While host Woody Harrelson joked about “smoking a lot of herb before coming here” during his purposefully spacey opening monologue, much of “Saturday Night Live’s” sixth episode of Season 40 played like it was bathed in a cloud of stoner haze. For every sketch that hit its mark (“Match’d”), there was another that missed and provided a tiresome burnout (ahem, “Campfire Song”) — ultimately making this week feel like the most consistently paced episode of the season thus far. (Marijuana also found its way into numerous sketches, including a rather clever digital short movie trailer.)
Harrelson, who returns to theaters this Friday as Haymitch in the blockbuster sequel “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1,” first hosted the show twenty-five years ago when he was the lovable Woody Boyd on NBC’s “Cheers.” Luckily, both time and a knockout dramatic performance on “True Detective” haven’t dampened Harrelson’s comedy skills, and it was pretty refreshing to see the actor get down and goofy playing a wide variety of off-kilter sketch characters. If there was one resulting action from the night, it was putting a new Woody Harrelson-starring comedy on your movie bucket list.
Harrelson was definitely game as host, but how did the “SNL” cast members fare this week in general? From reliable performers to surprising comebacks, here are the MVPs of “Saturday Night Live” Week 6:
Taram Killam (“Match’d,” “A Drink at the White House”)
It’s safe to say “SNL” has been struggling with the political cold open this season, and it has more to do with a lack of bringing out the comedy in recent political headlines than it does with Jay Pharaoh’s uninspired impersonation of President Obama. Fortunately, the extremely dependable Taran Killam showed up before the opening credits this week to provide an initial burst of comedy that hadn’t been seen on the sketch comedy show in quite some time. Playing Republican and soon-to-be Majority Leader of the Senate Mitch McConnell, Killam was in top form as he played progressively drunker whilst sharing drinks with Pharaoh’s Obama. Every passing drink allowed Killam to drop a new great bit of inebriated humor, and everything from a Hillary Clinton prank phone call (the shriek he gave when Hilary “called back” was priceless) to the line, “You’re black!…and President,” hit with bullseye-level comedic precision.
Killam wasn’t a major star in any of the night’s following sketches, but his supporting work shone bright as well. The show probably didn’t need another Matthew McConnaughey spoof considering Jim Carrey’s viral Lincoln ads from October, but Killam is so great at filling the actor’s prophetic rants with hokey childishness that it would’ve ultimately been a huge waste to hide the impersonation, especially when “True Detective” co-star Harrelson was hosting. Harrelson even seemed to be loving Killam’s take on his old movie star buddy. Also, the “SNL” funnyman also earned major bonus points for his very small work in the MTV dating show parody “Match’d.” After the sketch reached its main twist, Killam gave a long, shocked reaction that might have just stolen the entire scene.
Kate McKinnon (“Last Call”)
Welcome back, Sheila Sovage! It may have taken a painstakingly long wait of five episodes, but the horny late night bar crawler finally made her Season 40 debut and it was just as glorious as the time she went face-to-face with John Goodman. Given Sheila’s singular enthusiasm and affinity for gross-out sexualized punchlines, this bit always features McKinnon in full on Kristin Wiig-mode, and what a delight it was to see McKinnon get fearlessly physical, after spending much of Season 40 hamming it up in support roles.
McKinnon’s stomach-curdling makeout sessions are hilarious in and of themselves (especially when using saran wrap as “protection”), but it’s really the way she’s able to sell Sheila’s pickup lines with a smart, aware confidence that makes this character so winning. Sure, a line like “I re-plaster unpopular glory holes” is dirtily funny, but just look at how McKinnon reacts to Harrelson claiming his character has an STD to see why Sheila is such a microcosm for McKinnon’s best talents. The awareness of that fact and the excitement McKinnon is able to show in receiving the news is what makes Sheila such a humorously disturbing stalwart of “SNL.
Colin Jost and Michael Che (“Weekend Update”)
What a difference five episodes makes! All anybody could talk about during the Season 40 premiere was how abysmal “Weekend Update” was, especially with the flow between its two co-anchors. But both Colin Jost and Michael Che have been getting more comfortable behind the desk, and their sixth week leading the show’s central sketch was easily their best yet. As we suggested early on, the single greatest thing the show can do to revive “Weekend Update” is to have the usually stiff anchors play off one another, and that’s exactly what happened this week as we were treated to some delightfully funny interplay between Jost and Che regarding Kim Kardashian’s now-infmaous nude photos for Paper Magazine.
Was that Jost breaking character and cracking up because of Che? And was that Che getting goofy while praising “dat ass”? Anyone who had been criticizing the two for stiffness was gladly silenced this week. By placing the anchors together from the start, the rest of “Update” played out in loose, natural fashion, with Jost and Che even crashing one another’s bit segments with a comment or a well-timed giggle. Hopefully this week shows the writers that together Jost and Che might create an “Update” which uniquely flows and that is, most importantly, damn funny.
Leslie Jones (“Weekend Update: Relationship Expert”)
Leslie Jones may not have had the best live sketch debut during the Chris Rock-hosted episode, but she made quite a resounding comeback this week with one of her signature “Weekend Update: Relationship Expert” appearances. While this bit was the safest way the writers could have confidently reintegrated Jones into the show, it’s hard to complain when her boastful sermons have a live wire energy to them that is missing from the majority of “SNL” these days.
Taking a recent news story about a woman who broke into the home of a man she met online by jumping down his chimney and using it to defend all the “crazy bitches out there,” Jones was a force to be reckoned with. Her bit here may not have necessarily been the funniest part of the night, but the power of Jones’ stage presence and the way her amazing comic timing allows her to bring down the energy before exploding it back up moments later made her an unpredictable raging riot to behold. Funny or not, Jones speaks the truth and screams it right in your ear until you have no choice but to listen. Now if only the writers can bottle up the energy she exudes on “Weekend Update” and let it loose in a live-action sketch.
Needs Improvement: Sasheer Zamata
What should the show do with Sasheer Zamata? Unfortunately, it’s the question we’ve been asking ourselves with each new episode of this season. Zamata was brought on as a featured player in the middle of Season 39 earlier this year amidst building controversary over the show’s lack of black cast members, but her role on the show thus far hasn’t risen above this inaugural stunt casting.
Zamata is certainly funny (her appearance during the Louis C.K. Black Jeopardy sketch is very strong), but the show doesn’t use her at all, meaning her “Needs Improvement” addition this week has less to do with her skills and more to do with the fact she barely registers on the show as an important cast member. Zamata is the only comedian not to have ranked on our weekly chart this season through six episodes, and the only screen time she got tonight was a 10-second Michele Obama cameo in the opening number.
Any way you put it, the show would be exactly the same without Zamata, which begs the question: why cast her if you aren’t going to give her anything to do ever? The “Black Jeaopardy” sketch is embedded below as proof of Zamata’s talents, so let’s hope the show can actually start using her. If not, I’m afraid it may be time to let her go.
“Saturday Night Live” is all new November 22, with host Cameron Diaz and musical guest Bruno Mars
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