If you want to see the every-schlub persona Louis C.K. has perfected, watch his Saturday Night Live monologue. Twice now, he's turned his opening salvo into a ten-minute stand-up set that foretells where his new hour is heading. (This time: toward children's plays, the plight of women, and mankind's complicated relationship with spirituality.) During the rest of the show, however, there's another Louis C.K. — the one from the legendary writers room of Dana Carvey's short-lived network sketch show, and also The Chris Rock Show — and that guy is a glorious weirdo.
It's been an interesting time for C.K. since his first outing as host back in December 2012. Since then, he's had roles in the Oscar-nominated films Blue Jasmine and American Hustle, a new HBO special, and some much-needed off-time to produce the new season of his hit show Louie, which is set to return on May 5. Would this latest level of long-peaking career success knock the absurdity out of the guy who inspired the now-classic Lincoln sketch? It seemed possible from the way last night's SNL began, but an abrupt shift halfway through signaled the forthcoming onslaught of insanity. It didn't always click, and it wasn't always funny, but the show avoided being boring by a mile.
Presidential Dress Down of the Week
A lot has happened in the two weeks since SNL last aired. Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 went missing and CNN lost its mind. Kimye landed the cover of Vogue and Sarah Michelle Gellar lost her mind. Facebook bought another thing. Despite this stacked deck of topical opportunities, the show's writers went with President Obama's appearance on Between Two Ferns for the cold open. It's hard to satire a satire, so instead it's a springboard for mocking Obama's efforts at getting uninsured youngs on healthcare.gov. Again.
In this iteration, Noël Wells plays the bespectacled social media guru who set up Between Two Ferns. Now we see what other ideas she (and the writers) have for further appeals to college students. What follows is a parade of current-to-slightly dated cultural references, including Pharrell's Elmer Fudd hat, Batkid, the "Nae Nae" dance, and obviously a cat dressed like Elsa from Frozen. Taran Killam's assistant has some funny ways of convincing the president to do each PR op, but overall this sketch felt a bit too familiar. On the plus side of familiarity, we got Kate McKinnon's Justin Bieber again; which is always fun to see, regardless of context.
Sacrilegious Stand-Up of the Week
Louis C.K. is very good at stand-up comedy. When he's on a show and addressing the audience directly, he must do stand-up comedy. It's a rule.
Stereotype Tsunami of the Week
No one really knows why Dave Chappelle left his eponymous show ten years ago, but one of the reasons he gave was that he felt uncomfortable hearing the way a white crew member laughed at a Chappelle Show sketch about black stereotypes. Perhaps what Chappelle realized is that when black sketch performers mock racial stereotypes, some white audiences feel as though the stereotype is now a confirmed truth and they've just been given permission to laugh at it. That's not to say that stereotypes should suddenly be off-limits, but they should probably be presented at least as thoughtfully as they were on SNL tonight.
The game-show parody, "Black Jeopardy," mined some sharp linguistic humor out of categories like "It's Been a Minute" and "Pssssh" that Louis C.K.'s clueless African-American Studies professor could not wrap his brain around. Sure, the concept of CP Time came up as a punchline in and of itself, and the fake ads were lame, but these were easily forgivable when buffered by killer jokes about Michael Vick and Sarah McLachlan.
Growing Pains of the Week
Last fall's Baby Boss sketch was freshman cast-member Beck Bennett's breakout moment, a singular feat of physical comedy. A re-up was almost inevitable and so were the mixed feelings it ultimately provoked. While it delighted me to see Bennett's infantile executive take those unsure toddler-like steps again and wave his arms around the way babies do, the novelty was gone right away. Soon it felt like ticking off boxes (Spitting up? Check. Throwing food? Check.) The secret handshake and another new wrinkle added some freshness, but just like actual babies, this sketch ages very fast.
Questionable Disposables of the Week
Once the joke in this digital short is revealed — that Joseph A. Bank suits are reasonably priced enough to use as paper towels — there's pretty much nowhere to go beyond the admittedly funny tidbit that the suits may disintegrate upon touch.
