J.K. Simmons leads an SNL where the sketches were mostly forgettable, and the musical guest made the biggest impact.

By Esther Zuckerman
February 05, 2015 at 08:46 PM EST
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J.K. Simmons is one of those actors who is good in almost everything he does, from his Oscar-nominated turn in Whiplash to his Farmers Insurance commercials. Naturally, then, he wasn’t the problem with this week’s underwhelming Saturday Night Live. Maybe everyone’s just saving the best material for the upcoming 40th anniversary special.

Simmons’s talents actually fit SNL well. He’s a solid character actor, one who is equally great when he’s sweet (see: Juno) and when he’s angry (see: Whiplash). But the show didn’t make use of the range of his talents, mostly giving him straight man roles that in another iteration of SNL would have been occupied by a Bill Hader or Jason Sudeikis. If you have J.K. Simmons, make him yell at someone.

But this episode will still find a special place in SNL history thanks to the musical guest. D’Angelo and the Vanguard’s performance of “The Charade” was spectacular and impactful. If nothing else, it’s the moment from this episode worth checking out.

Best sketch

“Teacher Snow Day” isn’t a revolutionary concept by any means. In fact, this cast did co-workers-gone-wild very recently with “Office Christmas Party.” Still, there was a lot to appreciate here: Leslie Jones’s boxed wine, Aidy Bryant’s PTA line, J.K. Simmons pantslessness. There was also something pleasing about the grandeur of it, as it culminated in a massive dance party, complete with cheerleaders and a gospel choir.

Worst sketch

In an episode full of lackluster sketches based on half-baked, evergreen ideas, none was quite so bad as the final sketch of the night, “Career Day.” Simmons plays Pete Davidson’s dad who comes to career day only to reveal that he works as a Japanese Messy Boy—an American man who eats food messily for rich Japanese women. Davidson’s mortified, everyone else is fascinated, and the main joke seems to be Japanese people are weird. There’s even a dreadfully stereotypical Japanese accent at the end.

Best musical moment

In an episode where the comedy was mostly forgettable, D’Angelo and the Vanguard’s performance of his song “The Charade” off his album Black Messiah was vital. During the song, members of D’Angelo’s band and his backup singers wore shirts that read “Black Lives Matter” and “I Can’t Breathe.” On the floor of the stage, there was an image of a chalk outline, a reference to the song’s line, “All we wanted was a chance to talk/ ‘Stead we’ve only got outlined in chalk.”

The Mike O’Brien moment

Mike O’Brien may no longer be officially part of the cast, but the show is still giving him space to construct his strange little sagas. This week O’Brien gave us “The Jay Z Story,” billed as a “fully accurate” biopic about Jay Z, only O’Brien plays Jay Z as the squarest white guy you’ve ever met. “This is insane,” he says. “I can’t believe I’m great at rap.” Meanwhile, J.K. Simmons and Jason Sudeikis (yes, he came back) play Nas and Kanye in equally dorky fashion. (“Holy Guacamole,” Sudeikis’s Kanye exclaims.) Jay Pharaoh, known for his fantastic Jay Z impression, plays a friend to O’Brien’s Jay Z, who is shot down when he starts rapping “Empire State of Mind.” The sketch is bizarre and amusing, but also hard to pin down. Does it have a point about music? About biopics? About race? Does it matter?

Sketch that Key & Peele did better

The episode opened with a Super Bowl-themed sketch featuring Jay Pharaoh as Richard Sherman and Kenan Thompson as Marshawn Lynch hosting a talk show. In typical cold open fashion, the sketch tried to fit in a variety of topical subjects. It hit the Super Bowl (obviously), Deflategate (also obviously), and the blizzard that wasn’t (randomly, given the context). However the sketch was at a supreme disadvantage thanks to the fact Key & Peele’s Super Bowl sketch made the same joke about Sherman and Lynch, only did it better.

Most expected joke

If you’ve seen Whiplash, in which Simmons plays a demanding, abusive jazz instructor, you could have probably written this monologue. If you haven’t seen Whiplash I’m not sure this monologue makes any sense to you.  Simmons insists that he’s a “nice guy,” but when he starts to perform a song with cast members, his character starts to take over. Kyle Mooney starts out on the drums, but he’s not on Simmons’ tempo. He is rushing. He is dragging. Other cast members try to take his place much to Simmons’ displeasure. The monologue has some great moments, like Simmons saying he thinks “all hair is ridiculous,” taking aim at Pete Davidson’s cuteness, Aidy Bryant claiming that she misses Blake Shelton, and Leslie Jones standing up to Simmons, announcing, “I am a 47-year-old woman. Do not do that. You need to pump your brakes dude.” It all wrapped up with actual drummer Fred Armisen taking over the drums and impressing all. So it was cute, predictable, and also probably had a limited audience.

Cast MVP

MVP this episode is a toss up for me between Taran Killam and Bobby Moynihan. Killam’s showiest role of the night was his return to the Update desk as Jebidiah Atkinson—this time throwing insults at musicians new and old—but he also provided solid supporting work, doing his best Pete Carroll in the cold open and his best Claude Rains in the Casablanca sketch. Still, I’m going to have to give this prize to Moynihan. His “coffee and rain” line in the cold open was one of its best moments, and without him the “Microsoft Assistant” sketch would have been totally lost. Pushie starts out annoying, and then, thanks to Moynihan, gets dark and odd—in a good way.  


– “Miss Trash 2015” felt like a lamer cousin to last week’s Bachelor parody “Farm Hunk,” another chance for the women of the cast to trot out the lowlifes in their arsenal. The sketch’s saving grace? Kate McKinnon’s New York accent, and Aidy Bryant’s everything.

– I guess we know where SNL falls on the When Harry Met Sally … argument over whether Ilsa should have gotten on the plane or stayed in Casablanca with Rick.

– Please, can I have Helvetica Bonham Carter on my Microsoft Word?

– The Update audience gave a hearty cheer when Colin Jost started his joke about Mitt Romney not running for president.

–  It’s amazing how Jebediah Atkinson’s decades-late burns rile up the audience.

– Atkinson on Iggy Azalea: “The last time anyone stole that much from black people everybody still dressed like me.”

– Sad, repressed Vanessa Bayer got a chance to shine this week, thanks to both the “Totino’s Super Bowl Commercial” and “Miss Trash 2015.”

– Simmons’ cast-specific insults in the monologue were satisfying. To Kyle Mooney: “this is not your little weird videos.” To Fred Armisen: “can you just wipe the dumb smile off your face, Armisen, you’re not in Portland anymore.” 

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