‘SNL’ Recap: Jamie Foxx Unchained

After keeping track of each SNL cast member’s share of screen time each episode for the past few seasons, I have noticed an interesting correlation: Whenever a person of color hosts the show, we see a spike in the roles given to the black cast members. Charles Barkley, Maya Rudolph, and now Jamie Foxx all hosted episodes that were big nights for Kenan Thompson and Jay Pharoah — at least, respective to other episodes. What causes this trend? Are black hosts lobbying for black cast members to get more screen time? Does Lorne think black hosts will be more comfortable in sketches if they’re accompanied by black performers? Do the writers produce racially themed sketches for weeks when they’ll have a black host because they can find few alternative angles to explore?

Perhaps the question we should be asking is, Why do we need a black host for SNL to address race?

While perhaps it’s true that black hosts might be more comfortable playing with black actors and the writers may feel a greater urge to address themes of race in those weeks, I suspect the SNL staff would say it’s far less a deliberate choice than it seems from the outside. Everyone is still just trying to produce the funniest episode possible. Perhaps when Jamie Foxx huddled with Lorne in his office to pick the final run order, he picked sketches that spoke more to him, and those happened to be ones with racial subtexts. Or maybe it’s simply the fact that when your cast has no black woman, the only time you can do a Michelle Obama sketch is when Maya Rudolph is in the room.

What we know for sure is that the racial humor and Jamie Foxx’s In Living Color-esque turn as host did SNL few favors. The first half of the episode was tonally off, with Foxx attempting to rely on his slapstick background from the aforementioned series and finding that his schtick came across in the SNL context as antiquated and, well, a little racist. Foxx was often out of sync with the rest of the cast, preferring improvisation and grandstanding to hitting his mark and delivering. Political correctness makes me nervous about describing his performance as “unchained,” but I promise I am referencing his upcoming movie Django Unchained, in which, well, yeah, he plays a slave. I really need to shut up now.

What Hit:

Obama/Boehner Cold Open. It’s hard to believe we haven’t seen Jay Pharoah’s President Obama in a cold open since the second debate — three weeks before the election. His impersonation has come a long way: his voice has settled into an accurate mimicry, and he has eased back on the “uhs” and hand gestures. This cold open also gets bonus points for its depiction of Obama as “Daddy in Chief,” a delightful incarnation that SNL has toyed with in the past, specifically in his relationship with Joe Biden. Here, Obama defended John Boehner (Bill Hader), who was a victim of inner-party bullying by the GOP: making him eat lunch alone, rubber snakes in his desk, pelting him with rotten eggs. Despite the solid concept, however, the sketch suffered from a lack of jokes and low energy, thanks to the boring press conference format and Pharoah’s awkward timing in the setups.

J-Pop. This was the first time we’ve seen last year’s breakout hit this season, and absence certainly made the heart grow fonder. Taran Killam and Vanessa Bayer were great as always as the hyperactive college kids obsessed with Japanese stereotypes, decorating a bonsai tree and acknowledging “Japwanzaa,” and Sudeikis returned as their embarrassed professor. Jamie Foxx’s slow, uneven pace hurt his Enter the Dragon-style black ninja bit, and his uncomfortable rap didn’t help. And while I’m a big J-Pop fan, I wish SNL had chosen a different week to bring back a sketch based on stereotypes, when several other sketches already dealt with racial themes.

Dylan McDermott or Dermot Mulroney? The night’s second game show sketch flipped the racial casting of the first, with a white host (Bill Hader) gleefully forcing three black contestants to distinguish between the commonly confused Dylan McDermott and Dermot Mulroney. The sketch successfully walked a difficult line, thanks to the fact that the actors and their projects are so legitimately easy to mix up — by anyone, let alone people who would never watch their movies. The overload of specifics also kept this sketch uncannily on-game: “Remember, Dylan McDermott was in The Practice, and Dermot Mulroney was in a movie called Staying Together, where he played a character named Kit McDermott. That’s a true fact.” And “Derbel McDillet” wins this episode’s Greg Stink Award for Outstanding Fictional Names.

Maine Justice. In this Texas Justice-style courtroom show, the title context of Maine is inexplicably clashed with outlandish Cajun personalities, all to the confusion of Bobby Moynihan’s perplexed defendant. It is never explained why exactly this Maine courtroom features a judge (Sudeikis), bailiff (Foxx), plaintiff (Bryant), dozens of extras, a random Charlie Day cameo, and a New Orleans jazz parade — all with hot-blooded bayou tempers, shouting things like “He’s lying like a viper in the red Maine mud!” and “You in Maine now, bo-ah! The only place you can fill a jar with maple syrup as it drips directly from a bald cyprus tree, less a voodoo lobster get to it first!”  — and it was all the better for it. It seems that as part of his tour through his favorite SNL characters, Jason Sudeikis based his judge on his potato-chip-stealing,  aspiring astronaut from my all-time favorite 10-to-1 sketch.

