When I started reviewing SNL three years ago, I was proud to consider myself a defender of the show. Of course, not that the mainstream pop culture institution needed any defending. My frustration was with the show's cynical viewers — online critics, comedy nerds, pretty much everyone in my hometown — who had jumped on the hip bandwagon of dismissing SNL as "not as funny as it used to be." It didn't matter to them that the show is broadcasted live, with each episode written and produced in less than six days. Even if SNL managed to pull off a handful of good sketches week after week, that wasn't good enough.
Critics were too blinded by SNL's tenure to give it the fair assessment they gave fresher sketch shows like Key & Peele and Portlandia. Even worse, they were far too quick to slap grades and scores to sketches without having any practical understanding of sketch structure or game. SNL is staffed with some of the sharpest comedy minds in the business, and the product of their labors deserves better-thought-out analysis than "I laughed so hard," or "I didn't get it."
But man, after three years of trying to be fair — even doing away with my "what hit" and "what missed" breakdowns for being overly reductive — an episode like this one makes me want to join the haters, give SNL a big thumbs-down, and leave it at that.
Any other week I'd be able to make an educated guess as to why some sketches worked and others didn't; how inspired concepts fell victim to poor execution; how a host's charisma magically brought an episode together. But after all the theorizing I've done about Lorne Michaels' mythical thought-process, while watching this episode, I can humbly resign that I just didn't get it. I didn't get how the writers could return after a three-week break without any better ideas than "Celebrity Family Feud" or "Spider-Man and Emma Stone don't know how to kiss." I didn't get how a dynamic host like Andrew Garfield could be limited to such stale premises, or why the episode contained an abnormally low amount of sketches to begin with. I didn't get how SNL could take a golden goose of a news story like Donald Sterling and come back with a cold open that was perhaps the laziest possible take on it. I didn't get why the show would take its two of its most popular characters and run them into the ground within the same five minutes.
I thought I got Leslie Jones' Weekend Update bit, but a lot of people on Twitter apparently did not.
I still love this show. I want it to have good episodes — partially so I can rub it in the haters' faces, but mostly because even after all these years, I think there's still something novel about a 90-minute live broadcast of comedy sketches written a few days in advance, and the TV-lover in me wants to see SNL defy the odds and succeed, as they have done time and time again.
This week… not so much.
Cold Open: Donald Sterling Press Conference. All week long viewers had anticipated how SNL would spin the Donald Sterling frenzy, which came just in time as the staff returned from its brief hiatus. SNL answered with a pretty predictable and middle-of-the-road press conference cold open, with Bobby Moynihan as the unapologetic owner of the LA Clippers. Moynihan's Sterling didn't bring anything new to the table — the writers mocked his casual racism without digging deeper into his warped point of view, like a less-funny (and sober) Drunk Uncle. However, Moynihan gave us a fine bit of physical comedy when he squirmed at Jay Pharoah's Dennis Rodman's shoulder grab.
Monologue. I can't imagine how anyone who works on SNL is comfortable with the amount of times they've dusted off the "first-time host is nervous, veteran host gives advice" monologue. I don't care if it gives Lorne an excuse to trot out Emma Stone for some free cheers from the crowd — it deprives the host of winning us over with a more elaborate, personalized routine. Andrew Garfield would prove to be a fully capable host, with versatile vocal delivery and strong timing. SNL thought differently, it seemed — the few times we saw Garfield on stage, he was playing second fiddle to other cast members… or to Emma Stone.
Stanx. This wasn't my favorite fake commercial SNL has done in recent months (that would be the wonderful "Bird Bible," which SNL re-aired at the end of the night for what was probably timing reasons). But compared to the rest of the episode, this ad for male Spanx that inflate to contain farts took care of business well enough, and was worth it at least for the hilarious shock wave from a day's worth of Stanx gasses being vented.
