When Louis C.K. last hosted SNL in November 2012, there was magic in the air. A week after Superstorm Sandy walloped New York, with huge parts of the city still without power, it just felt appropriate to see a comedian so emblematic of the New York spirit, with its gritty nature and heartfelt sincerity, serve as the face of the show that week. And to see him kill it as he did, with a hilarious parody of his FX show Louie starring Abraham Lincoln, was a magical moment for comedy nerds, like watching Conan O'Brien hosting the Emmys in 2006 or witnessing Joss Whedon's The Avengers win over both critics and worldwide audiences. Sooner or later, all of America will love our ginger cult comedy heroes as much as we do, and to see them crowned as megastars provides a sense of justice rarely felt in the comedy world.
I knew I wouldn't be able to say the same for this week's episode. C.K.'s past success hosting SNL was largely circumstantial — though he's a master of uncomfortable tension and honest straight-manning, the comedian stays safely within his comfort zone. (With Lena Dunham and Jim Parsons before, we haven't seen an SNL host successfully play an off-type character since Melissa McCarthy, two months ago.) Moreover, this season's "rebuilding year" jitters seemed to have gotten in the heads of the writers and actors, with the only risk-taking happening with ambitious pre-recorded video sketches. Unless the editing bay turned out another gem like "Louie Lincoln," this episode was going to feel like a slight step down from last season.
And while on the whole the spark wasn't there, when one looks past the overall episode at the sketches individually, one finds few missteps. Nothing from this episode will likely make anyone's "best of Season 39" lists, and the cold open and news segment felt uncharacteristically sloppy, but the sketches this week proved effective, with Louis C.K. mixing nicely with the cast and forming an even stronger chemistry with the SNL folks than his first time hosting.
Cold Open – HealthCare.gov. The writers addressed President Obama's social media push to sign up for Obamacare with a cold open about the president's hip social media advisor (played by Noel Wells) coming up with strategies to make the health care site even more popular — posing with Pharrell's hat, a selfie with Kim Kardashian and Harry Styles, kissing Bieber on the lips, etc. While a number of the bits went over fine, the sketch was plagued with problems — for one, the idea that Obama isn't hip enough online seems a bit of a stretch considering he's still an online mega-star — as much a celebrity if not more than the ones he posed with. The jokes also seemed pretty dated — "generic ways Obama could be cooler on social media" sounds like a bit you'd see on Ellen in 2008, not SNL in 2014. Combine that with Wells' character getting upstaged by the celebrity parade and an overall unrehearsed feel (the actors' pacing issues and heavier-than-normal reliance on cue cards suggested that this sketch was written last-minute), this cold open was far less funny than the "Between Two Ferns" publicity stunt SNL was trying to mock.
Monologue. Things picked up with Louis C.K.'s monologue: a 9-minute standup set that addressed themes of world hunger, atheism, and gender equality. It's certainly a testament to C.K.'s patience and fearlessness that those were his go-to topics. While the set ran a few minutes longer than last time, the monologue is obviously going to be C.K.'s time to shine, and he didn't disappoint: "I don't think women are better than men. But I do think men are worse than women."
Black Jeopardy. The featured sketch of the night continued SNL's recent trend of addressing race issues by making fun of majority stereotypes — in this case, Louis C.K. as a very white contestant in a very black version of Jeopardy, with culturally-specific clues like "She think she cute." "Who is Monique?" C.K.'s presence as the dopey outsider allowed the rest of the cast — Kenan Thompson as the host and Jay Pharoah and Sasheer Zamata as contestants — to get away with playing with some black stereotypes as well: "Chase Bank says you have money but you can't use it until tomorrow." "What is, psssh, you best give me my 17 dollars." The sketch ran a beat too long, but the edgy premise paid off.
Baby CEO II. Beck Bennett reprised his CEO with the body of a baby, this time meeting the wife of an employee and celebrating his birthday. Bennett's physical work once again stole the show, throwing cake at C.K. and Aidy Bryant's faces and laughing hysterically at paper being torn. While the number of baby things to do in an office is shrinking rapidly (it couldn't hurt to take the Baby CEO outside of the office) Bennett made the most of it and never veered from his all-business delivery: "If you shake that box just outside of my reach, I would like that a great deal."
Jos. A. Bank. This commercial to use the low-budget men's suits as paper towels was mercilessly hilarious, despite the fact that the folks at Jos. A. Bank likely cringed at the images of their suits being used to soak up dog urine and as highly flammable fireplace kindling. Flawless commercial parodies have been one constant in SNL over the years, and it doesn't seem like the writers have lost their bite one bit.
