‘SNL’ Review: James Franco Delivers in an Episode That Doesn’t

Let’s face it: over the 40 years SNL has been on the air, the majority of its sketches have not made us laugh. For every “Cowbell,” there are a dozen forgotten flat-liners you’d never see on the “Best of Will Ferrell” DVD. At best, the show can hope for a 1:1 hit ratio. That’s not meant as a knock against SNL, but as an acknowledgement of its difficulty level. By now, we’ve gone through enough behind-the-scenes documentaries and oral histories to appreciate the show’s demanding six-day production period and the risks of live broadcasts. Regular viewers accept a mixed bag as par for the course.

This season has served as evidence of that inconsistency. SNL has produced some real turds over the past eight episodes (I don’t know why Chris Rock keeps bringing up his god-awful “Anniversary Couple” sketch), but it has also proven itself capable of 90-minute hilarity, effective topical commentary, perfect pre-taped pieces, and, as always, returning alum hosts reminding us how great the show can be. And if the writers could spin gold out of Woody Harrelson, one would assume they could do the same with a younger comedy star / stoner icon / three-time host like James Franco, who seemed every bit as game and even more familiar with the SNL process. (He directed a documentary about it, after all.) After a week packed with news Americans need to hear our comedians talk about, SNL was teed up for success last weekend.

And then, SNL turned up a bogey. Despite a few strong pieces in the episode’s back stretch, on the whole the night sweated through its segments, relying on every hacky necessary evil in its playbook – forced celebrity cameos, random impression-based setups, pop culture pander, spineless political humor, recurring bits we’re all pretty tired of seeing – with little fresh comedy to redeem them. I suppose it made sense to see Franco’s second-half Seth Rogen join him on screen so often, even if it reeked of a pressure to promote their upcoming movie. But Nicki Minaj’s three appearances were tougher to swallow, especially her excruciating Weekend Update bit covering a month-old Kim Kardashian story… one of many huh? moments during this uneven episode.

Cold Open: Al Sharpton Politics Nation V. I found it frustrating that in a week in which racial politics is on everyone’s minds, SNL’s take on the Eric Garner grand jury verdict was a cold open featuring Kenan Thompson’s well-worn talk show setup in which the central joke is how much of a bumbling dope Al Sharpton is. Thompson is a reliably funny cast veteran who can hold his own during cold opens, but his reluctance to piss people off (see the 2005 Bill Cosby call-out that resurfaced this week) is one of the many things still holding back SNL from addressing race honestly.

Monologue. James Franco’s monologue was short and sweet, with he and Seth Rogen preemptively leaking embarrassing nude photos before the people who hacked Sony can. The visuals of Franco and Rogen’s poses – wearing panty hose, as John Lennon and Yoko Ono, etc. – worked just fine, but compared to the duo’s well-established nude portfolio, the bit lacked the shock value it was aiming for. Franco would prove to be a fine host throughout the night, hitting his mark with gusto – despite the often bland and confusing premises he was cast in.

Peter Pan Live / Tonkerbell II. A year ago, SNL mocked NBC’s awful Sound of Music Live! special with a cold open that featured Kristen Wiig’s Dooneese as one of the Von Trapp children. This time, the writers again parodied their network’s live musical production by inserting a recurring character: Aidy Bryant’s Tonkerbell, the brassy Neverland fairy that I’ve admittedly never understood the appeal of. The sketch felt cluttered, structurally, as if it couldn’t decide whether to be a Tonkerbell character piece or a broad rehashing of the various jokes Peter Pan Live! viewers were tweeting. That said, James Franco’s Walken impression was way better than it needed to be.

Star Wars Teaser. SNL’s parody of the new Star Wars teaser seemed a little misconceived – I don’t think anyone finished the 90-second teaser thinking how old the original actors looked, considering none of them were even in it – but it nonetheless gave us the amusing images of Bobby Moynihan’s bespectacled Princess Leia fumbling with R2D2 and Taran Killam’s Han Solo (a solid Harrison Ford) glaring at the soccer-ball robot and asking “What the fuck is that?” In an unusual move, SNL’s live broadcast (to the west coast, at least) aired an unfinished cut of this video, with various un-replaced green screens and a walker without the lightsaber beams rendered in yet. (All of these edits have been completed in the online version, making it significantly funnier than what TV-watchers initially saw.)

Jingle Ballerz. An MTV holiday special in which super-famous music stars reenact the nativity scene is a bizarre premise that the writers clearly had no intention of exploring the logic behind. But if you can trick yourself into enjoying this sketch for what it is – an excuse for the cast to show off their impressions – there’s enough to enjoy here (Kate McKinnon as Justin Bieber: “I’m sorry you had to give birth out here, where all the amnimals live.”) to make up for the annoying song references and Nicki Minaj cameos.

Grow-A-Guy. Since rotating back into the writers room, Mike O’Brien has seen a fair amount of success with original short films this season, like “Whites” and the cut-from-dress “The Kids.” This short features O’Brien as a nerd who grows his own bro friend from a fish tank and tries to pass him off in front of his peers at a bonfire. Matt & Oz’s direction gave this piece some fun visuals, from the pulsating flesh masses in O’Brien’s bedroom to the great twists at the end – a nice breath of fresh air in the episode’s sluggish first half.

