After an extremely promising run of episodes closed out 2014 on a high note, all eyes were on “Saturday Night Live” this weekend to see if the show would sustain its upward momentum as the second half of Season 40 got underway. Unfortunately, the first episode of the new year was largely the Kevin Hart show, for better and for worse. Hart is inarguably one of the premiere names in comedy these days, so it makes sense he bucked host tradition and played lead in many of the night’s sketches, but so many of these bits were one note (a secret-exposing rap, an Instagram shaming) that Hart’s energized persona came off as redundant and dull. Any critic who complains about Hart’s lack of versatility could point to this episode as exhibit A.
Luckily the writers gave the host at least one good chance to play up his loudmouth personality (Hart as James Brown was an inspired choice) and subvert it (“Bushwick, Brooklyn 2015” is a season highlight). But for the most part this was a middling episode in what has surprisingly been a strong season of “SNL.”
Hart may have been front and center in nearly every sketch, but that didn’t stop the cast from shining in supporting roles. Here are the MVPs of “SNL” Week 11:
Kate McKinnon (“Justin Bieber Calvin Klein”)
“I’m a big boy now,” announced Kate McKinnon as a too-cool-for-school Justin Bieber, and thus began the show’s hilarious sendup of the musician’s headline-making Calvin Klein ads. McKinnon has been an expert at masking Bieber’s childishness under a thin veil of pseudo-masculinity in the past, and that skill really allowed all of his attempts at being a rebellious bad boy in the parody ad to feel laugh-out-loud pathetic. The macho actions were ridiculous enough (combing his nonexistent mustache, riding a scooter, half-assed pushups), but they were one-upped by the great one-liners (“I’m not supposed to drink, but I do,” or “This tattoo made me say, ‘Owie'”). McKinnon even put all the photoshop rumors to rest with her expert delivery of “Yo, my peepee’s in there!” Four stars all around.
Jay Pharaoh (“Kevin’s Son,” “Bushwick, Brooklyn 2015”)
Week 11 was an ideal showcase for Pharoah’s skills as a comedic performer. “Kevin’s Son” allowed the master impressionist to break out his killer (and unseen) Kevin Hart impersonation, and unlike his fairly routine Obama sendup, this one not only nailed the host’s boisterous vocal rhythms but also skewered them by adding a bratty sassiness. Pharaoh was basically showing how annoying Hart can be sometimes, and for that, both comedians get major credit.
Even better was the gentrification satire “Bushwick, Brooklyn 2015,” which if you ask me is an instant classic of the modern “SNL” era. This is probably the most razor-sharp smart comedy “SNL” has displayed all season (mistaking baby mamas for artisanal mayonnaise shops was gut-bustingly clever), and a majority of the video’s success had to do with the way performers like Pharaoh carried themselves in direct contrast to the gentrified stores and hobbies that now populate modern Bushwick, Brooklyn. Sketches like these show a more nuanced side to Pharaoh, and the show would be wise to continue showcasing his more natural self.
Kenan Thompson (“MLK Cold Open,” “Bushwick, Brooklyn 2015”)
Similar to Pharaoh, the above Bushwick satire showed a more nuanced side to Thompson, and his reaction to the news Hart had actually killed someone easily joins the pantheon of sketch-stealing Thompson reaction shots. Fortunately, the performer also got to show his MVP-liness in the show’s cold open, playing an apparition of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We’ve talked in the past about Thompson’s unique ability to tease breaking without ever actually going out of character, and it’s remarkable how fresh he maintains this skill every episode without making it feel tired or lazy. Just look at the way he awkwardly moves his hands upon the ghost’s appearance or anytime he shouts “Oh, the mountain!” for proof. It’s this ability of his that also allows the sketch’s thesis, that whites have detracted from the value of MLK Day and MLK’s legacy, to have a timely, intelligent undercurrent. Thompson’s one of the only performers who could relate this theme in a funny and accessibly savvy way without going overboard into outright condemnation (it’s more of a critique than an assault), and for that he is once again an “SNL” MVP.
Season 40 Ensemble (“Get On Up”)
As mentioned in the intro, whoever decided to channel Hart’s boisterous persona through James Brown deserves major bonus points. And yet the fact “Get On Up” featured a majority of the Season 40 ensemble on set all at once for the first time was what made it truly special. If you’re going to build a sketch around a host and regulate cast members to the background, this is exactly the way you do it. Each cast member here only had a line or two, but everyone was so in synch that the sketch fired on all cylinders. Taran Killam, Bobby Moynihan and Beck Bennett all said “Yes,” for instance, but their various vocal deliveries (especially Killam’s) made each one unique and showed just how versatile these cast members. Cecily Strong’s “with mustard!” was humorously random, and Sasheer Zamata even got a moment to shine when she rebutted, “I ain’t bringing out no damn capes!” It may have been an average episode overall, but the cast continued to prove its unified strength.
Needs Improvement: Leslie Jones (“Kevin’s Son”)
Unleash Leslie Jones behind the “Weekend Update” desk and you’re bound to have an MVP. Put Leslie Jones in a sketch and… well, the results are decidedly uneven. Jones has unquestionably been a great addition to the show, but she needs to start working on her sketch work so that her spirited personality doesn’t detract from the tone of any given bit. Just because Jones’ aggression is her comic gift doesn’t mean she should be using it every time she’s on screen, and in sketches like “Kevin’s Son” her huge personality actually worked against her, since she can’t always go big and read cue-cards at the same time (this also hurt her during the Chris Rock episode). Like Pharaoh and Thompson in the Bushwick sketch, the show would be wise to showcase Jones’ more relaxed side in future weeks so that her real comedic strengths don’t become tirelessly strained.
“Saturday Night Live” is all new this Saturday, with host and musical guest Blake Shelton.