Russell Crowe, Leslie Jones (NBC)

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

An episode of SNL like this one really invites a lot of speculation. It’s not that it’s bad—actually it was very bad. But it’s bad in such a specific way that my mind can’t help but think about the atmosphere of the show all week leading up to tonight. I think about Russell Crowe, noted not-comedian, and, by all accounts, an incredibly serious and self-serious actor and guy. (Good luck to The Nice Guys co-star Ryan Gosling, referred to as “a beautiful woman” in Crowe’s monologue tonight.) I have a vision of the SNL writers pitching their sketch ideas to Crowe—and imagine him staring stonily back at them until, it seems, his ears perked up at the phrases “duck vaginas,” “a subtle yet focused campaign on your clitoris,” and “open your legs and take my seed in your moist…” I think about the goodnights, where the cast appeared to be giving Crowe the widest berth possible without actually standing with the band, and Crowe’s pronouncement “God bless the ghost of John Belushi—I still think about you, man,” which was… whatever it was.

I think about the fact that Crowe only appeared in four sketches other than the monologue in what I’m guessing was less than 20 minutes of screen time, and that, when he was onscreen, his delivery was sluggish and consistently a beat off the comic rhythm. Playing a hologram in the Henry VIII sketch (the “open your legs” one) might explain some of that—any time a technical effect like that is going on, it’s going to affect the timing of a live sketch—but can’t find explanations for the other three. I muse upon his German and his Russian accents and imagine Crowe explaining his scrupulous Method method of picking them—and of dragging them out in mush-mouthed monotony.

There was a lot of time—in between waiting for Crowe’s lines and staring quizzically, perhaps even longingly at the commercials—to think of what words could describe my reaction to much of the show tonight. Some candidates: “torpid,” “slack,” “limping,” and “Look, let’s just get through this, Julia Louis-Dreyfus is coming back next week.”

There was his monologue—done solo, without the usual assist from a single cast member, popping up to prop up a non-comedian host, or even asking questions from the audience. (Not even an awkward musical number to at least indulge self-proclaimed singer Crowe’s vocal stylings.) Instead, it was just Crowe acting opposite himself, as he poked fun at his rumored humorlessness by pointing out the things he thought hilarious in dramatic scenes from Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind, and Les Misérables (where he may have been making fun of his widely panned singing, but it’s hard to tell.) He got a few laughs there—the idea that John Nash was picking out digits that spelled out “boobs” wasn’t bad. But, as with all his sketches tonight, what came across was SNL trying to fashion a comedy show around a guy who didn’t speak comedy—and who the cast and writers didn’t seem overly concerned with helping learn it at this late date.

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In the SNL oral history, fellow Aussie Mel Gibson was considered something of a challenge as well when he hosted, although there it was because the writers had to gently walk Gibson away from his own ideas he thought absolutely hilarious. (He was apparently hugely into a Brideshead Revisited parody called Bird’s Head Regurgitated that, tragically, never saw the light of day.) Here, it seems Crowe’s reputation for humorlessness defeated SNL altogether. Honestly, by the time his mumbly Russian gangster got karate chopped to death by Leslie Jones’ ninja, the episode had become oddly fascinating. A show like this—it just makes you wonder what the cast and crew are going to have to say in the next edition of the oral history.

Weekend Update update

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Not that there weren’t bright spots. Update was good, as it has been most of the season. I appreciate the effort the show has made to take advantage of the live format to do jokes on just-happening events, even if Bernie Sanders winning tonight’s Wyoming primary was just an excuse for a “Bernie is old” joke. And Jost working up some genuine New Yorker dudgeon at Ted Cruz’s pandering to a state full of people he’s been using as a pandering punching bag (and calling out the veiled anti-Semitism of same), and Che doing the same while talking about the candidates’ subway “regular people like you” vote grubbing, are the kind of authentic comic voice they’ve collectively brought with some frequency of late.

