‘SNL’ Recap: Eli Manning Plays a Boy’s Game

A non-actor celebrity host on SNL can be a recipe for disaster.

On the surface, booking a popular stand-up comedian seems like an obvious choice for a late-night comedy show with notable appearances by George Carlin and Richard Pryor. However, comedians who have spent years refining a specific voice as a solo act often don’t make good team players. Andrew Dice Clay’s controversial humor caused a publicity nightmare that overshadowed the episode itself, and Jerry Seinfeld brought in his own writers, which resulted in some uncomfortable tension in the writers room.

Then there are the politicians. Though there have been a number of brief cameos over the years, only 11 politicians have actually hosted the show (12 if you consider Donald Trump a serious contender, so… 11), with the most recent being Al Sharpton in 2003. Politicians often stink with an agenda to humanize themselves, showing an unsurprising lack of a sense of humor. There have been a few bright spots in John McCain and Al Gore, who won back our hearts as the suitors America (or the Supreme Court, at least) once turned down in favor of George W. Bush.

This brings us to athletes. Many athlete hosts have proven to be quick on their feet and natural showmen — skills that benefitted Derek Jeter and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson tremendously. There have also been a few disasters: swimmer Michael Phelps seemed much more slow and clumsy on land, and there was that one awkward episode in 1978 where O.J. Simpson tried to murder Laraine Newman.

Athlete hosts present fascinating insights into masculinity. They seem to be game for any character or situation that is asked of them, yet they do so with a surprising level of self-awareness. I am reminded of the famous “Big Bernard” sketch, in which Tracy Morgan spanked 7-foot-1 Shaquille O’Neal, while Shaq mugged and made faces at the audience. It was as if he was anticipating his return to the Lakers locker room and wanted to prove to the other guys that he was “above” the pettiness of the scene. Notice also the tendency for athlete hosts to don drag — Derek Jeter as a Yankee wife, Charles Barkley as a coming-out lesbian, and now Eli Manning as a spurned runner up in a drag queen pageant. It’s the same kind of “bro mentality” behind jocks dancing around in wigs at a pep rally or pledges being forced into training bras in a frat house basement. To jocks, comedy is a queer distraction for boys to prove their manhood, and not a serious pursuit for real men.

Okay, enough nerd ranting. SNL’s typically weaker second half began earlier than usual in this episode, with Eli Manning being guided through the motions like a polite tourist.

What Hit:

Cold Open: Fox and Friends. In the past, I have dismissed these Fox and Friends sketches as meandering parodies without clear premises, but this instance found a fun game in making Brian Kilmeade (Bobby Moynihan) particularly dumb — suggesting Tupac was a hologram all along and asking Rupert Murdoch if being in a different time zone allows him to bet on sporting events, Biff-style — while the other hosts play straight. The conversational flow swept some jokes under the rug, but overall it was a nice new angle on the old sketch. A tip of the hat, and hakuna matata!

Monologue. Eli Manning was expectedly stiff with the jokes, but I enjoyed his tourist-y outlook on being a New Yorker, suggesting Olive Garden as a good place for authentic New York Italian cuisine, bragging about standing outside of the Today Show, and walking slowly with a line of fat kids through Times Square.

Amazon Commercial. Seth Meyers tweeted that this was one of his favorite commercial parodies of the season, and I’m inclined to agree with him. I’ll leave this wonderful little Mother’s Day surprise for you to unwrap yourself.

Motion Capture. In another on-set “mission impossible” sketch, Eli Manning played himself in a green-screen motion capture studio (ping-pong ball body suit and all) for his video game character, but struggling with doing normal football celebratory moves. The appearances of Tim Tebow (Taran Killam), Victor Cruz (Jay Pharoah), Ray Lewis (Kenan Thompson), and Troy Polamalu (Andy Samberg) helped break up Manning’s fun pantomime of dribbling basketballs, brushing long, perfect hair, and making a sandwich, dropping it, then eating it anyway.

