‘SNL’ Review: Jonah Hill’s Award-Worthy Performance

Anytime I begin to think Jonah Hill might be overrated, I only need watch him host SNL. Yes, it’s still pretty weird to think that the guy from Superbad has spent the last few years scoring Oscar nominations and hanging out with Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Martin Scorcese. And it’s easy to say the industry might be a little too infatuated with a comedy star who can surprise with a nuanced performance in a movie academy voters actually care about.

But then Jonah Hill comes back to host SNL, and suddenly it makes sense. Not only is the guy the real deal — he seems like a delight to work with. He’s one of the three-peat hosts that still delivers, like Melissa McCarthy, Jon Hamm, or Anne Hathaway, as opposed to Charles Barkley, Lindsay Lohan, or — as it turned out — Paul Rudd. After giving the episode an explosive start, Hill’s flexibility throughout various types saved the episode’s shaky back half. It was a performance worthy of the laurels Hill has been receiving, and a second consecutive win for SNL as it makes its way into 2014.

Men’s Figure Skating Cold Open. The episode opened with the kind of “twist concept” sketch you might see a little later in the night: coverage of Olympic trials of heterosexual male figure skaters, in the event that gay athletes aren’t welcome at the games. If you look past the awkward assumption that all male figure skaters are gay, the image of graceless straight guys floundering around on the ice is too great not to play with, with Bobby Moynihan rocking the air guitar, and Beck Bennett as a sleazy Autozone employee getting handsy with his favorite waitress at Applebees. While the show still seems to be working out how best to address LGBT issues, this “exploit the majority, not the minority” approach (evidenced in the critiques of white culture in “White People Problems” and “White Christmas“) seems to be working for SNL.

Monologue. The water-cooler moment of the night occurred during the monologue, when, after being bombarded with questions about Leonardo DiCaprio (including one from Taran Killam’s awesome Brad Pitt) and bad-mouthing his Wolf of Wall Street costar, Jonah Hill was shaken out of his diva attitude when DiCaprio walked out on stage. Hill’s nervous covering was entertaining — “What’s eating Gilbert Grape? This guy! He’s taking a bite out of that big juicy grape!” — but it was his childlike, guilt-ridden turn that was the most fun: “I was uh, like, being a big shot.” Hill and DiCaprio reenacting the famous Titanic scene was a nice image to close out one of the more enjoyable monologues this season.

Six-Year-Old III. Jonah Hill couldn’t resist bringing back his immensely popular Adam “I’m six!” Grossman, the six-year-old working the room at a Benihana. While I’ve always enjoyed the kid’s hammy punchlines — “Hey All Things Considered, maybe consider a kid is listening and throwing in a train whistle every few minutes to hold my interest!” — it now ranks up there with Justin Timberlake’s “Bring It On Down” bit on the pander charts. But whether or not you’re tired of Grossman’s wisecracks, Hill nonetheless brought the heat: “What’s your turtle’s name?” “Shell Silverstein! If you’re six, that joke his hilarious!”

The Hit. In a video sketch in which Jonah Hill was curiously absent, Kenan Thompson, Taran Killam, and Jay Pharoah played hard thugs preparing to make a hit who are suddenly caught up in the beauty of the falling snow: “Let’s imagine there are two angels in heaven having a pillow fight!” Considering the city has been buried in snow this past week, it’s no mystery where writer Michael Che got the idea. I appreciated the clash of context, even if I can’t relate as a resident of Los Angeles, where the only thing falling to the earth is your dreams. (I’m six!) The game was a little too bogged down in dialogue and could have used a few more visuals outside of the car — then again, I imagine an exterior montage in a blizzard isn’t exactly worth the camera crew getting eaten by polar bears.

Couples Quiz. SNL‘s latest subverted game show was this Dating Game setup that never got off the ground because one of the contestants (Jonah Hill, obviously) clogged the toilet backstage, and the show could not go on until the culprit was outed. I loved that the sketch didn’t even bother with the game show — in fact, when Hill tried to start asking his partner questions, Kenan Thompson’s host snaps at him to stop. And while the subject matter was a little blue — “Someone went on top of the clog!” — Hill’s humiliation kept everything humorously grounded.

Weekend Update. After a bit of an off-week, Weekend Update came back in full force, with Seth Meyers and Cecily Strong dishing out some of the best jokes they’ve had all season — namely, a drunk Scottish fish punchline that Cecily absolutely killed. Kenan Thompson played Officer Frank Medina, the Miami police officer who arrested Justin Bieber, who, after getting in a few well deserved shots at the state of Florida, amusingly described Bieber cussing him out as “being barked at by a puppy who smelled like Smirnoff Ice.” Kate McKinnon closed out the segment with a return of Olya Povlatsky (II), the impoverished Russian woman who wakes up sobbing every morning and was dumped by her village’s top lawyer, a dog. McKinnon’s thoughts on the Olympic games were gold: “I’ve been to Sochi one time, and it was to throw myself into the sea. But I couldn’t because the line was too long.” Best of the Night.

It seems a little sad that this was Meyers’ second-to-last time hosting Weekend Update, considering the chemistry that has developed between he and Strong, and how much of a staple he has become on SNL in the past decade. Replacing him will be Colin Jost, and producers couldn’t have found a more exact replacement, in terms of history (a head writer has served as as WU host since the days of Tina Fey) well as delivery and appearance. While I’m excited to see what Jost brings to the desk, and to see Meyers move on to bigger and better things, Weekend Update certainly won’t be the same without his smug grin and shouty setups.

