Saturday Night Live: "Justin Bieber"
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Saturday Night Live: "Justin Bieber"

You know who Justin Bieber is good at playing? Himself. You know who he’s okay at playing? Nervous nerdy teens. Guess what was featured in 95% of last night’s Saturday Night Live sketches? Those two things. When you have a big star like Bieber who can grab huge ratings, you can’t shove him to the background, but it’s obvious that the dude has his limits, and that made for a fairly limited show that revived a lot of recent favorites (mostly to dull effect).

Weirdly, the MVP of the night was Kenan Thompson. Not that I don’t like him, but it’s been a while since he’s stood out in a sketch for me. The Super Bowl cold open was the expected mediocre hodge-podge of jokes, some better than others. The biggest laugh was probably “Ray Lewis knows who killed those people, because it was him,” but that’s simply from shock value alone. The trope I enjoyed the most was Kenan’s relentless promotion of 2 Broke Girls even though he finally admits he’s never seen it. “I’ve seen actual broke girls, but they didn’t look like pretty white girls in aprons.”

My other favorite sketch of the night was Kenan’s Weekend Update character “that one black guy in every commercial” who has to high-five Seth Meyers every twelve seconds to stave off death. He managed to keep up the positive energy in a way that was both winning (Seth was certainly thrilled by him) and creepily robotic, fitting the premise of the character very well indeed. It’s also worth nothing that these two sketches did not feature Mr. Bieber. I didn’t think the young popster did a terrible job in his first time as host (he’s guested in sketches before and been a musical guest), but there were a few problems.

For one, his army of Bieberites (I’m sure there’s an actual name for them) had managed to conquer the SNL audience and shrieked with delight every time he did anything to pander to them (flashed his abs, crooned a few bars of some song, apologized for smoking weed). They were also quite disinterested by sketches that didn’t feature him as much/were a little harder on him. It’s rare that you can really notice the whims of the audience in SNL, but this was the exception.

Bieber’s monologue was cute and well-written, although he seemed a little perplexed at some of the jokes (which continued through the night). Still, I liked him handing a rose to a girl and telling her that “black folks invented the Kwanzaa.” Plus it barely involved any singing, to my utter astonishment, and featured a cameo from Whoopi Goldberg, because we all miss her from live sketch television.

The Californians got wheeled out after the monologue to kill any goodwill I might have been feeling. I have nothing to say about this sketch except that it’s ridiculously long along with being boring and bad. I’m beginning to think the writers wheel this one out when they don’t think a host is up to much, because you can be as terrible as you want in this thing and it’s still part of the joke.

The next sketch crammed in as many Bieber gags as possible, with a troupe of impersonators (played by the whole cast minus Jason Sudeikis, who cracked wise as Bieber’s chief of security) pretending to be dancing Bieber, singing Bieber, flirty Bieber and so on. The only really funny part was Sudeikis’ horror at learning of the death of Saddam Hussein.

A spoof of Bravo reality TV felt a little stale because pretty much everyone is doing that now, but I can’t deny laughing a ton at that thing. “We’re from Austria.” “And we love to sex!” “And our penises are SO SMALL!” The transition from show to show was always inspired, and it moved quickly enough that if one joke didn’t really land, it wasn’t a big deal. Again, pretty much the easiest target in the world, but still not too bad.

The send-up of Grease also wasn’t bad. It  aimed for Bieber’s wheelhouse by casting him as a womanizing greaser, but he was a little out of sorts and seemed a step behind his lines the whole time. Cecily Strong was much funnier and the twist of the sketch worked well. A funnier actor in the Bieber role would have sold the joke better, but it worked for me nonetheless (Aidy Byrant was also pretty funny in that one).

I can’t claim I was eagerly anticipating the return of The Miley Cyrus Show, which had been gone for quite a while (she’s not in the news much anymore). Sure, she’s got a new haircut and she’s edgier now, but Bayer’s impression needs something weird to bounce off of, and Bieber playing the president of her fan club wasn’t that. It speaks volumes that his breaking of the fourth wall re: the weed smoking got the biggest reaction of the sketch.

Then, yeah, we got “glice.” I love Taran Killam. Not just as an impressionist—I think he’s a genuinely brilliant sketch actor. A lot of the time. But this thing just needed something else to really make it work. Killam screaming and shouting over Bieber’s combination of the words “glad” and “nice” was funny for about three seconds and then it needed to go somewhere different. But it didn’t. Bieber, on the other hand, thought the whole thing was hilarious, and couldn’t help but break. I appreciate that Killam’s manic energy in the sketch was something else, but apart from that, it’s a big old shrug from me.

We wrapped up with Booker T. Washington High School, which is becoming a mainstay for the back end of this show (Jay Pharoah’s weird principal character has something to him but also feels incomplete). I think this was probably Bieber’s best performance of the night, as the president of the abstinence club with an extremely sensitive girlfriend (Nasim Pedrad, who was solid the whole night). “Just the other day, she watched me wash my car while she chewed through a fence.”

Usually, I think the host is incidental to the strengths or problems of an SNL episode. This time around, I gotta put some blame on Bieber. The kid tried, but most attempts to give him a solid character to work with shot wide of the mark. Next week, with Christoph Waltz, is genuinely intriguing.

Stray observations:

  • Chelsea Peretti was a guest writer week. She’s the best!
  • “Did you also know that Denzel Washington invented the peanut?”
  • Bobby Moynihan snuck in a couple of weird characters this time around, particularly Taco. I wonder if we’ll ever see that freak again.
  • Bayer and Armisen’s whispering friends of tyrants remain a technically solid sketch that never provoke big laughs from me.
  • Bieber took off his jeans for Cecily Strong. “Then he put them back on, but backwards, and said, ‘Look at me, my butt’s in front!’”
  • Miley tells a dirty joke. “What’s brown, round and between two cheeks? A BUTTHOLE!” 

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