‘SNL’ Review: Bill Hader’s Master Class

billhadersnlYou can judge how great a past SNL cast member was by the void they refill when they return to the show. Maya Rudolph’s hosting gig in 2012 reminded viewers not only how irreplaceable of a triple-threat talent Rudolph is, but how colorless (in every possible meaning of the word) the cast seemed in her absence. Andy Samberg’s return last May revealed the cast remained short of a goofball viewers seemed to like, even if the show could still produce amazing video content without him. If SNL needs to know what it’s missing, it needs only bring back an old cast member to highlight the weak spots.

Bill Hader returned to find his seat at the table still very much empty. To be fair, that’s largely a credit to Hader’s uniqueness. A master impressionist, star character performer, and eager utility player until the end, Bill Hader’s value to the show only seemed to increase as time went on… even after he left the cast. Bill Murray recently praised him as having done “the best work anyone ever did on that show,” and it’s true — not only did Hader’s characters rarely show the gray hairs that other cast members’ recurring bits quickly formed, he exhibited a Phil Hartman-esque cohesive quality of a performer who legitimately loves the people he works with. Seeing Hader share the screen with Kristen Wiig in The Skeleton Twins reminded me how much I’ve missed watching SNL performers try to make each other laugh, as opposed to aiming to play their individual roles as efficiently as possible.

It was a night of few surprises and little new material, and perhaps that’s a good thing. There’s a certain joy to watching someone do something they were made to do. And no one alive was made to do SNL moreso than Bill Hader was.

Kim Jong-Un Cold Open. While normally I’d be a fan of any cold open that takes place outside of the press conference format, or anything that gives Bobby Moynihan more screen time, this scene featuring the gout-stricken North Korean dictator agonizingly limping around his throne room seemed a little too basic. Moynihan was entertaining with his stifled cries, but the script’s jabs at Kim’s conflated, revisionist sense of self — “The movie Space Jam is about me!” — didn’t go any further than the kind of jokes everyone has been making about the dictator and his predecessor for over a decade. Additionally, I got the feeling Moynihan was trying to tip-toe around potential accusations of yellowface (compare this to Moynihan’s blatantly Asian-accented delivery in past versions of the impression), which, while well-intentioned, still made the sketch feel a little awkward.

Monologue. For someone with so many reps on and around the Studio 8-H home base stage, Bill Hader looked particularly shocked to be in the spotlight. The actor’s natural shyness lent itself to a fun, scattered monologue about his humble beginnings as an assistant editor on Iron Chef, and a musical bit featuring cameos by Kristen Wiig and Harvey Fierstein helping Hader take pride in his weird, low-register singing voice. While I wasn’t always sure why things were happening in this segment, I was on board after the “Don’t make me sing!” reference.

Herb Welch VI. After Stefon, Bill Hader’s most popular recurring bit on SNL was the cantankerous veteran reporter Herb Welch. Welch’s longevity (both as a man and an SNL character) is largely due to Hader’s ability to forego the easy physical gag of thumping interviewees with the microphone and instead focus on the reporter’s tendencies to phone in his field pieces and snap at the younger anchor in the studio: “Why didn’t your wife take your last name? Coward.” SNL is a little too eager to dress its returning alums as classic characters that don’t always hit with the current generation, but leading with Herb Welch makes perfect sense, considering he’s supposed to be out of touch with the story he’s lazily covering.

The Group Hopper. SNL reached new heights of eye-popping production value with this parody trailer of a film “adapted from a YA novel written entirely in the comments section of a Hunger Games trailer.” This Maze Runner/Divergent/The Giver spoof hit all the right notes — the YA plot gimmick of categorization (in this case, “Emotionals, Foodies, Hasidics, and Griffyndor”), phrases like “You can only kill a Lurky with a Zoomerang” having an odd amount of significance, old Asian men whispering “destiny…” — as well as some fun visual gags of Pete Davidson’s protagonist (aptly named “Thehero”) getting pummeled with duffel bags and the horns on Bill Hader’s queen/king figure scraping the ceiling. SNL‘s film unit has been particularly impressive at letting the writers zero in on new pop culture trends and blow them up to hilarious effect — which is the only thing helping the show keep pace with shows like Key & Peele and Portlandia. Best of the Night.

