‘SNL’ Review: Pulling Punches with Scarlett Johansson

scarlettjohanssonsnlSNL may have lost the revolutionary spirit fans claim it embraced in the 1970s, but this season has proven the show can still pack a punch of satire when it wants to. From a father tearfully handing off his teenage daughter to ISIS, to a Fault in our Stars parody that infected the characters with Ebola, to a gutsy takedown of Scientology, many of Season 40’s more resonant moments have witnessed SNL reconnecting with its counter-cultural roots. This episode’s “Blazer” sketch, which featured an old-school supercop targeting black men, was one of the more boldly retro forms of comedy we’ve seen on the show in a while.

But these rare glimmers of lawlessness come at odds with the overall trend of satire on SNL, where a big tent mindset has made it difficult for the writers to take a stand on any issue. Too often in recent seasons has the joke of a sketch been, “Isn’t it hard to avoid offending people these days?” — a somewhat pandering refrain that makes for interesting comedy (“The Dudleys,” “Asian American Doll”), but one that puts the show on the defensive, rather than lashing out at the absurdities of the world. To be fair, the show was dealt a tricky hand this week, with uncomfortable news events like the Baltimore riots, and many viewers lured away by a titanic Mayweather-Pacquiao fight that SNL wouldn’t know the results of until nearly the end of the broadcast. But rather than embracing these challenges, the episode often hid behind political correctness and half-measures of satire… a safe approach foretold by a full 60 seconds of excuses that scrolled at the top of the episode.

That’s not to say the episode wasn’t funny. Scarlett Johansson showed a far broader comedic range than her unmemorable 2010 appearance led us to believe, and Taran Killam was in top form, along with a not-seen-enough Jay Pharoah. When it comes down to it, SNL doesn’t need to completely eviscerate the Baltimore police or Marvel studio execs. With people like John Oliver around to fight the good fight, SNL in 2015 just wants to make us laugh. And sometimes that means pulling its punches.

Mayweather-Pacquaio Fight Cold Open. With the unfortunate timing of one of the largest sporting events of the year airing against them — not to mention one in which footage would be impossible to obtain and a Filipino boxer was the star of — SNL‘s writers had their work cut out for them. Their answer was this “pirated broadcast” of the fight, with the image quality “distorted” to make Manny Pacquiao look like Aidy Bryant with a goatee and a t-shirt. Sure, it would be nice if the show had an actor who could portray Pacquiao as accurately as Jay Pharoah did Floyd Mayweather, but it was a clever setup with enough potential. Unfortunately, rather than exploring this concept with other examples of the broadcast’s phoniness, the sketch spent over half its runtime explaining itself with long, impersonal text scrolls. Kate McKinnon’s random Justin Bieber cameo got a few laughs in an otherwise weakly executed cold open.

Monologue. The fantasized-over and recently-maternal Scarlett Johansson introduced herself with an overly sexual “lullaby” to her baby at home, while Taran Killam and Kenan Thompson (who would populate the screen throughout the night) tried to keep their cool: “Your baby is a lucky man!” It was an amusing bit that proved Johansson could handle the unusual element of a premise, while getting the sex symbol exploitation out of the way early. (Compare that to the eye-candy treatment the show gave her Avengers co-star Chris Hemsworth.) As a host, Johansson was par for the course this season, breaking even in solo additions to recurring setups, but shining bright when paired up with ladies in off-beat character sketches late in the episode.

Right Side of the Bed II. The episode’s centerpiece sketch was the return of Taran Killam and Cecily Strong’s Atlanta morning talk show couple Cory and Gracelynn Chisholm, with Taran as an obviously gay husband overcompensating with explicit sex jokes: “If anyone wants to go camping, I’m pitching a family-size tent over here!” The first instance of this setup featured a two-step structure: 1) Taran and Cecily’s character game, and 2) their abrupt cutaways to Martin Freeman‘s timid expert guest, with the hosts mocking his awkward dancing. But like last episode’s “How 2 Dance with Janelle” sketch with Taraji P. Henson, the host’s excessively broad, annoying character threw off the logic a bit, with Scarlett Johansson as a brassy New Jersey cocktail maker who struggles with the word “vicinity.” Regardless, Taran and Cecily alone make this premise work, with their hilarious over-the-top flirting masking the lies they’re telling each other.

Orioles. The Baltimore Orioles’ surreally empty stadium this week provided SNL with a striking enough image to touch on the city’s riots without getting into the reality of the situation. But deploying Taran and Kenan as commentators playing foot-in-mouth after awkward phrasing (“That knee grows stronger every day!”), along with a funny kiss-cam-on-empty-seats gag, allowed SNL to get laughs from the controversial situation without having to comment on it.

