‘SNL’ Review: Chris Rock Underwhelms

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Wherever you stand on SNL, it’s safe to say that season 40 has shown a noticeable step forward in quality from last season (regardless of lower ratings and the ever-present hate in many corners online). One of the reasons for this improvement has been the fact that all five of this season’s hosts have been performers known for their work in comedy. Chris Rock, Jim Carrey, Bill Hader, Sarah Silverman, and Chris Pratt are all stars we’re accustomed to laughing at, so we don’t have to deal with that annoying “faculty follies” effect the show tries to employ with athlete or musician hosts.

And yet, not every comedian’s humor translates to SNL, and each of those comedians earn their laughs in very different ways, from very different fan bases. Bill Hader, for example, is a prototypical sketch comedy wunderkind who enjoyed a long, healthy run on SNL. Chris Rock, meanwhile, is a vibrant standup and film star who was often relegated to the sidelines during his three seasons on the show’s unapologetically whitewashed 1990s. SNL‘s cast is far more diverse now, theoretically giving Rock more freedom to explore the provocative material he’s famous for. But the comedian’s pacing was still as mismatched as a first-time host’s would be, despite having hosted an episode in 1996. Rather than the dominant crowd killer he proved himself to be after he left SNL, Rock transformed back into the caged-bird featured player struggling to fit in on a show that was always too small for him.

The result was an at times very difficult episode to watch, even for someone willing to give SNL the benefit of the doubt.

Megyn Kelly / Chris Christie Cold Open. The cold open featured Fox News’ Megyn Kelly (Cecily Strong) interviewing Gov. Chris Christie (Bobby Moynihan) about his controversial Ebola quarantine policy. The script was packed with solid jokes — “I was working my way through kindergarten as a mall Santa!” — but fell victim to the static execution that so often bogs down these news-format cold opens. Kate McKinnon picked up the energy as cavalier Ebola patient Kaci Hickox, bragging about volunteering at a kissing booth and handing out loose M&M’s with her bare hands. While Chris Christie and the Ebola epidemic certainly qualify as national news, I’m not sure the New York-centric humor (a common go-to for SNL) is quite as relevant to the rest of the country as it is to the show’s writers.

Monologue. Like most comedians who host the show, Chris Rock never shined brighter than during his monologue. After opening with some questionable jokes about the Boston Marathon bombing, the comedian hit his stride with his clever takes on Freedom Tower and American commercialization of holidays. Between Rock’s 8-minute monologue and Prince’s 9-minute jam, there wasn’t a whole lot of time for sketches in the first half of the night, which perhaps contributed to the pacing issues that plagued this episode.

How 2 Dance with Janelle. This sketch took the format of a YouTube vlog by 15-year-old Janelle (Sasheer Zamata), instructing subscribers and her lovesick co-host Teddy (Kyle Mooney) how to dance without fully realizing how online perverts are looking at her. Early-blooming teenagers unaware of their sexual provocativeness is a funny concept the show has had success with in the past, but unfortunately the sketch focused primarily on the YouTube format and Chris Rock as an over-protective father not knowing how the Internet works. And while that’s good for a couple of filter gags and an explanation of the term “fapping,” it prevented this sketch from being the viscerally funny scene it could have been.

GoProbe. The videos were unsurprisingly on-point this week, starting with this classic “new version of popular consumer product for gross purposes” faux-commercial for a GoPro marketed to middle-aged extreme sports bros’ colonoscopies. Taran Killam, Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett were perfect as the goofball boarders celebrating the gross-out images of their colons: “Now if I’m not blading or boarding, every six months, I’m spelunking!”

How’s He Doing? III. This talk show about unwavering black support for President Obama is one of the more successful recurring sketches the show has done in recent years (both for its cleverness and its infrequency). Unfortunately, many of the jokes weren’t even updated from the previous script — black support having dropped to the low nineties, the pause and laugh at the thought of voting for Mitt Romney — and it was missing the humorous takedowns of white culture that made this sketch such a hit in the past. Still, I did enjoy this panel’s analysis of Obama’s hypothetical rearing of Sasha and Malia: “Obama said, ‘Ya’ll get up to bed now.’ And Sasha and Malia said, ‘Shut up, bitch! We’re watching Scandal!'”

Weekend Update. Colin Jost and Michael Che’s two-liners were much improved from last week, with Che recovering nicely from a flubbed joke and Jost’s deadpan coming in handy: “Well I’m sold. I’m gonna try sex.” Meanwhile, the character bits were less effective, with Pete Davidson delivering an anecdote about discovering his latex allergy that failed to get the reaction his first appearance received, despite a few solid laughs: “Are you a doctor or my best friend ever? What else — is my dad coming back?” Jay Pharoah and Kenan Thompson closed out the segment as comedians Katt Williams and Suge Knight, in a bit that relied almost exclusively on the kind of punchlines that beg the crowd to respond, “How ___ is it?” — which, to be fair, worked on occasion: “We have so much marijuana inside us, we can cure your gluacoma by blowing in your eyes!”

