George Ezra, Dwayne Johnson, Aidy Bryant (NBC)

“I’m not an actor, I’m a [movie/TV] star!”

While his fourth SNL hosting stint took place on the same night as the WWE Hall of Fame ceremony (R.I.P. and congrats, Macho Man), Dwayne Johnson made his case for SNL HOF induction (or at least the Five Timers Club) with one of the most assured and hilarious appearances in recent memory. In a career spent in front of cameras, there’s something so calculatedly wonderful in Johnson’s persona that it’d be annoying if it didn’t come off so, well, wonderful. I’m reminded of Tom Lennon’s anecdote (we’re going deep cut on Dwayne Johnson lore here) about how gracious and accommodating Johnson was on his one day of work filming his very funny appearance in the Reno 911 movie, where Johnson charmed everyone involved, even calling Lennon months later on the day of the movie’s release to wish him success. (Lennon also calls Johnson “Mr. The Rock,” which is how I habitually refer to him.) From his earliest days in wrestling (where his pre-packaged character was vociferously rejected by the masses until his stellar mic work won him the adulation of millions), Johnson’s been a consummate performer, his innate charisma magnified by his tireless efforts to make people love him. Which they do—and with good reason. Even the tired concept of the musical monologue got a smooth jolt from Johnson’s energy tonight, his series-rejuvenating reputation as “franchise Viagra” translated into a remarkably assured musical number backed up ably by Aidy Bryant, Kate McKinnon, Sasheer Zamata, and Cecily Strong. The guy might never win an Oscar, but Johnson is pure entertainment on whatever screen he’s on, and his performances in the sketches tonight were uniformly outstanding. The “Vintage SNL” episode from earlier in the evening provides a telling contrast—Sigourney Weaver will ever be twice the actor Johnson is, but, as her stiff and removed performance on the 1986 8H stage showed, being a great actor and being a great SNL host are very different skills. Point: Mr. The Rock.

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Weekend Update update

Update was as good as the Jost/Che regime gets tonight. Which is to say: Jost (more severe new haircut aside) looks over his head, Che seems uncomfortable delivering scripted jokes, and the correspondent appearances were both funny-enough retreads. Honestly, there were more hits than misses tonight, with Jost’s joke about identifying Indiana businesses embracing the recent “religious freedom” discrimination bill by their out of business signs, and Che’s aside that Mexicans will be up-and-comers “because of their strong farm system” (after a riff on the Starbucks “race together” campaign) drawing more comic blood than usual. Neither anchor is a natural for this gig, but they’re edging toward adequacy (Che’s seeming ad libs after his Ted Cruz joke are clearly more in his wheelhouse).

On the correspondent front, Kate McKinnon’s Olya, the perpetually beleaguered lady from a hellish Russian town, is always welcome, with McKinnon’s hearty misery finding new angles on Olya’s tribulations. Her best line tonight, recounting her birth in the waters of a frozen lake, “You know how most babies cry when they are born? I rolled my eyes and said, ‘well played, devil.’”

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Kenan Thompson’s appearance as Che’s impossibly cheerful neighbor Willie wrung more laughs out of improbable misery. Again, Thomson’s broad delivery (he’s seemingly never happier than when getting to say the word “dookie”) has never been my favorite, but here Willie’s ebullient optimism in the face of the escalatingly horrible events in his life kept making me burst out in horrified laughter. Each time he pronounced another wrenching personal detail as if it were an inspirational aphorism, it was funnier than the last.

Best/Worst sketch of the night

In a show marked by uniform professionalism, enthusiastic performance, and plain old laughs, I have to say there wasn’t a bad sketch in the bunch tonight. The Indiana Jones pastiche comes closest, I suppose, as it relied on the old “suck out the poison” gag for its comedy, but Pete Davidson’s final cartwheel into his double johnson-suck with Johnson was a startlingly energetic move, and Kate McKinnon’s sketch-long underplaying trying to maneuver herself into poison-suckage with Johnson made it amusing in spite of all that.

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Similarly, the improv group/Robert Durst sketch wasn’t especially insightful in itself, but both McKinnon’s unsettlingly accurate Durst and Cecily Strong’s brassily self-promoting Jeanine Pirro were more alive than mere impressions, and the whole improv group dynamic was well observed in its self-impressed mediocrity. While the bit didn’t transcend its topicality, it benefitted hugely from the assured, confident professionalism that marked every sketch tonight.

The cooking show/sex offender sketch also saw performance triumph over premise, with Thompson’s chef continually trying to meet underage boys on his laptop while Johnson’s matter-of-fact parole officer (“I’m not your sidekick”) dutifully keeps him in check. Here, too, both actors bring the sketch to life, making what could be a forgettable bit funnier than expected.

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In a hearteningly strong episode, picking out the best of the night is difficult, but on the basis of performance alone, I’ll give the top spot to the restaurant sketch, with Johnson’s boundary-less meathead interrupting Kenan Thompson and Vanessa Bayer’s anniversary dinner like a cheerfully oblivious steamroller. The whole scene is a little masterpiece of characterization and absurdity, with Johnson leading the way with a fully realized comic character that’s, honestly, some of the best acting he’s ever done. Cecily Strong, as Johnson’s chipper, blithely awful British girlfriend, is his perfect foil, and Thompson and Bayer play peerless straight-people throughout. In the future “Best Of Dwayne Johnson” special, this is my pick for his brightest hosting moment.

