‘SNL’ Review: A Season High with Woody Harrelson

woodyharrelsonsnlFor the past two years, many viewers have described SNL as being in a “transitional phase.” This phase began with the departures of Kristen Wiig and Andy Samberg in 2012, followed by Jason Sudeikis, Bill Hader, and Fred Armisen in 2013, then by Seth Meyers in early 2014. The old guard was clearing out, and their replacements didn’t seem up to the task of continuing that golden era. And while not all of the episodes in this interim period have been bad — in fact, many have been quite good, and the hit-to-miss ratio has remained roughly the same — SNL seemed lost in the woods, with almost weekly PR crises, a dependence on returning alums, sagging ratings, and a vagueness as to how this era would redefine itself.

After last weekend, SNL‘s transitional era may finally be over.

Woody Harrelson’s triumphant episode wasn’t just a win — it was a bellwether win for the show. While most episodes take on a tentpole structure, with strong pieces holding up weaker ones, this episode was a full 90 minutes of clever writing and assured performances, from cold open to Weekend Update to the 10-to-1, all without a desperate reliance on recurring bits and pre-taped videos, or the tendency for live sketches to fall flat, or a returning alum host to carry the night. While Bill Hader‘s dazzling return last month worked largely because of the host’s made-for-SNL talent, Woody Harrelson presented less of a guarantee, with a more limited range of comedic personae and a 25-year gap since his last appearance on the show. And yet, the staff made it work, smartly casting Harrelson in a mix of gruff authority figures and loopy substance abusers, while giving the likable goofball freedom to enjoy himself.

But more importantly, for the first time in season 40, SNL looked confident. Will that confidence still be there next week, with Cameron Diaz hosting? We’ll see. But for now, it seems Lorne Michaels and his team have finally figured out how to make this generation of SNL shine.

Obama McConnell Cold Open. The strongest cold open we’ve seen this season (an admittedly low bar to clear) was this lovely scene featuring President Obama and Sen. Mitch McConnell (Jay Pharoah and Taran Killam), the two men gradually getting wasted over a bottle of Kentucky bourbon. It’s always nice to see the writers forego the overused press conference setup in favor of the more inspired “imagined conversation between political figures” scenario (the Monica Lewinsky Linda Tripp lunch date comes to mind), especially when it gives us a moment as fun as the men prank calling Hillary Clinton and screaming like schoolgirls when she calls back.

Monologue. Woody Harrelson kicked off the night with a acoustic cover of Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space,” singing about his 1989: “Thought I met Margaret Thatcher, but it was Saddam Hussein, then I had a blank space baby, because I used to do cocaine!” Harrelson’s giggly (stoned) delivery carried the bit through the stilted cameos by his Hunger Games co-stars Liam Hemsworth, Josh Hutcherson, and Jennifer Lawrence, whom Harrelson amusingly called “The real Taylor Swift” after bizarrely biting her leg. Harrelson’s charming looseness would prove to be an asset throughout the night — rather than aiming for perfection like so many hosts try (and fail) to do, it seemed Harrelson was just trying to find the fun in every scene. While that may not work for every host, it definitely paid off for him.

The Dudleys. This brilliant promo for a typical family sitcom that’s constantly recast and rewritten to satisfy online criticisms — it doesn’t have gay characters, it’s too stereotypical, it’s not diverse enough, etc. — reached levels of media satire rarely seen on SNL these days. Written by Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider and directed by Matt and Oz, the video gave us the amusing images of Woody Harrelson trying to reach the appropriate balance of homosexuality and the daughter character suddenly recast as Crazy Eyes from Orange Is the New Black. And even though the format was that of a CBS sitcom — a world known for network meddling to satisfy the mainstream — there’s little doubt that the repeated “we heard you loud and clear” chorus was directed at SNL‘s own trigger-happy social media following. Best of the Night

Match’d. You know it’s a good episode when the live sketches stand up next to the pre-taped ones, as evidenced by this clever MTV game show in which horny bachelors find out the host is the father of the girl they’re trying to screw. Mapping the game show format over an uncomfortable personal interaction has been a reliable formula for the writers, but this one stands out from the pack with everyone executing their roles perfectly and an exceptionally strong script: “Then I would ask to meet your mother, so I could shake the hand of the woman who brought you into this world.” “Can’t shake hands with a ghost!”

A New Day. Pete Davidson wrote and starred in this short (directed by Rhys Thomas) about New York’s recent decriminalization of marijuana possession, with stoners blissfully wandering out of their homes and celebrating in the street. While more of a “short film” than a “sketch,” the slow motion imagery of V-Day kisses and Les Miz flag waving, along with the fun reversal at the end, amounted to an amusing take on the news story — one of many in this surprisingly topical episode.

Football Halftime Speech. Another “commentary” sketch came in the form of Woody Harrelson as a high school football coach trying to rouse up his team by explaining the meticulous new procedures for making a proper tackle to prevent concussions, wisely represented as punchy war chants: “Back of the head… put your princess to bed!” Kenan Thompson entered as an alum turned Pittsburgh linebacker whose brain has clearly turned to mush: “You get out there, and… never had these rules! I never did! Cause… that’s football! I never footballed!” While SNL‘s reactionary Twitter followers deserve all the mockery “The Dudleys” threw at them, I’m not sure well-intentioned football tackling regulations are as deserving a target, considering the alternative is to let teenagers incur brain damage. That said, there’s plenty of absurdity in attempts to make safer a proudly violent sport, and ultimately it’s a good thing that SNL is pushing the envelope like this.

