Monday, November 4th, 2013

'SNL' Review: Kerry Washington Is Ready

I never thought we would see the day when SNL considered itself newsworthy enough to parody. But it happened — not in the form of a quick joke during the monologue or Weekend Update, or a walk-on by Lorne Michaels, as has happened before — but with a whole cold open sketch, wherein host Kerry Washington was compelled to play numerous black female characters (Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Beyonce) because SNL literally had no one else who could do them. The meta-sketch also included a half-apologetic text scroll from the producers promising to fix the situation, unless they "fall in love with another white guy first," and a cameo by the Rev. Al Sharpton, who mugged: "What have we learned from this sketch? As usual, nothing."

The clever piece showed some nerve, though the lines were infused with an uncomfortable tension. Not because, as many critics have accused, this was a transparent opportunistic ploy by the show to move past its recent diversity controversy (a controversy many of those same critics have fanned into a bonfire), but because using an episode's opening segment to respond to such controversies is a move so out of character for SNL. In the past, SNL's game plan during these media storms has been to keep its head down and continue churning out good comedy until it blows over. But here, the show pulled its head out of the sand and directly called it out, like Studio 60's Gilbert and Sullivan parody, but funny. That visceral unease is precisely why the bit was so exciting to watch. And it worked, on the network level, at least: the episode gave the show its highest ratings all season.

While I enjoyed the cold open, my fear is that by calling attention to its lack of diversity, SNL has less taken ownership of the controversy than it has given haters an opportunity to further marginalize the hilarious things it's doing. And I use the term "haters," because that's what we have become, once again. Never mind that this episode was the best of the season so far. Never mind the fact that the lineup contained no true weak links and gave Jay Pharoah a chance to finally earn his keep in the cast. Never mind that Kerry Washington proved with a nearly flawless performance (and not by complaining) that there exist black women who are every bit as "ready" to be on SNL as anyone else. Yes, never mind the comedy… the story here for too many of us is that SNL is trying to get away with something. Why can't we just relax, accept that SNL has acknowledged it needs a black woman, hope that it follows through soon, and enjoy what was an undeniably funny episode? Because folding our arms and calling the show racist drives up site traffic?

If SNL proved anything last weekend, it's that it is a comedy show first and foremost. So let's talk about the comedy it put out, which was, to say the least, pretty great.

Michelle Obama Cold Open. We've already covered the cold open exhaustively, but political matters aside, the sketch still worked on a humor level. Kerry Washington played the part of put-on-the-spot host well, scoring big laughs as the First Lady and Oprah. (It was a shame we couldn't also see her as Beyonce "WEARING A BATHROBE," or while we're at it, to make Washington run a 10-through-the-door gauntlet with seven other characters, though she likely needed time to change wardrobe for the monologue.) The entrance of six Matthew McConaugheys was a fun way to call out the cast's abundance of white men, even though it was awkwardly reminiscent of the "New Cast Member or Arcade Fire" sketch from the season premiere.

Monologue. Finally, a monologue actually worth watching. The show played to Kerry Washington's role on Scandal as a DC "fixer" by sending out a few cast members begging her to clean up their personal crises. While the game was a little predictable, at least the bit had one, and the image of Kenan covered in blood was a solid, funny capper.

Career Week. Once again, Nasim Pedrad led the lineup this week with an original character. Here, she played Heshi, an upbeat, 44-year-old motivational speaker from a Yemeni village nicknamed "city of sewage fires." There was a lot going on here, with the sketch wandering from Pedrad's high energy hip thrusts and gunshot sound effects, to Kerry Washington as the sassy assistant Tammy ("Respect my ability to assess a bucket!"), to the sad details of Heshi's middle-aged life: "I have been approved for an OK Cupid account!" While all the gags worked, providing more of those latter details would have given the sketch greater focus.

What Does My Girl Say? SNL finally got around to parodying the "What Does the Fox Say?" video, with Jay Pharoah and Kerry Washington playing a feuding couple. The joke was a little one-note, but as a catchy music video sketch, the parody went over well. With his performance here, Pharoah cemented his placement as a mainstay in the cast, finally winning over those of us on the fence in an all-around successful night.

How's He Doing? II. In one of the many great parallels between this episode and the Maya Rudolph episode in February 2012, the night saw the return of "How's He Doing," a talk show in which black people honestly assess how the president is doing. I once again enjoyed the premise — unwavering black support for Obama — but in this instance, the execution saw far greater success than before, with Thompson, Pharoah, and Washington bursting into laughter at the thought of voting for Mitt Romney and a hilarious run on white people's love of The Wire. Although it probably played a little too heavily to the white guilt surrounding SNL these days, this sketch nevertheless built a nice momentum of jokes that dealt in the same line of humor as "White People Problems," and gave us one of the finest moments of the night.

