“The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” star Martin Freeman may have sounded like an unusual pick to host “Saturday Night Live” to some, but his debut appearance in Studio 8H ended up being much stronger than expected. With his cheerful smile and jumpy personality, Freeman was a relaxed presence through his British-heavy monologue, and his affinity for wigs and goofy pathos certainly came in handy during a number of sketches. Freeman may have never been the outright star of any sketch, but he effortlessly fit into the ensemble this week and facilitated in getting truly really great performances out of some of the show’s biggest stars. In fact, this was probably the best episode of the year for the Season 40 veterans, thanks in part to the way Freeman bounced off his costars’ sketch characters with ease and reliability. If anything, this week showcased the strong comedic sensibilities of the “Sherlock” Emmy winner and “Fargo” Golden Globe nominee, and it made many of his fans probably wish to see him further explore his “Office” roots in future comedy projects, now that his time as Bilbo Baggins is over.
With Freeman confidently at the head, the episode ended up being one of the better installments of Season 40. But who exactly stole the show when Middle Earth and Studio 8H collided? Below are this week’s “Saturday Night Live” MVPs:
Taran Killam (“Right Side of the Bed, “Hobbit Office”)
Killam is often referred to as the show’s headlining male star, and this weekend he proved why and then some thanks to his most accomplished episode of the season thus far. Simply put, Killam dominated the evening as both an expert impressionist and a sketch-stealing character actor. He started off the show strong with the one-two impersonation punch of Charlie Rose (“The report is like a menu from the Cheesecake Factory – 600 pages of sickening details, yet I couldn’t put it down”) and a gravel-gargling Alan Rickman, the latter of which stole Freeman’s monologue right out from under his feet.
But Killam’s true talents were exhibited any time he got the chance to be uninhibitedly wacky. The morning show parody “Right Side of the Bed” was the type of sketch where one-note silliness is drawn out to its exhaustive last breathe, but Killam’s flamboyant personality and gleeful reaction shots elevated the material tenfold. Just look at the expression he gives after Cecily Strong exclaims “Just looking at you makes me tired” to see why he was the definitive sketch-savior during this bit. The comedian also triumphed as a Gollum/Gareth Keenan hybrid in the episode’s standout “Hobbit Office” mashup. Everything about the parody — the physicality, the voice, the carnivorous way he devours fish — was spot on. Just take a look at the clip below and behold Killam’s greatness.
Cecily Strong (“One-Dimensional Female Character from a Male Driven Comedy”)
Strong’s sassy Atlanta-twang certainly gave Killam a run for his money during “Right Side of the Bed,” but it was her “Weekend Update” appearance as One-Dimensional Female Character from a Male Driven Comedy that stole the episode entirely. Brought out to shed light on the lack of interesting female roles in Hollywood, Strong’s latest “Update” character perfectly addressed the ingredients that make up the “cool supportive girl friend,” while the comedian’s frustrating monotone cut open what makes that character so repetitively unfulfilling for actresses.
The entire bit could be summarized by the hilariously dead-on quote, “You’re welcome Jost, and I’m calling you by your last name because I’m fun and crazy and surprising and hot and a girl. Confusing, right? Welcome to my world! I sleep in a jersey,” which Strong rushed through emotionlessly, so that it stung even harder. As Strong checked off all the items on the character’s standard story arc (the awkward sexual encounter, the realization she may love her guy friend, the climactic glasses removal where the guy sees just how beautiful she really is), she gave every “Welcome to my world!” and “Confusing, right?” a potent subtext of Hollywood disappointment. Between this and “Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started A Conversation With At A Party,” Strong is proving she’s still a smart comedic powerhouse behind the “Weekend Update” desk.
