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'Kroll Show's Second Season Evolves Into "Sketch-uational Comedy"

As far as character showcases go, it doesn't get much more elaborate than Kroll Show.

When Nick Kroll's sketch series on Comedy Central returned for its second season in January, it was clear that he had set his sights firmly on the pseudo-celebrity culture of reality television, with a lineup of characters inspired by the most despicable monsters that crawled out of the Jersey Shore and Real Housewives muck: the Guido womanizer Bobby Bottleservice, the psychopathic publicists of "PubLIZity," the man-child toilet-baby C-Czar, the self-destructively vain Rich Dicks, etc. But if the first season served to introduce the freakshow, the second season unleashed them out into the world… and onto each other. The result was a series of interweaving narratives within a rich, ever-expanding alternative reality TV universe, for which Kroll offered a term when he last spoke with us:

There’s a term that Seth Meyers coined when he did an interview with us, half-jokingly, but I think is very good, which is “sketch-uational comedy.” It sounds kind of cheesy, but it’s actually a really good way, I think, to describe what we’re doing with the show, which is sketch but it’s really more narrative and long-form storytelling.

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'SNL' Review: Lena Dunham, Guest Stars, and Lots of Impressions

This time last year, Megh Wright and I compiled a list of 10 first-time SNL hosts we'd like to see someday. The list included Stephen Colbert (right?) and the now-sadly-late Philip Seymour Hoffman, but decidedly not Lena Dunham. She was one of the first people we discussed, and we both agreed to pass over the Girls creator/star in favor of figures who might make better hosts. I told Megh then that Dunham would be a person people like us would want to see host, but by the time the episode started, we'd quickly realize, "Oh, this wasn't as good an idea as we thought." Dunham doesn't strike me as a closet Vaudevillian with endless tricks up her sleeve (as Joseph Gordon-Levitt or Christoph Waltz turned out to be) as much as an anti-establishment wunderkind who balked at the hoops and found her own vehicle to express herself.

Indeed, after burning Jim Parsons at the stake last week for his limited range, it would be remiss of me to spare Lena Dunham the same treatment. To be fair, we never expected the actress to be able to play anyone other than thinly veiled versions of herself. Between Girls and Tiny Furniture, Dunham has spent her entire professional career playing the same semi-autobiographical character. With one or two exceptions, last Saturday night was no different.

However, I'll risk joining the legions of smarmy Girls defenders critics and admit that I was smitten with Lena Dunham's charm, as unpolished as her performance as host ended up being. Not since Jimmy Fallon in December have we seen a host have so much fun in sketches — and while I realize that intangible is lost on several viewers, it nevertheless smoothes over rough patches in sketches and keeps the energy afloat throughout the night, especially when the host is as tuned in to a sketch's premise as Dunham managed to be.

Of course, Dunham isn't a perfect performer and neither was this episode. Oftentimes, it wasn't clear who was even hosting, with Dunham wallflowering behind the other cast members and so many other surprise guest stars stealing the moment — Liam Neeson, Jon Hamm, Fred Armisen. And if there weren't enough celebs, the episode relied heavily on impression-based bits, with hit-or-miss takes on President Obama, the cast of Scandal, the cast of Girls, Matthew McConaughey, Katt Williams, Jared Leto, Harrison Ford, and, naturally, Lena Dunham. Yes, celebrity cameos and impressions are part of the SNL tradition, and the image of Liam Neeson threatening Vladimir Putin from the Oval Office is too good to pass up, but so many of them in one episode can feel a little easy, as if someone suggested, "Hey, Jon Hamm is in the building! Let's see if he wants to do something!"

As a watcher of both SNL and Girls, I'm happy to call Dunham's hosting stint on the show a moderate success — though I'm not sure I'd put her up there with our 10 SNL Hosts We'd Like to See Again just yet.

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'SNL' Review: Jim Parsons Broadens His Range to Nerdy Guy

The alternative comedy scene has never been very kind to Jim Parsons. He's best known for playing Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory — the current leader of the pack of broad, Chuck Lorre sitcoms that are dismissed by critics and comedy snobs but beloved by industry insiders and pretty much everyone else across the country. To comedy nerds, Parsons is the ever-popular prom king who's not in any of our classes: "Who the hell is this guy, and why do people love him so damn much?" He has been showered with Emmys (winning for lead actor in 2010, 2011, and 2013), beating out Steve Carell in his final season of The Office (and ensuring he never won an Emmy for the role of Michael Scott) with his hacky, stereotypical nerd schtick. Sheldon Cooper is Community's Abed Nadir for the Jay Leno generation.

