While watching this weekend’s SNL hosted by first-timer Martin Freeman, I couldn’t help but wonder what the show’s original head writer Michael O’Donoghue might have thought of an episode that turned the recently released CIA torture report into jokes about autocorrect and Time Warner Cable, all while tens of thousands of people crowded the length of Sixth Avenue just outside the 30 Rockefeller doors in protest of police brutality and racism. Fans who abandoned SNL back in the ‘80s will be the quickest to point out that the show’s satire hasn’t had any edge since O’Donoghue left, but those of us still who still watch regularly know that argument isn’t worth the frustration. The truth is, SNL is still packed with plenty of subversive humor and political bite – you just have to know where to look for it. Rarely does the cold open serve as a symbol of SNL’s once-trademark “Not Ready for Prime Time” energy or a bellwether of alternative thought these days, but for its dogged lifetime fans, some of SNL’s rising writers continue to serve up glimmers of hope hidden in pretaped segments and Weekend Update bits where they can’t be cut in favor of another musical number, recurring character, or talk/reality show sendup.
Thankfully, season 40’s writing problem was completely overshadowed by the energy of the performers and live audience during Freeman’s episode this past weekend. Known for a mix of roles both dramatic (the Hobbit films, FX’s Fargo, BBC’s Sherlock) and comedic (the original Office, Edgar Wright’s Cornetto trilogy, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), Freeman repeatedly pivoted from low-key straight man to a capable jokester on his own through adorable awkward dancing, fake saxophone playing, or public declarations of his love for Leslie Jones. Charming, versatile, and game to share (and sometimes completely give away) the spotlight, Freeman came to this episode with a commitment to even the weakest sketches that often saved them, along with MVPs Kate McKinnon and Taran Killam, in surprising ways during the last few seconds. The night had its fair share of duds, but it’s worth noting that it completely avoided recurring characters and sketches and didn’t rely on a single unnecessary celebrity cameo (sorry, Cumberbatch fans). On top of that we were gifted with two future Christmas classics (including a very Catholic slam dunk from writers Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider) that will get tons of play time at holiday gatherings next week, not to mention Sasheer Zamata’s Weekend Update debut co-written with Natasha Rothwell, which proved to be more poignant and in tune with current events than any cold open of the year.
Cold Open - Charlie Rose. In an open that took on the week’s CIA torture report news, Bobby and Kyle appear on Charlie Rose as the clinical psychologists who were paid $80 million to brainstorm torture techniques for the government. After briefly referencing some of the gruesome details of the report (Bobby: “We don’t wanna be known as just the rectal feeding guys”), the sketch shifted the focus to the team’s other very First World Problems torture-filled accomplishments like the Kars4Kids jingle, self-checkout, autocorrect, one-man shows, and Time Warner Cable customer service. After last week’s lukewarm Al Sharpton sketch, this was at least a step in the right direction, and Bobby and Kyle played off each other well.
Monologue. Does anything bring on the Christmas cheer quite like a tiny charming British man in front of dozens of poinsettias? Freeman’s monologue was a short and sweet mix of current events (quintessential New York City holiday traditions: “the Rockefeller Christmas tree, Radio City Music Hall, the racial unrest…”) and reminders of his Britishness (“All British celebrities know each other and they’re friends”). Instead of killing time with a predictable song and dance number, Kate and Taran joined Freeman onstage as his BFFs from across the pond Maggie Smith and Alan Rickman in a series of stereotypical British jabs at Freeman’s expense.
Sump’n Claus. Kenan led two musical sketches during the night, including the first of three pretaped segments “Sump’n Claus” as a former elf-turned-pimp-esque character who gives Christmas cash to the many names on Santa’s “Naughty” list including Paula Deen, Donald Sterling, and Kevin Bacon (Bacon’s not naughty – as Kenan says, “He’s just my homie”). It’s a fresh take on the holiday-themed sketch, and if nothing else it was worth it for the line “He sees you when you’re sleeping – that’s weird.”