Miss Universe. The episode continued the night's diversity trend — maybe even beat us over the head with it a little — in this sketch about Miss Universe contestants from Third World countries interrupting the pageant. I enjoyed Aidy Bryant's Miss North Greenland — "There are three of us now and I'm the woman!" — but Kerry Washington got the biggest laughs as Miss Uganda, angrily stealing the mic and shouting "I keep dress!" and various nonsensical questions: "What is me? When are who?"

Weekend Update. The night's high energy boiled over during the news block, with Seth Meyers and Cecily Strong giving us some of the most vicious jokes of the season. Kate McKinnon once again proved her ability to play politicians with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. McKinnon's performance as the sad, lonely head of state was nothing short of brilliant, detailing her Google search history ("Jason Segel no shirt") and imagining how much cooler Obama's search history must be ("Jason Segel fully clothed"). Kenan Thompson and Jay Pharoah closed out the segment as Charles Barkley and Shaquille O'Neal, respectively. It was Pharoah's towering, cross-eyed Shaq who stole the show here, playing the Lenny to Barkley's George: "I like raisins. They taste like grapes. Only they small." Best of the Night

Cartoon Catchphrase. This game show sketch centered around Aidy Bryant as a contestant who uses a "phone a friend" lifeline to find her husband cheating on her. As usual in game show sketches, there's a lot going on at once, with the basic gag of Taran Killam's cheating husband Duane popping up in every phone call sharing focus with the dummy contestants burning through their lifelines and the rules of the show apparently not mattering whatsoever. While the pacing was a bit off, Kerry Washington amusingly held things together as the host.

Principal Frye V. Jay Pharoah's Principal Frye has always been my favorite of his original characters — even if it's his only recurring original character — and this fifth appearance at a school carnival might have been the most successful yet. Kerry Washington appeared as a chirpy (then bitter, post-dunk tank) first-year teacher, and Kenan Thompson anchored this sketch as his always funny angry gym coach: "Maybe we shoulda done this in my neighborhood, where everyone's idea of a carnival is a playground with 100 black people standing around watching one person do pull-ups. And guess what? Somebody always gets stabbed."

Date or Diss. Kerry Washington joined Taran Killam, Cecily Strong, and Aidy Bryant in this amusing send up to brain-dead MTV dating shows. This sketch was so over the top with the bizarre details ("I've got a birthmark that screams, I sleep through all of December, and I once swallowed a bullet that was shot at me!") that Killam's straight-man reactions seemed a bit out of place, especially when his character seemed every bit as shallow as the girls. The goal here seemed to win the crowd over with hyper-specific lines, as with Mornin' Miami, and for the most part, it worked: "Mirror mirror on the wall, I'm yum yum hungry for this guy's balls."

Ice Cream. As has been the case this season, the most inventive concept came at the end of the night with another Good Neighbor-style sketch, with Kyle Mooney playing an ice cream parlor employee whose mind is completely blown after a simple joke made by a customer. The surreal shots of Mooney and Killam running through a library and convulsing on the ground gave the 10-to-1 piece a fun, short film tone that has been a nice grace note to cap the episodes this season.

Additional Thoughts:

  • As mentioned before, this episode had a great deal in common with the Maya Rudolph episode in 2012. In addition to the "How's He Doing?" sketch, we saw a stellar performance by a black actress who played roles like the First Lady and Beyonce. Both episodes gave Jay Pharoah and Kenan Thompson a greater share of screen time than normal, and I considered both to be my favorite episodes of their respective seasons (so far, at least).
  • Best — Weekend Update; Worst (but not terrible) — Miss Universe; You'll See It On Facebook — What Does My Girl Say?; Worth It For The Jokes — How's He Doing?, Principal Frye, Date or Diss, Ice Cream.
  • "I had a white friend who would write episode recaps of The Wire on the internet. Could you imagine? He would watch it, write about it, and then other people would read it." "Did you read it?" "No, I didn't need to read it, I watched it. I mean, that'd be like somebody telling me about my day." Maybe those of you who commented last week that we also need more racial diversity in the TV reviewer community had a point.
  • Big week for Jay Pharoah: his appearances as President Obama, Shaquille O'Neal, and Principal Frye, as well as his funny roles in "How's He Doing?" and "What Does My Girl Say?," put him at the top of the screen time ranking. Meanwhile, John Milhiser came in at the bottom, with his only appearance being one of the six Matthew McConaugheys in the cold open.
  • The night was packed with awesome lines, but Kate McKinnon's Angela Merkel had my favorite: "We have a saying in Germany. Once the cat is out of the bag, you must take the cat into the public square and shake it 'til it dies."
  • Al Sharpton's personal trainer must have picked up a dozen new clients this week.
  • "I love Fettucine Alfredo, when I'm tickled I dump, and the doctor told me my tongue is as big as a horse's tongue. Heyyyy…" Aidy Bryant continues to bring the heat.
  • Kerry Washington's comment to Vanessa Bayer during the monologue — "Haven't you played Miley enough lately?" — while clearly meant in jest, was a bit uncalled for. Bayer has played Miley Cyrus only once this season (in the cold open to the Miley Cyrus episode), and only once last season. While we've seen more than enough of the real Miley Cyrus, Bayer's impression is far from overplayed.
  • Aidy Bryant and Cecily Strong's Britney B. and Britney R.'s consolation for losing Diss or Date: a spinoff reality show premiering "in an hour and a half" called Bitch Apartment. Logline: "We drink and scream 'til one of us dies."
  • This week's new additions to the Stupid Name List: Melanie Griffish, Nichelle.

I'll see you Nov. 16, when Lady Gaga will serve as host and musical guest.

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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  • Owen

    I thought the Myley joke was more of a knock at the fact that Myley has been on the show a lot and she's basically a parody of herself these days anyways.

    Otherwise, great show. Happy to see Jay Pharoh all over the place. He's really great. Kenan's been one of my favorites since he's been on.

    • JeffMc2000

      Vanessa Bayer also appeared as Miley on one or other of the recent music awards shows.

  • Jeff Heatherly

    The Miley impression isn't overplayed. Vanessa Bayer is. She continues to be awful, and I'm flabbergasted we still have to suffer her every week.

  • mari

    constantly surprised and elated at how great Aidy Bryant continues to be- even when she's only given one line in a skit (Miss Universe)

    • Marie

      Yeah, I really love her, it seems like she has at least one amazing line in an otherwise lukewarm sketch every episode.

  • Colin Fisher

    Super strong episode, from the performances to the writing. One of the things that fascinates me about this show is how much it can vary from week to week. If I didn't know otherwise I wouldn't have assumed this episode had the same cast & crew as the Ed Norton episode.

    I'm also interested in what the public at large thinks about SNL's diversity issue, if they think about it at all. Living in the comedy-nerd echo chamber like I assume most people reading this do, I just have no perspective at all on whether anyone outside of it thinks about this sort of thing, so when SNL addressed it in their cold open I was surprised. I wonder if it left casual viewers scratching their heads a bit.

    I'm looking forward to the calm and informed debate on race and comedy that will surely follow in the comments here.

    • eavoss

      That's an interesting question about what the "outside world" thinks about SNL's diversity issue. Based on conversations with family members or friends from my hometown, it seems to me that most people tune in to the show, but they rarely have such strong opinions as media folks or those in comedy nerd bubble, other than the common dismissals, "It's not funny anymore," or "It sucks except for [insert favorite cast member]." Other than that, they seem to take their cues directly from headlines, late night jokes, and morning talk shows, which, in this case, have all agreed upon the conclusion that SNL needs a black woman.

    • Black women > Asians?

      I loved the sketch when all the Asian men and women did impressions on SNL this week

  • jack

    besides the ice cream short and aidy bryant stepping things up with great bits, this episide was one of the worst; jay pharoah is pretty bad and has horrible comedic timing – impersonations cannot hold him up forever.

  • Stuie299

    The Good: Cold Open, Monologue, How's He Doing II, Cartoon Catchphrase, Ice Cream
    The Mixed: Career Week, Miss Universe, WU
    The Bad: What Does My Girl Say, Principal Frye V, Date or Diss

    This one felt really hit or miss. The highs were higher than normal and lows were lower than normal. I have to disagree with you about Jay Pharoh's Shaq impression. As someone who watches a lot of basketball I thought that was absolutely one of Jay's worst impressions. Date or Diss could have easily replaced with something better. Parodying a MTV show like that felt too easy and rather lazy on SNL's part. Aidy Bryant on Cartoon Catchphrase was probably the best of the whole night though.

    • eavoss

      We'll have to agree to disagree here. Jay's Shaq impression certainly isn't at all accurate, but you can't deny it had the audience rolling. He finally won me over this episode, but it sounds like you're still on the fence?