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Correspondent-wise, both were recurring characters and both hit (and went long, again inviting speculation that everyone was instructed to let non-Crowe pieces sprawl a bit). Kate McKinnon’s “somebody’s mom” Deenie is another of McKinnon’s string of lived-in weirdos, this time bringing her inability to remember a single character’s name and Tupperware container of pungent food to her spotty recap of American Crime Story. A recurring bit is made from a kit, and McKinnon’s a mad scientist, here chomping on “brussels sprouts and imitation crab” while mixing in her half-watched, less-than-half remembered reviews of that show, plus her favorite soaps, and the gay porno she accidentally ordered (The People Versus B.J. Simpson) when she “spilled tuna casserole on her clicker.” Deenie’s everybody’s mom who can’t really get what all the hubbub’s about on those hot shows their kids watch (hi Mom) but who’s perfectly happy doing “a Thomas Kinkade puzzle of a lighthouse” and looking up every once in a while to see what “Mustache’s brother, No-Mustache,” “too-tan guy and dead eyes,” and “skunk hair from Friends” are up to. Munching away on whatever was really in that bucket, McKinnon, as ever, creates a person inside a type, the most valuable quality a sketch performer can have.

And then there was Bruce Chandling, Kyle Mooney’s intentionally divisive hack comic. Bruce’s shtick—horrible observational jokes leading to a dark night of the soul the more he realizes he’s bombing—deliberately tries the audience’s patience, and tonight, allowed time to breathe, the silences and sparse titters had time to breathe too. Poor Bruce is another Mooney creation whose sweaty inadequacy is most of the joke, and I’m quite fond of him. Mooney’s best stuff is of this strange, conceptual stripe, and it turns off a lot of people, which I get. But in his ultimately unsinkable hopefulness that his peerlessly shitty standup will be his ticket to fame (and money, friends, love, the merest acceptance from anyone anywhere) Bruce is Mooney’s most enduring creation. When even Che, as ever skeptical about Chandler’s sports takes here (“Horse racing? You heard about this?”), apologizes for sending Bruce down a despair spiral with a sincere “My bad man, I’m sorry,” Bruce’s slow-burn smile as he regains his completely unwarranted faith in his material is a great piece of acting.

Best/worst sketch of the night

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Mike O’Brien, sent back to the writers’ room after being deemed not featured player material a few years back, closed things out with another of his weird filmed premises. This time he’s Oprah, reenacting Ms. Winfrey’s life story as a very undisguised Mike O’Brien. I got to review the Netflix comedy anthology series The Characters a while ago, which gave episodes to a number of former SNL-ers (Tim Robinson, Natasha Rothwell) to do this sort of conceptual character sketch comedy without any restrictions, and pieces like this show that O’Brien would be a great fit should there be a second season. As with a lot of O’Brien’s bits (“Monster Pals,” “Grow-A-Guy”) the joke rests on the blandly pleasant O’Brien deadpanning away like nothing’s weird—I laughed hardest tonight at his Oprah’s earnest “All you knuckleheads are getting cars!” And the cameo of similarly Midwestern (and male, and white) SNL alum Jason Sudekis as Whoopi Goldberg opposite O’Brien’s Oprah in The Color Purple brought the premise up another level. (“We still buds?”)

I appreciated more than laughed at Mooney and Beck Benett’s film about a pair of friends unable to contain their joy at being hired at their favorite Chuck E. Cheese-esque restaurant. The one joke is that they are way more excited than they should be, and the bewilderment and disdain of their new coworkers (Leslie Jones and Pete Davidson, doing some nice underplaying), and in the acting of Bennett and Mooney, who make their oddballs’ dream come true sort of sweet. This is the sort of thing Bennett and Mooney were brought in together to do, and it’s good, but they’ve done better. The final head explosion gag was the seemingly inevitable punch line, but the confetti helped sell it.

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If we’re going worst, again my mind wanders over the possibilities. The Henry VIII sketch with the bad timing and one-joke premise relying on Crowe’s ”Bear me a son” catchphrase? Well, Kenan’s immediate “And goodbye” to hologram Henry’s “A blackamoor!” was worth a chuckle. as was Cecily Strong’s observation about “hologram spit.”

