the topicality of the jokes — which are often worn by the time SNL gets a crack at them — but because of some pattern the writers are able to exploit. In this case, it was CNN's lack of any other footage of Tampa socialite Jill Kelley than a clip of her walking to her car, as well as a hilarious "dramatization" in which Tim Robinson played Kelley. To a Floridian like me, Jeremy Renner's douchey, self-proclaimed Tampa mayor bit contained some painfully accurate jokes, but his cameo went on a beat too long.
Stand-off. In this short film, Renner joined Taran Killam and Bobby Moynihan as action heroes locked in a tense stand-off, refusing to break even as the three of them continue on with their lives — putting a daughter to bed, eating Thanksgiving dinner, etc. This reminded me of the classic improv scene in which a policeman chases a thief (both running in place on stage), and then they both agree to stop running to catch their breath. I do wish they had blown out this clever game a bit more (something I'm told Key and Peele did in a similar sketch in an upcoming episode), but I enjoyed the Adam Levine cameo and the overkill gunshots at the end — which paralleled the end of another memorable Digital Short.
Weekend Update. Seth Meyers unsurprisingly had some things to say about the Petraeus affair, and he hit a stride during his "Winners and Losers" segment. I loved the Florida hate, as well as the comparison of Paula Broadwell's Petraeus biography to a biography of Batman before his parents were killed. Jay Pharoah made his only appearance of the night as comedian Katt Williams, making a few jokes about being short and pimp-ish. I didn't mind this bit too much until Pharoah bragged on Twitter about how well he did — a generous assessment, to say the least. Update ended with a fun cameo by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (the real guy, not Bobby Moynihan, whom I'm thankful they didn't cart out to do that stupid schtick where they compare the real celebrity to the impersonator. Moynihan was most likely waiting in the wings dressed as Guy Fieri, in a funny segment that didn't make it to air, unfortunately). Christie, compared to the frequently nervous Jeremy Renner, seemed perfectly comfortable on the SNL stage and nailed his jokes, especially the line: "I am gonna die in this fleece."
Movie Set. After last week's "American Gothic" sketch, I speculated in the comment section that Jason Sudeikis might have a thing for on-set, "mission impossible" structure sketches, in which he plays characters who sabotage simple shoots (see 2007's great "Boom Mic" — Bill Hader played director "Mike Underballs" then, presumably related to his "Wes Underballs" in this version). This sketch was yet another example, in which Sudeikis played a small-part thug actor named Dick Fuel, channeling Vin Diesel (#VinDieselSunday). Like the episode as a whole, this sketch picked up as it went along, with Sudeikis chickening out at being slapped and bullying Tim Robinson's clapboard guy.
Cool Drones. It has been years since we've seen a cartoon on SNL, back when Robert Smigel contributed his "TV Funhouse" segments. With the new label "Midnight Snack," this short written by Zach Kanin and Rob Klein featured a group of U.S. drone planes who live double lives as members of a boy band. Reminiscent both in concept and animation of Smigel's "X-Presidents" and "The Ambiguously Gay Duo," this cartoon had some great moments — the strike on the terrorist compound and the goat echoed the overkill gag from the Stand-off short — but mostly I just enjoyed this as a change of pace in SNL's variety show format, and a possible Channel 101 style miniseries to look forward to in future episodes.
Coroner. The 10-to-1 sketch was perhaps the night's best executed, in which Jeremy Renner repeatedly baffles the simple task of identifying his brother's corpse. Covering the sheet over the face each time was a clever mechanism — it helped punch each of Renner's ridiculous guesses: "Steven Tyler!" "It's JFK! We solved it!" "Can he guess who I am first?" Bill Hader's also-absurd coroner complemented the game nicely, and kudos to Taran Killam for keeping his face straight while Hader drummed his hands on it.
Petraeus Biography Cold Open. The night got off to a rough start with this snoozer with Paula Broadwell (Cecily Strong) reading excerpts from her new biography of David Petraeus, with the descriptions sounding more like they were from Fifty Shades of Grey. I really liked this premise, but the fact that the joke relied on the imagery of Strong's monotonous delivery crippled the sketch with low energy.
Monologue. Jeremy Renner didn't fare much better in his monologue, in which he seemed nervous the moment he walked out on stage. The gaffe of his piano not being plugged in threw him off completely, and rather than keep his composure and not draw too much attention to it, he attempted to charm his way out of it, and in the process, conveyed to the audience more than he had to that things weren't going as planned. He regained his footing somewhat when he finally got around to the actual bit — singing mock theme songs for his movies — and we got a glimpse of his musical talents. I feel bad for the guy, and the piano gaffe was out of his control, but the monologue extended the awkward energy from the cold open. (Watch the video here.)
The Californians. It only took a second appearance of this sketch for the audience to tire of the closeups and the mirror gag, and now — in its fourth appearance on SNL in less than a year — it's safe to say Lorne has really driven this one into the ground. The only thing funny about this sketch was Fred Armisen's breaking, but that can only get you so far.
The Avengers. Considering SNL had three episodes last season after The Avengers came out, doing an Avengers sketch nearly seven months later — even if your host is an Avenger — seems pretty stale, especially when the joke is that Hawkeye's super marksmanship is useless when he runs out of arrows. The game ball here goes to SNL's prop and wardrobe departments, who gave NBC exactly the memorable, publicity-friendly image they love to get in sketches… never mind whether the sketch is actually funny or relevant.
Also, it's worth checking out this sketch that was cut after dress rehearsal, in which Kate McKinnon plays an unwelcome Thanksgiving dinner guest in the middle of a feud with her husband (Renner). The sketch is pretty wild and I can see why it was cut (Renner yelling out "Oh shit!" didn't help, I'm sure), but there's still a lot of funny stuff in there.
I didn't know what to expect from Jeremy Renner, who has gotten plenty of laughs with clever quips in movies like Mission Impossible 4 and The Avengers, but not too much in the vein of live performance or sketch comedy. He turned out to be an average first-time host — nervous monologue, playing himself (or types he commonly plays) in most sketches, trying to fit in awkwardly in recurring sketches… but still giving it his all. I question the selection and order of some of the sketches, especially earlier on in the night, but the episode picked up steam as it went along and brought the five or so of us nerds still watching to a satisfying conclusion.
An interesting night for Jason Sudeikis, who seems to be going through the same pattern of playing familiar characters that Kristen Wiig and Andy Samberg did in their final episodes last season. Sudeikis' nostalgic take on Mitt Romney last week felt like it could be the last time we saw the impression. Furthermore, recent weeks have seen other Sudeikis highlights — Under-Underground Records, Bar Song, Joe Biden, as well as a telling moment during last week's monologue where he mentioned how long he had been on the show — perhaps our days with Sudeikis are indeed numbered. If we don't hear anything over the three-week break about his career plans, I wouldn't be surprised if we saw some Sudeikis favorites when the show returns: Scared Straight, ESPN Classic, etc.
What did you think? Did Jeremy Renner's SNL stint blow up in his face, or did he hit the bullseye? Did you enjoy the last few sketches of the night, or do I just have a weird, niche sense of humor? Did the Hometown Vacation ad bum you out about going home for the holidays? And if Jason Sudeikis truly is on his way out of the show, do you think we'll ever learn the story behind his dancing tracksuit guy in the What Up With That? sketches? Will Lorne kill him off, Poochie style?
I’ll see you on Dec. 8, when Jamie Foxx will host with musical guest Ne-yo.
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.