Text Message Evidence. This sketch featured Manning as a defendant having his moronic text messages read aloud as evidence in a courtroom, including a few emoticon faces and a picture of him holding a banana in his crotch. The piece was wordy and dragged often, but I enjoyed the strange camaraderie between the attorney (Sudeikis) and the judge (Hader).

Little Brothers. In an homage to his brother Peyton’s memorable United Way sketch — in which the quarterback pegged kids with the football and used them to hook up with women — Eli lent his hand to kids being bullied by their big brothers, giving the punks wedgies and swirlies, and locking them in trunks while calling them “Peyton.” As the night’s only reference to his brother, it was both an appropriate nod and a funny concept of its own.

What Is This? Whereas latter-half game show sketches are usually hit-or-miss, I loved the concept of a woman (Abby Elliot) using a game show to get her boyfriend to openly define their relationship. Hader had a hilarious supporting role as a dimwitted contestant with “nighttime sun” and “letter hole” in his lexicon.

What Missed:

Herb Welch. It pains me to see a character I loved so much last season pass its expiration date. Yet, like his character at the ends of his sketches, Bill Hader’s veteran field reporter Herb Welch keeps springing back to life, ready to bop us in the face one last time. While interviewing Occupy protesters, Herb had some fun moments — specifically the Ash Wednesday mark, the racist comments to the anchor, and a poorly edited video package — but overall the jokes weren’t as strong as usual and the microphone gags fell flat.

Weekend Update. Even Seth Meyers seemed a little surprised by the weak reactions his jokes were getting with the crowd, but hey, everyone has off-nights. Kristen Wiig’s cameo as the Tanning Mom took far too long to get to the good stuff – her self-metaphors to a baseball glove, a wise cigar store Indian, and Wiley Coyote after something blows up in his face, as well as a great toast gag. I wasn’t a huge fan of Sacha Baron Cohen’s appearance as General Aladeen from his upcoming movie The Dictator. The jokes were fine, but the whole thing reeked of cross-promotion. Like Ben Stiller appearing as Derek Zoolander in Weekend Update earlier this season, the piece felt dirty.

Helga Lately. Rookie Kate McKinnon was given yet another big shot to show off her character skills, here in a Swedish version of Chelsea Lately. The decision to write and perform the entire sketch in Swedish (with random bits of English buzzwords thrown in) might have been a misfire, as it forced the audience to rely on the overall concept and the performances by McKinnon and the others, which, unfortunately, simply didn’t stick.

Miss Drag World. Whether or not you were annoyed by the presumption that having the macho-man host wear women’s clothing would be great comedy, neither Manning’s upset second-runner-up nor his catchphrase — “This pageant is dick!” — made it past the first beat.

Cheech and Chong. In a Turner Classic Movies tribute to Cheech and Chong, Manning played long-forgotten sidekick Richard, an “all-American wet blanket friend who always left at the beginning of their movies.” The sketch hoped to capitalize on Manning’s wholesomeness, but unlike Melissa McCarthy, who used her physical comedy to carry a TCM sketch earlier this season, his delivery brought little to the piece.

For an episode with an athlete as a host, I was surprised at how few of the sketches focused on NFL football (only Motion Capture was inspired by his career, while the monologue and Little Brothers merely referenced it). Manning played a variety of roles in sketches — from douchey defendants and deadbeat boyfriends to hipster protesters and upbeat Swedes — often taking the wheel. It was surprising to see Herb Welch and Weekend Update go so poorly while Fox and Friends have a good night for a change.

What did you think? Am I being too cynical with this “bro mentality” displayed by athletes on the show, or is it all good, wholesome fun? What do you make of the recent spike in sports humor on SNL, with Charles Barkley and Eli Manning hosting within a few months of each other and no athlete host two years prior? Do athletes make good SNL hosts, or should the show take my advice and only allow former castmembers to host the show?

Which reminds me, Will Ferrell and Usher will return to SNL next week, giving us what will most likely be an episode amazing enough in case Mick Jagger blows it in the following week’s season finale.

Erik Voss is a writer and performer living in Los Angeles. He performs with his improv team The Cartel at the iO West Theater.

‘SNL’ Recap: Eli Manning Plays a Boy’s Game