‘SNL’ Review: Jim Carrey Dances Like Everybody’s Watching

When Jim Carrey last hosted SNL in 2011 (the first episode I reviewed for this site), I worried the 1990s comedy icon best known for playing manic cartoons from In Living Color, three comedy blockbusters in 1994, and a well regarded SNL stint, would fail to connect with the show’s modern lineup. Thankfully, Carrey proved me wrong, blending nicely with Fred Armisen’s eccentric subtlety and showing us how much fun a (then) fresh-faced Taran Killam could be to watch. Carrey’s performance was a testament to the fact that while SNL may evolve, with increasingly eye-popping production value and an emerging struggle to make its live multicam elements work, some things will always just make us laugh. And Jim Carrey is one of them.

This episode was largely the antithesis of that notion. Once again, the night played to Carrey’s strengths, with an abundance of live sketches giving him plenty of freedom to take the reigns. But this time, the actor struggled to produce the same chemistry with today’s cast members (the exception being Taran Killam, who has become even more of a Carrey-esque alpha performer over the years). Depending on your outlook on the show, that may be a matter of a subpar cast failing to keep pace with a true comedy genius, or an example of a comedian from a bygone era relying on over-the-top schtick that doesn’t quite resonate with 2014 audiences.

Whatever the reason, this episode lacked the redeeming charm that makes a comedy powerhouse like Jim Carrey an enduring star. Rather, the effect was that of a beloved cartoon being transported into the real world… without anyone knowing quite what to do with him.

Ebola Czar Press Conference. The episode began with an unmemorable press conference with Jay Pharoah’s President Obama introducing the new Ebola Czar, Ron Klain (Taran Killam). The premise brought up some legitimate concerns with the administration’s handling of the crisis, but it never took a clear POV on the subject, despite stumbling onto a fun political angle by having Klain warn southern swing state voters against going to the polls – except immune Latinos, of course. Yet again, writers-room-darling Kenan Thompson was brought in as the Rev. Al Sharpton to give the sketch some much-needed laughs, which only worked in comparison to the rest of the underwritten script.

Monologue. Jim Carrey took the stage in costume as “Helvis,” a crossover between the devil and Elvis Presley, singing an inexplicable rockabilly tune about his love for pecan pie. While Carrey’s tight performance was impressive, the bit’s unapologetic “crazy town” vibe made me worry that this would be a night with a lot of randomness and little logic. Too often, that turned out to be the case.

Matthew McConaughey Lincoln Ads. One of the more successful elements of this episode was this runner featuring Jim Carrey parodying the Lincoln commercials staring Matthew McConaughey. There’s not much here other than Carrey’s amusing McConaughey, pondering humanity’s existence and why an Oscar winner is going back to commercial work, but I give the show credit for having bits that bring an episode together – and for finding a clever twist to bring it back for a third time.

Carrey Family Reunion. The night’s centerpiece sketch was this reunion of the Carrey family, with each cast member trotting out their best Jim Carrey impression: Beck Bennett and Vanessa Bayer as Ace Ventura-Carrey, Bobby Moynihan as Mask-Carrey, Cecily Strong as Fire Marshall Bill-Carrey, and Jeff Daniels stopping by with the obligatory plug for the upcoming Dumb and Dumber sequel. I’m not certain a Jim Carrey impression-off is as earned as the Christopher Walken version in 2008, and Taran Killam seemed like the only one in the room with a rehearsed take on the actor. The predictable routine very quickly lost momentum and resulted in an odd, premature tribute that characterized Carrey as a mimic-able, past-his-prime retiree, rather than the active talent he is.

Graveyard Song. In one of the night’s six Halloween-themed ensemble scenes (seriously, would it have killed the writers to limit the spooky undertones to a couple of sketches?), Pete Davidson and Sasheer Zamata played a young couple in a graveyard haunted by ghosts singing a Disney’s Haunted Mansion type song, which was quickly derailed by the off-rhythm Paul and Phil (Jim Carrey, Taran Killam), “some nice casual ghosts who are sort of always around.” While Carrey and Killam were enjoyable as the folksy duo, their relationship with the rest of the ghosts seemed intentionally vague, resulting in a somewhat confusing conflict between lame ghosts and slightly lamer ghosts. I’m sure that won’t stop me from singing “Paul and Phil” to myself all week.

Weekend Update. The news segment began by depleting any other Ebola jokes the writers didn’t have time for in the cold open, delivered by an especially Mr. Moviefone-y Colin Jost. Michael Che has had mixed levels of success going on runs on a particular subject, and I sometimes wish he could go on longer – perhaps as an extended aside or separate character segment – rather than have to abruptly throw things back to his cohost. Vanessa Bayer debuted an amusing new character, Romantic Comedy Expert Daisy Rose, whose discussion of the fall rom-coms devolved into a flirty (one-sided) meet-cute with Michael Che. Bayer has rarely blown the roof off with her character work, but she has always brought a sincerity to her roles that the show would otherwise miss. Bobby Moynihan poured another round for Drunk Uncle (XI), a mad-libs recurring bit that continues to be enjoyable despite not having quite the shelf life that Stefon does, it turns out. His disgust at seeing Michael Che at the desk was the perfect reaction, but it was wise to move on, else risk the mean-spiritedness of the gag overtaking the whole bit. (That said, Moynihan plays racist characters more enjoyably than anyone else in this cast.)

