Sarah Silverman (NBC)
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“I’m not an actor, I’m a [movie/TV/standup comedy] star!”

Sarah Silverman’s appearance tonight points to the evolution of the idea of a variety show host. Back when variety shows ruled the television world (and even in the early days when SNL was more truly a variety show), the host was a more central figure, lending his or her stardom to the supporting efforts of the repertory cast. As SNL became the implacable comedy machine it is, the hosts have functioned more like hostages to the process (if they know what’s good for them)—their skills and celebrity valuable for ratings and what they can bring to the sketches, but clearly secondary to the enterprise.

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But there are some hosts who, through force of personality, threaten to take over the show. Sometimes that’s not a good thing—I picture Kevin Spacey steamrolling people to make room for his ego and his admittedly above-average roster of celebrity impersonations. (That was a distinctly funny William Hurt.) But comedians of stature are another thing entirely. When Louis C.K. was preparing to host a few years ago, it seemed inevitable that the show would have to up its game to accommodate the preeminent standup and TV comic force of our time. (Yeah, I said it.) In both his hosting stints, though, Louis’ individuality was really only expressed in his extended standup segments, while he proved himself an able good sport in some merely above-average sketches.

Silverman’s right up there with Louis in having a strong, uncompromising comic voice. Different—Silverman’s signature style is a chipper, smiling defiance, a wickedly sweet provocation to anyone not in on her joke—but just as uncompromised. Similarly, her persona came through strongest tonight in her monologue, a sunny, assured bit which incorporated both her time as a spectacularly unsuccessful SNL writer and featured performer in the 90s (via funny interactions with her younger selves, relegated as they often were to asking hosts questions from the audience), and a cozily ironic bit snuggling atop an audience member’s lap and fishing for praise. Sadly, while Silverman, like Louis, blended into the ensuing sketches ably enough, the monologue was the only real opportunity she had to impart her sensibility to the show.

Weekend Update update

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It’s perhaps unfair to criticize someone for lacking performing charisma, but that’s really what’s wrong with Colin Jost. Tonight was better—maybe the best he (and Update) have been since he took over the desk—but he remains the central weakness in what, intermittently, has been the highlight of SNL. With his boyishly blank face staring through the jokes (which remain underwhelming), Jost is simply not the right guy for this gig, his bland smirkiness lacking Seth Meyers’ edge. (Say what you want about Jost being a slavish Meyers’ clone, but Meyer gradually developed a potent delivery in his tenure on WU.) The pairing with Michael Che continues to lend him some color (no pun intended—seriously), but the fact that Jost remains first chair continues to smack of “it’s good to be the head writer” nepotism rather than performing merit. Che, meanwhile, recovered ably from last week’s stumbles, bringing a confidence to his lines. While, again, there’s no room for improv in the land of Lorne, his run on Texas being the first state to deal with ebola had a sustained, edgy energy that carried it along, and he had a loose energy throughout. The segment with Jost asking Che if he’s allowed to say things like “bae,” “in da club,” and “cray-cray” was clichéd, sure, but at least it indicated an intention to develop the chemistry between the anchors. It’s a start.

The correspondents weren’t especially strong tonight, with the militant lesbian acoustic duo of Silverman and Kate McKinnon getting by on the conceit of everything (Friends, garbanzo beans, San Diego, Bill Maher, Walt Disney, “Italian”) being actually women, and, of course, McKinnon’s crazy eyes, the saving grace of many an under-imagined bit.

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After that, we got another visit from Kenan Thompson’s Al Sharpton, as ever, an exercise in exaggerated mannerisms and flabby political commentary. Ostensibly commenting on the aforementioned Secret Service failures, this appearance continued the “Al Sharpton is sorta dumb” tack that Thompson and SNL generally deploys, to little effect. Sharpton’s a polarizing figure, sure, but this is just lazy satire, with Thompson expecting his actual voice—but broader—to pass for an impression.

Best/Worst sketch of the night

Endings have never been SNL’s strong suit, but this young season continues to allow sketches to dribble out on anticlimax and uneasy, puzzled laughter. That, coupled with Silverman’s repeated flubbed lines on a sketch clearly meant to be a centerpiece sunk the “Joan Rivers roast in heaven” to the bottom this week. Jay Pharoah’s Richard Pryor, like so many of his impressions, was technically excellent and underwritten, although Bobby Moynihan’s bewildered but delighted Ben Franklin almost rescued it.

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The “Supportive Women” sketch gets the top spot this week, both for the premise (satirical of catty woman TV clichés while still managing to be fresh), and the performances. McKinnon’s forgiving-though-gutshot cleaning lady partook of those crazy eyes and a nicely underplayed Rita Moreno-esque delivery (“I know that dummy, don’t give it another thought”), while Silverman, Aidy Bryant, and Vanessa Bayer’s exaggeratedly beaming facial expressions got a laugh every time. But it was Kenan Thompson, returning as perpetual “forgotten tv/movie” host Reese De’What, who had all the best lines. I know I’ve been hard on Keenan—see Update—but his delivery here is outstanding, finding the right note of unexpected absurdity throughout. (His closing statement on the failed show is a brilliant piece of short-form characterization: “This is not why I am here. Not at this stage of the game.”)

