“I’m not an actor, I’m a [movie/standup] star! (Also an actor.)”

Recalling when Louis C.K. (co-standup comedy legend and Chris Rock pal) first hosted SNL, I was unaccountably excited in spite of myself. Like Rock, Louis’ voice is so strong, so uncompromising that it seemed the show would simply have to bend itself to his sensibility, a change that could only make the show better—or at least different. As it turned out, Louis proved himself—apart from his signature stellar standup bits—all too willing to blend in and be one of the gang. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing (and understandable considering the self-effacement that marks his acting—rather than standup—persona). When Richard Pryor—even more influential than Louis or Rock—hosted 39 seasons ago, he infamously steamrolled SNL, bringing in performers, writer Paul Mooney, and even the musical guest in order that the show would reflect his personality, and the show did suffer for it. (Pryor’s standup segments and several of his sketches are classics, but there’s a reason the performance by Pryor’s ex-wife Shelley wasn’t included on the “SNL Vintage” episode NBC showed a few weeks ago.)

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With Rock, the old anticipation—again, in spite of the perpetual skepticism of the lifelong SNL aficionado—built up once more. Only this time, Rock’s past affiliation with the show stoked the fires higher. Chris Rock knows that place. He knows how it works—and he knows where SNL’s weaknesses are. When Rock was a cast member, he struggled mightily to express what has been proven to be one of the most original comic minds anywhere. Some of that, as Rock has acknowledged, is on him. Rock is most effective when he’s expressing himself as himself—even when he’s not just (literally and figuratively) farting around with buddy Adam Sandler onscreen, Rock’s not a natural actor, or sketch performer. But he was also working in an environment with an undeniably shabby record when it comes to black performers (and female performers, but that’s a digression for another night) breaking through. So Rock made his mark as best he could, then (after a stint on In Living Color, whose sensibilities presented different obstacles) found that his ideal role was as Chris Rock.

So Rock’s return to an SNL addressing yet another diversity PR embarrassment was cause for serious interest. One of the preeminent standup comedians in the world, coming back to his problematic launching pad with the undisputed authority of a justly lauded humorist under his arm? That’s a cause for serious interest, right? (We’ll see how the ratings turn out.)

Unfortunately, Rock’s hosting gig only showcased the fact that he’s really not suited for sketch comedy, as he blew a shocking number of lines (he had company), and never stepped enough out of himself to inhabit any of the characters he was given.

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His monologue was the highlight, naturally—a sharp set where Rock’s signature willingness to broach difficult topics (in this case: terrorism, the “arrogance” of Freedom Tower, the hypocrisy of commercializing the birth of Jesus, and Internet trolls) with a confident delivery that finds fresh insight into each topic. You could hear the audience refuse to follow him down certain paths, only to finally succumb under the sheer force of his personality and comedy logic. Yes, he’s that good.

As for the rest of the night, Rock’s influence was most refreshingly felt in the sheer volume of black cast members on the screen. I have no idea if was Rock’s decree or simply his presence that gave Sasheer Zamata, Leslie Jones, Jay Pharoah, and Kenan Thompson so much screen time tonight—and it’s reductive to count, I realize—but for SNL to have its black performers drive most of an episode’s sketches is worth mentioning. If only the resultant sketches were anything special—or, in the Jones/Rock sketch—even competent. Like Louis before him, Rock’s undeniable comic cred did not produce the sort of sea change the more hopeful (read: foolish) SNL viewers (read: me) might have expected. But unlike Louis’ hosting gigs, Rock, while just as game, only proved why he never was going to be a star on this show. While the commercial for Rock’s upcoming film Top Five after the monologue looked promising enough, Chris Rock is not enough of an actor to carry a scene as anything but himself.

Weekend Update update

Look, the SNL stage is as high-pressure as any in show business, but these are professional actors, and there are rehearsals, right? Michale Che, continuing his rocky entry behind the WU desk, absolutely massacred one joke tonight. Sure, he displayed some charisma in saving the moment (“Prince, ladies and gentlemen!”), but it’s not like there were a lot of jokes for he and Colin Jost to get through. Update is fading. Under head writer and co-anchor Jost’s guidance, the sometime centerpiece of the show remains an intermittently amusing soft spot in each episode, rising or falling mainly on the strength of its correspondent pieces. There were a few above-average jokes tonight—Ebola stuff, mainly—but if anyone was offended, shocked, or made to think by any of the “political” material on Update tonight, they don’t get out much.

