‘SNL’ Review: Happy Easter, Michael Keaton!

snlmichaelkeatonThough they may look like natural sketch comedians, character actors give us peculiar episodes of SNL.

At least once per season in recent years comes an episode hosted by a thespian known less for his red-carpet appeal than for his eclectic body of work: Steve BuscemiEd Norton, and now, Michael Keaton. That seems like an ideal situation — fewer flavor-of-the-week celebrities, more actors with real talent — but more often than not, the combination of these artists’ creative independence and SNL‘s hand-holding formula results in a bit of a disconnect. Norton was fun to watch in that epic Wes Anderson parody, and Buscemi was enjoyable as a creepy-looking football coach. But aside from those highlights, their episodes left us scratching our heads, with the hosts swinging hard with characters that (to borrow from JK Simmons, another beloved actor the show misfired with recently) weren’t quite SNL‘s tempo.

That’s not to say men like Michael Keaton can’t be funny on the show — he was, very much so. SNL craves actors who can actually act. Alec Baldwin and Christopher Walken are SNL legends (though in Walken’s case, much of the humor comes from watching the icon put his own goofy spin on the lines), and oddballs like Christoph Waltz and Jim Parsons proved nice fits for the show. But often, a classically trained actor is either a master of subtlety who plays to a camera inches away from his face, or a playhouse dynamo who draws hundreds of eyes in his direction — in other words, the reverse of what actors do on SNL, which requires them to slavishly hit their marks in a rigid multi-cam setup. SNL works best when the host isn’t overthinking it… just ask those eggheads Thor and The Rock.

Michael Keaton is a truly gifted comedic actor, and that was clear last weekend. But he got his biggest laughs with the exact same “holiday weirdo” setup the writers handed to Ed Norton and Steve Buscemi at the ends of their episodes. Add that to the fact that the night contained an unusual shortage of material (8 sketches compared to last week’s 11), along with Keaton’s absence from the night’s funniest sketch, and this episode was nowhere near the showcase of the chameleonic star of Batman, Beetlejuice, and Birdman that it should have been.

NCAA Tournament Cold Open. Kudos to SNL for opening with a mockery of the NCAA’s exploitation of student athletes, with Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski (Taran Killam) announcing his starting forward Jahlil Okafor would miss the big game to study for a biology exam. It was an effective piece of satire that read like an Onion headline, and Bobby Moynihan was priceless as a clumsy 34-year-old grad-student replacement: “I went back to school to make my little girl proud!” I wish SNL wouldn’t insist on padding these press conferences with layers of setup — the commentator panel may resemble what we’d actually see on TV, but those Charles Barkley jokes stole focus from the NCAA takedown, which by the end felt like too much of a half-measure.

Monologue. In 2015, Michael Keaton is less of a box office superstar than he is a beloved weirdo from our youths enjoying a long overdue comeback. So Taran and Bobby geeking out over him — begging him via song to play Batman and Beetlejuice with them, and then pulling a Laser Cats and editing him into shaky backstage footage — was a perfect introduction. But it also struck me as a cautious move that asked the actor to do little more than look uncomfortable, which is a short order for someone with Keaton’s range. The sketches that followed would see Keaton as an overeager advertising exec, a teacher rediscovering young love, and a creepy Easter enthusiast — all roles that Keaton delivered with joy and gusto, but also nonspecific ones that any host could have sufficiently handled. On a night everyone wanted to see SNL go Keaton, they only really did so in the monologue.

CNN Newsroom. The primetime post-monologue slot went to this vicious parody of CNN’s desperate reenactments of major news events — the Germanwings crash with tacky 3-D animation, the Iran nuclear negotiations with puppets, Indiana’s controversial law with interpretive dancers — all funny incarnations of a familiar theme SNL touches upon whenever commenting on the news network. The sketch landed well, and I loved the callback of that creepy block hand stock footage (animated by “the same team that did the Dire Straits’ ‘Money for Nothing’ music video from 1985”). But as a centerpiece sketch, this media satire piece didn’t quite set up the episode or showcase Michael Keaton as much as it could have.

Prom Queen. I love Mike O’Brien’s short films on SNL. “Sad Mouse,” “Monster Pals,” and “Grow-A-Guy” brought a slow-burn, emotionally resonant change of pace to their episodes, and this She’s All That-inspired story about a cool guy (O’Brien) trying to make a prom queen out of his nerdy math teacher (Keaton) was no different. I don’t know if we needed so hard of a curveball this early in the night, with solid, steady laughs replaced by subtle throwaway moments (Kate McKinnon and Vanessa Bayer hit the hardest with me), and a subject matter already covered so perfectly by The Birthday Boys’ “Pretty Dad.” But on its own, “Prom Queen” showed O’Brien and Keaton deftly sharing a sweet connection while smartly resisting the urge to fall into blue humor.

Grandmother Hotline. Sasheer Zamata led this amusing commercial for a 900 hotline to call your grandparents. The sketch ran a bit long (which tends to happen when commercials are shot live and not edited as video segments), but it hit all the right beats of trying to talk to your beloved elders over the phone, from the confusion over them sending 50 pears to the wrong address, to talking at the same time, to waiting for them to shoo away a bunch of geese.

