Leslie Jones, Chris Hemsworth (NBC)

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

As in his first hosting stint, Chris Hemsworth isn’t unfunny in any objectionable way. It’s more that he just doesn’t speak comedy, and so whatever laughs he gets on SNL are a result of careful and assiduous laughs built around him. He’s a game lunk, grinning and blundering through his sketches tonight—I counted two flubbed lines, one dropped prop, some klutzy fake piano playing, and, weirdly, two times when he flat-out ran into doors. (One might have been a bit, but not both.) And the fact the the timing of the episode was off (necessitating a hurried repeat of the “Aron’s List” low-level sex offender ad parody from earlier in the season) throws further suspicion on the host’s abilities to thrive on live TV.

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Choosing a host in the early days of SNL was a pridefully eclectic process, but the days when Lorne Michaels thumbed his nose at the forces of marketability, cultural currency, and ratings-baiting are long gone. Still, having a guy as unremarkable at getting laughs as Hemsworth (big whale-punching movie coming out or no) back for the second time in two years suggests that SNL likes having the big lug around. The monologue sees Hemsworth, in the time-honored backstage shenanigans tradition, being that big Aussie lummox, roughhousing thoughtlessly with a cast that’s had decidedly enough of his steamroller joshing—he broke li’l Kyle Mooney’s wrist, doles out two nut-shots, engages in some light sexual harassment, pegs Beck Bennett with an impressively accurate apple toss, and pulls a bully’s book dump on Colin Jost. (Michael Che, follows up with another, his “See you out there, nerd!” garnering the bigger laugh.)

As with a lot of the jock-ish hosts in the show’s history, SNL decided that tossing a dress on Hemsworth was a guaranteed easy laugh, and while Hemsworth himself didn’t get any laughs there either, the sketch constructed around him was actually pretty clever, as Aidy Bryant, Cecily Strong, Kate McKinnon, and Vanessa Bayer all realized that they can’t actually recall how they met their Chris Hemsworth-obsessed friend Claire (“from college, or growing up or something”). The four actresses carry the dolled-up Hemsworth (who does make a surprisingly pretty lady), admitting just a hint of weirdness into the situation (“Crazy question, is our friend Claire actually Chris Hemsworth?”) before Aidy nails it shut, answering the de-wigged hunk’s appeal for reassurance with a pitch-perfect, “No! This was bad and you’re weird now.”

Weekend Update update

The Update upswing this season continues, as Che and Jost delivered some of their most confident political material tonight. Not that they didn’t have a lot to work with this week—in their previous most-successful Update outing, they went after Republican candidate and catastrophic SNL host Donald Trump’s plan to place all Americans of Muslim religious affiliation on a watch list. So with Trump going even further down that road by calling for all Muslims to be banned from entering the United States this week (your Republican front-runner, America!), Jost and Che went after Trump hard. Again, it’s taken a while, but, finally, some of what must have been some seriously bottled-up resentment at the “fingerpoke of doom”-style tank job Trump and his handlers forced on the show surfaced here, as Che and Jost double-teamed the Donald’s full-on racism with a lively back-and-forth.

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What was so effective about it here was not only the relief they seemed to be taking from the fact that Trump’s assholery has allowed SNL to shake off whatever vestiges of restraint were still in place after Trump’s appearance, but that Che and Jost expanded on their attacks beyond the most obvious ”Donald Trump is a racist” material. Che’s thesis statement that Trump isn’t even racist but just an opportunist led to Jost’s assertion that that’s even worse, both anchors’ comparisons (to Trump as a phone sex operator, conning gullible racists into thinking he likes them, and Trump as Peyton Manning, convincing the country he actually eats that mediocre pizza he’s hawking) landing with the sort of mean, smart laugh lines Update at its best can deliver. Che, especially, seemed delighted to go after his target, backing up his assertion that Trump’s not a racist by saying “I’ve looked into that man’s eyes, and he doesn’t have a soul—just dollar signs floating in cologne,” with obvious relish. (I mean, he did look into Trump‘s eyes recently.) It made perfect sense that, as Update concluded, he pulled a red Solo cup out from under the counter and drank from it, his sneakers up on the desk—it’s been a while since Update could kick back with such confidence in a job this well done.

