‘SNL’ Review: Risk Pays Off for Zach Galifianakis

SNL works best when it hits a balance between structure and chaos. As a show that’s broadcasted live after only a week of production time, chaos is pre-installed into the system. The show attempts to offset that chaos with as many safety nets as possible: a cast of multitalented actors, a writing staff that can turn out an abundance of material in a pressure-cooker environment, and one of the best crews in television. Over time, some of those safety nets turn into crutches that annoy the hard-core fans: recurring characters, sketches that rely too heavily on celebrity impersonation, talk show formats, etc. So periodically, the show will reintroduce a bit of chaos into the mix to keep things fresh.

In the past, Zach Galifianakis was praised for the dangerous energy he brought to the show. He possesses a restlessness similar to that of Melissa McCarthy in that, at any moment, he might do something unexpected. Sure enough, in his previous two times hosting, Galifianakis shaved off parts of his hair and beard throughout the live broadcast.

Now in his third stint, Galifianakis stepped up his game with some riskier choices, both in terms of targeted jokes (the deaf and blind got it particularly rough this episode) and in tense, punchline-less moments that reflect his stand-up and his “Between Two Ferns” webseries. “I have only setups, no punchlines,” he joked during his monologue. But by the end of the episode, the risk paid off as Galifianakis delivered the most spectacular punchline we’ve seen on SNL in years.

What Hit:

Monologue. Galifianakis fell back on his signature one-liners and piano formula for the monologue — a somewhat predictable yet sufficiently funny start to the episode. He also gave us some character-work with “the guy who reaches into his pocket and thinks anything is a cell phone.”

Game of Game of Thrones. While SNL has found more interesting ways to poke fun at the HBO megahit in the past, I still enjoyed this GoT-themed game show that stumps Galifianakis’ dragon-costumed contestant with off-topic trivia, like identifying a picture of Ruth Bader Ginsburg or “What is a Roth IRA?” Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, aka Jamie Lannister, made a brief cameo, and it wouldn’t be an SNL game show sketch if Bill Hader’s host character didn’t have a throwaway dark backstory.

Match.com. This commercial for the dating website banked on Kate McKinnon as a ready-to-get-back-out-there Martha Stewart. While McKinnon’s impressions are always fun and often enough to carry a one-note sketch, I do wish the piece had delved deeper into the irony of Martha Stewart giving online dating a try.

Jennifer Aniston Lookalike Contest. Galifianakis played a sore loser of a contest to look like the Friends star. The Helen Keller jokes were a bit much, but I enjoyed the trading of put-downs between Galifianakis and the other winners: “Why would Jennifer Aniston wear a Friends t-shirt?” “Maybe because she got it free at work!” Hangover co-stars Bradley Cooper and “Ted” Helms joined Galifianakis on stage to close out the sketch with that classic Friends theme song “That’s What Friends Are For” (which made the sketch unavailable on Hulu… check it out here). I also appreciated seeing cast members use their impressionist skills all on the same person (as opposed to different people) — it reminded me of when all the cast members whipped out their Christopher Walken impressions a few years ago.

Weekend Update. Weekend Update was a step up from the last go-around, with Seth Meyers dishing out some stronger jokes like, “So if you love Rocky, and you love lavish Broadway musicals… who are you?” Also helping were cameos by Update favorites James Carville (VI) and The Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started A Conversation With At A Party (IV), who despite not living up to past performances still had great moments nonetheless. Fred Armisen appeared as Tech Correspondent Randall Meeks reviewing some very beta Google Glass specs, and although the laughs were light, I loved seeing Armisen jerk his head around and freak out when it accidentally started playing porn.

Darrell’s House Part 1 and 2. The finest piece of the night was a two-parter: a long, slightly confusing setup earlier in the night, followed by a masterful closer at the end of the show. Galifianakis played Darrell, a man producing a local cable access show in his home. Part one is a pretape in which Galifianakis stumbles over his words and orders his off-camera assistant Marcus to make various complicated changes in post-production. The piece feels like an awkward, “Between Two Ferns” type show, with an earnest but frustrated amateur host who doesn’t understand how television works. Then, at the end of the night, SNL pulled perhaps its most badass move in years and actually aired the “final cut” of Darrell’s House, with all of Darrell’s recommended edits (including Jon Hamm “replacing” stand-in Kenan). SNL editor Oz Rodriguez completed the cut while other sketches were airing and had it ready in time for the 10-to-1 slot. The show took a huge creative risk and it paid off tenfold. It was exactly the kind of fun, innovative idea that only works in live television and I’d love to see SNL do more of. Definitely a season highlight.

New Balance. A classic SNL commercial parody came late in the show with Galifianakis, Tim Robison, and Bobby Moynihan pointing out that New Balance shoes may be intended for athletes, but they’re actually worn by chubby, inactive middle-aged white guys.

What Missed:

Fox & Friends Cold Open VII. These Fox & Friends segments are always hit or miss for me. The concept itself is nothing clever, so its success depends on whether or not the bulk of the good jokes come in the spoken dialogue or in the correction reel at the end. In this case, it was the latter. However, you can always count on Bobby Moynihan’s Brian Kilmeade to get a few laughs: “Are we shrinking?!”

M&M Store. A particularly mean-spirited moment in the night came in the form of this sketch about a M&M’s store employee who has to apologize for his racist comments (a sort-of reversal of Bobby Moynihan and Cecily Strong’s recurring bridge-burners). If anyone can get away with a hate-filled character in a ridiculous costume, it’s Galifianakis, but in this case, the racial humor wasn’t anything clever, and the energy felt pretty low.

Michael Jordan’s Wedding. Galifianakis and Jason Sudeikis teamed up as a pair of jugglers hosting the 80s-themed reception of Michael Jordan’s wedding. This sketch had a lot going for it, namely, Galifianakis and Sudeikis getting increasingly coked up as the night went on, but the cutaways to Charles Barkley, Yvette’s Cuban parents, and Dikembe Mutombo (with creepily long fingers) felt unnecessary and caused the piece to drag significantly.

Unfortunately, this solid sketch about a 70s cop show never made it to the live broadcast. Like Darrell’s House, it gets a ton of mileage out of the “absurdly bad editing” gag. Definitely worth a watch:

You never know what you’re going to get when a comedian hosts SNL. Oftentimes, their energy just isn’t a good match for SNL‘s highly specific pacing, as was the case with Russell Brand and Kevin Hart. But Zach Galifianakis, who once briefly wrote for the show in the early 2000s, has proven himself a sure-thing — a talent who can pull off some of the more fun, off-beat concepts that rely on an understanding of both live performance and how deliveries will come across in the editing bay. It’s just great to see a host that can take the staff a little outside their comfort zone and still result in a great episode. And if my praise for the Darrell’s House sketch wasn’t clear enough already, I have to applaud SNL for trusting themselves to pull off such an ambitious stunt.

What did you think? Are we right in crediting Zach Galifianakis with the riskier energy of this episode, or do you think the SNL regulars deserve more credit? How does Galifianakis’ performance in this episode stack up against his previous times hosting the show? Do I get any credit for predicting that Kristen Wiig would return to host the show by the end of the season?

I’ll see you next week, when Kristen Wiig will host with musical guest Vampire Weekend.

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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