Kenan Thompson, J.K. Simmons (NBC)

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

Having a formidable character actor like J.K. Simmons host gives SNL unique opportunities, few of which the episode went for. In his monologue, Simmons did a spot-on impression of— his exact character from Whiplash, berating a series of would-be drummer cast members until they fled the stage. Sure, it was cute enough, giving Simmons a chance to lay some signature Simmons smackdown on Kyle Mooney (“This is not one of your little weird videos—this is the beginning of the show”), Pete Davidson (“You know what’s not cute? Sucking at the drums”), Aidy Bryant (who storms off, crying “I really miss [last week’s host] Blake Shelton!”), and Leslie Jones (who was having none of it—“Do not scream at me, J.K.! I am a 47-year-old woman, do not do that!”) The ending, with alum (and professional drummer) Fred Armisen killing it on the drums and winning Simmons over (“I’m gonna play something nice for this little sweetie!”) was, indeed, nice—which set the tone for the rest of Simmons’ hosting gig.

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Simmons was game, which was not only professional of him, but makes perfect sense. Oscar nomination or no, the guy works a lot, and has no compunctions about doing some silly stuff. (The guy reminded everyone that he plays the yellow M&M in his monologue, for crying out loud.) And I can’t be the only one who imagined Simmons storming into the SNL writers’ room this week and pulling some Whiplash-style tough love to inspire/provoke/terrify SNL into reaching higher, but, instead, Simmons performed admirably in a series of perfectly ordinary sketches. Whenever the show invites someone outside of its hosting comfort zone, I always get my hopes up that the host’s new set of skills will provide the show with a chance to try some stuff out. Tonight, it gave a noted character actor the opportunity to anchor a middling episode with his amiable competence.

Weekend Update update

Running out of things to say about the current iteration of Update, frankly. Michael Che blew a line, Colin Jost’s fraternity Seth Meyers impression lacks gravitas, the jokes weren’t especially clever or hard-hitting, and the anchors have no chemistry together whatsoever. Neither Jost’s continuing charisma deficit nor Che’s lack of confidence is conducive to easy laughter, making Update a simultaneously bland and anxious affair. The political jokes continue especially weak. (This week: Chris Christie is fat! The Maury Povich Show did paternity tests!) It’s not a bad idea to give Che a chance to do some standup material in the guise of jokes, but while his comparison of Saudi Arabia to America’s sketchy but necessary drug dealer had a few good lines, I continue to wait for the Daily Show edge he was supposed to bring to Update’s material.

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The correspondents featured two returning characters, one crowd-pleasing but long past his expiration date and the other struggling to even get that far. Cecily Strong’s “one-dimensional female character from a male-driven comedy” is a funny idea, but most of the satire is already summed up in her name. And while I get that Strong’s flat delivery suits the concept of the character, it doesn’t help her to jump off the screen, especially playing off of Jost, who’s simply not an actor. His lack of presence and timing and her deliberate blankness sap the concept, even when there are points being scored against (as her name makes overt) how female characters in male-driven comedies aren’t given much except the same clichéd beats to play.

And then there’s Jebidiah Atkinson, whose furiously snippy pop culture putdowns always seem funnier than they are due to Taran Killam’s commitment to the character. As ever, I’m tickled by Killam’s ability to stare down the camera and the audience (especially after saying something particularly mean), but, also as ever, I end up looking over the list of his insults after the sketch is over and realizing there’s less there than it seemed when Killam was delivering them. Funny and forgettable, that’s Jebidiah—NEXT!

Best/Worst sketch of the night

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On a pretty nondescript night, the only standout for me was the return of “Cinema Classics,” thanks to Kate McKinnon’s season-best performance as Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa in a desperately unnecessary alternate ending to Casablanca. There’s not much to the sketch other than McKinnon’s performance, but that’s more than enough, with her much more pragmatic decision to leave on that plane and avoid the concentration camps conveyed in word, gesture, and odd tangents that accumulated comic momentum the longer it went on. Honestly, just McKinnon saying “NOOO!” repeatedly in response to Simmons’ Rick telling her to go was pretty funny (I could watch her do that all night), but the turn, with Ilsa emitting a strangled little “ewww…” at the first mention of the camp was worthy of the late Madeline Kahn for its comic economy, and McKinnon’s desperate attempts to pretend she’s still torn about leaving while Rick delivers his famous, noble lines just get funnier and funnier. “Wow, you’ve given me a lot to think about when I’m on that plane…” vies with her vision of being “behind barbed wire, having to pick which child to shoot” (“The Nazis are weird like that”), but it’s all performance, and all McKinnon.

For runner-up, it’s got to be Mike O’Brien, re-emerging from the writers room for his delightfully improbable lead role in the Jay-Z story. The joke about Hollywood choosing an unthreatening white guy to play Jay-Z is made even funnier with O’Brien’s casting, his singular boyish politeness lending a low-key humor to the bit. (“This is insane—I can’t believe I’m great at rap!) And the cameo by alum Jason Sudeikis as Kanye only ups the premise, the lunchtime meeting between the two so wet-eyed and sincere it’s irresistible (“What are we doing eating these huge salads? Let’s go practice rapping!”) O’Brien’s demotion to the writers’ room last season made sense—he never was comfortable live—but he continues to produce stellar filmed pieces.

