‘SNL’ Review: Ben Affleck and the End of an Era

What a weepy week it was for comedy nerds. NBC packed a double-whammy of goodbyes, with The Office’s poignant series finale last Thursday, followed by Saturday’s season finale of Saturday Night Live and final episode to feature Bill Hader, Fred Armisen, and (perhaps) Jason Sudeikis as regular cast members, which was announced only days before. It is indeed the end of an era, not just for the network, but for TV comedy as a whole, and we will talk plenty more about this changing landscape over the coming days, weeks, and months.

Unlike last year’s farewell to Kristen Wiig, which had a best-of-Wiig vibe that unfortunately repeated itself a week ago, this episode felt more like a cathartic reunion for the whole cast. Hader and Armisen reprised a few of their more memorable roles, closing the book on them with conclusions that were equally epic and understated. Meanwhile, the writers thankfully still produced a solid, standalone episode, dishing out fresh material that included a balance of news events, social issues, and jabs at host Ben Affleck — who, it must be said, came across as an affable team player. Affleck seemed more than happy to put aside his pride (even on his supposed induction to the Five Timers Club) and let the spotlight drift to the departing cast members, celebrity cameos, and musical guest Kanye West, who unfortunately-for-us got through his sets without incident. However, in the moments Affleck did have the ball, he took care of business, pulling off relatively difficult, layered performances and breaking only occasionally and at times in which he earned it. Like similarly stellar hosts from this season like Melissa McCarthy, Martin Short, Seth MacFarlane, and Zach Galifianakis, Affleck avoided routine, spoon-fed roles and took a riskier route with original concepts, and it paid off.

SNL season finales are almost always episodes for the books, with the writers and actors hoping to end the season on a strong note to keep viewers humming throughout the summer. But this finale tops the ones in recent memory, not simply for providing a fitting farewell to its beloved cast members, but for doing so with such a funny and satisfying episode.

What Hit:

Monologue. This being the fifth time Ben Affleck has hosted, there was speculation over how SNL planned on topping Justin Timberlake’s legend-packed induction into the Five Timer’s Club a few months ago. Instead, the writers took things in a humorously low-key direction, with Bobby Moynihan wearing a t-shirt with the number 5 on it. I would have preferred for the monologue to explore this lack-of-fanfare game a little further, but it instead moved onto Affleck’s confusing acceptance speech at the Oscars, with the actor/director bringing his wife Jennifer Garner on stage to explain his words. While we’ve probably moved on from the Oscars controversy by now, Affleck’s banter with Garner was enjoyable, especially the awkward expression made by longtime cue card guy Wally Feresten.

Iranian Film. Timing couldn’t have been more perfect for this sketch, with Argo-director Ben Affleck hosting and resident Mahmoud Ahmadinejad impersonator Fred Armisen departing. Armisen played the Iranian president giving us a behind-the-scenes look at his response film to Argo, Bengo F— Yourself, in which he plays a Boston-accented Ben Affleck tricking Hollywood into making a movie full of “lies and falsehoods.” It’s a complex premise with a few steps to it, and it probably would have hit harder if packaged as a video edited completely in post, as opposed to the live/tape hybrid. But it seemed like the SNL film crew had its hands full with that awesome farewell to Stefon, and this sketch fared well with its obtuse Iranian depictions of America and Armisen reciting before each line, “Park the car in Harvard Yard.”

Gay Wedding Xanax. In the first of three gay-themed pieces, this commercial for anti-depressants for people overwhelmed by extravagant gay weddings gave us some fun specifics of everyone at a wedding knowing a dance to a Beyonce song that hasn’t come out yet and party favors being two tickets to Italy and $40,000 in cash.

Depression Scene. This period piece about an out-of-work depression-era man (Bill Hader) who turns out to be no-so-honorable seemed a little odd, especially for a sketch earlier in the night, like a character Hader had been beating around for a while and finally got on the show. Hader’s performance won me over, though, especially when paired up against Affleck’s Jimmy Stewart-esque businessman and buttoned with the twist at the end.

New Beginnings Camp. Another gay-themed sketch (and one of the night’s two great sketches that aren’t on Hulu) was this piece, in which Affleck played a counselor at a camp that turns gay kids straight. It’s a bit of a touchy topic, and I was glad the writers avoided both gay-bashing and Christian-bashing and instead focused on the insanity of such a camp and the closeted staff that runs it. Affleck held his own in his delivery of corny rhyming slogans – “Hetero is better, yo!” – and in his awkward mouth proximity with his neglected wife (Vanessa Bayer) and flaming former roommate/arts and crafts director (Taran Killam). Watch the video here.

Weekend Update. In what was the best all-around Weekend Update segment of the season, Seth Meyers kicked off with some jokes about the IRS scandal, which led into a hilarious “Really?!?” segment with Amy Poehler, which gave us some great lines like, “Even the TSA pulls a white guy out of the security line every now and then.” Poehler stuck around to do some more jokes (because why not?), which set things up for a fun interaction when Bill Hader entered as Stefon (his 17th appearance), who immediately turned on the female co-anchor with icy hatred. Stefon began his piece like he normally does, telling us about a club called “PANTS” and Human Magic Eight Balls. Then things took a surprising turn, with Stefon getting fed up with Seth’s rejection and leaving, and Seth chasing after him and interrupting his wedding to Anderson Cooper, ala the final scene of The Graduate. I’ve rarely been prouder of SNL then when I caught of glimpse of the bride’s side, which included several of Stefon’s underworld clubbing friends (broken down in our freeze-frame guide to his wedding). I appreciated having Ben Affleck shout “Follow your heart, bro!” to Stefon – you might remember that Stefon first appeared on SNL in 2008, as Affleck’s brother. Seth and Stefon returned hand in hand to the Update desk, greeted by a parade of Update characters – Drunk Uncle, David Patterson, Jacob, the Devil, Ann Romney, Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With, Arianna Huffington, and Jean K Jean – who all owe so much to a character who made the Update desk such an exciting place to see new SNL characters in recent years. I’m sure we’ll see Stefon again, but I can think of no better sendoff than a gay wedding between Stefon and Seth Meyers.