The “Match Finders” game show sketch? Sure, the game show thing needs a lot stronger premise and jokes to have any reason to exist on SNL at this point. (Honestly—game shows, talk shows, musical monologues, which is most overused?) And Kenan’s host underplayed nicely as he tried to steer out of the skid Crowe’s German pervert was taking them all in (“Oh, so you’re just gonna walk right into traffic, huh?”) And there was one big laugh when Thompson’s character revealed that he’d downloaded a buzzer app on his phone just in time to cut off Crowe’s final gynecological answer. But if you wanted to know if SNL can now squeeze every juvenile euphemism for cunnilingus into one sketch, here’s your answer.

The ninja sketch? Well, there was Crowe, muttering in an… accent of some sort while Leslie Jones gamely did cartwheels around his singularly inept henchmen. There was a chuckle or two—Leslie’s slow sink out of frame after snapping one thug’s neck, her very slowly and deliberately setting up a ladder from which to attack. But honestly, Kenan’s unexpected coughing fit was funnier that anything else.

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“100 Days In The Jungle?” (Dammit—I forgot reality-show parodies. Add that to the list, won’t you?) Well, Beck Bennett’s deadpan host explaining that Pete Davidson’s parents couldn’t come because “They had a thing, couldn’t move it” was a funny idea. But the meat—if you will—of the sketch was Crowe acting skeezy as Pete’s uncle’s friend, Terry, and scarfing down a plate of duck vaginas before he even knows they’re part of a contest. Again, you can pick out some weird little laughs—the video call is from Terry’s girlfriend, threatening suicide, again instead of any contact from Davidson’s family. But, like the other Crowe sketches, that’s what you had to do—grab the scraps from around the edges.

Oh, the Preparation H ad. Beck Bennett yelling “But you’re my best friend!” to Taran Killam’s embarrassed club goer at the end was a funny capper to a deeply ordinary joke about butts. Can’t even blame Crowe for this one.

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

Deenie and Bruce. And “Politics Nation” (see below).

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

The Hillary Clinton cold open was the usual, but a funny usual. Kate McKinnon again—the take on Hillary (crazy-eyed determination, poor but necessary pandering skills) is fine as far as it goes, and she had some good lines and a NYC-friendly Yankees-Mets combo hat. It was comfortably in SNL’s political comedy wheelhouse. I did like Kenan (who did some stellar underplaying tonight) coming in as a handyman right after Hillary’s blithe claim that she doesn’t even know how many primaries in a row she’s lost. (“I’m here to fix the seven holes in your wall.”)

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I am hip to the musics of today

Not being the number one country music fan to judge such things, I’ll go ahead and call Margo Price’s booze-and-bad-lovin’ songs… politely rambunctious? Competently authentic? Probably settling on repetitive and a little dull. Nice of SNL to say goodbye to Merle Haggard in the bumper photo, though.

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

I’ll go with Kenan tonight. On a sinking ship, he nimbly weaved around the deck furniture, bringing some spark to small parts and getting to face off his Al Sharpton with the real Reverend Sharpton in the “Politics Nation” sketch. (Sharpton played the good sport, only once calling out Kenan for turning him into something of a buffoon all these years.) The political comedy was fine, with (real-life) Sharpton’s political analyst applying his “black approval ratings scale” to the remaining presidential candidates and getting in some decent lines. (Donald Trump is at a -1048 “but that could go down.”) And Kenan ekes out the top spot with his delivery of (fictional) Sharpton’s evaluation that Bill Clinton could butt into Rihanna’s awards banquet table with a bowl of mac and cheese and “Everybody would say, ‘that seems right.’”

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Everyone got in some screen time (even Sasheer and Jon Rudnitsky), although, on this episode, it’s hard to begrudge anyone for offering to sit out.

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

That was Mike O’Brien as Oprah. Right where it belonged—tucked away to give a strange gift to diehards who stuck this episode out ’til the end. Julia next week. Julia will make things alllllll right.

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Stray observations

  • Sharpton on Bernie: “He just looks like the kind of guy that still calls Muhammad Ali ‘Cassius’.”
  • “Please stop buying geodes—they’re not rare.”
  • “Well there are no wrong answers on Match Finders, but that sure came close.”
  • “A poll says that 70 percent of women have a negative view of Trump. The other 30 percent have no view because they were pepper-sprayed at a Trump rally.”
  • “You look the guy on the show with the girl with the red bob.”
  • Deenie on brussels sprouts: “They smell like a fart but they taste like a burp.”

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