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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Saturday Night Live cruises on four-time host James Franco's undisciplined charisma

Saturday Night Live (Screenshot: NBC)
Saturday Night Live (Screenshot: NBC)
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“I do a lot of jobs.” “Don’t do that James Franco!”

“I’m not an actor, I’m an [everything I feel like doing this week] star!”

James Franco has the giggles. And why not, really? It’s not that things have come easily to the famously prolific and scattershot actor, director, author, student, teacher, Oscar co-host, and now four-time Saturday Night Live host—it wouldn’t be the worst thing if more famous actors put their talents into film adaptations of their favorite books. (Even misguided ones.) But there’s a lack of urgency to Franco’s persona—as in his roundly criticized Oscar hosting gig—that walks a wobbly line between amiably goofy and annoyingly lazy.


Hosting here, Franco was clearly having fun, even as his heavy looks into the cue cards and intermittent giggle-fits tended toward the carelessly self-impressed at times. And while Pineapple Express pal and noted marijuana enthusiast Seth Rogen made an amusingly irascible appearance (along with Jonah Hill and Steve Martin) during Franco’s Q&A monologue, his game but hazy performances all night can’t be traced to weed so much as his (and SNL’s) over-indulgence in the star’s shaggy charm.

Still, game is a good trait for a host to have and, Franco’s Fallon-esque breaking aside, the Disaster Artist star/director threw himself rather endearingly into the proceedings. Sure, the fact that there were not one but three The Disaster Artist plugs worked into separate sketches stood out, and none of the material was especially strong tonight. But Franco’s looseness stayed, for the most part, on the right side of the divide. James Franco never seems above it all when he hosts. He’s more beside it all, guffawing good-naturedly at what fun it all is being James Franco hosting Saturday Night Live.

Weekend Update update

Saturday Night Live has had to deal with the fact that one of the people most closely associated with the show’s absurdly-long history is in the news for unflattering reasons. There were several references to for-now Senator Al Franken’s sexual harassment scandal and impending resignation, almost all of which fell into the “at least his actions weren’t as bad as theirs” camp. As of yet at least (we’ve all learned to hedge our bets at this point), Franken hasn’t been accused by 19 women (and counting) of everything from sexual assault to repeatedly barging into to beauty pageant dressing rooms and bragging about sexually assaulting women. Nor has he been accused by 9 women (and counting) of predatory sexual behavior toward underage girls. But Franken was sunk as soon as that photograph of him “humorously” pretending to grope a sleeping woman’s breasts hit the news, and there have been additional allegations that a figure of SNL royalty—while serving with distinction in his unlikely role as senator—engaged in at least the sort of demeaning sexist behavior rightly being called out with ever greater volume and frequency.

So, faced with a complicated, fraught situation involving one of its own, Saturday Night Live had to take a position—and settled on the idea that the Democrats’ call for Franken’s resignation is a strategic move, intended to show the Republicans in the worst light possible. On the one hand, that’s a valid criticism, as Che pointed out that, while Franken is about to be out of a career, “Uncle Bad Touch,” Roy Moore is leading in the polls to be the next senator from Alabama, and is being campaigned for by none other than braggadocious alleged sexual predator Donald Trump. And Che’s criticism of the Democrats for assuming that this Republican establishment gives a shit about its public perception is valid too. Comparing the Dems to Harvard football players whose success is mitigated by the need to “be a rocket scientist” at the same time, Che noted that the Republicans just need to be able to spell the (shortened) name of their school before they start running roughshod over niceties like civil rights, the Constitution, and the fear that they’ll be exposed as hypocritical, power-grubbing bullies.

But SNL’s is still a questionable position that smacks of more than a little deflection, which rings hollow. Even when, in her enduringly funny and potent role as Che’s irrepressibly messed up neighbor (and new wife, apparently) Cathy Anne, Cecily Strong points out—as Franken did in his resignation speech—it’s pretty ironic that Franken has confessed to acting like a jerk and lost his job while the still-in-office Donald Trump is currently stumping for Roy Moore. The woozy but pragmatic Cathy Anne also tells Che not to trust any poll which shows Democrat and not-molester (that we know of) Doug Jones with a chance, citing people’s unwillingness to confess to voting for “the pedophile who likes slavery” to a stranger on the phone.