Of course, we're too hard on Jim Parsons. His is a schtick he does exceptionally well, with killer timing and excellent deadpan delivery. Creating a television icon was never something we held against Jerry Seinfeld or Megan Mullally. We don't know what Parsons' post-BBT career will look like, but for now, this is his time in the sun, and he has earned every bit of the praise he's received. Yes, I would argue his agent and Chuck Lorre's casting director deserve a huge chunk of that praise, but I'm sure they're satisfied with all those acceptance speech shout-outs.

When it comes to Jim Parsons' performance on SNL, however, we can be a little more critical. For an actor with so many Emmys under his belt and a long career in live theater, Parsons showed remarkably little range, rarely straying from the geek persona he has permanently cloaked himself in, playing such challenging roles as "Sheldon as Peter Pan" and "Sheldon shits his pants." In his monologue, he mocked the parallels between Sheldon Cooper and his real self, singing, "I'm not that guy." But based on his performance, Jim Parsons has trouble playing anyone but that guy.

But that's hardly a nail in the coffin for an SNL episode. Parsons survived the night with grace, and even after a shaky start, the episode took a turn for the best with a nice hot streak in its middle stretch. The episode also witnessed the debut of Weekend Update co-host Colin Jost, who had a superb start despite lingering questions over the show's trajectory as it heads into the back half of season 39. READ MORE

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'SNL' Review: Melissa McCarthy and a Farewell to Seth Meyers

Some episodes of SNL are bigger than the host. For example, this season's premiere spotlighted the show's record six new cast members, while host Tina Fey shone in serviceable roles, like her pep talk to Cecily Strong in the latter's first time co-hosting Weekend Update. Similarly, last season's finale focused less on Ben Affleck's career comeback than it did on saying goodbye to Bill Hader and Fred Armisen (and Jason Sudeikis, though his departure hadn't been officially announced at that point). It's an awkward position for the host to find him or herself in, because not only do they feel the pressure to satisfy viewers tuning in to watch them deliver the goods, they also have to dance around some other elephant in the room: favorites leaving, unknowns arriving, diversity controversies, national tragedies, etc.

Melissa McCarthy is an interesting choice to host Seth Meyers' final episode. No host has been as formidable a presence on the SNL stage in the past few years than McCarthy — the actress has been the most electric performer the show has seen since Chris Farley. She doesn't need her hand held… she just walks into a sketch and blows it up. However, on a night when many viewers' minds are wrapped up in Seth Meyers' run on the show coming to a end, it's a little difficult to get on board with a Melissa McCarthy Variety Hour, as hilarious as it may be.

It's not as though McCarthy's performance was any less explosive than usual. She worked her ass off — flipping around on high wires, crashing through windows, smearing her face with barbecue sauce, even letting out SNL's first expletive since the Jenny Slate F-bomb in 2009. However, the Groundlings alum is at her core a live performer who feeds off the energy from the studio audience, and from those of watching at home, the crowd seemed a little lukewarm. Of course, you should never blame the house (unless it's filled with 14-year-old girls who scream at everything Justin Bieber says, in which case, yes, you should), but it's fair to question the selection of a host known for being the most memorable thing about an episode on a night we want to remember for something else. If recent Golden Globe winners Amy Poehler and Andy Samberg are available for a cameo, it begs to reason that the show could have celebrated Seth Meyers' swan song by booking an alum he has more of a history with, and saved ace-in-the-hole Melissa McCarthy for a week when Meyers is gone, when SNL will need her the most.

But it's not fair to nitpick with hypothetical alternatives, especially when the show hasn't even booked a host for its next episode on March 1. At the end of the day, this was another delightful, well-written episode, with a nearly flawless first half, a few nice pieces to close things out, some unforgettable moments from a golden Melissa McCarthy, and a fitting farewell for Seth Meyers. READ MORE

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'SNL' Review: Jonah Hill's Award-Worthy Performance

Anytime I begin to think Jonah Hill might be overrated, I only need watch him host SNL. Yes, it's still pretty weird to think that the guy from Superbad has spent the last few years scoring Oscar nominations and hanging out with Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Martin Scorcese. And it's easy to say the industry might be a little too infatuated with a comedy star who can surprise with a nuanced performance in a movie academy voters actually care about.

