Monday, May 12th, 2014

'SNL' Review: Ladies Night with Charlize Theron

Well, that was quite a turnaround.

To everyone who commented on last week's tirade against Andrew Garfield's lackluster episode that it was about time I gave up on SNL: this episode right here is why I still love this show, and why I will never give up on it. The 90 minutes was about as solid as it gets, with a low-expectations host Charlize Theron blending in seamlessly with the cast, the writers performing on overdrive, and even a few head-turning live-TV moments. We haven't seen this level of consistency since Kerry Washington hosted in November — an episode with which this one shared a few interesting parallels, which we'll get to later.

Other than the uncharacteristically high quality of material (for this season, at least), what interested me the most about this episode was how much it showcased the women of the cast. Granted, SNL typically uses its Mother's Day episode to celebrate the ladies, which was certainly the case in past seasons with Kristen Wiig, Tina Fey, and Betty White (even Will Ferrell's episode in 2012 seemed geared towards the fairer sex). But what makes this season different is how much of a female-driven show SNL already seems, with Cecily Strong anchoring Weekend Update and Kate McKinnon and Aidy Bryant often running circles around their male counterparts in sketches. Fey and Wiig, along with Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph and a number of others before them, paved the way for an era of SNL in which women running the show isn't too out of the ordinary. And despite some viewers' ire towards Leslie Jones' set during Update last week — which, offensive or not, was pretty damn funny and exactly the kind of thing SNL should be doing more often — it speaks volumes about the show's progressivism that its black women, who initially seemed like obligatory hires in January, are voices Lorne Michaels actually intends on putting front and center.

I wouldn't go as far as saying this episode was a success directly because it was a ladies night, but it's definitely a better sign that these days, SNL can have a ladies night without it being newsworthy.

Cold Open: Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton. The episode opened with a special Mother's Day message from the current and former First Ladies, played by Sasheer Zamata (her first appearance as Michelle Obama, surprisingly) and Vanessa Bayer. The sketched echoed Tina Fey and Amy Poehler's classic Sarah Palin / Hillary Clinton bit, however it fell far short. For one, neither of Zamata's or Bayer's impressions seemed to hit as hard as their predecessors' — Bayer's shout-y delivery seemed to veer into her Miley Cyrus at times — but what mostly held the piece back was the odd choice to present the two women as frienemies. Stuck in a disingenuous PSA is one thing, but passive aggressively taking shots at each other's accomplishments? I'm not sure if I buy that. Despite being the weakest moment of a strong night, the cold open was good for a few laughs, from Bayer's icy glares to the well-put line that summed up Hillary's frustration perfectly: "For years, I was flying all over the world, dealing with some of the worst humanitarian crises. But, you know, I suppose it's also tough to make a chubby kid eat an apple!"

Seeing Zamata play Michelle Obama made me recall another cold open — back in November of this season, when Kerry Washington helped SNL mock its own whitewashed cast by playing the First Lady (as well as Oprah and Beyonce, all in the same sketch). It's interesting to see the arc of the show's depiction of Mrs. Obama, from the joke being the fact that the show didn't have a cast member to play the part, to finally having a black female in the cast and being able to do a sketch that has nothing to do with SNL's diversity problem. Despite the sketch's comedic shortcomings, it was a satisfying image to begin the night.

Monologue. Like most of you, I imagine, I had completely forgotten that Charlize Theron had ever hosted SNL, even if I do remember the "Gemini's Twin" sketch from 2000 that she referenced. I'll admit that after a few years of writing these recaps, my arms fold pretty tightly when a host ramps into a musical monologue, even if the joke was that Theron couldn't sing. But by the end of it, I found myself enjoying the piece for its sharp execution and the fun side-jokes by the supporting cast members, with Beck Bennett shamelessly ogling her breasts and Kate McKinnon snapping at everyone for consoling the beautiful, jack-of-all-trades host: "What are we doing? She's fine."

Mom Game Show. As with the monologue, I groaned a bit when I saw SNL lead off with another familiar structure of subverted game show — a very mom-ish mom creates a game show to keep in touch with her grown children — a simple enough concept that should please the heartland viewers. But again, the flawless execution made this sketch sing, with the writers packing the script with jokes and McKinnon's hokey delivery keeping things moving along nicely. I particularly enjoyed the round of "Which Emails Did I Send?" with clues such as "Uncle Dick Passed" and "Fw: Fw: Fw: Fw: celery salad." A case study in making even the broadest of concepts work by filling it with as many jokes as possible.

