Monday, January 28th, 2013

'SNL' Review: Adam Levine Hosts a Stellar Night

It seems SNL has struck gold with booking music stars as hosts. Despite my long-standing pet peeve of musical guests making cameos in sketches — No one wants to watch Cee Lo read cue cards! — I have been proven wrong, again and again, as pop stars and rock legends have strapped on their host shoes and presided over far better episodes than most athletes, comedians, or A-listers have. While I was never sold on the argument that musicians' live-concert backgrounds causally make them natural live sketch performers, musicians are often less likely to let their nerves get the best of them, and they typically bring a fun-loving charisma and game-faced hustle to their roles in sketches. Earlier last decade, Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears relied on their upbringings as child performers to deliver memorable stints. In recent seasons, Elton John, Mick Jagger, and Bruno Mars similarly hosted fun nights. In two weeks, we'll get to see if Justin Bieber is up to the task… though I'm sure that verdict is already in for millions of teenage girls (and a few grown men).

Thanks in part to this hot streak of music star hosts, Adam Levine's turn hosting SNL was highly anticipated. This episode certainly delivered — even if you don't compare it to last week's train wreck, it was still one of the best episodes so far this season — I have to admit it was more in spite of Levine than because of him. There was nothing wrong with Levine's performance, and he had some great moments (notably in the gay advice show Circle Work and in the hilarious Digital Short). However, he lacked the show-stopping highlights that made his predecessors such hits: Dick in a Box, Pandora Intern, Mick in the Mirror, etc. During the goodbyes, Levine looked visibly bummed, which is a shame considering he just finished hosting a near-perfect episode.

What Hit:

Obama and MLK Cold Open. The show opened with a fun sketch about President Obama being visited by the ghost of Martin Luther King Jr., just to have the civil rights leader forgo sharing his infinite wisdom in favor of the superficial chatter that dominated the Inauguration coverage: Beyonce lip syncing and the first lady's bangs. The commentary was atypically sharp for a cold open, and it was nice to see a scenic sketch instead of the usual press conference or televised address. It's been quite some time since we've seen Jay Pharoah's President Obama (and someone's been practicing) but it helped to place the president as the straight man to a more absurd character, rather than try exploit some minor character flaw. Kenan had a great deal of fun as MLK — "It's not every day they let a black ghost open the show" — kicking off what was to be a very good night for him overall.

Monologue. Following a cold open that took some creative risks (given this season's track record, a fog machine in the cold open is considered "risky") was a similarly inventive monologue in which Adam Levine received comedic advice from expert coaches in the spinning chairs from The Voice — Andy Samberg, Cameron Diaz, and Jerry Seinfeld. Samberg's return most certainly meant we would see a digital short (Levine's last appearance on SNL was in Samberg's delightful "Iran So Far" video), and we weren't disappointed. While the bit required Levine to play second fiddle to the other celebs, the host coyly facilitated the game, even when he was shirtless.

Rosetta Stone. Another strong commercial parody this week, with the popular language software receiving testimonials from middle aged creepers trying to learn to talk to Thai hookers. The highlights were the specific Thai phrases: "How much?" "Ping pong ball!" "Oh god, what have I done?"

Circle Work. Kenan and Levine played the gay hosts of an advice talk show wherein their solutions to reasonable problems of heterosexual people are simply that the man is gay. At first I worried this would just be a sketch that exploited gay stereotypes, but once we understood the hosts' agenda, it took off. There were also some nice components with Vanessa Bayer's gaydar-less stage manager and Kenan spelling out the entire sentence: "You're as gay as a gay goose in a gay geese pride parade!"

Sopranos High. In a night that celebrated the ensemble came this send-up to the CW's Carrie Diaries in the form of a show about the high school selves of Sopranos characters. The timeline-inappropriate 80s references were great, and the cast (led by Bobby Moynihan) nicely filled out Tony, Carmela, and the rest of the gang.