But then Jonah Hill comes back to host SNL, and suddenly it makes sense. Not only is the guy the real deal — he seems like a delight to work with. He's one of the three-peat hosts that still delivers, like Melissa McCarthy, Jon Hamm, or Anne Hathaway, as opposed to Charles Barkley, Lindsay Lohan, or — as it turned out — Paul Rudd. After giving the episode an explosive start, Hill's flexibility throughout various types saved the episode's shaky back half. It was a performance worthy of the laurels Hill has been receiving, and a second consecutive win for SNL as it makes its way into 2014. READ MORE

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'SNL' Review: Drake Gives 2014 a Fresh Start

Season 39 has not exactly been kind to SNL. As we explained in our midseason review, the show seems to have surrendered to its "transition year" label, playing it safe as if dragging a stone of shame, rather than saying "screw it" and taking creative risks as if dragging a stone of triumph. Not all of it has been bad — in fact, a lot of it has been quite good — but we've been waiting for the show to win us back with a resounding victory. December's midseason finale with Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake came close, in that it provided the show with a jolt of energy it had been missing over the past months, but fans still complained that the sketches weren't up to par. Indeed, with so many bits from past seasons and impression-based pieces, the episode was far from a testament to originality.

Last weekend's episode, hosted and musical-guested by Drake, might have given us that win. SNL has had a recent love affair with booking music stars to pull double duty — this being the third instance this season, after Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga. Drake certainly outperformed those two — unlike Cyrus and Gaga, he avoided pandering to the frantic fans in the crowd, and he brought supportive energy to every sketch without upstaging the premise — though I remain hesitant to give him a standing ovation after prematurely doing so for Adam Levine this time last year.

The bigger story this week was the addition of Sasheer Zamata, the show's first black female cast member in seven years. While I always thought the accusations of racism toward SNL a little overblown, I have to admit that Zamata's presence seemed to set the cast and writers a little at ease. This wasn't a showcase episode for the actress — her frequent appearances in minor roles were enough to remind viewers of her existence without exploiting her token status, as a meta gag in the cold open or Weekend Update would have done. But seeing Zamata get laughs as Rihanna, dancing in opening credits of Blossom (or "B'Lossom"), gave me hope that SNL is once again a show that can make fun of celebrities like Rihanna (or Michelle Obama, Beyonce, Will Smith in drag, etc.), and do sketches where a black host can play a father to a daughter who's having a slumber party… without everyone feeling awkward.

Aside from Drake and Zamata, this episode gave us plenty of reasons to celebrate, from Kate McKinnon's hilarious take on Justin Bieber to Aidy Bryant's crushing slumber party girl to Vanessa Bayer's fun Jacqueline Bisset bit during Weekend Update to the delightful return of Mornin' Miami. SNL began the new year with a fresh start, giving us a night that we might as well remember as a season premiere — that is, if the show sticks to its resolutions. READ MORE

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'Kroll Show' Season 2: Good TV Making Fun of Bad TV

The second season of Kroll Show premieres tonight on Comedy Central, and by the looks of things, Nick Kroll has no intention of changing course. When the first season debuted a year ago, the series appeared to be a showcase of Kroll's larger-than-life characters, like Bobby Bottleservice, who at that point had already been pushing his roofie necklace on us in online videos for months. Indeed, his characters were the centerpiece of the show, but rather than growing thin throughout the eight-episode season, they delivered the goods. That's because Kroll's characters don't exist for their own sakes — they're vehicles for the show's bigger target: reality television and the nature of celebrity.

