Following both a Primetime Emmy Award win (Outstanding Writing For a Variety Special, “We Made Miracles”) and a well-reviewed guest stint on the second season of “Masters of Sex,” comedian Sarah Silverman returned to television again this year as host of “Saturday Night Live.” Silverman, a former “SNL” featured player who was abruptly fired after only a single season (Season 19, 1993-94), subversively mocked her old gig with a monologue that saw her answering questions from her pre-taped, 1993-self, proving just how sorely the show wasted her gifted talents back in the day (man, she sure has come a long way since being an audience stand-in for celebrity hosts).
But anyone expecting the irascible funny-woman to show her crude colors was surely disappointed. While Silverman made for a much more relaxed presence than Chris Pratt despite similar line-reading stumbles, her hosting duties confirmed that cable outlets such as HBO or Comedy Central are better suited for her talents than broadcast networks like NBC.
Sure, a contained Silverman had to have been expected given the nature of broadcast television, but giving her racy subjects to play with and not allowing her to provide a typical stinging payoff did the show no favors. Take “The Fault In Our Stars Trailer” as an example. Infusing a pop culture blockbuster about sick kids with a contemporary issue such as Ebola was quite funny, but the entire sketch was practically begging for Silverman to take it to the next level with an extremely dirty poop joke or ignorant misunderstanding that we know she’s not afraid to dish out. “SNL” can be an opportunity for hosts to show new sides of themselves or prove what they do best, but for Silverman it did nothing but stifle what’s made her a singular comedic female voice over the years.
As the show remains in a purgatory state between good and bad, the talented cast continues to make “SNL” flicker with glimmers of hope. Many of last week’s MVPs rotated into the background this week, especially the surprisingly absent breakout Pete Davidson, but that only allowed fan-favorites to rebound from quiet premiere appearances. Here are the MVPs of “Saturday Night Live” Season 40, Episode 2:
Kate McKinnon (“Garage and Her,” “Forgotten Television Gems”)
Since joining the show in 2012, McKinnon has quickly become an “SNL” superstar, garnering an Emmy nomination last year for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series. Given her vocal and physical eccentricities (the desperately horny Sheila Sovage, anyone?), McKinnon has been rightfully anointed Kristen Wiig’s heir, which made how underused she was in the Season 40 premiere rather shocking. While McKinnon didn’t find herself anchoring any sketches once again this week, her brief appearances were comical bright spots and proof the show ought to be using her the way it has in the past. She played it bluntly straight as a disappointed mother in the “Surprise Engagement” sketch, and she brought the same hilarious Spanish flare to her tiny part in “Supportive Women” as she did when she debuted as Penelope Cruz opposite host Sofia Vergara in April 2012. But it was her “Weekend Update” gig as a member of a feminist singing duo that ultimately warrants a spot on Week 2’s MVP list. When “Garage and Her” was introduced, many fans were probably getting ready for the improvisational silliness of “Garth and Kat,” but what they got instead was a comically rehearsed song full of illogical feminist lyrics (sample: “A girl is a woman/a dog can be a woman/a baby is a woman/and a plant — a plant can have a boob”). It was a joke straight out of Lilith Fair, one that McKinnon’s impassioned eyes sold with reliable hilarity.
Kenan Thompson (“Forgotten Television Gems,” “Reverend Al Sharpton”)
For what it’s worth, Thompson has been the show’s subdued MVP for more than a decade now, constantly giving every sketch he’s in a heaping dose of humor with his one-of-a-kind reaction shots and upbeat comic energy. All of Thompson’s strengths were on display this week, particularly the way he elicits laughs by mocking the proceedings of the sketches he’s in. “Forgotten Television Gems” wasn’t a great sketch, but anytime it cut to Thompson’s Reese De’What, the actor provided the dependable smile and clueless ridicule that’s made him the show’s quietest asset.
Thompson was even able to break out his spirited Al Sharpton impersonation on “Weekend Update.” It’s here where cast mates like Jay Pharaoh should take note, for Thompson is such a great impersonator because he satirizes figures as much as he adds his own comic spin on them. Nothing against Pharaoh, but his Obama impersonation continues to lack any comic pizazz because all he seems intent on parodying is the President’s voice. The reason Thompson makes Sharpton so memorable is because he’s able to find the Reverend’s knack for fervent sermons and bring out the over-emotional lunacy behind it, complete with perfectly timed vocal cracks and irreverent one-word punch lines. The more exaggerated Thompson gets, the funnier he’s able to skewer the figures he impersonates. Bravo.
Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett (“Poem”)
Mooney and Bennett were the only two comedians to survive The New Cast Member Exodus of 2014 and rightfully so. While Andy Samberg’s madcap Digital Shorts helped bring “SNL” into the internet age, it’s currently this oddball duo and their mastery of tone that’s bringing the show up-to-speed in the age of self-awareness. Take “Poem” as a wonderfully peculiar example. The short begins with a traditional meet-cute, full of Mooney’s endearing clumsiness and a sappy score, and then subverts its rom-com twists (wannabe lover has a boyfriend, the fight, the breakup) by maintaining the same heartwarming tone throughout. The big picture is a little weird, as all of Mooney and Bennett’s shorts usually are, but the comedy comes directly from tonal placement, which is one of the only attributes that make this iteration of “SNL” unique in and of itself. Samberg may have been a more laugh-out-loud digital creator, but Mooney and Bennett continue to prove that their humor is as clever as it is carefully constructed. For a show in its 40th season, “SNL” continues to surprise thanks to these two.
Bobby Moynihan (“Surprise Engagement,” “Joan Rivers”)
McKinnon is to Wiig as Bobby Moynihan is to Keenan Thompson, which means Moynihan is another sketch savior who somehow manages to keep the show alive no matter the amount of screen time he’s given during a particular week. “Surprise Engagement” is not online due to copyright issues, but if you DVR’d the episode or can manage to find it online you’ll see what a high-energy force Moynihan can be. As the boyfriend who hears his girlfriend confess to an affair moments before he’s about to propose, Moynihan is a firecracker of angry comedy, using his affinity for comedic bursts to elevate a pretty one-note sketch. Just the way he shouts “Nooooooo!” at Sarah Silverman is worth a belly laugh. The comedian’s only other appearance of the night was during the show’s good-intentioned “Joan Rivers” sketch, which found Silverman impersonating one of her biggest influences as she roasted departed stars. The sketch had some timing issues, but the cutaways to Moynihan’s boisterous and sexually oblivious Ben Franklin got some of the biggest audience laughs of the night. Whether he’s the star of the sketch or just a throwaway support, Moynihan always brings the funny.
Most Improved: Colin Jost and Michael Che (“Weekend Update”)
Considering last week’s uninspired debut, the new “Weekend Update” duo could’ve tried anything different this week and they would have improved, but luckily the “What Can You Say” aside delivered somewhat of a potential silver lining. Both performers are still suffering from stiff personalities — Che seems to have relaxed a bit, but his mundane delivery robs jokes like a killer Jimmy Carter 90th Birthday one of their full comic potential — but this bit allowed them to riff off each other and made them feel loose and light on their feet, which is only a good thing. Remember the electric sparks that would fly anytime Seth Meyers and Amy Poehler united for “Really?!? With Seth and Amy?” It may take a miracle for Jost and Che to get to that level, but bringing them together was the best move “Update” could have possibly made in its second week.
In order for “Update” to work, the anchors have to own their comedic voice, and since the two are struggling to find their own individually, bringing them together for a segment like this makes logical sense. Again, the stiffness is sucking all the life out of what could be playful smarts, but the interplay between the two over words Jost can and cannot say is a promising way of taking both anchors’ identities and trying to create a singular whole. It’s doubtful the show will continue to use race as a way of making this “Update” pairing unique, but it actually could be just the thing to restore gusto and nerve to the “SNL” centerpiece.
Needs Improvement: Darrell Hammond
No one is expecting “SNL” veteran Darrell Hammond to match the announcing highs of the late Don Pardo, who passed away in mid-August after being with the show since its debut in 1975. But after two weeks in the booth, Hammond is shaping up to be the worst possible replacement: a total mood killer. He may have gotten a pass last week due to an audio snafu that made his delivery hard to hear, but this week the volume was clear and Hammond’s energy was still painfully flatlining. Pardo didn’t just have the delivery nailed, he also had the tone right, waking viewers up every time he broke out, “It’s ‘Saturday Night Live!’” Pardo made viewers excited, while Hammond, thus far, is putting them to sleep.
It’s perhaps the easiest problem to fix on the show right now, and it’s one that would do “SNL” a huge favor, especially since the two cold opens this season have been lacking any comic bite. This week, the one-two punch of “Obama 60 Minutes” and Hammond’s introduction was such a snooze fest, you’d easily be forgiven for wanting to check out early. Cold opens aren’t always successful, but at least in the past viewers had Pardo to kick up the energy a couple of notches regardless of the first sketch’s success. Hammond needs to pick things up dramatically in Week 3.
“Saturday Night Live” is all new this Saturday, October 11, with host Bill Hader and musical guest Hozier.