Monday, March 11th, 2013

'SNL' Review: Justin Timberlake Runs a Victory Lap

I don't think anyone is as big a fan of SNL as SNL itself. At every opportunity, Lorne Michaels reminds us of his show's elite status and cultural impact, whether in a tongue-in-cheek backstage bit with Paul Simon and a scotch, or in a more sincere soundbite from one of those now-dime-a-dozen behind-the-scenes specials NBC rolls out on Sunday nights. I can't really blame Lorne for perpetuating this "SNL dynasty" mystique; admittedly I find the show's history fascinating, and I believe the man has earned enough ego to occasionally place his show on a pedestal, especially by coyly likening it to a vain gentleman's club. SNL can get away with its only-somewhat-in-jest swagger because it usually follows it up with genuinely impressive comedy: clever jokes, original concepts, strong performances from its actors. For a majority of any given episode's runtime, SNL walks the walk.

Last weekend's episode was bigger than five-time-host Justin Timberlake. It was a celebration of the entire SNL legacy. There was a sense of homecoming pride in the air, similar to the feel of a beloved former castmember returning to host and the whole gang coming back to play. And while I enjoyed seeing Timberlake and the boys run victory laps, if you look at the scoreboard, you'll notice the home team's win wasn't a decisive one. Unlike during the star host's previous appearances — which are all episodes for the books, with Timberlake's perfect assimilation into the cast — this time, frequently his performance magic either wore off prematurely or was dispelled by SNL's incessant need to jerk itself off.

Perhaps I'm just being a Debbie Downer who remembers all-too-fondly Timberlake's past work on the show, or I'm a victim to the "overly high expectations" he noted in his opening remarks. I will say Justin Timberlake remains one of the best hosts SNL has ever seen and easily topped most of the other hosts from this season with a nearly flawless performance… even if the episode itself wasn't.

What Hit:

Hugo Chavez Cold Open. It was clear this wasn't going to be a typical episode when the host appeared in the cold open — a privilege reserved for only the most honored of hosts. JT kicked off the night as Elton John singing "Candle in the Wind" at the funeral of Hugo Chavez. While the sketch could have used more actual jokes, I liked the "a gig is a gig" premise, and the listing of Chavez's bizarre career highlights proved to be entertaining enough: "On your shoulders stood your parrot with a matching red beret," and "You said capitalism killed Mars." (Watch the video here.)

Five-Timers Monologue III. As a callback to Tom Hanks' induction in 1990 (and the more recent Platinum Lounge sketch), SNL pulled out all the stops to celebrate Justin Timberlake's entrance into the exclusive Five-Timers Club. This time, they stuffed the booze-soaked lounge with fellow members Paul Simon, Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, Alec Baldwin, Tom Hanks, and Candice Bergen, with Martin Short reprising his role as the waiter and Dan Aykroyd popping up as the bartender. (Anyone else notice Aykroyd's Crystal Skull vodkas lining the shelves?) I did enjoy the endless cameos, and classic SNL smugness, and the gags were there — the Gilly-shaped cocktail, Bobby and Taran fighting to the death Django-style — but I have to admit the pandering started to wane on me 8 minutes in. Perhaps my happiness faded at the absence of John Goodman, as well as at the thought of how awkward it must have been for female staffers to run into Chevy backstage.

It's A Date. The "SNL greatest hits" schtick gassed out in this Dating Game style sketch, naturally featuring Andy Samberg and Justin Timberlake's "Dick in a Box" guys and Dan Aykroyd and Steve Martin's Czech Festrunk Brothers (aka "two wild and crazy guys"). Of course, the horny duos were the focus of this sketch, and although I appreciated the Akyroyd and Martin's old-school charm, Samberg and JT were more of my generation, so naturally their bits came off stronger. What really kept this sketch on the rails, however, were the current cast members: Bobby Moynihan's flustered Bachelor #1 ("Should I have brought a buddy?"), Vanessa Bayer's unoffended contestant ("That sounds fun and not creepy!"), and Bill Hader's menacing host ("I feel awful!").

Veganville IV. It came as no surprise that JT would reprise his classic Omeletville routine, this time in a big tofu costume, promoting a vegan restaurant. This was probably the night's strongest sketch, and that's due to Timberlake being liberated to do what he does best: charm us all with his overflowing charisma and musical talent. The fact that he hosts the show every two years or so provides just the right amount of time between appearances of his dancing costume guy, so that he's welcome pretty much whenever we see him. I do wish they hadn't ended the sketch with the tired Harlem Shake bit, however. (Watch the video here.)

Nuva Bling. Nothing too special here, just a solid fake-product commercial about a jewel-encrusted vaginal ring. I especially loved the gag of re-using the birth control as earrings.