No sketch show gets reality TV quite as well as Kroll Show does. By centering his series around endearing monsters like Bottleservice, the Liz'es of "PubLIZity," Dr. Armond, and C-Czar, Kroll demonstrates how low the bar has sunk, and how easily we embrace obnoxious personalities with no discernible talents as celebrities, thanks to flashy editing and contrived scenarios. The Real Housewives and Jersey Shores and Duck Dynasties have created a vast pseudo-celebrity subculture, with scores of ambitious hacks cashing in with their own spinoffs, talk show appearances, book deals, and perfumes. They're famous for… well, being famous. And awful. Networks are happy to pick up the tab — it's much cheaper to produce a reality show than it is to write a scripted one (especially on a cable budget), and if the next Honey Boo Boo emerges in a pan of rocks, then the payoff is well worth it. That's the hand that Kroll Show bites, and in Season 2, he's hungry for more. READ MORE

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Checking in with 'SNL' Halfway Through Season 39

We've reached the midpoint of SNL's 39th season — one that has optimistically been called a "transitional year," but one more commonly known as "the year the shit hit the fan with that whole black woman issue." Despite the fact that the bulk of the SNL coverage in fall 2013 has zeroed in on the show's diversity controversy, SNL has given us plenty of other things to talk about, from new cast members and emerging stars on the show, to surprise cameos and celebrity hosts who defied our expectations — in good and bad ways.

Unfortunately, few of those topics have gotten much ink in fall 2013 (outside of sites like this one, at least), with only a handful of strong episodes, and the rest of the weeks sustained only by one or two truly great sketches. The cast's six talented newcomers have only begun to win over a fan base infamously skeptical of change, while the rest of the cast, once stacked with fan favorites Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, Jason Sudeikis, Andy Samberg, and Fred Armisen, now seems relatively thin, supported heavily by the collective charm of Taran Killam, Kate McKinnon, and Cecily Strong — who has been filling in nicely so far at the Weekend Update desk, even if it means we won't ever again see her Girl You Wish You Hadn't Started A Conversation With At A Party. However, this temporary rut is a situation SNL has found itself in before, and despite the "rebuilding year" mindset, the show keeps turning out a solid product… some weeks more successfully than others. READ MORE

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'SNL' Review: Jimmy Fallon's Christmas Miracle

Boy, did SNL need a win. The months following September's successful season premiere with Tina Fey saw a mixed bag of lackluster hosts, unmemorable sketches, and distracting media scrutiny. Even Kerry Washington's enjoyable November episode was overshadowed by the show's diversity controversy — Washington's hilarious performance only seemed to underscore SNL's lack of a black woman in the cast (an issue that will apparently be resolved in January). Furthermore, when beloved comedy stars Paul Rudd and John Goodman produced surprisingly disappointing episodes over the past few weeks, and with the coming departure of head writer Seth Meyers, SNL's future was looking grim.

Then came along Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake. To be fair, we can't give the two men all the credit — the regular actors and writers stepped up with delightful performances and clever scripts, which was a true sight for sore eyes for beleaguered fans looking for something to look forward to in 2014. However, the success of this episode was less about the fundamentals than it was the intangibles, namely, the jolt of energy provided by Fallon and Timberlake, whose on-stage chemistry on SNL and Late Night has been a bottomless well of comedy for viewers for years now. With NBC's late night lineup undergoing major upheavals, from the Tonight Show to Late Night to SNL, Jimmy Fallon (with his second half) is one of the network's few sure bets.

While Fallon's return to SNL fell slightly short of his Christmas episode two years ago, it was nonetheless a resounding win in a season that has seen alarmingly few of them. READ MORE

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Talking to Will Forte About 'Nebraska', 'MacGruber 2', and Never-Aired 'SNL' Sketches

Will Forte is a busy man. Upon leaving SNL in 2010, he starred in MacGruber, a film that received mixed reviews but is nonetheless considered a cult classic in many circles. He has also played recurring roles in numerous shows, among them the buffalo-straddling Ted Turner on Conan, the cross-dressing Paul L'Astnamé on 30 Rock (for which he was nominated for an Emmy), and voicing various characters on The Cleveland Show. His most recent project has been Nebraska, a celebrated indie comedy directed by Alexander Payne, in which he plays David Grant, a man who escorts his elderly father (played by Bruce Dern) on a road trip to claim a bogus sweepstakes prize. Forte took some time to chat with us about the film, which has been nominated for numerous Golden Globe and SAG awards and is gaining Oscar buzz. He also gave us the latest updates on a rumored MacGruber sequel, shared with us some memories from his SNL days, and offered a preview for the upcoming Late Night with Seth Meyers.

