James Franco hosted SNL for the fourth time on Saturday. Ostensibly the gig was meant to promote his new movie The Disaster Artist, about the making of so-bad-it’s-good cult classic The Room. But in a surprising development, The Disaster Artist was mentioned only once in the entire episode, and eccentric impresario Tommy Wiseau (whom Franco portrays in the film) went without a name-check. Instead, Franco relied on his tried-and-true method for comedy — namely, showing off his famous friends. Luckily, he got some major support from musical guest SZA, who put on one of the most electrifying SNL performances in a while.
Aside from SZA’s performances, this episode felt pretty half-assed. It all started with the cold open, which mostly consisted of a skit featuring Kenan Thompson as a department-store Santa Claus who has to fend off questions from curious kids about recent political news. In some ways I sympathize with SNL; the news cycle has now gone so far off the rails, it’s hard to expect them to come up with humorous commentary about the Alabama Senate race AND moving Israel’s capital to Jerusalem AND the opioid crisis AND the NFL kneeling protests AND the political fall of SNL veteran Al Franken. But even so, bringing out cute kids to basically just read a list of trending Twitter topics feels like the most low-hanging fruit possible.
For those of you who haven’t seen it, The Disaster Artist is a hilarious look at how two clueless, talentless dreamers (played by the Franco brothers) ended up creating one of the worst films ever made. That’s an intrinsically funny story, but Franco pads it out further by casting almost every part with one of his celebrity friends. It’s hard to focus too much on the specifics of the underdog story when you’re constantly going, “Wow, there’s Seth Rogen! Wow, there’s Judd Apatow!”
Well, I must inform you that Franco adopted the exact same strategy for his SNL monologue this week. There were hardly any jokes to be found. Instead, Franco called on audience members for questions. Almost all of them turned out to be celebrities: Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, and Steve Martin all showed up. It was fine if you watch SNL just to see celebrities hang out, but surprisingly devoid of actual jokes.
Even with the reference-filled open, there was still plenty of news to talk about when Weekend Update finally swung around. Colin Jost started things off talking about President Trump recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and diagnosed it as a distraction from domestic issues. But things got more problematic after that.
As if the cold open wasn’t enough already, SNL also devoted a good amount of Weekend Update time to sticking up for former cast member Al Franken. Franken has been accused by several women of sexual misconduct, including unwanted groping. In the midst of the ongoing post-Weinstein #MeToo moment around sexual harassment, pressure built up from both Democratic voters and politicians for Franken to resign. On Thursday, Franken formally announced his plans to resign, making sure to complain that it was an unfair double standard that he was being forced out of politics while Republican politicians facing similar or worse accusations (such as Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore and President Donald Trump himself) remain unpunished by their own party. It is certainly a shame that not all of Congress’ accused harassers are being punished, but SNL spending so much time trying to defend their friend is just not a good look.
But this Weekend Update session redeemed itself at the end with a skit about Michael Che going undercover as a white liberal woman named Gretchen. Che didn’t wear any “whiteface” makeup for his disguise, but he didn’t need to. As it turns out, all you need to do to hide among liberal white women is pretend to have a needlessly thoughtful opinion about Cardi B.
Best Sketch: Za
Thanks to the popularity of recent O.J. Simpson retrospectives, there have been a lot of pop culture riffs on court cases recently. The premise of this sketch is deceptively simple (Franco plays an attorney trying to catch a client by proving that he meant “lasagna,” not “pizza,” when he said “za”) but manages to put a new twist on court dynamics thanks to Franco’s extravagant graphs about the exact pronunciation of “za.” Like The Room, it’s so stupid it’s actually really funny.
Worst Sketch: “Gift Wrap”
It’s always a bad sign for an SNL episode when an early skit goes on way too long. Franco played a stubborn gift-wrapper in one of the show’s early segments, but it only had one joke (he refuses to treat his bleeding extremities as he works himself slowly to death) repeated over and over.
Most Expected Cameo: “Reunion”
There was no Tommy Wiseau appearance here, but one of Franco’s The Disaster Artist co-stars did show up: his brother Dave! And in a sketch about an awkward family reunion, no less.
Best of SZA: “The Weekend”
Franco’s humor was relatively shallow this episode, but his saving grace was being paired with SZA. The young R&B musician’s Ctrl is one of the best albums of the year, and SZA capably amplified the songs for the live SNL setting. “The Weekend,” for instance, came complete with a new flute intro and backing choir. It was hard to watch the performance in anything but stunned silence.
Cast MVP: Pete Davidson
On the sketches where Franco did unleash his eccentric humor, Davidson was around to play a capable straight man. Whether it was the defendant in the “za” court case or a spelling bee contestant helplessly asking for a normal word from Franco’s disturbed moderator (and getting “littlepigboy” in response), Davidson was able to balance out Franco’s wackiness.