“I’m not an actor, I’m a [movie] star! (And also author, director, and all-around Renaissance man!)”
Say what you want about James Franco’s ambitious, admittedly middling array of artistic pursuits, but there are a lot worse ways for a rich, handsome, single, famous guy to be spending his time and money than writing short story collections, directing art film adaptations of his favorite authors, and attending school. Especially when he makes the time to still hang out and make dumb, funny comedies with pals like Seth Rogen (who, co-promoting The Interview, pops up to help out in Franco’s monologue and in his guest spot in the ex-porn stars sketch that ends the episode). I mean, were we all hoping he’d keep shoehorning himself into stiff leading man roles? Did anyone like Annapolis? Tristan + Isolde? In his third hosting stint, Franco was, as ever, a lot of fun, gamely throwing himself into every sketch with energy and professionalism. There’s something knowing about Franco’s comic persona—if everything he’s done over the past decade turns out to be some sort of Boyhood-length performance art piece, I won’t be that surprised—but he’s a natural fit for SNL (as his fascinating behind-the-scenes documentary about the show proved), and he submerged himself into his roles admirably.
Weekend Update update
Since the correspondent pieces have been the saving grace (or not) of Update this season, we’ll start there. Unfortunately, neither Bobby Moynihan’s returning Anthony Crispino nor another confessional piece from Lesley Jones carried enough water to enliven things this time. Moynihan’s become a stealthy star on the show, excelling in character work as well as big, splashy bits like Drunk Uncle. But it’s time to put his Crispino to bed—while Drunk Uncle never wavers from his formula (racism, resentment, and regret), Crispino’s schtick (enthusiastically repeating half-heard news stories) is played out. And while I continue to appreciate Jones’ energetic take on dating as a single black woman in her Update segments, her anecdote about taking mushrooms with an internet date wasn’t her strongest.
And then there’s the Colin Jost/Michael Che show, which continues to plod along without direction or purpose. Che’s tenure on The Daily Show set viewers up for a lot of disappointment, as, week after week, it’s made clearer how pronounced is the gap between the writers rooms of both shows. Sure, there was a time when Weekend Update was the only “fake news” satire on television, and that was a long time ago. But in the face of shows like The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and Last Week Tonight, SNL under Jost’s guidance has seemingly thrown in the towel. There’s no rigor or ambition to Update’s political material—instead we’re treated to a weekly helping of lukewarm reference, Che’s uncertain delivery (I counted three flubbed jokes this week), and Jost’s blank, prep schooler’s smirk. There was a concerted effort to develop some chemistry between the two this week with some banter (“Because once I Googled ‘Black Peter,’ work took away my Internet.” “It was your second time though”), but it came off forced and flat. It’s strange to think that Seth Meyers could be the best political satirist in recent SNL history, but with Jost emulating Meyers’ formula, the comparison becomes clearer—Jost is the George Lazenby to Meyers’ Sean Connery.
Best/Worst sketch of the night
What was the worst possible response SNL could make to the horrific, captured-on-camera snuff film that was the police murder of Eric Garner? If you guessed, “they could make fun of Al Sharpton’s weight and intelligence,” then pour yourself another drink along with me and stare off into the distance, trying to remember a time when this show took a stand ever, on anything. Conservative, liberal—this happened in SNL’s own backyard. They had a solid week to not only process a shocking event that happened right in New York City, but also to take in how other comics and comedy shows did so. And this is the best SNL could muster? A cold open with Kenan Thompson’s ever-mediocre Sharpton not letting other people talk and mispronouncing words. Wow. Look, I get that this incident is divisive (I guess), and that it’s an act of sheerest optimism to hope that SNL would show some modicum of engagement with the biggest, most incendiary news story of the week (that is sparking massive protests right outside its own windows), but this was a new low. What’s the joke? What’s the point of view? If SNL wants to eschew politics completely and just be funny, then fine. But it chose to address something so shocking in such an irrelevant manner that it was offensive purely on a comedy level, never mind on a satirical one. And the Michael Che/Colin Jost back-and-forth on Weekend Update—while taking on the fact that a white police officer, using an illegal chokehold, killed an unarmed black man on camera and was not indicted by a grand jury—while more on point, fizzled under the ongoing weight of the two anchors’ bland and uncertain delivery. Che’s old boss on the Daily Show delivered that show’s impassioned response this week with a fire and a relevance that Che used to be able to muster. This SNL is either uninterested or unwilling to engage in the real world in anything but the feeblest, safest, laziest terms. If there were a low point in SNL political satire, then this was it.
But hey, that Grow-a-Guy sketch was great, with Mike O’Brien emerging from his exile back to the writers room as the fifth wheel of a group of friends who grows a new pal (Franco) from a kit, only for the Frankenfriend to give himself away by not understanding the point of Twitter hashtags. Everything about this one was stellar, with the absurdity of the premise sold by some great, specific character work from O’Brien, Franco, and Beck Bennett, and a multiple-twist ending (capped off by a hashtag gag). One of the best digital shorts of the season (and the return of the pulsing, embryonic Franco as an interstitial bit later in the show was a welcome callback). I suppose that some will prefer the Star Wars: The Force Awakens bit as far as fake commercials go, but while Taran Killam’s perfectly crotchety Han Solo/Harrison Ford was outstanding, the whole gag rested on the laziest of premises (the cast of the original films are pretty old now).
