They say there's no such thing as bad publicity, but Saturday Night Live got some attention this past week that was objectively not great. First, there was the cringe-making matter of plagiarism accusations over last episode's River Sisters sketch, and then former cast member and Sweeney Sister Jan Hooks passed away. The former event called into question the show's originality and ethics, while the latter reminded aged skeptics of a cast member they once loved and all these new people they can't quite keep track of, and the inexorable march of time. While SNL certainly can, and did, pay tribute to the dearly departed Hooks on-air, the only way the writers and performers could address the plagiarism accusations was indirectly — by putting on a solid show with a total pro for a host, and throwing in some moments of unimpeachable originality. (Hi there, puppet Vietnam flashback!)
It's rather amazing that having Bill Hader host counts as assurance that we're in good hands. As he recalls during the monologue, ten years ago, he was working as an editor on Iron Chef while performing in improv shows on nights and weekends. In the interim, of course, he spent eight years making a name for himself on SNL and with bit parts in movies. Between lead roles in the serious/seriously hilarious Skeleton Twins, which is out now, and next summer's Amy Schumer/Judd Apatow team-up, Trainwreck, that name is starting to be spelled in shiny, shiny lights. Although Hader may have just been kind of punching the clock toward the end of his run as a cast member, knowing what awaited him, he gave last night's victory lap all he had. As expected, he brought back his best impression, his Skeleton Twins co-star Kristen Wiig, his most famous character, and one reunion that was a total surprise.
Herb Welch: Virginity Pledge Rally
Celebrating his 61st year at WXPD news, Herb Welch doesn't look a day over 1,000. With his TV-screen-size eyeglass lenses and mustard-yellow jacket, the enfeebled newscaster is as feisty as ever. Of Hader's original sketch characters, if I were to choose between a Vincent Price special, a Vinny Vedecci segment, and some Herb Welch goodness, I would've picked Welch by a landslide. As usual, he hits people in the face with his microphone, offers old-timey insults, like "Stick a zagnut in it, Sideburns," lets slip some casual racism against Latinos, and temporarily dies. Also notable: Pete Davison was absent entirely from last week's show, but he popped up in more than half of last night's sketches, starting with this one, where he suffers the wrath of Welch's mike like a good sport.
The Group Hopper
Another week, another brilliant parody of YA films. Last night's fake trailer couldn't be more different, though, from its predecessor, The Fault in Our Stars 2: The Ebola in Our Everything. Straining the post-production effects budget close to the breaking point, probably, The Group Hopper is a takeoff of the recent glut of teen-skewing dystopian fiction adaptations like The Maze Runner, Divergent, and The Giver, with a generous portion of The Hunger Games thrown in for good measure. This sketch wasn't as laugh-out-loud funny so much as it was smart and incredibly incisive. So many tropes from these kind of films are taken to task, from the rushed exposition to the clumsy world-building, the on-the-nose names for everything, and characters' fondness for greeting newbies of any form with mild disdain (Here in the form of repeat bag-tossings.) Extra points for giving Bill Hader's Effie Trinket look-alike some Maleficent horns for no reason, and the rating level G for asexual kissing.
This sketch has a message for anyone who's ever wondered why the donation programs for impoverished areas have such low buy-in rates: The people who live there are wondering the same thing. While Bill Hader's Santa-bearded Charles Daniels asks viewers for 39 cents a day, residents of the pointedly unnamed region urge him to start higher than the bare minimum. Jay Pharoah and Kenan Thompson are joined by Sasheer Zamata, and eventually, Leslie Jones is not satisfied by Daniels' insistence that the donation request has to be the price of coffee — which they rightly observe costs more than 39 cents. It's an interesting dissection of how selling altruism can be a little insulting.
