Melissa McCarthy and Kanye West bring presence to a pleasant SNL

Melissa McCarthy and Kanye West bring presence to a pleasant SNL

Where were you when Beyoncé turned black?

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Cecily Strong, Sasheer Zamata, Melissa McCarthy, Taran Killam, Kate McKinnon (NBC)
Cecily Strong, Sasheer Zamata, Melissa McCarthy, Taran Killam, Kate McKinnon (NBC)
B

Saturday Night Live

"Melissa McCarthy/Kanye West"

Season 41 , Episode 13

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“I’m not an actor, I’m a [movie/TV/paranormal investigation] star!”

Melissa McCarthy probably should have been a cast member on Saturday Night Live at some point. Like fellow Groundling Kristen Wiig, she’s simply at home in sketch comedy, and her propensity for filling broad, brassy weirdos with vivid life would no doubt have created a Wiig-like stable of recurring characters large enough to fill up two “Best Of Melissa McCarthy” specials. In her monologue tonight, McCarthy appropriately struts around like she owns the place, even if her big musical number celebration of her entry in the vaunted Five-Timers Club is interrupted by Kenan Thompson (dutifully dressed up in a huge foam ‘5’ costume) breaking the news that she’s only actually hosted four times. (Apparently the 40th Anniversary Special counts as one-sixteenth of a hosting gig.) It’s a cute start, full of physical comedy—McCarthy’s hoisted aloft by a couple of hunky dancers and busts through a paper hoop—and her first sketch follows suit.

Part of the focus group for one of those never-effective “audience reactions in night vision” horror movie ads, McCarthy played one of her signature physical bits, responding to the offscreen shocks by screaming, doing spit-takes, vomiting, wetting herself, stripping Pete Davidson, and setting off the emergency exit. It’s the very definition of a sketch whose mission statement is “let Melissa do her thing,” and, if she’s your thing, then this was the show for you.

In the later pickup artist sketch, she played Rhonda, whose attempts to apply teacher Cecily Strong’s lessons involved her hitting on Kyle Mooney’s bar-goer with laser-guided intensity and a series of escalatingly creepy lines (“You know what would look good on you?” “Um, you?” “No, my Uncle Joe—he’s huge and he has a cool haircut”) while dipping her fingers in his beer and then sticking them into his mouth. McCarthy’s funny in all these sketches, but there’s not much artistry in the writing of them. (Or, in the pick-up sketch, the execution, as some of McCarthy’s lines were lost to the blocking, and Leslie Jones—rather endearingly, I admit—valiantly held back a giggle fit the entire time.) If there’s such a thing as being too comfortable at SNL, then both McCarthy and the show were guilty of it, relying on the host’s natural charisma and go-for-broke persona to do most of the heavy lifting. The episode was certainly pleasant, and familiar enough, but hardy the most memorable of McCarthy’s four and one-sixteenth (not five) hosting stints.

Weekend Update update

If there’s one thing that’s most disappointing in the undeniably improved Che-Jost Update, it’s that it keeps squandering a golden opportunity. Several of the shows this year have taken place directly after a televised (and consistently contentious) Republican presidential debate, and while, as tonight, Colin Jost has led off with a reference to the hot-off-the-presses insanity, the jokes haven’t hit hard. Tonight, the same unique excitement of a live show reporting on a Saturday night political event petered out with a quick clip of Donald Trump being Donald Trump (to a chorus of boos from the debate audience) and a mediocre joke about him hearing the boos like Beatlemania cheers. The storied tales of writers Herb Sargent and Alan Zweibel scribbling last-second jokes under the original Update desk are old news, so to speak, but SNL still has that opportunity. And while it’s seizing it, it’s not doing so especially well.

Still, Jost and Michael Che have settled into an above-average groove of baton-passing and genial joshing. Neither scored huge laughs tonight, but everything was amusing, and Che—as has been his strong suit all season—carved out a little segment for his standup material, which worked well. Referring to the “outrage” over Beyonce’s Super Bowl performance (more on that below) his rebuttal, “When did outrage go from pitchforks and torches to strongly worded Tweets?” scored. And even if it ultimately let tonight’s musical guest off the hook, referencing Kanye West’s recent all-caps, ten-exclamation-point Tweet “COSBY INNOCENT !!!!!!!!!!” was more confrontational than I thought the show would be. (As was Che’s extended point that, with some people who are really good at one thing, we are collectively prone to let a whole lot of questionable things slide.)

