Seth Rogen has a lot of detractors, many of whom center their criticism on the supposed sameness of his onscreen personae. And while that criticism is overstated (see his genuinely unnerving character work in the underrated Observe And Report, for example), his characters do tend to partake of a certain ironic distance, which doesn’t scream fast-paced sketchy comedy/variety host. Except that, in his past two hosting appearances (and tonight), Rogen’s stealth smarts, comic timing, and commitment to performance have been a great fit for SNL. Even when the writing falters, Rogen’s up there gamely giving it his all.
The cold open saw GOP hopefuls Paul Ryan (Taran Killam) and Jeb Bush (Beck Bennett) ill-advisedly courting the youth vote among the young people of today at Coachella. As with most political cold opens, it was—fine. Killam and Bennett brought the energy, with Bennett’s Bush enthusiastically dropping bad, clearly think-tank-approved catchphrases (“very ratchet!”), and Ryan trying to whip up some second amendment love by whipping off his blazer, revealing cut off sleeves an inviting everyone in attendance to the gun show. As far as toothiness goes, the idea that young people (especially those dancing shirtlessly at music festivals) aren’t generally amenable to Republican ideals is both true and obvious, but Killam’s delivery of the GOP’s traditional strategy of downplaying their least popular platform planks depending on the audience they’re trying to win over lands the point funnily enough. (On gay marriage: “You’re in luck! Because the new GOP is—not going to talk about it as much.”)
Rogen’s monologue was both amiable and a little lazy, setting the tone for the show. It wasn’t a musical number at least, but the “reminiscing about the week of the show” bit’s been done (not quite to “Websters defines” levels, but still…). Not to mention the “celebrity pals drop by” beat (featuring James Franco, Zooey Deschanel, and Taylor Swift this time), which is rather indifferently deployed here, Franco’s whole sexting an underage girl zing notwithstanding. (It’s tempting to say Franco was being a good sport, but then, no, not really.) Plus, did you know that Seth Rogen likes weed and the Wu-Tang Clan, and has a distinctive laugh? So do the SNL writers. (At least Rogen cuts off the bit where his supposed family members have the same heh-heh-heh cadence with a knowing, “Okay, we get it.”) I did like the odd detail of Jay Pharoah having mistaken him for Joe Rogan and offering to eat worms, though. Like much of the episode to come, it’s the little things.
As far as recurring sketches go, the return of Nasim Pedrad’s Shallon fits comfortably under the “amiable” umbrella as well, although there’s an underlying logic to the bit that makes it likeable, if not especially memorable. As ever, Kate McKinnon’s burnt out teacher nails her one line (“I’m going to go sit in my car and call a man”) before turning her classroom over to an authority figure (Rogen’s D.A.R.E. officer this time) who becomes increasingly frustrated by the kids’ unwillingness to fall in line with his platitudinous advice. As low-key as this sketch always is, it works because Shallon and the others aren’t ever trying to bust balls—if anything, Shallon is all too open to how cool what the visitor is saying is. It’s just that she and her pals follow kid logic to places with horrifyingly unintended consequences. So when Officer Kellogg tries to explain the effects of drugs by saying that it makes you feel great even if you shouldn’t, Shallon’s, “If I get high, I can feel like I got an A on my spelling test even if I got an F? Sign me up, man!” is just her spotting the inherent weakness of an argument and running with it. Pedrad’s relentless positivity and immunity to criticism also goes a long way toward making this sketch work (along with Rogen’s quickly apologetic, “I’m sorry, I think your kids like crack now”). I can’t say I’m every thrilled to see this one, but it always reminds me of its worth by the time the defeated visitor beats a hasty retreat.
After watching weeks of news channel coverage about the still-lost Malaysian airliner, the commercial for a CNN pregnancy test, which provides incessant, attention grabbing “updates” containing exactly no pertinent information made sense, as did Bennett and Vanessa Bayer’s prospective parents’ increasing frustration.
