Saturday Night Live: “Eli Manning/Rihanna”
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Saturday Night Live: “Eli Manning/Rihanna”

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Saturday Night Live

“Eli Manning/Rihanna”

Season 37, Episode 20

Poor Eli Manning. No matter what he does, he’ll likely always live in the shadow of his older brother Peyton. Just a few months ago, as Manning celebrated his second Super Bowl championship, the spotlight shifted back to big brother as Peyton made headlines for his signing with the Denver Broncos. No matter how many Super Bowls Eli wins, columnists, bloggers, radio hosts, and talking heads will always pontificate on which brother is better. And now we can add to that TV show reviewers debating, “Who was the better SNL host?” The odds are already stacked in Peyton’s favor. Peyton’s 2007 episode was not only of the best athlete hosting jobs the show has had, but it was a high point of that season and left us with the classic United Way spoof that played with Peyton’s reputation for being a humorless taskmaster on the field.

While sports and SNL can mix well (see: this season’s fantastic Tim Tebow sketch), athletes and SNL don’t always pan out. For every Charles Barkley appearance, there’s a cringe-inducing Nancy Kerrigan episode. (Maybe that’s why athletes haven’t hosted much recently; Barkley was the first athlete to host the show since Michael Phelps in September 2008). Of course, athletes aren’t actors and the writers are limited in the material they can write due to those lack of those skills. For its part, NBC certainly believed in Eli Manning, promoting this episode heavily, including an interview with Bob Costas in the middle of the network’s Kentucky Derby coverage. Fortunately, for NBC, the gamble paid off and Manning acquitted himself well, making the most of what the writers gave him, playing along, and letting the cast do most of the heavy lifting.

The show’s cold open returned to fertile ground, taking on Fox News, specifically Fox & Friends, a pretty easy target. Mocking morning television is something the show does well and this wasn’t any different. Taran Killam and Vanessa Bayer were the highlight, selling the dim-witted, over-perky hosts; Bobby Moynihan’s dumbbell (“a panda on Weight Watchers!”) wasn’t quite as fun and Fred Armisen’s Rupert Murdoch was pretty paint-by-numbers, but the quick pace helped sell it. Some of the “corrections” made for some freeze-frame fun (“Mormons breathe air.”) and set the pace for the rest of the show. 

Manning’s monologue was a bit stilted, as was to be suspected, but he held his own and the giving-advice-to-tourists bit gave Manning a chance to play up being a bit of a bumpkin, having fun with his image (“Cats! You’ve gotta see Cats!”) and making the most of his limited range. Perhaps so as not to get too bogged down, the bit—and the entire monologue—were mercifully short, never giving Manning to chance to make a misstep.

The Amazon Mother’s Day parody commercial was another homerun for the show, particular the initial reveal of Kristen Wiig “enjoying” Fifty Shades of Grey followed by her clueless young daughter using her vibrator as a microphone. Bayer’s glove and Pedrad’s grinding with the washing machine with a photo of Joel McHale were also pretty inspired and helped sell the basic premise without it becoming to repetitive. It wasn’t quite as inspired as the “Almost Pizza” commercial from earlier in the season but it was still a highlight and one worth bringing back next year.

The motion-capture sketch utilized the “putting athletes in a funny costume” concept the show often uses. The sketch was fun if just to see Manning act goofy—and it’s not like the New York audience would ever boo the most successful Giants quarterback ever—and see some great visual jokes (including Keenan Thompson as Ray Lewis). Problem was, most of Manning’s “moves” were kinda goofy, they weren’t that funny (except for the grenade thing, that was great). Still, it got some good laughs and t also gave Killam to bring back his Tebow impersonation.

The sketch also established two recurring themes of the night: (1) using Manning sparingly and (2) pairing him with Sudeikis and Hader. The first issue isn’t much of surprise as the less inexperienced hosts have to do to carry the show, the better. The second wasn’t a surprise but it was nice to see two dependable veterans of the show be entrusted with guiding Manning through the show. Hader’s great with characters and Sudeikis’ easy-going charm probably helped put Manning at ease and gave him easy partners to play off of without too much pressure.

While the follow-up, the courtroom sketch, lagged a bit, it still wrung a few laughs out of the concept. The commentary on obnoxious texting seemed a bit tired and repetitive; it was the first—and only—sketch of the night that dragged on too long. The “kewl/cool” bit and Manning’s self-portrait with the banana were funny but the sketch could have used the same bits of humor and been half as long.