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The worst sketch came right at the beginning (an oddly consistent trend this season), with the “Miss Trash 2015” pageant. Simmons was wasted in the emcee role, delivering mean (and not especially clever) putdowns of the sleazy lady contestants, and none of the female cast members involved fared much better. McKinnon, again, brought some specific personality to Miss New York (she of the 400 stitches you can’t see), and Aidy Bryant’s annoyed “what?!” when called on for the Q&A part of the contest brought a laugh, but mostly this one was both limp and mean (a deadly combination).

For runner-up, see the Ten-To-Oneland report.

After that—look, it’s not fair that Key & Peele did a much funnier, conceptually smarter Richard Sherman and Marshawn Lynch sketch yesterday, but it sure didn’t do tonight’s cold open any favors. Especially when the SNL take on the Seahawks players is to hit every expected note possible. (Marshawn doesn’t talk—and he likes Skittles! Richard yells at people! Seahawks enthusiasts are bandwagon-jumpers!) Jay Pharoah was appropriately loud and animated as Sherman (although he started things off with a flubbed line), and his one laugh came from ending one rant with, “Boom! I went to Stanford!” Sadly, the tenor of the sketch was summed up more by his delivery room joke (he intercepted the baby and ran it back for a touchdown) which may have been unearthed from an old Bob Hope special.

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“Teacher Snow Day” never took off in its bid to reach the heights of post-Lonely Island musical shorts like “Do It On My Twin Bed,” “Boy Dance Party,” or “Back Home Ballers.” This one was just too ordinary.

The “Pushie” sketch, with Bobby Moynihan donning a huge pushpin costume as the new Microsoft Word animated helper started slowly, but built to a strangely dark conclusion, with Simmons’ befuddled oldster debating whether to hit the oddly cold-blooded “murder Pushie” button. Points for the absurd autocorrect suggestions (all proper nouns become “Philly Cheese,” “Goof Troop,” or “Captain Martinez,” and Moynihan, as usual, is an underrated actor, imbuing the silly role with a strange integrity. But, as with many sketches tonight, there was little immediacy behind the whole thing (other than that old people don’t understand computers). At least someone finally had the courage to take down Clippy.

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

We’ve already covered these—Jebidiah’s all about Killam, “one-dimensional female character from a male-driven comedy” isn’t one of Cecily Strong’s best showcases, and Kate McKinnon turned “Cinema Classics” into one of the best sketches of the year on her own. (Kenan Thompson’s host Reese De’What partakes of Thompson’s signature approach to character—speak loudly and mug to the camera—but his digression “Worst post-sex discussion ever!” got a laugh.)

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I am hip to the musics of today.

D’Angelo’s second number, “The Charade,” was quietly stunning. The Terrence Malick-esque D’Angelo (he takes a decade between projects) performed in front of body outline on the stage and his band wore t-shirts proclaiming “Black Lives Matter” and “I Can’t Breathe,” with everyone ending in darkness with one fist raised.

All we wanted was a chance to talk

‘Stead we only got outlined in chalk

Feet have bled a million miles we’ve walked

Revealing at the end of the day, the charade

And that’s how you kick off Black History Month.

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

McKinnon takes MVNRFPTP in a walk this week. (The recent news that she‘s going to be a Ghostbuster is outstanding but not surprising, as her signature comic vibe is simply built for that sort of high-concept action comedy. And while Leslie Jones’ inclusion there is certainly a major surprise, I can see it. So congrats to both for making the big jump—if anyone can make this thing work, it’s Paul Feig, so judgement withheld. Oh, and guys—stop being sexist dicks on the Internet. Thanks.)

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I honestly don’t remember seeing Beck Bennett until the goodnights this week, a shame, since Ten-To-Oneland could easily have slipped five minutes of Bennett and Kyle Mooney screwing around, instead of…

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

… “Japanese messy boy.” Now, I have long been an advocate for the last sketch of the night to be home to the sort of conceptual oddities that get muscled aside in favor of the crowd-pleasing celebrity impersonations that pay the bills at SNL. But this one, about Simmons’ career day dad who reveals the details of his career as a food fetish performer to his son’s class just had no comic force to make the potentially offensive subject matter palatable. Simmons, again, was game, but there’s a difference between admiring an actor’s willingness to take on risqué material and finding the effort funny. It may have been stranger than some of the safer material tonight, but this sketch wasn’t any more notable.

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Stray observations:

  • “Maybe you’d be good at the drums if you spent as much time practicing as you do smoking weed!” “Like I’m gonna spend a hundred hours a week practicing the drums.”
  • “I’ll wave to you through one of the little windows—it’ll be our thing.”
  • “That story again, a lady found a cat that looked like her old cat.”
  • Jebidiah’s best line referred to the Grammys as “the Spotify playlist of a 12-year-old girl.”
  • “You just gave me a great idea of what my fake name should be, you son of a gun!”
  • Fred Armisen is a very good drummer.
  • Simmons was on SNL once before, playing his Oz character Vern Schillinger in a dark riff on the Seinfeld finale that was edgier than anything he got to do as host:

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