Congratulations on Nebraska piling on all of these Golden Globes nominations! Did you expect going into it that it would get this kind of reaction?

Oh, it was really exciting to hear. I've learned to not have any expectations with that stuff, so that you can only be pleasantly surprised. This has felt like a really special movie to be a part of, so it was really exciting to get the news of all the different nominations yesterday for the movie. It’s been so exciting to be a part of this movie.

What drew you to the project?

I read the script and loved the script from the moment I read it, and, obviously, it’s Alexander Payne. I mean, this guy is one of my directing heroes, so to get a chance to be in this movie was the most unexpected surprise of all time. I contend that I have no shot at getting to do this again, and I’m so excited that I somehow wormed my way in here. READ MORE

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'SNL' Review: John Goodman Wasted

Sometimes I wish I could walk into an SNL episode knowing nothing. No information as to who the host or special guests are, or what their comedic experience might be, or what their past roles on the show have been. No expectations of the cast members, or knowledge of who the more senior players are or how much respective screen time they've been getting. No insight into behind-the-scenes drama or media scrutiny toward the show's staffing procedures. Never have I enjoyed SNL more than when I was a casual viewer, simply tuning in without any expectation of what I might see.

Of course, those expectations are unavoidable — not only does SNL do everything under the sun to make sure we know who's hosting the show each week, these recaps would be far less interesting without all the background information. Furthermore, sometimes the show needs those expectations… not just to attract viewers, but for inspiration for material. When Kerry Washington hosted earlier this season at the height of the show's diversity controversy, the episode opened with a sketch that forced Washington to play multiple black female characters, the joke being that SNL had no one else who could do so. While the sketch did little to pacify progressive critics, from a purely humor standpoint, it was very successful.

The hardest thing to do is deliver under high expectations, and if anyone can pull it off, it's John Goodman. I was expecting the SNL veteran (hosting for the 13th time) to shake me out of the cynical mood I've been in lately, to restore SNL greatness after last week's dismal episode and a half-season plagued by frustrating controversy. I couldn't wait for the guy who cracked me up as Linda Tripp during my casual-viewer days to show us all how it's done.

But it didn't happen. Instead, SNL treated Goodman as if he was someone who had never performed comedy before, teeing him up with straight-man roles, pairing him with other star cameos and characters, and parading him around in drag — and not in an amusing or politically relevant way, as was the case with the Linda Tripp bits. This isn't Donald Trump; it's John Fucking Goodman — the titan who hosted the show every season in the 1990s and is at least partly responsible for the show surviving those sophomoric "boys club" years. Why the producers would supply a pro like Goodman with lazy, B-material (A song about booty! The Three Wise Men Guys! Goodman's a woman!) and rely so heavily on Kenan Thompson mugging (no joke, the cast member was on screen more often than the host was) is a mystery that will bug me as the show limps toward its mid-season hiatus, when it will lose its head writer. Yikes.

I keep telling myself the writers are saving the good stuff for Jimmy Fallon next week, but I know that's not how it works. If they can't deliver for John Goodman, what hope does Fallon have? I apologize for the grim outlook, but these days on SNL, it's best to watch with some healthy low expectations. READ MORE

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'SNL' Review: Paul Rudd's 'Anchorman' Ad

The most beloved SNL hosts over the years can make sketch comedy magic with anyone. Justin Timberlake, for example, seemed to hit it off so well with Jimmy Fallon in the early 2000s, but even after Fallon left the show, Timberlake still hosted stellar episodes with whichever lineup of actors and writers happened to be working those seasons. Alec Baldwin is another example — despite being famous for his Scoutmaster and Schweddy Balls bits, Baldwin has never been dependent on any particular writer or cast member to make him look good. Baldwin understands that it's about making everyone else look good, and that's why he's hosted the show 16 times.

Paul Rudd's first two times hosting the show exemplified this chemistry. His memorable stints in the kissing Vogelcheck family were a particular highlight (he even popped up in Jason Segel's episode two years ago to reprise the role). But now in Rudd's third time hosting, most of that old guard has moved on from the show — Bill Hader, Andy Samberg, Kristen Wiig, and Fred Armisen. Would Rudd step up to the plate like Timberlake and Baldwin have, or, like most repeat hosts, would he look like a man excited to return to his old high school just to find all his favorite teachers have retired?

