Saturday Night Live: "Anna Kendrick/Pharrell Williams"
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Saturday Night Live: "Anna Kendrick/Pharrell Williams"

Can…not…resist

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Saturday Night Live

"Anna Kendrick/Pharrell Williams"

Season 39, Episode 17

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“I’m trying to find a way to be annoyed by it but I’m coming up empty.”—April Ludgate first seeing the Grand Canyon/me watching the Anna Kendrick/Pharrell Williams episode of SNL.

On one hand, I am exactly the wrong audience for this episode. Cheery, chipper movie/Broadway star Anna Kendrick doing a musical Beauty And The Beast monologue, followed by a show featuring three show tunes, another “Les Jeunes De Paris”, and musical guest Pharrell Williams doing two numbers accompanied by gaggles of adorable kids? Bah, humbug.

And yet there I was, much more often than not, with a damned goofy smile on my face. I hate musical theater, I’m a vocal critic of the whole musical monologue convention, and I’ve never seen Pitch Perfect. (I tried, but only managed to watch the “Cups” music video online—it was nice.) I am Lou Grant and I hate spunk.

So why give this episode a grade just a shade lower than last week’s, which starred Louis C.K., the most innovative comic/television maven of our times? Because sometimes sheer, exuberant good spirits gets under your hard, calcified shell and makes you smile like a doofus.

Sure, there was no punchline and precious few actual jokes in Kendrick’s inevitable song and dance monologue, but she was game, and enthusiastic, and when the whole cast joined her onstage to sing the ending with raised voices and raised arms, it seemed like everyone was having such a great fucking time. Sure, I sneered, “ooohhh, here we go” when Kendrick kicked the thing off with “I got my start in musical theater…” but there I was at the end, grinning like a dope. Like Bobby Moynihan’s later turn as George R.R. Martin, I feared I may have had a little stroke. And when Kendrick showed up in a fish tail and seashell bra in the Little Mermaid sketch, the joke—that Ariel’s “give up your voice” deal with Ursula is devalued by Ariel’s addiction to offputting non-singers like Ke$ha, Britney, and Selena Gomez—isn’t especially clever, but Kendrick’s verve and talent for mimicry made the thing work. Aidy Bryant’s gusto as the Sea Witch helped out, too. (And yes, I may have had to google the lyrics to find out which singer was being parodied—I may not, in fact, be hip to the musics of today.)

By the time the “fraternal twins singing from Rent” sketch rolled around with 20 minutes to go, I was beaten. Kendrick had beaten me. Again, not a great sketch—poor Pharrell is not the next Justin Timberlake in terms of crossover SNL hosting potential—but when Kendrick and Vanessa Bayer were there, back to back, belting it out in deliberate cacophony, there was that damned smile. She may be a witch. I’m not ruling that out.

There was really only one dud tonight and, surprisingly, it was another musical sketch, the filmed “Dongs” song. It’s always great to see all the very funny SNL women take focus, and the song was catchy. But, despite the gender-reversal point being taken, and the fits the speedo guys must have given standards and practices, there weren’t any places where I—what do you call it?—laughed.

The other musical bit was the return of “Les Jeunes De Paris” where, as ever, the over-the-top French stereotype jokes were secondary to the joyously choreographed, spazzy dance moved led by Taran Killam and matched with aplomb by Kendrick. Even the expected “Cups” reference was short and relatively painless. (I did wonder in the moment if Kendrick had broken that mug by accident.) It wasn’t the delight factory that Jean Dujardin and Zooey Deschanel’s was, but it was pretty close. (I don’t know who I am any more.)

Even the non-musical sketches were solid, at least party thanks to Kate McKinnon, who, in the cold open about the evasive new CEO of GM and another, ever-welcome appearance as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, continued to cement her place as the funniest person on SNL. The GM sketch had a barb or two (actually mentioning that, since GM took all that bailout money from the American people, then maybe, crazily, it shouldn’t have hidden the fact that its faulty product was killing a whole bunch of said Americans), but it was essentially the Kate McKinnon show. The ability to create a specific character which connects immediately with the audience is a sketch performer’s greatest, most elusive gift, and McKinnon just has it. Here, her signature crazy eyes imbue the CEO’s ludicrously non-responsive responses with a similarly crazy energy, especially as she escalates her evasions while never breaking her steadfast intense blankness. (“Your honor, may I approach the exit?”) Similarly, her Merkel, always on the verge of sheer German caricature, conveys an irresistible, endearing loopiness. On Weekend Update, she, complaining to Colin Jost about being caught, politically and—possibly only in her mind—romantically between Obama and “bad boy” Putin is loaded with great lines. (Talking to Putin “is like being cornered at a party by a guy who just started CrossFit.”) But its her inimitable pronunciation of the phrase “for boob touches” that’s going to stay filed away in my SNL quote bank.

