SNL Recap: Jesse Eisenberg Hosts Night of the Awkward

Let me apologize for using the most overused and misused term in talking about contemporary comedy these days. “Awkward humor” has become synonymous with “comedy about real people,” a blanket category for any comedy in which the lead characters aren’t Vince Vaughn, Owen Wilson or Will Ferrell. The films of Wes Anderson and Christopher Guest, and television mockumentaries The Office and Parks and Recreation, are often reduced as “awkward,” when in reality, they all just focus on characters who remind us of people we know. The Kids Are All Right was classified as a comedy merely because it was awkward. Huh?

Let’s not confuse “awkwardness” with “comedy.” They are two completely different things. I’ve sat through a lot of improv shows and open mic nights featuring guys who think that being awkward somehow makes them funny, hoping audiences might compare them to Michael Cera (or if they aren’t clean shaven) Zach Galifianakis. There is a huge difference between an awkward comedian and a good comedian who is an awkward person.

Jesse Eisenberg may be the most prominent example of an actor who plays awkwardness very well. He’s also a very funny performer. (Mark Zuckerberg is an awkward person, and he’s not funny at all.) This past weekend’s episode of SNL was a success not because Eisenberg’s awkwardness, but because of the humorous way he channels that awkwardness into jokes and physical gags.

What hit:

Michele Bachmann Cold Open. Kristen Wiig parodied the latest mama grizzly as Michele Bachmann in the congresswoman’s botched State of the Union response. In this “second attempt,” Bachmann and her charts still faced away from the camera, and all her other infographics had either been drawn in white or ruined by the snow. I give the writers credit for getting so much mileage out of the sight gag, yet I feel like they could have run with the “cheap production” concept more.

Monologue. It always seems like a challenge to find a “funny angle” on the host’s personality for the monologue every week, but Jesse Eisenberg’s neurotic physicality played extremely well here. I was disappointed in the Mark Zuckerberg cameo, which felt like a cheap ratings draw combined with a thin hope that the image of three Zuckerbergs on screen together would make an interesting stage picture. I’m a fan of celebrity impersonators meeting their subjects, but if it feels staged, the “caught in the act” banter just feels empty. I’m sure Lorne got the effect he wanted, but the piece would have landed better humor-wise had he just let Eisenberg take care of business on his own.

Also, the billionaire Facebook founder had terrible delivery. Not like he needs it, anyway.

Mister Wizard. Bill Hader hosted a Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood-like children’s educational program in which Eisenberg and Nasim Pedrad played two shy pre-teens discovering their bodies (and each others’ bodies) through innocent science experiments. Pedrad is at the top of her game when she’s playing children, and her curious interactions with Eisenberg felt so genuine, which made lines like “I want to do science in the shower!” go over extremely well.

Herb Welch. Hader reprised his microphone brandishing veteran field reporter, this time covering an on-campus drug bust. While the old-man-with-a-microphone gags always go over well in these pieces, I appreciate the writers’ focus on the “reporter” aspect. Herb Welch isn’t a senile old man — he’s a bitter journalist retired from the anchor desk and banished to the field. He glosses over the details of the story, hates his job, and talks back to the anchor. “Don’t give me the high hand!” he warns Jason Sudeikis’ younger, handsomer newsman. Too bad I saw the final gag coming; if you’re going to reprise a sketch, don’t use the same twist ending that you used the first time.

Spa Talk. Kristen Wiig played a relaxed, spacey host of a talk show in a spa. Bickering loved ones would enter in white bathrobes, sit in vibrating chairs, and try to work out their problems while Wiig helped them escape from a stressful world of “people throwing brownies” by swatting them with juniper twigs and rubbing their faces with creams made from “almond extracts, vitamin-A, and bird doodles.” These new age, yoga-instructor type characters are often difficult to pull off — they speak and move with an energy that doesn’t blend well with traditional comedic timing. But the focus on the eccentricities of the host’s relaxation methods kept the sketch moving at a lively pace.

