I’ll be honest: I was never a huge fan of Jonah Hill. As the films of Judd Apatow shifted to the center of the comedy universe, the resulting fame of Jonah Hill confused me. I admired Apatow for using his success to give opportunities to talented friends — hilarious yet average-looking guys like Seth Rogen and Jason Segel — who otherwise might have struggled with finding mainstream appeal. Hill struck me as the annoying kid brother of the pack: certainly funny and charming enough to roll with the big boys, but only tolerated because he’s part of the entourage.
That’s not to say I don’t enjoy Hill’s work. His performance in Superbad and his first time hosting SNL in 2007 were great. They should have been enough to convince me of his talent, yet I wasn’t sold. As I watched him take supporting roles in Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Funny People, the cronyism of the Apatow crew started to wear on me, and I began to wonder if better actors were missing out on roles given to Hill. Seeing him dominate the summer 2010 comedies (Get Him to the Greek, Cyrus) annoyed me — it was as if Hollywood power players, desperate for “hip” comedy, decided that Americans would pay to see pretty much anyone with a speaking role in The 40-Year-Old Virgin star in a film of their own. (They were right. I did.)
When Jonah Hill was nominated for an Oscar for his performance in Moneyball, I threw my hands up in frustration. I loved the movie, and I felt Hill’s performance faithfully served Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay, which was the true heart of the film. But how did anyone walk out of that movie thinking Hill’s nerdy baseball statistician was even in the same ballpark (pun intended) as Cristoph Waltz’s Col. Hans Landa, Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh, or Heath Ledger’s Joker? Where the rest of the country saw a young, dynamic talent, why could I only see a whiny dork with a knack for standing still while other actors shouted insults to his face?
Well, after watching Jonah Hill return to SNL last weekend, I have officially warmed up to the guy. Hill displayed a pleasant balance of punching-bag straight man shtick and against-type absurdity, rarely faltering and showing an appropriate amount of humility. He wasn’t the best SNL host of the season, but he was good enough to win this old bastard over.
It could just be I’m terrified to say anything bad about a guy whose exact career I’m trying to duplicate for myself. Apatow and his lackeys run this town, and I fear them like an Irish immigrant feared Boss Tweed. But I can say honestly that Jonah Hill is indeed a funny man, and he doesn’t need the Apatow ring anymore. He’s got Brad Pitt now.
Monologue. Wisely anticipating the skeptics of his academy recognition, Hill spent his monologue humbly addressing his Oscar nomination. He showed a video depicting himself as a catty diva around SNL cast and crew, including Bobby Moynihan, who noticed the inversely proportional relationship between the sizes of Hill’s glasses and scarf. Oscar favorite Tom Hanks stopped by to give Hill some words of advice, pretending to give one of his statuettes to him before putting him in his rightful loser place.
Six Year Old Returns. Hill reprised Adam Grossman, a Jewish 6-year-old with the wisecracks of a lounge comic. The specificity of the character is such a joy – it’s one thing to see a child know far more about the world than he should, it’s another when he’s doing Sammy Davis Jr. impersonations and describing the effect of Viagra. Under normal circumstances the character would come across as obnoxious, but Hill makes it work.
Digital Short: Tennis Balls. What a relief to finally have a good digital short! Andy Samberg played the host of a Discovery Channel-type show that applies science to the dumb and mundane, i.e., cool slow motion replays and 3-D animation of a guy getting hit in the balls. Kudos to Samberg for elevating a simple nut shot sketch into a commentary on a trend that’s ripe for parody. That said, the fact that this was the best digital short of the season says more about the overall season than it does about this particular one.
J Pop. In what has now become the most successful new recurring sketch of this season (this is the third time we’ve seen it since its debut in October), two college nerds (Taran Killam, Vanessa Bayer) obsessed with Japanese culture host a talk show that becomes a stereotypical mockery. I enjoyed this instance more than its second time; Killam and Bayer recaptured the timing required to make the frantic dancing, sudden shouts at the camera, and “try harder faces” hit. Hill entered as a hilarious samurai-obsessed nerd who practices his swordsmanship on Styrofoam that his speakers were packed in and the cardboard tube containing his Kill Bill poster. Between the Cartman-esque diction and the occasional breaking, it was a little difficult to make out what Hill was saying, but trust me, it’s worth a second watch to catch all the golden details.