Celebrity Family Feud II. I'm beginning to worry that SNL is using "Celebrity Family Feud" as its home-base recurring game show sketch — at least "Celebrity Jeopardy" only had three celebrity contestants to burn time introducing, compared to Feud's eight. After watching Justin Timberlake mug it up as Jimmy Fallon in the Christmas episode, Andrew Garfield apparently walked into the writers room ready to give the same treatment to his Social Network costar, to which the writers must have responded, "Shit, why not let everyone do impressions?" The result was another one of those long, hit-or-miss impression showcases SNL loves to do, giving us occasionally worthwhile laughs as Garfield's JT popped in and out of frame and Taran Killam's (a bit dated) Russell Crowe barked Les Miserables lyrics at us.
Oliver. This parody of the Dickens tale gave way to an odd character sketch with Cecily Strong as Deidre, a hungry adult orphan piggybacking onto Oliver Twist as he asks for more gruel. While it's easy to imagine the generic intrusive character bringing down the house if played by someone like Melissa McCarthy (the sketch almost feels like it was written for her), Strong's POV and bizarrely out of place accent were never quite explained, making the sketch seem a little confusing.
Beygency. The night's one true moment of redemption was this fake trailer for a movie about a man on the run from an Adjustment Bureau-like agency after making a harmless negative comment about Beyonce's new album. Written by Sarah Schneider and Chris Kelly, and directed by Rhys Thomas, the video nailed the Beyonce worship while hitting all the right action thriller notes, including 24's Kiefer Sutherland and Mary Lynn Rajskub dropping in as a couple of rogue Rihanna fans who suffer an amusingly gory fate. One must wonder why the "Queen B" herself never showed up, especially when SNL finally has a cast member who can play her. But that small complaint aside, this sketch stood miles above the rest. Best of the Night.
Weekend Update. While we still don't know what to make of Colin Jost and Cecily Strong as a pair, the two at least managed to get a few individual laughs — Strong with a clever dig at George Clooney and Jost with a funny line about cheerleading. As much as I enjoy both characters, I was disappointed to see Kate McKinnon's Olya Povlatsky (III) and Taran Killam's Jebediah Atkinson (III). In their third appearances, both characters seemed to cross over into "overused" territory, with the miserable Olya now self-aware enough to make one-liners about Full House and the snarky Jebediah making some stale jokes about Broadway musicals (the brief confusion over Killam accidentally saying "Tommy" was an enjoyable moment, though given his pattern for breaking in the character, I'm not entirely sure it wasn't pre-planned). That brings us to the routine by writer Leslie Jones, one of the two black female writers hired in January. The comedian joked about what it means to be black and beautiful, going into an arguably edgy bit about how much better her love live would have been if she was a slave:
But back in the slave days, my love life would have been better. Master would have hooked me up with the best brother on the plantation, and every nine months I’d be in the corner popping out super babies. I’d just keep popping them out. Shaq. Kobe. LeBron. Kimbo Slice. Sinbad. I would be the number one slave draft pick.
The bit led to several angry responses on Twitter, to which Jones passionately defended herself. (Check out some of the tweets and Jones' response here.) Now, speaking as a "humor-over-political-correctness" purist, I enjoyed Jones' jokes and didn't find anything wrong with a black woman making light of slavery — a subject mined for humor plenty of times by Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, and, yeah, SNL. I'm also in no position to tell other people that they shouldn't be offended. Ultimately, I'm just happy that SNL is finally at a place where they can address these issues and is giving exposure to comedians who are actually fit to address them.
Spider-Man Kiss. Considering how cross-promotional Andrew Garfield's hosting gig on SNL already seemed, given the opening weekend of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (and its trailer popping up in the night's first commercial break), it was difficult to enjoy this sketch with Garfield and Emma Stone sharing a series of awkward kisses while filming a scene from the film. Admittedly I was somewhat impressed with the mileage Garfield and Stone got out of the gag — blowing in and out of each other's mouths, sucking on her chin, etc. — but all the effort made the ending that much more of a letdown when Coldplay's Chris Martin didn't actually go through with it. Come on, Chris, it's not like Gwyneth will care at this point.
