More often than not, the success of any given episode of SNL depends less on the talent of the host or the output of the writers that week than it does on how thoroughly the show's producers understand the host's abilities and how efficiently they deploy them. For example, past seasons have seen lukewarm episodes hosted by comedy greats like Bryan Cranston, Jane Lynch, and Ed Helms — not by the fault of the hosts or the sketches themselves, but because the producers didn't know quite how to make them shine as bright as they had as their other popular characters. Meanwhile, the show has had great success with non-comedy types like Bruno Mars, Christoph Waltz, and Kerry Washington, perhaps because producers were able to identify what roles those performers would be most comfortable in, setting the table for surprisingly funny episodes. Of course, it helps when a host can bring to that table a proven range of talents, which is why I'll always take a Tina Fey over a Miley Cyrus, and why I'm excited the next three episodes will be helmed by longtime SNL veterans: Paul Rudd, John Goodman, and Jimmy Fallon.
Josh Hutcherson doesn't seem to have much to offer by way of comedy skills — the 21-year-old actor is best known for his role as Peeta Mellark, the doe-eyed co-star to Jennifer Lawrence in the Hunger Games films. But the producers wisely made the most of the situation, keeping the spotlight focused on their talented cast members while allowing their heartthrob host to be charming at every turn. Charm is infinitely valuable when it comes to televised bloodbaths — whether it's 24 children fighting to the death or 16 sketch comedians fighting for screen time — and it's one skill Hutcherson knows quite well.
Cold Open – Piers Morgan V. The show recapped the latest George Zimmerman controversy with Piers Morgan (Taran Killam) interviewing Zimmerman's battered/smitten girlfriend (Kate McKinnon), a helpless Florida police officer (Bobby Moynihan), and George Zimmer, the founder of Men's Warehouse (Beck Bennett). The piece was well written and all the gags worked — I specifically enjoyed McKinnon's Stockholm-Syndrome-stricken girlfriend and the 3D animation tracking Zimmerman's movement to a gun store, then a liquor store, then back to a gun store — but I do wish the show would get away from opening episodes with a news show format (a classic SNL device) and back to the more interesting setups from earlier this season.
Monologue. Josh Hutcherson was introduced with a predictable but well executed nod to his Hunger Games films, with McKinnon dressed up in full Effie Trinket costume, randomly selecting a male and female cast member to duke it out on stage. The bit went over better than the HG parody from Jennifer Lawrence's episode last year, and Hutcherson's affability was a big component. That, and Hutcherson not knowing the movies were based on books.
Girlfriends Talk Show IV. In what was the best Girlfriends Talk Show since its first appearance last fall, Josh Hutcherson joined the girls as Trevor, the cutest guy in high school, who, for a nice change of pace, actually seemed to like Aidy Bryant's loser Morgan… enough to land her in the friend-zone, at least. Bryant has always been the best part of these sketches, but here she took her character's pathetic desperation to a whole new level: "Trevor, I love you." "What?" "OH MY GOD, WHAT HAVE I DONE?"
Baby Boss. Beck Bennett was given an opportunity rarely granted to any SNL cast member these days, let alone ones in their first year — carrying a sketch with little more than physical antics, here as a highly intelligent financial firm CEO who has the body of a baby. Bennett's physicality hasn't been put on display on the show prior to this sketch, but he totally pulled it off, clumsily smacking around papers and making a huge mess out of spaghetti while maintaining an all-business composure from the neck-up… all while steering clear of any potential depiction of people with disabilities. It was Bennett's finest performance on SNL to date, and a surprising move from a show that normally talks its way through sketches.
Subway Dancers. As a tribute to the sub-culture of New York subway performers — a familiar sight to residents of the city but probably too inside-NYC for the rest of the country — this video worked nicely. However, the gag of the three dancers doing restrained B-boy moves in tightly crowded subways wore off rather quickly, and I can't escape the feeling that this stunt would have been far more exciting had Kenan Thompson, Jay Pharoah, and Josh Hutcherson pulled it on an actual New York subway car, rather than a set piece filled with extras.
Weekend Update. Seth Meyers and Cecily Strong were back on top with the jokes this week, building a frenzy that even made themselves giggle between jokes. Aidy Bryant later joined them as The Worst Lady On An Airplane, encouraging travelers to carry their luggage in multiple shopping bags, eat smelly Panda Express takeout, and get in fights with flight attendants. The airplane humor sometimes came off as worn and the writers seemed to be restraining themselves a bit, carefully avoiding stereotypes, but Bryant powered through and made the character enjoyable.
Your Love. The best sketch of the night was this 80s scene with Josh Hutcherson playing Devin, a lovesick teen confessing his love by lip synching the words to the 1986 song "Your Love" by The Outfield. By constructing a flat conversation around the lyrics and cutting in and out with a blast of music, and with everyone committing so hard to the ridiculous concept, this sketch was pure, simple fun. (For obvious music licensing reasons, this sketch isn't available on Yahoo or Hulu, but we were able to track it down below.) Best of the Night.