Coupled with the office sexual harassment sketch we’ll get to in a bit, the episode kept coming at the issue in a very hit-or-miss fashion. That Al Franken was a fine senator and an irreplaceable fixture at SNL makes it admirable that the show keeps returning to the subject of his improprieties. But using Franken as a cudgel to beat people like Trump and Moore for their own (admittedly far more heinous) alleged conduct isn’t as scrupulous. Intellectual honesty is the blood of political comedy. SNL’s takes on Franken are watery.

Anyway, this was a pretty solid Update otherwise, with Jost and Che landing blows pretty much at will. The very real possibility that the president and holder of the nuclear codes is actually unstable was addressed by Jost’s carefully worded description of “mental things that might be happening” (cue clip of Trump wandering off-topic during speech), to Jost’s set up, “Now I’m no doctor” (cue picture of Trump’s “Dr. Muppet” physician), and then the punchline, “But then again, neither is this guy.” Jost scored groans from a joke about Trump’s advice to accused pedophile Moore to “Go get ’em” being the same as what Moore says to psych himself up to enter a Hot Topic. But reality is pretty fucking groan-worthy at present. And Che’s strength continues to be his mordant “told you so” approach to how awful everything is, his joke about Moore’s claim that people are just scared he’s going to bring his “Alabama values” to Washington rebutted with Che’s “No, we’re afraid you’re going to take your values to Washington.”


I’m torn over Che’s big showcase, though. Introduced as him trying to get inside the heads of some of his harshest critics—“liberal white women”—Che’s filmed segment, “A White Woman Named Gretchen,” saw the comic donning a blonde wig and lots of scarves (but no “whiteface” makeup) to infiltrate their world. The part of the joke that works best is the way that “black-ass Michael Che” (as he terms himself) makes no effort to truly mask who he is. The white women Che’s Gretchen interacts with note only his vocal adherence to the liberal principles he’s gleaned from Yelp reviews and Lena Dunham’s book, ignoring the fact that he’s clearly a famous dude in a wig and Warby Parker glasses. (Dinner party guest Chris Redd is suspicious, but decides not to rock the boat.) And it’s undeniably funny to watch Gretchen lay the smackdown on subway manspreaders, a baffled James Franco in the elevator, and Alex Moffat’s contemptuously mansplaining douchebag. (Che saying, “Yo, your masculinity is mad toxic right now, my nigga,” on national TV is complexly thrilling.)

Still, the real joke of the piece is on the liberal white women who were set up as the people Che wanted to understand better. Instead, they have their own values explained back to them (and improved) by a guy in (sort-of) drag, but just in Che’s undisguisedly masculine persona. Che’s comedy does, indeed, traffic in half-ironic offensiveness at times. Tonight, he makes a great Middle East joke by turning back on himself the fact that he keeps turning for insight to his one Middle Eastern friend—who’s actually from Pakistan. Here, Che gets to be the smart one at the expense of affluent white women who, as Gretchen puts it, need to check their privilege. It’s a valid point about cultural blind spots that seems to come at the issue with a few blind spots of its own.


Best/Worst sketch of the night

On a night without a true standout, at least the courtroom sketch pivoted around a truly weird idea that Franco sold for all he was worth. The idea that Franco’s prosecutor seems to hang his murder case on the logical inconsistency in the abbreviations of “lasagna” and “pizza” (“You don’t make nicknames based on how things are spelled, you make them based on how they sound!”) is the sort of writerly conceit I can get behind. And Franco’s commitment to his lawyer’s maniacal repetition of “sa” versus “sa” builds up a genuine loony energy that judge Kenan Thompson’s underplaying only accelerates. That witness Pete Davidson is tripped up by his untimely delivery of some courtroom “sa” (pizza), and that Franco actually also had incriminating photos of Davidson at the crime scene, all added to the absurdist fun.

