Sia, Kevin Hart, Kate McKinnon (NBC)

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

Kevin Hart gets damned with coded faint praise a lot, something along the lines of, “Well, he’s very energetic.” Translated: “He’s not very funny, but he’s loud and plays to his (mostly black) audience.” But Hart is a funny guy (even if the movie he’s here to promote is apparently a bit of a dud), and his undeniably live-wire energy comes off as a measure of both commitment and professionalism on SNL, something my esteemed predecessor nailed down accurately when he reviewed Hart’s first hosting gig. Hart threw himself into every sketch last time, and he did the same tonight—there are worse qualities for a host to bring to the table. His monologue was entertaining and funny, breezing through his fears at the wildlife surrounding his suburban home with a precise physicality and punctuation—sure, his standup benefits from his animation, but Hart is an expert at framing a joke and then punching it home.

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That being said, the guy has a tendency to outrun his lines from time to time. Hardly an anomaly with this cast over the past two season, certainly—there’s been an inordinate amount of flubbing all around—and at least this time, some of the awkwardness wasn’t Hart’s fault. In the Instagram sketch right after the monologue—a sketch with a lot of moving parts which nonetheless must have been rehearsed a lot—Hart was forced to vamp for a long, long time when the video screen prop just didn’t work. Props to the guy for keeping it together as well as he did—the prop was the central point of the sketch (intended to show the terrible Instagram pictures that bought his guests their spots on the show in the first place), and if it hadn’t come back, the stage was set for the biggest technical blunder in recent SNL history. I dunno if his ad-libbed smacking brought the thing back, but the instinct was understandable. (The way the ejector-seat couch gag slammed poor Vanessa Bayer into the side of the set was yet another miscue—a recurring issue that the show needs to take in hand before said disaster actually happens. You know—with the first sketch of the night or something crazy like that.)

Weekend Update update

Colin and Michael, Michael and Colin—the worst thing that can be said about this anchor-team at this point in their tenure is that they have no chemistry together. It’s something the show isn’t trying to build, and is hardly bothering to hide any more. Each had a higher percentage of hits than misses in a brief Update tonight, but they never connected with each other, barely even appearing on the screen together.

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In isolation, Jost and Che had some decent jokes. Jost comparing Mitt Romney’s plans to take another run at the White House to Charlie Brown and the football landed well, the punch line and graphic lining up just right. And the NFL/”Let It Go” domestic violence joke had a touch of un-Jost-like edge to it. (It’s always a good sign when the studio audience lets out a little gasp before laughing at an Update joke.) The idea of giving Che a little Daily Show-like monologue in the middle of Update is something I can get behind, too. Che seems far more comfortable delivering (one assumes) his own jokes—they have his personality more than the current Update one-liners, which remain largely generic. (And, to be honest, he made a muddle out of the timing on the “lady who cut off the guy’s penis” joke). His take on the Oscars had bite, reminding how Oscar-winning black actors haven’t found their wins all that helpful in Hollywood, and spotlighting how “black people with ‘funny’ names” is still an insulting side-story every year.

Kate McKinnon was the only guest this week, her gleefully passive-aggressive Mrs. Santini delivering her notes to the neighbors that are driving her crazy with seamless timing and a signature McKinnon gleam of madness. Not her strongest bit, but, as ever, McKinnon simply sells—her line, “Dear elephant family in in 6H, I am very sorry you are elephants and every step you take ruins my life” lived in the performance. Some people have the “it” that makes them right at home anywhere on Saturday Night Live. Kate McKinnon has the “it.”

Best/Worst sketch of the night

Always a treat when it’s too tough to call on the best sketch, so let’s call it a tie between the James Brown and the Bushwick sketches. Perhaps buoyed by thoughts of Eddie Murphy from the ”SNL Vintage” 10 p.m. episode tonight (from the Ebersol years—Lorne must be mellowing), the sight of Hart doing a good but not great James Brown impression was initially a letdown, until the sketch veered onto a giddily silly track, with Brown’s famous rhetorical mid-song questions turning into strange, awkward mid-song conversations with his huge band. Hart’s great, keeping the energy and the impression intact while coping with band members who aren’t unanimously sure whether they should, indeed, get more funky, or who question why he’s the only one who gets a cape, or, why one of his backup singers changed her first name when she got married. It’s a sketch all about performance, timing, and odd little logical swerves, and I laughed all though it. (“Should we take it to the bridge?” “No.” “Just a flat ‘no’?”)

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The Bushwick sketch has turns, too, the digital short following a trio of corner guys (Hart, Jay Pharoah, Kenan Thompson) as their conversation about their evolving neighborhood reveals their conflicted feelings about the new challenges posed by the area’s gentrification. Each twist is delivered impeccably by the three, their blustery outrage shading into tales about artisanal mayonnaise shops, spin classes, a dog walking business, and raging parties involving watercolors, wine and cheese, and folk singing. (Thompson’s line, “You actin’ like somebody put gluten in your muffin” encapsulates the premise with impeccable brevity.) And the final twist—revealing the complexities of the characters’ world even in the midst of $8 mayo, is outstanding. A triumph of writing and acting all around.

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For worst sketch, sadly, it’s too close to call as well, with the aforementioned Instagram sketch (technical problems aside) undeserving of its prominent position on the show. Hart, perhaps thrown by the snafu, gabbled his lines a bit, and the premise wasn’t strong enough to justify the length. People take lousy pictures and clutter up social media—fair enough. But five minutes is far too long (Hart’s quick, final summation, “Don’t take pictures of coffee” would have sufficed.)