Sweetland Ranch. The night’s weak moment was this sketch in which Jonah Hill and Cecily Strong played ranch hands who try to cheer up a lonely girl (Nasim Pedrad) by introducing her to a friendly horse, who suddenly turns violent on them. While I’m always impressed at the prop-work on SNL, the physical comedy of the horse kicking, head-butting, and branding Hill and Strong took far too long to get to and didn’t pay off as well as it should. (This sketch isn’t available online due to the use of a Joni Mitchell track — though that didn’t stop “The Hit, which featured Killam and Thompson singing Carole King’s “So Far Away.” Of course, I’m not in any particular rush to see this one again. I just wanted to point out how dumb and complicated music licensing is on television.)

Me. One of the more enjoyable moments of the night was this parody of Spike Jonze’s Her, which, as we have come to expect from SNL video parodies these days, was perfectly shot — and perfectly delivered by Jonah Hill, whose OS sounds exactly like he does. As a huge fan of the film, I enjoyed the little nods to the high waistlines and Amy Adams’ weird hair, but I do wish the sketch delved as deeply into the vanity of falling in love with your own voice as the film did into the complications of falling in love with a computer. But in a 2-minute sketch, I suppose I can settle for the image of Michael Cera giving Jonah Hill a lap dance.

Boss Dinner. Jonah Hill continued to showcase his versatility in this sketch about a nervous man at his boss’s house for dinner who excuses himself to scream in the bathroom. With a simple concept and few scripted jokes, it came down to Hill’s performance, and he delivered. While his intense anxiety was funny throughout, it was never better than when he tried to ease the tension by forcing a bit — “Jeffrey has a tummy ache!” — which fell delightfully flat.

Inside SoCal. I still love the Good Neighbor videos for no other reason than they provide a raw, quiet contrast to an otherwise broad and polished SNL, and they decidedly avoid the “go big or go home” approach that defined the Lonely Island’s digital shorts. But we still seem to be waiting for that one “Lazy Sunday” video that bridges the gap between their subtle, context-dependent concepts and a television audience expecting the central joke to be immediately and clearly labeled. “Inside SoCal” wasn’t that breakthrough — though the SoCal talk show taped during a party in Keith’s dad’s condo had its moments, from Taran pronouncing it as “Philomania” to the breaking news that Amanda Byrns’ little sister is moving back home.

Porn Star Commercial V. Vanessa Bayer and Cecily Strong’s ex-porn stars were back, now stumbling through a self-made commercial for Lamborghini cars. The laughs and jokes were all there — misreading cue cards as sexual terms and anecdotes about banging corpses at funerals — but considering this makes five times this sketch has aired in a little over a year, the gag is feeling pretty tired by now. It also seems strange to follow up a Good Neighbor sketch with this one, considering both concepts rely largely on mumbled deliveries and poor production value.

Additional Thoughts:

  • Cecily Strong topped the screen time leaderboard this week, with memorable roles in Weekend Update, the cold open, “Couples Quiz,” “Sweetland Ranch,” and “Porn Star Commercial.” Meanwhile, Mike O’Brien and Brooks Wheelan came in at the bottom, with the two of them only making one quick, silent cameo in “Inside SoCal.” O’Brien, Wheelan, and John Milhiser must really be hoping the writers find a way to work the “six Matthew MacConaugheys” back into a sketch, because they seem to be left on the sidelines in SNL‘s current abundance of white dudes. Which becomes even more obvious when the host is also a white dude.
  • Notice also how little Bobby Moynihan has been used this season compared to Taran Killam or Kenan Thompson. Whereas many of the supporting roles played by Moynihan could be played by any of the new guys, the writers seem to look to Killam as their go-to leading male and Thompson as their go-to… everything else. I think everyone in the cast is uniquely talented and capable of contributing in different ways, but at 17 cast members, SNL might have bitten off more than it could chew this season.
  • Best – Weekend Update. Worst – Sweetland Ranch. You’ll See It On Facebook – Monologue. Worth It For The Jokes – Six-Year-Old.
  • I wonder if the toilet humiliation in Couples Quiz was inspired by an anecdote Jonah Hill told during a recent appearance on The Graham Norton Show on BBC, in which Hill suffered a similar embarrassment on a flight.
  • I can’t help but think “Inside SoCal” could have worked better if it used some of the gimmicks of “Troy and Abed in the Morning” — a very clear game that worked nicely in tags on Community. Of course, Troy and Abed are well known sitcom characters, whereas audiences had less time to make out what was going on in “Inside SoCal.” I also wonder whether the signature Good Neighbor schtick of mumbling deliveries isn’t really helping when it comes to studio audience laughter.
  • Jonah Hill seemed to be playing up the clumsy fingers aspect to Adam Grossman, which was usually limited in past instances to the “I’m this many!” joke. It was almost as if he saw how well it worked for Beck Bennett’s Baby CEO character. Children, it seems, don’t know how fingers work.
  • With a writer’s room filled with as many Ivy League guys as SNL‘s is, even the mid-conversation lines that begin sketches are bound to have something weird about them, as Kenan Thompson’s did in “Boss Dinner”: “And I said, he’s not my president!”

I’ll see you next week, when Melissa McCarthy will host with musical guest Imagine Dragons.

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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