Taran Killam, Jim Carrey (NBC)
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“I’m not an actor, I’m a [movie, former sketch comedy] star!”

Jim Carrey knows how needy he is as a performer. The first time he hosted SNL in 1996, he played Jimmy Stewart in a “Joe Pesci Show” sketch (last Jim Breuer reference, I promise), and when Mark McKinney came on doing a creditably over-the-top Carrey, Stewart/Carrey ripped into him(self) with a blistering speech all the funnier for how laceratingly self-aware it is:

I’m Jim Carrey. I’ll do anything for a laugh! I’ll do anything for attention, 24 hours a day! LOOK AT ME!! LOOK AT ME!!!

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Self-burn. But Stewart/Carrey wasn’t wrong—Carrey’s a remarkable comic force, uniquely in control of the comedy instrument that is his body. As an actor, he can deliver above-average dramatic work (although Carrey’s performances—unlike Will Ferrell’s—even in good films like The Truman Show and Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, often smack of effort). But Carrey’s inescapable instinct is to go big—and to court the audience’s favor by doing so. Like one-time SNL-er Martin Short, Carrey doesn’t possess much in the way of stillness. He’s going to contort himself, throw himself off the walls, overwhelm you, and win you over. As if his life depends on it.

For an SNL—and an SNL cast—struggling to forge an identity, the comedy cannonball of someone like Carrey isn’t going to help at this point in the season. Carrey’s coming in (promoting a Dumb And Dumber sequel that is said cannonball’s splashy essence) and taking over the show, brooking nothing but straight men and supporting characters, and letting the cast make their bones where they may.

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Carrey’s monologue suggested the worst, with his competent Elvis impression (rechristened “Helvis” due to red jumpsuit, pre-Halloween broadcast date, and ram’s horns) going on far too long with a laugh free song about pecan pie. Apparently, Elvis Presley liked to eat—who knew? And that self-satisfied, insatiable performance drive derailed several sketches tonight, but the episode found ways to use Carrey with intermittent effectiveness throughout. On balance, the good—barely—outweighed the bad, especially when Carrey’s energy was yoked to strongly conceived characters.

Weekend Update update

Colin Jost’s hair was out of place. Just a little—and one hates to suggest that that tiny, awry curl over his forehead was a calculated attempt to loosen the guy up, but, after nearly a year behind the WU desk, something had to be done. Jost is the head writer and the face of the show’s centerpiece, but he remains stubbornly uncharismatic in the lead chair, tonight’s purportedly ad-libbed banter with co-anchor Michael Che and Bobby Moynihan’s returning Drunk Uncle notwithstanding. At least the jokes were a marginal improvement, with Che’s analogy about white America’s similar fear of Ebola and black people benefitting from the former Daily Show correspondent’s biting delivery, and Jost’s announcement that the recent Ebola case there means that “it’s official—New York City has all the diseases!” Still—there’s so little punch to the political content of Weekend Update that it’s up to each week’s correspondents to carry the segment. Luckily, this week, we got a reliable new favorite, and a conceptually fresh bit that allowed Che to assert himself.

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Here’s the thing about Drunk Uncle—as broad and predictable as it is, it’s based on character work and grounded in performance. Moynihan was the sole saving grace of the monologue (popping up from out of frame with an impish smile on his face), and as Drunk Uncle, he brings the same sort of performing commitment to what should be a one-note character. There was a funny wrinkle, with Moynihan fixing new addition Che with a wary eye (which he maintained in admirable continuity as the camera panned out on the way to commercial), before scooting his chair over to deliver his customary racist self-pity to the more Seth Meyers-esque Jost. But Drunk Uncle operates on a sameness that remains fresh because Moynihan’s performance keeps it fresh. The premise of the bit is more satirical than Update’s jokes under the Jost regime—he’s the sexist, racist, reactionary ass everyone tolerates in their family, the pitifully mean spirited jerk whose shallow mockery masks a self-loathing that’s almost endearing. (The way Moynihan broke into seemingly unbidden tears at one point was the best acting of the episode.)

