‘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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