Monday, December 23rd, 2013

'SNL' Review: Jimmy Fallon's Christmas Miracle

Boy, did SNL need a win. The months following September's successful season premiere with Tina Fey saw a mixed bag of lackluster hosts, unmemorable sketches, and distracting media scrutiny. Even Kerry Washington's enjoyable November episode was overshadowed by the show's diversity controversy — Washington's hilarious performance only seemed to underscore SNL's lack of a black woman in the cast (an issue that will apparently be resolved in January). Furthermore, when beloved comedy stars Paul Rudd and John Goodman produced surprisingly disappointing episodes over the past few weeks, and with the coming departure of head writer Seth Meyers, SNL's future was looking grim.

Then came along Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake. To be fair, we can't give the two men all the credit — the regular actors and writers stepped up with delightful performances and clever scripts, which was a true sight for sore eyes for beleaguered fans looking for something to look forward to in 2014. However, the success of this episode was less about the fundamentals than it was the intangibles, namely, the jolt of energy provided by Fallon and Timberlake, whose on-stage chemistry on SNL and Late Night has been a bottomless well of comedy for viewers for years now. With NBC's late night lineup undergoing major upheavals, from the Tonight Show to Late Night to SNL, Jimmy Fallon (with his second half) is one of the network's few sure bets.

While Fallon's return to SNL fell slightly short of his Christmas episode two years ago, it was nonetheless a resounding win in a season that has seen alarmingly few of them.

Cold Open: Wrappinville V. With Justin Timberlake in the building, it came as no surprise when his most popular recurring bit made a comeback, so why not get it out of the way at the top? Here, Timberlake paired up with Jimmy Fallon as musical street peddlers dressed up in wrapping paper costumes, singing pun-lined renditions of "Rollout," "It's Tricky," and "Somebody That I Used To Know," with Aidy Bryant filling in neatly in the Parnell/Forte sad-sack role: "I've been divorced for seven years, so I haven't sacked a deck in a long time!" With the studio audience going so wild (a little too wild… looking at you, random crazy woman), it's admittedly difficult to give this sketch a fair review from a comedy standpoint. Indeed, its later reprisals have seemed a little pander-y. But it cannot be denied that the performance kickstarted the night with a wave of energy that Fallon and co. rode for the whole 90 minutes.

Monologue. Jimmy Fallon essentially recreated his SNL audition by singing carols as his excellent vocal impressions of David Bowie, Bob Dylan, and Paul McCartney — the actual version of whom strolled out on stage and joined Fallon in a duet of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Fallon's impression skills made the bit one of the more enjoyable monologues from the season thus far.

Family Feud. Jimmy Fallon led the cast in this impression-packed celebrity edition of Family Feud (led by Kenan Thompson's Steve Harvey, who is actually much funnier in small doses), featuring the stars of CBS — Jim Parsons (Fallon), Ashton Kutcher (Taran Killam), Jon Cryer (John Milhiser), and Alyson Hannigan (Noel Wells) — versus the stars of NBC — Jimmy Fallon (Justin Timberlake), Jane Lynch (Kate McKinnon), Ice-T (Jay Pharoah), and Brooks Wheelan (himself). Other than a throwaway joke about the NBC team playing for the charity of their own network, the CBS-NBC rivalry element just seemed like a convenient excuse for whatever impressions the cast members had in their bags of tricks. That said, the impressions were actually quite entertaining, and the sketch was worth it to see Timberlake roast Fallon to his face via mimicry… and to see Fallon break.

Twin Bed. The finest sketch of the night was this music video featuring the ladies of the cast addressing the challenge of trying to hook up over the holidays in their childhood bedrooms: "Let's get wild in a bed for a child!" It's rare that an SNL blows out a game so effectively as they did here, with abundant detail — the cat watching, the uncle nearby on the trundle bed, the wall posters of Mario Lopez, Leonardo DiCaprio, and JTT. And to top it off, each female cast member included an awkward picture of younger self — kudos to Aidy Bryant for having the balls to put that fabulous jean overalls glamour shot on national television. Sketch of the Night.

