“I’m not an actor, I’m a [movie] star!”
I’m not the best prognosticator of enduring stardom. Back in the early 80’s, I would have pegged Michael Keaton as one of the most important film comedians for the next three decades. (Keep in mind, I also thought Peter Scolari was going to be the breakout star of Bosom Buddies.) But there was a time when Keaton and Tom Hanks were smacking comic performances into the cheap seats when I would have bet it all on Keaton, and I wasn’t alone. The great film critic Pauline Kael famously compared Keaton’s electrically funny performance in 1989’s The Dream Team to James Cagney, an analogy that his innate, restless performing energy bore out, for a while. But while Keaton reached undeniable stardom after that with the Batman movies, he inexplicably faded, eventually lending his live-wire comic edginess mostly to indie films no one saw and mainstream teen fare that didn’t deserve it. Perhaps, like Keaton’s scattershot performing style (parodied on SNL by Matthew Perry in a memorable Celebrity Jeopardy sketch), his career lacked the discipline to channel itself into sustained success (and made last year’s Best Actor nomination such a welcome surprise). Tonight, hosting for the third time, Keaton brought a more restrained energy to his sketches, employing more deadpan than expected while still imbuing his roles with the undercurrent of unpredictable weirdness that’s always been his most underrated trait.
While he was saddled with the obligatory musical monologue, at least Keaton wasn’t required to sing, instead playing good sport straight man to Keaton super fans Bobby Moynihan and Taran Killam who sang a duet imploring Keaton to play Batman and/or Beetlejuice with them. Keaton jokes about how long he’s been in the public eye (“A lot’s happened since I hosted in 1982. I had a baby—he’s 31”), and the number does an admirable job of paying tribute to just how influential a figure he still is to comics who grew up on his movies. His refusal to play along comes across not as prima donna disdain, but admirable willingness to play the elder statesman to two guys (make it three for Jay Pharoah’s repeatedly thwarted efforts to join in) who clearly worship him. The photoshopped films Killam and Moynihan made are cute (and Moynihan makes a great Otho), and the payoff, with Keaton finally giving them the “It’s showtime!” that they, and the rest of the cast, have been singing for, comes off both adorable and joyful.
For the rest of the night, Keaton’s roles were surprisingly low-key—plenty weird, they nonetheless utilized his manic energy at a low simmer, allowing his acting chops and glimmer of unpredictability to give the sketches a buzz.
Weekend Update update
The Jost/Che team built on the quiet, edgy competence of last week’s outing to deliver another strong Update this week. Che is benefitting the most from both a writing and performing standpoint, with a few jokes tonight that made the crowd gasp—a sound Update should cultivate more than it has in the past few years. His report on the Iran nuclear talks addressed Americans’ fears and prejudices by pointing out how we’re apparently only comfortable sharing nuclear capability with a country “run by a Bond villain” (Russia), “civil rights enthusiasts” (China), and the only country that’s ever used them (us). Cue gasps—and Che doubling down with an improvised-sounding, “It was only twice.” When Che came over from his Daily Show gig, that’s the sort of complacency-puncturing joke I was anticipating. (The same goes for the seemingly hacky joke about that cigarette-smoking Indonesian baby swerving into relevance by wondering whether his reduced smoke intake will be enough to help him with his stress working in a sneaker factory.)
Jost, too, seemed comfortable, especially doing an extended riff on US/Israel relations being a like a Lethal Weapon movie—the analogy itself was fine, but the extrapolation on whether Netanyahu or Mel Gibson would be more offended by being compared to the other was a strong kicker, and Jost looked confident loosening up.
On the correspondent front, there were two appealing retreads (see the recurring sketch report for more on Jebidiah). Pete Davidson’s bit on the Walking Dead finale quickly devolved into another extended riff on how much he likes weed, but Davidson remains an endearing sort of sloppy, his rumination on how his typical stoner behavior will get him killed interrupted by a surprise appearance by Norman Reedus (shooting Davidson with his crossbow). Crowd-pleasing and sort of lazy? Sure, but that’s Davidson’s thing, and it’s reliably cute. (The pacing on the crossbow gag needed work, though, with Davidson and Jost vamping for a solid ten seconds before the rig finally went off.)
