‘SNL’ Review: Christoph Waltz Ist Fantastisch

One thing that has persisted through the undercurrents of SNL’s humor is an ironic fascination of German culture. From the celebration of avant garde in Sprockets to the arrogance and vanity of (technically Austrian) bodybuilders Hanz and Franz — as well as the running gag of Liz Lemon’s nerdy fluency in German on 30 RockSNL and its cohorts have depicted exactly the German qualities that host Christoph Waltz reflected last Saturday night: charming, precise, deliberate… and yes, a little unnerving.

Such qualities made SNL‘s first native-German-speaker a natural host. Waltz’s many talents acquired from an upbringing in a theater family — singing, dancing, character work — gave the writers plenty to work with, and his laser-sight delivery suited him well for the rigid, demanding structure of an SNL broadcast. But what elevated Waltz from gut to fantastisch was his dark side. Much like in his violent roles in Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained, Waltz seemed most comfortable with racy subject matter — playing a feeble Pope Benedict XVI or a murderous Jesus Christ — or in characters like his darkly judgmental game show host and creepy office lover Demitri.

Always in control and with a willingness to be dangerous, Christoph Waltz was a host who truly kept the trains running on time. (I realize that phrase is a reference to fascist Italy, not Nazi Germany, which makes it even less fitting considering Waltz is Austrian.)

What Hit:

Carnival Cruise Cold Open. Sure, this sketch was pretty much handed to SNL on a silver platter, but I’ll never fault the show for being opportunistic. The top of the show gave us Jason Sudeikis and Cecily Strong as optimistic cruise directors attempting to raise spirits on board the stranded Carnival Triumph. Highlights included reading the week’s other headlines from a newspaper (claiming God hadn’t abandoned them, then reading the pope had resigned) and animal man Bobby Moynihan hysterical over someone having eaten his monkey Coco: “We still have food!” Probably the strongest cold open this season has seen thus far.

What Have You Become? Yet another subversive game show premise (in the line of What’s That Name? and Bitch, What’s The Answer?) was this show in which loser contestants are pointedly asked, “What have you become?” While the long setup made the show title twist a little predictable, I enjoyed the sad, reflective music, Aidy Bryant’s breakdown (“My daughter’s a bitch!”), and Waltz’s host’s emotional monologue: “Mama, I want to dance! No, you have to go to game show school!”

Papal Security. This commercial for custom retirement planning for popes — of which there has been one since 1415 — was right on target. While the studio audience seemed a little uncomfortable with a sketch mocking the Holy Father at first, Waltz’s impersonation and the images of the pope fumbling with groceries were too funny to ignore.

Tippy. Nasim Pedrad’s newest character was Tippy, the girl who awkwardly walks in late to a conversation and misses the joke. Unlike Nasim’s usual characters, which are narrower and require a beat or two to relate with, Tippy was immediately recognizable, which allowed the writers to drop her into the situation and have more fun. Nasim’s delivery carried the sketch, from interrupting stories with non-sequiturs to missing the punchlines: “Uh oh… where is this going?” I’m not sure how much replay value Tippy will have, and I was disappointed at the lack of an ending. But as a one-off character, Tippy worked out pretty nicely.

Djesus Uncrossed. The highlight of the night was this trailer parody of Quentin Tarantino’s bloody historical revenge fantasies, with Christoph Waltz playing a samurai sword wielding Jesus Christ. The biblical context was mapped perfectly over Tarantino’s films, with Taran Killam’s Brad Pitt appearing as Peter, leading a Basterd-esque gang of apostles. I was amazed at the level of violence the network allowed SNL to get away with in this sketch, from a Roman soldier’s head getting split in half and Judas Iscariot’s (Jay Pharoah’s Samuel L. Jackson) back blown out with a shotgun, but the sketch was all the more fun for it. Djesus ranks up there with Louie/Lincoln as this season’s best historical parody mashups.

Jamarcus Brothers. SNL cast Christoph Waltz as the unsexy white brother to Kenan Thompson and Jay Pharoah in a trio of singers on an album of Al Green-style sex music. Waltz was hilarious while interrupting the groovy lyrics with boner-killing one liners: “I want to listen inside your butt!” But the strengths of this sketch were the track listing — which included “Where Does The Penis Go? Point To Where” — and Taran Killam and Cecily Strong as the spokespersons erotically commenting on the game.

Weekend Update. Admittedly, Weekend Update didn’t anchor the episode as well as it normally does, and if it weren’t for a few of Seth Meyers’ jokes and Kate McKinnon’s hilarious Russian peasant who saw the meteor as a means of escape from her wretched life — “My milkshake brings all the boys to the HAUNTED MINES!” — the segment would have been a bust. Taran Killam’s dry-mouthed Marco Rubio was pretty one-note, and Jay Pharoah’s ESPN commentator Stephen A. Smith (II) didn’t hit as well as in the past — though thankfully he dropped the annoying squeaking.

Secret Admirer. The episode’s weaker second half was curtailed by this decent 10-to-1, in which Waltz played Demitri, a lovesick foreign security guard trying to shirk authorship of a creepy and bizarrely worded valentine to a coworker. While I enjoyed the bits of broken English included in the letter — “You are like a doll that I will own, if in God’s plan,” “I am your mother. Ha ha ha… no.” — I appreciated the structure here, wherein Cecily Strong’s creeped-out recipient remained blind to the obvious sender, while the other coworkers bluntly shot down Demitri’s pathetic attempts to shift blame onto them.

What Missed:

Monologue. Although I’m always a fan of Christoph Waltz’s eccentric cadence, the stereotypically German “Who’s On First” schtick and Taran Killam’s Casual Hitler produced few laughs, and the “Smile, Damn You, Smile” song — which had no real jokes — felt very unnecessary.

Regine II. I was disappointed to see Fred Armisen’s snobby/sexual girlfriend Regine make a comeback. I enjoy Regine’s snarky comments, but the character devolves almost immediately into broad shock value, in which Armisen fakes stupid faces and searches for new undignified positions to put himself in. No amount of breaking could save this sketch.

Fox & Friends VI. This sketch’s placement in the latter half of the lineup hinted at its weakness. I’ve rarely considered these Fox & Friends parodies worth repeating the amount of times SNL has, and as usual, the best jokes come in the corrections reel at the end. I was confused why the European meat expert was played by Fred Armisen, when the part was obviously written for Christoph Waltz. Perhaps last-minute changes made Waltz unable to play the part, and Armisen had to fill in.

This seems to be the first universally praised SNL episode of 2013, and rightfully so — Christoph Waltz was completely in his element as host, and unlike his three predecessors, he looked like he actually enjoyed himself. The writers also did an effective job constructing a show around Waltz’s talents and body of work. Like the past two episodes, this one showcased the whole cast, with several large-cast sketches. Cecily Strong, in particular, had a good night, giving great performances in the cold open, Jamarcus Brothers, and the 10-to-1. On the whole, it was a night of season-bests: cold open, fake movie trailer, and though I usually pretend the musical guests don’t exist, Alabama Shakes put all other musical guests this season to shame.

What did you think? Did you find Christoph Waltz’s German/Austrian accent charming or distracting? Or terrifying? Did this episode cleanse your palate after a few weeks of off-nights? Any theories as to why Waltz was absent from the Fox & Friends sketch? Were you as offended by the pope sketch as my dad was, who said, “That Seth Meyers can go to hell!”?

I’ll see you in two weeks, when Kevin Hart will host with musical guest Macklemore & Ryan Lewis.

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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