Sometimes, SNL is the platform for a host to really bust out, wowing the crowd with a range of talents theretofore unimagined by a public all too willing to file him/her away in a preconceived little box. Honestly, I could not have conceivably cared less about Justin Timberlake before he first hosted, and now I want him installed as treasurer of the Five Timers Club—or for him to just throw over that whole movie and music thing and join the cast full time. Other times, however, someone comes in to host and makes you realize that—yeah—he’s just fine staying where he is.
While I’ve been joking for years that Jim Parsons is stealing Danny Pudi’s Emmys (I still think that), there’s no denying that he’s reliably amusing playing a similarly mannered “on the spectrum” character on The Big Bang Theory. And while no one’s saying that he’s Sheldon Cooper, this was Parsons’ chance to show the world that he has the versatility to branch out—at least into the realm of a guy who comically poops his pants. But, alas, Parsons’ first hosting gig does nothing but reaffirm that he shouldn’t venture far outside the nice, comfy, lucrative groove he’s won for himself.
Not that the writing of this, the first SNL after an Olympics-mandated hiatus of exactly a month, did the poor guy any favors. Featured in eight sketches, Parsons, with one exception, ran the gamut from exasperated to embarrassed, with his one potentially juicy character piece turning out just plain nondescript. Sure, he was working with easily the worst material of the season so far, but charismatic performers shine through, somehow—Parsons sank.
Take the cold open, which raised my hopes with the return of Kate McKinnon’s Ellen Degeneres. It’s not that there’s ever anything especially elucidating or vital about goofing on America’s most comfy daytime (and returning Oscar) host, but McKinnon (along with Taran Killam) is simply the star of the show at this point, and her dead-on, crazy-eyed, fully-inhabited Ellen fairly crackles with weird energy. I love the conceit that, beneath her cozy, mid-morning placidity (“It’s so good to see all your 42 year old faces!”) lurks the trapped soul of a standup pioneer forced to literally dance for her afternoon smoothies. Her confession, “Gosh, I hate dancin’. Wish I hadn’t danced in my first episode,” blends into her repeated reaffirmations of her image’s lucrative harmlessness when she makes a joke and then immediately backtracks (“You know what movie I loved this year was Twelve Years A Slave. It’s about how I’ve been forced to dance on this show every day for twelve years. I’m just kidding. It’s about slavery—I’m Ellen”). Plus, McKinnon’s restless physicality climbing all over her host’s chair is always funny. But when Parsons comes out as former figure skater/Olympics commentator and fashion fetish object Johnny Weir, the whole thing just dies. It’s not all on Parsons—as bland as his characterization is, there’s just no point to the appearance at all. Even with McKinnon bringing up the Russian invasion of the Ukraine (actually going on while the sketch was airing), and the recently concluded Sochi Olympics, Russia’s anti-gay policies, and Weir’s much-publicized commentator gig bringing the issue into people’s homes every night for the last three weeks, the sketch settles on jokes about Weir’s penchant for outré wardrobe choices. Even there, the marginally amusing cutaway gag, with Weir having new accessories every time the camera cuts back to him is abandoned immediately. Like most of the sketches tonight, the mousy titter of polite audience members echoed through half-imagined premises. It got downright spooky.
Parsons’ monologue sought to address the whole typecasting thing head on, with tepid results. Sing-talking his way, Rex Harrison-style, through an indifferent musical number (and I’m going to need someone out there to compile the percentage of musical number monologues from the last few years), Parsons introduces a handful of cast members doing quick hit impressions of actors looking to shed their best-known roles. Too quick to register, although Taran Killam’s Henry Winkler throwing out his back trying to “Ayyyyy!” and McKinnon’s lunatic, bank-robbing Angela Lansbury were good for a laugh. (Keenan is seemingly never happier than when he gets to trot out his mediocre Cosby.) However, if the intention was for Parsons to exorcise the ghost of his signature character, fading into the background while everyone else does the funny stuff isn’t an auspicious start.
