“I’m not an actor, I’m a [movie/TV/Broadway/sort-of recording] star!”
Scarlett Johansson has now hosted SNL four times—which was a surprise when I looked her up to see if she’d ever hosted before. She has, of course—she’s only one return away from joining the Five-Timer’s Club, for crying out loud—but even though I realized I’d seen every one of her three previous appearances (her last was in 2010), they’d all drifted out of memory. Which isn’t to say that Johansson’s a bad host—here, as ever, she was game, professional, and thoroughly acceptable. If she didn’t burn the show down with electricity, she was more than serviceable.
The use of musical number as crutch in the monologue has gone past cliché, but not far enough so it’s come around as funny again. At least in demonstrating her inappropriate lullaby of “Love To Love You Baby” (complete with gyrations and Solid Gold-esque backing milfs (“mothers in lots of films,” according to Johansson), the song was more of an excuse for Kenan Thompson and Taran Killam to make inappropriate near O-faces (Killam’s were pretty funny). As someone who has—perhaps unwisely—ventured into the professional singing arena herself, at least Johansson doesn’t appear to take herself too seriously here, which is always an asset for a host.
Weekend Update update
The Che/Jost era stumbles along. The complaints are too well-worn to be interesting at this point, but here goes. No chemistry: Despite forced attempts to meld the comics’ styles together—as with Che’s off-camera derailment of Jost’s proposed Bruce Jenner jokes here—the two Update anchors never seem to be occupying the same comic (or even physical) space. Blown jokes: Che drops two tonight, and covers a few others by segueing into some enjoyably naturalistic crowd work. Toothlessness: This is a work in progress, with Jost’s rebuttal to Justice Alito’s forced hypotheticals about gay marriage both refreshingly on-point and comically unformed. Che came out stronger on recent events in Baltimore, although there’s always the sense that there’s some bolder material lurking in the reject bin.
The correspondents were the Update stars tonight, though, with Kate McKinnon bringing her ever-welcome Ruth Bader Ginsburg back for a visit. The way McKinnon inhabits a character goes a long way toward livening up even the weakest bits, but when she gets her teeth into someone like Ginsburg, her loony energy makes for a giggle-inducing treat. Equal parts dismissive and gleefully braggadocious, her conception of the Notorious RBG drops her signature “Ginsburns” before shifting her owly glare into weird, celebratory dance moves in a manner I could watch for a long time. Her best line tonight sees her promising to push gay marriage through the Supreme Court “before God remembers I’m still alive,” a promise McKinnon’s verve makes more than plausible.
The return of Shaq and Charles Barkley was almost as enjoyable, oddly. I’ve made no bones about Kenan Thompson’s limitations as an impressionist (and my annoyance that SNL keeps pretending that his one, all-purpose exaggerated accent counts as an impression), but his interplay with Jay Pharoah’s perpetually goofy and childlike Shaq was loose and playful tonight. Pharoah had one of his strongest episodes in a while—every bit the great impressionist Thompson is not, he’s often been hamstrung by the writing. A technically sound impression without sufficient thought behind it often leaves him sounding hollow. But his Shaq tonight—teasing Barkley and playfully dismissing his partner’s jabs with a friendly giant’s, “Oh, you’re just grumpy,” imbues his cross-eyed Shaquille O’Neal with an endearing personality this time out.
In third place (but still funny in performance), Bobby Moynihan and Vanessa Bayer brought Game Of Thrones’ also-ran lovebirds Sam and Gilly (and some serious spoilers) in a bit that was no doubt too specific for non GOT fans. That being said, Moynihan and Bayer’s impression of a quiet night at home (consisting of abject cowering) was pretty funny.
Best/Worst sketch of the night
The recent controversy over the Marvel Cinematic Universe/juggernaut’s slighting of female heroes in general and Black Widow in particular is the inspiration for the best sketch of the night, a digital short in which Marvel unveils the superheroine’s very own movie, Black Widow: Age Of Me. With Johansson reimagining her formidable Avenger as a typical rom-com ditz who falls for a hunky, sports-jacketed Ultron, the parody trailer is spot-on, with Natasha Romanoff taking on a job at a Devil Wears Prada-style clothing design firm and hanging out with pal Thor (Killam as her stereotypically gay BFF). It’s an example of the show seeing an issue relevant to the host and putting all its resources into crafting a handsomely mounted, smartly funny response. (And Ultron’s typically destructive attempt to make amends for not knowing the Widow’s favorite food comes with the news headline, “Ultron issues fire apology.”)
