It would be a stretch to call J.K. Simmons a comedic actor. This is, lest we forget, a guy whose first famous role was Oz prison rapist Vern Schillinger (a role he reprised in an SNL walk-on in the '90s). Comedy is definitely in the guy's wheelhouse, though. He's spent the past 20 years flitting between dry, art-house fare like Cider House Rules, Apatovian gag-fests like I Love You, Man, and everything in between, including two Coen brothers films and the complete Jason Reitman oeuvre. Now that he's poised to win an Oscar for last year's Whiplash, it's that film's J.K. Simmons that most quickly springs to mind: sinewy, volatile, terrifying.
What all this means for the seasoned actor's first time hosting SNL is that the writers were able to use Simmons's comedic gifts to play spectacularly against an established archetype. Every time we saw the actor let loose last night — in a series of increasingly unpredictable wigs — there was an extra charge knowing that this was Whiplash's towering heavy of a music instructor now doing pantsless pelvic thrusts in the snow, or whatever any sketch called for. Although the beginning of the show was a bit uneven, it ultimately found Simmons's tempo, making for the best SNL of 2015 so far.
Elsewhere, the big pop-culture news this week was the cast of Paul Feig and Katie Dippold's lady-led Ghostbusters reboot. It's a murderer's row of hilarious people, notable for the sake of this discussion because of their connection to SNL. There's former cast member Kristen Wiig, present players Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones, and three-time host Melissa McCarthy. While the internet sags under myriad opinions about whether Feig got it right (and holy crap, it seems like he got it so right), it's still just another week on the job for Jones and McKinnon. You wouldn't know it from watching both deliver the goods last night that there's any pressure now to justify the fact that they're about to become super famous.
Super Bowl Shut Down Cold Open
It's the episode before the Super Bowl, so you know what that means: sportz jokez. After a week of much media levity surrounding Marshawn Lynch's famous reticence, now we get to see what an ESPN talk show co-hosted by him and Richard Sherman would be like. It's kind of silly. There's a football with dreadlocks. And seeing Taran Killam do Seahawks coach Pete Carroll without mentioning the guy is literally a 9/11 truther made me wish I was re-watching last year's Super Bowl Halftime Spectacular instead.
J.K. Simmons Monologue
Although criminally under-seen as yet, Whiplash has one line casual movie fans should be familiar with. Like last year's "I'm the captain now!" from Captain Phillips, "Were you rushing or were you dragging?" already has an infamy that's transcended the film that spawned it. Simmons was bound to berate somebody for not producing his exact tempo last night, and apparently the writers wanted to get it out of the way early. It's mostly more pleasant than funny to see Simmons cycle through a parade of pupils on drums but making one of them the equally explosive Leslie Jones was a stroke of genius. Also, it's nice to see Fred Armisen play drums again.
Totino's Super Bowl Commercial
The national obsession with Super Bowl ads has only increased recently as the ads began popping up online before game day. This sketch parodies the macho posturing that still goes on in these galactically viewed ads, even though the attitude feels more and more retrograde all the time. It's a fake spot for Totino's Pizza Rolls, promoting its Super Bowl Activity Pack for Women. Finally, Cool Girl housewives like Vanessa Bayer can have something to do while they wait around in the kitchen to feed their hungry guys. Watching Bayer play with the saddest little paddle and ball in the world makes this paradigm that should not exist look utterly ridiculous.
Between this sketch and the batshit insanity Tim and Eric put out a few months ago, Totino's Pizza Rolls is clearly trying to buy its way into comedy fans' hearts. Although the product may still be flavorless, mouth-burning, carb-nuggets, it's hard to argue with their efforts.
Miss Trash 2015
Okay, sure, the idea of a Miss America pageant for the trashiest women in the continental U.S. sounds like a one-note joke, and it's probably sexist in some way I'm not qualified to articulate. But when the contestants are Cecily Strong, Kate McKinnon, and Aidy Bryant — all really leaning into being gross — it works. Strong is particularly adept at playing eminently avoidable humans who take a perverse pride in their repulsiveness. She swings for the fences on this one.
It's the alternate ending to Casablanca that clarifies what many of us have long suspected — the threat of getting dumped in a concentration camp is far greater than the threat of getting dumped by some dude who owns a nightclub. Although this is a pure Kate McKinnon showcase, and she absolutely crushes it, I kept getting distracted by just how right J.K. Simmons looks decked out like Humphrey Bogart.
Teacher's Snow Day
"Kids trust us, we need this more than you." That's the message from teachers in this very timely take on snow days — inspired by last week's non-blizzard in New York. While it's always fun to see spirit-crushed adults getting high, hooking up, and daring to do arts and crafts sans smock, SNL should rethink any more post–Lonely Island rap videos where the main joke is these dorks shouldn't be rapping. Much more successful are digital shorts like "Back-Home Ballers," where the fact that it's a rap song is beside the point.
Michael Che flubs his lines sometimes. It's true. Last night, he even had to apologize on camera and redo one. This is what's known as growing pains, and we're just going to have to deal with it in order to get to the great rants he brings to the table each week, like his Black History Month stamps bit, until he settles into his still-new role. Elsewhere, the Update desk had welcome return visits from two beloved friends: Cecily Strong's One-Dimensional Female Character From a Male-Driven Comedy and Taran Killam's cantankerous critic Jebidiah Atkinson. Although the latter has had his catchphrase for a while now ("Next!"), Strong's creation has cemented hers in only her second outing ("Wow, you have changed."). Her role paired nicely with the earlier Totino's-laden takedown of how women are viewed in certain bro-ier circles of pop culture.
J.K. Simmons does fine reactive work as a befuddled dad struggling with already-dated technology, but this is Bobby Moynihan's show. It's amazing that someone as talented and funny as Moynihan has sort of settled into Secret Weapon status on this show, but when he's given a chance to shine, like in this sketch or as Riblet in the Kevin Hart episode, he always slays. Here he plays Pushie the pushpin, an SNL proxy for Microsoft's paperclip office assistant. His turning of a simple letter into an ode to Goof Troop somehow morphs into the cutest existential crisis since Toy Story 3.
The Jay Z Story
Mike O'Brien is a treasure, and it was sad to see him get bumped back to writing staff after a year in the cast. At least he's taken it in stride, though, occasionally popping up in digital shorts like this one that must make Lorne question his ouster.
Jay Z's life is given the biopic treatment with O'Brien in the role of Hov. The joke is that instead of O'Brien doing any kind of actual impression, he simply goes through the beats of Jay Z's career arc as himself — an aloof, enthusiastic white dude. Not only that, but the character resides in a bizarro world where everybody speaks in a similar way, including Nas (J.K. Simmons) and Kanye (a svelte and dapper Jason Sudeikis). There's even a meta-joke when Jay Pharoah does his famously impeccable Jay Z impression only to be told by O'Brien, "That sounded weird." O'Brien excels at inventing simple, strange premises, and it's thrilling to see him perform in them too.
Simmons's final wig performance of the night is easily the funniest role he gets to play in the entire show. While he is game and capable throughout the episode, this is the only sketch where the heavy comedy lifting is left to him, and he rises to the occasion. At a career day event, he explains to a group of children that his job is being a Japanese Messy Boy. To explain what that means is to give away the best beats of this steadily building sketch. But watching the kids in this class, and some of their parents, go from horrified to fascinating is a major highlight of this show.
Up until recently, Simmons's signature role had been J. Jonah Jameson of the Spider-Man movies, Tobey Maguire edition. It was basically a snapshot of his whole career: a minor character you could easily imagine carrying the heft of his own movie each time he left the frame. It turns out this is a quality perfect for hosting SNL.