The first time Joseph Gordon-Levitt hosted Saturday Night Live, in 2009, he so wanted to make an impression as a Serious Guy Who Could Do Comedy that he nearly killed himself flipping around the stage during his "Make 'Em Laugh" monologue. Here in his second turn as host, we got a comparatively calmer JGL. Which isn't to say he wasn't trying, but there are episodes where it seems like there's a concerted effort to throw the host out front-and-center and prove he or she is worthy, and this one felt like everyone was comfortable enough to let him settle in and let the cast do their thing. Which I guess is a nice way of saying that the host didn't really deliver any of the night's highlights. But he DID take his shirt off, so ...
Nasim Pedrad and Jay Pharoah took on Kelly Ripa and her new Live co-host Michael Strahan, who is just giddy about the fact that his new job is so easy. SNL has a pretty long tradition of skewering the vacuousness of daytime chat shows, from Hoda and Kathie Lee to The View (Holler at me if you remember Nora Dunn and Jan Hooks's parody of Attitudes), though I expected someone to take a shot at Seth Meyers for guest hosting so many times during Kelly's co-host search. Still, points for the joke about Kelly's unexpected sturdiness. She DOES seem like she'd be quite dense.
It's always fun in the first few weeks of the SNL season to watch them clear out all the backed-up material from not being on all summer, and the monologue where Gordon-Levitt quickly got into the Magic Mike stripping spirit was better late than never. (I'm a sucker for a gag like Kenan's hat popping off in excitement, what can I say?) It gave us the opportunity to meet the night's two other co-hosts: skinny little JGL has some ARMS on him! Far be it from me to be shallow while discussing a stripping sketch, but hi there, biceps.
Sketch of the Night
JGL played the straight man to Taran Killam's mocking non-victim of a hack hypnotist. It's a deceptively well-plotted sketch for something that so quickly devolves into Killam in his underwear making dinosaur noises (Taran Killam's Gleaming White Torso making its second appearance of the night, and I'm glad to see my man is keeping it tight for his breakout season). This is the rare SNL sketch with an actual ending rather than watching the idea spin out into dust, and it's all the better for it.
Best Political Sketch
SNL Weekend Update Thursday kind of cherry-picked all the best political content, but the "Undecided Voter" ad was as sharp as anything the show has done this election cycle. But seriously, what if men can't vote?
Impersonation of the Night
Pretty decent Weekend Update, with Seth trying to re-create that "Really?!?!" magic with "What Are You Doing?" and the triumphant return of Fred Armisen and Vanessa Bayer as [Pick a Despot]'s Two Best Friends. But the show was stolen by Kate McKinnon's unexpectedly brassy Ann Romney. I could listen to her pine for a sit-down with Jay-Z and "Bay-on-Say" all day.
Second Best Impersonation of the Night
The problem of what to DO with Jay Pharoah's laser-sharp parodies is still an issue, partly because he'll pull out something as niche as ESPN's obnoxiously loud Stephen A. Smith. The impersonation is too good — just scarily accurate — to just let it sit on a shelf, but unless you're the kind of sports junkie who watches ESPN's insufferable argument television, there's no way of knowing just how good it is.
Best Excuse for One Fleeting Joke
It's always a mystery to me which SNL commercial parodies merit callbacks in the next act, and I really don't think the Tres Equis/World's Most Interesting Man's D-Bag Son was screaming for extra air time, but that second spot gave us the parody Twitter account "Dildo Baggins," so I'll let it slide.
What Didn't Work
Bill Hader gave his level best as a noir detective/caricature artist that just fell flat, but at least it was brief. The same could not be said of the endless "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" London pub sketch, which could not possibly have justified the amount of money the show likely had to shell out for the music rights. Also, that "spinning out into the crowd" ending only made me think of last season's superior "See U When U Get There" idiocy with Jonah Hill and Kristen Wiig. The requisite JGL-in-drag sketch didn't come until the final half-hour and started promising (the dreamy way his teenage Evelyn says "Receiving ...") but devolved into an endless, tuneless song. That kind of Fred Armisen trademark "it's not funny, it's not funny, it's not funny, so now it's funny" comedy is SUPER hit-or-miss, and this one missed.
Best Jay-Z Material
If you're looking to make the case that Jay-Z really IS the new Sinatra, SNL would be a good place to gather evidence, as their increased attention to him is doing more to cement him as a New York cultural icon than anything happening at Barclay's. And it's all so indirect, like last night's "Finer Things" sketch, where the Hova-style fusion of hip-hop and high fashion got a good send-up. Check that Hermes bag, son!