After a monthlong Olympic hiatus, this week's Saturday Night Live promised an evening of firsts. In addition to Jim Parsons's inaugural outing as host, it was also the first time head writer Colin Jost took the Weekend Update reins from his upwardly mobile predecessor, Seth Meyers. One of the two first-timers did slightly better than the other, though, and it was probably the one you'd expect.
I've never watched geek-worshiping sitcom The Big Bang Theory, so I mainly know Parsons from his small roles in Garden State, The Muppets, and an inordinate number of Emmy acceptance speeches. I was, however, aware that he's Broadway-seasoned and thus used to the live stage; his SNL performance confirmed as much. Early on, the episode seemed to be veering toward something of a grand statement on Parsons's sexuality, with a role as Johnny Weir in the cold open and multiple allusions to his orientation during the monologue. Instead, the host ended up making an impression by ably slipping into a variety of nervous and indignant characters that suited his style while stretching the boundaries of it.
The other newbie, Colin Jost, looks like a young brunette Jimmy Kimmel who isn't about to trip you, and he has not quite found his Weekend Update personality. We've yet to get a sense of who this guy is, which was especially apparent in his interaction with Update guests. Fortunately, nobody expects him to hatch on the show fully formed. It's his first episode, and Jost's look of overwhelming happy relief whenever a joke lands is endearing for now.
There was one other first this week, however. It was the first show of the season where nobody in the cast was notably lacking in airtime. (Well, maybe Bobby Moynihan.) Heavy hitters Taran Killam, Vanessa Bayer, and Kenan Thompson were used more selectively, while terminally neglected new guy Brooks Wheelan got some solid turns, and Beck Bennett was all over the place. It may not have been the funniest episode of the season, but it was rather consistent and a strong step toward balancing out this plus-size cast.
Dorky Dancing of the Week
Kate McKinnon can do Ellen DeGeneres in her sleep. Not only has she played the pixie-haired host extraordinaire on SNL a number of times, she's even played Ellen on Ellen. She dances like her, she has the vocal tics down, and she constantly shifts seat positions — flinging her legs wildly akimbo. She also tells intentionally bad jokes and deflects the blame for them ("Just kidding, I'm Ellen"). The impression comes adorned with Ellen deep cuts you'd have to watch the show to know, like the inexplicable presence of ballet-outfitted British children and the supreme innocuousness of DJ Tony. But amidst all the familiarity, there are some fun surprises, like the reveal that the show is written by a trio of collies, and the fact that Parsons's Johnny Weir, whose candy-colored outfit evolves before our very eyes, keeps Tara Lipinski inside of his pocket.
Mission Statement of the Week
"I'm not that guy" is the inevitable return to monologue songs after some pretty interesting efforts at switching this section up over the last few episodes. Admittedly, though, I'm not mad at seeing Fonzie, Cosby, Urkel, and Costanza stand-ins all trying to distance themselves from their signature roles simultaneously.
Sibling Revelry of the Week
When Peter Pan returns to visit the Darling children much later, he is now joined by Tonkerbell, Tink's far less inhibited half-sister (same mom, but dad was a crafty housefly). Aidy Bryant's Tonkerbell has some spark, but she's kind of just generically sassy, and needed to be developed a bit more. On the positive tip, Bobby Moynihan as Gus Gus from Cinderella is a nice weird sight gag, and Tonk's "Okay, Fancy Business Baby" might just become my new go-to retort for everything.
Biblical Proportions of the Week
Making fun of religion is kind of tricky. You can be Bill Maher and just sort of wag your finger at people for being dumb enough to believe anything, or you can take the more granular approach of dissecting one aspect. In the Bird Bible sketch, the SNL crew mocks the idea of teaching the bible to children, filled as it is with scenes of horrific violence. Papa Mike O'Brien shows his son gruesome moments from biblical history, as recreated by birds, bringing home the point that children might not be ready to process some of the stuff said to have gone down back then.
