It seems a little unfair how unexcited viewers were headed into last weekend's episode of Saturday Night Live, hosted by Vince Vaughn. The Swingers and Wedding Crashers star is a reliably funny guy, and his fast-talking wiseass personality really should have been enough to build a strong episode around. Sure, Vaughn doesn't have a movie coming out until the summer, but the cross-promotional component to SNL has never seemed important to us before.
Yet the night had the energy of the ninth hour of a telethon. Even Vaughn seemed to sense it based on the way he worked the room during the monologue, dishing out hack crowd-work schtick and holding one man's phone hostage on the condition of his enthusiasm. Vaughn's attempt to play warm-up guy failed: even during inspired sketches, the studio audience remained relatively stonefaced with its response.
There's really no one to blame in this situation. The sketches, for the most part, featured some playful concepts. The cast stepped up and delivered. Vaughn, while failing to play any memorable roles, still hit his mark. It just goes to show you that SNL isn't as much the predictable formula that we make it out to be. Sometimes, they can have all the right ingredients, but the lightning still misses the bottle.
Gun Control Cold Open. While I'm usually hesitant to get on board with a flat-energy presidential address cold open, I appreciated this press conference with Bill Hader and Jason Sudeikis filling in as senators Pat Toomey and Joe Manchin describing the toothless gun control compromise they managed to negotiate. Hader and Sudeikis' give-and-take won me over as they listed the bizarre loopholes — Papa John's "buy a pizza and get a free gun" is still allowed on weekends and during the Super Bowl; none of the restrictions apply to Florida. The sketch was short and sweet with a enough strong jokes to get the episode started on a strong footing.
Al Pacino HBO Biopics. This isn't the first time this season that SNL has skewered Pacino's thespian prowress (re: You're A Rat Bastard, Charlie Brown), but it was fun to see one of Hader's more entertaining impressions in so many different contexts: Ted Kaczynski, both Menendez Brothers, and Oscar Pistorius ("Say hello to my little legs!"). Also, it was a wise move to diffuse the blackface tension when Hader played Dr. Conrad Murray with a black judge who okayed it as "cool."
Stormy Skies. The first of three clever sketches that fell flat with the studio audience was this soap opera produced by the Weather Channel, with lovers delivering their lines like forecasters: "Moving south, we're looking at a good 8 to 10 inches." The concept was a little cheesy, but the jokes were all there, along with some fun gags of a green screen projection on the dress and Aidy as a background gawker in the storm outside, so this sketch is a win in my book.
History of Punk. While light on laughs, I enjoyed this short film rock documentary about a Sex Pistols-esque British punk band called Ian Rubbish and the Bizarros, whose frontman (Fred Armisen) had a surprising soft spot for Margaret Thatcher. The idea of such an anarchic rocker defending one of the country's most bullishly conservative figures because she reminds him of his mother is pretty fun, and Armisen's delivery carried the piece: "She was spot on about the Euro, and don't you forget it!"
Short Term Memory Loss Theater. Even before the audience caved when the actors started breaking, I loved this sketch, specifically how quickly Bill Hader's pledge that his amnesiac actors would remember all their lines fell apart. Fred Armisen's confused wandering got the better of Hader, who broke as he angrily fed the other actors their lines. While the repeated gag of the actors trailing off occasionally resulted in an awkward, blue-ball effect energy-wise, I was impressed at the high-concept premise and how well the cast pulled it off.
NBC Sports Theme Song. After a lull in the middle of the night, the episode nearly regained its footing during this late sketch with Jason Sudeikis and Tim Robinson teaming up as the Tesh brothers, who pitched to an early 90s NBC sports an NBA theme song with unnecessary lyrics on top of the catchy instrumentation: "B-b-b-b-b-basketball, gimme gimme gimme the ball, 'cause I'm gonna dunk it!" The song was fun but admittedly had short legs, so I appreciated the turn with Sudeikis and Robinson trashing the office when the execs didn't like the lyrics.
Last Call II. Kate McKinnon reprised her tipsy end-of-night barfly Sheila Sovage (who also played footsy with Louis CK last October). The details were especially hilarious this time around ("raised in Shanghai, deflowered in Wilmington, Delaware"), along with the awesome physical gags of squirting the tequila shot and McKinnon climbing into Vaughn's sweater and making out with his chin. It's a shame that Vaughn's best performance of the night had to come at the end of it.
Monologue. I was amazed at how much a studio audience that was quiet for the rest of the night was giving Vince Vaughn for what was essentially 8 minutes of aimless, pandering crowd work. It's to Vaughn's credit that he received the response he did, but beyond his motormouth charisma, this monologue had nothing going for it.
Weekend Update. A sub-par news segment this week, more misses than hits, although I did enjoy Seth Meyers' Cookie Monster joke. Kenan Thompson and Jason Sudeikis gave some redemption as LL Cool J and Brad Paisley defending their uncomfortable "Accidental Racist" collaboration, but Kate McKinnon's monkey lady Marina Chapman proved to be a bit of a let-down.
Junior Prom. Something felt off in this sketch about a wealthy man (Vaughn) who donated $100,000 to a junior prom so that he could dance with the boys to instill confidence in them. Perhaps it was the fact that the kids were being played by fully-grown adult actors, so the contrast between them and Vaughn didn't read as clearly. There were some funny moments throughout — Aidy snapping at Hader, Vaughn slapping the wrong person — but it all seemed to happen randomly without any connecting pattern.
It's a shame this commercial for a awkwardness-preventing bathroom cobra didn't make it into the live broadcast. It's better than most of the sketches that did.
Despite my enjoyment of — or at least appreciation for — most of the sketches, overall the episode was a bit of a letdown. The roles Vince Vaughn played could have easily been played by any host, really, and although I don't mind the writers trying out higher concept, non-host-specific sketches, we were left with an aimless, forgettable episode. That said, it was nice to see Bill Hader and Jason Sudeikis play some more starring roles after serving mostly as straight men and facilitators in recent weeks, as well as Tim Robinson get some more screen time.
What did you think? Did you side with the studio audience on that run of three poorly received sketches in the front half of the episode (Stormy Skies, History of Punk, and Short Term Memory Loss Theater), or were they funnier than they were given credit for? Was Vince Vaughn doomed to have an awkward SNL episode, or are there roles you think he would have been better suited to play? Was it even possible for anyone to host a halfway decent episode in the wake of Melissa McCarthy's near-perfect show last week?
I'll see you May 4, when Zach Galifianakis will host with musical guest Of Monsters and Men.
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.