Secret Billionaire. My favorite premise of the night saw the cast in a Dating Game-type show, with Cecily Strong as an airheaded contestant trying to guess which of the four bachelors was an actual billionaire – with Jim Carrey’s Abbott Bonnerville Caine, a creepy old man in a tracksuit, being the obvious answer. Unfortunately, a clever script about the eccentricities of the super wealthy became buried under Carrey’s slurred delivery – a case of the actor’s all-in style distracting from the game, when a subtler delivery might have been more appropriate.

Ghost Chasers. While technically Leslie Jones’ first line as a fulltime cast member arrived earlier in the night, her first big role came in this video, as Ronda, a “skeptic” among a group of adventurous reality TV ghost hunters who immediately freaks out at anything creepy. Jones has already proven to be such a dynamic presence in both live and pretaped segments, getting a lot of mileage out of a few simple reactions: “Ronda, how does science explain this?” “It don’t. It’s ghosts!” This was a tricky concept to heighten, as they were walking a thin line with a few stereotypes, but thankfully SNL can now start to play with these ideas in the first place.

Zombie Apocalypse. The horror concepts kept rolling in with a character sketch featuring Jim Carrey as a Georgia redneck in denial that his son (Pete Davidson) is a zombie. This was the same kind of premise the show did as a Walking Dead sketch in the Kevin Hart episode two years ago (minus the racial undertones), and this version didn’t fare any better. There’s only so far an “ignoring the obvious” premise will go, especially when the only real laughs are coming from over-the-top accents and pandering physical gags.

Chandelier Dance-Off. The highlight of the episode was an elaborate dance-off between Jim Carrey and Kate McKinnon, who both showed up to a costume party as the child dancer from Sia’s “Chandelier” music video (which we all should have seen by now… according to SNL, at least). After a sluggish start with Vanessa Bayer insulting guests by incorrectly labeling their costumes (my only guess was that this was to bide time for Carrey to get into costume), the sketch began to retread the same kind of hammy routine Carrey pulled in his Black Swan dance-off four years ago, but then he and McKinnon dove into the studio and continued their duet at home base, the “Graveyard Song” set, and the musical guest stage with Iggy Azalea. It was a fun Blazing Saddles kind of gag that the two of them pulled off quite well. Best of the Night.

Geoff’s Halloween Emporium. The night’s 10-to-1 was an infomercial for a costume shop featuring Jim Carrey as the owner, Geoff, who was possessed by a demon. Seeing Carrey continue to fuss about day-to-day managerial issues (“Did you tell them about the glitter lashes?”) was more enjoyable than the typical demon-stuff, though the fiery vortex on his clipboard and vomiting blood resulted in some effective visual gags.

Cut from Dress: The Kids. With so many live sketches that fell flat, I actually wouldn’t have minded this surreal (perhaps a little too much so) short film about a nice boyfriend (Mike O’Brien) getting mobbed by children, in what turns into a metaphor for his fear of commitment.

Additional Thoughts:

  • Congratulations to Leslie Jones on her promotion to featured player. Considering the reaction she arouses from fans, the move was a well-deserved no-brainer by producers that will undoubtedly pay off in dividends. Also, I’d like to point out that I called it barely a week earlier. Just sayin’.
  • It’s unfortunate that SNL’s ratings seem to share an inversely proportional relationship with episode quality – this lackluster episode scored a season-best 4.1, while Bill Hader’s stellar episode two weeks ago saw record-low ratings for the series. The good news is, those additional million viewers who think the show is this bad every week will keep the lights on in Deadline’s comment section.
  • Best: “Chandelier Dance-Off.” Worst: “Zombie Apocalypse.” You’ll See It Online: “Matthew McConaughey Lincoln Ads.” Worth It For The Jokes: “Secret Billionaire.”
  • I realize I’ve been particularly tough on Colin Jost lately, which feels unusual because I normally try to avoid the SNL hate bandwagons. In fairness, Jost should be proud of his work as head writer this season (this episode excluded), and by all accounts he has a strong understanding of what makes good comedy. But good lord, I can’t think of any Weekend Update host that has shown less of his personality than this guy has. Really, if he were to end all of his jokes with “And yes, I was that guy who bullied you in high school and still went to better college than you did!” I would prefer that to what we’re currently getting.
  • Bobby Moynihan’s insane wiggling as Drunk Uncle might be my favorite thing I’ve seen the character do since singing “I wanna feel the beep with somebody!”
  • Taran Killam took the lion’s share of screen time this week, appearing in major roles throughout the night and being one of the few cast members to connect with Jim Carrey at all. Aidy Bryant came in last, with only a fun appearance in “Chandelier Dance Off” to make her mark: “I’m just a woman trying to do her best.” Also tellingly missing were Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett, whose nuanced humor likely went unheard during a week of big character throwback bits.
  • It’s becoming frustrating how underused Kate McKinnon remains after four episodes, especially considering how successful she was in her few short minutes this episode. McKinnon is a fan-favorite and a workhorse that the show needs to capitalize on more often.
  • If anyone wants to buy me a Halloween present, one of those “Saturday Night Live” logo statues they made for the bumpers would look lovely on my desk. (I’m just kidding! I don’t have a desk. I write TV recaps for the Internet. Buy me a desk instead.)
  • I’ll see you next week, when Chris Rock will host with musical guest Prince.

    Erik Voss is a writer and performer living in Los Angeles. He hosts the Evil Blond Kid podcast and performs on the house teams Wheelhouse and It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way at the iO Theater.

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