The steak house sketch (also known hereafter as the “two broken arms” sketch and the “everybody gets the giggles” sketch) wasn’t especially tight, essentially just existing for Aidy Bryant to reveal, once again, that she is SNL’s resident Melissa McCarthy, a brassy broad willing to throw herself into a big physical bit without fear. With Bryant’s arm-casted Southern belle gamely enduring Rogen’s clumsy attentions with lipstick, her blouse, and an entire steak (and an undisguised boob-grab) while chattering a blue streak, the sketch is pure breaking fuel, and practically everyone involved obliged by cracking up at one point or another. There’s little logic to it other than that—Bryant asks Rogen to touch up her lipstick while she’s talking—but it was endearing enough, even making room for Kyle Mooney’s underplayed, “You have our attention Helen. We are very, very aware of you.” And while your mileage may vary on the fart joke front, Rogen’s angry delivery of “I did understand, I just wanted you to suffer” is the sort of weird ancillary idea that makes even a middling sketch more memorable.
The first filmed bit of the night, Monster Pals is the sort of odd little mood piece I can get behind, presenting an alternate New York City where monsters are both commonplace and discriminated against. After some boorish barstool monster bashing, one of a pair of monsters gets surgery to look human and his pal looks through the streets trying to recognize him. It’s melancholy and sort of sweet, decorated around the edges with low-key details like Mike O’Brien’s innocuous monster commenting on the liberties Pixar took with Monsters University and running after some terrified kids with his subtitled apology (“There’s been a misunderstanding!”) The reveal that his pal Jim is now James Franco is the sort of nod to a visiting celeb that’s more recognizable than hilarious, although their reunion is satisfying, and the revelation that O’Brien’s monster ends up looking like Mike O’Brien elicits a chuckle. (“It’s just a little bit cheaper.”)
The gradual escalation of the dog food commercial, with a married couple’s recent discovery that they have been feeding their pet substandard big brand chow, just worked for me, especially in the contrast between Cecily Strong’s drama queen and husband Rogen’s desperate attempts to rein in her mounting, existential despair. Strong’s great here, finally simply roaring in exasperated fury before taking a dramatic, arm-stretching walk up against the living room wall—there’s the sense that this corporate malfeasance is the one…fucking…thing that finally broke her. (“I hate everyone on earth. People are liars and losers!”) Rogen matches her energy as he helplessly attempts to maintain some semblance of sanity in the face of his wife’s spiraling breakdown. “Bend over Pat, they wanna get in your ass!” “I don’t think that’s what they want, I think they’re just cutting corners on their dog food” vies with “There’s no chicken, Pat!” “There is some chicken. There’s trace amounts of chicken!” for uneasy comedy gold. It reminds me of the dinnertime sketch where Will Ferrell blurted out a desperate “I drive a Dodge Stratus!” in a vain bid to defend his existence. (Plus, there’s a cute dog for cutaways—never underestimate that.)
Update continues to tick upward, with Strong and Colin Jost growing on me, and into their roles. Look, I know they’re not there yet—for one thing, Jost spikes the camera too hard, while Strong continues to hide from it—but it’s hardly the unmixed disaster some of you are depicting it as. The jokes remain mushy, politically (Kim Jung Un’s a crazy dictator!) And please cut it out with the lame photoshop jokes—we’re not watching Not Necessarily The News here. But Jost is starting to reveal an ability to stare down an audience (non)reaction, and Strong is developing a more active, loopy persona behind the desk that’s going to serve her better. Give the new kids time, people. Still, with the jokes being what they’ve been, Update’s been living or dying on the strength of its guests, and tonight saw the return of Jacob the Bar Mitzvah boy, which never varies its formula but still gets me on the very specificity of Vanessa Bayer’s portrayal. Jacob’s perpetual panic sends him scurrying back to his carefully prepared text, his rigid posture and frozen smile turning him into a sympathetic ventriloquist dummy, a terror only enhanced now that buddy Seth Meyers is gone in favor of the sweetly flirtatious Strong. Bayer’s desperately ashamed face wipe when Strong mentions Derek Jeter’s upcoming retirement was especially well executed and endearing.