Weekend Update. A shortened news segment was a bit of a whiff this week, with a stilted delivery from Colin Jost and still no sense of chemistry between him and Cecily Strong. A few decent jokes and an enjoyable appearance by Jay Pharoah as Stephen A. Smith (III) provided some redemption, especially during Pharoah's extended description of his friendship with Kentucky basketball player Julius Randle: "Julius Randle and I backpacked across Europe together! We were gypsies, tramps and thieves! Wooo! We took turns sharing one magical pair of pants!"
Mr. Big Stuff. The night had a mostly-stellar back half, beginning with this entertaining musical sketch featuring the ladies of the cast as sassy, spurned Brooklyn girlfriends singing Jean Knight's "Mr. Big Stuff" at Louis C.K., a perplexed man pathetically asking for directions: "Look, I feel like you girls are projecting a lot of your weird issues on me." SNL has had a lot of success constructing funny scenarios around songs (see Josh Hutcherson's "Your Love"), and luckily they were able to clear the song use so that we can enjoy it online.
Doctor Appointment. In a scene that could have been taken right out of his FX series, Louis C.K. played essentially himself visiting a doctor (Mike O'Brien) and giving him an odd request: to check to see if there's a Darth Vader action figure up his butt. With C.K. and O'Brien so talented at grounded tension, the interplay between the two (and the rest of the cast as the sketch heightened into a pile-on) was pitch-perfect, culminating in an amusing button.
Private Eyes. It wouldn't be a Louis C.K. episode without one glaringly obvious "Huh?", and this night's "Ram Horn" was a scene with C.K. and Vanessa Bayer as detectives/lovers who flirt with bizarrely hollow dialogue and recited delivery. Of course, not every sketch has to have a 100% clear premise, but the absence of jokes and the fact that this was the first time we saw Bobby Moynihan all night made this sketch a pretty massive bummer. The one saving grace was C.K.'s confused misread of the final line and improvised "What?" as the sketch faded out.
Dyke and Fats. If anything from this episode came close to the heights of "Louie Lincoln," it was this 70s female buddy cop show starring Kate McKinnon and Aidy Bryant as officers Les Dykawitz and Chubbina Fatzarelli, aka Dyke and Fats — which, after a long opening title sequence exploiting the homosexual and overweight connotations with their nicknames, abruptly ended when the two flipped out on their superior (Louis C.K.) for calling them that: "Those are our words!" Bold in concept and execution, but boldest of all for being OK with being a blackout. Best of the Night.
Chris for President. Another hilarious video sketch saw Kyle Mooney as Chris Fitzpatrick, a punk teenager running for class president. This amateur campaign video was intercut with random stock footage of car wrecks and riots, and plastered with shitty screen titles. Meanwhile, Chris's campaign promises were equally dumb: a CD club to make CDs and stickers, a discount on his book of poems, rezoning the school districts so his girlfriend Allie can go to his school. Good Neighbor's specialty of character sketches that were apparently directed and edited by the character seems to be gaining momentum on SNL.
Romantic Speech. I loved everything about this 10-to-1 sketch, with Louis C.K. giving perhaps the worst win-her-back speech of all time. The emotional music, his fear of Baby Jessica in that well, the weird way he says "man." "I'm just a guy, looking for a girl, to ask her for $15,000."
- Aidy Bryant topped the screen time leader board this week, while John Milhiser once again came up short with only one appearance as a silent stagehand in the cold open. But Milhiser wasn't alone in being under-utilized — both Taran Killam and Bobby Moynihan had shockingly few roles throughout the night.
- Best: "Dyke and Fats." Worst: "Private Eyes." Worth It For The Jokes: Monologue, "Jos. A. Bank," "Doctor Appointment," "Romantic Speech." You'll See It Online: Besides "Dyke and Fats"? Probably "Black Jeopardy," linked by some white dude who thinks it's really important.
- Not helping the pacing issues during the cold open was the fact that the studio audience strangely applauded at every entrance. It was almost as if they thought it was the real Kim Kardashian or Pope Francis on the SNL stage. Yeah, SNL studio audiences are terrible.
- I wasn't sure about the call to have Louis C.K. deliver his monologue sans mic. Of course, he's every bit as funny without one, but considering he's a classic standup and he did so well during his first SNL appearance with one, and the fact that he often sounded over-amplified this time, made me wish he stuck with the traditional handheld.
- Louis C.K.'s goofy smile when he was revealed as the white contestant on "Black Jeopardy" was priceless. He's no stranger to race themes in his standup, and it was hilarious to see him find his role so naturally in a racially charged sketch.
- This week's additions to the Stupid Name List courtesy of "Dyke and Fats": Dutch Plains as Les Dykawitz and Velvy O'Malley as Chubbina Fatzarelli.
- "Janet, do you have a Darth Vader up your butt?" "I'm a lady. But there could be a General Grievous."
I'll see you next week, when Anna Kendrick will host with musical guest Pharrell.
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.