Swarovski Crystals. By far, the best sketch of the night was the 10-to-1, in which Vanessa Bayer and Cecily Strong played a pair of airheaded former porn actresses in an infomercial for crystal jewelry… apparently in attempt to get more crystals. Bayer and Strong’s delivery was perfect as they uttered random phrases and anecdotes: “One time I got banged to death for five minutes. Then I got banged back to life. Thanks crystals!”; “I lost part of my foot. It broke off in a butt. I’ve regretted it ever since.” The level of detail in the script was akin to a Stefon piece, and save for an awkward break by Jamie Foxx toward the end, it was four minutes of pure bliss.

What Missed:

Monologue. Jamie Foxx began the night on an uncomfortable note with a long, wandering monologue featuring an obnoxious catchphrase: “How black is that?” Considering SNL regularly mocks this hacky behavior by comedians in its Kings of Catchphrase Comedy videos (“Beeeeef Jelly!”), this was especially cringeworthy. The monologue also established two ugly precedents for the sketches that followed: 1) racial humor that was based more in stereotypes than in honest social observation and 2) a “call and response” relationship with the studio audience that encouraged howling, catcalling, and booing from a few assholes in the crowd throughout the night. I mean seriously, NBC pages, what do they pay you for?

Bitch, What’s The Answer? The centerpiece sketch of the night was this borderline offensive game show in which a profane black host (Foxx) bullies naive but well-meaning white contestants into answering vague questions, such as “Who was the president?” and “Where Jupiter?” Once again, the repetition was Foxx’s downfall: somewhere around the 11th instance, the word “bitch” went from being mildly funny to just mean. And if we’re to assume the host, or other black people, are writing these asinine questions in the first place, what kind of comment is this sketch making, exactly?

Alex Cross 2. In a sketch that highlighted Jamie Foxx’s shortcomings as a host more than any other, the actor played half-Alex Cross, half-Madea in a trailer for Tyler Perry’s new action movie. I’m not much of a Tyler Perry connoisseur… if only… but from what I can tell, Foxx’s impersonations were fine. However, the image of Foxx half in drag, fighting with himself, just wasn’t funny. Like in many of the sketches in the first half of the show, SNL handed the ball to Foxx, and he fumbled.

Weekend Update. While Seth Meyers’ jokes were a little weaker than usual, his Sandusky joke didn’t deserve the booing it got from the hostile crowd. Aidy Bryant’s cameo as a horny housewife Mrs. Claus was a bright spot in an otherwise disappointing segment, which also included Jamie Foxx as a Ding Dong who is jealous that the Twinkie is getting all the attention… a bit that quickly devolved into more black jokes.

Tree Pimps. After the success of Sad Mouse and Louie Lincoln, I’ve begun to look forward to these short films as a pleasant change of pace in SNL’s variety show format. But this documentary about a pimp for Christmas trees (Kenan Thompson) was a letdown, mostly because the game was inconsistent. The initial premise was selling trees as if they’re prostitutes, but rather than expand that concept into its own world with its own set of rules, it just became men humping trees.

If you want to see Bill Hader and Fred Armisen break for six minutes as foreign doormen telling children bizarre holiday tales, check out this sketch that was cut after dress rehearsal. While the sketch is a bit of a mess, it’s fun to watch the two taunt Bobby Moynihan by yelling “Drunk Uncle!” and “UCB!”, as well Tim Robinson have a funny little moment at the end.

It was disappointing to see SNL come back after a three week break with such a weak episode — perhaps the season’s worst thus far. The cold open was inspired but a little dry, the first half of the show was a Jamie Foxx train wreck, Weekend Update was dull, and we didn’t get to any great sketches until the last half hour, when most of the viewers had turned off the TV. That said, I laughed harder at Swarovsky Crystals than anything I’ve seen on the show in a while… so all’s not lost.

Although this was a good episode in terms of exposure for Kenan Thompson and Jay Pharoah, overall the whole cast was used far less than normal. Jamie Foxx had more starring roles than most hosts, marginalizing the ensemble except for the two game show sketches and the Maine Justice piece. (Only the Louis CK episode had nearly as few roles for the cast, and huge chunks of his episode were devoted to a long stand-up routine monologue and his Louie Lincoln short.) While Kate McKinnon was nearly completely absent, this was good night for Vanessa Bayer and Aidy Bryant, who gave us some of the episode’s finest moments.

For next week’s holiday episode, we will be treated to the powerhouse combo of Martin Short and Paul McCartney (the latter of whom I predict will do three or four musical segments, reducing the number of sketches). I have high hopes for Short, one of the finest living sketch comedians, as well as someone who has hosted the show several times. Short was a cast member from 1984-1985, and unlike other alums-turned-hosts (Dana Carvey, Molly Shannon), he doesn’t have as many old recurring characters he’ll feel pressured to reprise, so hopefully we’ll see a few original concepts make it into the lineup. Or more likely, about eight Steve Martin cameos.

What did you think? Is it pure coincidence that Kenan and Jay end up in more sketches when the host is black, or does the content of the sketches coming out of the writers room change depending on the host? Does anyone tune in to an episode of SNL with a black host expecting to see racial humor, or do they just want to see Jamie Foxx be funny with the other cast members? And seriously, where the hell was Wanda? She would have killed.

I’ll see you next week, when Martin Short will host with musical guest Paul McCartney.

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

‘SNL’ Recap: Jamie Foxx Unchained