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Monday, April 14th, 2014

'SNL' Review: Seth Rogen Half-Baked

While watching Seth Rogen host SNL for the third time last weekend, I was reminded of two other three-peat hosts from earlier this season: Paul Rudd in December and Jonah Hill in January. Rudd's episode felt like extended promo for Anchorman 2, with the host failing to capture that lightning in the bottle with cast members that made his previous stints so memorable. Hill, however, seemed to enjoy himself every bit as much as he did his first two appearances.

Seth Rogen, Paul Rudd, and Jonah Hill are, of course, hugely successful alumni from Team Judd Apatow, but their careers have taken diverging trajectories. Rogen and Rudd have stuck closely to studio comedies and rom-coms, while Hill has attempted to carve out a larger niche for himself, pursuing meatier roles in Moneyball and The Wolf of Wall Street, and earning Oscar nominations in the process. I have to wonder if Hill's breaking from the pack gave him an edge in his return to SNL; he possessed the calm under pressure of an actor accustomed to playing opposite heavyweights like Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. Meanwhile, Rudd and Rogen both looked like dudes wondering what happened to their old frat buddies – Hader, Samberg, Wiig… you know, the guys! — struggling to recreate the magic with the new cast and clinging to A-list guest stars whenever possible. Rudd and Rogen's pack mentality does them little good if they don't yet accept the new SNL kids as part of that pack.

To be fair, Seth Rogen's episode was a vast improvement from Rudd's, falling right in between that and Jonah Hill's. Yes, Rogen was too often cast as the passive, flustered straight man SNL relegates to weaker hosts, but the episode also gave us one of the most interesting lineups we've seen in a while, with some creatively daring premises, fiery performances, and a few pleasant reminders that Nasim Pedrad and Cecily Strong can still take care of business in sketches. Then again, only half of those daring premises actually paid off, resulting in an episode that felt — forgive me — a little half-baked.

Cold Open: GOP at Coachella. SNL kicked off the night by mocking two white cultural extremes: the apolitical hipsters at Coachella and the hopelessly out of touch leaders of the Republican Party. The clash-of-context premise led to the amusing specifics of Jeb Bush (Beck Bennett) using the term "very ratchet" and Paul Ryan (Taran Killam) getting pegged in the head with a beach ball, but really just the image of these two men trying to work the crowd made this cold open a success.

Monologue. I give credit to the writers for giving Seth Rogen a tangible bit to work with in his monologue: reading a journal he kept over the week and revisiting the ideas he came up with while high, including pranking James Franco by posing as an underage girl on Instagram. However, things unraveled with random cameos by Zooey Deschanel, James Franco, and Taylor Swift, which really just seemed like an attempt to pad out the episode with applause more than anything else.

Shallon III. I was equally impressed that the night's featured sketch was a return of Shallon, Nasim Pedrad's classroom smartass who takes the completely wrong message from school speakers. Giving Pedrad the primetime slot strikes me as a conciliatory move after she's been so MIA over recent weeks, but no matter — Shallon has been her breakout character this season, and even though the bit is starting to feel a little formulaic in its third appearance, it was still a delight to watch her derail Seth Rogen's anti-drug lecture: "If someone asks you if you want to get high, you just say…" "Thanks for the opportunity!"

CNN Pregnancy Test. SNL cleverly mocked CNN's gradual update stream of ongoing stories by applying the same logic to a pregnancy test: "Search for pregnancy enters third week!" While the commercial probably would have hit harder if they didn't dance around the missing Malaysian flight in favor of a wider parody of CNN's coverage style, the POV was clear and the turn at the end was hilarious.

Birthday Dinner. Another oddly placed sketch was this scene with Aidy Bryant as a woman whose arms are in immobilizing casts at a dinner with friends while her husband (Seth Rogen) tries to tend after her. The actors seemed to be aiming for weirdness here, with over-the-top southern accents and bizarre banter, seemingly attempting to make each other break, which they nearly did when Rogen rubbed a steak all over Bryant's face and then farted when she told him to "cut it." The problem was, the stylized delivery felt like a distracting layer atop a weak physical game between Rogen and Bryant — something we might have been OK with later in the night, but not as one of the episode's tentpole sketches.

