The most beloved SNL hosts over the years can make sketch comedy magic with anyone. Justin Timberlake, for example, seemed to hit it off so well with Jimmy Fallon in the early 2000s, but even after Fallon left the show, Timberlake still hosted stellar episodes with whichever lineup of actors and writers happened to be working those seasons. Alec Baldwin is another example — despite being famous for his Scoutmaster and Schweddy Balls bits, Baldwin has never been dependent on any particular writer or cast member to make him look good. Baldwin understands that it's about making everyone else look good, and that's why he's hosted the show 16 times.
Paul Rudd's first two times hosting the show exemplified this chemistry. His memorable stints in the kissing Vogelcheck family were a particular highlight (he even popped up in Jason Segel's episode two years ago to reprise the role). But now in Rudd's third time hosting, most of that old guard has moved on from the show — Bill Hader, Andy Samberg, Kristen Wiig, and Fred Armisen. Would Rudd step up to the plate like Timberlake and Baldwin have, or, like most repeat hosts, would he look like a man excited to return to his old high school just to find all his favorite teachers have retired?
Unfortunately, this episode gave us mostly the latter, with the night's most memorable moments consisting of cameos from past cast members or Rudd mixing with his Anchorman buddies, making the entire episode feel like an extended promo for a movie we don't need another reminder to go see, let alone one that fell short of film's clever promotional campaign. Meanwhile, Rudd mostly failed to connect with the current generation of cast members, relying on a surprising number of recurring sketches — some from this season, some from past ones — not all of which I'm certain we needed to see again. But hey, Rudd looked like he was having fun, and I'm sure for several fans, Bill Brasky made it all worth it.
Cold Open: Sound of Music / Lawrence Welk VIII. The night kicked off with what initially seemed like a curious bite-at-the-hand parody of NBC's The Sound of Music Live! broadcast. But when the Von Trapp children marched out to introduce themselves, joining them was none other than Kristen Wiig as Dooneese, the roadkill-eating Lawrence Welk singer with a massive forehead and baby hands. I admit that I was legitimately surprised by the twist (what the hell are Kristen Wiig and Fred Armisen doing back here?) and it made me wish that the writers had found new, surprising contexts to unleash Dooneese into for the other seven times we saw her on SNL. While Wiig's return was welcome, I do wish the cold open had more fun with its source material, specifically the broadcast's awkward energy and Carrie Underwood's poor acting.
Monologue. Paul Rudd's entrance was overshadowed by not only the boys of One Direction, but the men of Anchorman, who engaged each other in a humorous standoff. While I would have preferred seeing the two gangs destroy each other a la the rival news teams in the first movie, the two sang "Afternoon Delight," which disappointingly contained no new context or jokes of any kind — just pure pandering to Anchorman fans. (Watch the video here.)
Politics Nation IV. I'm a little confused as to why this only moderately funny incarnation of Kenan Thompson's Al Sharpton impression came so early in the lineup. With so few jokes and only one guest (Paul Rudd played a befuddled Huffington Post contributor), this sketch focusing on Sharpton's wandering anecdotes and awkward mispronunciations felt even more pointless than usual.
One Direction Fan. One of the stronger moments of the night was this video of Paul Rudd as a grown-man One Direction superfan waiting backstage with a crowd of girls. Rudd's catty putdowns were funny in that "being mean to little kids" way that Peyton Manning did so well when he hosted, specifically the images of him braiding a girl's hair and correcting another about the Niall's natural color: "Oh, oh-oh! You don't know your basic facts!" While the bit paid off, I can't help but think this piece would have worked even better had Paul Rudd been interacting with real One Direction fans, man-on-the-street style, rather than the staged versions SNL insists on doing (see: Subway Dancers, Mr. Senior).
I Don't Wanna Know. My favorite sketch of the night was this scene featuring Paul Rudd and Vanessa Bayer as a divorcing couple whose vicious argument keeps getting interrupted by Fleetwood Mac's "I Don't Wanna Know." The details of the couple's new lives were hilariously silly — "She's not a gold digger, she works in a silver mine!" — and Rudd and Bayer's goofy old-people dancing gave the sketch a nice, heart-warming touch. SNL is doing well with these coy, song-themed sketches (see: "Your Love" with Josh Hutcherson) — too bad they're impossible to find online due to music licensing issues. Best of the Night.
Weekend Update. Not even Weekend Update was immune in this misfire of an episode — too many of the jokes fell flat and Vanessa Bayer's appearance as Jacob the Bar Mitzvah Boy (IV) was weaker than usual (though it was fun to see Jacob tear up at Seth Meyers' upcoming departure and tense up around Cecily Strong). Meanwhile, Taran Killam's very quick return as snarky 1860s critic Jebediah Atkinson (II) ("It was only three weeks ago. Run stuff into the ground much?") lost a bit of its luster since the character's brilliant first appearance, but his takedowns of beloved holiday TV specials were solid: "Don't get me started on Snoopy… if you ask me, Family Guy killed the wrong dog."
