‘SNL’ Review: Lena Dunham, Guest Stars, and Lots of Impressions

This time last year, Megh Wright and I compiled a list of 10 first-time SNL hosts we’d like to see someday. The list included Stephen Colbert (right?) and the now-sadly-late Philip Seymour Hoffman, but decidedly not Lena Dunham. She was one of the first people we discussed, and we both agreed to pass over the Girls creator/star in favor of figures who might make better hosts. I told Megh then that Dunham would be a person people like us would want to see host, but by the time the episode started, we’d quickly realize, “Oh, this wasn’t as good an idea as we thought.” Dunham doesn’t strike me as a closet Vaudevillian with endless tricks up her sleeve (as Joseph Gordon-Levitt or Christoph Waltz turned out to be) as much as an anti-establishment wunderkind who balked at the hoops and found her own vehicle to express herself.

Indeed, after burning Jim Parsons at the stake last week for his limited range, it would be remiss of me to spare Lena Dunham the same treatment. To be fair, we never expected the actress to be able to play anyone other than thinly veiled versions of herself. Between Girls and Tiny Furniture, Dunham has spent her entire professional career playing the same semi-autobiographical character. With one or two exceptions, last Saturday night was no different.

However, I’ll risk joining the legions of smarmy Girls defenders critics and admit that I was smitten with Lena Dunham’s charm, as unpolished as her performance as host ended up being. Not since Jimmy Fallon in December have we seen a host have so much fun in sketches — and while I realize that intangible is lost on several viewers, it nevertheless smoothes over rough patches in sketches and keeps the energy afloat throughout the night, especially when the host is as tuned in to a sketch’s premise as Dunham managed to be.

Of course, Dunham isn’t a perfect performer and neither was this episode. Oftentimes, it wasn’t clear who was even hosting, with Dunham wallflowering behind the other cast members and so many other surprise guest stars stealing the moment — Liam Neeson, Jon Hamm, Fred Armisen. And if there weren’t enough celebs, the episode relied heavily on impression-based bits, with hit-or-miss takes on President Obama, the cast of Scandal, the cast of Girls, Matthew McConaughey, Katt Williams, Jared Leto, Harrison Ford, and, naturally, Lena Dunham. Yes, celebrity cameos and impressions are part of the SNL tradition, and the image of Liam Neeson threatening Vladimir Putin from the Oval Office is too good to pass up, but so many of them in one episode can feel a little easy, as if someone suggested, “Hey, Jon Hamm is in the building! Let’s see if he wants to do something!”

As a watcher of both SNL and Girls, I’m happy to call Dunham’s hosting stint on the show a moderate success — though I’m not sure I’d put her up there with our 10 SNL Hosts We’d Like to See Again just yet.

Cold Open: Obama and Liam. Commenters complained last week that, after a month off to regenerate material, SNL opened its episode with an Ellen parody and a bunch of Oscars jokes instead of addressing the events in Ukraine. This week, the show finally got around to the Crimean crisis with a fun cold open that featured President Obama enlisting the help of Liam Neeson, who gave Russian President Valdimir Putin a Taken-esque warning: “I have a very particular set of skills. Skills that would make me a nightmare for someone like you. By which I mean, I’m an actor. In Hollywood. With a lot of connections.” Neeson has been totally in on the joke of his badass typecasting since he signed on for Taken 2, but his cameo here, and his sizzle reel of Obama chopping wood and fighting off bears, provided some excitement to what would have otherwise been a lackluster sketch.

Monologue. Despite a delivery that bordered on recitation, Lena Dunham ably hit her mark in a monologue about Girls fans approaching her with TMI problems. It took a surprisingly long time for the inevitable entrance of cast members doing just that, with Aidy Bryant gushing about the “very public” loss of her virginity and Bobby Moynihan flashing open his bathrobe to Dunham, saying, “I feel like I have too many or not enough of these.” Kate McKinnon was planted in the crowd as Dunham’s crass Grandma Dot, scoring laughs by bragging that she was “practically a third base coach.”