Monster Pals. One bizarre sketch that did work was this funny short film starring Mike O'Brien as a hideous, discriminated-against monster trying to track down a friend who underwent surgery to look like a normal human. I was impressed that O'Brien made the effort to make his growling sound grounded and authentic, which became even more amusing when we saw him searching for his friend in Washington Square or in the crowd outside The Today Show. The reveal at the end was perfect — a for-once appropriate use of a special guest cameo.

Blue River Dog Food. The most entertaining sketch of the night was this dog food commercial featuring Cecily Strong and Seth Rogen as a married couple who just can't quite let go of the crappy off-brand food they used to feed to their dog: "Give me a break, big-name dog food. What other compromises can we make? You want to have sex with my husband? Bend over, Pat, they wanna get that ass!" The sketch began as a simple parody of obsessed dog lovers but gradually evolved into an explosive screaming match between the two, featuring Strong's finest performance on SNL to date. Best of the Night.

Weekend Update. Colin Jost and Cecily Strong seemed particularly on their game this week, but the news segment hit a bit of a slump with Kenan Thompson's take on Red Sox player David Ortiz, with the joke being that the Dominican athlete loves empanadas and speaks in a thick accent — the kind of broad material that may seem hilarious on Studio 60, but not SNL. Vanessa Bayer closed things out with her sixth appearance as Jacob the Bar Mitzvah Boy (VI), dishing out the typical canned Bar Mitzvah jokes while proving totally incapable of having a normal conversation. Cecily Strong meanwhile proved a worthy replacement of Seth Meyers in this bit — seeing Jacob gush when she called him sweet sets up some fun possibilities for the character.

Engagement Party. Cecily Strong's big night hit a rough patch in this scene about a trashy South Bend cousin who crashes an engagement party by bringing up a past gay experience by the groom (Seth Rogen). Strong's commitment to the character and the super-specific accent was impressive, but made her at times difficult to understand. That, combined with a script that harped too much on that one gay experience, and one that made Nasim Pedrad stand out there the whole time with no lines whatsoever, resulted in a bit of an awkward moment.

Undercover Sharpton. Here's a premise that I love: taking one of Kenan Thompson's more popular impressions out of the stale talk show format and setting him loose in a more fun context… as a fidgety undercover FBI informant in a blaxploitation show. Unfortunately, the execution didn't live up to the clever premise, with Thompson hamming up the nervousness in front of a couple of mobsters. Had the writers given this concept the same amount of energy they gave "Dyke & Fats," this could have been so much more.

420. The night's drug humor hit a peak with Kyle Mooney bringing his beloved wannabe-stoner character to SNL, in a video that explained the various made-up 4/20 holiday traditions, including the mythical figure Bob Blinger and singing ridiculous carols like "Bing Bong Rollie Jays." Of course, the most fun aspect of the character is that despite his obsession with all things weed-related, he doesn't smoke. At all.

Herman & Sons. The night's uneven second half was redeemed by this fun commercial for a closing sperm bank trying to get rid of its stock before it converts into a yogurt stand. It was a perfect gross-out premise with some wonderfully vivid jokes: "We are swimming in hobo sperm!"

Additional Thoughts:

