Martin Freeman's journey to the SNL stage was indeed an unexpected one, but perhaps it shouldn't have been. All it took was the actor having a year like 2014, in which he starred in three of the four projects he's most known for in the U.S. and internationally. For those unfamiliar, that would be a new season of the BBC series Sherlock, a one-off season of the almost giddily violent Fargo, and the final installment of the protracted Hobbit trilogy. But for all we've seen of various versions of Martin Freeman this year, it was unclear how he would fare with the flaming tightrope walk of live sketch comedy. Very well, it turns out.
In his opening monologue, Freeman promptly cedes the spotlight to Kate McKinnon as Maggie Smith and Taran Killam as Alan Rickman, whose morbidly dry affect totally owns the moment. It seemed as if this could be a shot fired across Freeman's bow as host — that this might be the kind of episode where he would be propped up by the pros who handle all the funny business. Instead, however, Freeman ably bears the weight of all that the cast and writers can throw at him, proving that his stint on The Office was no fluke and that he is in fact a comedy pro too.
It's not your imagination: The cold opens have been getting a lot better lately. Last night's edition approached the torture report that dominated headlines all week from an angle that kept the live audience laughing, despite the heavy subject matter. Taran Killam kicked off a big night for himself as Charlie Rose, who compares the deplorable report to the menu at Cheesecake Factory: "600 pages of sickening details, and yet I couldn't put it down." Rose hosts a very bubbly Bobby Moynihan and Kyle Mooney, who play clinical psychologists the report reveals received a massive $80 million payday to brainstorm types of torture. These two also take credit for many of the thousand tiny deaths we die each day — at the TSA, the self-checkout aisle, and just having to hear the 1-877-Kars-4-Kids jingle. A relatable angle like this one might be what old-school SNL satirist Michael O'Donoghue would consider "toothless," but it's all too easy to alienate viewers when the topic is this grim.
Martin Freeman looks dapper as hell in this snazzy blue suit, sort of like Lester did toward the end of Fargo. (You should totally watch Fargo.) Just as the cold opens have been improving lately, so, too, have there been fewer monologue songs — both very welcome trends indeed.
In the first of his two musical moments in the episode, Kenan stars as a cartoon pimp-like, cut-rate Santa figure, who gets stuff for people on the naughty list, like Justin Beiber, Donald Sterling, and Paula Deen. The concept of this digital short feels like it could have been developed more, but it doesn't hurt that the chorus's backing track sounds like a vintage Neptunes production.
Martin Freeman is getting married to Leslie Jones. (It felt really good to type those words!) A lot of people, however, object to this most joyous union, and over the course of a six-minute sketch, they make some valid points. These include the fact that she has ten kids, he's already married, and their robust lovemaking over the five days they've known each other has left his penis with the structural integrity of "a late-stage Jenga tower." The relish with which Jones's character talks about being a WNBA player kicks things off with a bang, and the complaints that follow have a slow steady build that peaks with Kate McKinnon, whose delivery makes Leslie break into a full laugh. For his part, Freeman plays it so straight throughout the sketch that when he finally responds to all the objections with, "Daddy need his chocolate," it's an absurd delight that I'm laughing about just remembering.
The Tolkien universe has a corporate merger with Wernham Hogg in this tribute to Freeman-involved projects, The Hobbit and The Office U.K. The digital short is shot in exactly the same style that was such a breakthrough just over a decade ago, before Ricky Gervais became mostly known for practicing an oppressive style of atheism. Several scenes from the original series are re-created with exacting precision here, with Moynihan pulling off a remarkable hybrid of David Brent and Gandalf. Gervais's Brent was meant as sort of a critique on people who think they're funny but aren't, which is why when he calls Freeman's Bilbo Baggins "Dildo" and laughs hysterically at his own joke, it seems very much in keeping with the tone of the original show. Seeing Freeman stare deadpan at the camera again after all these years erases some of the memories of John Krasinski doing so perhaps a bit too smugly in the Stateside version of the character. Also, Killam proves himself fearless with a Gollum/Gareth situation that is so visually unpleasant it's staggering.
