The host and musical guest of this week's SNL have a lot more in common than one might realize. Nicki Minaj has an entire arsenal of alter egos she uses to express herself in song, and James Franco wears more hats than a hyperactive haberdasher with dissociative identity disorder. They also have a habit of winking at their audiences, whether its James Franco playing an artist named "Franco" on General Hospital or Minaj literally winking during the most GIFable moment of her "Anaconda" video. In one of the most meta episodes of SNL in recent memory, both host and guest barely stop winking at us.
Aside from her musical performances, Minaj appeared in three sketches, and in each of them, the fact of who she was playing served as a knowing nod to her own place in the culture. Nicki Minaj playing Beyoncé is a commentary on her status as a musical contemporary of Beyoncé's, while playing Kim Kardashian is a remark about their shared gluteal infamy. Meanwhile, James Franco, who bills himself in the monologue, tellingly, as "actor, poet, artist, dude," can't help but remind us throughout the episode that he is in fact Hollywood's merry prankster, James Franco. Whether it's completing the cycle he began with portraying a Riff Raff–like rapper-pimp in Spring Breakers by actually portraying Riff Raff, addressing perennial gay rumors by saying "It's official, I'm a bisexual" in character, or having Seth Rogen appear in a sketch as "James Franco," this actor, poet, artist, dude wants us to know he's in on the joke. Fortunately, though, Franco also fully throws himself into the sketches that have nothing to do with his James Franco–ness, and turns in another stellar episode that can be appreciated on its own terms.
Politics Nation Cold Open
Politics makes strange bedfellows, and so do glaring judicial errors of the magnitude we've experienced recently. It takes a tragedy like a grand jury choosing not to indict the police officer who killed Eric Garner on-camera in order to unite Reverend Al Sharpton and Bill O'Reilly in opinion. This week's cold open finds Sharpton so livid that he reversed his recent dramatic weight loss in three days to the point where Kenan can realistically play him again. Thompson gets laughs, for sure, but you can also feel legitimate anger and bewilderment when he points out that this case is not a "whodunit" but a "he did it."
Partner in crime Seth Rogen crashes Franco's monologue to make light of the hack at Sony this past week, in which much sensitive information was stolen and leaked, along with screenplays for high-profile projects. (The rumor is a North Korean leak is in response to its leader's portrayal in Franco-Rogen joint The Interview.) The Sony hack wasn't particularly flattering for Adam Sandler, but in the monologue it turns out to be even worse for Franco, with incriminating pictures to boot. This bit will no doubt be chum for Sony Hack Truthers who think Sony leaked its own info to promote The Interview.
Peter Pan Live!
If ever there was a perfect opportunity to revive Aidy Bryant's trashy Tinkerbell half-sister from the recent Jim Parsons SNL, it's a Peter Pan Live! parody. Tonkerbell is less an active participant in the musical, though, than an audience-surrogate — hate-watching the proceedings from a remove, like a hybrid fly/fairy live-tweet sesh. Fittingly enough, what she witnesses is what Twitter reacted to the most — Christopher Walken phoning it in as Captain Hook, just kind of talking while Hook's cronies do the heavy vocal lifting in his song. James Franco does a solid Walken impression, which is maybe one of the more common things a performer could do, but his is a Walken at half mast, which is more nuanced and funny than most. Meanwhile, Cecily Strong's Peter Pan keeps explicitly reminding us that, despite all visual evidence to the contrary, she is definitely a boy. Viewers need not have seen Peter Pan Live! to get what this sketch is lampooning, but after watching this they might as well have.
Star Wars Teaser
Perhaps it's fatigue from all of the other parodies in the week since the new Star Wars trailer emerged online, but this one did not connect. Considering that the trailer was such a widely viewed cultural event, the SNL take should require more than jokes about how much the original stars of the franchise have aged.
Jingle Ballerz Special
One thing that did work in the Star Wars sketch was Taran Killam's brief turn as Harrison Ford. He also kills with impressions in the next sketch by bringing back his spot-on Eminem. Killam's Marshall Mathers is part of a hip-hop nativity scene that also involves Sasheer Zamata's very accurate Rihanna, and Nicki Minaj as Beyoncé. Between "Jingle Ballerz" and the Peter Pan sketch, this week's lyrical-approximation efforts were ace.