Girlfriends Talk Show VI. This overused recurring sketch still seems to be doing just fine with the studio audience, despite more or less hitting the same beats every time. While Cecily Strong's Kira hasn't managed to do anything funnier than chirp "Awesome!" and go into uncomfortable detail about her psychopath boyfriends, Aidy Bryant's Morgan remains an amusing source of one-liners, particularly when she gawked at the word "anus" being spoken on TV: "It's near the underneath, and it's the worst part of the privates." Meanwhile, Charlize Theron seemed completely at ease as Miss Christine, the girl's former drama teacher: "She wears jeans… and she's a teacher. Only in America."

Dragon Babies. The episode picked up the pace with this HBO First Look following voiceover actor Rick Shoulders (dumb name alert!), a retired Chicago police officer, doing the voices on a kids' animated dragon movie. Mike O'Brien dished out some killer character work, with gruff line reads, confused ad-libs, and frequent wheezing, which made for a perfect clash of context when played over the images of adorable cartoon dragons. I especially enjoyed the exploration of Shoulders' grim backstory: "Unarmed guy, going for his wallet… couldn't tell what he had. Shot him 10 times." It's remarkable the lengths SNL's film crew will go to for a simple character piece — according to Seth Meyers' tweet, the sketch was written when he was still working on the show, meaning it took 2-3 months (at least) to put together all those animated sequences. Well worth the trouble, I would say.

Heshi II. Yet another parallel between this episode and Kerry Washington's was the appearance of Nasim Pedrad's motivational speaker Heshi, a recently nationalized foreigner who shares upbeat anecdotes from her lonely life and pumps things up with gunfire hip-thrusts. This second installment may have been an improvement on the first, with a smart peas-in-a-pod adjustment of Charlize Theron joining Pedrad as Gail, which built up to a pretty hilarious HESHI/GAIL-off. Whatever your thoughts are on the bit, it at least provides a nice burst of energy to the lineup, which works just fine so long as SNL doesn't overuse the character too much.

Weekend Update. The news segment was back with another installment of solid jokes delivered by anchors who have virtually no chemistry with each other, even with that odd "breaking nudes" gag. With Barbara Walters heading into retirement, SNL honored the journalist/View cohost by showing a quick reel of the past cast members who have impersonated her (Gilda Radner, Rachel Dratch, Nasim Pedrad, and Cherri O'Teri), then by inviting Walters out to the desk to do a few tired jokes about soft lens focus. Walters managed, but Lorne showed a pretty risky level of trust giving her such a substantial block of jokes to get through. Bobby Moynihan closed things out with another enjoyable return of Drunk Uncle (IX), ranting about graduation season — "When I graduated from exterminator school, all I got was keys to a dirty van and fibromyalgia!" – and singing gibberish lyrics to "I Believe I Can Fly" before breaking down into tears. While Drunk Uncle seems to have the Update desk staying power of Stefon, I wouldn't mind if the writers mixed up the structure of the bit every now and then — for example, I don't think it's out of the realm of possibility that he would physically threaten Harvard-boy Colin or try to make a move on Cecily.

Bikini Beach Party. The writers must have been pining for a bizarre, explosive moment as much as I have been… what other reason to do this insanely wonderful scene? From an analytical standpoint, this sketch was all over the map — a parody of campy '60s surf movies, the random bullying of Aidy Bryant's Gretchen ("You've ruined your own summer. Don't ruin ours." "I got Scarlet Fever!"), and of course, the whole gas-filled beached whale thing — but screw it. I loved everything about ballsy, elaborate setup, and any logical issues were worth the payoff of Taran Killam and Charlize Theron getting covered with bloody whale guts… twice. Having a bloodsoaked Theron come back out to introduce the Black Keys was a fun "Hey, this is live TV" touch. Is it too much to shower your host in whale guts every episode, SNLBest of the Night.

Whiskers R We. Those who were less smitten with exploding whales as I was should have at least been overjoyed with this hilarious infomercial with Kate McKinnon and Charlize Theron as crazed cat-lovers. You can't go wrong when you feature live animals in a sketch, especially when you frame up the camera tight on an adorable kitten and call him a "little dumbass" or a "feline sociopath." McKinnon and Theron's deliveries were simply too good here, with endless funny exchanges: "I would adopt her myself, but I guess I should start with trying to get my kids back first." "Probably… good goal!"