Bryce. Another apparently gay-themed premise (though not explicitly) came in the form of this character sketch, with Bill Hader playing Bryce, an effeminate firefighter upset that his ex-girlfriend is talking to a new man. While we're accustomed to Hader committing fully to a character, it's rare we see him play a character at this volume and over-the-top energy for 5 minutes — which won me over in the end, despite the hit-or-miss firefighter specifics (wrestling around with the obviously fake dalmatian, sliding down the pole). I would have liked to see Bryce's reputation as a respected firefighter pay off, but Hader freaking out at the cancellation of Don't Trust The B… and repeating "Shut up!" carried this sketch.

YOLO Digital Short. It was a welcome return for The Lonely Island men and Adam Levine, who gave us a quintessential digital short: a great hook, amazing production value, an online-relevant topic, a bizarrely heightened pattern, and coked-up Danny McBride.

Weekend Update. In one of the stronger all-around WU blocks we've seen this season, with Seth Meyers joked about "zunes for baboons" and the anniversary of his girlfriend's "I had the weirdest dream" speech. Nasim Pedrad finally got some screen time as Arianna Huffington (III) — not as funny as her previous appearances as the character, but not without a few gems: "The last thing Rand Paul grilled for that long was a possum!" The highlight of the segment, and perhaps of the night, was Kenan Thompson as emotional Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis. Kenan's impression quickly escalated into full-blown crazy town, with Lewis claiming the ice skating rink in front of 30 Rock was once a dangerous lake, detailing how he damaged his retina by plowing into a ditch, and describing his ascension into heaven, all while Seth Meyers cracked up off screen.

Maroon Five vs. Train. Typically the episode slows down a bit after Weekend Update, but I still enjoyed this bar fight sketch between chunky bracelet bands Maroon Five and Train (with Jason Mraz, John Mayer, and Hootie showing up as well). The timing felt clunky in some spots (which threw Levine off) and the premise reminded me of scenes from Anchorman and Zoolander, but other than a nonexistent ending, the writing was strong: "Are you dressing up that old guy to look like you, so I'll fight him instead of you?"

Catfish. Viewers who haven't seen the documentary or the MTV show probably won't appreciate this parody of Nev Shulman's show in which he helps naive people track down the true identity of their online lovers. But given the term's increased usage with the Manti Te'o controversy, this subject matter should ring familiar. While Levine's impression of Shulman fell flat and was a little distracting, Aidy Bryant was hilarious as the proudly oblivious Jaz, whose online boyfriend is literally Brian Williams' head photoshopped on a male model's body, whose dog is a poster from the movie Beethoven and who lives in the house from The Jetsons. Nice touch to make Ace Applebees' real name Gordon TGI Fridays.

Janet II. Here's another episode of this SNL generation's Mango — the strangely alluring Janet Peckinpaugh — whom we last saw flirting with Channing Tatum's Tom Brady. Moynihan once again nailed the character, bouncing back and forth between blunt come-ons, like admitting she had been with Magic Johnson… "before," and self-deprecation: "I look like ET when they dress him up like a lady!" The detail of Janet "flicking her bean all day thinking about this" might have been a little TMI. Say, I wonder what the real Janet Peckinpaugh has to say about this?

What Missed:

Biden Bash. While I'm always a fan of Jason Sudeikis' Joe Biden and this sketch had a few good jokes — namely, Biden's Macho Man Randy Savage impression and the Delaware motto: "What happens in Delaware…?" — when compared to the rest of the lineup, this 10-to-1 dragged and felt a little unnecessary.

Despite Adam Levine's underwhelming contribution, this was a fine episode — the best, I would say, since Seth MacFarlane's season premiere. That's largely due to the cast and writers. We saw several big-cast sketches, inventive premises, and new characters. And damn, did the cast bring it! Last week was a good episode for Bobby Moynihan, and so was this one, but we also saw sides of Bill Hader and Kenan Thompson (certainly the episode's MVP) that we haven't before. All the other cast members received a good chunk of screen time as well: Vanessa Bayer, Nasim Pedrad, Aidy Bryant, Tim Robinson. It is as if the SNL staff was hoping to redeem themselves after last week's fiasco. If that was the goal, I'd say mission accomplished.