Vying with that was the sketch where Hart meets his supposed son, played by Jay Pharoah. A few problems here. One, Leslie Jones continues to make me justifiably nervous every time she’s on stage. Here again, she looked uncertain as Hart’s supposed former lover and baby-mother, tripping over a few lines and lacking confidence and timing. I like Jones a lot—she’s got a brashness SNL sorely needs—but she has yet to prove she can carry a sketch without going wobbly. (Conversely, both the visual of the towering Jones picking up Hart and bodily hurling him around and the reminiscence of her swaddling a post-coital Hart to her breast were pretty damned striking, and funny.) But the biggest problem with this sketch was that, in what should have been a showcase for Jay Pharoah, the “dueling Kevin Harts” just didn’t come off. Jay Pharoah is a very good impressionist—a world-class one if he gets the right character and script—but, here, as with the rest of the sketch, his mimicry just doesn’t land. Whether he simply doesn’t have the strongest impression in the first place, or due to the sketch being written around only the most exaggerated small bursts of behavior, what should have been a show-stopper fizzled out.

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

None. Not even an alum dropped by to take advantage of what seems to be Lorne’s open-door “do an old character if you feel like it” policy of late. (Although Kate McKinnon’s Update character has appeared under another name on Comedy Bang! Bang!, it’s a whole other show. My categories, my rules, people.)

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I am hip to the musics of today

Here’s to weirdness! I know Sia’s relatively popular and all, but if every top-selling musical guest wants to bring in an element of odd, offputting performance art to their segments, I say SNL will be more entertaining for it. The evidence tonight: Sia’s never-removed duck-billed veil, two bodysuited dancers in Sia wigs performing deliberately-awkward interpretive dance throughout “Elastic Heart,” a mime signing ASL to “Chandelier,” and Sia’s entire stage demeanor, which, unconnected to the audience, left it to appear that all the stage business going on around her was a visualization of what was going on in her mind while singing. Remember when David Bowie stood in a flower pot and wore a dress and fondled a phallic puppet and brought Klaus Nomi on as a backup singer on SNL? More like that, please.

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

Bobby Moynihan had two bit parts in two sketches this week, so the LVNRFPTP spot should go to him. (It’s a big cast, and sometimes on SNL you just get lost.) By the same logic, Kenan Thompson should get “most valuable” simply by virtue of his screen time this week—but I’m giving the edge to Kate McKinnon who, in addition to her Update solo spot, trotted out her Justin Bieber for a show-long runner making fun of the wee little “bad boy” and his current Calvin Klein ad campaign. McKinnon’s Bieber is always so funny because the impression’s accuracy struts hand-in-hand with a knowing mockery of the very fact that anyone would take the li’l guy seriously in the first place. McKinnon’s Bieber preened in tough guy self-regard while Cecily Strong’s model unsuccessfully attempted to hide her embarrassment at having to feign arousal at a diminutive, tighty-whitied manchild.

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As for Kenan, his second place showing says more about sameness. Not an impressionist, he’s given impressions (Dr. King in the cold open tonight), all of which sound precisely like Kenan Thompson doing an exaggerated Kenan Thompson voice. The exemplar of “workmanlike” without being especially useful, Thompson, in his 11 year stretch on the show, has been a pleasant, reliable workhorse who’s sucked up a lot of air time. In baseball terms, he’s an inning-eater, not an ace. In shows where he’s the dominant performer, his journeyman skills bring a lot of that sameness to the show as a whole. That being said, his second banana in the James Brown sketch played to his strengths and added to the best sketch of the night.

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

Hart’s commitment helped sell tonight’s Ten-To-Oneland sketch, with his rapper’s new song dropping his entourage’s every last secret between the rhymes. In all, a middling sketch that wasn’t weird enough to truly reside here, although the final revelation that two of his crew have accidentally killed another and are trying to pull off “a Weekend At Bernie’s situation” edges it a bit closer.

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Stray observations:

  • In other sketches, the soap opera reunion bit made me laugh. Of course, fart noises are funny because I am 12, apparently, but Vanessa Bayer’s attempts to maintain her dignity in the face of her inexplicably farty theme music was funny, as was Taran Killam’s staunchly pompous former soap star mien. And the idea that Hart’s stage manager resolutely denies speaking English or knowing anything about “the music I picked for her” supplied just enough weirdness to the proceedings.
  • Killam similarly shone in the musical dragon sketch, with Hart’s sensible footman attempting to get everyone to stop singing about leaving before they all get roasted by a rampaging dragon and actually leave before they all get roasted by a rampaging dragon. Actually, Killam, Thompson, Cecily Strong, and Sasheer Zamata all busted out some serious pipes, but it was Killam’s exaggerated reprise that stole the sketch. Shame about the (nonexistent) ending.
  • The cold open, with Pete Davidson’s student sheepishly assuring Thompson’s ghost of Martin Luther King that his legacy still has meaning (despite some evidence to the contrary) never took off, but it was sweet in its own way. Kenan’s MLK impression is, as noted, not one, but the conversation between he and Davidson managed to score a few points (cue the first Selma Oscar snub joke of two tonight), and the two managed a measure of chemistry. Of course, there was little bite to the discussion of King’s lasting legacy in the black community, but that’s what we had The Boondocks (and Kevin Michael Richardson’s actual MLK impression) for:

  • “I need to hear from each person individually!” “Why?”
  • “That’s not good enough, Ricky! I need a verbal commitment!”
  • “Can I take it to the bridge?” “I don’t know, James—can you?” “May I?”
  • Sia’s smaller dancer was Maddie Ziegler, veteran of the videos for both “Chandelier” and “Elastic Heart.” I thought the adult dancer was Chris Kattan in a wig at first, but then realized—there’s no reason why anyone would bring back Chris Kattan.
  • And just because I said “Eddie Murphy” and “James Brown” in the same review:

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