For people who like to talk about comedy, there are few greater debates than the one over the claim that “funny is funny.” Can a performer or joke be objectively funny independent of context or medium? There are those who argue yes, that some comedians are so talented that their popularity is universal — Robin Williams, say, or Bill Murray — and that every culture since the dawn of man has had some version of a fart joke. Then there are those who argue no, that there are “different kinds of funny.” Comedian Bill Burr made waves for his rant about “alternative comedy,” which he criticized as being less tough than the brutal career pains of traditional “club comics.” The argument here is that comedy is highly dependent on a number of variables — whether the performance is being watched live or on TV, the age/gender/ethnicity/political affiliation of the audience, the size of the crowd and whether people can hear others laughing, etc.
When SNL books an actor like Bruce Willis to host the show, it caters to those with the first mindset. “Bruce Willis’ wisecracking was the best part of the Die Hard movies,” they’re hoping we think. “If he can be funny as John McClane, he can be funny on SNL.” It’s the same logic behind booking action movie stars like Daniel Craig or Jeremy Renner. The most popular Hollywood leading men win over audiences with one-liners, and the game plan is that the appeal should easily translate to SNL and bring in big ratings. But by the end of the episode, SNL has instead proven the second mindset, that the ability of Bruce Willis (and Daniel Craig and Jeremy Renner) to deliver laughs on the big screen loses its potency without exploding helicopters and extreme closeups. It’s not that Bruce Willis isn’t funny — on the contrary, throughout the night he clearly understood the game of each sketch and his function within it, getting him plenty of laughs — it’s that he’s not, for lack of a better term, “SNL-funny.”
Let’s face it: SNL has a specific voice, and every season we witness new cast members struggle to get in tune. Taran Killam and Bobby Moynihan were hired because they were already hilarious, but it still took them a few years to crack the code. Now, they’ve developed the muscle memory of hitting their marks, pausing for laughs, and punching their lines — skills the mumbly and often quiet Bruce Willis has yet to master. But we can’t expect a screen actor who is not known first and foremost as a comedian to be an SNL pro right away. What we can expect is for him to stick mostly to types he’s known for, play at least one over-the-top effeminate character, and spend the rest of the night as a straight man.
With Bruce Willis, SNL gave us exactly what we expected. Sure, he showed off that signature McClane charisma, but by sticking to the same badass-hero-on-SNL formula, he gave us nothing much to remember him by.
NASA Shutdown Cold Open. The writers continued their streak of strong opens this season with yet another clever fusion of pop culture and politics: the stranded astronauts from Gravity radio mission control, just to find no one home due to the shutdown. Kenan Thompson was hilarious as a folksy janitor, who took down a message that “Janet from space called” and suggested that the astronauts burp their way down to earth, ala Charlie and Grandpa Joe in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Between this sketch and the floating cheerleaders from last week, I appreciate how ambitious SNL has been this season when it comes to visual stunts.
Monologue. Meanwhile, I’m sure the writers could have come up with a funnier way to illustrate Bobby Moynihan’s daddy crush on Bruce Willis than a harmonica-off between the two. Another week, another forgettable monologue.
24-Hour Energy Drinks. SNL threw a bone to industry folk with this commercial for round-the-clock energy drinks for boyfriends of aspiring actresses, “because for them, all the world’s a stage.” While it may speak more to people working in the biz than to the rest of America, it was a fun idea, and I am happy the sketch briefly examined the flip side of the gender roles, with another variation for women dating always-on comedians.
Black Ops. The best-written script of the night was this centerpiece sketch about a team of no-nonsense Navy SEALs planning a black ops mission, with Bruce Willis playing a SEAL who thinks like a macho action hero and refuses to stay in the van. It’s a perfect satire of Willis’ larger-than-life movie characters compared to “the real heroes,” but the problem here lies in the execution. Willis got the character down and had fun with the delivery, but the details of his character’s fantasy schemes needed some room to breathe – and a bit more volume. Had Willis delivered the bit with the same broad precision as Bill Hader in last season’s Puppet Class, this sketch would have killed. Still, it’s worth a second viewing to catch all the jokes, and for Bobby’s giddy listener: “OH YOU HAVE A KNIFE IN YOUR BOOT!”
