‘SNL’ Review: A Step Back with Cameron Diaz

Well, that didn’t last long.

Just one week after seemingly proclaiming its transitional era to be over, SNL reaffirmed viewers’ perennial skepticism with an episode that made Woody Harrelson’s excellent outing look like that much more of a fluke. Cameron Diaz’s hosting gig wasn’t quite the disaster the show is capable of, but it exhibited all the symptoms of a bland episode that no one will remember by the end of the season: a game-for-anything host that the writers didn’t know what to do with (despite this being her fourth time), a dependence on watered-down recurring bits that the actors seem to love more than audiences do, and a general miscalculation by producers on how to use the show’s various strengths to create a cohesive night of exciting sketch comedy.

Yes, inconsistency has been an issue throughout every one of the show’s 40 seasons – even the ones we remember as being perfect. I still believe SNL possesses all the ingredients it needs to win us over again – a well rounded cast, vibrant writers, an excellent film unit – but Lorne Michaels is still figuring out the recipe (to borrow his metaphor). Whereas last week witnessed a show that clearly understood its strengths and strode confidently from sketch to sketch, this week felt like a series of nervous dice rolls that settled into a sad parade of stock characters that don’t contain anywhere near the stamina that previous generations’ crutches did.

Still, some of those dice rolls paid off. Still in transition or not, this SNL is at least willing to experiment. And that’s something to be thankful for.

Capitol Hill Cold Open. It’s unusual to see the night’s most daring premise in the first few minutes – and by “daring,” I mean opening the show with Kenan Thompson re-enacting the Schoolhouse Rock “I’m Just a Bill” song in costume as immigration reform legislation, with Jay Pharoah’s President Obama smugly shoving him down the capitol steps in favor of a less-complicated executive order. These days, this is the closest SNL will get to Thomas Nast, making it far more interesting commentary than the show’s political cold opens normally give us. After last week’s fun “Obama / McConnell” sketch, I hope the writers continue to think outside the box in this way.

Monologue. There’s really not much to say about Cameron Diaz’s totally pointless and humorless monologue, other than that it foreshadowed the problems the show would have with her throughout the night. The lame “cast members in audience asking dumb questions” shtick exposed Diaz as a host that the SNL team struggled to draw inspiration from, resulting in her being cast in forgettable throwaway roles.

Back Home Ballers. In this follow-up to “Twin Bed” (arguably the best sketch of last season), Aidy Bryant led the ladies of the cast in another sexy music video (directed by Matt & Oz) about going home for the holidays. But what made “Twin Bed” so awesome was the painfully relatable premise of trying to have sex in your childhood bedroom, and the perfectly catchy music they composed for it. This version, meanwhile, lost that strong hook by broadening the concept, with the women retreading the random aspects of hometown trips that the show has already covered in more coherent detail. And while the joke about crazy-long WiFi passwords and Leslie Jones’ Missy-Elliot verse about bowls provided enough solid laughs to please viewers, the novelty of this image has worn off, turning a once-wonderful hit into a less-thrilling recurring staple.

Black Annie. Between this Annie parody and the decision to book Cameron Diaz in the first place, I think SNL may have overestimated how much its viewers actually care about the upcoming Annie remake – which will undoubtedly be a box office success, but probably not in the zeitgeist-y way that the Hunger Games franchise is (or Frozen, for that matter… a megahit SNL has largely ignored). Also overestimated was how funny we would find this character sketch built around how silly Leslie Jones looks in the classic “Little Orphan Annie” getup, which depended a little too much on the comedian’s eagerness to exploit her own larger-than-life-ness: “I’m an orphan. I’m a veteran. I did a half a season in the WNBA.”

Nest-Spresso. This amusing commercial directed by Rhys Thomas introduced an espresso machine that instantly incubates chicken eggs and pops out a freshly hatched chick – or, if you do it wrong, “a cup full of bones.” Mostly I just enjoyed this for Vanessa Bayer’s casual ignorance of the device’s inner workings (“How does it work?” “I don’t know that part.”) and for its treatment of urban farmers as a market you would even advertise to.

Student Show. This ensemble sketch parodying excruciatingly preachy, avant-garde amateur theatre seems like a subject matter SNL has mocked many times over (I can think of at least once in recent years), with the biggest laughs coming from Vanessa Bayer and Kenan Thompson as bored parents watching from the audience: “Which one is your daughter?” “I’d rather not say.”

Weekend Update. The news segment brought some much needed edge to the episode, with Michael Che’s bold take-down of Bill Cosby: “Pull your damn pants up!” Following Hannibal Buress’ set (which arguably triggered Cosby’s downfall), Che presented yet another powerful statement from a black comedian trying to reconcile with the Cliff Huxtable values he was raised with. While many in the comedy old guard remain reluctant to render a verdict on their generation’s icon, it’s good to hear a voice on SNL bucking the norm. Kate McKinnon returned as Angela Merkel (III), working harder than usual to make the bit’s weaker jokes land, including sharing a heaving “German kiss” with Colin Jost. The segment closed with Taran Killam and Cecily Strong as Charles Manson and his new wife Star Burton, which struggled to make Manson’s violent insanity something we’re willing to laugh at. Though I did enjoy Strong’s starry-eyed portrayal of Burton: “We finish each other’s…” “Spider penis!”