Weekend Update. Weekend Update seemed cut short once again this week, thanks I imagine to the numerous applause breaks during the monologue, It's A Date, and Veganville. The silver lining was that Seth Meyers' jokes contained pretty much no filler. The segment's second half was handed over to Stefon (XIV), who graced us with the glorious images of "Jasper the Gorilla passing a kidney stone," the name of a club being "Your Mother And I Are Separating," and Hader reenacting "Donald Duck having a Vietnam nightmare."

Moet & Chandon II. While I would have preferred Vanessa Bayer and Cecily Strong's airheaded porn stars commercial to be a one-off sketch after it first appeared in the Jamie Foxx episode in December, their stumbling through the copy ("You'll feel like you graduated magnum cumloudly!") and anecdotes ("I got banged into a sink hole. Then a mole person banged me back up. I'll drink to that!") won me over once again. Also, apparently you can say "jerking off a horse" on network television. Thanks champagne!

What Missed:

Sober Caligula. The obvious dud of the night was this sketch about the notorious Roman emperor Caligula swearing off his partyboy antics. While some the details were funny ("I woke up with my penis in the mouth of a dead lion. I don't even want to get into where the lion's penis was."), seeing such an energetic host like JT play a sober, passive character was a bit of a bore. Also, it might just be me, but weak sketches always seem that much worse when everyone's wearing ridiculous costumes.

Maine Justice II. I remain a bit on the fence with this one, but I just can't justify a reprisal of this fun-yet-one-note premise about a supposedly Maine courtroom in which all the characters are clearly and inexplicably Cajun — yet another sketch first done in the Jamie Foxx episode. Jason Sudeikis and JT's performances were still enjoyable, as was the alligator bit, but overall, knowing the twist ahead of time sucked the wind out of some of the jokes, especially the jazz parade at the end. The audience member shouting "Go Tigers!" at the mention of LSU didn't help either.

She's Got A Dick. Other than making fun of some of the standard rom-com tropes, this faux-trailer for a chick flick about a guy in love with a girl with a penis seemed hesitant to make any jokes about the subject, leaving us with a watered-down, pointless video.

I don't want to sound too harsh, because I truly enjoyed watching Justin Timberlake — a performer whose talents make him a perfect fit for SNL. My concern was that this episode placed a greater emphasis on celebrating the larger SNL tradition than simply having a good episode. The night lacked the memorable highlights that have defined JT as a go-to host and replaced them with a bunch of easy, unoriginal, pandering sketches that sought more applause than laughter.

What did you think? Were your expectations unfulfilled, or did Justin Timberlake deliver the night you hoped for? Have Lorne and co. earned the right to spend so much time joking and talking about SNL, or are they starting to sound like the self-important comedy snobs behind Seth Reiss' take on Studio 60? Did watching Dan Aykroyd make you feel sad? You know what I mean.

I'll see you on April 6, when Melissa McCarthy will host after a month hiatus with musical guest Phoenix.

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

    I don't have any qualms about them reusing sketches and characters for an episode that is about celebrating a unique accomplishment. I thought it was one of the best episodes of the season in terms of laughs and enjoyability. I also think that Bobby Moynihan and the rest of the cast really seemed inspired and really brought it last Saturday. Great episode.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=20922385 facebook-20922385

    1) The painting of John Goodman was salt in the wound.1

    2) She's got a dick was amazing.

  • http://twitter.com/JohnnyO_71 JohnnyO_71

    Dan Aykroyd DID make me sad. What a contrast between he and Steve Martin. One of them still has it, one makes me squirm. Poor Dan apparently forgets how to do his own Wild and Crazy character.

    I pretty much agree with your assessments, with two exceptions: the "She's Got a Dick!" trailer WAS pretty lame, but Keenan cracked me up at least. And I didn't enjoy the Moet sketch…left me stonefaced.

    Good recap!

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jeff-Mclachlan/747758431 Jeff Mclachlan

      Aykroyd's a 60 year old man who got fat. Also sad, I guess—everyone's Dad ever.

  • http://twitter.com/cityfitch Terron R. Moore

    I agree with all of this.

  • http://www.facebook.com/dennis.hinkamp Dennis Hinkamp

    Man, you are being Debbie Downer; the Caligula bit was the only turd in what was otherwise the best show in about 5 years. And what's with this? "SNL's incessant need to jerk itself off." I think cameos are the new normal for SNL because they can't keep a consistent resident cast.