Barry Gibb Talk Show VI. Despite its popularity, I was surprised to see the Barry Gibb Talk Show make a return given the real-life Robin Gibb's death in May 2012. Thankfully, SNL decided to immortalize the bit here (thanks, presumably, to the blessing of the real-life Barry Gibb, who made a cameo at the end of the sketch). There is always a lot of funny things going on in these sketches (written by Steve Higgins), from the silly notion of the Gibb brothers talking in the staccato falsetto of their singing voices, to the more interesting prospect of Barry Gibb taking politics, and his talk show, way too seriously. And Fallon delivered as usual, screaming at the guests — including a line-flubbing Madonna who nearly derailed the whole sketch — and launching into bizarre sung threats: "A selfie with your skeleton! Skeleton selfie!"

Weekend Update. A sufficiently warmed up crowd made for a strong news segment, with an especially hilarious run of jokes in the middle. Kate McKinnon stopped by as tennis champion Billie Jean King, who hilariously reveled in being asked by President Obama to represent American tolerance at the Winter Olympics in homophobic Russia: "I'm gonna drive my Subaru Outback into Red Square and do donuts while blasting Melissa Etheridge!" Jimmy Fallon and outgoing NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg closed out the segment to discuss their thoughts on passing the torch, and it was Bloomberg who stole the scene when it came to one-liners: "I'll be fulfilling a lifelong dream of sipping a small soda on a non-smoking beach."

Waking Up with Kimye II. Right as the night was going so well, the episode strangely settled into typical-SNL routine after Update, featuring this return of this Kanye West / Kim Kardashian talk show sketch, with Jimmy Fallon oddly nowhere to be found. I still enjoy the concept of West trying to convince us that Kardashian is an artist of any kind, evidenced in the amusing exchange about her gingerbread nightclub: "Ya'll looking at the Armenian Frank Gehry!" "I wanna eat the roof!" But this version focused too much on Pharoah's impression of West, and the "Bound 2" parody felt pretty dated after a month (and a pretty immediate parody by James Franco and Seth Rogen).

Now That's What I Call Christmas. In a night already heavy on impressions (and actual stars), we didn't need another game-less excuse for Jimmy Fallon to show off his impersonation skills (he did four here: Michael Buble, Alan Rickman, Harry Styles, and Pitbull). Bobby Moynihan's Andrea Bocelli was a highlight, however.

Scrooge. I appreciated this twist-on-classic-tale setup — Ebenezer Scrooge (Taran Killam) looks back on his younger self (Jimmy Fallon), interpreting his refusal of women as a fixation on money, while remaining oblivious to the real reason: he's gay. But despite the clever concept, the execution could have been a little more careful about avoiding gay stereotypes — namely, Fallon's prancing around, throwing glitter and proclaiming "We're creating magic!" The sketch seemed to go over fine, and few have complained about its tone, but SNL seems a little too OK with making the kind of jokes (see also, Ben Affleck's summer camp sketch from last season) that probably won't be OK in a few years.

Baby, It's Cold Outside. The episode ended in a perfect nightcap featuring Jimmy Fallon and Cecily Strong in a duet of "Baby, It's Cold Outside" — a song whose rapey undertones have now been widely acknowledged across the Internet — just to turn the song on its head, with Fallon trying to give the boot to a post-sex clingy Strong: "I have an early thing tomorrow…" "Got a toothbrush I could borrow?" The lyrics were cleverly worded and the performances by Fallon and Strong were hilarious. Exactly the funny/sweet note to send viewers out on for a holiday episode.