Weekend Update. Seth Meyers treated us to some nice two-liner action and played host to a few guests. Kristen Wiig played a recently-diabetic Paula Deen, who had more fun with her southern twang and her stick of butter than she did with her lines. In a fun twist, Samberg played an intentionally not-Tina-Fey-quality Sarah Palin, getting all of Palin’s mannerisms and catchphrases wrong: “You can see my house from Russia!” And then SNL grabbed us all by our collective balls with a knockout Stefon segment. I might have a new favorite nightclub name in “(concerned looking around) …Kevin?” and Hader’s description of “hoombas” (“human Roomba”) was the first time Hader was reduced to tears from breaking so badly.
Brutus. Hill played a scientist who taught a monkey (Fred Armisen under some fantastic makeup) how to speak, which takes a turn for the worst when the monkey lets slip all the scientist’s dirty little secrets. I loved the premise, and despite the uneasiness of the studio audience, I enjoyed the details in Brutus’ dark account (the fact that the scientist had Brutus get him from behind and say “I addicted to this ass!”) and the monkey’s newfound shame: “This no joke. I never laugh again.” Bestiality is a difficult topic for humor, especially when the matter of consent is in question, but I admire SNL for embracing such a dark premise and executing it so well.
Liza Minnelli Tries to Turn Off A Lamp. SNL revisited its mission impossible format (you might recall “Ann Margaret Tries to Throw a Wad of Paper into a Trash Can” from the Ed Helms episode last year), with Wiig as the eccentric Broadway personality getting distracted from turning off a lamp by flashy poses and old choreography. I appreciated the simplicity and enjoyed Wiig’s antics, but a sketch that should have had the brevity of last week’s Fireplace pieces instead ran two minutes too long.
Coolio Orchestra. In another reason to watch SNL on television and not on Hulu (the website rarely features sketches that include licensed songs), Hill played a husband who surprised his wife with an orchestra playing Pachelbel’s “Canon in D,” which transformed into Coolio’s “I’ll C U When U Get There,” a song with the same melody but with lyrics about a friend getting shot. Hill rapped and sang the song as he and Wiig led the cast out onto the floor and into the studio audience. If a 10-to-1 sketch doesn’t fall into the bizarre Potato Chip category, I prefer that it at least end the night on a fun, musical note, a tip I have to wonder if Hill picked up from Jason Segel when he hosted in November.
Rush Limbaugh Cold Open. At the start, this cold open had a lot going for it: a non-Romney sketch, Taran Killam showing his impersonation skills, a lot of funny details. Unfortunately, rather than a running joke supporting a bigger premise, the laundry list of silly advertisers now sponsoring Limbaugh was all this sketch was, resulting in a very one-note sketch.
I feel SNL did some damage control, quality-wise, from last week’s Lindsay Lohan disaster. Too bad the ratings dropped 21% from last week. (So you got your fleeting ratings boost by booking a celebrity convict, Lorne Faust Michaels. Thank god you got SNL back off the ropes by arousing some of those Nielsen families.) A solid digital short, Stefon, a competent host, and a deliciously dark monkey sex sketch were more than enough to place this episode in the win column for me.
What did you think? Did the universal love for Jonah Hill escape you as it did me for all these years? Were you less impressed by this episode, with its nut shots, bestiality jokes, worn J Pop and Stefon pieces, and interminable Liza Minnelli dancing sketches? Has my new respect and fear of Jonah Hill blinded me from objective criticism, the way he manipulated Brutus the monkey into “getting behind him”?
I won’t see you until next month, when Sofia Vergara will host with musical guest One Direction.
Erik Voss is a writer and performer living in Los Angeles. He performs with his improv team The Cartel at the iO West Theater. Once, when he printed copies of his spec script at Kinkos, Judd Apatow burst in, tore up his scripts, punched him in the gut, and snarled, “This is MY world, motherfucker.”