    • eavoss

      You're right in saying cameos are a big part of SNL these days, and I have no problem with them. But this instance wasn't just a cameo… it was reveling in SNL's history. I'm even ok with that… just not for 9 minutes of a show with 45 minutes of scripted material.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jeff-Mclachlan/747758431 Jeff Mclachlan

      What's inconsistent about the cast? The last ones to leave were Kristen Wiig and Andy Samberg and they were both on the show for 8 years. Oh wait, there's also Abby Elliott, who was around for four. That's a pretty consistent inconsistency.

      • http://www.facebook.com/dennis.hinkamp Dennis Hinkamp

        good point maybe I should have said consistently funny

      • http://www.facebook.com/colin.daniel.5220 Colin Daniel

        You're forgetting Casey Wilson, Jenny Slate, Michaela Watkins and Paul Brittain . None of them made it two years.

        • eavoss

          No he's not. Wilson, Slate, Watkins and Brittain all left before Elliott, Wiig and Samberg did. What Jeff is saying is that in the past three years, the only castmember to get let go from the show has been Paul Brittain, and the few who left voluntarily had healthy runs. Indeed, compared to most other eras in recent SNL history, this one has been extremely stable.

  • carson1

    I'd flip the Cold Opening, which was never really that funny and Maine Justice, which was.
    Also, I would say that not ALL of JT's episodes have been that great and that this one might be the best. He's a great host with great energy, but his last few episodes (especially the fairly bland 2011) have been rehash heavy.

    • eavoss

      I actually preferred 2011's episode to this one. At least then his recurring bits were ones I wanted to see again, rather than random supporting roles in stuff like Maine Justice and the pornstar commercials, both of which felt like one-offs. Of course, I've had two years of nonstop SNL watching and critiquing since then, so maybe I've grown jaded and bitter.

  • JohnnyR

    The brief look on Vanessa Bayer's face when she "used" the NuvaBling was one of the greatest things I've seen on SNL this year. I rewound it three times just to see it again.

  • delightfulcrab

    I thought it was a wonderful episode (especially compared to the rest of this trainwreck of a season) but it was definitely heavy on familiarity and recognition rather than actual hilarity. These great sketches JT does are so great because they were so fresh and unexpected when they first aired. I'm all for recurring sketches (Debbie Downer will always be my favorite) but we need some new material. I think the actors have been doing a pretty terrific job lately, but the writing is rather lackluster.

  • JoshUng

    Until he showed up in the Caligula sketch, I didn't see Taram Killam since Bobby Moynihan "killed" him (unless I missed him). For a bit, I thought it was very subtle joke that he wasn't appearing because he was "dead."

    • eavoss

      Love this.

  • graybull

    Anyone find it odd that seven time host Cristopher Walken wasn't even mentioned in the five-timers club sketch?

    • http://www.facebook.com/colin.daniel.5220 Colin Daniel

      Buck Henry wasn't mentioned either. He's a ten time host.

      • graybull

        True, but Buck Henry hasn't hosted in over thirty years.

  • RP

    'Dick in a box' buddies, and Czec perv brothers wanting to degrade a willing woman, birth control vagina rings, pornstars jerking off a horse and getting banged into a sink hole, Caligula eating testicles, pissing on his orgy friends and having his penis in the mouth of a dead lion, and finally, a woman with a dick? Overly sexualized much? Pretty damn lame, and a clear shift in society and it's moral standing. Strange how so many didnt find it a bit messed up. Impressionable adolescents do stay up to watch the show, and in some cases, children. Which makes it a shame the episode was laced with so much crap. 1.5 hours of sex, porn and beastiality is pretty damn warped, and a weak substitute for 'real' comedy. JT is talented, but was unfortunate the episode was bit of a freak show.

    • eavoss

      Won't someone PLEASE THINK OF THE CHILDREN??

      If there were any problems with the episode, lack of moral decency wasn't one of them, grandpa.

      • RP

        Glad you enjoyed it, Gizmo! I guess eating your orgy buddy's balls, and jerking off a horse, is considered quality television these days. You are right! 'Girl With a Dick', and 'Dick in a Box' is comedic genius! Go download some more APS, Bobo.

        • eavoss

          I never called "Girl With A Dick" comedic genius. I considered it a "miss." But not because of its crude subject matter, but because it didn't have a whole lot of jokes. "Dick in a Box" WAS actually pretty great. It won an Emmy! Whatever you think about the Emmy's, that's a pretty impressive feat for a single SNL sketch.

          I don't discriminate over whether material is offensive or crude, so long as it's funny. And so we're clear, the pervy Czech Festrunk brothers was a bit from the 1970s, therefore by your standards our society's sense of decency has been in the gutter for decades.

          Also, thank you for your service in Korea.