Update itself remains a work in progress, although I maintain that Jost and Cecily Strong are growing into their tag-team role. There are still too many photo gags relying on the obvious (this week—John Boehner has orange skin!) but the hit ratio was the highest yet under the new regime, and both are getting more confident in staring down the camera, and they even pulled off the “who’s on first?” bit where Strong looped around to the beginning again (“Thanks Colin, and here are tonight’s top stories…”) Even Brooks Wheelan found his feet in a correspondent role, telling a funny anecdote about his roommates’ prank involving a stick of butter. Often stuck in “handsome bland guy” roles (hereafter known as “blandsome guy” roles), here he incorporates a welcome note of geeky self-deprecation which works on him. Update should still be much stronger—and not, as it’s been since Seth Meyers left, a source of grimacing anxiety—but this was encouraging.

The filmed piece with Bayer and Kyle Mooney was like a throwback to something Tom Schiller might have done back in the old days—a character-driven mood piece with oddball little touches along the way. Mooney remains one of this cast’s secret weapons, and his acting here combines off-center goofiness and vulnerability in a manner that’s downright affecting. However, it’s Beck Bennett who steals the day with both his direct appeal to Bayer’s seemingly waffling rom-com leading lady (“I guess I’ll just get set up and give myself a boner”) and his petulant reappearance (“I’m ready now…”).

“Fox and Friends” worked its formula as well as ever, with Moynihan’s enthusiastic manchild Brian Kilmeade stealing the show (“I tried for years to join the NAACP...I just love college basketball!”) Plus, his nodding, smiling agreement to everything his cohosts say is both funny and unnerving. My favorite correction on the roll this week: “Don Cheadle does not appear if you say Cheadlejuice three times.” Kenan gets points for actually attempting an impression as Neil Degrasse Tyson rather than simply making funny faces, even if he’s not especially good at it.

The Booker T. Washington High School sketches remain a point of contention, in that I think Jay Pharoah suddenly lurching into frame to announce, “Attention teachers and students” is unendingly hilarious, while many of you vehemently disagree. As the inner city school’s beleaguered principal, Pharoah’s delivery here is just plain funny, whether decrying some students’ attempts to create “a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles situation” in the turtle pond (“The cheese from the pizza has made the water very murky”) or complaining about another student giving a smart phone to a monkey (“That monkey has already started a Snapchat account”). SNL has always had a place for a one-note but fully inhabited funny character, and I’m in Principal Frye’s corner. Fight with me in the comments.

Ten-to-oneland expanded for nearly twenty minutes this week, and if the singing twins bit was a bit more conventional than the usual late sketch, it was more than compensated for with Big Joe, which rode Taran Killam’s deep voice and physical comedy skills to late-show greatness. When Killam’s impossibly burly and manly lumberjack guy first fails to lift the boulders off Moynihan’s trapped miner, his immediate surrender is funny. When he, trying to impress his lady love, tries through four days and nights (according to the light and sound cues), it approaches “Sideshow Bob and the rakes” levels. And when he, reluctantly accepting the position of ring bearer at said lady’s wedding, instantly falls out of frame under the weight of the pillow the rings are on, it reaches first year Chevy Chase pedigree. And I swear I mean that as a compliment. A simple, stupid idea executed flawlessly—that’s what the ten to one spot is for.

The final bit, hawking a highlight tape for the white players of March Madness partakes simultaneously of the stereotype of “black guys are naturally better at basketball” while at the same time satirizing white sports fans’ propensity to venerate even marginal white athletes over black ones. Muddled POV aside, Mike O’Brien’s enthusiastic “They’re basically on the team!” vies with the announcer’s appreciation of a white guy’s “crisp bounce pass to another white guy” and white players’ ability to take charges.

This was not a cutting edge, groundbreaking episode of SNL. It was just wall-to-wall energetic, funny, and enjoyable. Even for an old SNL grouch, that’s something to celebrate.

Stray observations:

  • In the interest of full disclosure, Anna Kendrick hails from my longtime home of Portland, Maine. Speaking of which, I (and I’m sure Ms. Kendrick) would like to remind you all that there are two Portlands, we were here first, and that we Portlanders get very annoyed when people speak of the other Portland as if it were the only one. That is all.
  • “Belts are so tricky! C’mon, science—it’s 2012!”
  • “I saw a documentary about a town that’s always cold because of a princess.” “That was Frozen.” “Yeah, everything was frozen!”
  • Ursula’s eel puppet henchmen had to be a reference to the ill-fated Muppets experiment from SNL’s first year, right? Scred? Anyone? King Ploobis? (I may not be young.)
  • I am hip to the musics of today!: I have covered this. Should have hated the Pharrell stuff. Didn’t. Exuberant and adorable and catchy. Sue me.
  • And they only made a couple of hat jokes, which seemed like remarkable restraint.
  • Show of hands: which title for the next Game Of Thrones book— A Whisper Of Yells or A Bunch Of Clocks?
  • “Your brother’s doomed. I’ll crush his skull.”

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