Saturday Night Live: “Joseph Gordon-Levitt/Mumford & Sons”
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Saturday Night Live: “Joseph Gordon-Levitt/Mumford & Sons”

Already in this new season of SNL, we’re starting to see how things have changed with the departure of some of its mainstays. Jay Pharoah is finally getting lots of on-screen time, the amount of recurring sketches has dropped, and each week we’re seeing one of the featured players showcase themselves, and well, it’s easy to say who made the biggest impression this time around—Kate McKinnon, whose Ann Romney impression was one of those things you didn’t know you needed in your life until it happened.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who proved capable and energetic in his first hosting go-round in 2009 (his fantastic “Make ‘Em Laugh” monologue is still unavailable online due to music clearing rights, but seek if out if you can) pretty much stuck to that tradition. Once again he went for an elaborate sexy stunt in his opening monologue, and although I preferred the Singing in the Rain homage to a Magic Mike spoof, I enjoyed Bobby Moynihan popping off his vest to reveal another vest underneath.

This was a very solid episode with no real standout sketch. I didn’t wake up this morning and immediately put something on (as I did last week with Hader’s war veteran puppeteer). But it was also relatively dud-free, and my biggest complaint about some of the weaker efforts was that they weren’t weird enough. I may just be in some sort of joyful haze where the lack of a Secret Word or Lawrence Welk Show sketch is enough to make me happy, but I feel like there’s more consistency in SNL’s young new season.

We led things off with a sending-up of Kelly Ripa (Pedrad) and her new co-host Michael Strahan (Pharoah), who’s mostly overjoyed at how easy his new job is. “Yesterday Mario Batali made me pasta and all I had to say was ‘Yum!’” I couldn’t help but think that Seth Meyers was having a little fun with the gossip this summer that he was going to replace Regis Philbin by leading the night off with this sketch, but there were a few solid gags either way. Kelly’s terrifying grey lizard abs were a nice reveal, and Bill Hader lurking in a corner as Robert Pattison could have done with even more attention. I guess, as SNL comes back from a summer off, it wants to address all the newsy things that happened while it was off the air, and this was a nice way to kill two slightly stale birds with one stone.

Because of Weekend Update Thursday, there wasn’t quite as much political material as you’d expect in an election-season episode, but the undecided voter ad was one of the strongest bits, to the extent that I could have done with another minute of inane questions (SNL usually drives such a bit into the ground, but no such luck this time). “We hear a lot about our dependence on foreign oil, but…what is oil?” This and the GOP tampon ad later in the show both showed off the SNL production department’s total mastery of spoofing ads down to the lighting, music and weird backgrounds.

Gordon-Levitt’s douchey son of the most interesting man in the world from the Dos Equis commercials didn’t really hit the first time around—it felt like there was crazier territory to explore and the whole thing wrapped up before it got started. But then he showed up five minutes later to have a screaming match with his disdainful father (Sudeikis’ best role of the night) over him never coming to his son’s swim meets. “He swam two laps and then puked, like a goat! They had to drain the pool!” That elevated things to the extent that it would have worked even if it wasn’t a spoof. A beaded Jason Sudeikis yelling is pretty much funny no matter what the reason.

I guess a recurring complaint of mine is going to be sketches being too short, which I don’t think I’ve ever complained about before on SNL. The way the show is produced pretty much demands sketches that drag on too long, but I wanted more of Hader’s private detective Sam Flint and his caricatures. This wasn’t the only sketch of the night that ended on an abrupt note (although the other sketch I’m thinking of, the last one, seemed to have been cut off prematurely) when it was just getting into appreciably bonkers territory. Still, it seems ripe to re-appear if it went over well, so here’s hoping for future installments.

The hypnotist sketch took a while to get going and was all geared towards an elaborate, quiet little reveal that is appreciably hard to summarize, but it was just about worth it. If you think Taran Killam acting the fool is entertaining enough then I doubt it dragged at all (he really went for it in the naked dinosaur phase) and Gordon-Levitt made for a decent foil. I like how the wacky hypnotist turned out to be somewhat of a straight man and Killam’s ordinary audience volunteer ended up owning the sketch.

Weekend Update was almost ruined by the reappearance of Armisen and Bayer talking in hushed voices about whatever dictator is in the news this month (this time it was Bashar al-Assad) but then McKinnon came in as Ann Romney singing “Countdown” by Beyonce and brought it all the way home. Much like Mitt, Ann Romney is a tough impression to do because you’re trying to find something interesting about a generally straight-laced person, but McKinnon figured it out, playing with the voice to find some beautifully odd pronunciations and slipping in some vintage GOP primary satire. They have to find a way to get this impression on the show a few more times.

The one recurring sketch that did find its way onto this week’s episode was the four guys reminiscing and singing at a bar thing. I don’t know if that concept has a shorter name, but it’s always been a winner, and this was no different, although perhaps a little more low-key than usual (the Sandusky joke was the only marginally shocking one). I liked the exit with the band through the soundstage, though. It’s good to keep that fourth wall reveal from becoming a regular thing, but every once in a while, it’ll help carry a sketch home that didn’t have a great ending all to itself.

The back end of the show was undoubtedly the weakest. The singing family introducing Gordon-Levitt (in drag) to a new man just weren’t weird enough. Kenan Thompson and Pharoah’s “The Finer Things” bit was a decent concept that didn’t really have anywhere to go after thirty seconds. The Robinson/Pedrad tag as persistently defaced real estate agents was good fun but got weirdly cut off (maybe this episode ran long time-wise, which was why so many sketches seemed shorter than usual).

But I’m not going to complain because that’s two perfectly solid episodes in a row. Next episode’s host Daniel Craig poses a more interesting challenge—he’s a gifted actor but I don’t think of him as being too comical. But so far, what I thought would be a far rockier transition season is defying expectations.

Stray observations:

Kelly Ripa never sleeps. “One time I shut my eyes for a second and accidentally slept for a year and a half. That’s why I stopped blinking!” 

The son of the most interesting man in the world is going to complain to his mom. “Well good luck finding out who the FUCK that is!” dad shouts.

Ann is jealous that Democrats get all the cool celebrities. “If you’re a Republican you get to shake Jon Voight’s cold lizard hand.”

“I saw both of them playing penis tennis at Wimbledong.” 

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