Ooh Child. In this short film, Lena Dunham joined Taran Killam, Cecily Strong, and Kenan Thompson on a road trip, with the passengers singing along to the Five Stairsteps hit “Ooh Child,” except when Dunham tried to jump in, the song was paused by the smartphone’s navigation voice directions. While this “interruption game” was slow to heighten initially, the humorously appropriate song choice provided this sketch a fun, easygoing tone that was perfectly subverted by the twist ending. It’s rare to see an SNL sketch with a strong button, and kudos to the writers for the hilarious follow-through: “If a court won’t convict you, we will!” Best of the Night.

Scandal. How great is it that SNL can now do a Scandal sketch? The first of the night’s three impression-heavy pieces was the most successful, with Lena Dunham playing a new member of Olivia Pope’s team of fixers who is giddily astonished at how implausibly perfect the “gladiators” are at their jobs — essentially voicing the reactions running through the mind of every Scandal fan: “You’re the most beautiful and ethnically diverse people I’ve ever seen in one room.” While that central premise was key to the sketch’s success, the broad parody humor no doubt won over avid watchers of the show, particularly when Olivia (Sasheer Zamata) melts at the touch of President Grant (Taran Killam).

What’s Poppin‘. In this talk show sketch profiling new hip hop acts, Lena Dunham, Mike O’Brien, Aidy Bryant and Cecily Strong stop by as a whitewashed band of beatnik rappers: “As the drummer starts to tap, get ready for some rap!” Mike O’Brien seems to have finally found a niche over these past two episodes — being the whitest of the white guys in the cast — which played out nicely in this bizarrely square musical performance, featuring some surprisingly steady flow by Dunham. The piece ran out of steam after the performance ended and probably didn’t need that additional minute, though Bryant’s annunciation of “Hey, my flute amp!” was hilarious, as was the revelation that O’Brien’s character chose “Tim” as a rapper name.

Garden of Eden. SNL targeted the criticism toward the gratuitous nudity on Girls with this trailer for a film starring Lena Dunham as Eve and Adam Driver (Killam) as Adam from the Book of Genesis. Unfortunately, that clever premise devolved into a vague, broad parody of the entire series, with Vanessa Bayer’s Shoshanna popping up as the snake and the typical joke quotes from critics: “If this is feminism, then I’m confused.” It’s unfortunate the writers went off-game so quickly, when focusing on just one aspect of the show served them so well in the Girls parody from the season premiere, with Tina Fey as an immigrant from an undeveloped country scolding Hannah and her friends for their petty first world problems.

What Are You Even Doing? You’re Being Crazy! In this character sketch, Lena Dunham and Nasim Pedrad teamed up as a pair of pre-teen girls who “hit puberty, like, three hours ago” hosting a live-streamed talk show in their basement about flirting with their crushes. I enjoyed the bubbly characters, whose “flirting” consists of telling guys they’re being “soooo weird,” and it’s pretty awesome that Bobby Moynihan can score laughs with just a simple line or grunt. That said, this sketch was a little lacking when it came to logic. SNL is typically clever about confining its unconventional talk shows — “Wayne’s World,” “Wake Up Wakefield,” “Jarret’s Room” — where the format limitations are infused with the premise. But in this case, the writers quickly ignored those parameters, resulting in a sketch that was totally devoid of logic, with Jon Hamm appearing as the thoroughly confused B-guest: “I was told there would be pizza.”

