Lesson learned: Don’t start your show out with Ebola jokes… then try to lighten the mood with a little 9/11 and Boston Marathon-based humor.
We shouldn’t fault Chris Rock for trying to be edgy. Edge, after all, is kind of his stock-in-trade—or at least it was, before the comedian retreated into the safe haze of Madagascar movies and Grown Ups 2. That said, critics have been lauding his latest film, Top Five, as a welcome return to form; the movie became one of the Toronto Film Festival’s hottest properties, sparking a bidding war that ended with Paramount paying around $12.5 million for distribution rights. It makes sense, then, that he’d try to shake things up on SNL by joking about taboo topics in his opening monologue.
The problem: Rock’s attempts at cutting-edge humor revolved around a bombing that happened a year and a half ago, the Freedom Tower (which has been in construction since 2008), the commercialization of Christmas (which Americans have been complaining about since, oh, forever), and gun control—an actually hot topic that led to his monologue’s only big laugh. It’s possible that his standup fell so flat because we’re not ready to laugh about these things; it’s more likely that it did because most of the jokes felt dated, not to mention caught in an uncomfortable limbo between “safe” and “truly shocking.” It would have been hard for the show to recover from that unfortunate thud under the best of circumstances—but what followed Rock’s opener was an uneven mishmash of flat jokes, weird timing, and flubbed lines, which have become increasingly common on the show as of late. The overall verdict: Disappointing, especially for someone as talented and promising as Rock. That said, it wasn’t all bad; take, for example, the night’s…
“How’s He Doing?”, which has appeared twice before—the first time with Maya Rudolph in 2012, the second with Kerry Washington in 2013—never varies much from its formula. Which is probably because while the bit’s main joke never changes—a group of stately black panelists agree that, despite everything, it’d take a miracle for them to stop supporting Barack Obama—its real power lies in the sharp specificity of its smaller gags. For example: “Would the president lose your support if he radically changed his hairstyle? …[to] dreadlocks? …I’m talking about three thick, dirty dreadlocks for his entire head.” Bonus points for everyone in the sketch looking prepared and comfortable, two should-be givens that were in shockingly short supply last night.
From the night’s blackest sketch to its whitest: Have you, like millions of adults across the country, recently found yourself suffering from dizziness, nauseousness, and shortness of breath—all because you suddenly realized that you actually like Taylor Swift’s music? Try Swiftamine, the medicine made for those caught in a battle between their brains (“Oof, Taylor Swift? She’s always wearing, like, a 1950s bathing suit”) and their ears (“Shut up! This is a perfect song”). Bonus points for bewildered, tutu-clad Leslie Jones; at least she got one win in last night.
Speaking of: Poor Leslie Jones. “The Couple”—a weirdly mean sketch about a man (Rock) and a woman (Jones) who stay together even though they despise each other—was already on shaky ground, thanks to weak (nonexistent?) jokes and a puzzling Uber shoutout, the show’s millionth in 90 minutes. (Did the car-sharing startup secretly sponsor yesterday’s show, or something?) Then Jones (who, lest we forget, has only been a full cast member for two episodes) accidentally walked offscreen at the wrong time, reentered the scene, and took several agonizing seconds to either remember her next line or locate her next cue card. Watching it was like seeing an accident happen in slow motion—and unlike, say, everyone corpsing in the first “Debbie Downer” sketch, this screwup only made a bad situation worse.
The “Time Is a Flat Circle” Award
Kids in the ’70s had to amuse themselves by pretending to host TV shows in their rooms for an audience of no one (“The Judy Miller Show”). Teens in the late ’80s and early ’90s could actually appear on their own low-budget public access TV shows (“Wayne’s World”). Teens in the early ’00s graduated to live webcasts (“Jarret’s Room”)—and now, teens in 2014 can star in their very own YouTube vlogs, broadcast to an audience of millions (“How 2 Dance with Janelle”). Somebody cue up “The Circle Game.”
Best Musical Moment
He didn’t show up for the promos, or appear in any additional sketches, or even deign to wave goodbye with the rest of the cast and his band at the end of the show—but hey, at least Prince’s performance was super Prince-y! Even one fairly big “oops” moment (after switching from keyboard to guitar, the Purple One realized that his instrument hadn’t been plugged in and had to remedy that fact on camera) couldn’t stop Prince and 3rdeyegirl from rocking as they spent eight and a half minutes playing “Clouds,” “Marz,” and “Another Love.” This electrifying sequence was the show’s high point, not only because of what happened onscreen but also because of the tweets it inspired:
Edgiest Moment, I Guess
The startup business looking for funding on tonight’s installment of Shark Tank: ISIS! Um… ha? As random as it sounds, this sketch didn’t necessarily have to be dead on arrival. But its premise was definitely an inherently hard sell—one that SNL‘s writers and cast weren’t quite up to the task of pushing properly. Maybe, in the end, the issue was that the bit wasn’t going far enough; if you’re going to write a sketch about ISIS going on Shark Tank, it seems like sort of a copout to end it by saying that the whole thing was a setup to help Homeland Security arrest the terrorist group. Beck Bennett’s Kevin O’Leary definitely seemed like good practice for his inevitable Donald Trump impression, though.
Honestly, nobody shined particularly brightly in this all-around “meh”-fest—so hell, I’ll go ahead and default to Kate McKinnon, whose devil-may-care Kaci Hickox gave a humdrum cold open its only spark of life. She also did nice work in the night’s fairly boilerplate 10-to-1 sketch, a parody of painfully dated ’90s videotape series.
Though maybe it is time to retire “Kate makes out with somebody, grossly” as a punchline, at least for a few weeks. …Or, you know, “Aidy and Vanessa make out grossly,” which is what actually happened in the sketch. Apologies!
—Where the heck was Taran Killam tonight? He’s usually in the majority of a given episode’s sketches; tonight, his only spotlight came in the “Bank Robbery” pretape, and even that was a pretty small role. Did the hilarity of “Paul & Phil” last week put him down for the count?
—Speaking of: That short about unusually accommodating bank robbers was probably the funniest thing the Good Neighbor guys have done yet, but according to SNL-ologist Mike Ryan, it’s a holdover from previous weeks. That’s not really a great sign.
—Why couldn’t the “go-probe” commercial have been three straight minutes of Ye Olde-Timey Colonoscopy?
—Jay Pharoah’s Katt Williams appears on Weekend Update… and SNL‘s secret Katt Williams superfan strikes again.
—Wonder how Pete Davidson felt about Rock’s monologue, given his own family history—his father was a firefighter who died on 9/11.
—We all know that the cast relies on cue cards because jokes in sketches keep changing up to and including right before the live show begins. But given this season’s history of flubbed lines and dropped cues… maybe it’s time to retire that practice?