As Final Four brackets imploded around the country, a rather brief Weekend Update saw the return of Jay Pharoah's fiery sportscaster Stephen A. Smith. Like Fred Armisen and Vanessa Bayer's best-friends-of-a-dictator characters, Pharoah's Smith mainly stresses that he's friends with certain people, like Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo, before trashing them. Luckily, the way Smith emphasizes the friendship — "If I want to call him, I just tell Siri to complete me" — produces some solid lines. Meanwhile, Colin Jost hasn't quite come into his own yet in his third time out as Update co-host — he tripped over a few of his lines tonight — but his grace period is far from expired.
Medium Stuff of the Week
Nearly a Spice Girls-worth of SNL's ladies are hanging out on a city stoop in matching red and zebra outfits (except for Kate for some reason, who's wearing black-and-white polka dots instead.) As they belt out "Mr. Big Stuff," Louis C.K.'s hapless passerby unwittingly becomes the song's subject. At first, I was not feeling this sketch. It seemed as though the musical number someone pitched for the monologue some week got pushed to the middle of this episode. Eventually, though, Louis C.K.'s increasingly sad protests regarding his Big Stuff status include "late onset albinism" and other such goodness, and we're back on track.
Big Maybe of the Week
Seemingly playing himself, our host is having a regular checkup with a doctor played by the oft-underused Mike O'Brien. Just as Louis is about to leave the office, he does a Colombo-style "just one more thing" beat and asks the doctor to check for any Darth Vader plastic figures that may be trapped inside his butt. The rest of the sketch plays out with a nice off-beat energy as other people demand similar inspections. The little details are what make this one work, like the mystery of why these guys all seem to know each other, O'Brien referring to each Darth Vader figure as "a Darth Vader," and the title card at the end, which children of the '80s should recognize.
What in the World of the Week
The previous two sketches have primed us for weirdness, but here's where things go too far. Louis C.K. and Vanessa Bayer are detectives with an appointment to have sex with each other in pajamas, and they're deciding whether to cut holes in them? I can't quite say for sure what I have just seen. The two leads share an intentionally stilted delivery pitched somewhere between old school porn, space aliens, and a 1950s laundry detergent commercial. I spent most of this sketch waiting to figure out what the joke was, and maybe that, itself, was the joke. In any case, I'd rather see a delirious dud like this sketch than one that's merely mediocre.
Personal Project of the Week
What starts as a parody of Cagney and Lacey-type female cop shows quickly turns into something much more, and something way better. In easily the funniest sketch of the night, Kate McKinnon and Aidy Bryant play '70s-style cops whose names define their characters. The two play, respectively, Les Dykawitz and Chubbina Fatzarelli — a.k.a. Dyke and Fats. It's clearly a personal statement, considering that McKinnon is openly gay and Bryant has a fuller figure. I loved how their characters' defining traits are depicted during the credits, like when McKinnon's badge contains a waterfall of dog photos, or when Bryant confidently slips a burger her phone number. The turn, of course, comes when Louis C.K.'s police chief tries to call the pair by their nicknames and they refuse to be pigeonholed. Judging by the end title card that reads "Created by Aidy Bryant and Kate McKinnon," the performers feel similarly.
Doomed Campaign of the Week
Kyle Mooney (often joined by Beck Bennett) seems to have a standing reservation with the last ten minutes of each SNL episode these days. His digital shorts have established a kooky aesthetic all their own — low-budget underachiever mockumentary — and while they're starting to become kind of similar, they're still fascinating and fun. This week's entry featured a terrible class president candidacy video, wherein student Chris Fizpatrick made a series of campaign promises nobody that benefit only himself. Nothing groundbreaking, but still enjoyable. Bonus points for interspersing scenes from a car chase in the video for absolutely no reason.
Grand Romantic Gesture of the Week
One aspect of romantic comedies that hasn't been mocked enough is the grand romantic gesture near the end of the movie. The guy or gal makes a speech, possibly in an airport and/or the rain, and all sins are suddenly forgiven. In the closing sketch of the night, Louis C.K.'s Dave is trying to win back Aidy Bryant's Stacey by describing the personal growth he's undergone recently — along with some seriously strange other shit. "I want you to be the last person I see before I go into a coma, and the first person I see when in Hell," Dave says in the same voice Vince Vaughn might use while promising a stop to his shenanigans to someone. It's a broader but equally bizarre version of the way Louis tends to twist clichés on his own show.