Saturday Night Live: “Maya Rudolph/Sleigh Bells”
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Saturday Night Live: “Maya Rudolph/Sleigh Bells”

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Saturday Night Live

“Maya Rudolph/Sleigh Bells”

Season 37, Episode 16

I love Maya Rudolph, but I wasn’t 100 percent sold on the idea of her hosting an episode of Saturday Night Live. For example, I love Amy Poehler even more, and I remember her episode being weak, full of retreads of her favorite old sketches to the point where it felt like a rerun. SNL always runs the risk of getting lost down nostalgia lane any time an alumnus returns. But I had no reason to fear. Rudolph’s return was triumphant, reminding you what an incredible asset she was to this show, and the show was very strong in general with almost no lulls. Plus, the return of Bronx Beat actually ended up kicking ass.

That’s always been a hit-or-miss sketch for me, but Poehler and Rudolph’s chemistry was just perfect here. It’s always great to see Poehler back on the show too, especially when she busts out ad-libs like offering Rudolph an empty cup of water to calm her down. (Poehler’s definitely one of the best improvisers SNL ever had in its cast.) The whole thing probably went a couple minutes too long, but the arrival of Justin Timberlake (with his buddy Andy Samberg) as a voracious boom operator spiced things up as the sketch began to deteriorate (this was an episode with a lot of breaking). Poehler got the best line of the night, though: “We’re going to go to a Panera Bread and talk about you.” 

Let me back up and say the cold open about Jeremy Lin jokes was pretty strong for an SNL cold open, which sounds like a backhanded compliment—and it is. But even forgetting that (sadly) low standard, this was a vaguely clever sketch about how a few broadcasters have been struggling to handle the phenomenon without resorting to the easiest puns or stereotypes imaginable. The best moment was definitely the Jackie Robinson bio followed by them banging a gong, or maybe the overdubbed interview. “Soon we battle Dallas and I will try my tiger claw technique.” (On a related note, go Knicks.)

Rudolph’s monologue gave me pause, because it so quickly turned into a song, and that’s usually a lazy SNL technique designed to mask the fact that they have a terrible performer hosting. Or maybe they just didn’t have time to cook up a prepared bit. Either way, Rudolph was so magnetic in her performance of “Do Ya Wanna Funk?” (yeah, that’s what she performed) that it didn’t matter, and the inevitable Lorne cameo was boosted by the surprise appearance of a living garden gnome—I mean, Paul Simon. And Stefon, too!

In an episode that was largely consistent with few lulls, there was one obvious standout as sketch of the night: “Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Laughs,” in which Rudolph just crushed it. It’s not that the impression is good, it’s how she uses that slowed-down cadence to make a good line great. “Sister Maya, was this an act of malice?” “No, Brother West. It was an act of whimsy.” I was almost on the floor for that one. Even better was her telling Stephen King, with the confidence of a master actress, “I should know. I am a policewoman.”

The Beyonce/Jay-Z sketch was along more typical lines—they stand stationary in the middle of the stage while someone (Samberg as “white butler”) announces celebrity impression after celebrity impression. It’s pretty much always as good as the jokes, although there were a few funny twists, like the cuts back to a scared Prince cowering behind Blue Ivy’s crib. But I think Nasim Pedrad’s Nicki Minaj and Taran Killam’s Brad Pitt were the highlights, as well as Kristen Wiig’s Taylor Swift impression which consisted of her trying and failing to cover her gaping, shocked mouth with her hands. Justin Timberlake, meanwhile, obviously wants to be a cast member. Secretly. Come on, Justin. Sign a one-year deal. You’d have fun.

Weekend Update was a goddamn delight for the first time in recent memory, and really served as a strong reminder that it’s time to either get rid of Seth Meyers or find him a partner. He is competent but lacking in personality when he’s on his own, but add Poehler to the mix and he just seems to discover something. A segment of “Really!?!” was required, of course, but just watching Poehler crush it as usual (even though she’s reading the same corny jokes) was the real highlight for me. Come on, Meyers. It’s time for a change. We all know it.

There was a slight decrease in energy for the second half of the show, although the material was still strong enough to best what we’ve seen in weaker episodes this season. The return of “What Up With That?” was welcome enough (we last saw it in Ed Helms’ 36th-season episode) even though I wanted Bill O’Reilly to be less in on the joke. The “Super Showcase” thing was the only dud of the night, and was enlivened only by the fact that Wiig, Rudolph, and Bill Hader were all losing their shit through a bunch of silly antics. I don’t know what was getting to them, but I must applaud Vanessa Bayer for keeping her cool when her more-senior castmates couldn’t.

Things closed out very strong, I thought, with the Obama/Cosby Show mash-up spoof that made me 10 times more happy about Fred Armisen’s impression than everything else he’s done as Obama put together. He should probably just always do his Obama with a Cosby voice, just as Biden should always be performed wearing a Malcolm Jamal-Warner sweater. “How’s He Doing?” was a comedy routine disguised as a panel show, but a really funny one, and probably Jay Pharoah’s best work of the night in an episode he dominated. He still feels a little nervous in sketches sometimes, but this was undoubtedly a big night for him.

Next time on the show, we have… Lindsay Lohan. It’s like Michaels and company knew they’d get too much good will for this episode and tried to find the best way to dash it all. But I’m sure it’ll be interesting? I guess let’s all just think of fonder times when Lohan hosted the show and hope for the best.

Stray observations:

  • “If I were to write a sex manual, it’d be called Hurry Up: Get To It, Because the Dryer’s Buzzing.” 
  • Kenan Thompson’s LL Cool J was barely an impression, but I did enjoy him saying, “You can tell it’s special because I’m wearing my formal Kangol.”
  • “I was just wandering barefoot in the woods of Wisconsin. I fashioned this guitar out of a canoe.” 
  • In my day job, I cover the New York City education beat, which is why it was super-weird for me to see Jay Pharoah jump on stage for “What’s Up With That” as Geoffrey Canada.
  • “Are black voters disillusioned, or are they just mad because it’s winter?” 
  • “It pains me to say this, it really does, but it’s a well-known fact that Tupac had a mouth on him.”