Michaelangelo. In this scene set in Renaissance Italy, Paul Rudd plays a male model for Michaelangelo's "David" who is embarrassed by the statue's small penis. Given the 500+ years of dick jokes that must have been made about the world's most famous sculpture, one has to wonder what new angles SNL presumes it can take on the topic, and the answer is… not many.
White Christmas. This parody of black Christmas movies like The Best Man Holiday and A Madea Christmas gave us a holiday movie for white people. Rather than have fun with the game of piling on white jokes, this sketch got bogged down in explaining its premise over and over, probably to reassure us that Paul Rudd's white version of Madea wasn't racist.
Skinny Santa. Paul Rudd's lack of chemistry with the cast was never more evident than in this sketch featuring Rudd as a slimmed-down Santa being taken to task by elves upset that he's lost his jolliness along with the weight. Besides the premise being a little uninspired, staging Rudd out of frame from the rest of the elves was prevented any comedic tension from building.
Memories. Cecily Strong led this sketch as a neglected wife haunted by the memories of her sexy ex-lovers, including one regrettable hookup with a greasy pizza guy in an airport (Paul Rudd). I enjoyed this premise and I appreciated the theatricality of the staging and Strong's performance. But this concept never truly got off the ground, largely because Rudd's character wasn't crude enough to sufficiently derail the wife's dream sequences.
Bill Brasky VII. Will Ferrell and David Koechner returned to the bar, joined by Paul Rudd and Taran Killam, in the classic setup, with four drunk salesmen one-upping each other with bizarre tales about their mythical colleague, Bill Brasky. The piece, penned by Ferrell and Adam McKay, didn't disappoint with the Brasky trivia — "He gave AIDS back to the monkeys!" was my personal favorite. And while it was exciting to see this old sketch once again, some of that Brasky magic was indeed missing, perhaps because of the absence of Alec Baldwin or John Goodman at the bar. It's a shame this sketch couldn't wait until next week, when Goodman will return to SNL after a decade absence.
- The Jebediah Atkinson sketch posted online is the version from dress rehearsal, which goes over far better than the performance in the live broadcast. In the online version, Taran Killam plays the bit with more energy and makes a few amusing ad libs to Seth Meyers, who loses it throughout. The one improvement in the live version is Taran's hilarious reply when Seth inquires about Jebediah's accusation that the Bible ripped off the nativity story from National Lampoon's Vacation: "Time is not linear for me!"
- Best: I Don't Wanna Know; Worst: Politics Nation; You'll See It On Facebook: One Direction Fan, Jebediah Atkinson; Worth It For the Jokes: Bill Brasky.
- My second favorite piece of Brasky folklore: "His urine stream is so strong, it can cut through an uncooked steak! And I've seen him do it!"
- Taran Killam led the cast in screen time this week, with Kyle Mooney bringing up the rear with just one appearance in the Skinny Santa sketch. Nothing against Killam in Bill Brasky, but you have to wonder why SNL didn't just round out the Channel 6 news team and cast Steve Carell in the role. Of course, Carell was never a cast member and his appearance could be distracting, but it's not like either he or Killam were in the sketches in the 90s anyway, so what's the harm?
- In case you didn't notice, the cue cards are partially visible in the reflection in the clock during Skinny Santa. Perhaps I just got bored and my eyes began to wander.
- Two pube jokes in one episode? What is this, 1998?
- While I wasn't a fan of Politics Nation, Kenan Thompson's Al Sharpton certainly had its moments: "I drove a Honda Fiasco. No steering wheel. You just had to shift your weight."
- For anyone counting, SNL has done Lawrence Welk more times in the past 4 years than they have Bill Brasky… ever. In both cases this episode, SNL invited back two former cast members who weren't even hosting to reprise the bit. Worth the trouble for Bill Brasky… not so sure about Lawrence Welk.
- One Direction's Niall Horan during the monologue: "Yeah Paul, you just do that comedy stuff, and we'll stand back here and pose and blow kisses." I couldn't think of a better description of pop star cameos on SNL.
- A few solid additions to this season's Stupid Name List: Dunkin Danish, Sobrina (with an "O," which is Spanish for "niece"), and Audrian.
- Apologies if I seem particularly negative this week. I attribute my snarkiness to having read Gawker's excellent article "On Smarm," which exhaustively examines the warring factions within the online critic community of snarky haters and smarmy kiss-asses. Perhaps the guilt of being an SNL cheerleader after all these years started to weigh on me. I'm sure the smarm will be back in full force next week.
I'll see you next week, when John Goodman will host with musical guest Kings of Leon.
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.