Despite being in three sketches in a row (including the prime cold open spot), the same holds true in the first sketch, where Parsons stands around in a Peter Pan getup while Aidy Bryant attempts to steal the scene as Tinkerbell’s randy half-sister Tonkerbell. As a strong supporter of Bryant’s growing presence on the show, I appreciate her attempts to create a Melissa McCarthy-style “anything goes” bawdy broad character here, but once again the writing and the timing are the pits, with Bryant’s boasts about her dalliances with the biggest of the Lost Boys (“He’s nine!” exclaims the horrified Peter) and Cinderella’s bumbling mouse buddy Gus greeted with dead air and uncomfortable half-laughs. Maybe it’s the pedophilia and the bestiality—just a guess.
The only commercial parody of the night, for the bizarre and impractically expensive Bird Bible (where all the biblical figures are replaced by birds) would be the sort of half-imagined premise best left on someone’s scratchpad if it weren’t for Mike O’Brien and Kate McKinnon’s bit-salvaging work as the ad’s pitchmen parents, whose barely-concealed skepticism over the product lends a bizarre edge to the proceedings. McKinnon’s frozen smile comes a close second to O’Brien’s response to his son’s questions, “Let’s just enjoy it for what it is.”
Parson’s only decent bit is up next, with Beck Bennett (ably edging his way into the vacated Bill Hader TV host role) introducing Investigation Discovery’s new real crime series with a profile of the Dance Floor Killer, a sweaty, painfully obvious serial murderer all-too-often captured on the sets of 70s-era dance programs. While not called upon to do much but act creepy, Parsons gets laughs, especially with his Soul Train introduction, “I’m Mark Allen Henry. And God has a plan for me,” and the way he stalks McKinnon (dancing like nobody’s watching, as usual) and points ominously at her while staring balefully into the camera. The fact that MTV gave him his own show before anyone figured him out was a nice touch, too. Sketch of the night—which is not saying a lot.
The second Twelve Years A Slave reference of the night comes in the form of a sketch about white actors being uncomfortable auditioning for the probable Best Picture winner’s uniformly-racist minor characters. Look, I don’t want to sound strident, or enrage anyone or anything, but if you build a whole sketch around one of the most searing and provocative films about America’s racial history and the only satirical point you think worth making is that most white people are too nice to say racist things, then maybe your reputation as safe and out of touch has some validity. To be fair, both Brooks Wheelan and Mike O’Brien wring some laughs out of their audition predicaments, and Jay Pharoah steals his scene without a word as the audition’s glaring black cameraman.
And then it’s Weekend Update, with the big debut of new co-anchor (and co-head writer) Colin Jost, joining Cecily Strong at the desk. How was he? Fine, I suppose. His overly sincere thank you for the opportunity was the sort of naked gratitude best left for leaving the Update chair rather than entering it, but he delivered the jokes well enough alongside Strong (although the appearance of another boyish, bland young white guy in the cast is sort of bewildering). I will say that, as much seasoning as she was given co-anchoring with Seth Meyers, Strong doesn’t come across like the head of the team here—instead, Update, for the moment anyway, appears like it’s in the hands of the JV squad. I kept waiting for the grownups to come back and shoo them away. Tonight’s jokes had their moments: I laughed hard at Jost’s line that Paula Deen’s recent comparison of herself to “that black football player who recently came out” was taken from her publicist’s suicide note, and his definition of Pop Tarts as “the official breakfast for parents who are in way over their heads.” Strong’s continuation of President Obama’s admonition to minority men not to make the same mistakes (getting high and not taking school seriously), “unless, you know, you definitely want to be president” works, too. However, Jost had two jokes which relied on silly pictures to deliver the toothless gags about, respectively, North Korea nuking the ocean for knocking down Kim Jong Un and Piers Morgan looking like a potato. It puts me in mind of Kevin Nealon complaining in Tom Shales and Andrew Miller’s book Live From New York about similar how his tenure at the desk was marked by similar bland, Leno-esque yuks. Something to keep an eye on. Luckily, Shaq and Charles Barkely dropped by again—Jay Pharoah’s Obama, Kanye, et al get most of the attention, but he’s really built up a stable of reliable Update guests, and his cross-eyed, happily pronoun-free Shaq is second only to his excitable Stephan A. Smith as funny black sports figures that the SNL audience doesn’t really connect to.
