Saturday Night Live essentially operates in two distinct modes: accessible, comforting, catchphrase-and-recurring-character-driven Normal SNL, and bizarre, experimental, what-the-hell-is-happening Weird SNL. Sometimes, an entire era of the show will lean heavily on one while basically ignoring the other (see, for example, the overstuffed Sandler/Farley era, SNL‘s equivalent of normcore); sometimes, these two impulses can be felt in the very same sketch. (I’m thinking specifically of “The Falconer,” a repetitive bit with the soul of Will Forte’s fever dream.)
Last night, though, things definitely leaned toward one direction at the expense of the other. And you know what? It was awesome. All hail Michael Keaton, King of Weird SNL!
Having the idiosyncratic Beetlejuice star on hand certainly seemed to inspire the cast and writers to go for broke with some of the oddest stuff we’ve seen on the show in years—and those strange, formless sketches generally worked, thanks in large part to Keaton’s finely-honed timing and poker face, which came with a bonus helping of crazy eyes. Beyond the exceedingly conventional cold open (a fairly funny take on how absurd it is that NCAA athletes are also unpaid college students, territory that South Park mined first and better) and a Weekend Update that seemed more anemic than usual (more on that later), the show featured absolutely zero repeat characters or premises. Even if every original take didn’t land perfectly, It’s incredibly heartening to see SNL shooting rather than coasting—especially this season, which has been more of a struggle than not.
Want more specifics? It’s all encapsulated in the night’s…
I fully understand if you were more confused than amused by “Smart House,” in which married couple Cecily Strong and Keaton showed off a few bizarre inventions to their wary neighbors. But even though it started slowly and the exaggerated Southern accents were more distracting than necessary, I loved pretty much everything about this sketch, from Strong’s bizarre newscaster diction to the vague specificity of the dialogue (“It will use percents to tell us how toasted your toast is”) to the sight of googly eyes on that smart couch rectum tube. (Googly eyes = always funny.) Pants glue! Come on, guys, that’s gold.
Okay—even if you’re not on board with “Smart House,” I think we can all agree that SNL nailed its Scientology spoof. Rather than going broad with Cruise or Travolta jokes, the show nodded to Going Clear by creating a spot-on, nearly shot-for-shot remake of this infamous Scientology music video—complete with awesome early ’90s hair and lyrics only slightly more ridiculous than the real thing. (“I have the code/the code to the key/the key to the secret/the secret of space.”) To paraphrase a phrase from another religion, it would have been enough if the joke had ended there—but the show added an extra layer by superimposing updates about the “Neutrologists” in the video, pointing out who had left the church, who was making a living by blackmailing gay actors, and who is “currently covered in fruit flies.”
Weekend Update has been in a bad way all season long—but last night’s installment was particularly rough, marked by lame one-liners, another weak Pete Davidson standup bit masquerading as a dispatch from the show’s “resident young person,” and the nine millionth appearance of Tarran Killam’s Jebidiah Atkinson, who pretty much defines the concept of diminishing returns. (Sorry, Jeb—was that not punchy enough for you?) It couldn’t even think of anything fun to do with Norman Reedus, whose whole cameo pretty much boiled down to “Hey, it’s Norman Reedus!”
Best Musical Moment
We should probably talk about musical guest Carly Rae Jepsen, who had decent energy while performing a pair of ’80s-inspired singles. Really, though, Jepsen’s stage presence was kind of lacking, especially for someone who’s been on Broadway—so instead, I’m going to use this space to talk about Keaton’s monologue, which featured a surprisingly catchy original tune I’m still humming (“Will You Play Batman With Us, Michael Keaton?”) and a surprise turn into left field, courtesy of the night’s other best prerecorded bit.
The “Too Real” Award
Behold “Easter Hotline,” a finely observed sketch about the frustrations of communicating with the elderly that felt like an Onion article come to life. The real best part, though? The sketch finally found a great way to highlight Sasheer Zamata, who’s been visible but rarely placed in starring roles since she joined the show last year.
Best One-Two-Three Punch
What do you do when you want to cover a host of topical stories, but none of them seem meaty enough to carry an entire sketch? Simple: You design a CNN parody that weaves in the Germanwings crash, Obama negotiating with Iran, and Indiana’s “religious freedom” laws, but focuses more on terrible reenactments than the news itself. Janky “Money for Nothing”-inspired animation is funny. Puppets doing the Happy Kermit to celebrate their nuclear deal is funnier still. But a stony-faced Keaton as a dancing chef is the funniest one of all.
Like last week’s episode, this one was dominated by the host rather than any one cast member. Keaton made a terrific case for why he should star in another comedy ASAP; everyone else was just trying to keep up with him. Forced to choose, though, I guess I’d have to go with good old Bobby Moynihan, who really made the most out of his few moments in the spotlight—especially in another standout Keaton bit, “Easter Candy.” What a nut!
—True or false: Pete Davidson was too high to remember the last time he starred in a sketch about whether he is or is not a zombie.
—”How’s your best friend Thomas? Does he still love trees?”
—”I just couldn’t figure out how much baking soda to put in that volcano. And I majored in volcanoes.”
—Killam and Moynihan really make for a spot-on Otho and Delia Deetz.
—Mike O’Brien lives! Your mileage may vary on his She’s All That/10 Things I Hate About You/Drive Me Crazy-spoofing short, but Keaton’s commitment went a long way toward selling a tired premise.
—”We finally see the camera man. He’s the coolest one of all.”