The comments section did not agree with me when I said that Colin Jost and Michael Che were a little stiff on the last Weekend Episode. I am in no way pandering, though, when I say that those bros killed it this time around, instilling me with confidence for a bright future. In just his third episode as co-host, Che seems to have found the comfort I've seen him display on stages all around New York as a stand-up, even going into a brief stand-up-type aside about same-sex marriage. This segment would have been an episode highlight without guests, but the two of those we got also added something. Pete Davidson makes a speedy return to the desk in this third episode of the season, and although his bit about gold chains and the BET Hip-Hop Awards is not quite as funny as his last appearance, once again, he manages to approach a potentially offensive topic from a neutral angle. And then there's the return of Stefon. Was there any way this wasn't going to happen? Giving viewers a rundown of how life has changed in Mayor de Blasio's New York, this iteration of Stefon doubles as a commentary on the end of the Stefon era. It's also the first time any of us have heard of Dan Cortese in a while, especially Bill Hader, who broke the second (and third) time the former MTV jock was mentioned. (Cortese was apparently flattered by the shout-out.) Thanks to a helping hand from character co-creator John Mulaney, this epiloguelike Stefon moment left us with at least one unforgettable neologism in the Prozac Doobie Brothers.
In the introduction, I mentioned a surprise reunion, and that would be the one between Private First Class Anthony Coleman — grizzled war vet and advanced student of puppetry — and his identical puppet, Tony. Introduced in the Seth MacFarlane episode of 2012, Coleman wears camo fatigues, aviators, and a MacGruber mullet (a MacGrublet?), and so does Tony. Coleman has a nice foil in the two other students in this puppetry class, played by Bobby Moynihan and Vanessa Bayer, who seem like the exact mix of boring and slightly damaged that you might find at an actual puppet show. The humor here is very dark, peaking with teacher Taran Killam urging Coleman to make the puppet the opposite of himself, which results in that puppet declaring he was not charged with war crimes and did not lose a full year of his life in porno theaters. I laughed something like five times before the aforementioned puppet Vietnam flashback.
Kim Jong-un Cold Open
Bobby Moynihan's Kim Jong-un is so snotty and such a delight that this cold open couldn't help but be better than most. While a sketch about the five weeks since the North Korean leader has been seen in public carries the stench of topical ephemera, hearing him claim to be the basis for the movie Space Jam makes it worthy of inclusion.
After Hader gets candid with his actual bio and reveals that The Skeleton Twins is a spooktacular remake of the DeVito/Schwarzenegger Twins, he brings out his co-star and former cast-sibling Kristen Wiig for a song about Bill Hader singing a song. It's certainly cute, but after last week's stellar Sarah Silverman shake-up, it feels a little rote in comparison.
Hollywood Game Night
Hollywood Game Night, which I have just discovered is an actual show that exists, is like the Will Ferrell Celebrity Jeopardy sketches, except with Kate McKinnon doing her very strong Jane Lynch. The range of celebrities playing super-dumb here includes Sofia Vergara (Cecily Strong), Christoph Waltz (Killam), and Morgan Freeman (Pharoah). The highlights are Bill Hader bringing back his flawless Al Pacino impression and Beck Bennett unveiling an unexpectedly excellent Nick Offerman. Unfortunately for us SNL nerds, seeing Wiig's tipsy, pathologically mugging Kathie Lee Gifford is a reminder of Jan Hooks as Gifford, signing "I Didn't Evolve From You" to a monkey.
Love Is a Dream
Speaking of Jan Hooks, who was a wonderful cast member for five seasons in the late '80s/early '90s, Lorne Michaels thoughtfully made room for "Love Is a Dream," the hauntingly lovely lip-synch fantasy Hooks performed with on a 1987 episode. This made people* cry, for sure.
Inside SoCal 2
This return to the Good Neighbor guys' characters introduced last season was of the "diminished" variety.
Utilizing strong set-design and makeup, this Dr. Seuss–themed sketch forces us to consider the Cat in the Hat as a sexual being. Hader as the cat is talented enough to instill an almost-kiss with former paramour Cecily Strong with wistful longing, despite being entirely covered with fake fur.
Let's be clear, this episode was not wall-to-wall hilarious. It was consistent, though, which is something to be celebrated. While last week's show may have had some funnier individual sketches, this one had momentum all the way through, and no real losers in the bunch. This third episode of the season finds the writers and performers if not firing on all cylinders, working out the kinks. Next week will give them all some much-needed rest, and when the show returns after that, hopefully the momentum won't miss a beat.
RIP, Jan Hooks, Obviously