It can be a bit disorienting when the host of Saturday Night Live stars in an actual movie whose trailer airs during one of the commercial breaks. If you're not yet familiar, you might spend a few moments waiting to see if this is a digital short and wondering what the joke is. The preview for Top Five probably had a lot of viewers thinking it might be a sketch at first, since the upcoming film by last night's host, Chris Rock, is only just now starting to advertise. Unfortunately, that feeling of waiting and wondering seemed to hang over most sketches, in the style of Pig Pen's dust cloud, and only half of them managed to shake it off. It was a night of suspense punctuated by a handful of solid sketches and a Prince appearance, to the point where viewers may have felt like they were playing a game of Red Light, Green Light.
Personally, I was waiting and wondering about how the episode would address Rock's history with the show. As a cast member, he hung around longer than recent host Sarah Silverman, but similarly ended up becoming a huge enough stand-up to bury the SNL portion of his career near the bottom of his CV. While the Silverman episode expertly dealt with that issue during the monologue, and even worked in some footage from her stint in the cast, Rock came out and immediately began to make jokes about the Boston Marathon bombing. You expect a comedian the caliber of Louis CK or Chris Rock to do stand-up during their monologue, but by not mentioning his time on the show or working in a Nat X bit at some point, he sort of seemed to disown his legacy. Although there were definitely some highlights in last night's episode, overall Rock would do well to quietly distance himself from it too.
We've sure come a long way since Jarret's Room. That old Jimmy Fallon staple established the internet as the new frontier for public access shows like Wayne's World, but it came at a time when anything on the internet was inherently amateur hour. Now we live in a world where a YouTube show like "How 2 Dance with Janelle" could reasonably build up a subscriber base of 3 million. This sketch seemed to be a showcase for Sasheer Zamata, and possibly her first recurring character, during the long, unsteady establishing of the premise. Then Chris Rock came in and literally stole the show, as a concerned dad who knows exactly why millions of people watch his physically mature 15-year old daughter dance, even if he doesn't know what the word fap means. Zamata has fun with her character's unapologetic inability to dance more chastely, and Rock wrings laughs just from staring horrified into the gaping maw of webcam world.
Every few weeks or so, a GoPro ad will go viral on the strength of someone bringing it along someplace most cameras cannot go. Such places include the deck of a mid-nosegrind skateboard or the back of an eagle soaring through the sky. This sketch applies the same Mountain Dew–drenched ethos of GoPro users to the task of getting a colonoscopy. The idea that these bros would be stoked about such a procedure out of brand loyalty works well, especially when played against Kenan's stone-faced surgeon. ("Those are polyps, the most I've ever seen.")
How's He Doing? With Chris Rock
We haven't seen a "How's He Doing?" since last year's Kerry Washington episode, and in the intervening time, the black population in the SNL cast has doubled. Where once sat a trio, now a full panel can debate the level of enthusiasm for President Obama among black people. Early on, Chris Rock's delivery is perfectly paired with a random riff about people who have rescue dogs, but as usual the sketch really gets going when the panel plays a game called What Would It Take? (As in, "What would it take for Obama to lose you?") Each question that moderator Kenan Thompson asks, say, "What if Obama changed his hairstyle?" opens up several clarifications from the panelist, which in turn prompt wonderfully specific answers from Kenan. The addition of Leslie Jones and Zamata on the panel allows these hypotheticals to unfold further and funnier than in any previous incarnation.
In some ways, the second digital short of the night was like a companion to the Beygency sketch from last season. Both sketches comment on the overwhelming popularity of a pop artist, but where the Beygency focused on people surprised to find a person who didn't like Beyoncé, Swiftamine is about people surprised to find out that they themselves like Taylor Swift. I don't want to split hairs here: Everything about this sketch is perfect. The show's writers both praise Swift and take her to task in a way that seems evenhanded. Between the high dramatizations of people suffering from vertigo as they realize they like a Taylor Swift song, and the testimonials ("Oof, Taylor Swift. Isn't she always wearing, like, a 1950s bathing suit?") the knocks against Swift were harsh. But begrudging praise can still be high praise. Additionally, the sketch is also a poignant commentary on music fandom and how the music itself only partly factors into it sometimes.
Women in the Workplace
By the time we came to the final sketch of the night (with the realization that Prince had fled the building in lieu of a second performance), the show needed it to be a winner. While this vaguely Tim and Eric–ish satire of office orientation videos didn't exactly save the entire episode, it did take us out on a pant-suited high note. Cecily Strong and Kate McKinnon seem to have stepped out of the movie Working Girl to play Donna Fingerneck and Jodi Cork, advice oracles for successful businesswomen in the 1990s. Between Chris Rock and Vanessa Bayer's purposely stilted reenactment-acting, and actual star-wipes in the edits, the details set the tone, but McKinnon's choice of sounding like Gloria Swanson may win the day here.
Christie Cold Open
It was a better-than-average cold opening this week, thanks to McKinnon's newly un-quarantined and unhinged Kaci Hickox threatening to sully the water supply, but SNL's jabs at Chris Christie seem to always start and end with his physique.
Chris Rock seemed overly conscious of being perceived as edgy, and it worked to his detriment. The Boston Marathon bombing and 9/11 are both accounted for, and the studio audience takes a long time to get onboard. It probably wasn't because their fragile psyches couldn't handle someone going there, though, but because someone went there with material that wasn't 100 percent. Some jokes about the Freedom Tower and the commercialization of Christmas scored, but only after much initial tension.
It was refreshing to see Resident Young Person Pete Davidson at the desk again so soon — Lorne Michaels and head writer Colin Jost must have a lot of faith in him — and Kenan makes an outstanding Suge Knight, but overall this Update was more miss than hit.
After that opening monologue, it's pretty obvious Chris Rock is either the one who pushed to make this Shark Tank parody an ISIS sketch. At the very least, he championed it. Unfortunately, the cast's take on the sharks doesn't have enough tics to be funny on its own (although Aidy Bryant nails the contestant end) and the satire of ISIS as a business-like organization felt ultimately toothless. (None of the sharks bought in.)
This sketch was a full-blown disaster. The pace was too slow, the premise unclear, and since I'm a Leslie Jones booster, it was even more painful to watch the momentum-destroying five seconds in which she didn't realize it was her line. Let's pretend this never happened.
At a different time in the show (say, not immediately following after that awful Couple sketch), this digital short about the most pleasant bank robbers in the world could have worked. As such, its slow-burning, more-clever-than-funny tone was exactly what this episode did not need at the moment it aired. I guarantee that people who watch it context-free on Monday will enjoy it much more.
When this episode was off, it was way off, but the best sketches were way better than any in last week's Jim Carrey episode, which was way more "fun" than funny. The ironic part about it is that Chris Rock was, at least to me, better in sketches than he was in his stand-up. If a bunch of aliens had only this episode to go on, it would be impossible for them to tell that Rock started off as an undistinguished sketch player and went on to become one of the greatest stand-ups of all time.