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Vanessa Bayer’s appearance as romantic comedy expert Daisy Rose was something different—a conceptual bit that maintained its integrity throughout. The joke was simple enough, with Bayer desperately attempting to force Michael Che to accept her forced rom-com tropes as proof of their predestined love, but Bayer excels at this sort of monomaniacal character, and Che masterfully punctured Daisy’s every hopeful move with deflating comebacks. (“You go.” “You’re the only one going!,” “Absolutely not.” “You had me at absolutely!”) Just a funny, well-executed bit.

Best/Worst sketch of the night

Parodying reality dating shows is the dullest premise possible at this point, but, the “Secret Billionaire” sketch gave Carrey (the wheelchair-bound, insane actual plutocrat amongst the mundane imposters) the chance to let loose with some of the most inspired, lunatic scenarios I’ve heard on the show in years. His affectations were a bit much, but that doesn’t matter in the face of his story about renting out an airplane hangar, filling in with 250 guys named Dennis (and one Brian), and observing them while sipping on octopus urine “just to see that they would do.” The accumulating, sinister craziness in the sketch (like his dream date of masturbating from a hot air balloon and then taking Cecily Strong’s prospective bride to Applebee’s) was like something Michael O’Donoghue would come up with—and then fight with Standards and Practices over.

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The runner with Carrey channeling Matthew McConaughey’s car commercials seemed like an easy gag, but similarly piled on the accumulating weirdness to great effect. I’ve heard better McConaughey’s before (Matt Damon’s is stellar), but the repeated bit was the best acting Carrey did all night, carrying it into a loony greatness as he aped the mystifyingly obscure ramblings of the Oscar winner’s ads. “Whose kids are these?” got the biggest unexpected laugh of the night for me.

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And the third strong Carrey sketch of the night was the “monster mash” scene, with the graveyard denizens’ carefully arranged scary song continually interrupted by Carrey and Killam’s tone-deaf and amiable Paul and Phil, a couple of undead Iowans who can’t help but be friendly to teen lovers Pete Davidson and Sasheer Zamata. Props to the makeup people, too—Moynihan and Kate McKinnon’s headstone heads looked great, and Moynihan’s furious “Shut up!” to Paul and Phil was delivered with hilarious exasperation. Could have used an ending, but Paul and Phil forever.

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On the minus side, that zombie sketch was dire, counting on Carrey’s overacting to save it when nothing could. (Like many sketches tonight, there was no sense of pacing or confidence.) The cold open was typically watery political stuff, hinging on the idea that newly appointed “Ebola czar” Ron Klain isn’t qualified, while ignoring the idea that such a position is less necessary that the 24-hour, sensationalist news cycle would have people believe. At least Kenan got to trot out his broad and unfunny Al Sharpton again, which no doubt made him happy. (Plus, both Killam and Aidy Bryant blew some lines, an enduring trend this year so far.)

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But my biggest disappointment goes to the “Costume Contest” sketch. Seeing Jim Carrey and Kate McKinnon dressed in identical flesh-toned bodysuits and dancing manically through Studio 8H is something that should have been damned delightful, as gifted as both are at throwing themselves into physical comedy, but the bit fell very flat. Part of the problem is the specificity of the reference (to the video for Sia’s “Chandelier”)—it dates the joke, and the performances aren’t inspired enough to live on their own. In the “Vintage SNL” Steve Martin episode shown a few weeks ago, when Steve and Gilda Radner performed a similar sketch—breaking the fourth wall and going into the audience while doing silly dance moves—the joke was about their characters relating through the dancing. Here, it’s just a pop culture reference with a tiny shelf life being an excuse for two performers to gad about. There are similarities, but one’s proven memorable and one will be forgotten in a week. (Plus, the stages-spanning dance didn’t take the opportunity to visit the Update desk and land Bayer’s joke about waiting there for Che to fulfill her Sleepless In Seattle reunion fantasy—that might have redeemed things.)

