Kevin Hart certainly got a workout on Saturday Night Live last night, bouncing and vibrating through roles as Shouting James Brown, Shouting Rapper, Shouting Guy in a Medieval Musical Who Doesn’t Want to Be in a Musical, and Shouting Kevin Hart (both in the 8-minute standup routine that served as his monologue and opposite Jay Pharoah’s typically on-point Hart impression). Say what you will about the comedian, but you can’t deny he brings a certain energy to the stage. (Or at least, you know, a lot of energy.)
That said: Despite Hart’s frenetic quivering, last night’s show still fell largely flat. Maybe that’s because its best bits—a timely and nicely pointed cold open, and a great prerecorded parody of Justin Bieber’s icky Calvin Klein campaign—came very early in the night, giving it nowhere to go but down. Maybe it’s because this season’s shows continue to be marred by technical glitches; a screen malfunction in the first post-commercial break sketch forced Hart and Vanessa Bayer to frantically improvise about an invisible picture that provided the entire foundation for the jokes they were supposed to deliver, while the aforementioned James Brown sketch included one embarrassing shot that was partially obscured by a blurry camera. (You won’t see either goof in the official clips from last night; it looks like SNL posted dress rehearsal versions of those sketches on Hulu and Yahoo.) Or maybe it’s just because most of the night’s material seemed like the sort of evergreen, middling stuff that gets dusted off when SNL has holes to plug, rather than fresh ideas written specifically to air this week. (That’s especially discouraging coming off of a month-long break.) This material wasn’t bad, necessarily—but it sure wasn’t good.
So on the whole, I’d give the night a big ol’ “meh.” But the stuff that worked was funny, including the…
Kate McKinnon’s spot-on Justin Bieber impression should be selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the United States National Film Registry, which recognizes films that are culturally, historically or aesthetically significant. Or something. Point is, I could watch her douchey little boy-man pout and raise his eyebrows and slyly point to his bulging crotch (“Yo. My peepee’s in there”) all the livelong day; it’s a shame those faux-Calvin ads (showing off clothes for Bieber’s big weiner) only appeared twice during the show, though I suppose it’s nice to be left wanting more.
A bit about Martin Luther King Day was inevitable tonight—and SNL leaned right in, opening the show with a sketch in which high school student Pete Davidson chats with a vision of Dr. King himself, as played by Kenan Thompson. (“I must be dreaming,” Davidson says. “Nothing wrong with dreaming!” King booms in reply.) The bit certainly doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but Thompson is just the right combination of bewildered and indignant as his character learns about the advent of Twitter protests and Selma‘s Oscar snubs.
I was tempted to cite “Why’d You Post That,” which was a weak idea (some people are bad at Instagram!) even before it was sabotaged by a photo that wouldn’t appear. But then I remembered the episode’s 10-to-1, a short but interminable sketch about a rapper (Hart) whose newest single is all about the secrets of his crew. Unfortunately, those secrets are pretty boring, and Hart doesn’t even deliver them via clever rhyming couplets; the whole thing felt like a too-long improv exercise. Even a goofy little Weekend at Bernie‘s riff couldn’t salvage it.
The “Does It Play in Peoria?” Award
I imagine that “Bushwick, Brooklyn 2015” left a lot of people scratching their heads. If you’re familiar with the place it’s skewering, though—a Brooklyn neighborhood that’s rapidly gone from drug-drenched economic wasteland to hipster-drenched gentrification center—you probably got a kick out of the short’s clever structure and fun if gentle thugs-turned-bougie jokes. They might only hit if your neighborhood has an artisanal mayonnaise store of its own, though.
Best Musical Moment
Time to talk musical guest Sia, who delivered a pair of typically eccentric performances. Though the singer seems to be a graduate of the Ariana Grande School of Enunciation, she’s certainly got some powerful pipes—and her eye-shrouding veil, as well as the special guests she brought along for each song (a sign language-speaking mime in a stripped-down take on “Chandelier;” mini-me Maddie Ziegler and another dancer, who elegantly brawled their way through “Elastic Heart”) gave both a nice aura of Early Gaga-esque weirdness. Which was more affecting? I’ll go with “Elastic Heart,” mostly because I can’t resist a good dance-fight.
The “Cast This Man in The Music Man” Award
“The Journey,” a sketch that seemed like a vague Galavant parody written by somebody who hasn’t seen Galavant, didn’t boast too many laughs—but it did boast the beautiful baritone of Taran Killam, who should consider this his audition for NBC’s next live musical. (Cecily Strong, Kenan Thompson, and Sasheer Zamata also have nice voices, but not on the same level as Killam’s.) Points docked, though, for Leslie Jones coming out at the end and rhyming “kick your ass” with “wail on your ass.” Also: If the game of your sketch is “what’s happening right now is irritating,” maybe expect the audience to get, uh, irritated. (This also goes for the “Hart meets his soundalike son” bit.)
An average episode of SNL means citing the show’s general MVP—which isn’t to say that Kate McKinnon was giving anything less than her usual A-game tonight. In an episode decisively dominated by its host, McKinnon still managed to carve out a few places to shine—namely, in the Bieber ads and as Weekend Update’s sole guest, a new character called Mrs. Santini. Sure, she talks just like McKinnon’s Penelope Cruz—but who else could wring this many laughs out of a line like, “Dear elephant family in 6H: I am so sorry you is elephants”?
– Your mileage may vary on Hart’s standup monologue, an extended riff on the battles he fights daily with the wildlife surrounding his house—but can we all agree that he should’ve undone at least the top fastening on that snug-fitting leather button-down?
– “James Brown at the Apollo” rambled and couldn’t really seem to find its point, but I did like the way everyone marched in place during the staccato part of the “Get On Up” riff.
– Okay, SNL: You get one “fart sounds are funny!” sketch per year. I hope you’re happy that you already chose to cash it in with “The Nancy Show.”
– Good Update line about the Chinese woman who cut off her cheating husband’s penis, twice: “That kind of work ethic is exactly why China is beating the U.S.”
– Hey, Hart meets his son after performing at Heinz Hall! Let’s go, Pittsburgh!
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