      • Stuie299

        To me Jay Pharoh is like Darrell Hammond. You bring him out when you need a good impersonation. I don't know why but for some reason his Shaq impression just didn't work for me, but usually I think he does a much better job.

      • Not Jennifer Gibbs

        This is one of those times that a person gets penalized by knowing too much because people with more than a passing knowledge of Shaq realize that it wasn't an accurate portrayal. It struck me because Shaq is absolutely rife for parody for many aspects of his personality (for instance, he thinks he's hilarious and an expert on humor), but they didn't parody any of them. Plus, I think the real Charles Barkley is funnier than Kenan's Charles Barkley last Saturday (although Kenan's been funny as Barkley before).

  • Robert

    I thought it was a funny episode and did like everything in it, but it doesn't feel like the best of the season. Something just was off I'd say. I think it was I didn't have a lot of laugh out loud moments. Where normally I'm rolling at a couple of points during the show I wasn't on this one. Still a great episode and I enjoyed it.

    I bet it was because I watched Super Fun Time Night before and all the humor was removed from me. That show was just bad. I feel bad for not liking a Conoco show.

    • eavoss

      Agreed that the episode didn't blow me away either, but it was certainly more consistent than the other four episodes we've seen so far this season. I enjoyed Tina Fey's season opener, but even that had a few misses in there and didn't allow Tina to shine as much as Kerry did in this episode. I don't expect much from the Lady Gaga and Josh Hutcherson episodes in the coming weeks, so here's hoping the show books an old pro like Tom Hanks for the Christmas episode.

  • Erik Gooden

    Among the weakest episodes of the season for me so far. The Cold Open, Cartoon Catchphrase, and the Ice Cream sketch were hits for me – with the Ice Cream being a big hit – all the rest were big misses. The quick Bitch Apartment gag almost redeemed Date or Diss – but was too little too late. I tend to rarely find Jay Pharoah's performance funny – and this show had a lot of Pharoah – and I must say for me the funny lines from him were very few and far between. I always root for Nasim – but the career week speaker sketch was a disaster. How's He Doing was a good idea but lacked good jokes. The Miss Universe sketch really fell flat for me – and I didn't care for most of Update including both guest spots. Went out on a high note with the Ice Cream sketch – but a weak night overall from my perspective.

  • Stuie299

    I got to thinking about this a little more and what really seems to be lacking this season is the writing. I know Pharoh and McKinnon are good at Impressions but it still seems as if they're relying on impressions a bit too much. I think they could definitely use a boost in their general sketch writing. It just doesn't seem like they're coming up with a lot of memorable characters or scenarios.

  • JHayek

    I thought this episode had some great moments and a positive energy that made everything feel seamless. My one complaint is that this season seems overly-reliant on both Eastern European women (Heshi, Tina Fey's Girls-parody character and old-timey carwash wife, the beauty pageant, a bit in Angela Merkel) or dumb, trashy ex-porn star types (the Date Or Diss sketch and the Swarovski Crystals girls). The game with both of these characters are just to be one-liners for the weirdest/darkest things you can think of.

    • http://www.thecricketnerd.com/ The Cricket Nerd

      I kinda agree, but Heshi is MIddle Eastern, not Eastern European.

  • BF

    Kerry Washington was a total pro. She really surprised me.

    With Jay Pharoah, my issue with him has been that he always seems to "ham it up" when he should be allowing the scene to develop. The biggest example that comes to mind is when he played Shannon Sharpe on Weekend Update and kept licking his lips during Seth's lines. The crowd seemed to like it, but to me it was a little distracting. I mean, if I'm the only one, I'll shut up…

  • mcgarnigle

    I like Thompson's mention of white people reading re-caps of shows online. "No. I watched it". Also do grace notes ever end musical pieces? I mean, who really cares, but it was the last line in this article and it doesn't….sit….right. Whatever, I love these recaps.

    • eavoss

      Good point. It's been years since I studied music theory. Coda, maybe?

      • mcgarnigle

        yeah that sounds better, but i'm no yo-yo

  • Max T.

    Why is the comments section so iffy on this site? Sometimes it lets me comment and sometimes it doesn't

  • Alex

    What about Nichelle Nichols?

  • http://doctornecessiter.tumblr.com/ doctornecessiter

    "SNL finally got around to parodying the 'What Does the Fox Say?' video…"

    Why would anyone expect professional comedy writers to create a parody of a novelty song that's already meant to be funny? You're basically intentionally stepping into a trap where you *need* to be funnier than the original or else you look like a dumbass…And this seemed like it was written in about five minutes, from concept to completed song.