The three corresponded pieces had two huge hits. So take a bow! Not so fast, Super Bowl MVP Von Miller. No offense, but the guy’s not even Ronda Rousey comfortable in front of a (non-NFL) camera, and his bit, repeatedly diverging from his lecture on the new discoveries in Einstein-ian physics to talk about haunting Panthers’ QB Cam Newton’s dreams, was, unlike Miller, a non-starter.

But has Vanessa Bayer been sitting on that Jennifer Aniston impression this whole time? Man, that was outstanding, as she—playing ’90s Rachel and not Aniston per se—nailed every nuance of the character’s voice and mannerisms. (How did I never notice that Rachel always talked as if she were surprised at literally everything?) The bit was even timely, with most of the cast reuniting on NBC soon, and managed to take a few digs, both at Rachel’s sitcom-esque perception of the world and the show’s infamous homogeneity. (Spotting Che, she chirps, alarmed, “What’s that?” Che: “She was on Friends—she’s never seen a black person, Colin.”) Just outstanding.

ghAnd Leslie Jones delivered her best Update appearance ever, running down a list of necessary qualities for her perfect man over the tinkling strains of Kenan Thompson’s piano accompanist, Manuel. After another round of “flirt with Jost” (“You sexy dollop of Miracle Whip, I just wanna spread you on my sammich!”) Jones’ half-romantic, half-absurdly specific requirements in a boyfriend played out like a more personal version of the Steve Martin’s “A Holiday Wish” bit, with Jones’s mobile, expressive face rolling up and down with the mingled hope and loopy demands (“A man who likes flowers but don’t send me any flowers. Flowers is death. They stink of death death fumes. A bag full of death!”) in confident rhythm. High praise? Yup. But this was funny, strange, and, in Jones’ ever-naked honesty about her self and her love life, weirdly sweet.

Best/worst sketch of the night

Testament to the fact that none of the live McCarthy material was the strongest, the two filmed pieced tonight tie for the top spot. The Kyle Mooney-Kanye rap battle film was pitch-perfect, the somberly confessional opening about Mooney’s lifelong quest to be a rapper sounding precisely like the beginning of an especially inspiring commercial for something, before Kanye responds to Mooney’s feeble freestyling with a full-throated recital of “I Miss The Old Kanye.” Mooney’s been sidelined a bit this season, especially with regard to the kind of odd, specific filmed pieces that got him (and Beck Bennett) hired in the first place. But this partakes of those pieces’ signature style, with Mooney playing another of his squirrelly, self-important dreamers whose talents cannot match their ambition, and it paid off.

Even better was “The Day Beyoncé Turned Black,” a fake movie trailer that played on the aforementioned “outrage” over the fact that Beyoncé’s halftime show and video for “Formation,” according to the sketch, made white people “lose their damn minds” by referencing Black Lives Matter, Hurricane Katrina (and hot sauce). Like most of the movie parodies of late, this one’s exquisitely produced, nailing the look and feel of horror/disaster trailers, and the cozy privilege of white Beyoncé fans who hum along contentedly to “Single Ladies” on the car radio. “Maybe the song isn’t actually for us,” beseeches a confused suburbanite. “But everything is!,” replies another, in horror. (Bonus horror: Kerry Washington may also be black. “But she’s on ABC!?”) The swerve of Aidy Bryant’s mom thinking her Beyoncé-listening daughter has turned black only to discover that it’s actually Leslie Jones’ daughter over for a play date is hilarious (“Oh, thank God!”) as is the comically chilling ending, where Kate McKinnon’s mother smothers her son before he learns the horrible truth that they are not, in fact, the center of the universe.

I’d lump the two big showpiece McCarthy sketches (horror movie and pick-up artist) as slightly disappointing, as said elsewhere. However, the quieter sketch with McCarthy and Bobby Moynihan watching The Terminator’s sex scene alongside teen son Pete Davidson worked better. Their desperate voiceovers as they become increasingly uncomfortable are consistently funny, with all three going to absurd lengths to seem nonchalant. (I loved Davidson going to the kitchen for a snack, only to return with a box of dry pasta.) More low-key than the others, but a better-crafted sketch.

“What do you call that act?” “The Californians!”—Recurring sketch report

Look for “Whiskers R We” in the Ten-To-Oneland section.

“It was my understanding there would be no math”—Political comedy report

The cold open’s been the spot for the requisite political sketch this season (and, you know, most years) and tonight saw a quartet of diners discussing their lukewarm decision to maybe vote for Hillary Clinton (even though they really like Bernie Sanders) only to have Kate McKinnon’s Hillary swing down from the rafters singing a rousing version of “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” Worth it mainly for McKinnon’s admirable acting while singing (not the easiest task), the sketch managed to get in a few political jabs (“Sanders is the ultimate outsider—he’s only been in Congress for, like, 30 years!”) but it wasn’t especially memorable. Beck Bennett’s Jeb Bush popped up to little effect (which, to be fair, was the point) but this was all McKinnon (with a little dash of Darrell Hammond’s Bill, supporting his wife on the piano).

