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Monday, March 3rd, 2014

'SNL' Review: Jim Parsons Broadens His Range to Nerdy Guy

The alternative comedy scene has never been very kind to Jim Parsons. He's best known for playing Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory — the current leader of the pack of broad, Chuck Lorre sitcoms that are dismissed by critics and comedy snobs but beloved by industry insiders and pretty much everyone else across the country. To comedy nerds, Parsons is the ever-popular prom king who's not in any of our classes: "Who the hell is this guy, and why do people love him so damn much?" He has been showered with Emmys (winning for lead actor in 2010, 2011, and 2013), beating out Steve Carell in his final season of The Office (and ensuring he never won an Emmy for the role of Michael Scott) with his hacky, stereotypical nerd schtick. Sheldon Cooper is Community's Abed Nadir for the Jay Leno generation.

Of course, we're too hard on Jim Parsons. His is a schtick he does exceptionally well, with killer timing and excellent deadpan delivery. Creating a television icon was never something we held against Jerry Seinfeld or Megan Mullally. We don't know what Parsons' post-BBT career will look like, but for now, this is his time in the sun, and he has earned every bit of the praise he's received. Yes, I would argue his agent and Chuck Lorre's casting director deserve a huge chunk of that praise, but I'm sure they're satisfied with all those acceptance speech shout-outs.

When it comes to Jim Parsons' performance on SNL, however, we can be a little more critical. For an actor with so many Emmys under his belt and a long career in live theater, Parsons showed remarkably little range, rarely straying from the geek persona he has permanently cloaked himself in, playing such challenging roles as "Sheldon as Peter Pan" and "Sheldon shits his pants." In his monologue, he mocked the parallels between Sheldon Cooper and his real self, singing, "I'm not that guy." But based on his performance, Jim Parsons has trouble playing anyone but that guy.

But that's hardly a nail in the coffin for an SNL episode. Parsons survived the night with grace, and even after a shaky start, the episode took a turn for the best with a nice hot streak in its middle stretch. The episode also witnessed the debut of Weekend Update co-host Colin Jost, who had a superb start despite lingering questions over the show's trajectory as it heads into the back half of season 39.

Cold Open: Ellen II. Now that Piers Morgan's show has been canceled, writers are in need of a new broad parody of a talk show to kick off the episodes. Kate McKinnon's Ellen Degeneres is one of her more celebrated impressions on the show, and rightly so — her corny jokes and spastic energy hit all the right notes. As did the sketch itself, particularly if you're a regular Ellen watcher (I'm not, I swear!) — however, these generic parodies always seem to lack focus and try to do too many things at once.

Monologue. Jim Parsons joked about his similarity to Sheldon Cooper with the song, "I'm Not That Guy." Despite the irony, the song seemed a little flat — though helping things somewhat was the inclusion of other sitcom icons — Steve Erkel, George Costanza, and Angela Lansbury (McKinnon) who pulled out a gun and held the place up.

Tonkerbell. As fun as it was to see Aidy Bryant in a starring role as the tiny Tonkerbell, Tinkerbell's sassy sister, as well as to see such a silly image so early in the episode, in the end this Peter Pan sketch was a bit of a misfire, with the character sketch not winning over the crowd as well as I imagine it did in dress rehearsal to get such an early placement. Bryant had some great one-liners, however — especially her account of eating a human-sized hamburger: "I just sat in the middle and ate around me until it was gone."

Bird Bible. The episode locked into gear with this commercial for a kids' bible with illustrations of biblical characters depicted as North American birds (written by James Anderson and Kent Sublette). On top of the hilarious images of birds staged as Adam and Eve and David and Goliath, Mike O'Brien and Kate McKinnon's wasp-y parents were perfect — particularly O'Brien's annoyed response to his son's suggestion to make the Three Wise Men owls: "Yeah, let's just enjoy it for what it is." Best of the Night.