Duets Album. Dave McCary directed this promo for “Young Tarts and Old Farts,” an album that teams up young and old singers that aren’t quite the right fit for each other. Like any SNL impression-based sketch, the success is based solely on how funny/accurate you find the impersonations to be, which always feels a little lazy as a concept but often impressive from a performance standpoint. This sketch ran a little long with 10 pairings, but it had its moments — specifically Aidy Bryant and Kenan Thompson as Meghan Trainor and B.B. King, and Beck Bennett’s Elton John staring down an adorable little girl playing Blue Ivy Carter. (This sketch doesn’t appear to be online due to the sampling of various licensed recordings.)

Weekend Update. Whatever your thoughts may be on Colin Jost and Michael Che as co-hosts — or, I should say, however much you still dislike Colin Jost — the duo seems to be getting better each week, growing increasingly confident with the two-liners and occasionally playing with structure, as they did with the “But that ass, though…” callback. No, they aren’t Tina and Jimmy or Amy and Seth, but it’s worth acknowledging their improved chemistry. Leslie Jones made her third Update appearance, getting some of her biggest laughs with a rant on the double standard of women being considered “crazy,” screaming at Jost: “LOOK AT MY BREASTS!” (Leslie Jones screaming in Colin Jost’s face would make a pretty great recurring bit.) The news segment closed with an appearance by Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, with Taran Killam finally reprising his excellent take on McConaughey’s eccentric free spiritedness: “We’re actors… truth finders… answer getters. How many licks does it take to get to the center of the Tootsie pop? (crunch) Three. How do I know? The owl told me. Hoot hoot!”

Old New York. This slow-burn scene featured four grumpy NYC barflies bemoaning how the city has changed for the worse — the quality of the food, the attitudes of young people, and, according to one of them, the crack. While the sketch seemed to peak at the initial reveal, the scene offered some blunt insight into the pros and cons of urban gentrification. Or, you know, drug jokes. (The YouTube upload of this sketch is a slightly different version from the Hulu upload below, which is the version I watched in the west coast broadcast. The YouTube version contains a camera gaffe early in the sketch, while the Hulu version features Bobby Moynihan breaking at the 2:15 mark.)

Campfire Song. If there was one “miss” this episode, it would be this late-in-the-night scene with Woody Harrelson as Todd, a dork singing a seemingly made-up campfire song about apples who is shocked when his friends don’t know it. With lines like “Todd, that was your only possession!” and the splash gag, this seemed like one of those intentionally silly ideas that crack up the writers but confuse the studio audience — and if it weren’t for the sketch that followed, this would have undoubtedly been the 10-to-1. In an otherwise golden episode, we can forgive one offbeat premise… especially when it just might have potential to grow into “Potato Chip” cult status.

Last Call IV. The night’s sole recurring bit was this favorite featuring Kate McKinnon’s brassy closing-time trainwreck Sheila Sovage, who, after sealing the deal with Louis CK, Vince Vaughn, and John Goodman, now trained her sights on Woody Harrelson’s Chip Fister (who works at Lays as a chip sifter). Despite being a popular recurring bit (running at the sacred rate of once per season, as all recurring bits should), this sketch always comes in at the end of the night, perhaps so that SNL can get away with the provocative wordplay and extreme gross-out gags, like McKinnon and Harrelson making out between a sheet of plastic cling wrap. Paula Pell was credited as a guest writer this episode, and I think this script was hers — considering there were no other returning characters, and the fact that many of Pell’s tweets could easily be Sovage-isms: “You had me at when you didn’t leave with the others.”

Additional Thoughts:

  • I had predicted in my review of the Bill Hader episode that it would be the “high watermark” of the season. Clearly, my bias towards Hader (and most returning alum hosts) had gotten the better of me. Like the episode hosted by Harrelson’s Hunger Games co-star Josh Hutcherson this time last year, sometimes the most enjoyable SNL episodes catch you by surprise.
  • Hunger Games actors’ SNL episodes, ranked: 1) Woody Harrelson, 2) Josh Hutcherson, 3) Jennifer Lawrence. Remember when JLaw bombed that joke during the monologue? That was pretty much the entire episode in January 2013. I’m pulling for Stanley Tucci to host when Mockingjay Part II comes out.
  • Best: “The Dudleys.” Worst: “Campfire Song.” Worth It For The Jokes: “Match’d.” You’ll See It Online: “A New Day.”
  • With such a high level of consistency and clever takes on a variety of social issues — network TV pandering, violence in sports, marijuana legalization, urban gentrification, songs about apples — this might make a good Emmy submission episode for season 40. Of course, Cameron Diaz might knock it out of the park next week, but I’m not holding my breath.
  • Taran Killam dominated the screen time this week, with major roles as Mitch McConnell, Matthew McConaughey, a horny bachelor in “Match’d,” a bar guy in “Old New York,” and a shitload of impressions in “Duet Album.” And while this was a true ensemble episode that showcased everyone, Aidy Bryant had the fewest number of appearances, popping up only as Meghan Trainor and one of the stoners in “A New Day.”
  • If you’re still not convinced that Colin Jost deserves the job of Weekend Update host, I ask you to consider his delivery on one of the best Update lines I’ve heard in a while: “Let this be a lesson to all you pedophiles out there: start working in teams.”
  • Several of the hate mail letters in “The Dudleys” featured return addresses to Chris Voss, SNL‘s film production manager. Glad to hear my reviews haven’t blacklisted everyone sharing my surname from working on the show.
  • It got buried in the opening shot of “Campfire Song,” but Vanessa Bayer had one of my favorite lines of the night: “Such a brisk fall evening! I’m so glad I brought all these Chenille throws!”

I’ll see you next week, when Cameron Diaz will host with musical guests Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars.

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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