Then it’s the return of Taran Killam’s crowd favorite Jebidiah Atkinson who—yeah, he’s still my favorite too. It’s such a one-note character that his peerlessly bitchy reviewer schtick should have run itself into diminishing returns by now, but Killam’s ability to command the screen is beyond reproach at this point. Plus, you know, as a critic who sweats over his reviews, Jebidiah’s mean-spirited, dismissive quippery has a certain undeniable appeal.
Post-Update, this was as dire a show as I can remember, with Parsons blandly anchoring a murder mystery dinner theater sketch with no sense of tone (cue the most uncomfortable audience reaction of the night), a scene about a boss riding an elevator and trying to cover up the fact that a loud noise has caused him to crap his pants, and the lamest ten-to-one sketch in a long time, with a group of cowboys debating what to get their trail boss for his birthday. (The sandwiched-in return of the kids theatrical camp sketch was a puzzler. Vanessa Bayer remains endearingly crazy-eyed as the quintessential theater kid, but the only real laugh for me was Killam’s character leaning in for a kiss on Aidy Bryant and then looking at us in horror as he immediately realizes his true sexuality.) Again—not all on Parsons’ head here, but his essential blankness brings nothing to the table, leaving each sketch to wallow in its own mediocrity and the hollow, whooshing sound of audience indifference. Endings have never been SNL’s strength, but the way that these three sketches in particular just dribble out once their premises have been exhausted smacks of, well, exhaustion.
- Despite his prime gig on the Update desk, Colin Jost is relegated to the featured player rolls. Work your way up, co-head writer.
- In the Soul Train sketch, it’s odd that Sasheer Zamata didn’t get a featured part, since she’s certainly been showing her dance moves off since joining the cast, and the premise seems a perfect opportunity to give her some screen time. McKinnon’s gyrations are reliably funny, but, unless Kenneth Parcell’s joke that NBC can only handle two black actors in a scene at the same time is actually true, it seems strange Zamata wasn’t included here.
- Killam’s ability to milk laughs from screw ups and audience reaction continues unabated as Jebidiah Atkinson. Both his reaction to the improbably homing ability of his note card (“Couldn’t do it again if I tried!”) and to the audience’s groan at his Woody Allen joke (“So let me get this straight, you all trust him”), plus his ability to stare down the camera mark Jebidiah as a keeper.
- Keenan Thompson never seems happier than when playing broad characters that get to yell “dookie.”
- SNL stated ten minutes late tonight, apparently due to some sort of team sport. I’m sure Lorne was thrilled. Me—I started reviewing the local news sports report before I realized. I may have been a little revved up.
- I am hip to the musics of today!: Beck was the musical guest tonight. While neither song blew me away, I expect each will, in true Beck fashion, worm its way into my head over the next few months. And speaking of fashion, Beck’s wide-brimmed had and thatch-haired paleness put me in mind of the Children Of The Corn. Honestly, I don’t know who—other than perhaps Prince—more makes me appreciate his music while at the same time thinking him genuinely insane.
- Next week, Noel Wells’ last shot—with her only significant role all season being her Lena Dunham impression, if she doesn’t make her mark on this one, I’d say her days are numbered.
- As has happened on SNL itself from time immemorial (1975), I look forward to the implacable wave of public sentiment about these reviews whose tenor can most accurately be summed up as, “It’s just not as good as it used to be.” Of course, in this case there’s some truth to that—David Sims walked this beat, and that brilliantly. I shall endeavor, SNL-style, to plug away here until his memory fades. And then once I too shuffle off, I hope only that you all can beat the hell out of the next reviewer—for that same reason. Let’s do this.