Vanessa Bayer (“Jacob The Bar Mitzvah Boy,” “Wedding Objections”)
Anytime the show adds fuel to Bayer’s weird fire, it’s pretty much a guarantee she’ll end up as one of the evening’s most valuable players. Such was the case this episode. Her small part in “Wedding Objections” could have been a fleeting moment, but leave it to Bayer to turn 10-seconds into dynamite comedy. Her sad, deranged desperation delivering the line, “Remember me? I’m your wife, Patricia. Quick question: Why are you throwing away our marriage like this?” made her moment here a sketch highlight.
The show also brought out Jacob The Bar Mitzvah Boy for the first time this season, giving Bayer the opportunity to remind viewers why this is one of the most reliably funny recurring “Update” characters of the last several years. Maybe it’s the way Bayer’s awkward nerves and faithful confidence reflect my own preparation for the big event, or just how funny she sporadically wipes her tears after getting emotional over Derek Jeter’s retirement, but either way this character never falls to shatter the funny bone into a million pieces. Here’s wishing Jacob a happy and healthy Hanukkah.
Keenan Thompson (“Sump’n Clause,” “Holiday Gig”)
Thompson deserves some kind of comedy award just for the way he pronounces “my boots” during the “Holiday Gig” sketch. Considering how abysmal this bit could’ve been, given its weird blending of Thompson’s energetic “What’s Up With That?” work and the “Serial” podcast, the comedian and his high energy get bonus points for keeping the proceedings consistently funny. One of Thompson’s biggest strengths as a performer is the fine line he’s able to walk between staying in character and breaking — he might as well be the Philippe Petit of “SNL” given how effortlessly he maneuvers this high wire act. Thompson never outright breaks form, but he manages to find this unique limbo area where he can acknowledge the absurdity of the sketch while convincingly playing along with it. In many ways he seems to break character but only in the subtext of the performance. Not only does he showcase this gift every time he utters “my boots,” but also every time he directly looks into the camera during the Christmas-spoof music video “Sump’n Clause.” Try not to laugh every time Thompson gives the camera a mischievous wink before breaking out, “Everybody’s getting sump’n!”
Honorable Mentions: This week was such a great one for all of the show’s stalwart cast members that we have to give Kate McKinnon, Bobby Moynihan and Aidy Bryant a quick shoutout. Props to McKinnon’s delightful Maggie Smith impersonation and mortified wedding opposer (“I’m a mild mannered person, but when I saw those two every hair on my body stood up and said, “Go in and shut it down!”), Moynihan’s delusional Gandalf/David Brent office manager (“Dildo Baggins!”) and Bryant’s Norma Desmond-inspired waterbed saleswoman (“Our waterbeds are the beeeeesssst!”).
Needs Improvement: Sasheer Zamata
What’s left to say at this point other than that Zamata is “SNL” dead weight. This marks the second week in a row she lands in our “Needs Improvement” spot, and the third time overall this season, and while the show has always done her no favors by regulating her to thankless supporting roles (i.e. the video honey in “Sump’n Clause”), they’ve actually given her the chance to show her skills and leave an impression for two weeks now and each time she has miserably dropped the ball. Last week she sucked all the life out of her Rihanna impersonation, and this week she couldn’t even find a comedic pulse playing the easiest character the show has ever given her: Herself.
Bringing Zamata out on “Weekend Update” to talk about the lack of black emojis was a great chance for her to show viewers her comedic personality (something we haven’t seen from her since her Season 39 debut in January), and while the subject was quite hilarious and bluntly truthful (the dark moon substituting as a black smiley face was especially potent), Zamata brought absolutely nothing to what could’ve been an impassioned tirade (just thinking about what Leslie Jones would’ve done with the same material makes we wish the show brought her out instead). Zamata never raised her voice, never threw her arms in the air, and never even gave a reaction to let viewers know just how mad a lack of black emojis was making her. For a topic that should inspire rage, Zamata was painfully lifeless. This was a missed opportunity on all accounts, and it’s time to let Zamata go so that other cast members have more time to shine:
“Saturday Night Live” is all new this week with host Amy Adams and musical guest One Direction.