Best Buy Firing III. A clear sign of Josh Hutcherson's supporting role was the number of big-cast pieces this episode, and here was another. Bobby Moynihan and Cecily Strong reprised their bridge-burning employees (having previously been fired from McDonalds and Barnes & Noble), now venting their hate on the island-of-misfit-toys staff at a Best Buy. This pair has been my least favorite of their recurring bits, perhaps because they come off as so mean-spirited, with too much of them shouting "bitch" and not enough jokes to earn it. The cheese dust covering Bennett's mouth and the Edward Scissorhands re-enactment were highlights in an otherwise flat sketch.
Dancing. An indicator that SNL is warming up to Kyle Mooney's Good Neighbor sketches was this funny video featuring Mooney as an amateur dancer who gets noticed by his roommate / club promoter (Beck Bennett), followed by his quick rise and fall in showbusiness. The piece includes some rapid fire visual gags, including an immediately-produced demo reel and an appearance by fictional dance crew The Nightcrawlers. While not the funniest video we've seen from Mooney, it's another strong addition to his impressive start on the show.
Animal Hospital. Josh Hutcherson joined Kate McKinnon and Cecily Strong as sassy receptionists at a veterinary clinic who bluntly tell people their pets have died. Despite a few good jokes and some interesting details regarding filling out death paperwork, the characters never quite got off the ground.
Bugs. Mike O'Brien got a late-in-the-episode appearance as Winston Sam Bass, an investigative journalist trying to get a quote from bugs crawling on the sidewalk. With a sketch this bizarre, it was something that could look very bad for O'Brien had it not gone well. Fortunately, O'Brien's commitment paid off, especially in the moment he broke down and cried on camera for making fun of a bug for being fat.
Turkey Girlfriend. By far the weakest sketch of the night was this piece featuring Josh Hutcherson as a son revealing his new girlfriend at Thanksgiving dinner: a turkey (Vanessa Bayer). Aside from the obvious joke of Turkey Girlfriend being disgusted at the sight of a stuffed turkey carved on the table, this sketch had nothing to offer and it was strange to see it included in the lineup at all, even at the end of the night.
- This episode stuck pretty close to the SNL playbook: a news format cold open, a lot of big-cast sketches, a strong first half and a noticeably weak second half. Two exceptions to this formula were Beck Bennett's Baby Boss sketch and the Your Love musical sketch, both of which were successful without relying to much on scripted jokes.
- Best – Your Love; Worst – Turkey Girlfriend; You'll See It On Facebook – Dancing; Worth It For the Jokes – Girlfriends Talk Show, Weekend Update.
- Cecily Strong received the most screen time this episode, followed by Aidy Bryant. Strong's regular role as Weekend Update co-host was padded with reprisals of two recurring sketches — Girlfriends Talk Show and the fired employees with Bobby — among other roles. Meanwhile, after seeing a relatively larger amount of screen time last week, Nasim Pedrad and John Milhiser were back at the bottom this week.
- The best Rob Ford joke you heard this week: "The controversial mayor charged the gallery and ran over a female council member, before he was finally brought down by the third dart." Meanwhile, the best Justin Bieber joke: "It was reported that police were called three times to respond to complaints about a recent party Justin Bieber threw. And each time, the complaint was the same: No one came to my party."
- This may have been just for the west coast broadcast, but there was a playback error at the end of Animal Hospital wherein the video feed began to replay the sketch from the beginning while the audio for the top of Bugs played over it. I admit this may have influenced my impression of the end of Animal Hospital and thrown me off while Bugs was getting underway. Anyone else have this problem?
- A standout episode for Beck Bennett. I think it's safe to say that of the six new cast members, Bennett, Noel Wells, and Kyle Mooney seem to be having the most comfortable starts this season.
- It may have been more work that it was worth, but that 3D map tracking George Zimmerman's movement in the cold open was fun in its own right and could have been expanded to be a sketch of its own. Certainly a more inventive image to start the show than another news/interview piece.
- Kate McKinnon, in regards to Brooks Wheelan's recently deceased big black horse: "If it makes you feel any better, he had a real peaceful look on his face right before he exploded."
- Lots of new additions to the Stupid Name List this week: Lil' Peanut, Mandrew, Captain What-Not, Tiffani Denvers, Professor Skillz.
- A fun exchange during the Best Buy sketch: "Drew, have you eaten Cheetos today?" "No." "How about Doritos." "No." "Then why on earth is your mouth so orange?" "You look like you were face-deep in Garfield's butt!" "Leave that cat alone!" "It's a Monday!"
I'll see you Dec. 7, when Paul Rudd will host with musical guest One Direction.
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.