Black Widow Trailer. Another topical sketch with more bark than bite was this trailer for a spinoff for the Avengers’ lone female character, with Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow in a 27 Dresses / Devil Wears Prada style chick flick, falling in love with Ultron. Despite bookending the trailer with Marvel claiming, “We get women,” the sketch seemed more concerned with hitting the beats of the rom-com parody — Thor as her gay bestie, Hulk as the nice guy in the wings, etc. — than holding Marvel’s feet to the fire on the gender disparity in its films. If the online version of this sketch lacks some punch, it may be the missing iconic music — the TV version featured excellent mid-2000s anthems like “Fidelity” and “Goodbye My Lover.”

Girlfriends Talk Show VIII. After eight appearances, the only thing still fun about “Girlfriends Talk Show” has been Aidy Bryant’s sad delivery as Morgan, with her fear of growing up too fast and her friendship with her mom’s divorced friend Donna. But even here, those great Aidy moments were in short supply — her dream prom date with the wheelchair kid from Glee excluded — with Scarlett Johansson bringing nothing new to the game in the quietest and least necessary edition of this recurring sketch we’ve seen yet.

Weekend Update. The news segment has become increasingly consistent as Season 40 has approached its end — the jokes have been good enough that Colin Jost and Michael Che loosening up around each other was just an inevitability. Jost’s stammering through his attempt at a Bruce Jenner joke while Che shouted him down offscreen was yet another great moment of interplay between the two. I could’ve done without Kate’s Ruth Bader Ginsburg (II), just because elderly women acting surprisingly hip and youthful seems like an old schtick, even with solid Kentucky ginsburns. Bobby and Vanessa were great as Sam and Gilly from Game of Thrones, the show’s surviving romantic couple (and least interesting storyline), complaining about the overwhelming fan attention they’re now (not) receiving: “People look at us, and winter’s not the only thing that’s coming.” Kenan and Jay ended the segment with the funniest version of Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal (III) we’ve seen yet, with Jay’s cross-eyed ghost pointing getting the best of Kenan and Che.

That’s Random. The back half of the episode featured Scarlett Johansson joining female cast members in three peas-in-a-pod character sketches, starting with Cecily as girls at a museum who dismiss everything with “That’s random” and “Okaaaay?” and annoy everyone with their own dumb senses of humor. I can’t stand people who shit on conversations with those phrases, but it’s such a specific subset of human behavior that it’s hard to reward with immediate recognition laughs — though their commitment paid off as the sketch continued. The supporting cast was fun to watch as well, with Vanessa’s abrupt “Shut up” and Kenan’s hilarious “four-five seconds from wildin'” flip-out at the end (which the online version ended on, rather than Cecily’s out line).

Blazer. The one sketch this episode to not pull any punches (literally) saw Taran as Blazer, an 80s supercop who always gets his man… who always happens to be black. Written by Michael Che, Tim Robinson, and Zach Kanin, the scary thing is how sadly accurate Blazer’s racist tunnel-vision is, at least, according to incarceration records. Best of the Night.

Virgin Flight. Another strong character duo saw Scarlett Johansson teaming up with Vanessa as robotic flight attendants running amok in first class, throwing hot towels in people’s faces and thinking it’s Halloween. The two perfectly captured the maddening confusion of automated response programs like Siri, inserting funny details like mad libs: “You ordered 38 BOXES OF ANIMAL CRACKERS.” Unless there was a broader gender issues theme to this sketch, Taran as a sexist pilot seemed like an unnecessary addition.

Pampers Jingles. “Enter absurd jingle pitchers” may be a little too common of a premise for SNL, but Aidy and Scarlett were fun to watch as advertising creatives fresh back from two spiritually intense years in the desert. Terrifying desert imagery doesn’t really connect with diapers — both in the world of the sketch or in terms of situational irony — but it gave us some great lyrics to end the night with: “The desert eagle screams… like a hell bird born of sand! He bites into the flesh… of the diamond rattlesnake! And with the taste of blood he cries… for Pampers! [Eagle sound.]”

Additional Thoughts:

  • The Mayweather-Pacquiao fight didn’t just give SNL a creative headache — it also pulled away viewers, resulting in SNL scoring a 3.4 rating. That’s even lower than the record-low 3.8 from the Bill Hader episode in October. Ratings this season have been slightly lower than in years past, rarely scoring higher than the 4.0 mark it easily cleared two years ago.
  • Best: “Blazer.” Worst: “Girlfriends Talk Show.” You’ll See It Online: “Black Widow Trailer.” Worth It For the Jokes: “Orioles.”
  • Michael Che, with the joke of the night in Weekend Update: “The first museum in America devoted entirely to slavery has opened on a former sugar plantation in Louisiana. Said one museum employee: HELP! THIS AIN’T NO DAMN MUSEUM!”
  • Taran Killam dominated screen time this episode, appearing in every segment besides “Girlfriends Talk Show” and Weekend Update. Meanwhile, Sasheer Zamata made zero appearances this episode.
  • If Taran’s spill at the end of “Blazer” looked real, that’s because it was. Proof.
  • “I love that accent. She sounds like a talking pizza!”

I’ll see you next week, when Reese Witherspoon will host with musical guest Florence and the Machine.

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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