‘SNL’ Review: No Escape from Miley Cyrus

After Justin Bieber hosted SNL last season, I concluded that SNL will never quite be the alternative comedy show we’d like it to be. There’s no denying the show would be much funnier if producers only booked the heroes of comedy nerds to host the show, as it did last season with Louis CK and last week with Tina Fey. I’ve made the case several times that the show would be far better if only former cast members hosted – indeed, SNL has enough star alumni to fill a few seasons’ worth of episodes.

But SNL isn’t that show. The ongoing inclusion of performances by a musical guest in every episode tells us that SNL will always be a classic, network late-night variety show, where ratings and cultural relevancy remain top priorities.

So despite the ire of fans, a couple of times each season, we will have to deal with whatever pop culture sensation currently controls the zeitgeist. Sometimes, this mainstream pandering ends up being a good thing, as it was with Jon Hamm or Justin Timberlake. More often than not, however, we’re stuck with a performer who, frankly, has no place on SNL: Justin Bieber, Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, Donald Trump, and now, for a second time, Miley Cyrus. To the writers’ credit, they shot for the moon with some pretty ambitious ideas – a post-apocalyptic flashback cold open and cheerleaders getting abducted by aliens, and the cast members (namely Taran Killam and Vanessa Bayer) gave some of the best performances of their careers. But the early sketches had so many moving parts – and so much Miley – that the show felt rushed, with little breathing room for the cast and no time for jokes to land. That might be an unfair criticism for a show that is hastily thrown together last minute, but SNL normally pulls off the feat with a finesse that was noticeably absent this week.

If you didn’t enjoy this episode – and I’m sure there were many of you – you shouldn’t blame the writers, who got the most out of their hot button host while managing to address some big news events, or the cast members, who have stepped up remarkably so far this season. Nor should you blame Miley Cyrus, who improved on her hosting stint in 2011, left it all on stage, and happily poked fun at herself – even if it played right into her strategy to dominate every aspect of pop culture. Some of the blame can go to SNL’s booking producers, who should recognize that the show is popular enough that it doesn’t need to play within the toxic publicity machine that buoys stars like Cyrus and Bieber.

But mostly, we can only blame ourselves, for it was our obsession over Cyrus’s VMA performance, our purchases of tabloids, our clever quips on Twitter, our hundreds of millions of views on YouTube, and our watching and talking about the singer on SNL that opened the door for her to host the show in the first place. If we learned anything from our country’s tumultuous relationship with Sarah Palin (or from The Simpsons’ “Attack of the 50-foot Eyesores”), it’s that if we simply ignore the monster, it will disappear.

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”

Miley Cyrus Cold Open. The episode opened with the image of Kenan Thompson and Noël Wells huddling for warmth in the ruins of post-apocalyptic New York City in the year 2045, then flashing back to the moment that caused it all: Miley Cyrus’ performance at the 2013 VMAs. This interesting, high-concept framing device devolved into a standard SNL impression sketch, with the young, Hannah Montana-era Miley (Vanessa Bayer) warning present-day Miley (herself) about the dangers of her controversial gig, followed by appearances from Robin Thicke (Taran Killam), Will Smith (Jay Pharoah), and Bobby Moynihan as an upset backup dancer in a huge bear costume: “We shouldn’t be doing this! This is for kids!” I enjoyed the bold premise, the impressions were solid, and I didn’t mind Miley getting the VMA references out of her system early on… only she was just getting started.

Monologue. The monologue was so short and dependent on more VMA jokes that it’s barely worth mentioning here, except for the lovely image of naked Bobby Moynihan straddling a wrecking ball. I am endlessly amazed at the lengths SNL’s prop department will go to to pull off a three-second sight gag.

50 Shades of Grey Auditions. I am surprised SNL would call attention to the recent departure of Bill Hader with one of these screen test impression pieces, which Hader more or less carried in recent seasons. Since there’s really no joke here other than “Look how funny our impressions are!” the fact that most of the impressions fell a little flat made this piece a bit of a downer. Taran Killam’s Christoph Waltz, Kate McKinnon’s Jane Lynch, and Jay Pharoah’s Tracy Morgan seemed to hit the hardest… expect those three to emerge as the cast’s go-to impersonators.