Dance Floor Killer. Jim Parsons finally scored as a creepy serial killer lurching around in plain sight on dance floors of TV shows like Soul Train. I applaud the writers for using Parsons so well here — the idea of the killer sticking out like a sore thumb yet still managing to cause so much carnage played out extremely well, especially when he gets his own dance show, turns to the camera, and says: "I am the Dance Floor Killer."

12 Years A Slave Auditions. SNL continued to cash in on Oscar weekend jokes with this clever video showing white actors struggling to deliver the sides for racist slave owners in the Best Picture winner. Not since the "six Matthew McConaugheys" have the writers (Michael Che and Brooks Wheelan in this case) so effectively used the cast's abundance of white actors, in yet another example of SNL addressing race by targeting the majority instead of the minority (i.e., the awkwardness and guilt of white people). I have to wonder why the sketch didn't include Taran Killam, who actually was in 12 Years A Slave as one of the men who kidnaps Solomon Northrup and sells him into slavery… seems like a missed opportunity.

Weekend Update. Co-head writer Colin Jost took the mantle of co-host of Weekend Update with Cecily Strong, giving a solid and steady performance that could just as easily have been Seth Meyers if you squinted your eyes hard enough. Jost and Strong both had a number of killer punchlines and appear to be well suited to carry the news segment, though the key to their success will be how well the two work together as a duo. Seth & Amy, Amy & Tina, and Tina & Jimmy each developed a signature chemistry that made the news segment such a highlight, and I'm curious to see Colin & Cecily's take. The writers padded the news segment with two of this season's most successful character bits — Kenan Thompson and Jay Pharoah as Charles Barkley and Shaquille O'Neall (II) and another hilarious appearance by Taran Killam's snarky 1860s critic Jebediah Atkinson (III), this time ranting about the Oscar nominees: "Don't get me started on Gravity. If I wanted to see a depressed middle aged women float around for 90 minutes, I'd go to the YMCA pool."

Murder Mystery. Jim Parsons played the odd-man-out in double date at a murder mystery dinner theater, assigned with the confusing character of "Simply Dudley, a harmless oversexed nutball." The lack of clarity with the character created a lack of clarity in the sketch itself, with both the audience and Parsons' character unsure of how to react. The sketch reminded me of the classic UCB "fortune cookie" sketch, but without a clear, consistent unusual element.

Spotlightz III. Vanessa Bayer reprised her amusing child actor Laura Parsons, with her overly composed rendition of Leonardo DiCaprio's speech in The Wolf of Wall Street. While the rest of the cast filled in nicely — particularly Aidy Bryant as the computer in Her, grimacing after getting kissed — Jim Parsons brought little to the table other than mouthing the other actors' lines.

Elevator. In this fun, late-in-the-episode scene, Jim Parsons played a guy who soiled his pants at work, trying to sneak out early, just to have to share an elevator ride with co-workers. I really loved how this sketch unfolded, with Parsons and the rest of the cast (led by Mike O'Brien, who's no stranger to awkward close encounters from his "7 Minutes in Heaven" webseries) expertly using pauses to heighten the tension, bringing a level of wit to a sketch essentially about poop.

Cowboys. Like Murder Mystery, this 10-to-1 sketch became unnecessarily complicated, with a simple, funny premise about gruff cowboys planning a surprise birthday party getting derailed by Jim Parsons' cowboy insisting on a specific prank involving him springing up out of the dirt. While I appreciated the commitment to the idea — "Nobody wants it until they get it!" — the sketch felt overlong and fixated on a detail it would have been better without.

