Whenever SNL producers book a host who seems inexperienced in live comedy, they fall back on a kind of playbook. Stick to popular recurring bits and pretaped videos to take the burden off the host. Give her small, easy stuff that plays to her strengths, then get her out of there. If she can sing, let her sing. The goal is to Bodyguard-cradle the host, letting her enjoy herself while hiding her from the real dangers of the scary sketch comedy world.
Given how little we saw of Anna Kendrick this episode, you'd think Lorne was standing nearby off stage, ready to dive in and take a bullet.
I can't really fault SNL for being so cautious, especially when you consider how often the playbook works. Earlier this season, Josh Hutcherson made it through the night looking like a pro without doing all that much, and the Lady Gaga episode succeeded after the writers protected Gaga from the sketches — and the sketches from Gaga. Anna Kendrick was the latest beneficiary: the Pitch Perfect star shined by singing/dancing in five of her eight appearances, while playing two different Disney princesses. Forget Kendrick's extensive musical theater training — any teenage girl who sings karaoke showtunes probably could have played her part this episode.
But was the playbook necessary? In the three sketches Anna Kendrick had to deliver actual jokes, she surely hit her mark. A month ago, Lena Dunham carried a much heavier burden despite being a first-time host and a far less-experienced performer than Kendrick. Of course, we'll never know what goes on behind the scenes during the week at SNL — some hosts may be less willing to try more demanding material. Whatever the reason, this episode cast Anna Kendrick as an old-school Disney princess: a pretty smile, a lovely voice, but ultimately, never the hero.
GM Recall Cold Open. The cold open saw Kate McKinnon as General Motors CEO Mary Barra, bluntly dodging questions during a hearing in front of Congress. The flat-joke of a public figure evading questions felt pretty unoriginal considering Jon Stewart's editors have been stringing together such montages for the past decade, but I was impressed how much humor McKinnon managed to squeeze out of the bit: "The first rule of new GM is you don't talk about old GM." Taran Killam cutting her off from throwing to the "Live from New York" line was one of the funniest moments we've seen in a cold open in a while.
Monologue. Anna Kendrick wasted little time before whipping out those pipes of hers, bursting into an SNL-themed parody of the opening "Belle" song from Beauty and the Beast. While the number was fun and well executed — I mean, these days, you can't really get cast on SNL if you aren't a triple threat — the bit reminded me of Anne Hathaway's "One Day More" parody from last season, wherein the only joke is that the cast of SNL is singing a well known (and already well-parodied) showtune, with no other twist in the premise to give us any real jokes. There's nothing wrong with kicking off the episode with a big musical number, but considering the rest of the episode was hardly anything but musical numbers, this monologue felt a little unnecessary. (Note, due to musical licensing issues, this sketch isn't available online — which is the case for several of the sketches this episode.)
Fox and Friends VIII. It seems that the only thing preventing the writers from doing "Fox and Friends" every week is the amount of time it takes to write all those corrections scroll jokes (My favorite: "Don Cheadle does not appear if you say "Cheadlejuice" three times"). It's sad that the SNL parody cast has outlived the actual show's — notice how seamlessly Vanessa Bayer has transitioned from Gretchen Carlson to Elizabeth Hasselbeck (I suppose its even sadder that Fox News' bimbos are so prototypical). As usual, despite a totally wandering premise (just in case you get tired of Obamacare jokes, look, here's Kenan as Neal Degrasse-Tyson!), the jokes prevailed, with the highlight being Bayer/Hasselbeck's clueless anecdote about her husband blaming his porn addiction on the Obamacare website.
Dongs All Over the World. Don't get me wrong — I applaud SNL's effort to keep the music video torch ablaze in the post-Lonely Island era, but sometimes this pristine production value doesn't really translate into laughs. In what was probably designed as a follow-up to last December's hilarious "Twin Bed," the ladies of the cast sang a song about, well, penises. International penises. Ultimately, the video came off as a joke-less gender celebration (ala "Boy Dance Party") that the show expects us to accept as another "Dick in a Box." Don't count on it.
Little Mermaid. You never know what you're going to get with these elaborate pop culture parodies — what, did the writers find some joke in The Little Mermaid that no one noticed for 25 years? But luckily the sketch revealed itself as a clever skewering of modern pop singers, with Ursula (Aidy Bryant) confused when the voice Ariel (Anna Kendrick) offers as collateral is the whiny, autotuned speech-singing of Ke$ha and Britney Spears: "That was not a voice. That sounded like a baby having sex." Like Bruno Mars' thrilling "Pandora Intern" last season, this sketch was perfectly suited for Kendrick, but with all the sampling of lyrics, don't expect to find it anywhere online. (Just kidding! Found it here!) Best of the Night.
Flirty. In this short film, Kyle Mooney and Vanessa Bayer played flirty neighbors who just can't seem to make a move: "Would you ever want to go… get… some groceries?" Mooney and Vanessa's perfect chemistry set a nice tone for a piece that was a total change of pace from the joke-laden live sketches and the twisted worlds the Good Neighbor guys normally inhabit. It was nice to see an SNL sketch earn laughs with characters simply being emotionally vulnerable.