The Christmas Carol film was another example of Beck Bennett and Kyle Mooney getting to play out one of their oddball premises with solid character work and attention to lunatic detail that I quite liked. Bennett’s “Scrudge” being Mooney’s Victorian-garbed but otherwise modern asshole roommate powered the whole thing with inexplicable weirdness, the coke-snorting, loudly disdainful old creep amusingly immune to even angel James Franco’s rooftop advice. (“Everyone’s been dying to know what the sad, lonely roof guy thinks.”)

The same goes for the similarly subversive film “Christmas Charity,” which sees hard-nosed businesswoman Cecily Strong decide to go all-in in helping out Franco’s decrepit homeless man, only to discover in the end that it really is James Franco, getting all Method grubby for an upcoming role. The production here is meticulous, right down to the tinkly feel-good score, as Strong takes her charity project out for new clothes, a pedi-cab ride, and some messy hot dogs in perfect public service commercial verisimilitude. And the reveal is funny, as Franco can’t understand why Strong gets so upset over spending $1,500 on him. (“People give me free things all the time—I’m a famous person.”) The way Strong keeps angrily using Franco’s full name is a funny detail only slightly offset by another Disaster Artist plug as he leaves. (Although Franco’s sheepish “I’ve heard the phrase ‘Oscar-worthy’ a few times” through her closed door is an odd enough beat to take some of the self-promotional stink off of it.)

The spelling bee sketch was delightfully perverse, as Franco’s clenched moderator couldn’t help but reveal his seriously tortured inner life through his duties, horrifying the kids and Kate McKinnon’s humorously aghast announcer. Franco broke here once, too, although the sketch would have worked even better if he’d been more committed to getting inside the part. Still, there was a clever discipline to the writing, as the details of Franco’s childhood trauma at the hands of his stepfather, Kevin, and his current sexual proclivities kept piling up. Throw in McKinnon’s skeptical asides to her co-host Moffat (who doesn’t appear to know how to read), and Pete Davidson’s gleefully mischievous work as the final kid excited to mess with Franco for as long as possible, and this one stood out.

Along the lines of the Franken material and Gretchen, the sexual harassment sketch suffered from an unstable comic premise. The joke is that the women in the office are stonily happy that their creep boss (Franco) is getting canned under the company’s new zero tolerance rules, but that they’re sad to lose the affectionately ribald attentions of friendly elderly security guard Kenan Thompson. Except it turns out that Franco’s sins are portrayed as the sort of borderline acts that male critics of “political correctness” claim as harmless, while Kenan’s garrulous old guy keeps being revealed as genuinely inappropriate, his increasingly insane and dangerous come-ons excused by the women as simply colorful. Kenan’s funny, building his character up as a seriously disturbed criminal (complete with an alias, stolen company property, and cocaine and porn addictions). He also is alarmingly specific about the “28 minutes” he has marked out to violate his giggling victims, and the repeated detail of opening all the windows in their bedrooms “to get the funk out”. Meanwhile, Franco’s boss can only fume about his compliments on coworkers figures and advice for them to smile more being grounds for his dismissal. It’s an unfocused, vaguely distressing peg to hang a sketch on, where the real onus is on those silly women for focusing on what are presented as trivial misunderstandings, while they’re hoodwinked by the genial, entertaining demeanor of a real sexual predator.