Additional Thoughts:

  • Best – "Bird Bible," Worst – Monologue, Worth It For The Jokes – Weekend Update, You'll See It Online – "Ellen," "12 Years A Slave Auditions."
  • Kate McKinnon and Kenan Thompson topped the leader board this week when it came to total screen time, though with all the ensemble pieces, this was a win for all cast members. Except, of course, Nasim Pedrad, who only made one silent appearance as Rosie in the "Ellen" cold open. Considering she's commuting back and forth to LA to tape episodes of Mulaney, we're unlikely to see much of Pedrad over the next few weeks.
  • This was the first big episode for Mike O'Brien, with strong appearances in the night's best three sketches: "Bird Bible," "12 Years A Slave Auditions," and "Elevator." One would think with Jim Parsons as host, a similarly lanky white nerdy guy like O'Brien would be shut out this week, but it ended up being a showcase episode for the featured player, who desperately needed one.
  • Taran Killam's Jebediah Atkinson has emerged as the most popular new character this season. While the bit is certainly funny on paper, its popularity is largely because of Killam's loose performance, ad-libbing over things going wrong in the segment. In this instance, it was Killam tossing one of his cards and it randomly landing for a moment on his stack: "I couldn't do it again if I tried."
  • Bobby Moynihan's actually-racist Terry in "12 Years A Slave Auditions," nodding his head at at the black cameraman: "Keep your eye on that camera, by the way."

I'll see you next week, when Lena Dunham will host with musical guest The National.

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 Theater.

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  • Damian

    You realize the Big Bang Theory is funnier than SNL, right? There's no reason to be critical of Jim Parsons. He did what he could with awful material. Even bad for SNL. I also couldn't believe Colin Jost made a sincere opening to Weekend Update, the one place at SNL that should never do that. And "Bird Bible" was the best sketch of the night? I can remember when SNL would mock people in power, not its audience. Especially sad that they had a month to prepare for this one.

    • eavoss

      If you honestly think there's zero reason to be critical of Jim Parsons after watching that episode, I don't expect the two of us to see eye to eye on anything.

      • Damian

        Probably not. Unless you have evidence that Parsons pitched and wrote the monologue, Peter Pan, and the other terrible sketches that he was in. Because those failed because of the poor writing, not the souls reading their cue cards. Poop bag = comedy, it seems. The fact that you think Parsons is a hack is also telling.

    • Boo-urns

      Big Bang Theory funnier than SNL? Hard to say, they're both pretty godawful if you ask me. At least SNL was funny I guess at one point, not so much these days.

  • MT138

    Weird as it may sound, I was a little put off by Colin Jost's, "This is a dream come true." I obviously get the sentiment, but I've never seen any other cast member do that before. Honestly, I thought to myself, "Who gives a shit? You might suck."

  • Alir

    Erik Voss, It's necessary for a writer and performer to understand the difference between Versatility and cozying up to stereotypes. In "Peter Pan" sketch, Jim Parsons is the only actor showing sensibility of Broadway and over-dramatic acting with his stylized approach. In "Murder Mystery" and even "Dance Floor Killer"(where your "using Parsons so well" should be changed to "making an easy joke about his creepy face" )instead of acting accordingly and playing the butt of the joke(being embarrassed or creepy), He's desperately trying to participate in the game or simply observing other dancers with a distant look.
    Jim Parsons is very one note in the terrible "Big Bang Theory" but this episode of SNL inadvertently gave him the opportunity to show how much of a serious actor and ahead of the writers he is(another proof that sitcom is an evil evil format).
    "Elevator" sketch is a good example: Parson has a very well timed and thought-through frustrated reactions to both Obrien's heroic story and Bryant's admiration for her co-workers; Writers could've used this and written a boss character desperately
    trying to be authoritative and bragging in a very ridiculous situation(instead of just making Parsons stand there and even blocked by Kenan Thompson at the end of the sketch).

    Interesting that "alternative comedy scene" hates Parsons schtick while admires the
    laughably bland, "could've been a real local news anchor" Colin Jost. It's all about how people sell themselves, Isn't it?

    • eavoss

      For starters, I would say the jury is still very much out on Colin Jost as Weekend Update host. We're willing to give him a chance because he's an unknown to most audiences, and objectively speaking, he made it through his first night without screwing up any jokes, which is more than can be said for any of his predecessors. But to say we admire him as much as we hate Jim Parsons is putting a ton of words in our mouths.

