It’s been 15 years since Vince Vaughn’s only other SNL hosting gig, and the intervening time has seen public opinion turn on him. Back in 1998, he was riding high on that still-electric comic Swingers charisma and was even testing out his dramatic leading man potential (The Locusts, A Cool, Dry Place- both still worth a look) and was about to take on the iconic Norman Bates in Gus Van Sant’s fascinatingly unnecessary Psycho remake.
Gradually, however, an over-reliance on variations to his motormouthed, egocentric Swingers persona in some seriously uneven comedy vehicles, coupled with a perhaps unfair conflation of actor and characters has created the impression that Vaughn is both above it all and very, very lazy. Essentially the polar opposite qualities of a good SNL host.
Which is what made Vaughn’s opening monologue so smart, and funny. Sending up his image while simultaneously playing to his strengths, Vaughn worked the first few rows of the audience with Trent-like ingratiating patter, and it was completely winning. At one point, when cajoling a nerdy audience member reluctant to play along, Vaughn promised, “This will become a one man show with you, Eric” and his energy made it seem like he was prepared to do it. Vaughn proclaimed one woman his “angel made of candy glass” on whose kind attentions the whole show rests, before mercurially having her ejected for losing focus, and then having her ushered back, confessing, “I don’t have the skills to navigate this relationship in a way that’s healthy for me.” Honestly, I could have watched this go on for a long time. (Maybe I’m just relieved they didn’t open with another musical number.)
Unfortunately, energy at the service of indifferent writing starts to look desperate, and much of the show that followed was a letdown, with Vaughn seeming to lose interest as things ground on.
Swooping back to the cold open, this was another in a series of season-long sketches where Jay Pharoah’s Obama introduces yet another meekly political premise seemingly crafted by a committee of writers determined to avoid being yelled at. (This week: Gun control is really controversial so politicians try not to anger anyone.) Hader and Sudekis, as a pair of wishy-washy Senators, get off a few funnily random premises (their bill limits how many guns you can fire off simultaneously; for some reason, Florida is exempt from all gun laws), but the political content’s as toothless as the proposed bill (which also provides for all handgun sales to be preceded with the question: “Are you nice?”) The biggest victim of this milky satire continues to be Pharoah: with no point of view behind his technically proficient Obama, he’s left adrift out there. Plus, even with SNL’s perennially high-profile presidential impression gig, Pharoah continues to stumble over lines.
After the monologue, the only filmed piece of the night is purely an excuse to let Bill Hader do his consistently funny Al Pacino impression, this time in an HBO promo about Pacino, following his turns as Jack Kevorkian and Phil Spector, essaying other accused murderers, from the Unibomber to Amanda Knox, the Menendez brothers, the Italian cruise ship captain, Oscar Pistorious, and Michael Jackson’s doctor. There’s little snap to the thing, but any excuse to let Hader do Pacino automatically gets a pass.
Next up was the only other consistently clever sketch of the night (not a good sign at 11:50), with the Weather Channel (following in the History Channel’s footsteps) launching its first foray into scripted programming with a soap opera peopled solely by chipper meteorologists. A funny premise carried off by all, especially Tarran Killam and Kate McKinnon who, as wronged spouses, transition from melodramatic reaction shots to their clearly more-customary on-air personae with hilarious rapidity. (Also points for Vaughn’s prediction on the night’s proposed adultery: “I predict activity in the high sixties. The highest sixty.”)
Following the lead of the cold open, the episode’s requisite Margaret Thatcher sketch expended considerable energy without establishing anything like a point of view about the controversial late Prime Minster’s recent passing. As the joke has gone ‘round this week, “I’ll miss Thatcher- she was responsible for almost all of my favorite music,” and with Fred Armisen, Killam, and Hader trotting out creditably funny examples of aging former punk rockers (not to mention an actual Sex Pistol being on hand), the ground seemed fertile for, you know, some sort of statement, Of any kind. Whatsoever. Instead, it’s a simple switcheroo, with Armisen’s snotty frontman Ian Rubbish revealing that he quite liked Thatcher. And that’s the joke. Armisen’s musical background no doubt assisted in crafting some convincing punk songs though. (Including the catchy queen-basher “C**t In A Crown.”)
The show stumbled along from there (literally-there were more than a few muffed entrances and dead spots). The Short Attention Span Theater play was a potentially funny concept which went nowhere, with the only laughs coming from Hader’s corpsing at one point. It was no Mr. Short Term Memory, that’s for sure.