Baby CEO III. Beck Bennett reprised his breakout character from last season, smartly taking him out of the office to a dinner at home with his wife and employee. The location change gave Bennett more gags to work with, sliding down stairs, sitting in a big rolling baby seat, tasting his first lemon, etc., but I worry that this setup is transforming from an amusing one-off physical bit into a stale predictable character that’s going to look pretty hacky in a couple years.

Dr. Dave & Buggles. It may just be the joy I feel upon seeing a live animal in a sketch, but this animal show featuring Kenan Thompson alongside an adorable monkey who “ripped his dong and balls off” the week prior was the clearest and most enjoyable original premise of the night. Blue humor aside, the sketch’s steady unpacking of the physical and emotional torment Dr. Dave went through, mixed with his resentful insults and Buggles’ clueless reactions, resulted in a surprisingly amusing dynamic, in a “Mark Wahlberg Talks To Animals” kind of way. Best of the Night.

The Fight. Dave McCary directed this return of Kyle Mooney’s high school punk Chris Pitzpatrick (II), this time making a fight video with his nemesis, Andy Rydell (Beck Bennett). The piece fell somewhat short of last season’s superior ”Chris for President,” but this follow-up was yet another example of Good Neighbor’s excellent take on the raw immaturity of adolescent males, which is expressed both in the actors’ mumbled deliveries and in the video’s sophomoric editing.

Miss Meadows III. This overlong reprisal of Vanessa Bayer’s barky substitute poetry teacher (a reliably humorous performance, but never one that’s going to bring the house down) dragged on endlessly before using Cameron Diaz as an amateur poet unaware of how hot her erotic ode to her UPS guy is. As happy as I am to see Bayer get so much to do in an episode, it’s difficult to justify this sketch’s return, especially when it forces Diaz to rely on little more than her sex appeal.

Night Murmurs. This 10-to-1 phone sex ad parody featured Cecily Strong, Kate McKinnon, and Cameron Diaz making unnatural poses and sultrily asking men to perform odd tasks, like holding packages and scaring grandmas away from trailers. The details were hilariously specific, but the distracting poses seemed like a misguided attempt to give the sketch more out-loud laughs… which the studio audience was mostly out of at that point in the night. SNL normally finds success in its subversions of late-night sex commercials, but this go-to seems to be running out of steam.

Additional Thoughts:

  • To those of you who were thankful for my inclusion of script authorships last week, I’m afraid have nothing for you this week. While SNL lists video director credits, I really only have social media to rely on for writers – and they only tend to take credit for sketches they feel particularly proud of, while remaining curiously silent during rough weeks, or when sketches are accused of plagiarism. Surprising, I know.
  • This was a showcase episode for Vanessa Bayer – she was in nearly every sketch in the episode’s first half, while popping up as Miss Meadows later in the night. Bayer had the most screen time this week, along with Kate McKinnon, while Pete Davidson was nearly absent, with small roles in “The Fight” and “Miss Meadows.” Since I started keeping track of cast member screen time a few years ago, I’ve noticed the show will occasionally “throw a bone” to cast members who haven’t gotten many roles in recent weeks. Vanessa Bayer and Kate McKinnon were examples this week, and this happened for Pete Davidson in the third episode of this season. I’m not sure if this role distribution is a conscious effort by the show, or just a random coincidence in the very non-scientific data I collect, but it’s nice to see sidelined cast members get their days in the sun.
  • On that note, Bobby Moynihan is long overdue for a showcase episode. His cameo in the cold open as Obama’s immigration executive order was perfectly concise: “I’m an executive order, and I pretty much just happen.”
  • Best: “Dr. Dave & Buggles.” Worst: Monologue. Worth It For The Jokes: “Nest-Presso.” You’ll See It Online: “Back Home Ballers.”
  • The video thumbnail for the above Hulu embed of “Miss Meadows” depicts another character with glasses. (A teacher played by Kate McKinnon? An alternate version of Cameron Diaz’s character? It’s hard to tell.) This makes me wonder if there was a different version of this sketch at some point. I shudder at the idea of this sketch being any longer.
  • I’m enjoying the sub-narrative involving Aidy Bryant’s mom’s friend Jean (a name that only exists among mothers’ friends), who often shows up in Bryant’s sketches as someone her mom is feuding with, or engaging Bryant in awkward conversation.
  • I’ve made long cases for why musical guests shouldn’t be in sketches, but I truly wouldn’t have minded Bruno Mars popping up somewhere. After his standout episode two seasons ago, he earned a cameo.
  • Bill Simmons’ podcast interview with Lorne Michaels last week is worth a listen, if for no other reason than Michaels politely shrugs off online recappers as “people who are passionate about comedy.” Nice to hear that from a guy who once warned against “academics getting ahold of comedy.” Or maybe he’s just thankful to be left off the pie chart.
  • I’ll see you on December 6, when James Franco will host with musical guest Nicki Minaj.

    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.

    ‘SNL’ Review: A Step Back with Cameron Diaz