In the 24 years since he last hosted Saturday Night Live, Bruce Willis has made a lot of movies, and for some strange reason, last night's episode felt it necessary to reference all of them, from Die Hard to Look Who's Talking to an incredibly odd Armageddon theme to Bobby Moynihan's puzzlingly recurring Widdle Kitty Cat sketch. Continuing this season's (Miley excepted) theme of guest hosts with no tangible effect on pop culture in 2013 (Edward Norton hosts in two weeks!), Willis showed up and largely mumble-mouthed his way through a mixed bag of sketches that attempted to capitalize on whatever quality Bruce Willis brings to the table these days, only to discover that nobody really knows what quality Bruce Willis brings to the table these days. Aaron Paul was a more engaged and funny celebrity guest in his half-second cameo from the re-run "E-Meth" ad. Lucky for anyone watching the show, the regular cast members (and the new dudes in particular) picked up a lot of the slack.
Pop Culture/Political Tie-In of the Week
The fact that Gravity is important enough to warrant placement in SNL's cold open probably benefits the movie more than it does the TV show. Taran Killam and Cecily Strong played stranded astronauts who don't find anybody but the custodial staff on duty when they radio NASA for help. Way to sneak a government-shutdown sketch in without resorting to more traditional means like an Obama press conference or even "Fox and Friends." Points to Kate McKinnon's Ukrainian cleaning lady, whose son needs money so he can head back home where the government is more stable.
Big Movie Star Indulgence of the Week
Willis's monologue goes through the normal motions as it waits to get to the meat and potatoes of it: a harmonica-off between Bruce and a comedically inept Bobby Moynihan. The latter does what he can, but the whole thing reminded me of when John Goodman would come on the show in the nineties, and they'd do a Blues Brothers number in the monologue. Goodman was always a great host, but the Blues Brothers were total FF material (or would have been, had the technology been available at the time; Lord, what did we DO back then??). Bruce Willis: Harmonica Dabbler felt like an artifact from 1989, like there's a Planet Hollywood opening in San Diego, and we're all invited.
Lady-Bashing of the Week
Oh, dudes. It's hard being you. Ladies are so crazy! Actually, the commercial parody for 24 Hour Energy — for guys dating actresses and thus subject to their inexhaustible need for attention — is pretty funny and allows for, among other things, Kate McKinnon to get very dramatic, which is a good thing. There's still a whiff of bros slapping weary fives to the sketch, at least until the side-product 24-Hour Energy For Dating Comedians is introduced. Not to get all Media Theory 201 on you or anything, but this is a sketch that would have worked just as well with either product getting placed up front, and it's just interesting to point out which direction the show went, that's all. EVERYONE IS A MISOGYNIST.
Mumblecore Moment of the Week
What exactly was up with Willis during this sketch? Basically a take-off on his action-star persona, the sketch threw Willis into a black ops squad, where his action-movie tactics and take-it-personal vendetta against the enemy make him a very strange (if entertaining) soldier. It's a solid idea for a sketch, and certainly Bobby Moynihan (here again on Bruce-propping duty) sells the hell out of it as an over-excited private, but only about one-third of Willis's lines were audible via his low-energy, mumbly delivery. The man turned pronouncing "somersault" into a Sisyphean exercise in futility. It made me wonder how many years now has Bruce been asked to do nothing but show up to movie sets and deliver smirking, lackadaisical line-readings that rely on his reputation more than any actual effort. In other words, when was the last time he actually acted? Don't you dare say Red.
Hopeful Do-Over of the Week
Once again, a promising sketch, and one I hope they let Kenan Thompson and Jay Pharoah try again with a more energetic host. The "old black men at a barbershop" conceit is one with some miles on it. We've all seen Coming to America. But I got some enjoyment out of hearing their weird and aggrandizing stories about Lou Brock, Rickey Henderson, and Pam Grier (she of the classic Blaxploitation film Chocolate Nipples). Willis is supposed to be the minor-key white dude whose stories aren't that great, but sketches that hinge on just how uncharismatic a person is are tricky enough without Mumbles Mabley over there mushmouthing about Helen Hunt. Meanwhile, I was riveted watching the two old gentlemen they got to just sit there and pretend to have their hair cut. The one looked like a black Tommy Lee Jones. I'm not sure his face ever moved.
