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

After an episode marked by seemingly unmotivated forgetfulness, this week played around with Woody Harrelson’s predilection for the pot from the outset, allowing the host to goof around in the monologue alongside his Hunger Games costars (Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, and Liam Hemsworth) while strumming Taylor Swift’s “1989” and forgetting everything about the titular year. Throughout the episode, there was plenty of “Woody is a pothead” humor which helped make some now-expected flubbed lines pass by more amiably. But, reputation and monologue song aside, no one could do as able a job as Harrelson did tonight while hopped up on goofballs (that’s what the kids call weed, right?), as he anchored each sketch with an assured comic timing and authority. Woody’s been in the business for a long time, and while his hayseed shtick should be a drawback, he’s proven himself more versatile than anyone introduced to him as Woody Boyd might have thought. Tonight, in the gentrification crackhead sketch and the monologue, his loose amiableness carried things along through any number of muffed lines, but he was solid throughout.

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Weekend Update update

Michael Che blew some lines, Colin Jost was bland, there were a lot of Kardashian jokes. Nothing else to report, with SNL’s fake newscast centerpiece continuing to be far less than it should be—and has traditionally been. Sure, both anchors have weaknesses, but it’s the writing that continues to truly undermine things. Luckily, correspondent Leslie Jones was on hand to deliver another of her energetic pieces as herself. After last week’s debacle, some might have expected some tentativeness on Jones’ part, but she bashed through her commentary here—about the double standard applied to male and female “crazy” romantic obsessives—with her signature aplomb. Jones has a strong voice, and she lands her points with a formidable comic force. The constant flirting with Jost (“you tall glass of almond milk”) may be broad as well, but anything that ruffles Jost’s complacent smirk is welcome.

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Best/Worst sketch of the night

There wasn’t a bad sketch tonight, as such. If I had to pick the worst, it’d be the duets sketch, a variation of the SNL formula that allows the cast to trot out their favorite quick-hitter impressions. Everyone’s bits just flew by too quickly and indistinctly (although I share Woody’s James Taylor’s opinion that Sam Smith’s weepily emotive over-singing is a bit much). The weed sort-of-legalization filmed piece was striking shot and staged (and Pete Davidson’s only appearance of the night)—it built like a Kids In The Hall bit, but with a mundane punch line (stoners can’t carry though on anything). The cold open—visualizing the promised drink between President Obama and Mitch McConnell—didn’t buck the season’s trend of innocuous political material but still made room for some oddball laughs as the prez and the new majority leader’s civil drink turned into a pizza and Doritos-fueled bonding session. With the show’s seeming disinterest in finding satirical political material for Jay Pharoah’s Obama to do, this left turn into silliness was at least amusing. (Taran Killam’s terrified scream when Hilary Clinton *69s their prank call is hilarious.) Points deducted for Sasheer Zamata’s Michelle being presented as just a nag.

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The football sketch made some pointed points about America’s current conundrum of having to reconcile the love of the game with the increasing knowledge of how repeated, incessant concussive impacts destroy their favorite players’ minds (who knew?), with Kenan Thompson’s former pro spouting would-be inspirational gibberish that’s both funny and sad. Woody, as the coach, entreating his team to, “Go remember, that’s somebody’s child out there!” also partakes of the same ambiguity—we all love football, but the fact that a half dozen players or more get injured in any given game is something fans would rather not think about. “The Dudleys” commercial made the point that viewer-led television is destined to be a mishmash of pandering and little girls joining the Marines. The point seems to be that shows need a strong showrunner—although if adjusting every sitcom according to internet commenter input gets us Crazy Eyes everywhere, then I’ll allow it. (Points added for the delayed, conservative course correction on the show once old people’s snail mail finally arrives to object to all the gay and black characters.)

The dating show sketch introduced its twist (Woody’s host is Cecily Strong’s bachelorette’s dad) at just the right time, forcing stereotypically horny contestants Killam, Kyle Mooney, and Beck Bennett to backpedal with amusing horror.

“What do you call that act?” “The Californians!”—Recurring sketch report.
The closing time barflies sketch made another go-round, which went fine but will never be as fresh as it was the first time, although Kate McKinnon’s crazy energy enlivens it, as ever. See Ten-To-Oneland for more.