Ad Agency. The night’s first Keaton-centric sketch saw the actor as an overeager advertising exec who derailed his group’s commercial pitch with asinine suggestions: the mom has huge knockers, the kid lowers his glasses and says, “I’ll have what she’s having,” the camera jiggles from the cameraman’s laughter, etc. Keaton’s delivery was at times a little rushed and soft-spoken, but the details landed, compounded by the other four repeating Keaton’s words back to him and trying to weave them into the pitch. The blood gag was clearly tacked on for shock value, but it hit for me.

Neurotology Music Video. The night’s funniest sketch (and the ballsiest thing we’ve seen on SNL this season) was this 1990 music video released by the “Church of Neurotology” — a thinly veiled version of Scientology that SNL eviscerated in every way short of calling it by name. With HBO’s Going Clear documentary shedding light on the mysterious organization, writers Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider parodied the doc’s creepy Scientology music video, updating it with the cheerful singers’ hilariously dark epilogues: “Has become an outspoken critic of Neurotology,” “Lost mind,” “Thrown off a boat,” etc. Director Rhys Thomas nailed the cheesy imagery of the original “We Stand Tall” video, complete with eerily accurate-sounding music. Best of the Night.

Weekend Update. With amusing comparisons of President Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu to Danny Glover and Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon and a solid stream of two-liners in the middle of the block, Colin Jost and Michael Che have continued to edge up their GPA (I’d now put it at a 2.8, but only because they started out so rough this season). Pete Davidson returned to the Update desk with a set about how stoned he’ll be when the zombie apocalypse starts, which ended with Norman Reedus mistaking his glazed over expression for a zombie and shooting him with a crossbow. Pete’s a solid standup — his set was a highlight of the Justin Bieber roast — but I’m not sure he’s consistent enough to earn five news segment appearances (probably six before the season ends). Taran Killam closed out the segment with another appearance of 1860s newspaper critic Jebidiah Atkinson (VI), who turned his snark on great television shows: “The West Wing! The best lines on that show went up Aaron Sorkin’s nose!” Jebidiah is now as formulaic as any desk character, down to complaining that the crowd was too sensitive over a previous joke, but Taran always improvises enough with the character to make us want to watch him as often as we did Stefon or Drunk Uncle.

Smart Home. Unusual segment timing resulted in an almost non-existent back half to this episode, starting with this scene featuring Michael Keaton and Cecily Strong as a couple showing off their work-in-progress smart home to their neighbors, by making appliances way too invasive and sticking googly eyes on them. This sketch was built around unrelated non-sequiturs that didn’t really land, with the actors speaking in random Southern accents and spending two-thirds of the runtime unpacking the logic behind the smart couch’s rectal tube. And we’ve seen way better uses of googly eyes in a sketch on SNL.

Easter Candy III. Michael Keaton scored his biggest laughs in the 10-to-1, as a creepy Easter enthusiast listing off the inventory of his basket and saying shocking things about each item: “This is a Cadbury Egg. I gave these up for Lent last year. Wanna know what I gave up this year? Cocaine… almost.” Ed Norton did the same kind of bit in 2013 with Halloween candy, and before him, Steve Buscemi with Christmas ornaments in 2011. In all three cases, the character actors brought the house down by embracing the weirdness of the routine.

Additional Thoughts:

  • To be more specific on this episode’s odd pacing (which was only evident in the TV broadcast and not for those of you watching clips online), the second block ran over 10 minutes (with “CNN Newsroom,” “Prom Queen,” and “Grandmother Hotline”), and a segment was dropped from the back half. Normally there are at least two blocks of sketches between Weekend Update and the second musical performance — here there was only one, with longer-than-usual commercial breaks.
  • Taran Killam’s impersonation skills know no bounds. Even with one line each, his Jack Nicholson and Catherine O’Hara in the monologue were spot-on.
  • Best: “Neurotology Music Video.” Worst: “Smart Home.” You’ll See It Online: Monologue, “Neurotology Music Video.” Worth It For the Jokes: Weekend Update, “Easter Candy.”
  • Colin Jost made me laugh out loud twice this episode: with his “nice try” punchline during Weekend Update, and in that shot of him with that dopey smile in “Neurotology Music Video.”
  • I don’t want to take anything away from “Neurotology Music Video,” which I loved, but I have to wonder what SNL gained (or stood to lose) by not using the Church of Scientology’s actual name. South Park didn’t pull any punches with its mockery in 2005, and now, 10 years later, with Going Clear released and Scientology’s influence on the decline, it’s strange that SNL would mock the church in every possible way but still be intimidated enough to call it something different.
  • As a short directed by Matt & Oz, “Prom Queen” was packed with fun little details, including that moment Michael Keaton bumped into that teacher on the way out of the teacher’s lounge, and the fact that Mike O’Brien’s character is a 6-year high school senior who’s still learning Algebra I. Also, how much did O’Brien look like Sam Smith with that haircut?
  • Speaking of subtle throwaway gags, Leslie Jones’ repeating Bobby’s joke at the top of “Ad Agency” was such a great moment.
  • Bobby, Taran, and Cecily topped the screen time leader board this week, with Leslie, Aidy, and Kyle having the fewest roles. Overall, however, this was another ensemble episode that showcased the whole cast.
  • “We should probably get going. We left our baby in a tub.”

I’ll see you next week, when Taraji P. Henson will host with musical guest Mumford and Sons.

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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