  • Best: "Blue River Dog Food." Worst: "Engagement Party." Worth It For The Jokes: "Herman & Sons." You'll See It Online: "CNN Pregnancy Test."
  • Cecily Strong topped the screen time leader board with her most commanding night of the season — big roles in "Blue River Dog Food," "Engagement Party," "Birthday Dinner," and of course, Weekend Update. Meanwhile, Jay Pharoah fell to the bottom of the list for the fist time this season, with only one tiny appearance as a sympathetic bully in "Monster Pals."
  • Beck Bennett's casting as Jeb Bush is certainly a good sign for the freshman cast member. Whether or not the former Florida governor runs in 2016, the fact that the writers trusted him with the role is a good indicator of his solid footing on the show.
  • While it rarely scores the big laughs, I really love Jacob's heartfelt tags after his punchlines: "But seriously, Ethan, even though you tried a cigarette, and then got mad at me when I told mom and dad, you'll always be my cool older brother."
  • It's probably not worth complaining about it any more, but the SNL writers could try a little to change up the beats with these recurring sketches. Shallon's not even the worst perpetrator, but we still know it's going to start with Kate McKinnon making some joke about the lonely thing she's going to do in her car, followed by Shallon wrongly interpreting the lecture, then the other kids getting on board, then Shallon being invited up to the front for a role play, then Shallon turning it on its head by making it about her broken home life, then Bobby shouting at the speaker for not playing along, etc. I mean, there have gotta be other funny ways Shallon can do her thing.
  • We're getting close to the end, folks! After this three-week break will be the last three episodes of the season, starting with Andrew Garfield and Coldplay on May 3. Who would you like to see host the final two episodes? Now that Colbert has inked his deal with arch rival network CBS, it's unlikely we'll ever see him get the SNL gig. Personally, I think it's time we see Amy Poehler and Jon Hamm come back to host the show. It's been three damn years, after all.

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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  • famousmortimer

    I don't see any reason why going to CBS (in a year) would make Colbert any less likely a host – they've had an actual CBS sitcom star host as recently as a few weeks ago, for instance. I get the feeling we're more likely to see him now he's dropping the character…I've been watching the 1995-7 era, and he pops up from time to time, and not always in TV Funhouse either.

    I could live without seeing Amy Poehler again. There's only one cast member left from her time on the show, and I…actually, I'm just bored of Parks and Rec, no reflection on her. She'd probably be great.

    I'd love to see Jon Hamm, even though it seems like he's in that "if you're in town and want to do it, we'll put you in a sketch" position that's also filled by Tom Hanks. If we're talking crazy dream hosting gigs, I'd love to see Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul host together; Emma Stone; Charlie Day and Danny DeVito; Charles Barkley; Channing Tatum.

    • eavoss

      A CBS primetime sitcom star is one thing (in addition to Parsons they've also booked Neil Patrick Harris and Melissa McCarthy), but a rival network's late night star — considered by many to be a face of the network — is another entirely. SNL is an NBC late night show, and I don't imagine Lorne wanting to give any attention to the guy in direct competition with Jimmy and Seth, whose shows he executive produces. Colbert hosting SNL isn't out of the realm of possibility, but considering we've never seen any non-NBC late night host on SNL, ever, it's highly unlikely.

      • famousmortimer

        Hmm…you're right. This is a weird sensation on the internet. I can't cope with a non-flame response.

        I was pondering this, and late night somewhere other than NBC started with Letterman 20 years ago, so it's not that surprising none of the (very few) other late night hosts have done SNL.

  • BillBrasky

    i was really hoping that Emma Stone would host again this season, especially since there are so many strong female cast members for her to work off of right now (I imagine they could have done something with her similar to the "Twin Bed" or "Dongs All Over the World" videos), plus Noel Wells does a pretty good imitation of her so they could have worked that into the show as well. I am sure given that she is dating Garfield that she will at least make a cameo somewhere on the show, but it's too bad she decided not to return for a third hosting stint.

  • MK

    Blue River Dog Food was twice as long as it should have been, and Engagement Party was a weak premise made worse with hackneyed jokes and poor character choices. Update has been nothing but stiff since Jost joined the desk–he and Strong seem to have fun when they're doing bits on their own, but they hardly interact because the chemistry just isn't there. It's like watching two people telling jokes in two separate rooms. Thompson might be the 'go-to' for bits and impression-based sketches, but it's because it works. They may not be particularly accurate, but they're hilariously outlandish and, as you've mentioned in previous write ups, he's clearly having fun, and the cast that gets to work with him in those sketches also seem to be having fun, all of which reads well and engages the audience.