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Pete Davidson fared best, brought back as Update’s youth correspondent and telling a funny story about his mom and an allergic reaction to condoms. The kid is funny enough, with a slouchy, off-kilter persona that helps make his repurposed standup material land harder than it might otherwise. Still, simply trotting Davidson out to be adorable is going to wear thin (this was his third Update appearance as himself in five episodes).

On the other hand, it may be time to concede that Jay Pharoah is a technically meticulous impressionist who lacks the ability to truly engage an audience. His Katt Williams (here appearing alongside Thompson’s mumbly, evasive Suge Knight, recapping their recent arrest) is spot-on. But, apart from the fact that, as ever, the SNL audience doesn’t really know who Williams is (he’s just not in the average SNL viewer’s zeitgeist), Pharoah doesn’t give the person he’s impersonating much life. Pharoah’s a funny guy (he’s the only person ever to craft a decent Denzel Washington impression), but he’s not a star, and here his energetic, accurate Katt Williams played to acknowledgement, but not much laughter.

Best/Worst sketch of the night

It’s predictable to call the cataclysm of the Leslie Jones/Rock sketch the worst of the night due to how badly it was botched, but I don’t see any way around it. If the “bickering couple” premise were to work, it’d take two performers at the top of their games imbuing the characters with suggestions of inner life—a little one act play where hard laughs are given over in favor of tight, insightful character work. Instead, Rock and Jones seem to have never seen their lines before—Jones went up in the most painful episode of stage fright I’ve seen in a decade. Credit to the show for working Jones into the rotation so quickly upon her promotion from the writers’ room (she’s shown flashes), but based on her utter bafflement in that one…painful…long…moment here, she needs more time to adjust. (I’ve seen hosts melt down that badly before, but rarely a cast member. Not a good sign when my notes read “OH SHIT.”)

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The entire episode (apart from the filmed pieces) was marked by a serious pacing problem (and ending problem, and line-fluffing problem). Rock was sluggish and overly reliant on the cue cards in the “How To Dance With Janelle” sketch, and he blew lines in both the “Shark Tank” and “Women In The Workplace” sketches (although the deliberately stiff deliveries of the faux 90s training video disguised both his and Vanessa Bayer’s flubs a bit).

The latter being said, the top spot goes to that same sketch (see the “Ten-To-Oneland” report below). Apart from that, there were some things to like this week, especially in the filmed bits (where, you know, people could do retakes). The vertigo commercial had a funny premise, with ordinary, decent folks being overcome with dizziness upon discovering they like Taylor Swift, but it was Beck Bennett’s dry delivery as “Dr. David Doctor” that truly sold it. This week’s Kyle Mooney/Bennet piece was a winner, too, with their bank robbers (alongside Bobby Moynihan) pulling swerve after swerve as their tough guy posturing gave way to solicitous consideration for their hostages. It worked over and over again, thanks to the trio’s committed, inhabited performances throughout.

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“What do you call that act?” “The Californians!”—Recurring sketch report.

“How’s He Doing?” is as close as the episode gets to legitimate political commentary, with Rock, Pharoah, Jones, Zamata, and Thompson reprising the PBS talk show from the Kerry Washington episode where a group of black pundits debate what, exactly, it would take for African Americans to abandon Barack Obama. While it was fresher in its previous incarnation, the joke still lands, and for the same reason. The sketch, populated here by five—count ‘em, five—black performers on SNL is written from the inside. In Tina Fey’s book Bossypants, she tells the story of Jimmy Fallon unwisely objecting to something silly and filthy that new cast member Amy Poehler was doing in a meeting, prompting Poehler to glaze over and tell him, “I don’t give a fuck if you like it.” These sketches are like that—white America can say what they want about Barack Obama’s performance as President, but the black community is operating from a different perspective. And they don’t give a fuck if you like it. It’s as close to channeling Rock’s voice as the episode got outside of his monologue.