Grow a Guy
Some of the worst news going into this season was that after a brief turn as featured player, Mike O'Brien had been bounced back to writer. So it was nice to see O'Brien again in a digital short — and one that has his fingerprints all over it. "Grow a Guy" faithfully re-creates the feel of John Hughes–style '80s movies where a nerdy kid does something radical in an effort to fit in. In this case, it's O'Brien quickly growing a cipher human (James Franco) to bring to a party at a James Spader–type preppy's lake house in order to prove he has friends. Of course, it doesn't go well, and the reason Franco doesn't pass as a non-clone ends up being a strong dig at social media. The real hero of this delightfully bugged-out sketch, though, is whoever created the music, which perfectly evokes the tone of hopeful nerd-moves montages in movies like Weird Science, which "Grow a Guy" seems to directly reference.
Trolls of the "answer me these questions three" variety are infinitely preferable to those found on the internet. This one subverts the tropes of what you might normally expect in a creepily sexual folk-lore-based bridge toll. Franco's creature stops a couple from crossing until he receives a kiss, but it is Kyle Mooney who comes forth to do the deed instead of Aidy Bryant. On this bridge, it's the troll who receives safe passage ... to some heavy man-on-man petting.
Even though the cold open already addressed this week's awful Eric Garner news, clearly the "Weekend Update" crew was going to have its say, too. At first Michael Che seems unoffended by what's happened, with Colin Jost having to clarify every unfortunate detail. Only after the worst has been mentioned does Che admit that he already knew all this, but he's surprised every time he hears it. The audience is giving the duo barely any laughs at first, perhaps because the issue is still so raw and many New Yorkers (and people with a conscience in general) are furious about it. As they continue with other aspects of the grand jury decision and Staten Island for three minutes, though, the audience loosens up. Who among us does not love Wu-Tang Clan jokes?
This supersize edition of "Weekend Update" also has three guests. Bobby Moynihan's Secondhand News Correspondent Anthony Crispano seems rather one-note this week at first, but his certainty about "Bing Crosby's" recent downfall takes us to a very wacky place and ends strong. Eventually, Nicki Minaj comes out as Kim Kardashian to talk about all of the Photoshopping we didn't see in those not-quite-internet-breaking Paper magazine photos. All this bit does is invite unflattering comparison to former cast member Nasim Pedrad's Kim, which actually got the vocal tics right. Meanwhile, Leslie Jones's latest turn as Relationship Expert is another flawless victory. Through the prism of weed-friendly dating websites, she coaxes a story about how her epically vast open-mindedness led to doing 'shrooms, a.k.a. "crazy whitefolks drugs." The racial dichotomy of hallucinogens has never been more concisely illustrated. Also, there can now be no doubt that Jones's rapport with Jost has exceeded even that of Stefan and Seth Meyers in the recent history of "Weekend Update" teams.
Brain Too Full
Although there's no official video going around online (there would be a lot of copyright usage to pay out), the brain sketch was among the best of the night. In it, Pete Davison's brain is about to become too full from having to remember yet another password, so some stuff has to get kicked out. James Franco plays a white-tuxedo-clad St. Peter of the brain who decides what remains in and what doesn't. It's a timely commentary on the overtaxing of our memories from constant stimulation, while also being the definitive exegesis on the otherworldly catchiness of Savage Garden lyrics. By the second time Nicki Minaj comes out, though, (in this, her third sketch of the night) you sort of wish she'd just stick to rapping.
You don't have to know that a small Minnesota town actually did elect a 4-year old boy as its mayor last year to enjoy this sketch in which James Franco plays the candidate who lost to him. The writers have a lot of fun with the idea of an inept adult earnestly rebutting a 4-year old, with Franco's Tad Rankin giving controversial opinions about Frozen and declaring that this town needs a mayor who doesn't get ear infections.
Porn Stars With James Franco and Seth Rogen
Every time. Every single time Vanessa Bayer and Cecily Strong appear in front of billowy, pink-lit curtains to vacantly push another mispronounced product, it seems like this might be that one time too many. And then they somehow make it feel fresh again with brazenly sexual puns, dead-inside delivery, and absurd jokes about a merman who turned out to just be a guy with long hair and eczema.
This episode was weirder than most, in the best possible way. Not everything connected, but the consistency rate for a show so bizarre was shockingly high. With a third way-above-average episode in a row, this season has officially found its rhythm. Let's hope next week keeps the streak alive.