What did you think? Were you hoping Adam Levine would give a Timberlake-worthy performance, or did he fulfill your expectations? Did this episode do any damage to SNL's track record of great music star hosts, and is this a warning of what's to come when Bieber hosts in two weeks? What did you make of the gay subject matter in a few of the sketches? And if the cast can put on this good an episode without much from the host, wouldn't it be worth trying a few SNL episodes without hosts? Or would that break some celebrity union rule?

I'll see you on Feb. 9, when Justin Bieber will tweet a bunch of awesome pics with Jay Pharoah.

Erik Voss is a writer and performer living in Los Angeles. He hosts the Evil Blond Kid podcast and performs improv on the Harold team The Cartel at the iO West Theater.

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  • Colin Perkins

    Aaaaaaaaaaand now…. I can never read these recaps again. I found this to be one of the most horribly written (Add in a few more gay jokes guys) and horrifically acted episodes of SNL in recent memory.

    Even the cameos were way more random and awkward than actually funny. Cameron Diaz confirmed she was never funny. And Seinfeld confirmed ONCE AGAIN that he exhausted his comedic ability in 1998.


    • eavoss

      Anyone who dismisses those sketches as "gay jokes" wrote them off way too early without waiting to see where they went them them.

    • Matt

      yeah, you might as well stick with the avclub reviews, ya negative nancy

      • Colin Perkins

        Yeah, I'm CLEARLY the only one that felt this way.

        • Matt

          you and everybody else then, crybaby

  • Mike

    I was certainly surprised as well with the positive recap. I just didn't find this episode funny at all. Levine's timing was off and his low energy made it seem like he was "too cool" to host.

  • http://twitter.com/FirasAlexander Firas Alexander

    I also wasn't crazy about this episode. It was great seeing the Lonely Island and getting some performances by some underutilized cast members but the whole thing felt really off. I liked the musical guest though.

  • http://twitter.com/megh_wright Megh Wright

    An overly positive review with overly negative comments…I feel caught somewhere in the middle here. It was an okay week.

    That being said, my biggest takeaway was that Adam Levine is definitely secure with his sexuality, guys. HE IS SUPES STRAIGHT BUT ALSO SUPES OK WITH GAY DUDES TOO!!

  • http://thelaughbutton.com TheLaughButton

    Levine was bland as hell. They barely let him speak during his monologue almost knowing he couldn't carry it himself. This proved true as he didn't carry the lead in pretty much every sketch. He also read from the cue cards all night. Any sketch that worked did in spite of him. The pre-recorded stuff was much better than the live stuff. I'm ranking this episode near the bottom for the season.

  • eavoss

    Why is it so hard for people to separate a host's performance from the rest of an episode? Yes, I agree Adam Levine was off, but it was a strong episode regardless. There was hardly any difference between the overall quality of writing of this episode and that of the Bruno Mars episode — the only difference is that Bruno Mars won us over, whereas Adam Levine didn't — so either you hate SNL's style of humor and are willing to forgive it when the host makes you laugh, or you're that kind of viewer who will let one host's rotten performance contaminate a bunch of clever concepts, well-written jokes, and strong performances.

    I suppose I would understand you guys better if I knew your problems with specific sketches, other than "gay jokes" and "Levine sucked."

    • BillBrasky

      You had a sketch about gay guys who think every guy in the world is gay, another sketch about a (presumably) gay fireman acting in a typically queeny way and screaming hysterically for five minutes, a sketch where the main joke was a guy in drag hitting on another guy and making him uncomfortable and…a parody of some reality show on MTV no one has ever seen. Hardly a show full of original, clever concepts. I did laugh at a few things in the Train sketch, but even that sketch was hampered by poor line deliveries (mostly Levine) and awkward pacing.
      Levine gave a pretty poor performance in nearly every sketch, but I also thought the writing in this episode was really bad. YMMV, of course.

      • eavoss

        I can understand if Bryce wasn't your cup of tea. As I said, the character mostly relied on Hader's screeching, and as a Hader fan, I enjoyed it. But it would have been stronger had they explored other dimensions of his character. Or if they had taken a stand on whether or not the character was gay. The lack of clarity did hurt the sketch.

