‘SNL’ Review: Finding the Rhythm with J.K. Simmons

snljksimmonsFrom the very beginning, Saturday Night Live was considered “a writer’s show.” While other variety shows from SNL‘s early years, like SCTV and The Carol Burnett Show, were driven primarily by the actors (in the latter’s case, the actors’ intentional breaking), SNL‘s satirical voice was shaped largely by writers like Michael O’Donoghue, Al Franken, and Tom Davis, however famous their on-screen muses became. The show has gone through various love affairs with stock characters, but ultimately it remains controlled by its writers room, where first-years can pitch a sketch on Monday and see their scripts scrawled out on cue cards on Saturday, even if they don’t showcase a cast member. In that regard, SNL stands out from the pack of sketch vehicles for character-actors like Key & Peele, Portlandia, and Kroll Show — it’s a show where Robert Smigel can animate a cartoon with political soundbites as audio, or Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone can shoot a big-budget Lonely Island music video, or Mike O’Brien can star in his own “Mike O’Brien Picture.” SNL celebrates good writing.

This season, with its ups and downs, has been a particularly creative one for the writers room. Recurring bits are down to about 20% of the lineup, compared to 25% in seasons 38 and 39, with the writers generating more original concepts to replace the star characters from the previous generation. It’s easy for critics to point fingers at what they call “bad writing,” but the reality is, SNL currently employs some of the sharpest comedy minds in the business. In particular, Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider tend to produce notably brilliant work every week (they wrote the scripts for “Totino’s Superbowl Commercial,” last week’s “Wishing Boot,” and “The Dudleys” and “Christmas Mass Spectacular” from earlier this season).

The downside to SNL being so writer-driven is that sometimes sketches reflect the room’s mental exhaustion after a three-week stretch. Last weekend’s episode, for example, found a capable host in J.K. Simmons, but the Oscar-nominee too often found himself with limited material. Perhaps my hopes were set too high by Christoph Waltz‘s 2013 episode — a triumphant night with another character actor finally getting his due — but I was a little surprised by the quality of the some of the sketches SNL placed its bets on in the first half. Nevertheless, there remained enough bright spots last weekend to give Simmons, and the writers, an episode they can hang their hats on.

Richard Sherman & Marshawn Lynch Cold Open. I understand the pressure to open the show with a Super Bowl sketch on the eve of the big game, but Jay and Kenan struggled to wring laughs out of this cold open with the Seattle Seahawks star players hosting a talk show, making tired jokes about Lynch’s media spots and Sherman’s angry rants (which was more of a thing a year ago than it is now). Key & Peele had a similar instinct to pair Sherman and Lynch together, but at least gave them the Oscar nominations to talk about. Here, when Jay joked “We shouldn’t have made this show four hours,” it seemed even the writers knew how thin this premise was.

Monologue. J.K. Simmons spoofed his abusive conductor from Whiplash by dressing down cast members as they tried to play drums: “Kyle! What’s up? This is not one of your weird little videos!” Like last week’s enjoyable monologue, this bit contained a mix of music, corny jokes, and self parody… but mostly, I’m just happy to see the show go for anything in the monologue slot. The monologue would prove to be one of the few times Simmons drove the humor in a sketch during the night, as the actor was mostly relegated to supporting roles that never really showcased his comedy skills.

Totino’s Super Bowl Commercial. This especially biting piece of satire from Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider (with Dave McCary behind the camera) featured Vanessa Bayer as a housewife obediently distracting herself with a children’s activity pack while her asshole husband and his buddies watch the game. Vanessa is perfect in these roles, nailing the false sincerity of the faux-commercial (see her also in “Nest Presso” and “Vitamix“). The images of her counting play-money and sadly slapping a sticky hand around her kitchen gave us a hilarious commentary on the sexism of NFL culture in a way that we’ve never seen before. Best of the Night.

Miss Trash 2015. The episode continued with a few odd choices, leading with J.K. Simmons hosting a white trash beauty pageant where the cast’s ladies tried to out-gross each other. Aidy, Kate, Cecily, and Vanessa (a Miss America contestant who was there by mistake) are always fun to watch together, and the script had plenty of great jokes — “As always, the winner will be sent to the hospital, and the runners up will be sent to prison.” — but it’s hard to imagine that this was the strongest centerpiece sketch the show could come up with.

Casablanca. Next up was Kate McKinnon mugging it up as an ad-libbing Ingrid Bergman in this alternate ending of Casablanca, with Ilsa suddenly super-anxious to jump on the plane to avoid a concentration camp. A reenactment of an iconic film scene strikes me as a bit of a half-formed premise, but Kate got a lot of mileage out of it, seemingly channeling Lucille Ball with her antics: “All I can see is me behind barbed wire having to pick a child to shoot!”