I am hip to the musics of today.

I feel unqualified to write about Prince. In his eight-minute, multi-song jam tonight, he was—Prince. His songs progressed from sweet, plinky-cute sexy to flat out funky sexy and I watched the entire thing with the no-doubt goofy smile of someone watching a performer in complete control of his instrument(s). Reportedly, Rock got Lorne Michaels to cede a solid block of time so Prince could do his thing. That may be the best decision made tonight, as this was one of the most memorable musical performances in years. Sure, Prince was here to promote his new album like everyone else, but his stint here—aided immeasurably by all-female backing band 3RDEYGIRL and singer Lianne La Havas—was pure, confident entertainment. Plus, I always forget until I see him live—Prince is one motherfucker of a guitar player.

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Most/Least Valuable (Not Ready For Prime Time) Player

SNL is a damned tough gig. Leslie Jones melted down—hard—in a situation where the show was trying to give her a chance to shine. That sucks, of course, and performers come back from such disasters, but it’s hard to avoid giving Jones the least valuable spot tonight. That was rough.

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Kate McKinnon gets the top spot. Her comic intensity hasn’t been used as well this year as it might, but she shone in the cold open as defiant “Ebola nurse” (and fellow Mainer) Kaci Hickox, freaking out Fox news’ Megyn Kelly with her fake coughing, and challenging Moynihan’s belligerent Chris Christie to a fistfight. McKinnon excels as these sorts of over-the-top characters (I’ve never seen Shark Tank, but her impression in the sketch here was specific enough to be funny), but she really shone in the “Women In The Workplace” sketch. (It’s coming.) Moynihan almost snuck in here, with his Christie—often nothing but a fat joke—coming alive in the performance (“With all due respect, Megyn, you need to shut the hell up”), and his co-robber in the bank sketch doing the same.

“What the hell is that thing?”—The Ten-To-Oneland Report

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“Women In The Workplace” is an SNL staple—the throwback instructional video—but it’s a killer here, especially with Cecily Strong and Kate McKinnon driving the premise. While the joke of corporate training videos being poorly made isn’t fresh in itself, both actresses created an eerily hilarious atmosphere, their blank acceptance of the era’s racism and sexism coupling with their deadpan delivery of subtly bizarre lines. While Vanessa Bayer and Rock gamely and stiffly act out the ludicrous “teaching moments” (“I honestly bet you’re big down there.” “But that’s a stereotype for my wife to deal with”), it’s Strong and Bayer’s dead-eyed deliveries that launch this one into best sketch of the night position. Points for McKinnon’s insanely loony advice to defuse racism by showing up in a wheelchair pretending to be a lesbian, “But prepare to go through with it. Both of it.”

Stray observations:

  • “Many people are intimidated by a strong, smart woman who has lost her mind.”
  • McKinnon’s Hickox want swimming in a public pool, volunteered at a kissing booth, and gave out loose M&Ms on Halloween with her bare hand.
  • Just when I was thinking the Top Five movie-within-a-movie looked like a Tracy Jordan flick, Tracy Morgan showed up.
  • Even the blocking was off tonight, with Jay Pharoah being completely obscured by Rock in his first appearance in the “How To Dance With Janelle” sketch.
  • “Those are polyps sir, the most I’ve ever seen.” “Sick!” “Yes.”
  • “The President should have better security than Taye Diggs. Run into R. Kelly’s yard and see what happens.”
  • “There’s only one thing holding me back and that’s everything you stand for.”
  • “You remind me of the bad guys in the Bible.”
  • “Happy birthday!” “How did you know?” “I stole your wallet!”
  • “These files have to be filed all the way.”
  • My cable company chose to ditch tonight’s “SNL vintage” episode (which I’m told featured the nine-months-pregnant Amy Poehler successfully seducing host Josh Brolin to the sweet sounds of Gregg Allman’s “I’m No Angel”) in favor of a rerun of the Matthew Perry movie Fools Rush In. I trust I don’t have to explain how pissed I still am right now.

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