Lonely Island Tribute of the Week
Interesting that the whatever-we're-calling-digital-shorts-now last season were decidedly weirder and more elliptical than the stuff that Andy Samberg and pals would bring to the table. This week brought things back to the old style so decidedly, it began to feel like a Lonely Island tribute act. I'd love to find out who were the primary movers behind this sketch, and particularly how much of the band of new dudes had to do with it. Tribute issues aside, it was very funny and easily one of the highlights of the show, with Vanessa Bayer (playing vaguely Marisa Tomei-ish in the voice) leaving her man and his pals alone to watch the game, only for the night to evolve into Boy Dance Party, complete with twerking, black-light silly string, and Taran Killam's arms, which did not get as much press for being new additions to the cast this season, though they should have. Down to the Shake Shack line, this was classic Andy, Jorma, and Akiva, but if it works, it works.
Missed Opportunity/Hate Crime of the Week
Sigh. "The Lady Gaga Talk Show." I guess the one good thing I could say about it is that at least they didn't let Katy Perry play Gaga, because lord knows the Internet would never stop talking about that one. But even as it stood in its Perry-less incarnation, this was a disaster. I love Vanessa Bayer to the moon and back, but what even was that attempt at a Lady Gaga impersonation? Why was she speaking like a non-congested Miley Cyrus instead of the throaty, faux-Marlene Dietrich that Gaga is? Why was Bruce Willis playing Michael Kors in the first place, much less spraying lisping offensiveness all over the studio in lieu of an actual impersonation? I almost felt bad for Aidy Bryant having to save the sketch as an overwhelmed normie ("What happened? I'm a high school principal!").
Best Best of the Week
Easily the best Weekend Update we've had all season, and probably one of the better ones of the post-Poehler era. Not even for the guests, really, though a billion props to Brooks Wheelan for his PSA on behalf of tattoo caution. That was a segment that really capitalized on his strengths as a stand-up, and it puts him well out in front of the pack when it comes to the new guys.
But really, the strength of this week's Update were the actual jokes, highlighted by a killer volley of Bruce/Kris Jenner punchlines. I wondered for a moment if they had made a conscious choice to give Cecily Strong all the best jokes in order to help her get over as the new host, but by the end, both Cecily and Seth were delivering killers, and the whole enterprise was running on rails. Strong's learning curve has been relatively steady so far, but this was a big upswing for her, for sure.
Baffling Recidivism of the Week
Why? WHY?! Why bring back Bobby Moynihan and his widdle kitty cat?? FOR GOD'S SAKE, WHYYYYYY?? (Also, as I mentioned before, glad the show was able to stay on the cutting edge of popular culture with the Armageddon parody.)
Welcome Respite of the Week
Almost everything about the Centauri Vodka sketch worked like an antidote to other things that didn't work tonight. Willis — as an actor hired to play the front half of a centaur, while the back half (John Milhiser) is struggling without ventilation in the costume — is unusually engaged in this one, like he just took a 24-Hour Energy or something. Also, the sketch is blessedly punchy and short, with Milhiser quickly circling the drain. We get to the part where Willis is dragging Randy's near-corpse around without a whole lot of feet-dragging (so to speak).
Second-Strangest Recurring Sketch of the Night
I remember very much liking the first iteration of Taran Killam as the incredibly protective/trashy/dumb son who gets way too worked up about "messing with" his unfortunate mark. Last time, that mark was Justin Bieber, and Killam's outsized aggression felt genuinely threatening to the youthful Canadian. You can't really achieve that same effect when you're coming up against Bruce Willis, can you? Especially when Willis is giving absolutely zero in terms of reactions.
New Guy Showcase of the Week
Very solid week for the new guys (though a fairly invisible one for Noël Wells). The Frat House house digital short showcased Beck Bennett and Kyle Mooney's low-key comedic chops and rather killer line deliveries. The elaborate rules of beer pong spiral out into stranger, less beer-focused directions like whistling a favorite tune ("a chance for us to learn what makes you a very special and unique person inside of you") and drawing one's ideal rollercoaster ("disregard the laws of physics and create the coaster of your wildest dreams"). This is the kind of stuff that makes you look forward to the final half-hour of the show.