Sometimes I wish I could walk into an SNL episode knowing nothing. No information as to who the host or special guests are, or what their comedic experience might be, or what their past roles on the show have been. No expectations of the cast members, or knowledge of who the more senior players are or how much respective screen time they've been getting. No insight into behind-the-scenes drama or media scrutiny toward the show's staffing procedures. Never have I enjoyed SNL more than when I was a casual viewer, simply tuning in without any expectation of what I might see.
Of course, those expectations are unavoidable — not only does SNL do everything under the sun to make sure we know who's hosting the show each week, these recaps would be far less interesting without all the background information. Furthermore, sometimes the show needs those expectations… not just to attract viewers, but for inspiration for material. When Kerry Washington hosted earlier this season at the height of the show's diversity controversy, the episode opened with a sketch that forced Washington to play multiple black female characters, the joke being that SNL had no one else who could do so. While the sketch did little to pacify progressive critics, from a purely humor standpoint, it was very successful.
The hardest thing to do is deliver under high expectations, and if anyone can pull it off, it's John Goodman. I was expecting the SNL veteran (hosting for the 13th time) to shake me out of the cynical mood I've been in lately, to restore SNL greatness after last week's dismal episode and a half-season plagued by frustrating controversy. I couldn't wait for the guy who cracked me up as Linda Tripp during my casual-viewer days to show us all how it's done.
But it didn't happen. Instead, SNL treated Goodman as if he was someone who had never performed comedy before, teeing him up with straight-man roles, pairing him with other star cameos and characters, and parading him around in drag — and not in an amusing or politically relevant way, as was the case with the Linda Tripp bits. This isn't Donald Trump; it's John Fucking Goodman — the titan who hosted the show every season in the 1990s and is at least partly responsible for the show surviving those sophomoric "boys club" years. Why the producers would supply a pro like Goodman with lazy, B-material (A song about booty! The Three Wise
Men Guys! Goodman's a woman!) and rely so heavily on Kenan Thompson mugging (no joke, the cast member was on screen more often than the host was) is a mystery that will bug me as the show limps toward its mid-season hiatus, when it will lose its head writer. Yikes.
I keep telling myself the writers are saving the good stuff for Jimmy Fallon next week, but I know that's not how it works. If they can't deliver for John Goodman, what hope does Fallon have? I apologize for the grim outlook, but these days on SNL, it's best to watch with some healthy low expectations.
Obama Mandela Cold Open. The episode started strong with a funny piece featuring Kenan Thompson (a name you'll see come up a lot here) as the phony sign language interpreter from Nelson Mandela's memorial service, now making silly "raise the roof" and Spider-Man gestures behind President Obama. The bit worked well and was reminiscent of last season's cold open mocking Lydia Callis, Michael Bloomberg's expressive interpreter. While Kate McKinnon's Angela Merkel is always hilarious, I'm not sure if the sketch needed the extra beat of the German chancellor pathetically trying to take a selfie with Obama.
Monologue. Smoke began to appear on the horizon during the monologue, the bulk of which featured John Goodman and Kenan Thompson singing, "All I Want for Christmas Is Booty," which felt like a high-energy setup to a joke that never arrived. Not to say wanting booty for Christmas isn't an idea worth exploring comedically, but it might help to actually, you know, explore it.
Guy Fieri Christmas. Bobby Moynihan's full-throttle Guy Fieri is welcome anytime, so it was exciting to see him unleashed from the confines of the Update desk into a terrifying Christmas special joined by "the human equivalent of the food I make." Highlights from the full-cast impressions were Taran Killam as Brett Michaels ("I'm 90 percent plastic and 10 percent HPV") and Kate McKinnon's profane Big Ang from Mob Wives.
Dance of the Snowflakes. I enjoyed this sketch featuring John Goodman, Kenan Thompson, Vanessa Bayer, and Aidy Bryant as community theater actors on opening night suddenly realizing the stupidity of their snowflake costumes and silly dance routine. The inner monologues was a fun device and set things up for some great one-liners: "I paid a man $3500 to tape this," and "On the way here I hit a man with my car. I didn't stop because I thought this was more important." Despite the strong execution, as usual the sketch ended weakly, with the actors gradually regaining confidence, and no satisfying twist to button things.
Three Wise Guys. I suppose I wouldn't mind such a dumb premise at the end of the night, but here, in the heart of the episode, no one wants to see energy-less Stallone and DeNiro wear tracksuits and make cheesy wise-guy jokes while riding camels. (While we're at it, I doubt anyone wants to see them in Grudge Match either. You could be a little less obvious when you're plugging movies, SNL.) In fairness, the sketch went over well with the studio audience, which is a testament to the successful layering of contexts and the general silly-ness… we never learn why, exactly, these wise guys are riding camels to visit the baby Jesus, and the sketch is better for it. But the lack of any indication that the writers were aware of this setup's lameness was pretty grating.
