‘SNL’ Review: Seth Rogen Half-Baked

While watching Seth Rogen host SNL for the third time last weekend, I was reminded of two other three-peat hosts from earlier this season: Paul Rudd in December and Jonah Hill in January. Rudd’s episode felt like extended promo for Anchorman 2, with the host failing to capture that lightning in the bottle with cast members that made his previous stints so memorable. Hill, however, seemed to enjoy himself every bit as much as he did his first two appearances.

Seth Rogen, Paul Rudd, and Jonah Hill are, of course, hugely successful alumni from Team Judd Apatow, but their careers have taken diverging trajectories. Rogen and Rudd have stuck closely to studio comedies and rom-coms, while Hill has attempted to carve out a larger niche for himself, pursuing meatier roles in Moneyball and The Wolf of Wall Street, and earning Oscar nominations in the process. I have to wonder if Hill’s breaking from the pack gave him an edge in his return to SNL; he possessed the calm under pressure of an actor accustomed to playing opposite heavyweights like Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. Meanwhile, Rudd and Rogen both looked like dudes wondering what happened to their old frat buddies – Hader, Samberg, Wiig… you know, the guys! – struggling to recreate the magic with the new cast and clinging to A-list guest stars whenever possible. Rudd and Rogen’s pack mentality does them little good if they don’t yet accept the new SNL kids as part of that pack.

To be fair, Seth Rogen’s episode was a vast improvement from Rudd’s, falling right in between that and Jonah Hill’s. Yes, Rogen was too often cast as the passive, flustered straight man SNL relegates to weaker hosts, but the episode also gave us one of the most interesting lineups we’ve seen in a while, with some creatively daring premises, fiery performances, and a few pleasant reminders that Nasim Pedrad and Cecily Strong can still take care of business in sketches. Then again, only half of those daring premises actually paid off, resulting in an episode that felt – forgive me – a little half-baked.

Cold Open: GOP at Coachella. SNL kicked off the night by mocking two white cultural extremes: the apolitical hipsters at Coachella and the hopelessly out of touch leaders of the Republican Party. The clash-of-context premise led to the amusing specifics of Jeb Bush (Beck Bennett) using the term “very ratchet” and Paul Ryan (Taran Killam) getting pegged in the head with a beach ball, but really just the image of these two men trying to work the crowd made this cold open a success.

Monologue. I give credit to the writers for giving Seth Rogen a tangible bit to work with in his monologue: reading a journal he kept over the week and revisiting the ideas he came up with while high, including pranking James Franco by posing as an underage girl on Instagram. However, things unraveled with random cameos by Zooey Deschanel, James Franco, and Taylor Swift, which really just seemed like an attempt to pad out the episode with applause more than anything else.

Shallon III. I was equally impressed that the night’s featured sketch was a return of Shallon, Nasim Pedrad’s classroom smartass who takes the completely wrong message from school speakers. Giving Pedrad the primetime slot strikes me as a conciliatory move after she’s been so MIA over recent weeks, but no matter – Shallon has been her breakout character this season, and even though the bit is starting to feel a little formulaic in its third appearance, it was still a delight to watch her derail Seth Rogen’s anti-drug lecture: “If someone asks you if you want to get high, you just say…” “Thanks for the opportunity!”

CNN Pregnancy Test. SNL cleverly mocked CNN’s gradual update stream of ongoing stories by applying the same logic to a pregnancy test: “Search for pregnancy enters third week!” While the commercial probably would have hit harder if they didn’t dance around the missing Malaysian flight in favor of a wider parody of CNN’s coverage style, the POV was clear and the turn at the end was hilarious.

Birthday Dinner. Another oddly placed sketch was this scene with Aidy Bryant as a woman whose arms are in immobilizing casts at a dinner with friends while her husband (Seth Rogen) tries to tend after her. The actors seemed to be aiming for weirdness here, with over-the-top southern accents and bizarre banter, seemingly attempting to make each other break, which they nearly did when Rogen rubbed a steak all over Bryant’s face and then farted when she told him to “cut it.” The problem was, the stylized delivery felt like a distracting layer atop a weak physical game between Rogen and Bryant – something we might have been OK with later in the night, but not as one of the episode’s tentpole sketches.

Monster Pals. One bizarre sketch that did work was this funny short film starring Mike O’Brien as a hideous, discriminated-against monster trying to track down a friend who underwent surgery to look like a normal human. I was impressed that O’Brien made the effort to make his growling sound grounded and authentic, which became even more amusing when we saw him searching for his friend in Washington Square or in the crowd outside The Today Show. The reveal at the end was perfect – a for-once appropriate use of a special guest cameo.

