James Franco, self-professed “actor, director, poet and dude,” returned for his third time to host “Saturday Night Live” this week, but his more oddball persona was unfortunately absent from much of the evening. As great as it would be to see the host’s personality dictating the tone of each episode, that’s hardly the case week in and week out, so it wasn’t too surprising to see a relatively straightforward Franco show up instead of his more wacky other half. But still, when you have an actor like James Franco, who is famous for his off-camera shenanigans and who is fearless when it comes down to parodying his own tabloid image (“This is the End,” anyone?), the show seemed unusually safe and predictable, as a result of toning down the Oscar-nominee’s penchant for out-there weirdness.
Luckily, Franco’s “The Interview” co-star and best buddy Seth Rogen dropped by for some funny bits (their Sony hacked photos were pretty humorous, especially the John Lennon/Yoko Ono recreation), and musical guest Nicki Minaj was more than game to riff on celebrities from Beyonce to Kim Kardashian (though we miss ex-cast member Nasim Pedrad’s nasally Kardashian more than ever). We expect Minaj to double as both musical guest and host, the next time she has a movie or an album hitting nationwide release.
Given Franco’s quieter-than-expected role as host, a select number of cast members really stepped up to save the night from being completely average. Here are the Week 8 MVPs of “Saturday Night Live”:
Leslie Jones (“Leslie Jones on 420singles.com”)
Similar to Pete Davidson, Leslie Jones seems only capable of leaving lasting impressions on the show during her appearances on “Weekend Update.” While that causes some apprehension over her accessibility on the show as a whole (her huge personality is just too big for sketches sometimes), it’s hard to deny Jones’ star power when opposite Colin Jost, who frankly, and hilariously, just seems like a scared little boy next to the comedian’s intimidating presence.
Jones took up shop behind the “Update” desk this week to share her thoughts on the marijuana dating service 420singles.com (“I think it’s great! You have to be high to go on a date with a stranger”), but her appreciation for weed transitioned into a rambunctious story about tripping on mushrooms. “Man, when I took those mushrooms I talked to Harriet Tubman for two hours!” she boasted in what was probably the best line of the episode. What’s really fantastic about Jones are her expressions of disbelief and those bulging eyes, which pop at the most opportune moments (her followup look to “Have you ever seen ‘Criminal Minds’?” is priceless). The mushroom rant allowed her to really shine, especially since everything came off as conversational and directly from personal experience.
If anything, the “Update” anchors could learn a thing or two from Jones about selling material as natural as possible. Jost and Michael Che started “Update” with a prolonged commentary on the week’s controversial grand jury decisions regarding the deaths of Eric Gardner and Michael Brown. Although the subject matter was an inspired choice, both anchors came off as so rehearsed that it actually felt pretty cold and calculated, which seemed dramatically off for a topic that deserves frank and honest reactions. Jones may have been talking drugs and not politics, but her conversational delivery made any notion of cue-cards disappear. Take notes, Che and Jost!
Vanessa Bayer & Cecily Strong (“Porn Stars”)
The risqué last-sketch-of-the-night slot officially belongs to the dim-witted porn stars, played so awkwardly by Vanessa Bayer and Cecily Strong. This sketch may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but something about the drunken line deliveries and pronunciation screw-ups always manage to hit the funny bone hard. The latest sketch featured the ladies selling yachts, and was probably the dirtiest installment the show has ever done (Bayer talking about a foot stuck up her butt was an eyebrow-raiser), but what makes this bit really work are the sexually charged pop-culture mashups (“We’re gonna need a bigger throat” is perfect for an X-rated “Jaws” remake) and the performers’ expert physical delivery (notice Bayer’s hair twirling and especially Strong’s elbow scratching). In a sketch time slot that welcomes uncomfortable laughs, these porn stars might as well be queens.
Mike O’Brien (“Grow-A-Guy”)
This might be cheating, considering Mike O’Brien is no longer a cast member on the show, but what a welcome surprise it was when this video started with the announcement, “A Mike O’Brien Picture.” O’Brien was a featured player last season during a year where there were so many new cast additions that the show didn’t know what to do with any of them. So while it was nice to hear that O’Brien would rejoin the writer’s room for Season 40 and wouldn’t be laid off entirely like so many of last year’s newbies, it was downright shocking to see him head an entire video short, a position usually left to featured players Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett.
In the tradition of O’Brien’s breakout “Monster Pals” (which also starred James Franco), “Grow-A-Guy” was a triumph of sad storytelling and even sadder laughs. O’Brian really goes for a cinematic narrative here (notice how Bennett plays the bully character as an ass not for laughs but for actual intimidation, which helps us feel sorry for O’Brian’s loner), and while the comedy isn’t necessarily laugh-out-loud, it’s well-constructed and has enough pathos to go the extra mile in actually making us feel something for its protagonist. Although it’s unclear how much the show will use O’Brian in the future, more digital shorts like these will be a thoughtful alternative to Mooney and Bennett’s more surreal clips.
Taran Killam (“Star Wars Trailer”)
It was a pretty subdued week for many of our most beloved “SNL” cast members: Bobby Moynihan’s fan-favorite “Update” correspondent Anthony Crispiro didn’t have his best visit (outside of referring to Bill Cosby as rapper Bing Crosby, his news headline mixups felt lazily written), Aidy Bryant’s sass couldn’t sustain a one-note spoof of “Peter Pan Live!” and Kate McKinnon’s Justin Bieber impersonation, though still flawless, was too fleeting to really stick. So let’s give some recognition to Taran Killam and his pitch-perfect Harrison Ford impersonation, even though the rest of the night was usually muted for “SNL’s” headlining male star. The “Star Wars Teaser” put a pretty routine spin on the upcoming blockbuster, by making fun of how old the original cast will be, but Ford’s geriatric Han Solo made the safe execution easier to forgive:
Needs Improvement: Sasheer Zamata (“Jingle Ballerz Special”)
Things are not improving for the struggling Sasheer Zamata, who, let’s face it, could be fired at any moment and still not affect the show in any way, shape or form. The show hasn’t done the comedian any favors, since she’s often been regulated to supporting bits during sketches, but the writers actually threw her a bone for once this week by letting her parody Rihanna in the “Jingle Ballerz Special” sketch, and she dropped the ball completely. Given how much of an energized personality Rihanna is, Zamata’s impersonation was cringingly dead from top to bottom. She brought nothing to the parody except exaggerating the singer’s Caribbean accent (which one of the laziest forms of parody out there), and it made the show’s use of her as Rihanna seem oddly insulting. It’s great to see the show finally embrace diversity with multiple black cast members, but when you’re casting Zamata as Rihanna only because she fits the physical description, and not because she can actually spoof the pop culture figure in any intelligent way, it all just seems backwards. I hate to say it, but if Zamata can’t show any signs of life in the final two episodes of the year, then it’s time for her to move on.
“Saturday Night Live” is all new next weekend, with host Martin Freeman and musical guest Charlie XCX.
READ MORE: Who’s the Best ‘SNL’ Cast Member? Week 7 MVPs (and Cameron Diaz)
READ MORE: Who’s the BEST ‘SNL’ Cast Member? Week 6 MVPs (and Woody Harrelson)
READ MORE: Who’s the Best ‘SNL’ Cast Member? Week 5 MVPs (and Chris Rock)