A close second is the other filmed piece, “Blazer,” where Killam’s tough guy cop looks just like any other cheesy, 80’s-era cop show hero before the trailer gradually reveals that he only ever beats up black suspects (usually played by Jay Pharoah). The admirable restraint in letting the viewers figure out the premise is good enough, but the double twist that “Blazer” doesn’t exist except as his partner’s vest cam footage (which Blazer’s edited, scored and put on Youtube himself), and that his firing leads to his boss’ firing for finding “Blazer” sort of cool, lands the bit nice ‘n’ hard.
The cold open took advantage of the “live” part of SNL in a way that’s always energizing, this time supposedly airing pirated footage of the Mayweather/Pacquiao fight in order to keep viewers from changing the channel (you know, to that exorbitantly expensive pay-per-view they bought ahead of time). The voiceover/crawl spoke of NBC’s other attempts to lure fight fans on Saturday, with a roster of hockey, horse racing, and “night golf,” or “the whitest day of sports in television history,” before Jay Pharoah and Aidy Bryant came out as the fighters and goofed around amiably for a few minutes. (Jay pulling the old “put your hand on your opponent’s head while she flails her arms at you” move—classic.) Throw in Kate McKinnon as a ringside Bieber and Kenan’s referee vowing to prolong the fight as long as possible (“I may invent the number ‘normth’”), and Aidy’s energetically inauthentic, t-shirted Pacquiao and it wasn’t a bad way to start the night.
Sometimes it’s tough to pick the worst sketch of a particular episode. Then there’s the museum sketch. Rememeber the Bloder Brothers, Chris Parnell and Jimmy Fallon’s characters whose shtick was that their self-amused asides were so annoying that everyone they met wanted to beat them to death? Well, imagine the Bloder’s less comically well-imagined and performed sisters (Cecily Strong and Scarlet Johansson), who just keep saying “that’s random” until everyone wants to beat them to death. Let’s move on.
While Michael Che took a few moderately sharp jabs at the ongoing unrest in Baltimore (The riots there “are still safer than the back of a Baltimore police van”), SNL proper was content to tackle the complex social and political issue by making toothless fun of the fact that the Orioles had to play a game in an empty stadium. That’s disappointing—as all the boxing stuff proved tonight, SNL can incorporate contemporaneous real word happenings into the show, and everything happening in Baltimore as we speak provides political satirists fuel aplenty. Unfortunately, that’s not really SNL’s game much any more. While not consistently clever or insightful on political matters (in Live From New York, one-time host Ralph Nader compares the show to a .275 hitter on the satirical front), the show doesn’t even really take a swing here, checking off the Baltimore box from the current events bulletin board by making harmless fun of how awkward it is for Killam’s Jim Palmer and Thompson’s Frank Robinson to call the game, considering the lack of fans and the fact that they keep saying accidentally incendiary things. It’s cute—Killam, as he shows later in the Virgin Atlantic sketch and elsewhere, makes the abashed apologies of authority figures very funny, but that’s all it is.
Speaking of, the bionic stewardesses sketch was, sticking with the airline theme, a near-miss. The idea of cast members playing automatons comes up from time to time—it’s a potentially fruitful premise, allowing the cast to show off their movement class skills while they inevitably bring out the inherent creepiness of emotionless robot servant gone haywire. (Overdone though they have been, the “Merryville Brothers” sketches saw Taran Killam and Bill Hader mine the concept for some truly unnerving laughs.) Here, Vanessa Bayer and Johansson give it their all, with Bayer’s signature toothy rictus and Johansson’s general inexpressiveness used to effectively wig out the unlucky passengers and crew of an experimental Virgin Airlines flight. But, except for the reveal that Bayer’s robot stew has somehow grinningly taken over for the co-pilot, the sketch doesn’t build. Again, it’s Killam’s repeated, mellifluous apologies for everything going wrong (and all the sexist things he keeps saying) that steals the sketch.