Shark Tank II. Despite the awkwardness of white and black actors posing as Arabs, I don’t mind the concept of ISIS terrorists pitching to the business moguls of Shark Tank. But as the sketch went on, the promise of this premise faded faster than the terrorists’ pitch, with the safe but disappointing choice to have Mark Cuban and co. pass on funding terrorism: “Genocidal regimes are a very tricky business, and I’ve been burned before.”

Swiftamine. Another solid fake product ad gave us Swiftamine, Dramamine for adults who suffer vertigo upon discovering their appreciation for Taylor Swift. The Swift-approved video amusingly mocked the singer’s uncanny popularity: “Your frontal lobe says: ‘Oof. Taylor Swift. She’s always wearing, like, a 1950’s bathing suit.’ But your ears say: ‘Shut up. This song is perfect.'” 

Anniversary Couple. It’s rare these days to see an SNL sketch completely fall apart — and not due to performers breaking into fits of laughter — but this scene with Chris Rock and Leslie Jones as a bickering couple was so incoherently bad, with no clear premise and awkward pacing, that it’s a wonder how it ever made it into the lineup. I should note that I watched the delayed west coast broadcast, which included the dress rehearsal version (also the online version below), and not the live broadcast, which contained what appeared to be a painful cue-card mixup that sunk this piece from the get-go. UPDATE: We’re being told that this sketch was actually written by writers Chris Rock brought in, not the normal SNL writing staff. Comedians bringing in outside writers has happened before (Jerry Seinfeld and Richard Pryor being examples), and it’s not something those writers rooms were crazy about. This sketch bombing might be a reason why.

Robbers. One of the few highlights of the night was this video sketch featuring Bobby Moynihan, Kyle Mooney, and Beck Bennett as gun-wielding bank robbers who prove to be surprisingly humane to their captives, from pulling up a chair for an old man to reenacting Civil War soldiers to “teach a lesson” to a young boy. While the gags could have come a little faster in the sketch’s latter half, I was too impressed with the production value to care — seriously, how is SNL‘s location scout able to find these perfect sets in just a few days?

Women in the Workplace II. It’s telling that one of the weaker bits from Melissa McCarthy’s 2013 episode became the best sketch from this episode, with Cecily Strong and Kate McKinnon reprising their hilarious 1990s instructional video hosts Donna Fingerneck and Jodi Cork, offering tips on dealing with “diverse” people in the workplace. The dialogue perfectly captured the well-intentioned sexism and racism from the era while packing in great nonsensical specifics — “She’s got his eggs all over her face.” Vanessa Bayer and Chris Rock were also enjoyable as the unpaid actors from the video, with stilted deliveries that, sadly, weren’t that far off from the deliveries we typically see in live SNL sketches. Best of the Night.

Additional Thoughts:

  • Aidy Bryant alluded to this site’s SNL reviews in an interview with The Daily Beast this past week, specifically mentioning our practice of breaking down cast member screen time. As uncomfortable as it is for a comedian to see his or her name in a pie chart, SNL has always been a water-cooler show that everyone loves to talk about, complain about, and analyze… even in the pre-Internet days. Sometimes, in our pursuit to temper the belligerence we see targeted at SNL elsewhere online, we occasionally kill the frog. But like fantasy football leagues, our nerdiness comes from a good place.
  • While we’re on the subject, Kenan Thompson received the most screen time this episode, while Vanessa Bayer managed to make the most out of her cameos in “Swiftamine” and “Women in the Workplace.” While their sketches didn’t blow anyone away, it was great to see Sasheer Zamata and Leslie Jones in big roles.
  • It was similarly a big night for Kyle Mooney, who had major roles throughout the night and got some of the biggest laughs in “How 2 Dance with Janelle”: “Just so you guys know, dancing is one of my biggest fears, right after spiders, and my older brother dying.”
  • Best: “Women in the Workplace.” Worst: “Anniversary Couple.” Worth It For The Jokes: Cold Open. You’ll See It Online: “Robbers,” “GoProbe,” “Swiftamine.”
  • In a night full of ridiculous names, Beck Bennett’s “Dr. David Doctor” takes the cake.
  • It was difficult to review this episode, with Prince’s musical act taking up such a huge portion of the episode that all the sketches seemed engulfed by its shadow. As a tone-deaf comedy nerd who pretends SNL musical acts don’t exist, it’s never fun when little of the comedic material from an episode is worth talking about. But in a live broadcast where all sorts of things can go wrong, not all of the episodes are going to be winners.

I’ll see you November 15, when Woody Harrelson will host (his first time since 1992) with musical guest Kendrick Lamar.

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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