Best/Worst sketch of the night
With nary a clunker to speak of, this was the second solidly written episode in a row, again eschewing easy, well-worn territory (not a Keaton movie parody or game show sketch in sight) in favor of conceptual, writerly pieces that found laughs in originality and performance. None were breakout hilarious (although one will undoubtedly get all the press in the morning), but most rode on a current of originality, which goes a long way.
With that in mind, the two weakest sketches (although they weren’t bad) were the most topical. The Final Four cold open (working in the then just-breaking news of Kentucky’s shocking loss) hammered on the hypocrisy of coaches and the NCAA raking in untold millions of dollars from “student athletes” who are “paid with a college education.” The ludicrous inequality of the current arrangement aside, the success of the sketch came mostly from performance, with Jay Pharoah’s lipless Kenny Smith and Kenan Thompson’s typically brash Charles Barkley offering nonsensical insight into their own student athlete careers. Pharoah, as ever, accurately reproduces sports figures the studio audience isn’t familiar with (which mutes the response), and Thompson’s Barkley is not an impression so much as another example of Kenan doing the same exaggerated comic voice, but his anecdote about missing free throws at Auburn because he was worried about his volcano science project (“And I majored in volcanos!”) was funny.
Similarly, the CNN sketch, hinging on the network’s use of animated reenactments as filler was funny enough for what it was, with the low-resolution graphics and repetition of the recent Germanwings airplane disaster vying with the extended, puppet-based footage of the US/Iran nuclear talks for silly laughs. Cecily Strong introduced the self-importance that’s the key to the piece by straight-facedly intoning, “I’m Brooke Baldwin, and you’re watching the loose connection of daytime nonsense we call CNN Newsroom,” a deadpan summation of the padded cluster-fuck that is the insatiable 24-hour news cycle. Plus, watching the puppets delightedly hug each other at the conclusion of their deal was just funny, so sue me.
While we’ll get to some of the better sketches later, the strongest bit of the night was the Scientology (sorry, “Neurotology”) music video, a handsomely produced and ultimately chilling approximation of the pseudo-religion’s practices and promotional tactics in the wake of Going Clear. The framing device—that the video has been annotated to reflect the fates of the happy, singing true believers in the intervening decades—is a perfect setup, pairing the verisimilitude of the production itself with Scientology’s well-documented and deeply creepy history toward anyone who opposes it. (Sure, one of the onscreen legends claims that one parishioner “left for Scientology,” but the joke still lands, hard.) In addition to the chyrons themselves (the best/most unsettling include: “lost mind,” ”not allowed to see family,” “thrown off boat,” “in a hole,” “covered in fruit flies,” “sued to death,” and an alarmingly recurring “missing”), the way that the cheery recruitment song gradually devolves into glassy-eyed chanting brings the whole thing to an unnervingly funny close.
“What do you call that act?” “The Californians!”—Recurring sketch report.
I always grin in anticipation whenever Taran Killam shows up as Jebidiah Atkinson, only to find, at the end of the bit, that I haven’t written down very much in the way of great one-liners. But tonight, Atkinson was right on, with Killam staring down the camera as the audience reacted with the intended outrage to lines at the expense of Mad Men, Game Of Thrones, Cheers, Seinfeld, and other beloved television shows. Jebidiah works when the jokes are mean enough, sure, but he really only sustains himself on Killam’s performing confidence, something tonight’s appearance had in spades. (On Mad Men: “The most likable character is cigarettes!” and “If I wanted to see what life was like in the 1960s, I’d go to Indiana!”)
I am hip to the musics of today.
Sure, Carly Rae Jepsen may be somewhat nondescript, her first song may use the word “really” six times in a row in the chorus, there may be the tiniest hint that she’s singing to a guide track, and her second song is deeply dull, but there’s no doubt that she’s a force for good in the universe. The evidence:
Most/Least Valuable (Not Ready For Prime Time) Player
It’s got to be Kate McKinnon again. The de-centralized nature of the sketches tonight—lots of ensembles, no big star turns (apart from Jebidiah) offered a lot opportunities for the cast, and McKinnon took the best advantage of every one. Her quietly horrified neighbor in the “smart house” sketch, immediately sensing that her hosts—beholden as they are to Keaton’s husband’s series of ever-more-terrifyingly impractical inventions—are quite mad, made her every line count. The whole sketch has a southern Stepford Wives quality to the underplaying, but it’s McKinnon’s “We should probably be going, we left our baby in a tub,” and “We really need to go—all of us at once” are stellar. She gets off a different sort of outwardly polite weirdness in the final sketch, her creepy child responding to Keaton’s query about her Easter chick with a spooky, “This child-chicken? He found me online.” As Keaton explains with matching creepiness, “Wow. This kid has all the warning signs.”