The Wrestlemania sketch comes a close second, the obviousness of having Johnson appear in a wrestling bit overcome by the lengths to which his ‘rassler Coco Watchout has gone to belittle his main event opponent Bobby Moynihan (Trashyard Mutt) mounting in both complexity and cruelty. What makes the sketch work (apart from Johnson’s precisely silly wrestling promo intensity) is Coco’s unintentional, happy cruelty as the usual pre-bout bluster gives way to revelations that Mutt has herpes, a daughter he never knew, a Hawaiian girlfriend that is actually Coco catfishing him, and more. (“That is so intricate!,” exclaims the desperately-trying-to-play-along Mutt.)

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The Bambi trailer, too, benefitted hugely from the host’s commitment. It’s a silly concept pitched perfectly, with Johnson (as a buff, deer-eared Bambi) leading his Fast & Furious, gun-toting woodland pals on a bloody rampage against the hunters who killed his mom. Taran Killam’s drooling, incomprehensible Vin Diesel/Thumper and Jay Pharoah’s Tyrese Gibson/Flower are right there with him (Tyrese’s repeated “whoo!” made me laugh each time), but the best moment is when the gang all pauses for a butterfly to perch on Bambi Johnson’s blacked-out nose. It’s the little things.

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

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The inevitable return of The Rock Obama went according to the historical plan, although the concept is still reliably amusing. Like most recurring bits, the spontaneity’s long gone out of it, but the addition of Leslie Jones as She Rock Obama, bursting out of Sasheer Zamata’s tasteful Michelle Obama dress and gleefully shouting “Live, from New York” along with Johnson was a fun way to kick the episode off. (Plus, having Jay Pharoah rather than Fred Armisen as Obama is a definite upgrade.)

Already mentioned: Olya, Willie.

I am hip to the musics of today.

George Ezra looks like the new member of One Direction but sings like a middle-aged road vet. The incongruity is jarring and the songs are improbably enjoyable. Pleasant surprise.

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

It’s gotta be McKinnon, whose Durst, Olya, eternally frustrated Indiana Jones heroine, and backup singer in the monologue were all opportunities for her to show why she’s so valuable to this cast. McKinnon’s always present when she’s onscreen, whether doing a specific impression like her solid Durst, or an original character. It’s just impossible not to watch Kate McKinnon, and on a uniformly strong episode like tonight’s, her formidability is just magnified.

Apart from She Rock Obama, Leslie Jones didn’t have anything to do tonight, so LVNRFPTP goes to her. If only she had a major motion picture comedy franchise to look forward to.

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

Two candidates squeezed into the final ten minutes tonight, with both finding the conceptual sweet spot in different yet satisfying ways. Anytime SNL want to have Kyle Mooney awkwardly interview New Yorkers is a natural for the last spot, and here, sticking his absurdly long mike into the faces of children attending the circus provides him with the opportunity to ply his signature, goggle-eyed sweatiness to very funny effect. The joke, as always, is about Mooney’s inner weirdness projecting itself onto the innocent, and pairing him with children, as here, is especially fruitful.

Inner weirdness also marks Johnson’s turn as the male half of a good cop/strange cop interrogation team alongside Vanessa Bayer in the other Ten-To-Oneland sketch, with Johnson’s tough guy bluster admitting more and more odd details as they question Killam’s bewildered criminal. Starting off with the poetically silly admonition, “Cool out, hot ball!,” Johnson just keeps rolling, calling Killam’s tale “a lie so big it could fit in a box that could hold a million hats!,” and gradually revealing a preoccupation with his partner’s boyfriend, named Jeff. (“She would never kiss you because she’s dating a guy named Jeff and he’s the best!”) Like so much of what Johnson did tonight, his performance here elevated the material through sheer enthusiasm and commitment. With the writing so strong to begin with, that makes for the best episode of season 40.

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Stray observations:

  • “Now it’s time to make them pay—deerly.”
  • “Your computer history was filed with Family Guy porn. ‘Lois’ + ‘sex’ + ‘Brian’—and Brian’s the dog, man!”
  • “You sent a man to the chair?” “I didn’t want to—I just needed to make it end.”
  • “You have too much energy. What’s your address?”
  • “But it’s like they always say, ‘Wolves raped your dog again, Willie!’”
  • “If I just listened when she said, ‘Hit the brakes Willie!’”
  • “It’s better to have loved and lost than never to have won a drag race!”
  • “Because it’s like I always say, ‘They’re ain’t no God!’”
  • “Your water’s in the garbage can which is also where your house is!”
  • Reason why frat guys might have stress-related baldness: “Your frat dog might be an alcoholic, you were seen chanting the ‘n’ word in a viral video.”
  • Everyone made the most of their turns as mechanics forced to discuss sexuality and gender issues in the Pep Boys sketch, but the slogan “Pep Boys, or girls, or the third kind where you’re both” encapsulated the ill-conceived corporate policies behind the recent Starbucks debacle perfectly.

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