          • RP

            Your intuition is spot on? But I can't tell you much about my experience in Korea, considering I'm an ancient 37. I'm an old fassion dude who grew up in the glory days of Tupac, Pear Jam and Our Lady Peace. I can appreciate sex as a bases for comedy, but I find it a little warped, when an entire 1.5 hours is almost solely dedicated to genitalia, orgies and beastiality. My appologies for offending your generation, by stating an honest opinion. It's great to see human evolution is on the right track, and the future is in good hands. Go download some more APS.

          • IhateDisqus

            Our Lady Peace was a glory day to someone?

          • RP

            Absolutely! 'Innocent', 'Naveed', 'Thief', and 'Made of Steel', always brings me back to the 'glory days'. "Someone help us understand, who ordered this disgusting arrangement, time and the end"! Lyrical genius!

          • http://www.facebook.com/colin.daniel.5220 Colin Daniel

            Only if you're Canadian.

          • T3000

            I'm Canadian. Our Lady Peace are an embarrassment. Not to mention shite….did I already say shite?

  • zeecube

    This is just my opinion, but I find the sketch writing weak this season, particularly the first few shows after the holiday break. The show needs some new writers.

    • eavoss

      The writing has been a little hit-or-miss since January. The sketches from the Jennifer Lawrence, Kevin Hart, and Justin Timberlake episodes were pretty off, but I actually liked a lot of the ones from the Christoph Waltz, Justin Bieber, and (dare I say it) Adam Levine episodes. Also, the cold opens and Weekend Update have been really strong in recent weeks, and those segments seem to weigh more heavily on the writers. And looking at this season as a whole, I've been fairly pleased with the writing, with a drop in recurring bits (this recent episode excluded) and a jump in original concepts.

  • David Pulsipher

    Disappointing episode over all. Anytime I see Steve Martin on SNL, I can't but help feeling embarrassed for him and wonder how anyone ever thought he was funny. The generational-comedy thing must really be an issue here – but it was especially evident in the dating game sketch. Him and Akroyd were dreadfully unfunny. Same with Short and Chase.

    Was secretly hoping we'd see a Barry Gibb Talk Show. One of my favorites. I think this was one of his weakest shows – not because of him, but because of the supporting material.

    • eavoss

      I'll commit comedy nerd blasphemy and admit that I sometimes feel the same way about Steve Martin. That old-school smugness doesn't always work for me. I was born too late… to me, he always seems like a drunk Father of the Bride. BUT, he still has killer delivery. So, what I do is, I mix his delivery talent with the wit of his awesome tweets, and then I fill in the gaps by screaming in the mirror: "He's a comedy legend, goddamnit! If you aren't a comedy nerd, what else do you have? Fall in!" And then I get it.

      Aykroyd holds a special place in my heart because his SNL work and Ghostbusters remain funny to me, and because he still seems like a nice guy after all these years. But as I said, he made me a little sad.

      I never found Chase funny, even watching him as Clark Griswold and in Caddyshack and old SNL bits (before I discovered how hated he was). I just don't see it. I feel bad for all these Community writers who have to preface their quotes about working with him with "He's obviously a talented physical comedian." Is it obvious? Screw him and his stupid phone gags.

      I flat-out disagree on Martin Short. That magical elf is fucking hysterical.

  • LD

    Thank goodness for Erik Voss. I have been scratching my head over all the fawning over this episode. It wasn't really that funny at all. That was not Timberlake's fault, the writing was weak. And I was expecting JT to switch up the "Suit and Tie" performance to give us something different from the Grammy performance, but he did the same show.

  • robert

    I thought this was the best episodes of the season. It had me in tears a few times. It didn't have the best sketch of the year (thats the puppet one from Seth's episode) but it was def the best this year I think.
    I personally like Maine justice and are you counting from begining of the season for how many times it's aired? I'm sure it played at least 3 times.

    • eavoss

      I like Maine Justice too. It's a fun concept, but they would need to come up with a few more new bits to keep it fresh, and they didn't cross that threshold for me this time. I'm pretty sure it has only been done twice, however.

  • ManfredYon

    My sister and I laughed and laughed at she's got a dick. Maybe if hit closer, because we've seen every one of those big city rom coms going, and there is usually a character not quite on board with the premise of the whole movie. I'm glad it didnt make jokes about the premise of the girl with a dick, because it wasn't (to us) what the sketch was about, it was about this 'whirlwind romance' clearly over-looking a key detail

    caligula was a good premise that would have been funnier written down I'm afraid, and probobly once you mounted the thing you realise the premise of 'man what a downer' comes across as…a downer

    really don't understand the premise of maine justice…is it becaue bangor maine gets mentioned in king of the road that maine folk see themselves as country southern? am I reading too much into this? is it a joke about tv stereotypes?

  • shelleybear

    The girlfriend with a dick joke was actually gentle humor.
    I liked it, but it is not something they do often.