Hollywood Game Night. I suppose having Bill Hader’s Al Pacino and Kristen Wiig’s Kathy Lee Gifford home for the weekend justified featuring another overstuffed impression-based piece, which at least had the benefit of biting NBC’s hand (seriously, how the hell is Hollywood Game Night even a show?) and featuring some takes we hadn’t seen before, like Cecily Strong’s Sofia Vergara and Beck Bennett’s Nick Offerman (whom I suspect the studio audience thought was the real Offerman), as well as some recent favorites, like Kate McKinnon’s Jane Lynch, Taran Killam’s Christoph Waltz and Jay Pharoah’s (surprisingly off) Morgan Freeman.

39 Cents. Michael Che wrote this excellent fake charity ad featuring Bill Hader as an organizer asking for 39 cents a day, or less than a cup of coffee — and the Africans around him wondering how he arrived at such a specific, low number. Che’s skill at breaking down the logic of these kinds of absurdities was perfect here, with Leslie Jones making a cameo to ask “Why can’t it be the price of an Arizona Ice Tea?”

Weekend Update. The two-liners seemed a little more disappointing than usual this week, with some particularly hacky, dad-humor-style jokes about LaGuardia airport, black people not tipping, and Geno Smith’s birthday wish being intercepted. In a somewhat cringe-worthy moment (at least, for people who watch sketch shows besides SNL), Michael Che did a bit on gay marriage that was pretty much the same take on the subject that Key & Peele did in its first season. Given the topicality, I don’t doubt parallel thinking in this case, but man, especially after last week’s Groundlings fiasco, SNL really needs to start being aware of what other prominent sketch comedians have done… and write different jokes. Pete Davidson returned to Weekend Update to talk about the mistake he made in buying a gold chain, falling noticeably short from his amazing first impression two weeks ago. (Thankfully, Davidson doesn’t seem to have any problems assimilating into other segments, and has made a strong case for himself after these first three episodes.) The lackluster news segment surprised no one by closing out with Bill Hader’s Stefon (XIX), which, even after nineteen appearances on the show, remains every bit as amusing as he always was. Stefon’s bizarre tour of New York’s seedy underworld hotspots included the definition of “Prozac Doobie Brothers” and the odd abundance of Dan Cortese. (As a result, Cortese was trending on Twitter over the weekend.) And despite Seth Meyers’ absence, this instance gave us the joy of watching Hader genuinely react to reading cue card jokes slipped in last minute by John Mulaney (who, along with John Solomon, were credited as contributing writers this episode).

Puppet Class II. One sketch that I was surprised to see reincarnate past its famous one-off status was “Puppet Class,” a scene from Seth MacFarlane’s episode two years ago, featuring Bill Hader as haunted Grenada veteran Anthony Peter Coleman and his similarly haunted puppet, Tony. While the bit didn’t produce the overwhelming joy that its first instance did, the script — written by Mike O’Brien, Rob Klein, and John Solomon — contained the same kind of wonderful specifics that Hader can make sing so well: “Here’s a joke: GOD.” One area of improvement from the first version, however: puppet flashbacks.

Inside SoCal II. My familiarity with Good Neighbor’s pre-SNL days makes me slightly less of a fan of this Wayne’s World-style news show about SoCal punks than other people seem to be, just because I’d rather see Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett come up with new concepts. Still, the bit worked and continued Good Neighbor’s trend of looking different from everything else in the episode: “Next our story on Lindsey Turell, who cut her hair short over the summer, which looks good on her small head.”