      I'm not exactly sure we disagree as much as you seem to think we do about Jim Parsons. I made it clear that I think he's a talented performer with great timing. I just think he's also a bland SNL host and showed little range — a consensus echoed by pretty much every major SNL review, now that I check. While his physicality as Peter Pan was animated, his voice was 100% Sheldon, which stuck out in a sketch where John, Kyle, Kate and Aidy were all acting the hell out of it, vocally and physically. (That said, the fault with Peter Pan was more about the concept than the execution… I don't really see how any of them could have done any better.)

      When I said Parsons was used well in "Dance Floor Killer," I mean that the writers are often the most successful by simply casting the host in roles that are appropriate or ironic given his reputation or appearance — i.e., Steve Buscemi as the college football coach everyone assumes is a sex offender, or Peyton Manning bullying little kids. DFK worked because Jim Parsons seems like a guy who sticks out on a dance floor, and the writers built a funny context around that idea, and Parsons pulled it off quite well.

      I agree that his performance in Elevator was great, though it's not my job to suggest the sketch the writers SHOULD HAVE written, only to look at what they wrote and whether it worked. I appreciated the scene's quiet, subtle tension, which Parsons and O'Brien maintained so well, and I probably would have been turned off a more over-the-top character for Parsons.

      I mean, hey, I'm glad to see someone defend SNL when everyone else is so quick to hate on it. I just can't stand with you this week.

  • Ben Tyson

    This episode was entertaining. Good, not great. My favorite sketches were all in the middle. Murder Mystery was hilarious, especially Cecily's line, "Why does my birthday always have to be about you?" And Killam turning serious and telling Parsons' character, "Bro. Rule number one, DO NOT touch the actors." That skit had me in stitches. I also loved the Cowboys skit. Beck Bennett and Mike O'Brien showed that they are the future of SNL this week. Brooks Wheelan was funny in the Cowboys skit as well. Kenan was solid as always. Always love the Jebidiah bits on WU. Not sure how I feel about Colin Jost at the moment, he seems competent and capable but a bit too smug. I didn't like his heartfelt shoutout off the top and honestly thought it would throw the vibe off for the rest of the segment but he and Cecily rallied nicely. Moynihan had the line of the night in 12 Years a Slave Auditions as you noted. The Killer Files was genuinely hilarious, from writing to acting to production. The only skits I didn't like were Ellen, Peter Pan and Spotlightz. Bird Bible was amusing. Overall I give this week a 7.5/10

  • Lana

    A few things to comment on..
    Colin Jost had his first night. Give the man a break. I think he did well aside from not looking at the right camera at times but Weekend Update is a big step for him, After a few minutes, he was pretty relaxed and he will do just fine.
    Cecily Strong – she was in the same spot a while ago. What a great choice Lorne Michaels made putting her to Weekend Update. She is now the veteran.
    Jim Parsons – He is an amazing actor. Sure some of the sketches didn't work but that happened with Belushi, Aykroyd and Murray. Some times sketches flop..
    The writing on SNL might not be at the highest caliber after the departure of so many head writers. But for me.. I just want to give them time to work themselves into the role.

  • Allison

    I think Parsons plays Sheldon well in BBT, but I cannot STAND that show. I watched it an enjoyed it the first few seasons, but got tired of it because it became the same premise every week. Penny! You're too blonde and not smart to understand science! A joke about the "over-sexed nutball" jewish dude who lives with his mom! Indian boy who can't talk to women! Everybody can't stand Sheldon but is still friends with him! Bazinga! The writing may be better and smarter on BBT than on SNL (Emmys don't lie), but at least SNL isn't the same damn thing every week (same layout and recurring sketches, but different hosts every week and new casts members every few years).

    As for Colin, I don't understand all of the hate that he has been getting. I thought all of his jokes were great and he delivered them well. I laughed a lot more on his first night than I did on Cecily's first night at the beginning of the season. Weekend Update needed this change.