Additional Thoughts:

  • Best: Twin Bed, Baby, It's Cold Outside; Worst: Now That's What I Call Christmas; Worth It For the Jokes: Barry Gibb Talk Show, Weekend Update.
  • Cecily Strong topped the screen time leader board this week, with her big roles coinciding with the night's brighter moments: Twin Bed, Weekend Update, and Baby It's Cold Outside. Meanwhile, Mike O'Brien came in last, with his only appearance being an uncomfortable boyfriend in Twin Bed.
  • This episode gave SNL its highest ratings since January 2012, when Charles Barkley hosted an episode that got a boost from a late-running NFL playoff game. Those numbers excluded, this was the most-watched episode since May 2011, in a night hosted by… that's right, Justin Timberlake (and musical guest Lady Gaga).
  • Kate McKinnon had a fun throwaway joke as Jane Lynch during Family Feud, as a way to be sexier: "Put on a smart overcoat." While we're at it, Kenan Thompson had some solid lines as Steve Harvey, mentioning that he was paid "two fedoras a day," and bragging: "I've almost reached my goal of being mute on every TV in America!"
  • Some of Fallon's better lines got lost in his furious rants as Barry Gibb: "My baby ate a dingo!"
  • Chris Rock appeared on stage during the goodbyes (and was thanked by Jimmy Fallon), despite not appearing in any sketch this week. Not sure if he was planning to appear in a sketch that got cut last minute, or if he was just hanging out backstage. Any readers out there happen to see the dress rehearsal show?
  • I seem to be a bit out of step with my fellow online critics this week, many of whom were largely unimpressed with this episode. Perhaps they couldn't help but compare it to Jimmy Fallon's 2011 episode — which, if I remember correctly, wasn't that much better than this one was — and I can understand their annoyance at the number of pointless cameos and self-serving reprisals (Wrappinville, Barry Gibb, etc.). But to give this episode the second-lowest grade of the season (as AV Club did) just seems crazy to me. I can't be alone here.

I'll see you on January 18, 2014, when Drake will be host and musical guest.

Erik Voss is a writer and performer living in Los Angeles. He hosts the Evil Blond Kid podcast and performs on the house team Wheelhouse at the iO West Theater.

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  • PhilaTFarnsworth

    Yeah I don't know what the other sites were watching and was really glad to see your review. It was a pleasant, fun and funny show. Loved the twist at the end of 'Baby it's Cold Outside' to up it from the obvious joke to a 'but wait, there's MORE' joke.

    And I loved the rule of 3 coming into play during Jimmy's monologue: 'hmmm, who of these three famous singers has a habit of actually showing up as a surprise…..' Solid sketches for the most part, cool guests (though Madonna could have stayed home, and what was she fixing in her mouth?)
    Fallon and Timberlake are the new Martin and Lewis, no question.

  • Brian Bouton

    "Do It On My Twin Bed" was definitely the sketch of the night and brilliantly fell between the line of sexy and funny. Say what you will about diversity, but SNL has an incredible bench of female talent and beauty.

    • eavoss

      Someone's got a crush! But agreed. It has been nearly two decades since SNL could legitimately be called a "boys club," and it's always exciting to see the women of the cast work their magic.

  • jontyourdont

    My unsolicited thoughts… I thought the show was OK. Justin T was getting a little annoying with his mugging. Sketches were fine, but not a break through episode for me.
    Kate McKinnon turned in another amazing show. The girl is the funniest cast member on the show, willing to go balls to the wall for her characters while still claiming some sense of grounded-ness.
    Jay P has to be one of the best impressionists alive today. I'm always amazed by how accurate he sounds- Kanye, Ice T, Obama, whomever. He just needs to connect with people better- maybe an acting class would help since he has such a strong stand up background?
    I'm wondering if they let Brooks play himself in Family Feud as a way to test out his popularity with the audience. They hopefully have realized Taran is not their golden boy to showcase. I don't think Brooks is either, but maybe they were testing him out. (Seeing as how he was also allowed to play himself in that Weekend Update Tattoo monologue)
    The Steve Harvey quote should read something like "Be on mute in every gym in the U.S." It's a small change, but makes the line a lot funnier. I've seen tons of Steve Harvey at the gym on mute.

