After an incredible amount of Oscar season hype, there was a moment this year when it became difficult to separate Michael Keaton from Birdman. As he reminded us last night on SNL, though, Michael Keaton is so much more than that movie. The welcome lack of a Birdman sketch this episode may be the direct result of Neil Patrick Harris's groaner of a tribute to the "locked out in his underwear" scene during the Oscars. Or maybe Keaton is just itching to move on. Either way, instead of a scene from that movie, the lone callback to Keaton's filmography came during a wonderful monologue that gleefully celebrated his widely beloved earlier roles. But even with all the attendant baggage of expectations that comes with being Michael Keaton, the host proved he didn't have to coast on our appreciation for him.
Over the course of the night, Keaton disappeared into many splendored wigs to play a barrage of demented and demanding roles. Considering that the musical guest was teen-skewing Carly Rae Jepsen, this was an unlikely episode to get as edgy as it did — what with Keaton's cocaine-addled Easter enthusiast and other assorted oddballs. However many "ooooohs" this set of sketches accrued from the audience was worth it, though, for another solid episode following last week's Dwayne Johnson turn, one with a completely different energy all its own.
NCAA Tournament Cold Open
This year's March Madness began with a John Oliver segment that ripped apart the farce of student-athletes getting paid with an education. Now as we approach the NCAA championship game, events have conspired to invite SNL to finish the job. It seems Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski is keeping center Jahlil Okafor from playing in Tuesday's big game because of a missed biology test. The resulting sketch casually jabs at the hypocrisy of pretending these athletes are students first and not employees of the university, with pointed references to Krzyzewski's multi-million-dollar salary and the probably real "Buffalo Wild Wings study tent." Sports commentator Charles Barkley further outlines the school's commitment to academic rigor by fondly recalling all the work he put into making his baking soda volcano. (The way Kenan-as-Barkley pronounces the word volcano is yet another reason why Kenan is the show's not-so-secret weapon.)
Michael Keaton Tribute Monologue
Generally, I'm against monologue songs. This is one tremendous exception, though. Keaton is reminiscing about his first time hosting in 1982 when he's interrupted by Taran Killam and Bobby Moynihan's cackling sycophants. The pair not only want to show their love for our host, though — they want something in return. The two serenade Michael Keaton with face-grabbingly affectionate forcefulness on a song called "Will You Play Batman With Us, Michael Keaton?" The innocence of such a request speaks to just how deep Keaton's appeal runs. It's a funny and sweet start to the show, even before we see Killam and Moynihan's sweded versions of Batman and Beetlejuice or hear Keaton recite some of his famous lines. Also: Props to the makeup team on a truly outstanding job turning Killam and Moynihan into Joker and Penguin, respectively.
At first it's unclear whether this sketch might be an inexplicable parody of the recent Germanwings crash that killed 150 people, and I don't know whether to cringe. After a minute, though, the target clearly becomes CNN's insipid daytime coverage, which is often passed over for parody in favor of the more despicable goings-on at Fox News. The SNL team sends up CNN's animated reenactments, which really do happen and really are terrible. Later, we also see how a U.N. meeting might look re-created with puppets, and how the "religious freedom" gay pizza debacle in Indiana would play out if expressed by a performance-art troupe. When Michael Keaton finally appears as a dancing chef, I was let down at first. ("That's how you use Michael Keaton?") But then something about the repetition of his wagging finger dance and the goofy keyboard music made it magical. The footage CNN has supposedly obtained of "Hillary Clinton" deleting her emails is a perfect kicker too.
When a digital short begins with the title card "A Mike O'Brien Picture," you know you're in good hands. In this instance, it's a subversion of the genre of movies like She's All That, in which high-school dudes make psychopathic long-term bets that involve seducing female students for not much money. O'Brien's weirdly Sam Smith–haircutted jock and rival Pete Davidson pass over the obvious choice for ultimate homecoming queen long-shot — a nerded-out Kate McKinnon — and land on the teacher played by Keaton. Just as in last week's Jungle Island sketch, the idea of men being together romantically isn't played for a shitty retro gay panic joke here. In both sketches, it's the players' commitment that makes it funny. With Jungle Island, it was Dwayne Johnson's wild enthusiasm; this time, it's Keaton and O'Brien playing all the beats of this ridiculous situation 100% real. (Note Keaton's delighted shrug at the end.) O'Brien should get a digital short every week.