Teachers Snow Day. I haven’t been crazy about SNL‘s attempts to make these rap music videos “a thing” in the post-Lonely Island era — they never reach the heights of “Twin Bed” and usually come across as something an overfunded Youtube channel would push out to get the jump on whatever’s trending that week. “Teachers Snow Day,” even with its fun visuals and J.K. Simmons as a pants-less principal, pretty much followed the same “nerdy coworkers as thug partiers” formula that “Office Christmas Party” assumed we would want to watch over and over… with the same unlikely prospects for viral glory.

Weekend Update. Some commenters have argued that Colin Jost and Michael Che seem to be improving each week — I don’t know if that’s genuinely the case, or if people are increasingly enjoying the jokes as written, or if viewers are just finding fewer reasons to be outraged at the pair. But overall, Update has been more of the same, with some occasionally great jokes (“That story again: A lady found a cat that looked like her old cat.”) and our hosts doing little to change things up. I was surprised to see the return of Cecily Strong’s One-Dimensional Female Character from a Male-Driven Comedy (II) only because it seemed more like a one-off commentary bit, but it looks like she’ll be Cecily’s new recurring Update character with a long, self-explanatory name. Meanwhile, Taran Killam’s snarky 1860s critic Jebidiah Atkinson (V) made his first appearance this season (his fifth overall), with a still funny but increasingly formulaic series of takedowns of the Grammy nominees: “Hey Iggy, wake up and smell the azaleas — you’re white!” (I would speak more about the weirdness of critiquing a critic, but there’s still a few sane people who comment on these reviews I’d rather not offend.)

Pushie. My favorite live sketch of the night saw Bobby Moynihan as Pushie the Pushpin, the new annoying office assistant in Microsoft Word. Bobby’s joyful tormenting of an old man (Simmons) trying to write a letter without pesky auto-formatting — “You selected… just boxes!” — combined with the visual of him dancing around in the pin costume, his legs chroma-keyed out, was one of the more imaginative takes on consumer technology we’ve seen the show do recently.

The Jay-Z Story. The latest short from Mike O’Brien (directed by Matt & Oz) once again exploited the writer’s WASP-ness, casting himself in a horrendously miscast Jay-Z biopic. While this piece could have used more of a shorter “sketch” pace than its slower “short film” pace, the images of O’Brien awkwardly fist-bumping Jason Sudeikis (as Kanye) and trying to fight J.K. Simmons (as Nas) were just too perfect. All this was made especially hilarious by the fact that Jay Pharoah’s Jay-Z is arguably his strongest impression — a fact some denser viewers made sure to point out.

Career Day. J.K. Simmons’ most interesting role came at the end of the night: a father at a school career day explaining his job as a “Japanese messy boy.” It’s a funny, gross-out premise that couldn’t go much further than Simmons verbally unpacking the specifics of the gig, but I wish at least some of the hilariously graphic descriptions could have been more visual or active. I suppose there’s only so much of creepy Japanese fetishes you can show on TV.

Additional Thoughts:

  • I found it a little strange that the studio audience cheered Colin Jost’s announcement that Mitt Romney decided not to run for president. A New York studio audience is probably a little left-of-center, but if the crowd applauded Sarah Palin’s pre-election appearance in 2008, it’s surprising that this one would express such animosity toward a moderate conservative with a decent reputation since losing in 2012.
  • Best: “Totino’s Super Bowl Commercial.” Worst: Cold Open. You’ll See It Online: “Teachers Snow Day,” “The Jay-Z Story.” Worth It For The Jokes: “Miss Trash 2015,” “Pushie.”
  • For anyone counting, this makes two amazing SNL sketches featuring pizza rolls. Pizza rolls are the “Ooh Child” of frozen snack foods.
  • Bobby Moynihan once again saw the most screen time this week, with a big role as Pushie and for hitting what I considered the funniest line in the cold open, as a Seahawks fan: “Haha… coffee and rain!” Meanwhile, Beck Bennett had the fewest appearances, largely because the show hasn’t been running any of Good Neighbor’s “weird little videos.”
  • Gotta love the SNL design team’s attention to detail: the little birthday cake men forming the frame template in “Pushie” had muscle arms.
  • In case you were wondering how I got those percentages of recurring sketches… I counted. I typically keep track of which sketches are bits we’ve seen before, and which are new, original ideas. (And to be safe, I did not consider “River Sisters” to be a new, original idea.)
  • My heart exploded with joy when J.K. Simmons revealed he voices the Yellow M&M (which might have already been widely known, but it was a huge shocker for me). I feel like the kid who finds out his beloved teddy bear is possessed by his dad’s soul.

I’ll see you on February 15, when SNL will air its three-hour 40th anniversary special, featuring, among several famous alums, Eddie Murphy, making his first return in 30 years.

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

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