    • critter42

      I thought the line was actually "be on mute in every waiting room in America" – which is much funnier than what the article had and pretty much the same idea as "gym"

    • eavoss

      Good points, though, I would say Taran Killam HAS been showcased as a goldenboy this half-season, and he's certainly good enough to earn that status. Like McKinnon, it's hard to think of a case when he truly let me down with his performance.

      • Rusty Shackleford

        I think Killam is the golden boy, he's earned it. This week's show was the second best of the season in my opinion (just behind Kerry Washington and slightly ahead of Tina Fey). My favorite sketch was the Baby, It's Cold Outside parody ("this isn't my coat/can you take the trash when you go" had me busting out laughing each of the three times I've seen it). I also really enjoyed Twin Bed, it had a great beat plus the hotness of the ladies (McKinnon, Strong and Wells especially) was on full display. I also enjoyed Family Feud and hope they do it again in the future (love the Timberlake impression of Fallon) but the entirety of the sketch fell short of the "classic" quality of Celebrity Jeopardy. Also, I'm a big fan of Steve Harvey and Kenan's impression is good, but to make it great I think he needs to be a bit more subtle. Some of Steve's best bits come from when he's in on the joke and not when he is the joke, you understand? I also enjoyed the Now That's What I Call Christmas more than Mr. Voss. How great were Fallon's Alan Rickman and Pitbull impressions? Noel Wells did well as well with her Zooey Deschanel impression, not a big fan of McKinnon's Lorde and if you're gonna do Shakira again, shake those hips girl! Cecily showed she has vocal chops with the Alanis Morrisette impression along with Baby, It's Cold Outside. The Scrooge sketch was amusing, but I agree in a few years that kind of stereotyping will likely be taboo. Weakest of the night for me was Wrappingville, Kimye Talk Show and honestly The Barry Gibb Talk Show didn't make me laugh much (negatives: Madonna, didn't use Cecily as Megyn Kelly enough…but damn she looks good as a blonde; positives: the real Barry Gibb harmonizing at the end was nice). Weekend Update was nothing to write home about (or mention on social media) and WTF was Chris Rock doing there at the end? One final note: on Brooks Wheelan, I'm not a huge fan of him so far. He reminds me of Dane Cook or Anthony Jeselnik, a little too cocky for his own good. I think his appearance in Family Feud was to humble him a little in front of the audience. I'll never forget that terrible sketch he had during the Edward Norton episode, but I can forgive if he starts producing quality characters/jokes in the future.

  • Carson

    Ehh, you basically highlighted my issues with the show (REALLY pandering, also that audience…yeesh), but chose to land at a different conclusion. My highlights were the same as yours, but the dusty old recurring JT bits that were brought back were never really my favorites. And Madonna's appearance was a total gong show. Baby, It's Cold Outside was clever and the show has a lot of great women, but when SNL does one of these kinds of episodes, which they so often do nowadays, I'm often left cold comedically. Oh well, I watched the Birthday Boys right after and that made me laugh.

    • eavoss

      Curious… did you watch the sketches online or the entire episode on TV (live or recorded)? As someone who watched it on TV, I wonder if the energy factor affected my viewing experience. On their own, some of the sketches don't hold up. Regardless, some people just weren't swayed by Fallon and JT, which I can understand. I still find them enjoyable, so I was willing to cut SNL some slack this week.

      • Carson

        I watched live or…er, a torrent…and it's not like a hate everything. I like Fallon. He's not faultless, but he is immensely charming and often funny. Timberlake is alright, although I feel like he is a bit overrated and over-exposed as an SNL host (of course he got the mega five-timer treatment last season where Ben Affleck, who has better episodes under his belt, got a shrug). I don't mind spectacle episodes, but the hooting and hollering of the crowd was like an old episode of Fridays and a lot of the sketches were re-hashes of things I tired of a long while ago (I never liked the singing mascot bits, but I always appreciated the energy). But yeah, there were things I generally liked and I have no misconceptions about what SNL is or should be, but sometimes the parade of cameos starts to feel more exhausting than actually entertaining.