Girlfriends Talk Show III. Although I was excited to see one of my favorite sketches from last season make a comeback, this premise has lost a bit of its luster for me. Before, the focus was on the relationship between Aidy Bryant’s Morgan and Cecily Strong’s Kyra, but in this instance, Miley Cyrus’ Lil’ Teeny stole the spotlight (despite not doing much with it) while Morgan stuck pretty closely to the bit about helping her mom’s friend through her divorce (which was funny, but didn’t need to last longer than a beat) and Kyra mostly parroted “Awesome!” for 90% of her lines. Bryant still had her moments, such as her camp nickname being “Night Crier” and a self-written song with several rounds of “hoo-hey-ho’s.”

We Did Stop. The night’s most memorable moment was this shot-for-shot parody of Miley Cyrus’ “We Can’t Stop” music video, featuring a tanned John Boehner (Taran Killam) in Cyrus’ skimpy underwear, grinding and twerking with Michelle Bachmann (Cyrus), about the government shutdown. The bizarre imagery from Cyrus’ original video made for some fun visuals here, but what impressed me most was the piece’s flawless execution, which has always been the strength of SNL’s music videos. A big win for writers Erik Kenward and Colin Jost, but mostly for Killam, who’s all-business dancing has apparently made him the show’s new star.

Piers Morgan Tonight IV. This sketch encapsulated the night in a nutshell: An interesting concept (different networks’ takes on Hillary Clinton biopics) bogged down in poor execution, Miley Cyrus awkwardly infused with politics, an unnecessary reliance on familiar characters and an abundance of impressions, and Miley nearly drowning a sketch and Taran Killam saving it. One thing that stood out to me was the casting of three different actresses as Clinton: Vanessa Bayer, Kate McKinnon, and Noël Wells (in one of the stills). While I would have preferred to see one actress showcase her versatility here, it is interesting to see SNL weigh its options prior to Clinton’s decision of whether or not she’ll run in 2016. (My money’s on McKinnon for the gig.)

Weekend Update. The news segment seemed to run a little long this week, with four desk pieces slowing the momentum of some of the segment’s later punchlines. After a so-so “Winners and Losers” bit about the shutdown, Kate McKinnon appeared as GTA5-obsessed soccer mom Pat Lynhart: “I was supposed to run the carpool yesterday, and you know what I did instead? I shot a hooker in the boob for sport!” McKinnon’s aggressive delivery is always welcome at the Update desk, but her jumping out of her seat made her bit at times uncomfortably kinetic… an energy that boiled over when Jay Pharoah stopped by as hyperbolic NFL commentator Shannon Sharpe. I’m not too familiar with Sharpe, but Pharoah stirred up the studio audience into a frenzy – which I’m not sure was a result of the accuracy of his impression, or his constant tongue-flicking. Finally, Vanessa Bayer reprised her always-enjoyable Jacob the Bar Mitzvah Boy (IV), with the bonus thrill of seeing the nervous kid who sticks too closely to corny, rehearsed jokes absolutely lose it when he caught sight of Cecily Strong at the desk.

Cheer Squad. Certainly the strangest sketch of the night was this one about cheerleaders who get abducted by aliens during practice. I love such a bizarre idea and applaud SNL for going for it, but the complicated technical setup and the awkward cutting around green screens and crew people rigging fly wires resulted in disjointed timing, leaving Miley Cyrus appearing a little confused. By the time Kenan Thompson showed up as a rapping alien and the sketch ended with a toy spaceship stealing the moon, the only thing that made sense was Taran Killam’s shrieking, “WHAT IS HAPPENING?!

