‘SNL’ Review: Dwayne Johnson, Man for the Job

snldwaynejohnsonHere’s a question I never thought I’d ask: does SNL need more men?

Of course not, right? Only recently has SNL begun to shake off its “boys club” reputation, with a cast of seven men and six women (not counting the two male Weekend Update hosts), and a writers room still predominantly male. The current female lineup is more stacked and well-rounded than ever — there are few roles that Kate McKinnon, Cecily Strong, Aidy Bryant, Leslie Jones, Sasheer Zamata, or Vanessa Bayer can’t handle, and I hope that deep field of female talent is here to stay. Considering how pathetic the gender ratio is throughout the late night landscape, and the way Hollywood reacted to a Ghostbusters reboot starring SNL ladies, true gender equality in the comedy world is still a long way off.

However, a new development has emerged in SNL‘s gender balance, in that many of this season’s stronger episodes have featured a “guy’s guy” host (Chris Pratt, Woody Harrelson, Chris Hemsworth, and now, Dwayne Johnson), while suitably funny female hosts (Sarah Silverman, Amy Adams, and Dakota Johnson) have struggled to stand out. While it’s easy — and usually correct — to accuse viewers and critics of holding women to a tougher standard, in this case I wonder if the cast’s masculinity shortage may help set the table for traditional alpha-males to steal the show. Of the men in the cast, only Taran Killam seems capable of playing the leading man, but even he tends to subvert that stereotype by going low status (see: “Brother 2 Brother,” “Big Joe“). Kenan Thompson, Bobby Moynihan, and Jay Pharoah stick mostly to oddball roles and impressions, while Kyle Mooney, Beck Bennett, and Pete Davidson skew toward high-school and college-aged boys. The current guys all play to their strengths effectively, but SNL seemed less reliant on musclebound heroes like Starlord, Thor, and The Rock when it possessed everymen like Jason Sudeikis, Jimmy Fallon, or Will Ferrell.

Whatever the reason, Dwayne Johnson became the latest action star this season to hoist the show on his freakish shoulders and carry it across the finish line. In his fourth time hosting the show, Johnson once again leaned on his macho toughness, showing off a trademark bravado that kept the laughs coming with few lulls. While it rarely packed the satirical punch some of this season’s finer hours have, this episode gave us the kind of raw, fast, and physical entertainment we love to see from the pro-wrestling and Furious 7 superstar.

Cold Open – “The Rock” Obama III. In 2009, Dwayne Johnson as a “hulked-out” Barack Obama was the first time SNL found a truly funny take on the president — like Key & Peele, SNL needs a bizarro-Obama to contrast the man’s humorless calm — so Johnson reprising the hit was more-or-less guaranteed. Even without the surprise, the bit still worked, thanks to a new generation of trembling GOP haters (Bobby Moynihan as stammering Ted Cruz was especially enjoyable) and a satisfying twist of Sasheer Zamata’s Michelle Obama hulking out into Leslie Jones. I’m not crazy about how often the show uses Jones as a sight gag, but this was one of the better examples of SNL deploying its ensemble effectively.

Monologue. Dwayne Johnson isn’t much of a musical frontman, but his lyrical pitch to Hollywood to become every film series’ “franchise Viagra” hit enough of the right notes: “Zero Dark Thirty, Bin Laden was toast… Zero Dark Thirty-one, I’ll kill his ghost!” While his eye-line often wavered between the camera and crowd, Johnson’s larger-than-life stage presence and knack for one-liners has always made him a natural fit for SNL, with the former wrestler using his physical prowess to heighten sketches quickly and keep the energy afloat throughout the night.

Pep Boys. SNL gave us one of the funnier parodies of Starbucks’ awkward #RaceTogether campaign with this ad featuring ignorant but well-meaning Pep Boys mechanics trying to engage customers on gender and sexual identity in a new campaign called “#genderflect”: “If you got both parts down there, then be proud! If I had both, I’d be doing myself all day long!” The bit found the right amount of edge without coming off as mean-spirited — though I’m sure the people at Pep Boys are bummed they got dragged into this.

WWE Promo Shoot. The night’s lead sketch was an example of a lot of humorous elements coming together beautifully. The way Taran snapped in and out of host mode. The increasing humiliation Trashyard Mutt (Bobby Moynihan) felt as Koko WatchOut (Dwayne Johnson) called him out for having herpes, looking at Family Guy porn, and having a daughter who wants nothing to do with him. That stupid bone Bobby was holding. Like many sketches this episode, the script delivered excellent heightening, culminating in a painful reveal and a (rarely-seen) satisfying ending. Best of the Night.

Bambi. In this trailer for a grown-up adaptation of Bambi (shot ala Fast & Furious), Dwayne Johnson played a jacked, gun-wielding deer out for vengeance against the hunters who killed his mother. The video quickly moved away from the promise of the premise — the weirdness of Disney rebooting its animated classics into darker, adult films — into easier jabs at shoot-em-up tropes. But the production value was, as always, perfect, along with Taran’s hilarious Vin Diesel/Thumper: “I’m always thumpin…”

Dinner Date. An example of a lot of humorous elements not quite coming together was this scene with Johnson crashing a dinner date. All four actors were individually funny here, with Johnson’s big character work, Cecily’s hilarious British dimwit Jemma, Kenan’s befuddled reactions, and Vanessa’s understated straight-manning: “Yes, we did this.” The script seemed like the right kind of weird to kill at table read, and while there was no unifying logic to this premise, the beats — like of Jemma’s pop song (“Long banana! Short banana!”) and Vanessa having to eat 200 onion rings — all received steady laughs.