Then came Manning’s answer to Peyton’s United Way ad: Manning defends children against their bigger brothers. Like Peyton’s ad, the spoof relied heavily on Eli doing shocking things which paid off (the kid holding the baseball in his mouth like a tee and the archery joke — “1, 2… 5” — were particularly great). It recycled the United Way idea without blandly replicating it, giving the Eli his own wicked twist. It also proved that having athletes say crazy shit always works, something fans of the show have known since the great Joe Montana’s “Sincere Guy Stu” sketch (“Oh, you won’t disturb me, I’ll be upstairs masturbating.”)

I’ve never been a big fan of the Herb Welch sketches. I think Bill Hader’s dedication to the character is solid but the payoff usually falls short for me. The Occupy Wall Street setting gave it promise and some of his lines — “Press two for English” — were okay but, again, I felt like it fell just a bit short. It’s another in the show’s long line of one-note sketches but it always feel like the execution is just a bit lacking, especially in this instance; While the OWS movement is ripe for jokes, it’s also a bit stale by now.

Weekend Update was shorter this week, Seth Myers getting limited time for his jokes, in favor of using two new characters rather than recurring ones. While Wiig wasn’t utilized all that much this week, her impression of Patricia Krentcil ("the tanning mom") was fun and gave Meyers a chance to play off of her (“You look like a baseball glove.”). The big guest was Sacha Baron Cohen who appeared in character as Admiral General Aladeen to promote his upcoming film The Dictator. The violence-that-inspired-good-reviews jokes were rote but unveiling a kidnapped Martin Scorsese was an inspired bit that gave the sketch a bounce from another celebrity cameo and actually played well.

What Is This?” got mileage out of Abby Elliot’s ability to play the “crazy girlfriend” character. It won’t get much use as a recurring bit but it was fun and Manning played the awkward, squirming girlfriend well. Again, Hader showed up and helped bring some fun lines (“a letter hole!”) to keep the sketch moving along.

Kate McKinnon finally got a chance to shine in the Helga Lately sketch. It definitely had the air of one of those last half-hour sketches that eventually finds its way to the top of the show, a la “J-Pop American Fun Time Now.” While making fun of the language is a pretty easy joke, even lazy, the writers shied away from abusing that too much and used it more to set up the jokes using just English phrases. Manning’s appearance was short and sweet, McKinnon vamping it up as the Chelsea Handler character. More of her, please.

The Miss Drag World sketch once again relied on dressing up an athlete in a funny costume or drag. I was hoping they’d side-step the drag option as it was one the show’s relied on a bit too much with athlete hosts: Barkley, Jeter and the Yankees, etc. It feels a bit too easy: put a masculine athlete in a dress and laugh because the juxtaposition is funny, right? I’ll at least give credit to the writers by having Eli play a bitter drag queen who throws a hissy fit over a third-place finish.

The Cheech & Chong sketch was the only stinker of the night. The concept wasn’t strong and the payoff was just as bland. Armisen and Hader’s imitation of the famous stoner duo was solid and Eli wasn’t bad, it was just that the sketch felt way too wedged in to kill time. Still, in a show with this many sketches, having only one stinker is a pretty good ratio.

Overall, the episode was a solid entry in what’s been a good season. Manning was game for everything and pulled off hosting duties well and proved that with the right mixture of personality and good writing, athletes can pull of hosting better than some actors (cough-January Jones-cough). The fast pace of the show actually worked well, with only the courtroom sketch feeling like it went a bit long. Whether or not it was as good as Peyton’s is an argument I won’t wade into but it was still one of the better athlete-hosted episodes the show’s had.

Stray Observations

  • The tribute to the Beastie Boys’ Adam Yauch was a nice touch as the band was a frequent musical guest, the performances always stellar (see: their performance with Elvis Costello at the 25th anniversary special several years ago). The Beasties also appeared in sketches and have always been identifiable with New York, making it a fitting acknowledgement.
  • Rihanna was a solid music performer and it was nice to see an established name from pop as the musical guest after so many appearances from newer, out-of-left-field acts (Karmin, the Lana Del Rey debacle). Only she can make a crazy-ass spider web stage set-up seem … sexy? Though, without a new album out, it feels like she’s promoting her appearance in Battleship more than anything.
  • Okay, I was lying. Peyton's episode beat Eli's. But Eli still performed admirably.
  • David will be back reviewing the show next episode but I wanted to add that I think this season has been particularly good. While it’s been scattershot at times, I think the emergence of Bayer and Killam has been a boost and from little we’ve seen of her, McKinnon shows a lot of promise. If the show does lose the triumvirate of Wiig, Sudeikis, and Samberg at the end of this season, it feels like there’s a great chance it’ll continue just fine.

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