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

Apart from Drunk Uncle, the “Carrey Family Reunion” sketch was a callback to the “Walken Family Reunion” from 2008, and while it similarly afforded the cast with an opportunity to show off their host-impersonation skills, the difference between the two sketches is instructive. On one hand, the 2008 cast was undeniably stronger—Amy Poehler and Bill Hader over Taran Killam and Cecily Strong just isn’t a fair fight at this point—but what truly sets the earlier sketch apart is that the individual performances had life outside of their function as celebrity impressions. Here, as with a shocking number of sketches tonight, the scene started flat and stayed there, petering out with little snap and no ending to speak of. The impersonations were short (Killam and Kyle Mooney’s were the best), and the whole thing lacked propulsion and confidence.

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I am hip to the musics of today.

Iggy Azalea has been accused of racism, both for her Tweeting and her questionable appropriation of black musical culture. Having never heard her before, I’m gonna go ahead and call “Jenna Maroney” on her performances tonight—two ludicrously “sexualized” numbers whose elaborate, overdramatic choreography (miraculously) doesn’t affect the Australian rappist’s ability to produce studio-quality vocals. I don’t know who takes this person seriously, but at least Ms. Azalea brought her own length of chain link fence to writhe against. (Also, rappers who bring in guest singers who can actually sing don’t show themselves in the most advantageous light.)

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

For the second week in a row, the top spot goes to Moynihan. He had a Drunk Uncle, but he’s proving himself especially adept at making smaller roles pop, whether it’s his pie-bearing minion in the monologue or the singing, infuriated graveyard bust. Sure, Rick And Morty hilariously skewered the guy, but he’s simply meant for SNL, and I say he can stay there as long as he likes. Sketch comedy requires immediacy of character, and Moynihan is great at it.

Che showed some presence on Update, new featured player Leslie Jones got a nice showcase in the “Ghosts: Fact Or Fiction” sketch, although her role as the “comically scared black person” was stereotypically problematic (SNL already has a Kenan Thompson), and Aidy Bryant made the most of her unfortunate office worker in the costume contest (“No, I’m just a woman trying her best”), but with Carrey taking up so much oxygen, there wasn’t much left for anyone else to truly stand out.

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Sasheer Zamata had nothing to do this week. Like, at all.

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

The “Geoff’s Halloween Emporium” sketch was essentially just “Ex Porn Stars,” to diminished return, with Bayer and Strong playing disaffected employees coping annoyedly with the fact that their boss (Carrey) has been possessed by a demon. Carrey got to make funny faces/voices (and bust out the blood-vomit rig), but the only real laugh was the revelation that the “sexy Hunger Games” costumes included “Sexy Katniss” and “Sexy Her Sister” costumes. Give it back to Beck Bennett and Kyle Moody, Lorne—this one was just too ordinary for this spot.

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Stray observations:

  • “Yeah, I got trapped in a corn maze! Sorry, a Native American maize.”
  • If you can watch the NFL anywhere, then why can’t I watch it in the bathroom, Linda!”
  • “Can you put some goji berries in my drop box please?”
  • “So I’m not the jack of all lanterns.”
  • McConaughey’s agent has a point—it would have made more sense if the actor had done these commercials right after The Lincoln Lawyer.
  • Oh, Jeff Daniels showed up in the reunion sketch. Love the guy, but he does not do a good Jim Carrey.
  • “I died chasing a butterfly off a cliff.” “And then I killed myself!”
  • The zombie sketch was awful, but that was some solid bat work from Carrey.
  • This week’s classic episode saw li’l Tommy Hanks goofing around amiably. The “Tales Of Ribaldry” (with Jan Hooks absolutely killing it) and Hanks and Lovitz playing their loser characters on the make (this time on a seniors’ cruise) were refreshingly delightful as ever, but two Aerosmith numbers? Even in 1990, that seemed excessive.

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