Escape from Jungle Island. This Indiana Jones-style setup featured Dwayne Johnson as hero “Dr. Bones” and Pete Davidson as sidekick “Short-Long” sexily sucking poison out of each other while a horny Kate McKinnon tried to get in on the action. Every episode has at least one big, dumb premise that the writers half-expect to fall apart live on air, but this one actually paid off, with the actors going for broke — that cartwheel-to-69 lift was pretty insane — giving us one of the more physically entertaining performances we’ve seen on the show this season.

Brogaine. One sketch I’m not sure we needed was this commercial for a variety of Rogaine aimed at prematurely balding frat dudes. It had its moments — the list of college guy stresses including “frat dog may be an alcoholic” and “chanting the N-word in a viral video” — but mostly it played out like any of the dozens of fake pharmaceutical ads we’ve seen on SNL.

Weekend Update. Colin Jost and Michael Che continued to improve as news hosts, occasionally leaving behind the two-liner format to break down American Apparel ads and the opening credits to The Jinx, and discussing race like people discuss sports: “You know who you gotta watch out for? The Mexicans!” Kate brought back her miserable Russian peasant Olya Poblatsky (IV) for the first time this season, dreamily planning her funeral and vividly describing her understanding of coldness: “I was born inside frozen lake. My mother fell in, and the shock of cold popped me out! … I did not cry. I just rolled my eyes and said, ‘Nice one, Devil.'” Kenan closed out the segment with yet another depressing rant, as the optimist Willie (II), who got big laughs by recounting such happy memories as wolves raping his dog and losing his wife in a drag race. “It’s like I always say… there is no God!”

Cooking with Paul. This season’s trend of Kenan Thompson’s one-off oddballs in the back half of the episode continued with a cooking show hosted by a three-time sex offender trying to sneak onto a computer while waiting for his food to cook.  Watching a sexual predator try to connect with “little buddies” online might be a little too extreme — Johnson’s parole officer pointing to the laptop and saying “Those are not chefs, Paul” drew audible gasps from the audience. That said, SNL needs to be able to try dark, messed-up ideas, and Kenan pulled it off with his cheery demeanor and lack of focus… even though Will Forte may still be the sex offender to beat.

Improv Show. Anyone who has sat through unbearable hours of indie long-form improv… or made our friends watch us… cringed a little when this sketch started, just because we know the folks who work on SNL understand that underworld as well as anyone, with its dumb pun names and guys in hoodies named Noah interrupting the intro with awesome bits. (To be a real nerd about it, though, brick back walls are more of a stand-up thing.) Luckily, the writers spared their devotees at UCB by making this sketch focus more on an audience member who foolishly volunteered to be interviewed for source material: alleged murderer and Jinx subject Robert Durst, brought to life brilliantly by Kate McKinnon. I can see how this premise might have been too inside for some viewers (The Jinx‘s modest popularity peaked two weeks ago) and it was a little odd that the host wasn’t in the sketch. But for the slim crossover of improvisers who watched The Jinx, this was right up our alley.

Interrogation. Dwayne Johnson got to further explore his character work as a “bad cop” in an interrogation whose comebacks aren’t that tough: “That is a lie so big that it can fit in a box that could hold a million hats!” Johnson’s character wasn’t totally clear, but his commitment was fun to watch, from his obsession with his partner’s boyfriend Jeff to his quoting of the Friends theme song.

Kyle at the Circus. Kyle Mooney’s mumbling man-on-the-street segments are something fans have enjoyed watching Good Neighbor do for years now, so seeing them on SNL sometimes comes across as more of the same. However, Kyle’s introversion was perfect when combined with sky kids at the circus, with one dad aggressively pushing his son to answer Kyle’s question: “It’s OK… somethings are better to not really get involved in.” I suppose Kyle might as well get in as many of these as he can before he becomes too famous and fans start to recognize him.

Additional Thoughts:

  • Apparently Dwayne Johnson’s “shiiiiiit” in the monologue made it to broadcast uncensored. I’ve noticed the increasingly liberal use of the profanity in cable shows like The Walking Dead, but this may be the first time I’ve heard it used so boldly on a network show — at the top of the episode, no less.
  • Best: “WWE Promo Shoot.” Worst: “Brogaine.” You’ll See It Online: Cold Open, “Genderflect.” “Bambi.” Worth It For The Jokes: “Dinner Date.”
  • It was a throwaway justification that got lost in a sea of great lines, but Bobby’s explanation of looking at porn with Brian from Family Guy was nicely appropriate for a guy playing a character named Trashyard Mutt: “I like dogs.”
  • Kate McKinnon and Kyle Mooney took the most screen time in this largely ensemble episode, while Leslie Jones’ appearances were limited to the hulked-out Michelle Obama in the cold open.
  • Though it wasn’t the final sketch of the night, “Interrogation” aired close enough to the “10-to-1” slot that the set decorators set the clock on the interrogation room wall to 12:50.
  • The lighthearted Ratatouille-style music that bumped into “Cooking with Paul” was a nice complement to the horrible truth they dropped on us.
  • These opening credits have been around since the start of Season 40, but I only just now noticed that Aidy Bryant’s segment features her real-life boyfriend (and writer for Late Night with Seth Meyers) Conner O’Malley. That’s a pretty cool perk. The two of them recently appeared together in the season finale of Broad City.
  • Aidy Bryant in “Improv Show,” telling Robert Durst her address: “I live right across from JFK!”

I’ll see you next week, when Michael Keaton will host with musical guest Carly Rae Jepsen.

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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