Weekend Update. Weekend Update was a solid step up from last week, with Colin Jost and Cecily Strong's slow start eventually leading to some fun banter on the US Memory Championship. Kate McKinnon returned as her hilariously tightly wound Angela Merkel (II), comparing Obama to bad-boy Vladimir Putin, who she fantasizes takes her up to make-out point for some hot "boob touches." With his tiny share of screen time this season, I'm sure Brooks Wheelan was thrilled to get another Update slot to tell his stand-up bit about a prank his roommates played on him when he blacked out. While I enjoy Wheelan's material, I can't help but feel it's not as funny as the jokes the whole SNL writing staff could come up with for an original character piece. Bobby Moynihan closed things out as Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin, who suffers from some amusing writers block: "You know the White Walkers? I literally named them after a white guy walked by me."
Les Jeunes de Paris V. It has been two full years since we've seen Taran Killam's delightfully absurd tribute to French culture — SNL didn't do it once last season — and absence certainly made the heart grow fonder. This instance featured cameos by Marie Antoinette, the orphan girls of Madeline, Jean-Luc Picard, Ruby Rhod from The Fifth Element (whom I didn't know was French, but whatever), and just to make sure all of Anna Kendrick's talent-show skills were utilized, a quick round of cups. If SNL could wait a year between all of its recurring sketches, that would be fine by me.
Principal Frye VI. Jay Pharoah's inner city educator Principal Frye used to be the only contribution of his that I enjoyed, but now that he has managed to better assimilate into the cast, the "Attention teachers and students" schtick has worn its welcome. Sure, the fact that this was the night's third 5+ recurring bit didn't help, but after a while one has to wonder what kind of statement the show is making about those unseen "urban" students, and how many times the writers can get away with targeting an implied offscreen minority group. Meanwhile, Anna Kendrick nailed it as a chirpy zoo employee — her read of the "tig ol' bitties" line made me wish the writers had given her more jokes in other sketches.
Big Joe. Not much to see here — just a simple and amusing character sketch with Taran Killam as a hulking brute unable to lift even the smallest of rocks to save a man from a mine collapse. The night-to-day montage and the image of the town's petite residents moving the heavy boulders gave this sketch some momentum, but there's a reason this one came so late in the episode.
Pharrell Audition. Admittedly I was set against this sketch from the start. Random cameos by the musical guest, especially when he has actual lines, almost always makes for sketch comedy poison, and it certainly did here, with the game of Pharrell's stupid hat totally derailing an admittedly equally annoying premise about fraternal twin sisters (Anna Kendrick, Vanessa Bayer) auditioning as a duo act for a backup singer gig, with Kendrick's sister the only one with real talent. I did appreciate the calling out that the song "Take Me or Leave Me" is a duet between two lesbian characters — not sisters — but that didn't make up for us having to listen to the whole damn song.
NCAA Best of the White Guys. With all the hoops dreams being crushed over the past month, it felt a little harsh to go after the sometimes awkward, slightly-less-athletic white guys on college basketball teams, especially using real footage of actual players. That said, seeing these guys repeatedly get blocked, shoot air balls, and "give the dance circle a try" was pretty hilarious, and no one's going to complain when you make fun of white athletes.
Cut from Dress: Zap! Make sure to check out this delightful mockumentary about a Zoom-like children's show with a dark secret, that unfortunately didn't make it into the live broadcast.
- Despite my negativity over Anna Kendrick's cakewalk role, the episode as a whole played out nicely, with a showcase night for the rest of the cast and several solid sketches. The second half of Season 39 has been remarkably consistent (ignoring the Jim Parsons episode), and while the cast and writers still feel very compartmentalized, the show's heavyweights Taran Killam and Kate McKinnon have kept the excitement alive.
- Best: Little Mermaid. Worst: Pharrell Audition. You'll See It Online: Dongs All Over The World. Worth It For The Jokes: Cold Open.
Bobby Moynihan finally topped the screen time leaderboard this week, after spending far too much time on the sidelines this season. Meanwhile, Nasim Pedrad fell to the bottom — between one of her few sketches ("Zap!") getting cut last minute and the commuting back and forth to LA to shoot episodes of Mulaney, it must be tough for her to get more stuff on the air. Meanwhile, this was a big night for several cast members: more sketch roles were handed out to cast members in this episode than in any other episode this season — a quantitative indicator of Anna Kendrick's relatively diminished role.
- Here's a few other stats for this episode: Eight appearances makes "Fox and Friends" SNL's longest-running current bit. That is, unless they decide to bring back "What Up With That?" There's one resurrection we can pray doesn't happen. Also, with the monologue, "Little Mermaid," "Pharrell Audition," and "NCAA Best of the White Guys" all blocked from Yahoo and Hulu due to various licensing rules, this episode was this season's least friendly to online viewers.
- Aidy Bryant's wig in the cold open was the same as her Ursula wig, right? By the way, her description of it during "Little Mermaid" was hilarious: "Why would I need your hair? Mine is gorgeous! I mean, it's white, slick, straight up, and buzzed on the sides."
- More gold from the "Fox and Friends" correction scroll: "Boeing is a company. Not a sound effect."
- Here's something fun: rewatch "Les Jeunes de Paris," but this time, just watch Bobby Moynihan. You won't regret it.
- Cheadlejuice! Cheadlejuice! Cheadlejuice! Yeah, nothing.
I'll see you next week, when Seth Rogen will host with musical guest Ed Sheeran.
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.