Tourists. The night ended with an enjoyable man-on-the-street video (a nice change of pace from the obviously composed reaction shots the show would do earlier in the season), with cast members playing foreign tourists asking New Yorkers bizarre questions, Borat-style. While I'm not totally convinced Charlize Theron, Jay Pharoah, and Bobby Moynihan would go unrecognized around town (even in costume), assuming the interactions we saw were genuine, it was an interesting stunt for SNL to pull with its cast members that produced a number of funny moments, from Theron slowly walking away after giving people her camera to Beck Bennett asking people where he is on a map of Chicago.

Cut from Dress: Cocktail Hour. If you judged an episode by the quality of the sketches that didn't make it into the live broadcast, this episode would top the season. This beautifully shot Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? parody featured an excellent build of sight gags that make it a massive shame television audiences missed out. Like last week's "Wing," this short film deserves as many views and shares as we can give it.

Cut from Dress: Mornin' Miami III. With the live episode only containing 10 comedy segments instead of the normal 11 or 12, it's not surprising we'd be left with so much show-ready material. Case in point: this strong return of one of the better recurring sketches this season, featuring Bobby Moynihan, Kate McKinnon, and Charlize Theron as life-hating morning news anchors recording bizarre promos. (Watch the video here.)

Cut from Dress: Viper. Poor John Milhiser was completely shut out of the episode when this character sketch didn't make it into the live broadcast — the fact that he was front and center waving during the goodbyes implies that it may have been cut last minute… damn. Here, Milhiser played Viper, a tough-guy boyfriend completely unaware of his petiteness… until we get to a fun late-in-the-scene reveal.

Additional Thoughts:

  • It may seem unwarranted to give an episode so much praise when it contained few season-best highlights, but this episode had all the goods: consistency throughout the night, risk, a ridiculously high joke count, strong videos, fine performances by the cast, and a truly stellar host. Charlize Theron was at the top of her game, completely disappearing into roles and seemingly detached from cue cards. A host like Theron is the intangible factor that separates a great episode from the merely good ones. I may feel differently in a week, but this… was a great episode.
  • Hillary Clinton is a pretty significant get for Vanessa Bayer, considering it seemed as if she was up against Kate McKinnon for the role of the presumptive 2016 candidate. Assuming Bayer continues in the role, that alone could secure her spot in the cast for at least the next three seasons.
  • Best: "Bikini Beach Party," "Kittens R We." Worst: Cold Open. You'll See It Online: "Dragon Babies," (hopefully) "Cocktail Hour." Worth It For The Jokes: "Mom Game Show."
  • Kate McKinnon topped the screen time leaderboard this week, with big roles in "Mom Game Show" and "Kittens R We." And as much as I hate to rub it in, John Milhiser once again came in at the bottom, with only what sounded like his voice in "Dragon Babies."
  • Morgan from "Girlfriends Talk Show" got grounded from using Google after searching for "Ron Weasley topless." The obvious assumption was that she actually meant "Rupert Grint topless," but I like to think she was in the mood for some hot fan-made drawings of the literary character.
  • In the latest example of writers just not giving a damn how they end their live sketches so long as they just end with something, here is Vanessa Bayer's wonderful closing line to "Heshi": "Hi there. They're towing everyone's cars."
  • "Bikini Beach Party" was packed with great throwaway lines. My favorite: "I love surf music! It's just kind of nothing!"
  • I really just can't get enough of Kate McKinnon and Charlize Theron's awkward sexual chemistry in "Kittens R We": "That's my arm and I think you know that."
  • Finally, for anyone keeping track (I think it's just you and me at this point, Megh Wright), this episode was pretty generous when it came to new additions for this season's Stupid Name List: Rick Shoulders, Gadget, Barbara Jer-Drew, and Cat Muller, whose name used to be Jackie, but she changed it to reflect her interests.

I'll see you next week, when Andy Samberg will host the season finale with musical guest St. Vincent.

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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  • unknowing theron fan

    Every time Charlize Theron does something funny, I've forgotten how funny she is. My reaction is always "Charlize Theron? I don't know if she was the right choice… oh, she's really good! Wait, she was good in Young Adult, too! And Between Two Ferns! And Arrested Development…"

  • JoshUng

    I have to admit, I really didn't care for this episode. The Heishi skit I didn't care for either time, (but I did like the line "respect my ability to assess a bucket" in the first one), and the different accents Theron did were distracting.

    I did like how Theron wasn't just playing the straight character (except for the Mom game show), but overall, the episode fell flat for me, except for Whiskers R We.

    • HK

      I agree… I'm surprised by this review. I usually am a softer critic but I wasn't laughing much through the whole thing.