Magic Bridge. I suppose if SNL has to include one incomprehensible mess each episode, it might as well feature the most elaborate troll makeup and dry ice the crew can come up with. This scene with Kyle Mooney and Aidy Bryant as a couple trying to cross a bridge, only to be stopped by a troll (James Franco) and his crazy friend Kathy Ann (Cecily Strong) who is crashing with him for some reason, was less of a “sketch” than a bunch of nonsensical ideas the writers padded onto a gross-out kiss gag. Despite looking like she wandered into the wrong sketch, Strong’s commitment to her characters is always impressive… so much so that they are sometimes impossible to understand.

Weekend Update. Given a second shot at covering the Eric Garner grand jury verdict, Colin Jost and Michael Che pretty much whiffed on the subject. It’s not that their takes weren’t funny (Che’s rant on jury duty and Jost’s take-down of Staten Island both had their moments), it’s that they lacked the pathos we got from any “Really?!?” segment, or Tina Fey’s rants on sexism, or Norm McDonald’s ad-libbing on OJ Simpson. Funny as their jokes might be, Che and Jost just haven’t managed to connect with viewers from behind the Update desk. Meanwhile, Bobby Moynihan made his 10th appearance as Secondhand News Correspondent Anthony Crispino (X), mugging up his nervous glances and high-pitched I’m-pretty-sures in between a few funny malapropisms concerning Bing Crosby’s recent “rap” accusations. Leslie Jones performed another Update routine, this time smoking weed while dating strangers, which segued into a hilarious tangent about Jones’ bad trip: “When I took mushrooms, I talked to Harriet Tubman for two hours! … Have you ever been called a bitch by Harriet Tubman?” In one of the most cringe-worthy moments of the night, Nicki Minaj stopped by the desk as Kim Kardashian, discussing her nude photos in Paper Magazine. Never mind that SNL had already done two full episodes since those photos came out last month, it was frustrating to see an entire bit based around Photoshopping different backgrounds on an image, curated by someone with no comedic timing, no less.

New Password. The night’s stronger second half led off with this clever ensemble sketch with the cast members playing random pieces of information in a guy’s head that have to clear out so he can make room for a new password. While the listing game ran a little long and relied a little too much on references to licensed music (likely resulting in this sketch being hard to find online), it was nice to see a fresh, well-executed concept make it into the lineup – especially with the line, “Buzz’s girlfriend… woof!”

Kid Mayor. The highlight of the night was this hilarious performance by James Franco as Tad Rankin, a man who was beaten by a four-year-old for mayor of a small town in Minnesota, trash-talking the kid in a political attack ad. Franco scored big laughs by furiously dissing his rival’s early bedtime and love of the movie Frozen, even cracking himself up at one point: “I didn’t crap my pants all year! And when I did it, I didn’t cry and tell my teacher, I just left work without telling anyone, and threw my pants in the woods!” Best of the Night.

Porn Stars VI. As successful as it may still be, the novelty of Vanessa Bayer and Cecily Strong’s porn stars has worn off, with the once-delightful specifics of the girls’ brain-dead anecdotes giving way to various incarnations of feet breaking off in butts, and shock-value sexual puns: “One time, I thought I got banged into another dimension, like Innersmaller. But it turns out I was just stuck in a pullout couch. I was like, what does pull out mean?”

Additional Thoughts:

  • I found it interesting that “Grow-A-Guy” opened and closed with credits to the writer and directors, which is almost never seen on air for current SNL staff members. Albert Brooks produced original shorts for the show in the 1970s, but was never officially on the show’s staff. Robert Smigel’s “TV Funhouse” shorts usually contained their own credits, but he too was no longer a full-time staff writer for most of them. And of course, the “SNL Digital Shorts” were clearly the work of The Lonely Island, but they only credited themselves by starring in their own videos – not with opening and closing title slates containing their names. In the ensemble effort that is SNL, it says something when the show allows an individual to credit him or herself as the creator of a piece.
  • Best: “Kid Mayor.” Worst: “Magic Bridge.” You’ll See It Online: “Star Wars Teaser.” Worth It For The Jokes: “Grow-A-Guy,” “New Password.”
  • In a true ensemble episode that showcased multiple cast members, Bobby Moynihan and Cecily Strong narrowly saw the most screen time, while Sasheer Zamata came in at the bottom with appearances as Rihanna in “Jingle Ballerz” and in “Grow-A-Boy.”
  • Despite their disappointing opening runs on the grand jury verdict, Michael Che and Colin Jost picked up steam with some solid laughs late into the news segment: “The Girl Scouts have announced that for the first time, their cookies will be available on sale. The way it works is, you contact the Girl Scouts on the internet, and their cookies will be waiting for you in prison.”
  • Chris Rock made two fascinating media appearances in the past week while promoting Top Five – an interview with New York Magazine and an essay for the Hollywood Reporter – both of which referenced his SNL episode last month. Rock seems to have a fonder memory of that night than the rest of us do, specifically of the “Anniversary Couple” and “How 2 Dance With Janelle” sketches, but he was right that it’s a big deal that SNL can do a sketch with all black leads without it having to focus on race. Having five black cast members now seems like a no-brainer when it looked so unlikely barely a year ago.
  • Beck Bennett’s bully in “Grow-A-Guy” was scarily spot-on, with his knowing glares and subtle threats: “I’m not super thrilled about the idea of a Grow-A-Guy eating my marshmallows at my family’s nice-ass lake house.”
  • “I’m Tad Rankin, and I paid all my money to make this ad.”
  • Next week’s episode will be hosted by Martin Freeman with musical guest Charli XCX. I will be traveling outside of the country then, so SNL castmember connoisseur Megh Wright will be covering that episode. I’ll be back in two weeks for the Christmas episode on Dec. 20, when Amy Adams will host with musical guest One Direction.

    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: James Franco Delivers in an Episode That […]