Seth Meyers’ jokes on Weekend Update were serviceable, but the segment suffered from a (surprise!) harmless sketch about “Accidental Racist,” with Keenan Thompson and Sudekis calling out the staggeringly stupid and (maybe accidentally) racist country songster Brad Paisley for being not particularly self-aware, and inexplicable guest rapper L.L. Cool J for doing it for the money. (Keenan as Cool J explains his involvement thusly: “This is how I answer the phone Seth- Hello? I’ll do it.”) And as much as I think Kate McKinnon has rapidly become the second funniest current cast member (after Hader), her turn as an author claiming to have been raised by monkeys played largely to understandable silence. (Her one funny line, explaining how she was licked clean by the monkeys every morning: “I know what you’re thinking Seth and yes, I have every disease.”)
Then Vaughn appeared in an expensively produced school dance sketch about a rich man sponsoring a junior high prom in order to dance with young boys which may have been going for a transgressive Canteen Boy vibe but lacked the commitment or energy to provoke anything but a few anxious titters. This is the sort of sketch that meanders on so long and to so little point that I find myself wondering how many Mr. Show sketches could have been produced for the same money.
Things perked up a bit (apart from a very late entrance from Aidy Bryant) in a sketch about John Tesh and his brother Dave pitching the new (and current) NBC Sports basketball theme, with both Sudekis’s John and Tim Robinson’s lyricist younger brother flying into a destructive rage when the suits don’t appreciate Robinson’s blaringly repetitive words. (“Ba-ba-ba-ba basketball! Gimme gimme gimme the ball because I’m gonna...dunk it!”) Kudos to the person who thought up giving the Teshes tiny little hammers to smash up the place: that’s the sort of weird detail that can sell a sketch for me. After that, we’re at 12:50.
I always look forward to the last sketch of any given SNL. I call it “Ten-to-Oneland” and it’s been home to some of my favorite sketches over the years: The bills have been paid, the celebrity impressions packed away, the ratings established, and I’d like to think this is the place where Lorne Michaels still feels it’s safe to let out a little of the old conceptual weirdness that the show was originally more at home to. (I maintain that Armisen’s Portlandia shares a border with Ten-to-Oneland.) It’s the land where Bill Murray and Steve Martin can spend four minutes of network time looking offstage just repeatedly asking, “What the hell is that?” Or where David Koechner and Madeline Kahn can passive-aggressively snipe at each other about whose fault it is they’re being carried away in the claws of a giant bird. Or, in last week’s episode, Kate McKinnon can deploy her crazy-eyed energy introducing a mesmerizingly bizarre instructional dating video.
Sadly, this time out, SNL goes back to the well with a rehash of the ten-to-one barfly sketch from the Louis C.K. episode, only with Vaughn taking over as the male half of an unenthusiastic pair of drunks contemplating settling for each other at closing time. Apart from how disappointing it is that the spot was given over to a repeat of a marginally successful previous example, the bit just doesn’t work nearly as well this time out. McKinnon and Vaughn’s timing is way off, Vaughn is too clearly reading cue cards (starkly pointed out when he delivers the line “I can’t take my eyes off you” while looking intently over McKinnon’s left shoulder), and, one impressively aimed mouth-to-mouth tequila spit-stream from McKinnon aside, Vaughn simply lacked the commitment to seedy desperation that Louis bought to the bar. After coming out like gangbusters, Vaughn seemed tired and a little bored by the time the goodnights rolled around. He wasn’t alone.
- Memo to Robert DeNiro: No one was looking for a parallel Meet the Parents movie franchise.
- While Vaughn was ostensibly here to promote his limp-looking comedy The Internship, he didn’t mention it once during his monologue. I’m sure the suits are mad, but I appreciate him not slowing down a good routine.
- The fact that Kate McKinnon is still only credited as a featured player mystifies me. I can’t keep my eyes off of her.
- “Look, we did not what this to go this way.” “The why did you bring little hammers and a can of gasoline?” “’Cause we thought it might go this way.”
- It’s about time someone stuck it to 1990 John Tesh.
- Vaughn to Bobby Moynihan as he’s ejecting an old man from the monologue: “Cheer him up-give him a Drunk Uncle on the way out.”
- L.L. Cool J’s deleted lyric: “If you think that NCIS is good then I forgive the Aryan Brotherhood.”
- Question: isn’t “accidental racist” just another way of saying “ignorant bigot?”
- There was a musical guest. His name was Miguel. I have no further information.
- A rerun next week, but David Sims will be back when the show is. Thanks David for the opportunity to check this one off my bucket list.