        You're right in saying few people have probably seen the MTV show, but at this point the concept of "catfishing" is so well known that this sketch is justified.

        • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1625377858 Jason Nafziger

          I think it's pretty obvious that no one at SNL had seen Catfish until the Manti Te'o incident and then when they did, they found some jokes. To me, it's no different than when they parody any other show I've never seen. I just hope there are some jokes that work outside the parody as well. It was okay, but I haven't seen that show so half the jokes weren't for me.

          And you've nailed the problem with the Bryce sketch. They had to know we would THINK he was gay, so part of the joke is either that he acts gay but isn't or is gay but is still upset about someone hitting on his ex-girlfriend. By not giving us this, they made us look for it the whole time, and that distracted from the rest of the sketch. I see this as a bigger problem than you do. It really killed the sketch for me.

    • Colin Perkins

      If you think really easy, unclever, sterotype-driven, one-note joke premises like "Gays guys think every other man is gay", "Gay guy is acting straight", "Fat man in drag" sketches are funny, then then that's cool. This was definitely your episode. But I don't think most people that watched it felt that way. It all felt vaguely like a skit show that a frat would put on.

      • http://twitter.com/megh_wright Megh Wright

        I don't understand why noting that this week had a lot of gay stereotype-ish themes automatically means a viewer is "dismissing" or "writing off" the pieces. (Also, is a dude kissing a dude in drag a "gay joke" sketch? Depends on who you ask, I guess.) It was an okay episode, but I don't think there's any crime in noting that a chunk of the sketches had the same general theme. Gay characters have the same task as any other character — to be funny. I would hope that we live in a world where people can say a gay character isn't funny without being accused of discrimination.

        • eavoss

          I noted in my review above that there certainly was a gay subject matter in a few of the sketches and asked readers what they thought of it. What I disagree with is this notion that both sketches were purely "gay jokes," as in, exploiting gay stereotypes for cheap laughs. I think people saw the intro with the Gay Network, saw a sketch called "Circle Work" hosted by two sassy gay guys, and immediately stopped having an open mind.

          I think it's really easy to diss SNL as "racist" or "sexist" or "homophobic" without really discussing the actual content, and that bugs me.

      • eavoss

        Nasim spelled out the premise Circle Work very clearly: "You guys are the type of gays that think every other man is gay." That's not a stereotype. SNL is in no way implying that all gay people think that way. I understand you have to be careful making jokes about gay characters, given the way they have been (and continue to be) exploited in popular culture. Circle Work was not an example of that exploitation. Nor did it champion the LGBT community. It was merely an observation of a specific type of gay person, with a specific (not broad) point of view. I don't think it's "easy" to make that comment. I do think it's fairly clever. And let's be clear that "one-premise" is not the same thing as "one-note." Having one clear premise is a good thing.

        Circle Work is every bit as exploitative of the gay community as Stefon is.

        This isn't the first time we've seen Bobby's Janet, and it didn't get nearly this kind of backlash last time. Don't try to rope it into your argument this the humor of this episode was in any way sophomoric. Janet's a hilarious character… Bobby is one of the few out there who can still make the "fat guy in drag" schtick legitimately funny (as he has done with Snooki and Honey Boo Boo's mom).

        • BillBrasky

          It's not like my sense of humor has been surgically removed. I did laugh at some of Bobby's lines in the Janet sketch, just because they were so outrageous. But let's not try to pretend SNL is reinventing the wheel with this sketch or anything. It's still basically a "fat guy in drag" sketch.
          I am not a huge fan of Stefon, I know a lot of people are, but the humor in those is mostly in the puns and other names that Mulaney comes up with for the various clubs and weird people therein. Circle Work was just a bunch of trite observations about gay guys who think all other guys are gay and clueless women who think they're going to turn gay guys straight.
          I didn't feel there was anything in there that hasn't been said before or that necessitated that sketch being the lead-off sketch. And what the hell is "Circle Work?" I know it's a double-entendre pun, but it doesn't even make sense in the context of the sketch.