I am hip to the musics of today

Kanye West. As Michael Che’s Update bit stated, Kanye has become such a monolithic entity that evaluating his two performances (three, if you count his freestyle trouncing of Kyle Mooney) seems beside the point. I haven’t heard his new album The Life Of Pablo yet (it dropped on Tidal right after his second song “Ultra Light Beams” on SNL tonight, apparently, and some of us have reviews to write), but, as ever, Kanye is Kanye. I was alternately amused (that first song, “High Lights,” opens with a woman extolling the virtues of her man—presumably Kanye himself—at length), engaged, and ultimately mesmerized. (Even if guest vocalist Chance The Rapper stole the second song.) What can I say—it’s Kanye.

Most/Least Valuable (Not Ready For Prime Time) Player

Gotta give it to Leslie Jones. Apart from her Update piece (which I maintain once more is one of the best things this season), she did an admirable job playing increasingly horrified straight woman to McCarthy’s jabbering, blithely racist seat mate in the bus sketch. As McCarthy’s middle-aged housewife rattled on about her love of Roots (although she prefers “white movies”) Jones worked the sensible lower key, even as she implored Beck Bennett’s driver to just open the door so she can tuck-and-roll away from the woman. It’s becoming clearer and clearer that Lorne Michaels feels that—after the cast and writer diversity controversy and hirings a few years ago—Jones should have received a bigger push than Sasheer Zamata who, once again this week, had little going on. Jones, with a high-profile movie coming up (and where was the expected Ghostbusters bit tonight? Guess Wiig was too busy) is, like McCarthy, the sort of live performer who just pops. Even so (and even considering her fit of corpsing in the pick-up sketch), she’s developed a solid talent for underplaying and nuance.

Speaking of Sasheer—at least she was in a few sketches tonight, whereas she was mostly or entirely out of sight for the last few weeks. It’s too bad—Zamata’s engaging, but it’s beginning to seem like her time’s running out unless she can pull off coup, and soon.

Speaking of splashes, after his biggest hit on the show last week, Jon Rudnitsky didn’t capitalize this time out, essentially just serving as an extra in one sketch as far as I could see.

“What the hell is that thing?”—The Ten-To-Oneland Report

In keeping with the amiable tone of the episode, the cat adoption sketch returned in the ten-to-one spot. That should be disappointing, but I always laugh a lot during this bit, so I can’t really complain. Kate McKinnon’s placidly happy but weird shelter owner Barbara DeDrew is terribly funny and endearing, picking up a succession of real kitties and telling increasingly strange and elaborate backstories that, one suspects, spring from the depths of her own unfathomable imagination. Like Stefon bits, these sketches generally rise or fall on the backs of a series of random, inventively loopy jokes, and tonight, McKinnon, alongside an equally intent McCarthy, spun some winners. (“This is O.J. Orange like the juice. And murderer like the athlete.”) Plus, there’s something sort of adorable about the depiction of two eccentric spinster cat ladies who are also happily sexual with each other (as ever, McKinnon gets groped lingeringly by her costar in the sketch, here admonishing McCarthy, “I put the cat down already and I think you know that”). Like much of tonight’s episode, it was fun, and sort of forgettable.

Stray observations

  • In her monologue, McCarthy excitedly urges everyone to look under their chairs—but only because she lost a glove. “It’s a goodie.”
  • Che, reporting that a doctor claims O.J. Simpson was clearly suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy “from injuries he suffered while committing double murder.”
  • Leslie Jones wants a man who can “cook a steak but not have to cut into it and see if it’s cooked like a little bitch.”
  • “Nice outfit. It’ll look great on my floor. Just don’t let it touch my uncle Jesse’s trundle bed. I think he’s a serial killer.”
  • The world would be better if I choked you out and hit you on the head with a rock.”
  • McCarthy’s bus passenger did not care for Octavia Spencer’s character’s revenge in The Help, asking Jones, “Is it called The Poop Pie?”
  • “What’s it called, Eight Years I Got A Slave?” “12 Years A Slave.” “Is it 12 Years? I didn’t see the whole thing.”
  • “William hasn’t been neutered yet, so he still uses condoms.” “And he leaves the little wrappers every where. Like, we get it dude.”
  • “I find him guilty of being adorable—and a murderer.”
  • “Our policy is, bring a bag and we’ll put a cat in it.”