Right Side of the Bed
Not every married couple has two Southern divas in its repertoire, but the hosts of this daytime talk show do. Killam and Cecily Strong are upbeat and claws-out here ("Just looking at you makes me tired"), but the sketch isn't really about them. Instead, it's about Freeman as a guest on their show who is made to keep teasing his segment but is given way too much time to do that. What seems like it would have been a funny part of the sketch ends up being the focus of the entire thing. It doesn't quite come together, but it's not enough to derail the momentum of this episode.
This fake ad for the so-called Christmas Mass Spectacular basically sprays a Monster Energy Drink all over the act of going to church. The specificity here is fantastic, from the newly atheist teen who isn't saying the words to the exact timbre of soft laugh directed at the pastor's dad jokes. Also, Cecily Strong's 44-year old woman who is really into her liturgical reading seems like it could be an "Update" character.
Speaking of Cecily Strong characters on "Weekend Update," Strong blesses this episode's three-hander with a brand-new creation. Sporting a title every bit as verbose as Girl You Wish You Hadn't Started a Conversation With at a Party, her One-Dimensional Female Character From a Male-Driven Comedy is an amalgam of a lot of different folks. Strong sounds purposefully rigid as she both describes these kinds of characters and spouts their quippy dialogue. Jost tries to prompt her to talk about the quality of roles offered to women, but she keeps insisting instead that he's part of the narrative of many different flavors of crappy Vince Vaughn movie. It's a sharp critique delivered deceptively chipper.
In contrast, Sasheer Zamata tackles another issue dead-on: the lack of diversity in tech. While there are many ways to comment on this glaring problem, Zamata takes the granular approach of focusing on how Apple has 800 emoji, but not one of them is a black person. If she wants to refer to herself with complexion-accuracy, she would have to use a weirdly dark moon symbol, but if she wanted to mention a dragon, she would have multiple options. The case should be closed right there, but thankfully Zamata shows how to use emoji to describe black experiences, including a protest of the Eric Garner grand jury, who are represented by the See No Evil, Hear No Evil monkeys. While it's hard to believe everybody involved in those dumb movies keeps signing off on the decisions that have to be made each step of the way, it's inexcusable that nobody at Apple thought to include a black emoji.
Finally, another Jacob the Bar Mitzvah Boy. What keeps this schtick from getting stale is Vanessa Bayer's commitment and pitch-perfect notes from a male Jewish childhood, like the "rock music video" Jacob made with his cousin.
Things get a little confusing at the Heinz ketchup factory with a questionable new hire. Killam plays a bumbling nebbish who is like Woody Allen multiplied by the power of Mort Goldman from Family Guy. He does not understand the concept of an assembly line no matter how hard Martin Freeman tries to explain it. The premise is as simple as operating a ketchup bottle, and yet the back-and-forth over Killam's incomprehension has the verbal choreography of an Abbott and Costello routine.
What at first seems (and sounds) like a "What Up With That?" surrogate quickly turns into something darker. Kenan's lounge singer Treese Henderson is conducting the Pine River Lodge annual tree lighting with a band that includes Freeman as Isaac, a wily-haired saxman. Through the two's stage banter, we learn that Isaac has a tortured past — something to do with what he did to a guy named Roman — which takes precedence over the very weird song the band is performing. Freeman projects a quiet menace and shame as Isaac, while Kenan's performance hinges on his pronunciation of the word boots, which he somehow gives an extra syllable.
Freeman trots out his Midwestern accent from Fargo, don'tcha know, to play a regional waterbed salesperson in the final sketch. His newly fame-hungry wife, Aidy Bryant, wildly over-sings jingles for Waterbed Warehouse atop a bed that literally has her face on it. Freeman's straight man plays off Bryant's unhinged songstress so well that his line about her thinking there's a mascot called "the Doritos Clown" almost doesn't even register. But then it does.
While it looked at first like Freeman was just going to be a mascot for this episode (a real Janine from Waterbed Warehouse), he ended up doing more than holding his own; he held the show together. Although a couple of the sketches weren't outright winners, it was another unusually consistent episode. Saturday Night Live has lately been as reliable as Middle-earth-set movies arriving in December.