    • Not Jennifer Gibbs

      Maroon 5 v. Train: I usually like the everybody-impersonate-a-random-celebrity sketches, but this one was not funny. These sketches succeed or fail on the strength of the impersonations, and these did not save a one-note
      premise. None of the impersonated have personalities worth parodying (I’m assuming—I’m not too familiar with any of them, and the impersonations certainly didn’t make them seem interesting or even distinctive), and the sketch went nowhere. The joke about it being a restaurant that serves wine after dark (or
      whatever it was) was funny, but that didn’t justify the whole sketch.

      Catfish: just not funny. Constantly referencing the host’s first name was not funny. I’ll concede that I’ve not seen the Catfish show (I saw the movie, so I know the term), so that could be very biting and accurate parody, but without that frame of reference it was not funny.

      Circle Work: how many talk show parodies does Kenan Thompson need to do? Rather than Circle Work I this was Kenan Thompson Talk Show Parody XLI. Spelling the sentence out was mildly funny, but that was not enough to save this sketch. The premise was tired, and what jokes there were did not save it.

      The firefighter sketch: I didn’t find it offensive (although I see why some people might), but I didn’t find it funny either. I wanted to laugh at Bill Hader overcommitting to the character, but that’s all there was to the sketch, which was not enough.

      Cold Open: meh. I’ll concede that I think that Fred Armisen’s Obama is superior to Jay Pharoah’s and that that could affect this. That said, I just didn’t think the jokes were that funny. Beyonce lip synced! Michelle Obama should be on New Girl! What does that mean? Who cares?

      The other sketches were fine but not spectacular. The only thing that I’d want to re-watch was the Sopranos sketch.

      • eavoss

        Ok, a fair assessment. I disagree obviously, but I can see how you reacted that way. I think YOLO is worth re-watching.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mark.longden Mark Longden

    I really didn't like this episode either. There were some good sketches, true, but so much of it fell horribly flat – WU I didn't care for, and this episode's weird reliance on pretty trite gay-themed humour was a bit uncomfortable.

    They'll never not have a host until they have a cast member on the level of Eddie Murphy (the only person to host while still in the cast) or Will Ferrell. No-one is there, and with Sudeikis and Hader almost certainly gone at the end of this season, they won't have anyone for a while. I'd like them to do multiple hosts, though – like they could have Stewart and Colbert host one night.

    I was really surprised at the positivity of this review, though. Just too much of it was flat, and comparing it to Bruno Mars (an absolute ball of energy) is strange.

  • BillBrasky

    Yeah, I am a little mystified at this positive review as well. IMO the Jennifer Lawrence episode was much better than this, even though it wasn't great. The only things in the episode that worked for me were the pre-taped Sopranos Diaries film and the Lonely Island video. The "Circle Works" and fireman sketches seemed like bad leftovers from the '09-'10 season, with their heavy reliance on gay jokes and spazzy Kristen Wiig-like characters. I thought they were getting away from those crutches. Regardless though, to call this "one of the best of the season" seems really wrong by any criteria.

  • Dave T.

    This positive review is definitely a surprise. I generally enjoy the show, but this week's was awful. Both myself and the friend I was watching with found it terribly unfunny, except for a couple isolated moments. The Bryce sketch was downright grating, and I love Bill Hader.

  • Thrillhouse

    Guys, take it easy… This episode was definitely a winner if you were able to look past some of the supposedly controversial topics.

    The Cold Open was brilliant, calling out what is wrong with our media coverage of as solemn an occasion as MLK day and a presidential inauguration. Think about how Cronkite would have covered this event and compare it to the actual headlines following the inauguration. SNL commentary at its best.

    Circle Work and the Firehouse sketches were definitely both ones that I know people tuned out as soon as they realized that the protagonists were gay (or likely gay). In sketch comedy, commenting on trends within the homosexual community is very taboo. At a certain point though, writing off any sketch that has a gay character or some jokes about being gay is in itself discriminatory. Just like how there is that type of woman who is obsessed with trying to be a match maker there is that type of man that acts dramatically and needs attention (gay or not). Just like how there is that type of woman that thinks every guy in the room is trying to sleep with her, there are SOME gay men that think that all other men are bisexual or gay and just don't know it yet. It's not stereotyping just to showcase characters like these that happen to exist, it's stereotyping when you imply that most people are that way. In other words, just like how Aidy's character in the Catfish sketch believed that "animals have human souls," we don't take that to mean all women believe that. We know they're showcasing one type of unique individual that we've run into here and there. The best comedy comes from pointing out things we've all observed at some point, but hasn't been overtly and specifically commented on yet.

