Well, so much for a season punctuated by inspired first-time hosting gigs. Although newbie host Russell Crowe tried his damnedest to have some fun on the sketch comedy show during his debut, gamely biting into hologram chicken and yukking it up during a boring game show sketch and even delivering a charmingly self-effacing monologue, the live material he was offered was sub-par at best. Newbie hosts like Peter Dinklage and Ariana Grande were given well-tailored material that they often knocked out of the park. No such luck for Crowe.
Oddly enough, the best material last night was the stuff that was not live. Sure, “Saturday Night Live” has always danced around with pre-recorded material (and no, The Lonely Island’s digital shorts were not the first time this happened, though they were certainly the most widely seen and well-loved), but the divide last night between the live stuff and the pre-recorded offerings was uncomfortably vast.
Of course, that divide will likely, well, divide people. Should “Saturday Night Live” just be live? Oof, not when the live picks look like this.
The Two Best Sketches: “Oprah” and “Pogie Pepperoni’s”
Mike O’Brien may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but the writer turned cast member turned basically free agent has a worldview and a humor that’s unique, genuinely strange, often charming and like nothing else on the rest of the show (though Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett occasionally hew closest to it, more on that to come). How refreshing than that a mostly flat show ended with a brand-new Mike O’Brien short, setting him up as the star of perhaps the world’s worst-conceived Oprah Winfrey biopic. O’Brien has done this sort of thing before, including a sketch that saw him starring as Jay-Z, and while the premise might sound ripe for insult, the joke is always on O’Brien. Wide, goofy smile in place, slight bewilderment leaping off his every move, O’Brien is always ready to hang the joke on his own discomfort, before jumping out to hammer home some hilariously true points (O Magazine, anyone?).
Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett are the closet O’Brien substitute the show currently has in its casting ranks, and that spirit shows through when they’re allowed to go out of the box for sketches like “Pogie Pepperoni’s.” Whereas O’Brien traffics in weird things that are also sweet, Mooney and Bennett love adding a mortifying, manchild-heavy twist to that cocktail. The joke of “Pogie” might be clear pretty early on, but the duo elevate it by ending on exactly the right note, one that’s both totally unexpected and perfectly suited to the gag. May every sketch have such a good sense of timing.
The Worst Sketch: “Shanice Goodwin”
Best Male Performer: Kyle Mooney
Between the trademark weirdness of “Pogie Pepperoni’s” and another turn as his calling card character Bruce Chandling, Mooney had a very strong showing last night, especially for fans of Kyle Mooney (get on this train, get on it now).
Honorable Mention: Beck Bennett
Best Female Performer: Leslie Jones
Jones is so amusingly expressive during even low-key roles (see: her work in “Pogie Pepperoni’s”) that she can’t help but leave her stamp on every performance. Even the bad stuff she starred in, like “Shanice Goodwin,” is better simply because she’s there. That’s star power.
Honorable Mention: Cecily Strong
Sketch Most Likely to Go Viral: “Politics Nation: Voter I.D. Disaster”
It’s Al Sharpton (the real one) playing against Al Sharpton (the fake one) talking about voter I.D. laws. Putting real people up against their long-standing “SNL” counterparts is always delicious fodder for the internet, but sneaking in an actual discussion about a real political problem without resorting to bad reenactments of debates or cheap fireside chats? This one deserves a new life on the web.
Best Impression: Kenan Thompson as Al Sharpton
So, when is “SNL” going to put out a “Saturday Night Live: Best of Kenan Thompson” package? Because that would be good.
Character Most Likely to Become a Franchise Character That Is a Franchise That You Should Love So Much More Than You Do Right Now: Kyle Mooney as Bruce Chandling
I get it. I really, really get it. Bruce Chandling isn’t funny. But “Bruce Chandling” is hilarious. Kyle Mooney’s trademark character is a divisive one, often knocked by the audience (both at home and in the studio, the live laughs last night were few and far between) for not being funny, a surface level criticism that denies how keenly Mooney is nailing what’s basically an amalgamation of Chandling types that anyone familiar with the stand up comedy circuit has encountered dozens of times. The trick for Mooney is injecting a little pathos into it, making you almost care for a bad comedian who has never learned to read the temperature of the room and who delivers the most ham-fisted jokes imaginable. Again, Chandling is bad, Mooney is great. Give it another look.
Colin Jost Tie-Watch: Still Wearing It
Well, at least we saw the tie live in action.
“Saturday Night Live” returns on April 16 with host Julia Louis-Dreyfus and musical guest Nick Jonas.