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I am hip to the musics of today.

Here’s an insight from a middle-aged, white critic—Kendrick Lamar’s performances here reminded me of David Byrne’s in Stop Making Sense. There’s an element of performance art here—Lamar knows the effects he’s going for, with his sweat-soaked, jerky movements that seem to wring his lyrics from deep inside—but it’s no less electric because of it. Didn’t know anything about the guy before tonight, but I’m thinking about buying a CD (because, again, I’m old). This was easily as compelling as Prince’s performance last week.

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

Aidy Bryant didn’t have much to do, and Zamata—despite playing FLOTUS—didn’t either. It’s a big cast again this year, though, and people get lost in it. While no one is stepping up to claim the show as his/her own, no one is disappearing as completely as did the likes of John Milhiser, Noël Wells, or Brooks Wheelan last season.

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MVNRFPTP goes to Killam, whose McConnell was funny, but whose turn as the expected Matthew McConaughey was the highlight of the night. While it was inevitable that someone would show up alongside Woody as McConaughey at some point, Killam nailed it hard, his impression channeling not only the voice, but McConaughey’s signature tangential logic perfectly. Whether referring to anchor Colin Jost with seemingly effortless nicknames (“El Josto,” “CoJo”) or inexplicably segueing into Mario Brothers sound effects, this made me laugh as much as it almost did Harrelson.

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

The actual last sketch tonight was a recurring one, but still reasonably amusing. Even more than most, the barflies sketch is a victim of diminishing returns, although it, as ever, it has Kate McKinnon’s fearlessly horny Sheila Sauvage, this time applying Saran Wrap to her face to fend of the “STDetroit” of contaminants lurking on Woody’s kisser. Some admirably weird lines helped out (“My name is Chip Pfister which is weird because I work at Lays as a chip sifter,” “You had me when you didn’t leave with the others”), but the real Ten-To-Oneland should belong to a strange little conceptual bit like the campfire sketch that came before this one. Not that it was the most memorable thing, but Woody’s earnest campfire singer, with his odd song about apples might as well have been singing the ten-to-one national anthem. It even had something like an ending (Woody’s friends have been listening to his song forever), which might be pat, but the recurring water splash gag is random enough to make it work.

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Stray observations:

  • “You’re black! And you’re the president of the United States—that’s crazy!”
  • “We’ve done about 10 Hunger Games movies together.”
  • Was it the lighting, or did Kendrick Lamar have black contacts in during his first number. Either way, it was unnerving.
  • “You’re watching MTV—your DVR must be empty.”
  • “Those were some pretty sexual answers guys.”
  • “Can’t shake hands with a ghost!”
  • “When he’s on the ground you check his cognitive awareness—did everyone bring their penlights?”
  • “I’m a big fan of Interstellar.” “Interstellar’s a big fan of you.”
  • SNL State Of The Union: Partly in response to the negative response to last week’s shaky episode, no less a comedy authority than Jon Stewart sprang to SNL’s defense this week, essentially saying that viewers (and reviewers) are watching it wrong, asserting that the show—a comedy chaos that somehow produces 90 minutes of television every week—should be judged more like an off-Broadway play than a more traditional TV comedy. Fair enough, as far as it goes—SNL still retains what fascination it does through its weekly high-wire act. When SNL plays it safe and steady—I’m thinking of the Billy Crystal/Martin Short ringer year under Dick Ebersol’s aegis—what results is often as conventionally entertaining as it is forgettable. By design, Saturday Night Live is going to be uneven, but when such a naturally sweaty enterprise succeeds, the high points are going to stand out for a long, long time. But even off-off-Broadway plays need a veneer of professionalism to go along with the daring, and the current incarnation of SNL is sorely lacking in both. The danger is there only in wondering who’s going to screw up next (this season it’s been a coin flip whether it’s the performers or the technical crew). And the daring? Under head writer Colin Jost, the show hasn’t exhibited the compensatory satirical edge or straight-up audaciousness needed to ride straight over the rough spots.

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