Kate McKinnon’s returning Angela Merkel got in on the action, too, responding to Trump’s recent attacks against her leadership of Germany with a disdainful, “I guess he prefers our earlier stuff.” McKinnon’s Merkel’s always a treat, here showing just a touch more confidence than usual with her recent Time Person Of The Year cover under her belt, although, as ever, her endearing mix of common sense and social anxiety ruled the appearance. McKinnon’s physical comedy ruled, too, making Merkel’s constitutional inability to celebrate a thing of inappropriately intense beauty.

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Leslie Jones returned as well, her purported Golden Globes report instead turning into a rehash of her recent Breaking Bad Twitter rants. Either you like Jones’ schtick or you don’t—I do, but this wasn’t her strongest material.

Best/worst sketch of the night

The show ended with two big productions, neither of which did much to justify their time (the strip club sketch) or expense (the pirate sketch). Still and all, neither was awful. The strippers—who mistake a low-rent Chippendales’ stage for the perfect place to show off their theater school skills—benefitted mainly from Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon as two of the bewildered ladies in the audience. Jones can underplay quite well when she gets a chance, here brushing off her friends’ objections with a genuine, “I appreciate the showmanship.” And McKinnon’s dogged attempts to nudge the production into a smuttier direction (dancer Hemsworth dutifully puts her tip in his wallet) saw her lending her signature character work to even such a small role. And the pirate sketch gave Jon Rudnitsky his biggest showcase on the show this season as Mark, the swashbucklers’ favorite shipboard comedian. The sketch suffered from a leaden lead (Hemsworth, of course), and had no ending, but Rudnitsky was solidly strange as the hacky but crowd-pleasing Mark (and that was a funny dance). It’s just that, as was true of most of the episode (apart from Update and one guest appearance we’ll get to), these sketches were unremarkable, dipping just enough below the waterline to qualify for the worst. Or at least a multiple-place tie.

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Hey, did you know that Star Wars fans are sexless nerds who don’t have any sense of joy in their hobby of collecting memorabilia? No? Well, what about the cliché that that’s true? Right, well that’s the point of the Star Wars commercial, whose charms come solely from the precise characterizations from Bobby Moynihan, Taran Killam, and Kyle Mooney (and some solid child actors, playing “exasperated and bummed out” expertly).

The other filmed piece probably used Hemsworth best, plunking him down opposite Sasheer Zamata’s sensible partner as a cop whose “I ain’t got time to bleed” catchphrase leads to an attenuated degeneration as he puts off getting his gunshot wound tended to for far too long. Again, Hemsworth’s… fine (his blood loss-induced gibberish come-ons to Zamata are the funniest thing he did all night), but it’s the premise and execution (and the nicely understated Zamata) that make the piece work.

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

The Disney Channel twins sitcom sketch came back with Hemsworth, offering—in the way of recurring sketches everywhere—less energy and limper laughs this time around. The jokes are that acting on the Disney Channel is not very good, and that supposed identical twins Hemsworth and Taran Killam actually exhibit a rather sizable attractiveness gap. Unlike the actual male stripper sketch (where Hemsworth, oddly, keeps his shirt on), there’s an element of the famous Chris Farley Chippendales sketch to this one, as poor Killam, attempting to pass himself off as his brother, must suffer everyone’s rundown of the very specific areas in which his twin is physically superior. As in the Farley sketch, the humor comes from the fact that his apprisers aren’t being mean, but merely factual, but this one didn’t go anywhere original, and the pacing is slack (this is one of those times where Hemsworth practically knocks the set down making his entrance). The credit “Not written by Taran Killam” provided the one solid joke.