Unfortunately, this episode gave us mostly the latter, with the night's most memorable moments consisting of cameos from past cast members or Rudd mixing with his Anchorman buddies, making the entire episode feel like an extended promo for a movie we don't need another reminder to go see, let alone one that fell short of film's clever promotional campaign. Meanwhile, Rudd mostly failed to connect with the current generation of cast members, relying on a surprising number of recurring sketches — some from this season, some from past ones — not all of which I'm certain we needed to see again. But hey, Rudd looked like he was having fun, and I'm sure for several fans, Bill Brasky made it all worth it. READ MORE

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'SNL' Review: Josh Hutcherson Brings the Charm

More often than not, the success of any given episode of SNL depends less on the talent of the host or the output of the writers that week than it does on how thoroughly the show's producers understand the host's abilities and how efficiently they deploy them. For example, past seasons have seen lukewarm episodes hosted by comedy greats like Bryan Cranston, Jane Lynch, and Ed Helms — not by the fault of the hosts or the sketches themselves, but because the producers didn't know quite how to make them shine as bright as they had as their other popular characters. Meanwhile, the show has had great success with non-comedy types like Bruno Mars, Christoph Waltz, and Kerry Washington, perhaps because producers were able to identify what roles those performers would be most comfortable in, setting the table for surprisingly funny episodes. Of course, it helps when a host can bring to that table a proven range of talents, which is why I'll always take a Tina Fey over a Miley Cyrus, and why I'm excited the next three episodes will be helmed by longtime SNL veterans: Paul Rudd, John Goodman, and Jimmy Fallon.

Josh Hutcherson doesn't seem to have much to offer by way of comedy skills — the 21-year-old actor is best known for his role as Peeta Mellark, the doe-eyed co-star to Jennifer Lawrence in the Hunger Games films. But the producers wisely made the most of the situation, keeping the spotlight focused on their talented cast members while allowing their heartthrob host to be charming at every turn. Charm is infinitely valuable when it comes to televised bloodbaths — whether it's 24 children fighting to the death or 16 sketch comedians fighting for screen time — and it's one skill Hutcherson knows quite well. READ MORE

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'SNL' Review: Applause for Lady Gaga

In case you hadn't noticed, there have been a lot more music stars on SNL lately. Not merely performing as musical guests or popping up in a sketch here or there, as we've seen on the show every week, but pop stars getting booked as host in addition to their musical guest gig. What was once a rare event with triple threats like Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake occasionally pulling double duty in the early 2000s (and once by Paul Simon in 1976) has now become a fairly common practice. The last three seasons have seen hosts + musical guests Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, Justin Timberlake, Justin Bieber, Bruno Mars, and Mick Jagger, as well as just-hosts Adam Levine and Katy Perry. Perhaps Timberlake's success in the combined roles has paved the way for this trend: he has hosted the show five times, also serving as musical guest three of those times, to great critical acclaim.

The benefits of having a pop star host SNL are obvious. In addition to a guaranteed ratings boost, SNL often finds musicians to be gifted live performers with larger-than-life charisma and a willingness to poke fun at themselves — qualities not always present in serious screen actors. The downside, meanwhile, is over-saturation. A celebrity typically needs to have reached a certain level of cultural relevancy to get booked on SNL in the first place. For musicians, that means a new album to promote, flashy stunts at awards shows, and endless talk show appearances and magazine covers. Add SNL on top of that, and a pop star hosting the show feels more like yet another promotional deal in a shock-and-awe publicity campaign than something viewers actually wanted. Indeed, the general consensus from last month's Miley Cyrus episode wasn't that she was particularly bad — it's that she didn't know when to stop.

While Lady Gaga fared better than Cyrus or Bieber, she was every bit as unable to connect with sketches' overall concepts, focusing only on her small, one-dimensional components within pieces, and failing to convey the on-field awareness that makes hosts like Justin Timberlake so successful. Of course, that's a tall order for a first-time host. Gaga nevertheless capitalized on her on-stage talents and eccentric style to produce a high-energy and entertaining episode, where strong writing took the backseat to over-the-top performance. For most viewers, I'm sure the risk of a pop star host was well worth it. READ MORE