“What do you call that act?” “The Californians!”—Recurring sketch report.
Formula isn’t always a bad thing, and “Girlfriends Talk Show” is always reliably amusing, proving Aidy Bryant and Cecily String a chance to enliven the bit through performance. Bryant’s the star of the sketch as ever, her perpetually panicky Morgan struggling to cling to her more popular and blithely cruel friend Kira as their dramatically divergent teenage paths carry them inexorably apart. Strong’s Kira has her moments, too, her maturing-too-fast persona no doubt heading to some dark places. (Tonight, her boyfriend—by my math, he’s 54—can only accompany her to the upcoming prom by watching her through the security camera’s he’s hacked into.) But, as ever, it’s Bryant’s lagging-behind wallflower whose backward social skills (she went to the last dance with her mom’s female divorced friend) and inept attempts to brazen out each week’s disdainful guest that make the sketch. Poor Morgan just gets to me.
As an actress seemingly most comfortable cultivating a cool screen persona, Johansson has taken special delight in playing broad New Jersey broads on SNL. While her recurring commercial parody team-ups with Fred Armisen didn’t warrant a return tonight (I’m fine with that), she trotted out her inner Garden State for the “Right Side Of The Bed” talk show sketch, with Cecily Strong and Taran Killam returning as the saucily chipper married Atlanta talk show hosts seemingly at peace with the fact that he is flamboyantly gay. As ever, the sketch’s energy comes from the how the couple’s Southern, morning show positivity appears to allow them to navigate the sham of their marriage, and Johansson’s Daniela De Pasquale gets in on the vibe, finally just bringing over her long-delayed cooking segment cocktails and plunking down next to “the gay guy and his mom.” Regional talk show vapidity has long provided SNL-ers with the opportunity to channel the thinly veiled desperation behind the insipid chat show patter, but the hosts of “Right Side Of The Bed” use the artificiality to play out their relationship in safety. It’s sort of endearing.
I am hip to the musics of today.
The SNL audience was more likely to respond to the nice young white guy (Charlie Puth, who looks like Mathis from Mad Men) crooning the intro while tinkling at the piano than the drealocked, copiously tattooed Wiz Khalifa, but “See You Again” (best known as the Furious 7 song) is as sweet as it is slight, and Wiz’s dancing throughout was storky and sort of adorable. The same goes for “We Dem Boyz,” a shuffle stomp where, again, Khalifa’s innocuously inconsequential raps and infectious dance moves make for pleasant listening/watching.
Most/Least Valuable (Not Ready For Prime Time) Player
I did not spot Sasheer Zamata even once tonight. Not even for the goodbyes.
After a string of straight McKinnons, I’ll toss the top spot to Taran Killam tonight. While he was only the centerpiece of a couple of sketches, he provided invaluable support all over the place tonight in a variety of different roles. (His underplaying every wrung some chuckles out of that museum sketch.)
“What the hell is that thing?”—The Ten-To-Oneland Report
Aidy Bryant and Johansson as two desert-refugee jingle writers pitching horrifyingly inappropriate music for the new Pampers commercial was just an excuse for them to keen gruesome musical numbers, but it was funny enough, especially in Bryant’s commitment to the bit, and another fine straight man performance from Killam. (“Is it too late to say no?, he asks, deadpan, before another jingle.) Plus, Johansson’s proviso that the duo only take payment in personal checks and Sacajawea coins is the sort of oddly specific detail Ten-To-Oneland is built for.
- He’s no Mayweather, but Jay Pharoah reveals tonight that he has been hitting the gym pretty hard.
- The fact that Update made no mention of former co-host Cecily Strong’s recent appearance headlining the White House Correspondents Dinner continues the 40th anniversary special’s Soviet-style whitewashing of the abortive Strong era behind the desk.
- “She sounds like a talkin’ pizza!”
- “She is as pretty as Rachael Ray was for a short time.”
- “Baltimore took an absolute beating from the boys in blue—don’t know why I would call them that, no one has ever called them that.”
- “Tweet us with your guess—it’s obviously C.”
- “And that knee grows stonger every day. I apologize forever.”
- “I’m like a weird mole—I’m tiny, but I could be dangerous.”