“It was my understanding there would be no math”—Political comedy report

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Update went after the Republican presidential field with renewed vigor, perhaps energized by the surprise cold open appearance of Will Ferrell’s W, who wowed the crowd with what’s still a damned funny character. Ferrell has turned his dim-bulb impression of our 43rd President into an institution without his George W. Bush losing any of its giggle-fit-inciting power, so this was a fun, silly way to start the show (especially since I don’t think anyone knew it was coming). As ever, the political side to the jokes is more silly than pointed, but Ferrell’s Bush can be slyly effective, too (Ferrell’s one-man show as W was surprisingly resonant at points). Here, taking apart the Republican candidates while throwing his hat into the ring for an unconstitutional third term, Bush is presented as a more sympathetic figure, the premise being that, freed from the onerous need to lead, he’s more of a harmlessly dumb good guy than he was when his lack of smarts was, say, sending us to war. It’s a tricky line to walk, with much—but not all—of the goodwill he received from the appreciative audience going to Ferrell. Still, this W is baffled at Trump’s overt racism, laughing over the “knucklehead” while in his next sentence sincerely saying, “that’s not what this country’s about.” As good as it was to have Ferrell in the house, it was encouraging that the show seems poised to even bring back some ringers to prop up its political material going forward.

The same can’t be said on the Fox News sketch, sadly. While calling out the other Republican candidates for not wanting to condemn Trump too harshly (thus losing that sweet, sweet racist vote), the sketch had little snap, although Bobby Moynihan’s Chris Christie is always energetic. And McKinnon’s disgusted Greta Van Susteren signing off with an offhand, “Oh my goodness, my soul hurts” ended it with a good laugh.

I am hip to the musics of today

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Although he’s released some very successful mix tapes and the like, Chance the Rapper isn’t signed to a label, making his SNL debut a big deal, indeed, and the young Chicago rapper made the most of it. In his rave review of the rapper (or “The Rapper”)’s most recent, self-released album, A.V. Clubber Evan Rytlewski said, of the Chicagoan’s style, “As a young natural-born rapper with a showy technique and a nonsensical accent—he rhymes in a squawky, groggy scat that thankfully proves less grating than it seems on first exposure,” (it’s a rave, honest). And Evan’s right on, nailing down Chance’s idiosyncratic vocal style as well as his infectious energy. In his second number, especially, sitting on a stool on the darkened stage twinkling with Christmas lights, Chance seems to be having a great time, conducting his backup singers and mixing in some earnest crooning with his flow. Assured and loose, Chance the Rapper shone on a big stage.

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

With everyone hustling to buoy the host through the night, it was a team effort in this one, with everyone getting a turn. For a welcome lead that she pulled off with aplomb, I’ll give the nod to Sasheer Zamata on the strength of the cop film. (Jost and Che were in the running, too.) In an episode this pleasantly nondescript, no one really had a chance to stand out much.

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

That was the strip club sketch, which did have a suitably eccentric premise. It’s just a shame it wasn’t a very good sketch (and that the episode running short meant that the actual last sketch was a retread).

Stray observations

  • No Vintage SNL again this week, as NBC aired some guys punching each other instead.
  • Ferrell’s Bush on the Republican field: “It makes you miss me doesn’t it? And that’s sayin’ a lot.”
  • On Jeb: “It’s a pretty good plot twist that I turned out to be the smart one.”
  • On Jeb’s “Jeb!” slogan: “I don’t like the taste of broccoli. I wouldn’t like it any better if you called it “broccoli!”
  • His recipe for a good president being like a school bus driver: “A simple underachieving, not very educated but reliable guy behind that wheel” who has “one or two but no more that four accidents a year.”
  • Moynihan’s Christie, not reading the room: “The last thing anyone wants is some foul-mouthed bully from the tri-state area.”
  • The Christmas party sketch was limp, but Cecily Strong has some pipes on her.
  • Che got gasps by with his Kendrick Lamar Golden Globes joke: “It’s the first good news in a while about a black guy getting something 11 times.” Genuine gasps and Update are something SNL always needs more of.
  • “Pringles introduced a new Pringles-scented candle, in case anybody wants to die in a sadness fire.”
  • I know we’re all impressed by Hemsworth’s Thor-bod, but, judging by that stripper sketch, Jay Pharoah’s been hitting the same gym.
  • Next week it’s Tina and Amy, people. Good way to finish 2015.

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