Following two lackluster episodes and with a giant 40th anniversary special right around the corner, “Saturday Night Live” sure needed a home run more than ever this week. Luckily, host J.K. Simmons stepped up to the plate during a confident and highly promising “SNL” debut. Who would’ve thought the Best Supporting Actor Oscar frontrunner would out-host a standup comedian like Kevin Hart? Given the actor’s wide-ranging filmography, it seems more of us should have been expecting such a dynamite host. Not only did Simmons gamely take on his grueling “Whiplash” persona, humorously bashing cast members during his inspired opening monologue (“Aidy, if I want someone to kiss my ass I’ll tell them. Now get out!”), but he also had no problem committing to all the unusual material the writers gave him (“Career Day,” anyone?). Simmons’ confidence was admirable, and he was such a natural onstage that he didn’t seem to need any help from the cue cards, making the awards darling the one host this season we’re really itching to see return ASAP.
With Simmons in charge, the rest of the cast fared incredibly well this week, particularly the entire ensemble during the episode’s must see moment. Here is the “SNL” Week 12 rundown:
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The One Sketch You Can’t Miss: “Teacher Snow Day”
From “New Marijuana Policy” to “Back Home Ballers,” Season 40 has been especially strong in the original short department, but no clip has been as insanely boisterous as “Teacher Snow Day.” It was a given the show would tackle The Blizzard of 2015, but turning the tables and focusing on the teachers was probably the best hook in doing so. So what exactly happens to teachers on snow days? We’ll let the video answer that loaded question, but suffice to say this clip expertly lets each cast member let his or her freak flag fly in moments of X-rated lunacy. From a pants-less J.K. Simmons to a smoking-weed-in-the-library Cecily Strong, behold all the crazy antics below:
Cast MVP: Vanessa Bayer (“Totino’s Super Bowl Commercial”)
This Bayer-led commercial joins “Asian-American Doll” as the best advertisement “SNL” has done this season. The concept here is simple – wives being forced to spend the Big Game preparing snacks in the kitchen (or as Bayer so hilariously says, “When it comes to the Big Game I love feeding my hungry guys, but now what?”) – but the satire is extremely sharp and the execution is just as ridiculous as it needs to be for the truths to really hit home. Watching Bayer awkwardly occupy her time in the kitchen by “spinning tops” and “counting fake money” is a hoot, and her climactic grin nails the funniest heights of “I’m dead inside” subtext.
Cast MVP: Kate McKinnon (“Casablanca”)
“SNL’s” classic movie paraodies can be quite hit or miss, but this comically-realized spin on “Casablanca” is one of the stronger spoofs the show has done recently. Once again the concept is very simple — Isla desperately wants to get on the plane after Rick mentions her dire fate, should she stay — but the chemistry is so perfect between Simmons and McKinnon, and the latter is so great at hamming it up (just the way she repetitively says “No!” is enough for a chuckle), that everything clicks just as it should here. This skit has us more pumped than ever about the funny lady joining the female ensemble of the “Ghostbusters” reboot. Bring it on.
Cast MVP: Taran Killam (“Jebidiah Atkinson”)
The humorously uptight 1860’s newspaper critic is one of Killam’s most reliable recurring characters, and his lack of screen time so far this season made his appearance in this episode a welcoming reminder of just how gut-busting Jebidiah can be. Attacking the Grammy nominees with his usual bitterness (“Iggy, wake up and smell the Azaleas, YOU’RE WHITE!”), Killam never fails to fully inhabit the character, complete with reactionary snarls and haughty glances that seal the show. Anyone that thinks The Beetles ruined Yoko certainly has a special place in our hearts.
Needs Improvement: Reoccurring Characters
A lot of what’s left to tweak on “SNL” falls in the writers room, and one of the biggest tips we can give them is to remember not to overplay funny characters. Remember how tired Pete Davidson and Leslie Jones’s “Weekend Update” schticks were getting when the show was dolling them out every week? The same thing occurred this week with Cecily Strong’s One-Dimensional Female Character. It’s not that the character isn’t funny (quite the contrary, when you have hilarious observations like, “I’m in this cute girl jersey, and tonight I’m gonna walk in front of my stainless steel refrigerator in just this and no pants. That’s how much I like sports”), but using her again so quickly after her formidable December debut made her routine – dryly rambling through a cliched rom-com movie plot – seem rather boring and predictable. This would’ve been a great time for Strong to break out her Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With at a Party instead, considering we haven’t seen that character in over a year. The show needs to be smarter when it comes to spacing out its reoccurring characters. Look no further than Jebidiah above to see why spacing out appearances works best.
“Saturday Night Live” returns Sunday, February 15 for a star studded “40th Anniversary Special” event.
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