Sasheer Zamata stars in an ad for what at first sounds like one of those late-night hotlines for horny dudes. ("Hot single ladies are standing by, ready to party.") It turns out, though, that this is an ad for calling your grandma on Easter. ("Your grandmother is standing by, ready to talk all day long.") Cecliy Strong, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, and eventually Michael Keaton, all do great work here at demonstrating different reasons why most people's fondness for their grandparents rises with each passing second after getting off the phone with them. The contrast between Zamata's sultry tone and grandparent stuff never quite gels, but the specificity and accuracy of these grandma phone calls are dead-on and funny.
There are several funny lines in this sketch about Keaton's newly hands-on ad exec running pitches with his staff, but something felt missing. The joke of the scene never quite evolved beyond Keaton making queasily inappropriate suggestions — well, except for when he started randomly bleeding from the stomach because of a botched stomach piercing. What else should have happened? Maybe nothing! But the low stakes kind of left Keaton's unseemly ad guy nowhere to go. Luckily, this is one of those nights where even the missteps are interesting.
Neurotology Music Video
Anyone who tuned in for the insane, illuminating Scientology documentary Going Clear last week caught a glimpse of the 1990 music video "We Stand Tall." In it, the monster David Miscavige and other executives with a high level of operating thetans sing an ode to religious freedom. In a perfectly executed parody, this digital short shows how that video would look today with updates that reflect new information about Scientology.
Arrows pop up pointing at people in the video, with footnotes that read "In a hole," "Not allowed to see family," and "Sued to death." The haircuts, the sweaters, the vacant smiles, the crappy film stock — it all looks absolutely, hysterically authentic. Knowing that a lot of these footnotes have a basis in fact makes it as chilling as it is funny. Why SNL went with "Neurotology" instead of just calling it "Scientology" probably has something to do with not wanting to get sued themselves. In any case, this was handily the best sketch of the night.
Last night's Update guests were both focused on TV, which gave the segment a welcome sense of thematic unity. Resident Young Person Pete Davidson appears first, ostensibly to talk about Walking Dead. Really, he wants to talk about how he, an avid pot smoker, would fare during a zombie apocalypse. He worries about not noticing what's going on, and possibly being mistaken for a zombie — two of the central visual jokes in Shaun of the Dead, though in that film they stemmed from apathy and not highness. Davidson's turn is punctuated by an amusing Norman Reedus cameo that foreshadows an upcoming Walking Dead episode in which Dale Dixon blazes more than just zombie corpse-piles.
Continuing the TV commentary, Taran Killam's dandy fop of a critic, Jebidiah Atkinson, is back to review the imminent return of shows like Mad Men and Game of Thrones. Of course he does so by first announcing, "All TV is excrement!" right out of the gate. Some of the commentary is hard to argue. Even a GoT devotee would have to admit the show sometimes feels like "a softcore porn with a thousand hours of back story." The audience sounds gutted by Atkinson's Joe Paterno reference (Che got the same reaction moments earlier for a joke about children in sweatshops). As usual, Killam seizes on this moment to let his Atkinson comment on the audience. This self-referential streak goes even deeper, though, when Atkinson "reviews" SNL itself. He rolls his eyes at the show's dependence on tired catchphrases before screaming out his own. ("Next!")
Michael Keaton disappears into his role as an eccentric Southern professor in this sketch, but Cecily Strong shines bright as well as his chipper hype man/wife. In the first half of what would ultimately become an unapologetically weird one-two punch ending the episode, Keaton and Strong show off some of the improvements they will be making to their home by "adding science" to things. An underwhelmed group of neighbors grows increasingly alarmed at some of innovations like a sentient, floating toaster, and what is supposed to be kind of butt-periscope within the couch. Perhaps the success of Last Man on Earth in prime time has emboldened SNL to take past dress rehearsal more of the kinds of sketches Will Forte used to specialize in.
Revisiting the formula of Edward Norton's Halloween candy sketch from fall 2013, Michael Keaton plays a creepy creepster saying creepy stuff about Easter directly to the camera while dressed like Mr. Rogers. It's essentially just a long string of Easter-themed one-liners, some of which are bad and some of which are so transcendently bad they become art. (A chocolate Santa hiding in the Easter basket is slagged off as an "attention whore.") Any sketch that would dress Bobby Moynihan in a turtleneck, sea captain's hat, and Member's Only jacket just for two seconds of screen time, though, is one worthy of closing out this episode.