While the success of any SNL episode depends, to some degree, on how you feel about the host, it’s particularly true when the host is a stand-up comedian. Because the host is more likely to participate in the actual writing of sketches (sometimes bringing in his own writers), the show ends up being a showcase for that comedian’s style of humor.
Most comedians don’t enjoy broad, mainstream popularity – they’re more polarizing figures. Comedians are by nature niche performers, and despite the success of people like Louis C.K., Zach Galifianakis and Conan O’Brien, there are still millions of reasonable people who don’t “get” them. And when a comedian becomes too successful, like Jay Leno or Dane Cook, it’s not long before a new wave of true believers brand them as evil sell-outs.
Russell Brand is a good example of this polarization. Some people find his ego and energy charming, while others can’t stand the guy. I prefer him in small doses, like his role in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, or, in this case, a well trimmed sketch. After more than a few minutes on screen, however, he transforms into that annoying, flamboyant foreign exchange student who keeps stealing all the chicks at the party.
In general, the pieces that worked were the ones that mixed in just the right amount of Brand — enough to harness the comedian’s energy and personality, but not too much to make you get sick of him.
Spider-man Lawsuit. Fred Armisen played in a faux-commercial as a personal injury lawyer for people injured by Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. This was one of the more clever jabs we’ve seen at the notoriously jinxed Broadway show, with complaints such as “Fell asleep so suddenly I hit head on seat in front of me” and “Green Goblin’s pants feel down, saw package.” The sketch also benefitted from an additional layer of cheesy-lawyer-commercial jokes, with video edits of Armisen wearing a Spider-man colored business suit, and the fact that all settlements are in the form of tickets to future performances of the show.
British Movie. Bill Hader starred in a trailer for a British action movie where the actors’ thick accents make it impossible for an American audience to understand them. A great premise, well executed, from the production value down to the spot-on deliveries of the performers: “Don’ You Go Rounin’ Roun to Re Ro.”
Royal Taster. In another strong premise, Taran Killam played a royal taste-tester for a king (Brand) whose rude behavior invites poison threats from his chef (Hader). While the screaming matches between Brand and Hader began to drag a bit, the focus on Killam’s fear kept the sketch from going too far off the deep end. Also, bonus points for the fun twist at the end.
Weekend Update. Seth Meyers brought it home again this week with some solid jokes, specifically some Photoshop fun with ex-congressman Christopher Lee’s Craigslist photo. Armisen stopped by as former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, lamenting over his resignation, including a dark thanks to America for money, support and tear gas: “You know what they say, Seth… behind every horrible dictator is an enabling superpower.” Ouch. The piece with Lil’ Wayne (Jay Pharoah) and Eminem (Killam) fueled my previously stated argument that Pharoah is too inexperienced a live performer to be on SNL. Killam, who unlike Pharoah wasn’t cast solely for his impersonation skills, nonetheless blew timing-afflicted Pharoah out of the water with a Grammy-worthy Marshall Mathers. Knife!
I’m gonna go ahead and say it: These Stefon pieces are the funniest writing on television right now. I’m always blown away by Simon Rich and John Mulaney’s imaginative descriptions and innovative uses for midgets, and Bill Hader’s delivery seals the deal. I appreciated the fact they avoided the same basic structure and pacing of past Stefon pieces. I just pray that they don’t spoil the character by dragging him into seven-minute sketches, or worse, a 90-minute feature.
George Washington. This week’s 10-to-1 sketch was well executed, with government leaders bringing the first president from the past to get some answers about the founding fathers’ original intent, just to have Washington freak out and attack everyone. We could have seen some more chaos in the brawl (and this was probably cut drastically for time), but it was great twist to forego the standard topical pieces for something shorter, simpler, and more refreshing.
Bill O’Reilly-Barack Obama Cold Open. Armisen and Jason Sudeikis re-enacted the interview between the president and the conservative pundit. The problem with many of SNL’s topical pieces is that they try to cram in so many scattershot references to the event rather than honing in on one simple premise. It’s the same problem with impersonations versus impressions: Rather than trying to get a parody mirror-perfect, just focus on one characteristic of the subject and escalate it. Of course, some news events are already so absurd that mere re-enactment is parody enough (see: Katie Couric’s interview of Sarah Palin). While this piece had its moments — O’Reilly shouting at the president to “Sit down!” — as a whole it felt unfocused and messy.
Monologue. Brand did a stand-up routine, touching on topics such as how famous he is in England, how tight his pants were, and what it’s like being married to Katy Perry. As previously mentioned, your enjoyment of this piece depended on your loyalty to Brand. The studio audience seemed to like him more and more as the routine went on. I respect his energy and general likability; I just got sick of him after two minutes.
Vacation Giveaway. Kristen Wiig reprised her enthusiastic host of a surprise vacation giveaway show, while Brand played the apathetic winner. This is a tough premise to pull off: We’re supposed to laugh at the image of someone not reacting. While unexpected apathy can be very amusing, it isn’t laugh-out-loud hilarious. The writers tried to buffer the sketch with fun cut-tos of past winners and by encouraging Wiig to go wild with her wacky physicality, which to be fair went a long way. But at its heart, the piece felt a little hollow for me.
Livin’ Single. Vanessa Bayer hosted a talk show for singles. Unfortunately, rather than focusing on one funny premise, such as how secretly miserable single people are, or giving more focus to the hopelessly heartbroken DJ (Killam), the core premise seemed to be the host’s infatuation with the sexy guest played by Brand, perhaps due to Brand’s over-the-top physical improvisations. If this was truly a show for singles, why wouldn’t we see audience members upset over their host’s clear flirtations?
A Spot of Tea. One of the more bizarre sketches of the night featured Brand, Hader and Andy Samberg as old English women on a talk show, trying to drink tea despite a series of violent earthquakes. I was fine with the premise, and I especially enjoyed the absurdity of the women screaming “The seismograph!” whenever a quake erupted, but for the joke to land we needed to see more reactions from the women. Why weren’t they scalded by their tea? That would’ve been great! Instead, they undersold the reactions, weakening the integrity of the clash of context.
As a whole, this episode featured some of the most creative premises we’ve seen from the writers room in a while (only one reprisal). The unusually high number of fresh pieces likely resulted from the reprisal-heavy Dana Carvey episode last week. More often than not, Russell Brand was limited to a few minutes at a time, which was a comfortable fit for those of us easily turned off by the larger-than-life comedian.
Taran Killam seems to have secured his place on the show for at least another season, while Paul Brittain, who was completely absent this week, is sadly fading into the periphery. You still have time, man! Get in some sketches before it’s too late!
I admit that I know absolutely nothing about what makes a good musical guest, but Chris Brown’s choreography was fantastic! Perhaps a few too many karate punches, though — he could really hurt someone.
Erik Voss really loves SNL.