        Seriously, was anyone truly delighted by Madonna's presence.

  • Not Jennifer Gibbs

    "But to give this episode the second-lowest grade of the season (as AV Club did) just seems crazy to me. I can't be alone here."

    You're definitely not alone. Other than possibly the Tina Fey episode, I thought that this was the strongest episode of the season so far (although that has as much to do with the weak output of other shows as it does with the quality of this show). Twin Bed and Family Feud were probably my favorite sketches of the season so far.

  • Ben

    To me Fallon is never very funny. He is what my parents would call cute. Like an 'ok' rom com. I like the potential of celeb family feud. Could be the new celeb jeopardy.

  • scumby

    Billie jean King won't be doing jack squat. Easy to mock Russia from an NBC studio in NYC

    • eavoss

      Jeez, learn to take a joke, Putin.

  • ash

    What! I laughed really hard through the whole Now That's What I Call Christmas!

  • JC

    I thought whats-her-name's impression of Alyson Hannigan was atrocious.

  • http://www.bendouwsma.com/ Ben

    I'd say Fallon and Timberlake made the episode more entertaining, but it still felt like a smokescreen to distract from how weak the show's writing has been this season. It's absolutely frustrating to see such a talented cast charged with the task of making such bad material watchable.

    Someone posted a sketch list with writers. Here's who's responsible for last night's sketches:

    Wrappinville – Paula Pell
    Monologue – Steve Higgins, Claire Mulaney
    Family Feud – Bryan Tucker, Rob Klein
    Home For The Holidays – Aidy Bryant, Kate McKinnon, Sarah Schneider, Chris Kelly
    Barry Gibb – Steve Higgins, Zach Kanin, Tim Robinson
    Kimye Talk Show – Michael Che, Mikey Day, John Solomon

    Christmas Album – unknown
    Christmas Past- James Anderson, Kent Sublette
    Baby It's Cold Outside – Marika Sawyer

    • AlliCat3

      Are there postings about who wrote what in other episodes?

  • Anthony Coro

    I was a little confused by two things–the lack of Jimmy in the pointless Kimye sketch (I don't have any objection to sketches without the host in most cases, but when it's a former cast member? Really?) and why they ended it with Justin's second song instead of a sketch. I expected to see the cast skating at Rockefeller Center but they were still in 8-H. My only other criticism–it seems like Justin and Andy Samberg realized that, if they're gonna bring back the "Dick in a Box" guys, they have to change the format…but for some reason nobody seems to want to freshen up "____ville." (And is it just me, or does anyone else have trouble making out most of the parody lyrics before "Bring it on down…"?)

    Anyway, this was definitely second only to Tina's episode as far as the season goes, and easily the most fun episode of the season. Family Feud was perfect, and I hope they use it again as a much-needed regular outlet for impressions.

  • derekverse

    Did I imagine it or did Mike O'Brien seem really down and sad during the goodbyes? The screentime for the newbies gets smaller and smaller each episode… Makes me worry some are not going to make it to the end of the season. That said, this is just speculation based on someone looking unhappy.

    • mike

      I had the same thought. He looked like he just found out his services won't be needed come January.

      • derekverse

        I hope not… I really feel for the guy. 7 Minutes and the bugs thing – boy I do love his work.
        Also could be that something happened between him and Cecily. They didn't even look at eachother. Once again, mere speculation.

  • Allison

    To answer the Jimmy-less "Waking up with Kimye" question, throughout the night, the SNL twitter had been posting videos of Jimmy explaining the sketches that were about to come up. They were obviously pre-recorded before the show started, and he said something about playing Ed Sheeran in the Kimye sketch. But I guess they cut it for time or because it wasn't good enough.

  • JoshUng

    While watching this with my girlfriend I said "and that's why Madonna doesn't get to host." Also, did you notice she pulled out her cell phone at the end, apparently couldn't wait 10 more seconds?

  • Sydney

    I guess you called it, man. Jimmy got an Emmy for this.