Speaking of baseball, Kenan Thompson’s visiting David Ortiz can come back every week as well, as far as I’m concerned. As the world’s biggest Red Sox/Big Papi fan (please have at me in the comments, nonbelievers), I was concerned—I’ve been pretty hard on Thompson over the years, especially as an impressionist. As in the dreadful Al Sharpton sketch from later in the episode, Thompson’s characters invariably consist of him bugging out his eyes and doing a funny voice. Even when he takes a stab at a genuine impression (like Neil deGrasse Tyson last episode), he seems to lose it halfway through. Here though—I was laughing from the first line, “Oh, it was good man. We have a biiig lunch!” The premise of the bit, which left me giggling delightedly throughout, is not that Ortiz is dumb—it’s that he’s Big Papi. One suspect drug test aside, people just love the guy—even the undoubtedly pro-Yankees crowd was on his side through the whole sketch, cheering at the mention of his own name. And Thompson, with a creditable accent for once, nails the grinning, gap-toothed, enthusiastic, childlike nature of the guy, whether rattling off endless lists of his favorite dishes (don’t we all want some “shrimp mofongo” now?), to his suspect understanding of his endorsement deals (Sam’s Son, the security company Bats for Bats—“You got bats in your house? Hit them with a bat”), to his sloganeering against depression (not a product, just “for not to be sad”), this was the Big Papi we all need a little more of in our lives.
Strong carried the engagement party episode, where her uncouth relative keeps embarrassing Rogen’s prospective groom with vehement denials that Rogen’s gay just because of that one time he may have performed fellatio on a sleeping dude. It’s pretty artlessly constructed, but again the odd, weird detail bumps it up a notch. I liked how Strong and her Spencer’s Gifts coworker both sport boob-centric t-shirts and her very specific description of Rogen (doing able straightman duty) driving all night to confess to her wearing “an astronaut diaper” and wanting to be chained to the couch so he doesn’t “go on the prowl like a danged werewolf.” (It’s also funnier in Strong’s exaggerated accent—I’m thinking Maryland, but am so not certain.) And her blunt “Oh. He don’t know, guys” when she produces the actual unfortunate victim in question is funny and has to serve as an ending, since the sketch just dribbles to a close. Still, a good episode for Strong to show her stuff this week.
The aforementioned Al Sharpton sketch is next—and dreadful, with Thompson trotting out a Sharpton that sounds nothing like Sharpton and a slack pace that left the audience eerily quiet. Let’s move on.
As I’ve said before, SNL is better for its seeming policy of just giving Kyle Mooney a camera and five minutes every week, and his short here celebrating the little known stoner holiday A Very Smoky 420 is exactly what I’m talking about. As with much of Mooney’s pieces, this one relies for its comic engine on Mooney’s facility with oddball characters whose discomfort in front of an audience lends them a very specific energy. Here, the way that Mooney’s suspect pot enthusiast half-swallows his words and drops unknown stoner slang (“bing rippers,” “rollie jays”) while talking about getting “sconed” keeps getting weirder and more unnerving. Rogen, again showing his ability to go subtle, chips in nicely as the actual weed dealer for which secret non-smoker Mooney has no use, except to unexpectedly harmonize on the stoner anthem “Bong Bong Rollie Jays.” Weird and wonderful.
Ten-to-oneland was pretty conventional this week, with Rogen and Thompson hawking the remains of their defunct sperm bank, Herman and Sons, on TV. Still and again, there were enough strange little touches to enliven the thin bit, from the fact that the business’ name is derived from their last names (they are not related), to the fact that supposedly Peter Mayhew once deposited there, to Aidy Bryant screeching across the screen with a heaping shopping cart full of hobo sperm. The fact that they’re turning their building into a TCBY is gross, and that tagline “get this sperm off our hands” was clearly the tail that wagged the sketch dog, but the premise is redeemed by the two performances, and maybe the idea that their yogurt can only have nine percent sperm or it’s still considered a sperm bank. (“And we can’t handle those taxes.”)
- “So that way, we can help the job creators get you guys off this lawn and back to work!” (Beach ball hits Paul Ryan in the head.) “That’s fair.”
- “Wow. BIG day for crack!”
- “Samsung. Giant-ass phones. Is that a television or a phone?”
- I like how Jacob refers to his big brother Ethan’s “music rock band.”
- I am hip to the musics of today!: Ed Sheeran, an adult Ron Weasley, kept me interested. I’m not going to buy any CDs, but his stripped down, acoustic thing was catchy and ambitious enough that even when he shifted into something like acoustic rap, I didn’t get too upset.
- The Onion knows full well the comic power of Big Papi.