And then James Franco spurts blood all over the Bloomingdale’s gift-wrapping room. SNL trots out a good ol’ gross-out sketch like this every once in awhile, but if you don’t have Dan Aykroyd anchoring the bloody business with a truly inhabited, unblinking central performance, or the guest hosts being willing to have chewed food spit into their mouths, then the whole thing turns out to be, well, a mess. Here, Franco’s enthusiastic but terminally klutzy gift-wrapper dutifully wears the blood rig, but he can’t keep himself from laughing at the carnage and there’s no comic discipline at work in the deployment. The one exception being when Franco heedlessly sticks his hand into the candy cane bucket as we see the transparent container rapidly fill up with red. After clumsily spitting a mouthful of blood into Leslie Jones’ face, Jones’ disgusted reactions are jarringly realistic to the point that all of Franco’s frantic mugging and indifferent prop work (he blows the severed leg gag at the end) is even more distracting.

“What do you call that act?” “The Californians!”—Recurring sketch report

It was just Cathy Anne, who can come back as often as she likes. Strong always lends the battle-hardened New Yorker a certain dignity in her targeted outrage, even as she confesses, “I’m kind of a political junkie—and a regular junkie.”


“It was my understanding there would be no math”—Political comedy report

Alec Baldwin took the week off from SNL’s political satire, possibly to continue railing against other people doing political satire. In the place of Baldwin’s Trump, the cold open saw Kenan’s mall Santa and McKinnon’s helper elf fielding a succession of uncomfortable political questions from some distressingly well-informed kids. (Kenan’s frustrated exclamation, “I never thought I’d say this, but our public schools are too good” got the biggest laugh.) Putting real kids on live TV is a risky business, and when a couple stumbled over their lines, it didn’t do the sketch any favors, especially since it’s hard to enjoy the comedy when you’re worried about how adorable little kids are going to handle it. Still, the joke that even Santa-age kids have been so inundated with the nightly news shitshow that they can rattle off questions about Roy Moore, Donald Trump, Al Franken, Fox News, NFL brain trauma, Matt Lauer’s sex toy, and bitcoins with discomfiting directness pays off. Kenan and Kate both underplayed well—and provided some heartening assistance to their young costars when necessary—with McKinnon, especially, bringing a knowing sincerity to her interactions with the kids. (Her fist bump with one smart little girl was great.) And her final speech about how we’ll fix this mess because “most people in America are good people” at least put a hopeful bow on the premise.

I am hip to the musics of today

SZA brought some classical musicians and full choir to her pair of performances tonight, and the all-female ensemble backed the singer’s jazz-inflected R&B vocals strikingly. For more on what appears to be an equally striking new album from SZA, our Clayton Purdom has you covered.


Most/Least Valuable (Not Ready For Prime Time) Player

Cecily Strong came strong, both with Cathy Anne and in “Christmas Charity.” Kenan was a close second. Luke Null was another DNF. C’mon, guy. Hang in there. We’re rooting for you.


“What the hell is that thing?”—The Ten-To-Oneland Report

Again with The Disaster Artist, Franco? Still, at least this two-hander saw featured player Heidi Gardner get a chance to show off her formidable character chops, as her effusive townie cousin greets the home-for-the-holidays Franco (as himself) with eccentric tales from her own life, and concern for the direction Franco’s career is taking. Again, it’s a bit off-putting to see Franco talking down to his (admittedly oddball) relative while hawking his new movie, but Gardner is solid, making cousin Mandy’s pride in her own accomplishments (like getting a drink named after her for hitting that bullseye in bar darts) strangely dignified. And the stinger, with brother Dave Franco coming revealed as being genuinely impressed by Mandy’s life, is undeniably sweet in a way that makes me look forward to the day when he gets to host as well.

Stray observations

  • After Kenan’s Santa tries to soft-pedal his answer to one kid’s question about what Donald Trump is alleged to have done, McKinnon’s elf snaps, “19 accusers—Google it.”
  • Kenan, after one football-loving boy assumes that the kneeling protests have to do with the NFL’s CTE epidemic: “Let’s just go with that. Somehow that’s the happier version.”
  • “Are you on blood thinners?” “A few!”
  • “It’s a tough time to be a woman. And a drug addict. And a very heavy drinker.”
  • “Are you still brothers with Dave?”

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Danny Peary's Cult Movies books are mostly to blame.