Blue River Dog Food. The most entertaining sketch of the night was this dog food commercial featuring Cecily Strong and Seth Rogen as a married couple who just can’t quite let go of the crappy off-brand food they used to feed to their dog: “Give me a break, big-name dog food. What other compromises can we make? You want to have sex with my husband? Bend over, Pat, they wanna get that ass!” The sketch began as a simple parody of obsessed dog lovers but gradually evolved into an explosive screaming match between the two, featuring Strong’s finest performance on SNL to date. Best of the Night.

Weekend Update. Colin Jost and Cecily Strong seemed particularly on their game this week, but the news segment hit a bit of a slump with Kenan Thompson’s take on Red Sox player David Ortiz, with the joke being that the Dominican athlete loves empanadas and speaks in a thick accent – the kind of broad material that may seem hilarious on Studio 60, but not SNL. Vanessa Bayer closed things out with her sixth appearance as Jacob the Bar Mitzvah Boy (VI), dishing out the typical canned Bar Mitzvah jokes while proving totally incapable of having a normal conversation. Cecily Strong meanwhile proved a worthy replacement of Seth Meyers in this bit – seeing Jacob gush when she called him sweet sets up some fun possibilities for the character.

Engagement Party. Cecily Strong’s big night hit a rough patch in this scene about a trashy South Bend cousin who crashes an engagement party by bringing up a past gay experience by the groom (Seth Rogen). Strong’s commitment to the character and the super-specific accent was impressive, but made her at times difficult to understand. That, combined with a script that harped too much on that one gay experience, and one that made Nasim Pedrad stand out there the whole time with no lines whatsoever, resulted in a bit of an awkward moment.

Undercover Sharpton. Here’s a premise that I love: taking one of Kenan Thompson’s more popular impressions out of the stale talk show format and setting him loose in a more fun context… as a fidgety undercover FBI informant in a blaxploitation show. Unfortunately, the execution didn’t live up to the clever premise, with Thompson hamming up the nervousness in front of a couple of mobsters. Had the writers given this concept the same amount of energy they gave “Dyke & Fats,” this could have been so much more.

420. The night’s drug humor hit a peak with Kyle Mooney bringing his beloved wannabe-stoner character to SNL, in a video that explained the various made-up 4/20 holiday traditions, including the mythical figure Bob Blinger and singing ridiculous carols like “Bing Bong Rollie Jays.” Of course, the most fun aspect of the character is that despite his obsession with all things weed-related, he doesn’t smoke. At all.

Herman & Sons. The night’s uneven second half was redeemed by this fun commercial for a closing sperm bank trying to get rid of its stock before it converts into a yogurt stand. It was a perfect gross-out premise with some wonderfully vivid jokes: “We are swimming in hobo sperm!”

Additional Thoughts:

  • Best: “Blue River Dog Food.” Worst: “Engagement Party.” Worth It For The Jokes: “Herman & Sons.” You’ll See It Online: “CNN Pregnancy Test.”
  • Cecily Strong topped the screen time leader board with her most commanding night of the season – big roles in “Blue River Dog Food,” “Engagement Party,” “Birthday Dinner,” and of course, Weekend Update. Meanwhile, Jay Pharoah fell to the bottom of the list for the fist time this season, with only one tiny appearance as a sympathetic bully in “Monster Pals.”
  • Beck Bennett’s casting as Jeb Bush is certainly a good sign for the freshman cast member. Whether or not the former Florida governor runs in 2016, the fact that the writers trusted him with the role is a good indicator of his solid footing on the show.
  • While it rarely scores the big laughs, I really love Jacob’s heartfelt tags after his punchlines: “But seriously, Ethan, even though you tried a cigarette, and then got mad at me when I told mom and dad, you’ll always be my cool older brother.”
  • It’s probably not worth complaining about it any more, but the SNL writers could try a little to change up the beats with these recurring sketches. Shallon’s not even the worst perpetrator, but we still know it’s going to start with Kate McKinnon making some joke about the lonely thing she’s going to do in her car, followed by Shallon wrongly interpreting the lecture, then the other kids getting on board, then Shallon being invited up to the front for a role play, then Shallon turning it on its head by making it about her broken home life, then Bobby shouting at the speaker for not playing along, etc. I mean, there have gotta be other funny ways Shallon can do her thing.
  • We’re getting close to the end, folks! After this three-week break will be the last three episodes of the season, starting with Andrew Garfield and Coldplay on May 3. Who would you like to see host the final two episodes? Now that Colbert has inked his deal with arch rival network CBS, it’s unlikely we’ll ever see him get the SNL gig. Personally, I think it’s time we see Amy Poehler and Jon Hamm come back to host the show. It’s been three damn years, after all.

    Erik Voss is a writer and performer living in Los Angeles. He hosts the Evil Blond Kid podcast and performs on the house team Wheelhouse at the iO Theater.

    ‘SNL’ Review: Seth Rogen Half-Baked