Wedding Speech. If there was a runner-up to "Beygency," it was this scene in which Andrew Garfield played a best man trying to steal away the bride with an ambitious wedding toast confession… just to deal with the awkward fallout when she turns him down. This sketch had a nice "reveal game" structure, which scored some big laughs when Garfield had to return to the floor to "You've Got A Friend In Me."
As much as I loved "Bird Bible" when it first aired in the Jim Parsons episode, I won't review it again here because it was a re-broadcast. SNL has been pretty good with timing this season and hasn't had to awkwardly re-air clips from old episodes, so it was a little disappointing to see it happen, especially since it meant we didn't get to see…
Cut from Dress: Wing. It was a shame this sketch from Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett didn't make it into the live broadcast (it seems like it was a minute and a half too long to fit in the episode's closing minutes, so directors aired the shorter "Bird Bible" instead). This bizarre parody of 90s-era after-school specials might have been the Good Neighbor guys' funniest SNL video yet, and it was desperately needed in such a weak episode. Watch it and share it far and wide.
- Another sketch that got cut from dress rehearsal — but deservedly so — was "Touch O'Heat," starring Kenan Thompson and Brooks Wheelan as radio DJs gnawing on barbecue ribs. You can watch it on Hulu, but unless you're desperate to see Wheelan get more to screen time, there are probably better ways to spend your five minutes.
- Outgoing SNL writer and future Daily Show correspondent Michael Che jumped to Leslie Jones' defense on Twitter, arguing with viewers upset with Jones' Update bit. One of his tweets: "i only do this cause i know how hard we work on the show. we make 90mins of LIVE comedy produced in a week. & an idiot gets to critique it." Not all of us are idiots… but yeah, I hope he doesn't read this review.
- Best: "Beygency." Worst: "Celebrity Family Feud." You'll See It Online: (hopefully) "Wing." Worth It For The Jokes: Weekend Update.
- Taran Killam topped the screen time leader board this week, with big roles as Jebediah Atkinson, Adam Silver, and Russell Crowe. Mike O'Brien fell to the bottom, with only one brief appearance in "Stanx." If you're missing O'Brien, it's worth checking out his Chicago Rats videos he has been making with Tim Robinson.
- Kate McKinnon has truly emerged as the breakout star of this season. Although her take on Olya Povlatsky this episode got a little too loose for my taste, it's a delight to watch her have so much fun in smaller roles — Shakira in "Celebrity Family Feud," the weird orphanage lady in "Oliver." While several other cast members seem to be working hard for laughs, McKinnon has settled into a nice groove in the cast.
- I forgot to mention it during my takedown of the cold open, but Kenan Thompson's appearance as an NAACP chairman trying to explain why he accepted Donald Sterling's money was priceless: "Look… Come on… I mean, it's 10 million dollars. (Pause.) Look…"
- Cecily Strong's great George Clooney joke that must have made Tina and Amy very proud: "This week, Amal Alamuddin, a brilliant Oxford-educated human rights lawyer and former UN advisor… settled for a 52-year-old man."
- Andrew Garfield was pretty reliable when it came to jokes, which makes it all the more a shame he didn't get more of them. I found his Oliver Twist particularly amusing: "Me? But I'm a pussy!"
- Look at that, Aidy Bryant actually was in The Amazing Spider-Man 2! Now why can SNL make fun of that but refuse to make any reference whatsoever to Taran Killam's fairly major role in "Best Picture" winner 12 Years A Slave?
- I plan to write a longer piece on this subject, but I've been curious as to why SNL has had so much trouble producing successful live sketches this season, while relying so heavily on pre-taped film shorts, fake commercials, music videos, and promo/trailer parodies. Anyone else find it weird that the best parts of Saturday Night Live are increasingly the ones that aren't "live"?
I'll see you next week, when Charlize Theron will host with musical guest The Black Keys.
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.