    I "get" why Mooney's videos are funny, but more often than not they veer into absurdity and they lack the re-watch factor that most of the Digital Shorts achieved–unless you happen to be familiar with his brand of humor or his comedy team. Don't get me wrong–I think Mooney has been a worthwhile addition to the cast and shines in sketches; his videos are just obnoxious (save for last week's video with Bayer). I think this weekend's episode suffered from a lack of Kate McKinnon (who I still think would have been a better Weekend Update anchor) and Taran Killam, both of whom can save anything.

    • Stuie299

      Kate McKinnon would have been a great choice for WU, but like Thompson she is used too frequently for impressions. I think Beck Bennett or Mike O'Brien would have been good choices but it makes more sense to have a male/female dynamic. Realistically Strong was the best choice out of all the female cast members.

      • famousmortimer

        I'm not sure why they need / want two Update hosts. Fey and Fallon worked because they were obviously good friends, and had fantastic comic chemistry. I bet if I watched their third ever episode presenting Update it would be a million times better than Jost and Strong. I think they've made a huge mistake putting Jost in the chair, as he's the sort of person who's just not funny or charismatic enough to land another job, and will be there til Lorne kicks him out of the door…or, god forbid, he's still the head writer when Lorne retires and he gets the gig of running the show.

        • Stuie299

          What you're saying actually makes a lot of sense. I totally understand why they would want to have Jost as a WU anchor, but given how unfunny he's been I also could see him being replaced. I'd give Strong one more shot at WU with a new partner. I've never really cared for her, but she's been somewhat better as a WU anchor.

  • Anthony Coro

    I'm definitely up for Poehler hosting again, but since next year will presumably be the last for Parks & Rec, it might be more suitable to have her then, rather than right after the latest season just wrapped.

    Blue River is one of those classic sketches that starts off and you're thinking, "Ok, this is going nowhere, please end already" and by the end, it left you wanting more.

  • http://www.telescreen.org Vidiot

    I loved that Shallon's shirt has the "The More You Know" star from all those NBC PSAs.

    And Cecily Strong really impressed me with her acting chops in this episode. Blue River was an especially great sketch.

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  • emilykwells2188

    I think Shallon is possibly the most annoying character on SNL right now. I do NOT get the accent she puts on for that character and it falls flat for me… Maybe I'm missing something?

    • famousmortimer

      I really like her, even if the joke is largely the same every time. It's not too regular a bit, it works (I think) and there's usually a few good solid laughs in there.

      There are always going to be sketches you either really like or really hate, independent almost of the quality of the material. There's a Tim Meadows bit from his time on the show, "Perspectives", that has me in stitches every time even though I know the actual material isn't that amazing.

      I imagine this'll be Shallon's last time on the show anyway (if Pedrad is still in the cast next season, I'll be very surprised).

  • Austin

    Aidy Bryant is the most annoying cast member ever. Girlfriends talk show was good at first, but it started to get on my nerves after it became a recurring sketch. And it pisses me off when people say that she's "funny" when really she has no talent what so ever. That's like saying someone who sucks at comedy is funnier than any stand-up comedian or comedienne in the world. Next season, Lorne Michaels needs to fire Aidy Bryant

    • eavoss

      Can you provide any specific moments in which you found Aidy notably annoying or unfunny? Granted, Girlfriends Talk Show lost a bit of steam after the first time, but that happens to all recurring sketches, and that's not Aidy's fault. She consistently executes what the writers give her and brings a fun energy to her roles. Some viewers have pointed out she falls back on that sassy, sexed-up schtick a bit too often, but I think people tend to unfairly go after female castmembers that way. "Kate McKinnon always does this thing with her eyes that's SO annoying," or "Kristen Wiig's characters are so shrill… ugh!" Whereas you never hear people attack Mike O'Brien for playing white nerds or Kyle Mooney for playing mumbly awkward guys. Of course, you can dislike a female cast member without being sexist, but without any specific examples of roles she totally flat-lined in, and by saying things like she's "the most annoying cast member ever" (Really? More than Victoria Jackson?), you sound like a hater who's not really that invested in the show. In which case, I'll direct you to Entertainment Weekly's comment boards.