Barbershop. Bruce Willis got to fall back on his man-of-few-words persona as a bland-storytelling barber in a chatty black barbershop. The premise gave us some solid laughs – “Robin’s egg comes outta the bird’s ass blue. How does that happen?” – but this sketch felt a little long and sloppy, especially when the ending sight gag failed to hit. For me, the winners of this sketch for me were the stonefaced old men receiving haircuts while Kenan Thompson didn’t even try to do convincing space work around their heads.
Boy Dance Party. SNL followed up last week’s “We Did Stop” with another catchy music video, with the guys of the cast waiting for the girls to leave so they could have a “Boy Dance Party,” with some awkward twerking and sack-shaking. The video was good for fun visuals and the occasional laugh – frozen Taran spraying Bobby with silly string, Vanessa screaming at the sight of robot Kenan – but I couldn’t escape the feeling that SNL was trying so hard to pump out another viral video, and I’m just not fully on board.
Lady Gaga Show. The weakest sketch of the night was Vanessa Bayer as Lady Gaga, in an answer to Bayer’s own “Miley Cyrus Show.” The sketch felt oddly dated, Bayer’s impression wasn’t up to par, and there’s something about musical talk show sketches and sketches with dancing models that turns me off… and this one had both. The sketch also contained the obligatory over-the-top gay man role for the manly man host, with Bruce Willis playing fashion designer Michael Kors. The one saving grace was Aidy Bryant as a makeover victim with a cube-head: “I’m a high school principal! I cannot look like this!” (Watch the sketch here.)
Weekend Update. Seth Meyers and Cecily Strong struck gold with the jokes this week, most memorably with a joke-off about Kris and Bruce Jenner’s divorce. The rest of the segment was less memorable, with Kenan Thompson as US Senate Chaplain Barry Black, whose prayers that the senators end the shutdown included some hilarious images of using a CVS receipt for toilet paper. New cast member Brooks Wheelan was given his time in the sun to discuss his various tattoos and how none of them have any personal meaning whatsoever. It was a funny, sincere bit, much like John Mulaney’s Girl Scout cookie rant on Update a few years ago, and although it could have used a few more laughs, it was fun to see Wheelan simply be himself on the show.
Kirby II. The first of two one-off characters from last season that I never thought we’d see again came in the form of Kirby, Bobby Moynihan’s kitty-cat obsessed astronaut, this time on board an Armageddon-type mission to blow up an asteroid headed for Earth. Like last time, Moynihan gazing lovingly out the window ran dry pretty fast, and his sudden freakout landed the biggest laughs: “HE EXPLODED … ALL HIS INSIDE STUFF IS ON THE OUTSIDE! HIS SPINE IS OUT! HIS TEETH ARE EVERYWHERE! I HATE THIS!”
Centauri Vodka. I can get on board with a silly costume being the focal point of a sketch – in this case, Bruce Willis and an oxygen-deprived John Milhiser sharing a centaur costume – but this sketch contained far too little of Milhiser suffering and far too much Willis making excuses. The sketch took off the moment Milhiser fainted, leaving Willis to drag him around on the floor, making me wish the sketch had started with unconscious back legs.
Eddie II. Taran Killam’s Eddie, who last flipped out at Justin Bieber’s misspoken “Glice,” also made a comeback this episode, forcing Willis once again into the straight-man role while Killam’s douchey protective son dished out nonstop “chun” puns. I enjoyed Killam’s high energy character a little more this time around… enough to justify this return, though I’m not sure I’m itching to see him a third time.
Beer Pong. It seems that SNL has sectioned off the 10-to-1 slot for Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett to run a Good Neighbor-type video. This one sketch was classic Good Neighbor, with Mooney and Bennett as dead-eyed bros explaining their frat’s elaborate beer pong house rules, such as posing in a life-size baseball card and designing your favorite roller coaster: “Grab some markers or some colored pencils and just start drawing. Disregard the laws of physics, and create the coaster from your wildest dreams.” While the speed of the jokes prevented it from getting huge laughs, it was nonetheless the clearest and funniest piece of the night. Best of the Night.
I’ll see you Oct. 26, when Edward Norton will host with musical guest Janelle Monae.
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.