Aside from the presence of Paul McCartney doing five numbers, including an extended John Lennon tribute at the end of the episode (he rather bravely attempted "A Day in the Life" on that awful soundstage, which had totally drowned out his earlier numbers; then he did "Give Peace a Chance" and jumped into "Get Back" over the closing credits), this felt like a pretty standard episode of SNL: Host Paul Rudd was game but stuck in a lot of straight-man roles, and we saw the return of some tired sketches, but there were bright moments, enough to keep the whole thing from feeling like a total waste of time.
The cold open followed the pattern that's been set for weeks now—instead of Armisen playing Obama as a character, he just mirthlessly recites jokes that mock him for being a milquetoast who gets shafted by Republicans. It's becoming pretty repetitive and you can tell the seething anger that's behind the writing, but considering Armisen has picked "muted" as his approach to Obama from now on, I guess it's the way they'll be going for the rest of the year. The idea of having him come around to being a birther was funny and would have worked as the spine of the sketch, rather than just the punchline, but that's just me.
Paul Rudd is adorable, and I love him no matter how many mediocre romantic comedies he makes, but he got drowned out a little by McCartney, who obviously got a lot of stage time and showed up in a couple of sketches (his "tiny harmonica solo" in the digital short was a highlight of the show). Rudd's monologue, mocking his star being outshined by the Beatle, was cute, capped well by McCartney appearing to tell him he liked Role Models and then a hyped Paul Brittan arriving at the end. But after that, Rudd got absolutely nothing to do until the final sketch of the night, where he did a passable "Willkommen" from Cabaret as Jason Sudeikis, the spotlight technician, mocked him from the rafters. Rudd is obviously a good scene partner to Andy Samberg (judging from last year's digital short "Everyone's a Critic" and this episode's "Stumblin'"), so it was too bad there was no sign of Samberg throughout the show.
Of the returning sketches, the kissing Vogelcheck family is usually good for a couple of laughs, and they admirably stepped up their game with each further gag (Hader fondling Rudd's chest, then grabbing Wiig's boob, then the whole gang transmitting gum from mouth to mouth), but there's not much too it past mild shock value. Fred Armisen as the grumpy producer on the sex show is something we don't need to see again for a while. It's so dragged-out, too, with Armisen repeatedly demanding everyone speak up, etc. etc. I did laugh at his closing line about his sister wanting to borrow $15,000, though. "I mean, I have it, but I want it."
Hader doing Stefon is fun to watch, though, mostly because it seems to always break him and Seth Meyers about two-thirds of the way in. This time the breaking point was him singing a twisted version of the "12 Days of Christmas." Some of the images conjured up—puppets doing karate, a club in the East River, eight gay Aladdins, the human parking cone ("Two jacked midgets paint themselves orange and you have to parallel park between them")—were undeniably funny. But I really enjoy his smaller asides, his mumbled breaths about Seth revealing his backstory, or that opening line "If you're here from Ohio, or whatever … " Hader actually got a lot to do this week (Sudeikis was only in a couple sketches; those two tend to be SNL's utility players), and since he's generally my favorite player, that might be why I was fond of the episode as a whole.
The gameshow "What's That Name" was not laugh-out-loud funny but was well-constructed, putting Paul Rudd's greasy CFO through a nice little narrative arc with the benefit of Kenan Thompson as Norman the doorman, who he couldn't name, and the fact that three of his interns were called Josh. Kristen Wiig actually got a big laugh out of me, too, as the Eastern European cleaning lady ("Mary. But Steve Zahn, you know"). Then Hader showing up again as Julian Assange, sipping tea and sneering from a British prison, was very welcome. Assange's persona is really very well-attuned to Hader's range of characters, and some of his pranks, like sending Amazon shoppers Everybody Poops, or not attacking Farmville so we can all keep being annoyed by it, were inspired.
The featured players also got a lot to do this week (Taren Killam is the only one who was barely in it), with Vanessa Bayer especially prominent, as she was last week. Jay Pharoah's bit later on as a wheezy principal had its moments, but he was outshone by Kenan as an angry gym teacher; the whole sketch was really rather lifeless, as so many of those "people address a sparse/unexcited crowd from the stage" sketches usually are.
Next week: Jeff Bridges. I know I shouldn't be excited, knowing how SNL guest hosts so rarely get to shine, but I'm still a little bit pumped.
- Paul McCartney made for an excellent Camilla. "Ruffians!"
- "Have you seen the 4th season of Hangin' With Mr. Cooper? You're about to."
- "If you celebrate Kwanzaa, I've read several books on that, but I still don't know what that is."
- The first ad, gourmet cat-food, was pretty flat, but the second, buried deep in the show, featured an alright Meryl Streep impression by Abby Elliott and was a pretty perfect skewering of Streep's casual, airy approach to being good at everything. Should have been higher up in the episode.