In deference to the all-around group effort tonight, no LVNRFPTP tonight.
“What the hell is that thing?”—The Ten-To-Oneland Report
Ten-To-Oneland seeped into the show proper tonight, and it was a good look for SNL, with some of the early sketches (like the boardroom sketch with Keaton’s insane CEO pitching terrible, boob-based commercial ideas to his team) having a distinctly Mr. Show conceptual aura to them. Same goes for the smart house sketch, with Strong and Keaton placidly explaining how Keaton’s inventions (all with human eyes, even the sofa that sticks a tube up your butt) will work perfectly, once “he adds science to it.” Some might complain that tonight’s episode didn’t have enough hard laughs in it, but I maintain that the show has room for more idea-driven pieces like these.
The actual ten-to-one sketch, with an unnervingly calm and grinning Keaton pulling items out of his Easter basket and commenting on them from odd angles is ideal last sketch material, the final kicker that Keaton’s creepy character is meant to be Keaton himself just the right note of strangeness to end on.
- “Please? I only have six months to live.” “Really?” “That’s just a guesstimate based on the choices I’ve made.”
- “So that’s what it would look like if someone couldn’t open a door?”
- “How cute is she? The answer is—kind of.”
- Mike O’Brien’s short films have been some of the best recurring filmed pieces all season. His bit tonight—with O’Brien’s jock accepting pal Davidson’s bet to take their nerdy math teacher (Keaton) to the prom—is as carefully produced as ever, but while the joke satirizing teen movie clichés benefits from the two actors’ underplayed commitment, but it’s not O’Brien’s best. (Keaton’s little smile when he accepts O’Brien’s invitation is just perfect, though.)
- Jebidiah on Game Of Thrones: “Nothing I like better than soft-core porn with 100 hours of backstory—next!”
- The grandmother phone line commercial benefitted from McKinnon again, her granny’s revelation that she sent her grandson a gift of 50 pears (to the wrong address) tapping into something universal. Sasheer Zamata as the the pitchwoman gamely trying to make the product sound sexy, chimes in with a pitch-perfect, “Mmmmm—that’s a lot of pears…”
- SNL Vintage report: ”Johnny Cash/Elton John” (1982, Season 7, episode 17). A perfect encapsulation of the Dick Ebersol years, this episode is as poky and bland as SNL has ever been, with Joe Piscopo still holding center stage against the growing mega-stardom of Eddie Murphy. It’s always surprising how much Piscopo’s impressions rely on makeup over performance, his Andy Rooney and Ronald Reagan here eliciting chuckles of recognition from the audience, but not much else. Eddie’s appearance as Ed Norton opposite Piscopo’s Rooney/Ralph Kramden in a bewilderingly flat Honeymooners sketch isn’t especially accurate, but Murphy’s undeniable performing energy livens up the silly bit beyond what it deserves. The “Black Talk” sketch later, with Eddie ignoring the camera to complain about his Con Ed bill with pal Clint Smith is Murphy’s only other real highlight in the included sketches, his charisma making the questionable premise come alive just by virtue of his presence. And like Henry on The Americans this week, I’m sure I got busted saying the word “bitch” while ineptly acting out the bit to my family the next day.) Other than that, the front-and-center appearances by the likes of Robin Duke, Tony Rosato, Brian Doyle-Murray, Mary Gross, and Christine Ebersole illustrates how differently present-day SNL views its ensemble. No offense to those performers, but mere functionality doesn’t have a place on the show these days—not everyone works out, but everyone’s expected to be able to carry a sketch. On the host/musical front, the fact that Johnny Cash and Elton John share the stage means the episode has a lot of music, which is something of a mixed bag, as John’s songs were not his most memorable. At least Cash seems to be having fun, as does Murphy, who steals the goodnights simply with his unobtrusively hip-swinging dancing to Cash’s final number.