As a dark horse pick, the memory sketch was the sort of one-off, clever premises that cruised effortlessly on the strength of the idiosyncratic snatches of memory clogging Pete Davidson’s brain. From his second grade teacher, to the word ”rhombus” (which he doesn’t know the meaning of), to Minaj singing the only two verses of her songs he actually knows (and doing a perfect, butt-highlighting pivot to explain why he remembers the video), to Lance Ito and Ubu (“sit, Ubu, sit”), to, for some reason, Billy Zane’s line from Titanic and the annoying girl’s line from Jurassic Park—each memory was just right, and Franco, as the guy in charge of the purge, played it perfectly straight throughout.
“What do you call that act?” “The Californians!”—Recurring sketch report.
Tonkerbell is back! Aidy Bryant’s half-fairy/half-housefly cousin to Tinkerbell was the anchor to the episode’s requisite sketch making fun of this week’s live Peter Pan extravaganza, and, as usual, Bryant dives right in, both mocking the weaknesses of the show (calling out Franco’s Walken for just talking while everyone else is doing all the singing), and being weird and inappropriate on her own. (She’s apparently the reverse tooth fairy and is having an affair with Robin Williams’ bat character from Ferngully.) Bryant’s gusto is always appreciated, but the jokes about the production itself were limp and obvious. Franco’s Walken was solidly minimalist (in keeping with, as A.V. Clubber Caroline Siede put it, Walken himself doing “a lethargic Christopher Walken impression”), but the jokes about the fact that Peter was being played by Allison Williams were the soul of laziness. The joke that Peter is being played by a shapely woman isn’t anything but an observation that Peter Pan is traditionally played by a shapely woman. Mary Martin famously played Peter back in 1954. I’d be willing to bet Your Show Of Shows made jokes about that. That’s a joke 60 years in the telling.
The ex-porn stars also returned, with Cecily Strong and Vanessa Bayer cluelessly hawking yachts (or “yaks”) alongside visiting underwater porn stars Franco and Rogen. The initial appearance of these characters a few years ago was such a well executed combination of concept and performance that I’d mark it up with my favorite sketches from the last decade. But every time it comes back, the inspired lunacy of that first appearance gets watered down more and more—what was an inspired, silly idea thrown in at the end of a show now plays as rehearsed. It’s still funny—one of the fun activities on your yacht could be, “hey, you just knocked over a lighthouse, you idiot”—but it’s lost the element of surprise.
I am hip to the musics of today.
So how long before Nicki Minaj comes back to host? Next season? Appearing in her two musical numbers, as herself in the memory sketch, and doing two impressions (Beyoncé and Kim Kardashian), Minaj was involved from beginning to end tonight, and acquitted herself just fine. One assumes she came in with the idea to get more involved and, while her Kardashian wasn’t the vapid, squeaky equal of the departed Nasim Pedrad’s, Minaj threw herself into her roles with commitment. As ever, the suspicion of lip-synching hung over the musical numbers (how did she get those “fucks” and “pussy”s to drop out so effectively?), but Minaj is pretty magnetic nonetheless. Next season, Darrell Hammond will introduce Minaj as both host and musical guest—count on it.
Most/Least Valuable (Not Ready For Prime Time) Player
Despite only popping in at strategic times, I’ll give the top spot to Taran Killam this week, with his wide-ranging impressionist skills bringing life to characters as diverse as Harrison Ford, Eminem, that guy from Savage Garden, and that guy from O-Town. No one in this cast has claimed the show as their own for the last two years, but Killam’s solid, precise work has been a constant.
Poor Sasheer Zamata gets the LVNRFPTP again this week. I suppose that was an accurate enough Rihanna, but if she doesn’t start asserting her presence soon, the season-long buffer granted by the PR disaster that was her hiring will not save her. Also, only giving Kate McKinnon one role this week is a puzzler—although, if she’s only going to get one then her Justin Bieber is gift enough for fans of her singular presence. While Kyle Mooney didn’t get his accustomed five minutes at the end of the show to screw around, his commitment in his one starring sketch to making out with Franco’s bridge troll was certainly memorable.
“What the hell is that thing?”—The Ten-To-Oneland Report
While the ex-porn stars were the actual queens of Ten-To-Oneland this week, that recurring sketch’s position at the tail end of the show is more a matter of custom now than of true, unique weirdness. (Once perhaps.) Instead, Franco’s turn as the defeated mayoral candidate running a hostile attack ad against the four-year-old who beat him is the sort of scruffy, oddball idea that bears the mark of a true SNL show-ender. Franco—admirably committed tonight—couldn’t help but break at the silliness of the concept, especially as his Tad Rankin, who spent all his money on the commercial, rails that his toddler opponent told someone the last time he crapped his pants, while Tad, who hasn’t done that in over a year, simply left work and hid his in the woods. Plus, the new mayor liked Frozen even though he’s a boy and, he exclaims, “unlike Tommy, I actually do have big muscles—I don’t just say it!”
- “What does it take for a police officer to be indicted for homicide?” Not resisting, sleeping, and it helps to be white.
- Franco’s email is “cuterthandavefranco” and his password is “littlejameseycutiepie.”
- Jones on black people taking hallucinogens: “We have too much stuff behind doors in our minds that mushrooms have the keys to.”
- “Have you ever been called a bitch by Harriet Tubman?”
- One incongruity—Minaj giving a shout out to “independent women” in the audience while a Chris Brown backup vocal plays behind her.
- I liked how Bennett’s bully was so offended by the idea of the Grow-a-Guy “eating our family’s marshmallows.”
- By electing a 4-year old mayor, it looks like Aldredge, Minnesota was just trying to outdo Partridge, Minnesota’s 18-year-old mayor. Just wait ‘til Tommy Trombley’s Ice Town wrecks that place.
- “And to the high school film teacher who said, “you’ll never star in 300 underwater pornos”—why would you say that, dude?”
- “And I’m James Franco.”