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

Just Reese De’What this week, and I’m all for having his low-key charms show up more often.

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I am hip to the musics of today.

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Maroon 5 exists. No doubt about that. I understand that a lot of people hate Adam Levine—and I sort of understand that. Handsome enough, he of the reality-show judging and sexiest-man-alive-being couldn’t stop gyrating himself self-satisfiedly, either in his performances themselves or the bumpers before they began. He’s got some presence, I suppose (he was funny on 30 Rock that one time, and showed up in a couple of sketches here), but he can’t stop playing to the camera, and the fact that he makes a wolf noise at the climax of the song “Animals” is Spinal Tap-worthy, isn’t it? I’m sure lots of people like Maroon 5, which makes sense—it’s manufactured to be liked—but I kept watching Levine’s hip movements like he was Paul Rudd doing a bit. And then the giggling started up again. (Their last song did sort of sound like Men At Work, which is a compliment.)

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

After a strong debut last week, touted newcomer Pete Davidson was nowhere to be seen. Not even in the goodnights. Welcome to the Show, kid.

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For MVP, I’m going to go with Kenan. His Sharpton was lame as always, but, in addition to the examples above, his short Terrence Howard captured the actor’s high, strangled cadence perfectly. (He’s no Pharoah, but that was solid.) As for the rest, there were little standout bits (McKinnon on “Update” and as one of the “Supportive Women,” Moynihan’s Ben Frankin and the cuckolded husband in the car sketch, Cecily Strong and Sasheer Zamata in the stealthily insane Nebraska paddleboat “Proud Mary” sketch.) Pharoah’s Obama, again, is accurate, but the writing isn’t there. (It remains one of this SNL’s greatest failures to have a world class Obama impression at the ready and to do so little with it.) There are a lot of suitably talented people in this cast but these first two episodes see none of them taking the lead. While the dearth of big recurring characters isn’t a bad thing at all—I love Kristen Wiig, but I’m also not mourning the loss of Gilly, Target Lady, et al.—the fact that this cast hasn’t asserted itself since the last major exodus is worrisome.

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

Two candidates tonight, with the usual Kyle Mooney/Beck Bennett filmed weirdness getting the earlier spot, a conceptually absurd three-person satire of rom-com clichés, with Silverman, suitor Mooney, and brute boyfriend Bennett getting caught up in each others’ simpatico mind-reading. Like all of the Mooney/Bennett stuff, it’s less swing-for-the-fences hilarious than the Lonely Island pieces, trafficking more in intellectually oddball strangeness. That, too, is a compliment.

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But the actual ten-to-one sketch tonight was an escalating playlet in the form of a commercial with Vanessa Bayer’s housewife passive-aggressively alluding to Silverman’s character’s money troubles while extolling the virtues of her expensive new blender. There weren’t a lot of hard laughs (although props to whomever thought of Bayer’s repetition of the phrase “nut-butters”), but it there was a subtlety of performance and writing that recalled the sort of female-centric one-acters that writer Marilyn Suzanne Miller used to bring to the show back in the old days. (See: The “Slumber Party” sketch with Madeline Kahn.”)

Stray observations:

  • The idea of Secret Service head Julia Pierson testifying while President Obama is being chased in the background would be a funnier “Weekend Update” joke… if sister publication The Onion hadn’t made it on Wednesday!
  • According to the cue cards, the only words remaining in Silverman’s censored joke are “black guy” and “God’s mouth.”
  • “Let’s get at least four more presidents—even if they have to be girls.”
  • “It makes a very subtle sound. And it grates cheese, and it’s also a woman.”
  • “It was one night, it was magical, and it was poorly attended.”
  • “Audiences tuned in in what ever the opposite of droves is.”
  • “Don’t you yell at Adam Levine, he has done nothing wrong!”
  • “If doctors know so much, then why is my doctor dead from ebola?”
  • “Why was the CIA on Tinder?’ “That’s not important.”
  • “I spent three days watching him eat shrimp like he had a gun to his head.”
  • “Hearing good stuff about Sharia law. Ima check it out.”
  • Darrell Hammond’s introductions continue to be overwhelmed by the backing music. Hey, if I’m paid to critique SNL, I’m going wall-to-wall.
  • The new policy of showing classic SNL episodes at 10 p.m. continues to make me laugh-cry. I’m going to compile an un-ironic “Best of Garett Morris” DVD at some point, with his understanding Cliff in tonight’s “Wild And Crazy Guys” sketch at the top. And the dance sketch with host Steve Martin and Gilda—excuse me, but I think I have something in my eye.

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