Weekend Update. Weekend Update was an improvement from last week, and Cecily Strong becomes more confident every week. (I particularly enjoyed her delivery of the punchline: "Because in Georgia, anything that's not in the chest or the face is just flirting.") Meanwhile, Kenan Thompson's bit as Black Santa was a fun response to Fox News' Megyn Kelly's ludicrous insistence that Santa is white. The racial humor paved the way for a particularly racist round of Drunk Uncle (VIII), joined here by John Goodman as "Drunker Uncle," belligerently spouting off antiquated ideologies: "Plus, we got Black Friday now? Wasn't February enough?" and "All I want for Christmas is my two neighbors not to be Chinese anymore."
Genevieve. The most cringeworthy sketch of the night saw John Goodman as Genevieve, a "hot" woman suing her former employer for sexual harassment. The "absurd world" game of Goodman being seen as an attractive woman got lost in the broad drag humor, something that was never shoved down our throats so much in any Linda Tripp sketch. I don't mind the writers exploiting a host's physical appearance for a joke, as they have with Steve Buscemi's creepiness or Shaq's hugeness, but this sight-gag didn't involve any cleverness whatsoever.
Shallon II. In another quick turnaround for a character this season, Nasim Pedrad got a second shot at the confident troublemaker Shallon after revealing her just last month in the Edward Norton episode. Here, Shalon derails a fire safety lesson by John Goodman: "I gotta GET IN THAT FIREPLACE!" While I enjoy Pedrad's character work and the game of the students misinterpreting the lesson was well heightened, I couldn't help but think that this was yet another missed opportunity for Goodman. His was a part anyone who can read a cue card could play. And at this point, we were three quarters of the way through the episode, and Goodman still hadn't given us anything worth talking about.
Hallmark Christmas Movies. In case the episode hadn't given us enough holiday-themed sketches, here was another quick one that listed joke movies you would see on Hallmark during the holidays — "On Dasher, On Danza" and "Phylicia Rashad's Christmas Nap" were my favorites. While the jokes worked well, the sketch seemed a little thrown together last minute.
The Christmas Whistle. The only sketch capable of challenging Genevieve for the cringe title was this classic film setup where John Goodman played a father who returns home after a George Bailey-esque change of heart, except the angel who saved him is represented by an obnoxious whistle that drives everyone crazy. The performances by the cast were excellent, and on a conceptual level I appreciate the idea of an awful recorder sound ruining a Christmas miracle and turning everyone against each other. Unfortunately, on a visceral level, that recorder actually was pretty damn annoying, to the point that I had trouble enjoying the sketch.
H&M. Jay Pharoah's music video about the men's clothing store was a little too generic to be truly memorable. Despite high production value, the song lacked any solid hook (long gone are the days of the "Chronic-WHAT?!-cles of Narnia") and came off as a vague assault on H&M's hipster styles, low prices, poorly made clothes, and messy stores.
Last Call III. At least the night went out with a bang. I've always enjoyed these 10-to-1 sketches with Kate McKinnon as horny barfly Sheila Sovage — they have always been well written and consistently feature interesting spins on gross make-out stunts. Here, McKinnon and Goodman "lady-and-tramp" a peanut that the latter coughs up and give each other whipped cream Santa beards to suck off each other's faces: "My heart and genitals say no, but my hypoglycemia says yes." McKinnon breaking while trying to spit out Goodman's prosthetic beard was priceless. Best of the Night.
- Best: Last Call; Worst: Genevieve; You'll See It On Facebook: Drunk Uncle; Worth It For The Jokes: Dance of the Snowflakes.
- Kenan Thompson easily topped the screen time leader board this week. I wasn't kidding about Thompson being in the episode more than John Goodman was — the cast member was featured more prominently in this episode than any cast member has been featured in an episode all season. Meanwhile, Brooks Wheelan fell to the bottom of the list, with his only appearance being Kid Rock in Guy Fieri Christmas.
- Before everyone jumps to blame Thompson for this episode being a disappointment, I should point out that the actor does a number of things very well on the show. His Update characters almost always hit big these days, and this season he has been invaluable in cold opens. Few cast members are better than he is when it comes to one-liners. The reason I've taken issue with him recently is that it seems as though SNL is trying to turn him into a leading man to replace Jason Sudeikis. I'm sorry, but Thompson is no Sudeikis.
- John Goodman's riffing during the monologue proved that the man himself hasn't lost any of his magic. Where has he been since 2001, you ask? Working, apparently. Among his projects were "36 Coen brothers movies" and "a North Korean propaganda film that teaches schoolgirls how to stretch."
- One of the best things about Bobby Moynihan's Guy Fieri is how much fun the writers have with Fieri's dumb recipes: "We're gonna turn a fruit cake into a straight cake! It's just bacon and cars!"
- Cecily Strong asking which of Santa's reindeer is the gay one: "Come on, Cecily." "Is it Prancer?" "PRANCER!"
- Aidy Bryant is quite skilled when it comes to nailing a button-line: "Shalon overcame a corrupt fire department and saved Christmas, you guys!"
- It's always great when the writers coin a new sexual term (from Last Call): "We talking 69 or 66? That's you and me upside down watching TV."
I'll see you next week, when Jimmy Fallon will host with musical guest Justin Timberlake.
Erik Voss is a writer and performer living in Los Angeles. He hosts the Evil Blond Kid podcast and performs improv at the iO West Theater.