  • zen weapons

    I'm a fan of Heshi and most Nasim characters in general so I'm glad to see her getting some attention before she's gone. The Mom Game Show sketch was good for being a typical game show. Bikini Beach Party was pretty good and the Cat sketch got the biggest laugh of the night from me with the sociopath line and how you should get 2nd cat for him to focus it on. Tourists was amusing as well, I like that they're doing man on the street segments now. Dragon Babies was ok but for how expensive and long it was I'm not sure if it entirely paid off for me, I had to wonder if they were parodying that small town cop show they show on The Soup. Everything else was pretty uneventful so in general it was an okay episode balanced out by some pretty good (weird) sketches. I'm glad it really showcased the talented female members of the cast because that has to be their biggest strength right now.

  • Mike Mike

    I wish the show did a better job on incorporating more of the cast in sketches. It seems like this year, more than most, the sketches have been geared towards the host + 1 or 2 cast members (Whiskers R' We, Heshi, Bikini Beach Party, Girlfriends Talk Show). With such a deep roster it would be nice to see more players involved on a regular basis.

  • famousmortimer

    Just goes to show how subjective comedy can be. I thought this was comfortably the worst episode of the season, perhaps the worst since Elton John hosted, just an almost complete lack of anything remotely funny.

    I thought the Mom game show was great, nice and silly. But everything else flopped. I absolutely hate man-on-the-street stuff, which is the laziest form of comedy there is. Yes, people will try and be nice, even if you're really strange! Thank you for proving that to me for the 454543662th time!

    Anyway, no sense breaking it down any more. But a word on Update- Colin Jost is the worst. Just not funny, and makes Seth look like Norm. If they keep him on, then I think it's indicative of a complete absence of caring about comedy from people at the top of the show. Although there are far too many cast members (Pedrad, Milhiser and hopefully Thompson to be gone at the end of the season?) the real problem is the writing. Jost may be a lovely guy, but he's not good enough to be the head writer of a show like SNL. He's not a tenth the comic talent that Adam McKay or Tina Fey is, and he's not even as good as Seth.

    Please, hire some funnier writers. and while I appreciate this view isn't shared by you as you enjoyed it, this just wasn't good enough.

    • fritofromla

      I thought the episode was fine, but I agree 100% regarding Colin. If that guy is the head writer, future seasons have no hope. When he does WU, it doesn't look like he's enjoying himself. Not every head writer needs to be a performer, obviously. But its concerning when he doesn't appear to like any of the jokes. It's comedy, guy. Lighten up.

    • eavoss

      I'll give you that Colin makes for a rather bland Weekend Update host. But his flat delivery of news jokes has zero connection whatsoever to his abilities as head writer. The reality is that the output from the writers room hasn't changed all that much since Seth Meyers' time running it. For example, Dragon Babies was actually written 2-3 months ago, before Colin took over. Yes, I was a little annoyed at the number of recurring sketches and familiar sketch structures, but that has been the case for literally every episode for the past 10 years. I'll take exploding whales whenever I can get them.

      Considering that episode lineups are decided by Lorne, the head writer, and the host, I think there's a good chance that Colin may still be picking his battles and letting Lorne stick to his formula more than Seth would. But that is pure speculation on my part. I'm not in that room. Neither are you. So you're in no position to speak to how good of head writers Adam McKay or Tina Fey were. You can disagree on whether or not you find something funny, but you can't claim to know what it's like to work with someone.

      • Damian

        The "you're in no position to speak" position isn't a fair one because that applies to everything in the world across the board. Are you allowed to have opinions of Obama and Bush? I guess not.

        Pretty sure the quality of the show after Seth left has been pretty bad due to my inability to laugh while watching the show, but ya give him time and maybe it'll get better? Likely not though. Sorry you weren't watching as enlightened as you were last week, since this episode was just as bad if not worse. I quite enjoyed last week's post.

        • eavoss

          We can have opinions about what we see in episodes, but to suggest we know anything about how well someone manages the day to day operations of the SNL writers room after two months is ridiculous. (A two months, by the way, that contained pretty solid episodes with Louis CK, Lena Dunham, and Anna Kendrick.) My argument is that from a viewer's perspective, the quality of the sketches has been hit or miss throughout the entire season, and blaming your recent dissatisfaction on Colin Jost just because you don't like him as a Weekend Update host is pretty narrow minded.

          Sorry I don't hate SNL enough every week to sufficiently get you off. I would find it exhausting to regularly watch and write about a show I despise. How do you manage it?