Cat in the Hat. This well executed 10-to-1 scene cast Bill Hader as the Cat in the Hat, summoned by bored children and quickly discovering that their mother is his ex-girlfriend. The grounded, heartbroken performances by Hader, Cecily Strong, and Taran Killam carried this silly concept, along with Aidy Bryant’s animated-GIF-tempting dance and a few well-worded Dr. Seuss references: “But oh… the places she let me go.”

Cut from Dress: Coal Miners. This sketch featuring Bill Hader as a gossipy coal miner was thankfully cut after dress rehearsal, even if it does contain one of the more vivid metaphors for erectile dysfunction I’ve ever heard.

Additional Thoughts:

  • It’s not worth “reviewing” the touching tribute to Jan Hooks — in which Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig introduced Tom Schiller’s classic “Love Is A Dream” short film, featuring Jan Hooks as an old woman experiencing a musical dream sequence with Phil Hartman — other than to say it was the perfect way to pay respect to two gifted performers whose talents brought the show back from near-cancellation. Like Bill Hader (and of course, Phil Hartman), Jan Hooks was an SNL titan whose absence was never quite filled on the show.
  • Enjoy this moment while it lasts, SNL viewers, because this will probably be the high watermark for Season 40. I don’t imagine how the rest of this season will top such a perfect blend of classic characters, on-point parody, edgy race humor, and stellar performance by the host. (Hopefully it will be the low watermark for ratings, however.)
  • “There you have it! The Ruskies have a monkey in outer space. That’s lights out for Uncle Sam. Back to you, Chuck!”
  • I think it was no coincidence that we never saw Bobby Moynihan’s Kim Jong-Un during last year’s diversity-controversy-plagued season, just to see him reemerge once tensions have cooled and the cast has somewhat diversified. Meanwhile, the show remains perfectly fine with casting white actors as Latino characters, which Cecily Strong did twice this episode.
  • Best: “The Group Hopper.” Worst: “Kim Jong-Un Cold Open.” You’ll See It Online: “39 Cents.” Worth It For The Jokes: “Herb Welch,” “Stefon,” “Puppet Class.”
  • After being literally nonexistent on screen last week, Pete Davidson led the leader board this week, with big roles in “The Group Hopper” and another Weekend Update set. Vanessa Bayer came in at the bottom, with few memorable roles. I’m surprised how little we’ve seen of Kate McKinnon so far this season, especially coming off her Emmy nomination. (Perhaps that’s because Cecily Strong — now freed from the Weekend Update desk — has been cast in nearly every leading female role.) Meanwhile, can SNL just make Leslie Jones a cast member? She’s made enough on-screen cameos and fans seem to enjoy seeing her. (I’m including myself in that.)
  • I can’t get over how well-done “The Group Hopper” was on every level, and I’m curious to learn how the show’s film unit was able to pull it off in six days (apparently an explanation is on the way). Also, the script was uncannily good at capturing the illogic of those YA novels: “When I grow up, I want to be a Freelander.” “But you can’t. You were born a Circumscriber, and you always will be.” “But what if I wasn’t?” “You’re right. You’re not. And I love you.”
  • I’ve always had a personal admiration for Bill Hader, particularly because his journey to SNL was so different from everyone else’s. He wasn’t a longtime veteran of the Groundlings or UCB or the Chicago comedy scene, or a well-known standup, or a former child star, or a writer for the Harvard Lampoon, or a prolific online filmmaker — he was just a funny guy working crappy production jobs in LA, hoping to get on a house team at iO West. So that goes to show all you aspiring SNL stars that you don’t need to rise to the top of the exclusive comedy cults to be on Lorne Michaels’ radar… you just need to be extremely hilarious and have Nick Offerman’s brother on your sketch team. 

I’ll see you on October 25, when Jim Carrey will host, with musical guest Iggy Azalea.

Erik Voss is a writer and performer living in Los Angeles. He hosts the Evil Blond Kid podcast and performs on the house teams Wheelhouse and It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way at the iO Theater.

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