Following in the footsteps of Sarah Silverman and Bill Hader, comedian Chris Rock was the latest “Saturday Night Live” alumni to return as host this season. Rock controversially left Studio 8H in 1993 to join Fox’s “In Living Color,” and while he has spent the better part of the last decade catering to family audiences with franchises such as “Madagascar” and “Grown-Ups,” it was luckily the pot-stirring, R-rated Rock who came out to play on Saturday night.
Unfortunately, the only thing truly energized this week was Prince’s shredding guitar solo during the “Marz” interlude of his eight-minute medley. Anyone assuming Rock’s oversized on-stage personality would result in a rambunctious episode was severely disappointed. With his critically acclaimed TIFF sensation comedy “Top Five” set to hit theaters December 12, this uninspired “SNL” episode was probably not the first step Rock had envisioned for his surefire comeback train.
If you’ve been keeping up with our weekly cast rankings, you’ll recall a large reason the Silverman-hosted episode didn’t fully work was because her raunchy comedic style had to be toned down dramatically for broadcast television. Ironically, this was not the case at all with Rock, who was quite a shocking provocateur during his opening monologue on the Boston Marathon bombings and the Freedom Tower. It was great to see Rock ripping into such eyebrow-raising subject matters so early in the night – and his Freedom Tower bit was bitterly hysterical in the I’m-thinking-it-but-he’s-saying-it kind of way (“I am never going in there! Does this building duck?”) – but the muted audience reaction to the beginning of the monologue and to sketches such as “Shark Tank ISIS” made the pushing of buttons feel awkwardly out-of-place, especially after so many “SNL” seasons spent playing it safe.
So does this mean “SNL” can no longer stir the pot on sensitive issues? Time will tell, but the audience clearly wasn’t picking up everything Rock was mockingly putting down, which in return made it at times an uncomfortable viewing experience.
Combine this misplaced humor with tons of poorly-paced sketches and line-reading flubs and what you’re left with is the weakest episode of the season. You know there’s a problem when not even dependable talent like Taran Killam or Aidy Bryant can save the night. But, alas, here are your Week 5 MVPs:
Keenan Thompson (“How’s He Doing?,” “Suge Knight”)
The third time was not the charm for “How’s He Doing?” After appearing in episodes hosted by Maya Rudolph in 2012 and Kerry Washington in 2013, this Obama satire is running on life support. The main crux of the joke holds a lot of promise – a group of black panelists will always support the President no matter what awful things he does (and it’s especially funny when said things are “not reacting to disrespectful daughters”) – but it’s entirely too one-note for a five-minute sketch to fully work.
The only saving grace here is the hilarious line delivery of sketch host Keenan Thompson, who expertly knows how to slow down and/or rush his dialogue for maximum comedic effect. Throw in some over-emotive facial gestures, a few impassioned reactions (“Hell no! Hell no!”), and a couple of great punchlines that Thompson really makes pop (“Sasha and Malia said, ‘Shut up bitch! We watching ‘Scandal.””) and you have one hell of a sketch savior in Thompson. The comedian also gets bonus points for his stoically empty Suge Knight impression. Just the blank stare Thompson gives after ranting on why he’s not guilty is worthy of a belly laugh.
Kate McKinnon and Vanessa Bayer (“Women in the Work Place”)
McKinnon’s pumped up Kaci Hickox in the episode’s Ebola-centric cold open was delightfully goofy (the way she fake tossed out M&Ms contributed to the show’s best Ebola joke yet), but her bizarre instructional video host Jodi Cork was even better, if only because of the sluggish eye-rolls and the accent that sounded like she had taken way too much cold medicine.
The “Women in the Work Place” sketch was a last-minute entry of sheer wackiness, making it the only sketch that seemed to have any energy in it, even if said energy was very, very peculiar. McKinnon was in top form bringing a singular personality to life, and Bayer putt her robotic obliviousness to great use as the subject of a self-help video teaching women how to embrace diversity in the work place. Her creepy lack of empathy gave hilarity to lines such as, “I bet you’re really big down there. Down there,
below your waistline, where your water comes out,” while McKinnon’s unusual vocal delivery provided a comic boost to such longwinded questions as, “Have you ever accidentally offended a diverse person so much that you walked into a closet and stayed their the rest of the day even though every time someone got their coat, they saw you in there?” Check out the oddness for yourself below:
Kyle Mooney (“Vlog,” “Robbers”)
This wasn’t necessarily a spectacular week for Mooney in any way, but his knack for showing awkward disappointment nearly saved the floundering “Vlog” sketch. All of Mooney’s nervous ticks and breathy confessions made him the best performer to take on the thankless role of the lovelorn friend who pines for the girl who doesn’t notice him. In a lesser performer’s hands, this character would merely be support for the sketch’s two leads to riff off of, but in Mooney’s hands the nervous letdown of the character’s attempts to get the girl become the winning highlights of the bit.
Even better was his appearance in this week’s digital short, “Robbers.” While the video clip was pretty basic and repetitive – intimidating bank robbers do nice things for the hostages – the way Mooney mastered the transition from cocky thug to helpful aid was extremely funny. It also led to one of the night’s funniest moments, one in which Mooney gives an impromptu Civil War impersonation after threatening to a teach a child a lesson.
Jay Pharaoh (“Weekend Update: Kat Williams and Suge Knight”)
Pharaoh has not been having the greatest year thus far, and his rise from last week’s “Needs Improvement” spot to this week’s MVP list is mainly due to the fact that his snarky Katt Williams impersonation was a welcome reprieve during a pretty brutal “Weekend Update.” “SNL” would be wise to take more advantage of Pharaoh’s more natural self, but if they’re going to pigeonhole him as the show’s master impersonator, then they might as well bring out one of his funniest transformations. Everything about his Williams impersonation is spot on, from the overdramatic head bobs to the sentence-ending “Ok Boo Boo’s” and the deliriously expressive facial reactions.
Unlike his Obama impersonation, Pharaoh not only masters the character’s vocal delivery here (his nasally high-pitched voice is a dead ringer for Williams), but he also exaggerates the character’s personality in a way that is truly funny (taking the already jumpy Williams and making him a fidgety, deranged mess fits like a glove). He also got to deliver one of the night’s best lines: “We have so much marijuana inside of us we can
cure glaucoma by blowing in your eyes Boo Boo.”
Needs Improvement: Pete Davidson
Leslie Jones, Michael Che and Sasheer Zamata all fumbled lines, basically killing their sketches, but it’s something about the monotonous way the show is using newcomer Pete Davidson that is even more alarming.
This week marked the third time Davidson has appeared on “Weekend Update” in five episodes, which wouldn’t be a cause for concern if he was proving himself to be a versatile sketch performer elsewhere. Unfortunately, the only thing Davidson has been doing so far is appearing as “Update’s” Resident Young Person, a character that totally misfired this week in a bit on STDs and sexting his mom a photo of his penis.
This week was by far Davidson’s weakest, and, most importantly, it now us has nervous that the only thing he can contribute to the show is a young-demographic appealing personality. Davidson was the breakout star of the Season 40 premiere, but he’s quickly falling into a same-sketch death trap that’s doing him no favors whatsoever.
“Saturday Night Live” returns November 15 with host Woody Harrelson and musical guest Kendrick Lamar.