Mornin’ Miami. Things finally slowed down to a comfortable pace during the episode’s back stretch, starting with this enjoyable sketch featuring Miley Cyrus, Bobby Moynihan, and Kate McKinnon as hating-life morning show hosts recording stupid promos: “Jeff Dunham’s puppets are in studio, but Jeff Dunham is not. We’ll find out how funny those puppets really are.” The long, angry pauses between each take worked beautifully here – not just to punctuate the high energy deliveries and hilariously odd copy, but to give the episode as a whole a chance to catch its breath. And I don’t know what it is about Moynihan saying, “And I’m BF!” over and over, but it got to me. Best of the Night.

Poetry Class. Vanessa Bayer received another big character break as charismatic substitute poetry teacher Miss Meadows. Bayer’s voice was hilarious – the little “ahknowwhatI’msayin”s and sudden barks gradually won over the studio audience. And despite Mike O’Brien’s limited role in this sketch, I was impressed at his ability to score some big laughs: “Is everything OK? I thought I heard a seal.” Hopefully we’ll see more of him in episodes to come.

Miley Sex Tape. Kyle Mooney’s big debut came in the 10-to-1 slot, which may be a good place for him while viewers warm up to his Andy Kaufman-style delivery. Here, he attempts to record a sex tape with Miley Cyrus, but finds himself blocked by his own insecurities, despite the moment being perfect. The video had a definite Good Neighbor vibe to it, and although it didn’t get huge laughs, it was nonetheless an enjoyable introduction to Mooney’s type of humor.

Additional Thoughts:

  • Vanessa Bayer was the MVP of the night, with appearances as Miley Cyrus, Hillary Clinton, Jacob, and Miss Meadows. Newcomer John Milhiser was on the low end this episode, with his Jon Cryer impression as his only memorable cameo.
  • I’d love to know who wrote Mornin’ Miami. Some of the best lines of the episode came from that sketch alone: “Are ghosts real? It turns out, no. Here to talk about it is Topher Grace.”
  • Man, were there a lot of impressions in this episode. Before we even got to Weekend Update, we saw the following: Miley Cyrus, Robin Thicke, Will Smith, Seth Rogen, Emma Stone, Scarlett Johansson, Christoph Waltz, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Kristen Stewart, Rebel Wilson, Steve Harvey, John Cryer, Jane Lynch, Aziz Ansari, Mary-Louise Parker, Tilda Swinton, Tracy Morgan, Shaquille O’Neal, Kristin Chenoweth, John Boehner, Michelle Bachmann, Piers Morgan, Arianna Huffington, Hillary Clinton (two of them), Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Sway Calloway. Save some for the rest of the season, SNL!
  • With John Mulaney’s pilot being ordered to series by Fox, our days with Nasim Pedrad may be numbered. Her appearance as Arianna Huffington reminded me how few recurring characters she has on the show. Mulaney may have come at just the right time for Pedrad.
  • Also from Mornin’ Miami: “It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s an… ugly rabbit? The worst looking rabbits in the state of Florida strut their stuff in Tampa’s 23rd Annual Bummer Bunny Contest.”
  • Jay Pharoah and Kate McKinnon obviously joined the cast largely because of their impersonation skills, but watch out for Taran Killam. His Eminem and Brad Pitt made the rounds in previous seasons, and tonight, he stole the show with Christoph Waltz, Piers Morgan, and John Boehner. (Another impressionist worth keeping an eye on: Noël Wells.)
  • I was happy to see Beck Bennett as Bill Clinton. Although the role isn’t as lucrative as it once was, it must have been pretty cool for the guy to don the costume worn by Darrell Hammond and Phil Hartman. His impression wasn’t bad, either.
  • Last one from Mornin’ Miami, I promise: “No show Thursday because it’s a leap week.”
  • KYLE: “Is that my brother?” TARAN: “Hey bro, you wanna play catch? Sup, Beck?” BECK: “What’s up, Ricky!”
  • New additions to the Season 39 Stupid Name List (all from Mornin’ Miami): BF, Bill Spinx, Yolanda Natalie Portman, Jill Amockingbird, and Bitch Fantastic.
  • I’ll see you next week, when Bruce Willis will host with musical guest Katy Perry.

    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: No Escape from Miley Cyrus