One Little Slip-Up of the Week
I mean, anybody looks creepy in Mark David Chapman mode, but Jim Parsons looks especially so that way. In this week's most high-concept, Parsons plays The Dance Floor Killer, a serial murderer who decapitates, dismembers and eats victims he encounters on the hottest dance shows of the eighties. The sketch cuts between actual dancers from Dance Party USA, plants like Vanessa Bayer who look the part, and also our killer looking very homicidal in a khaki jacket and wire-rimmed glasses. What's funny about the sketch is how little Parsons cares about being caught (his one little slip-up is saying "I'm The Dance Floor Killer" on live TV), but overall this one seems like it was probably funnier on paper than it is in, um, execution.
I'm Not Touching That With a Ten-Foot Pole of the Week
The Academy Awards show is on tonight, a fact that is brought up on SNL in not one but three separate sketches. In what is easily the cleverest of the bunch, an Oscar Profiles show is an excuse for having some fun with 12 Years a Slave. I mentioned a couple paragraphs ago that it can be tricky to make fun of religion. Do you know what else is tricky to make jokes about? The film 12 Years a Slave. Here, though, we're looking at the probable awkwardness white actors must have endured while auditioning for small roles in the film. Brooks Wheelan is initially trying out for Friendly Guy in the Field, but soon finds himself reading with Sasheer Zamata for the part of slave owner. Mike O'Brien's improv-trained character is told to go off-script in his audition, and ends up using words like "bozos" and "jerks" to stick it to slaves, rather than a certain other word. It's interesting for a show that has its own racial issues to call attention to the white guilt that entertainment might generate on both sides of the screen.
Critique of the Week
Colin Jost starts off his first episode as a cast member with a rare moment of utter sincerity, expressing his gratitude for being on the show and the fact that it's a dream come true. Eventually, he's joined by guests Charles Barkley and Shaquille O'Neal, who are there to comment on openly gay basketball player Jason Collins signing with the Nets. Pharoah as Shaq is bearded and cross-eyed, and he also has on Mardi Gras beads. Kenan has a bald cap on, so technically he's in costume, but he's basically just being Kenan. The two have fun with how dumb Shaq seems (he thinks blinking is a nap that lasts less than a second), but overall this segment is a bit stiff. More successful is Killam's return as all-purpose old-timey critic Jebidiah Atkinson, back for the third time this season to review the Oscar contenders. By now, his shtick is running a little thin, but Killam still sells the hell out of it, making unbridled contempt feel remarkably light.
Fanny Tickler of the Week
It doesn't seem intentional, but tonight's murder mystery sketch felt oddly reminiscent of the classic Upright Citizen Brigade fortune-cookie sketch. They both feature two couples on a night out, during which unlikely events conspire to make one man look ridiculous, while his frustrated reaction escalates the tension between him and everyone else. (Even the final turn is similar.) On SNL, the two couples are participating in a murder mystery dinner theater that finds Jim Parsons forced to portray harmless oversexed nutball, Simply Dudley, much to his chagrin. It's an expertly paced sketch that may forever alter the way you think of the expression, "go to town."
Poster Patrol of the Week
After seeing Ellen DeGeneres and Jebidiah Atkinson (although somehow no game or talk shows), this return to Spotlightz! Acting Camp for Serious Kids is when the show officially felt perhaps too familiar. Although Vanessa Bayer's over-enunciation is still worth a smile, this is one sketch that doesn't seem destined for longevity. The best part in this iteration was the poster art for the various films these young actors have starred in. Bayer's Return to Pizza Island was good, but I kind of want to get The Fantabulous Magnabulous World of Janitor Ken on my wall. The amazed look on Parsons's face as he stares at whatever Thompson's janitor is doing is priceless.
Poop Joke of the Week
A three-minute poop joke, it turns out, is still a three-minute poop joke, even if the setup is amusingly elaborate.
Cowboy Birthday of the Week
Like a latter-day Blazing Saddles, the final sketch of the night is set amongst the fake cacti and purple plains of cowboy country. Head cowboy Dwayne has a birthday in the morning, and the rest of the team is intent on making it a good one. Parsons's Clem character is dead set, though, on a birthday surprise whose increasingly complicated plan involves body-painting, burial in a dirt pile, and springs. It is a very silly sketch that never fully connects, and it's perhaps most notable for the amount of screen time it affords Brooks Wheelan. It was fitting to end this equal-opportunity episode with a sketch that used so many freshman cast members.