    I didn't think any sketch other than the cold open was amazing, but almost all leaned on the win side. Ray Lewis ascending into heaven is one of the funniest lines of this entire season.

    • Thrillhouse

      Wondering if talking about this stuff will automatically make the argument seekers come out of the woodwork…

  • HardAsIs

    Your headline is very telling. "Adam Levine HOSTS a stellar night". That's like saying Justin Bieber DRIVES a great car". You're behind the wheel, you didn't engineer and build it. Levine basically hit his marks, read his cue cards, and everyone else did a great job. Sure, hosts don't have to blow people away (your Alec Baldwins, Steve Martins, Tom Hanks, etc) but if the criteria is not stinking up the place, that's a pretty low bar. That said, I enjoyed the Train/Maroon 5 brawl, even if it was an Anchorman ripoff.

    Also, if you're working with someone who doesn't typically do live sketch comedy, for the LOVE OF GOD, pull them aside and spend an entire day teaching them how to read cue cards without STARING OFF STAGE. Sorry. It's a huge turnoff.

    • eavoss

      Agreed, HardAsIs. My initial draft of the headline was "Adam Levine SURVIVES a stellar night." Levine had very little to do with the quality of the episode, nor do most hosts. So yeah, I do set a pretty low bar for hosts. Because I don't watch SNL for them.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1625377858 Jason Nafziger

        Interesting. As a longtime SNL fan, I appreciate when the writers take chances and approach things from different angles. I thought the Train/Maroon 5 sketch had promise, but ultimately fizzled when it turned into an impressionfest. Imagine this same concept as a filmed sketch, using an old western bar fight as the frame for these two wuss-rock bands to lob metrosexualized threats at each other…

        Disappointed yet?

  • teresa raczej

    Didn't you have the feeling that everything was moved from one of the Justin Timberlake shows to this one?? Every single sketch, every single joke. even the singing battle was just changed sketch from "take me down to the Liquorville". and the digital short – it was all a strange copy. I liked it, but it was a copy of a good show

  • Lenny

    Wow, did we watch the same episode? I thought this was the worst of the season by far. The Soprano Diaries was a home run, Janet was solid, and the Rosetta Stone spot was good. Otherwise this was nothing but misses, and Adam Levine wasn't anywhere near the bar set by Bruno Mars in the musician-as-host category.

  • Marty Crenshaw

    Adam Levine straight stunk it up. Sopranos High was great, everything else was insignificant, and there hasn't been any Stefon in months.

  • Larry C

    This was by far the weakest episode of the season.

  • http://twitter.com/SamandMeow Niall Robb

    I thought this was a really great episode. I agree with the author and would say this was one of the strongest episodes this season. Keep up the good work!

  • JoshUng

    Maybe I never noticed before, but this episode had quite a bit of masterbation references. There was Andy with the lotion, the flicking the bean comment, and "Circle Work" (circle jerk).

  • XE

    I thought this was either trolling or written in jest to convey how bad the episode was. I thought the line about Kenan being the MVP of anything was a dead giveaway. I'm no SNL hater and I thought this was easily the worst episode of the season due to the writing. Then again, I think if JLaw had been looser at the beginning of the last episode it could have been one of the better ones of the season. So… who knows.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1625377858 Jason Nafziger

    My main problem was that after the first couple of sketches, Levine played himself for the rest of the night (or at least it seemed like it). There are close to zero sketches where the host plays him- or herself that I have enjoyed. Ever.

    All I want from an SNL host is to work hard at it and play characters. You don't have to be Alec Baldwin, but please don't be "Yourself" in everything.

  • JM

    Worst line delivery by a host since Gabourey Sidibe.