Russell Brand isn't my favorite comedian in the world. I spent my teenage years in England where he is everywhere, like he mentioned in his monologue, so I wasn't exactly chomping at the bit to see him on SNL. But, on the other hand, these days it's kind of a rare event to have an actual comedian hosting the show. Sure, Amy Poehler and Dana Carvey from this season might count, but they were sketch comedians, rather than standups. It was really refreshing to see Brand come out for the monologue and deliver an actual comedic monologue that he obviously wrote, rather than something where the actor mentions the movie they were in, pauses for applause, and then gets interrupted by some cast member for the start of some scripted bit. Brand has that free-associative style that you either tolerate or don't, and I didn't think it was the funniest thing in the universe, but it had some decent moments, like how it's lame to tell people he's more famous in Britain ("Fame really loses your edge if you have to tell people that you have it") or how his marriage with Katy Perry has its ordinary moments.
The whole thing gave me a perhaps unreasonable amount of hope for the episode itself, which had its high points but largely puttered along like a normal ep of SNL, except with fewer sketches (Brand's monologue and a long Weekend Update canceled out a couple, it seemed). There were some major high points, but any show where the lead sketch is the vacation giveaway is not going to be that good.
Let's start with the O'Reilly cold open, though, where Sudeikis was a major letdown as everyone's favorite blowhard. His Glenn Beck is pretty good, but apart from the exaggerated "WELLLLLLLLLLL," he didn't seem to be making much of an effort to get O'Reilly's mannerisms down. That's a problem in any sketch where you're playing off of Fred Armisen's Obama, who is hardly electric enough to carry the thing himself. I've noted before that they've obviously decided Obama will be playing the straight man role in every sketch he's in, deadpanning "It was OK," to the limerick in praise of O'Reilly, rolling his eyes and mouthing disgust but basically just sitting there like a cold fish. If Brand hadn't come out like the bundle of chaos that he is, the show would have been off to a seriously grim start.
The vacation giveaway sketch really is the worst kind of skit for the show to be repeating, because there's really nowhere further to take it. It follows the exact same formula and gives the guest host a miserable part where they have to be deadpan for minutes and then execute a painfully obvious reversal as they get excited about something meaningless. Apart from that, it's just a license for Wiig to moan and wail for five minutes, and even if you like to see that (I guess people do?) nothing's that much fun for five minutes. I'll give Wiig credit for adding some truly horrifying gutteral roars into her routine by the end of things, but this sketch has to be put out to pasture, now.
The middle section of the show was much stronger; the spoof of gritty English crime dramas no American can understand wrung its joke to absolute dryness, but Fred Armisen's bald villain cradling a mean-looking dog was a nice bit of detail that always seems to pop up in those movies. The "royal taster" sketch was very over the top, but since that obviously suits Brand best, it worked great, and Hader was his equal in terms of deranged screaming (although they both almost reached breaking point when they went nose to nose with each other, and I don't blame them). The capper of Brand throwing in a bit of stuttering and the voice-over declaring we had just watched The King's Speech was a very nice touch.
Then, Weekend Update, which in recent weeks has been one of the strongest elements of the show, really killed. I've never really taken Seth Meyers too seriously in the anchor role, as Poehler would consistently outstrip him week after week and then the whole thing got a little flatter once she was gone. But he's carved out a persona for himself in the last year, and the little tags and jokes he adds to his main punchlines have grown in frequency and hilariousness. I liked his impression of Aquaman: "If you need me, I'll be at the bottom of the ocean." And his flirty interactions with Stefon are honestly what makes that character so much fun. Well, that, and the fact that you're just waiting to see what will set Hader off into fits of laughter. This week, the jewpids set him off, and the human suitcases really killed him. If Hader were like Jimmy Fallon and laughed at every sketch I'd be mad at him, but it's sort of endearing that this one character always gets to him.
But what really worked was the Lil' Wayne/Eminem Valentine's Day skit, all the better because for the first couple minutes it seemed like a very ordinary piece of writing with a Jay Pharoah impression that was half-hearted at best. Taren Killam's Eminem sat in silence, nodding, and then stood up and delivered a mostly-bleeped threat of kidnapping and violence that just had me on the floor. He had that strangled yelling down perfectly, and it really took me by surprise, given how shitty musical impressions, especially of rappers, tend to be on SNL. He only had a couple moments, too, but you could tell in how the audience reacted just how well it went over, and I'm sure Killam will be back to do that within weeks (SNL never lets something like that go to waste; instead they repeat it until it's been pounded mericlessly into the ground).
Then things settled back into mediocrity; Vanessa Bayer returned from her hibernation to have Brand fondle her in a sketch where a sad-looking Killam stole the show once again; the old ladies drinking tea was your typical one-weird-joke, repeated three times, late-in-the-episode deal; and the thing where Nancy Pelosi stabs George Washington after he executes a bunch of ninja moves was appreciably weird, and if anything, too short (there was more they could have done with that premise!). The strong middle section and Brand's monologue made the show for me, but it automatically drops a grade for letting Chris Brown sing that ballad and ask how the ladies are doing. Barf.
- "I don't think he's going to try anything, not with the Factor watching."
- "If I take these things off, it just SPRINGS into chaos!"
- The Spider-Man musical law firm was a funny little thing; we need more of Samberg as Bono.
- "It seemed like a lot of killing over a very small amount of money," says Peter Travers of Don't You Go Rouninn' Roun to Re Ro.
- "Oh sure, you may be my cousin who's next in line to be king, meaning if I die, you INSTANTLY become king, but right now, you're NOTHING BUT A COWARDLY CHEF!"
- "I'm going to poison you, put poison in your food, and you're going to die from the poison!"
- Fred Armisen's Mubarak remains kinda funny, kinda enh. "Did I care about my people? Not really. Did I steal at every opportunity? You bet... I think I lost my train of thought."
- Eminem's best line: "IN A CAW-FIN!"
- Taren Killam, who was basically absent for the first half of the SNL season, has really been stepping up his game as of late, and it felt like he was in almost every sketch last night.
- Chris Brown, on the other hand, is the worst kind of evil douchebag in the world, and it's too bad he appears to be in the middle of some sort of career comeback. Ugh.