El Shrinko. Another strong 10-to-1 piece. Andy Samberg and Jesse Eisenberg play friends who shoot a paid advertisement for some vague product called “El Shrinko,” which they desperately claim helps men with inconveniently large penises shrink down to a more reasonable size. It’s clear throughout the piece that the two characters are nervous about their own sizes, but the sketch stayed a step ahead of the audience by not making it explicit, allowing them to slow-play the “cheap production” humor. Also, I love the idea that two friends decided to release this commercial together.

What missed:

Estro-maxx. My problem with the faux-commercial for a drug helping expedite the physical transformation for transgender people wasn’t its borderline offensiveness but the missed comedic opportunity. Rather than focusing on sight gags of men with female anatomies, I wish they had pursued the idea of “If you’re an average Joe like me” further. Images of normal dudes taking the pill before football or beer with the buddies, and then focusing on how the estrogen changes their emotions, instead of merely their anatomies. SNL commercial parodies in recent seasons have become increasingly sight-gag dependent, with edible diapers and pubic hair transplants. That’s fine, as long as they play it smart.

Don’t Forget the Lyrics. This parody of the karaoke game show, hosted by Sudeikis’ Mark McGrath, was a bit of a mess. The premise initially appeared to be that the contestant (Eisenberg) accidentally sings ridiculous-sounding incorrect lyrics, like “Come and kiss a lime you dance machine.” That’s a fine concept, but rather than just embracing that all people initially have no idea what the words to songs are, it was later explained that the contestant was just nervous. Also, far too many jokes were wasted on going after McGrath’s career. SNL, you could have saved yourself the cost of the rights to Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock and Roll” by benching this sketch.

The Creep. While I’m sure this digital short is bound to inspire the next Dougie, the image of the Lonely Island boys with thick glasses, flat hair, thin suits and John Waters moustaches, Thriller-walking around in clubs, just didn’t do it for me. I feel like a more up-to-date “creep” would be a guy in his 50s wearing a fitted-tee or a shirt with a dragon on it. The video was at its best when it explored the creep’s back-story or escalated it to the courtroom, but this was an example of a digital short that’s more catchy than it is funny.

Weekend Update. This shorter-than-usual weekend update had too many weak jokes that even funny cameos by Fred Armisen’s Egyptian President Hogni Mubarak (who blamed the unstable country’s disabled Internet on the cable company) and Kenan Thompson’s Tyler Perry (who bemoaned his failure to get an Oscar while flaunting his wealth) couldn’t help it from feeling underwhelming. There was a moment when Seth Meyers starting tiling his head and turning in to deliver punch lines. I think he was just playing around, but it had a good effect, much like Armisen’s Gov. David Patterson opening both eyes and mugging at the camera while cutting down New Jersey. I have no problems whatsoever with Meyers’ delivery, but it was interesting to see him change things up a bit.

Bride of Blackenstein. Three things bothered me about this 1970s Blaxploitation horror film parody. For one, it featured a cameo by the musical guest, which as I explained in my last recap, always weirds me out. Secondly, there was a woman in the studio audience who had this obnoxious screech-laugh, and she seemed to be hearing jokes I didn’t know were there. Finally, the primary joke mechanism for this sketch was an extreme close-up of a butt. I don’t think I need to say more.

MTV Skins. Hip-douche MTV head of programming (Samberg) explained that all major advertisers pulled out of racy show Skins, forcing them to pack the show with product placements for cheap, off-brand products. It was a smart premise, but product placement jokes have already been beaten to death on 30 Rock. If you’re going to make those jokes, at least do them in a new way – maybe have the product logo covering the private parts during the show’s nude scenes (killing two birds with one stone).

Overall, it was a good episode. There were a few instances of sluggish transitions and some missed opportunities, but the dependable talents of the cast and a strong performance by awkward and funny Jesse Eisenberg made this episode a success.

This week, SNL veteran Dana Carvey returns to the show from, um, whatever else he was doing.

Erik Voss really loves SNL.

SNL Recap: Jesse Eisenberg Hosts Night of the Awkward