Weekend Update. I’m not sure whether to credit Colin Jost or whichever writers are helping him with the news segment, but the hit-miss ratio for the Update jokes has been pretty impressive over the past two episodes. Jost seemed much more comfortable this week, though we’re still waiting to see how he and Cecily Strong define themselves as a duo act. Taran Killam stopped by to deliver some week-old Oscar jokes as Matthew McConaughey, but what did it matter? His impression was hilarious and his rambling metaphors neared the bizarre heights of Andy Samberg’s “Get in the Cage” bits a few years back: “I’m a body in motion. I’m on a train. I’m shoveling coal, and it’s getting hot. Wooo! Wooo! And the conductor’s holding my hand and he’s teaching me lessons I can’t learn because I only read in braille. Tactile.” Hopefully not the last time we’ll see Killam’s McConaughey at the Update desk. Meanwhile, Fred Armisen made a surprise appearance to reprise his Best Friends Growing Up (VI) bit with Vanessa Bayer, this time quietly gossiping about their frenemy Vladimir Putin. I appreciate the concept of tyrants like Putin (previously, Kim Jong-un, Bashar al-Assad, Hosni Mubarak, etc.) being depicted as, above all else, rude friends, but the hushed delivery by Armisen and Bayer always undercuts the energy here. Also, considering we already see Armisen five times a week on Late Night (six, including Portlandia), this seems like an unnecessary return for him, especially when the SNL cast is overflowing with featured players desperate for screen time.

Jewelry Party. The weakest sketch of the night was this scene featuring Mike O’Brien as an affable man at a jewelry party who is outed as a “men’s rights activist” — a detail that didn’t come in until well into the scene, far after we had been sufficiently distracted by Cecily Strong’s cringeworthy stereotypical Latina woman. The clarity was glaringly absent here, with O’Brien’s misogyny and Strong’s flamboyance competing for focus, and neither of them ever paying off. One must wonder what about this sketch worked at dress rehearsal for it to end up in the final lineup.

Katt Williams Show. This sketch represented one of my least favorite habits of SNL — taking a moderately successful one-off impression and writing a big, crappy talk show sketch around it (see: Steve Harvey, Ellen Degeneres). Jay Pharoah’s Katt Williams is on par with his fine-tuned impersonation skills, but it falls short of his recent highs as President Obama, Shaquille O’Neall, and Stephen A. Smith, so an entire talk show sketch seems unnecessary, especially when padded with dated Oscar jokes and a lineup of unfunny and inaccurate impressions of Jared Leto (Brooks Wheelan), Liza Minelli (Lena Dunham), and Harrison Ford (Taran Killam). And then, as if the writers suddenly remembered that they have an actress with an excellent impression of Lena Dunham, Noël Wells got her 10 seconds on screen with an awkwardly tacked-on take of the host.

Concert Tickets. Kyle Mooney, Beck Bennett, and Brooks Wheelan played office coworkers trying to plan a trip to a Will Smith concert with a complex web of unnecessary emails. While it didn’t top the other lightning-paced absurdist bits Mooney and Bennett have done on the show, there was a fun bit of commentary of the obnoxious tendency to overplan in long email threads, and it was one of the first times we saw Mooney stepping out of his aloof, mumbly persona in one of these videos. With Lena Dunham missing in this clip, I’m willing to bet it was shot in a prior week. (Note: this sketch can’t be found online due to its use of music from the Fresh Prince. Hope it was worth it!)

Additional Thoughts:

  • Despite Lena Dunham’s lightning rod status in the entertainment world, ratings were down to a 4.1 this episode, making it the third-lowest rated episode this season.
  • Best – “Ooh Child.” Worst – “Jewelry Party.” You’ll See It Online – Cold Open. Worth It For the Jokes – Weekend Update.
  • Taran Killam topped the screen time leader board this week, maintaining his status as the cast’s leading male and showing off his impression skills as Adam Driver, Matthew McConaughey, and Harrison Ford. With all the impressions in this episode, it’s surprising to see that more of them weren’t from Kate McKinnon, who checked out early after the Scandal sketch.
  • At the bottom of the screen time tally was John Milhiser, who was completely sidelined this episode — the first time that’s happened for any cast member this season. Come on, at least let him play a backup McConaughey.
  • Bobby Moynihan remains criminally underused this season. During “What Are You Even Doing?”: “Is that Josh Hamm?!”

I’ll see you all March 29, when Louis CK will return to host the show for the second time.

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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