Pornstar Commercial III. Vanessa Bayer and Cecily Strong’s brain-dead ex-pornstars made yet another comeback, this time taping a commercial for Hermes handbags. Brookie and… the other one… have been two of the funniest new characters this season, for their crass and moronic anecdotes – “One of my eyes doesn’t work. It got sucked out in a butt.” (the second of Brookie’s body parts to get lost in a butt, after her foot) – as well as the simple idea that these are women who are taping their own commercials in order to get free products. Affleck played male pornstar “Girth Brooks,” who had a pretty good line about calling his package “Snickers.”

Cop Speeches. Another great sketch that didn’t make it onto Hulu was this one about a backyard engagement party with a family of tightly wound cops who get choked up easily during their speeches. I loved seeing several of the male cast members share a physical game, especially Bill Hader and Taran Killam, who could barely get a single word out before going to pieces. Strangely enough, I can’t find this sketch anywhere online, which is especially frustrating considering the only musical licensing conflict would have been an a cappella version of “Bad Boys” sang by the actors for a few seconds at the very end of the sketch.

Ian Rubbish and the Bizarros II. I was curious which of Fred Armisen’s characters we would see in his final episode. We got to see Garth & Kat and The Californians last week with Kristen Wiig, and his Two Best Friends Growing Up bit with Vanessa Bayer seems to come up only when a dictator has been in the news. I’ve always been a fan of his rambling political comedian Nicholas Fehn, but I would have been surprised to see a character who was only ever moderately popular come back now, and his Prince and Ferecito characters seemed to be products of his early years on the show. So it seemed appropriate that SNL would devote its 10-to-1 slot – a time slot his offbeat concepts flourished during Armisen’s years on SNL – to Armisen jamming out as his Johnny Rotten-esque British punk rocker Ian Rubbish, along with the other members of the Bizarros, Armisen’s Portlandia co-star Carrie Brownstein, and rock legends Steve Jones, Kim Gordon, J. Mascis, Aimee Mann, and Michael Penn. The sketch was more of a nostalgic feel-good piece than a comedic one, with Armisen closing out the night with some sweet lyrics: “It’s been all right… I’ve had a lovely night with you.”

What Missed:

Cold Open: Politics Nation III. I’ve never been a big fan of this parody of the MSNBC talk show hosted by the incompetent Al Sharpton (Kenan Thompson), where the jokes rarely go deeper than Sharpton being unable to read the teleprompter or understand how television works. Although SNL would address the IRS scandal far more effectively later in the episode, I was disappointed to see the night start off with such a one-note take on a huge news week.

Greg’s Funeral. Ben Affleck did an admirable job trying to keep afloat this wordy sketch about a hated man who fakes his own death and tries to defend his memory at his funeral. The pacing felt sluggish as we moved from speaker to speaker, and the only solid laughs came from Taran Killam as the man’s son, who claimed his father is still alive: “When I call his cell phone, he picks up and says, ‘Oops’!”

For a guy given an SNL season finale that would have relatively little to do with him, Ben Affleck proved to be a fine host, banking on his likable personality and ability to see his placement in the big scheme of things. I was also impressed that the writers would push themselves to come up with so many new ideas, when previous season finales have banked on popular recurring characters, especially when 2-3 popular cast members would be leaving the show. But SNL was economical with its tributes to Hader and Armisen, which gave the farewells an even greater emotional punch and resulted in one of the best episodes of the season.

When SNL went on hiatus last summer, we could more or less guess what the next season would bring: Bill Hader holding down the fort, Bobby Moynihan and Taran Killam stepping up to the plate, an election season with Jason Sudeikis and Jay Pharoah in the spotlight, and, with Kristen Wiig’s departure proliferating roles for the supporting women of the cast, a sort-of female revival. This year, I honestly don’t know what the new season will bring. While the SNL format will probably stay the same, the personalities, and the humor those individuals bring with them, will likely look very different from the show we’ve grown accustomed to over the past few years. Sure, that’s a little scary, but it’s also very exciting. SNL’s constant turnover is the reason we keep tuning in: we don’t know what to expect, and we’re anxious to see the world’s next comedy stars.

What did you think? Did Ben Affleck host the season finale you were hoping for? How do you feel Ben Affleck stacked up against the other Oscar winner hosts this season (Anne Hathaway, Jennifer Lawrence, and Christoph Waltz)? Were you satisfied with the goodbyes to Bill Hader and Fred Armisen? Were there other characters you would have liked to see one more time (personally speaking, I wouldn’t have minded seeing Herb Welch, Vincent Price, or Alan Alda again)? Were there any guests at Stefon’s wedding that I missed? Was it just me, or did Affleck appear to be crying when he introduced Kanye’s first musical act? And do you think we’ll ever see a character have as successful a run (and conclusion) on SNL as Stefon did?

Although this is my final episode recap of the season, I’ll be posting more articles later this week listing my favorite sketches from this season and a breakdown of the cast. Thanks for reading and see you next season!

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

‘SNL’ Review: Ben Affleck and the End of an Era