          • famousmortimer

            He didn't say he despised it, he said it's been less funny since Seth left. No-one's asking you to share any opinion, just that we disagree with yours. Sorry for the page hits, I guess?

          • Damian

            Exhausting or inspiring actually. Sometimes reading/writing about the stuff you despise is more fun than about what you actually like. Why do you think people read SNL reviews here anyway? Not that I'm suggesting writing Guy Fieri restaurant takedowns all the time. BUT your post last week was actually pretty refreshing because it felt more honest and representative of how people actually feel while watching SNL than just celebrating/defending terrible episodes every week. I don't hate SNL. I hate how consistently shitty the writing is.

      • famousmortimer

        He's a bad Update host and the quality of the sketches is bad. Sorry, I thought that was obvious from what I wrote. I don't recall saying that he was a bad person to work with, so not sure where you got that from.

        I can judge how good head writers Fey and McKay were by the quality of the episodes they made, the same as you'd judge any writer of a comedy show. If the only person who matters is Lorne, then why employ a head writer at all?

        The animated sketch only took 2 months because they needed to animate it! Do you expect every sketch has that long a gestation period? How long should we give the person listed as head writer of a show before we're allowed to have an opinion of their work?

        • eavoss

          At least give him a chance to pick his own room. I can think of a few rotten stretches under McKay, Fey, and Meyers in their early years running the show, but eventually each of them grew into the position, got to hire and fire people, and figured out a system that worked for them. (Though history has been a little too kind to McKay and Fey's stewardships… but that's a different topic.) Most head writers get to pick their room before a season begins, and Jost inherited his mid-season.

          I don't mean to make excuses for Jost. (I really need to get better about expecting all commenters' opinions to be 100% fair… at the end of the day, you can dislike the guy for whatever reasons you want.) I too haven't been crazy about him behind the Update desk, and I'm not yet sold on his abilities as a head writer — the responsibilities of which I again think we should admit we know very little about. You may end up being totally right that he's not fit for the job. I just think it's premature to say that after 6 episodes that have been more or less on par with the quality of the episodes immediately before he took charge. Though if you think everything but one sketch from this episode bombed, obviously we aren't going to agree on the show's relative quality. (Which is OK. I don't expect everyone to see the show through the exact same lens I do.)

          Calling for people to get fired is a real dirty business. You'll never hear me do it (unless, you know, they end up being a Donald Sterling or something). We can complain that the show isn't funny, but it's a pretty aggressive leap to diagnose which of the people on staff are the weak links and to call for their heads.

    • Will

      It's also weird how much joint press Jost/Cecily are doing this week. There's the WSJ article Splitsider posted as well as http://www.timeout.com/newyork/comedy/snl-colin-jost-and-cecily-strong-interview-this-job-is-truly-ridiculous and probably many more. It's as if there was a damage control meeting on how shitty Colin/their chemistry is and the NBC solution was: YEAH LET'S SEND THEM FOR INTERVIEWS AND THEY CAN SEEM NATURAL TOGETHER!!!!

      • KittyV99

        Neither of them seems natural at that desk, but I'll give Cecily points for trying. Jost seems like a smug little prick with ZERO charisma. It would be interesting to see them take one of their staff writers that they pulled off the standup circuit to do the desk. It needs a real personality. I also wonder if the jokes suffer from Baze leaving for Meyers' show, too.

  • Josh

    I wish Splitsider had more diversity in their bloggers.

  • fritofromla

    Whiskers R We is probably the best acted sketch of the entire season. Charlize and Kate are powerhouses. Although the sketch was a little slow, it came off as very natural.

    Please get kid of Nasim. All her characters are the same and she never seems comfortable with what she's doing.
    Beck could be the next Will Ferrell/Jason Sudekis. He's getting a lot of the juicier supporting roles and is knocking them out of the park.

    Sucks that John M's thing got cut. I'm really rooting for him to stay on, he's funny but hasn't been given a good chance yet. They should have left the sketch in cause it had an interesting social satire of BatKid/Make A Wish that is pretty rare on SNL today, but is one of the reasons why the brand is so great.

    • KittyV99

      But really, John M's sketch wasn't that great. It was a great idea, but when you have to have the second half of the sketch explain it all to make the joke, well, it's a lot to ask.

  • Graham

    Another parallel: Kristen Wiig introduced Vampire Weekend covered in blood for the second musical performance during the second to last episode of the season.

  • LDS

    How did you miss that Theron was channeling Waronos in the kitten sketch???