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‘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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