Wedding Objections. Pairing up Freeman and Leslie Jones as an unlikely couple is the crux of the joke here, with everyone in the room objecting, from Vanessa as Freeman’s current wife to Taran as the surgeon who fixed Freeman’s “shattered penis” to Kate as the old psychic (“But when I saw these two, every hair on my body stood up and said ‘Evelyn, get in there and shut it down!’”), which she played with so much gusto that Leslie was caught laughing live on camera. Aside from serving as a lengthy buildup for Freeman’s line “Daddy needs his chocolate,” however, this sketch didn’t deviate from the typical line-of-characters-type format we’ve seen on SNL countless times in the past – at one point I was almost hoping Will Forte would show up as Hamilton to give a white power toast in the couple’s honor.
The Office: Middle Earth. Combining Freeman’s fame as both the star of the Hobbit films and the original Office might seem like an uninspired idea on paper, but this pretaped parody mashup paid off between all the stupid-silly puns (“Lord of the Reams,” “Dildo Baggins”) and creative meshing of both the Tolkien and Office worlds. Bobby as Gandalf/David Brent and Taran as Gollum/Gareth delivered especially solid performances here, and while SNL has covered the Office parody format before with Steve Carell’s “The Japanese Office,” this new installment was a potent reminder of SNL’s supreme TV and film parody skills.
Right Side of the Bed. I suspect I’m not alone in learning that this strange Atlanta morning talk show sketch is actually a parody of the USA reality show Chrisley Knows Best, with Taran playing the flamboyant Georgian millionaire Todd Chrisley and Cecily as his twangin’ wife Julie (though they were both renamed and never directly referenced). “Right Side of the Bed” suffered from a major lack of focus – is the main joke that Taran’s character is the only one unaware he’s gay, or is it their show’s habit of teasing upcoming segments for too long? There’s plenty of potential in turning the minutae of the segment tease into something more heightened – tiny habits and mannerisms are something Fred Armisen mastered on SNL and carries on through Portlandia – so there’s gold to be mined here, but it felt like the writers abandoned that potential in favor of an easy joke. Thankfully Kate saved it at the end with her surprise entrance as Keith Urban, an impersonation I’d never expect to see or want to see again, yet here I am falling in love with Kate playing an awkwardly flirtatious Australian for the second time.
Christmas Mass Spectacular. Even non-Catholic viewers can appreciate the writerly attention to detail here, but as someone who served 13 years at Catholic school complete with mandatory Mass every month, I can verify from experience that “Christmas Mass Spectacular” was a flawlessly executed breakdown of the stereotypical characters you’ll see when you’re forced (or in true Catholic fashion, guilt-tripped by your mother) to attend Mass on Christmas Eve. From Bobby’s priest dragging out the “forever and eeeee-verrr” Eucharistic Prayer to Aidy as the overly confident choir singer to Kyle and Cecily as both the reluctant and pompous scripture readers, the accuracy here echoes SNL’s similar hometown-themed sketches like “(Do It On My) Twin Bed” and “Hometown Tourism Ad.” Best of the Night.
Weekend Update. Michael Che gains momentum every week behind the Update desk and Saturday was no different between his delivery of that solid Dick Cheney/torture report joke (“Cheney also complained that the report’s description of torture ‘barely got me hard’”) and perfect chemistry opposite Sasheer Zamata in her Weekend Update debut. Jost, on the other hand, seems caught in a Seth Meyers 2.0 loop. He gamely showed his high school yearbook photo and had some fun banter with Cecily as her spot-on “One-Dimensional Female Character From a Male-Driven Comedy” (“I just have the body of a salad girl – confusing, right?” – one of the night’s strongest original characters), but just look what Sasheer managed to cover in under three minutes: workplace diversity, the lack of black emojis, and the Eric Garner/Ferguson protests through the lens of the very limited emoji selection ("Even the Black Power fist is white!”). Vanessa Bayer also made an expected Hanukkah appearance as Jacob in what would be the only recurring character of the night – this makes appearance #8 for Jacob since 2011. Luckily, Che was able to connect with this squirrely kid in ways neither Seth and Jost have reached in the past.
Assembly Line. It’s here in the back half of the show that things fall apart: This sketch starring Taran as a nervous and excited new employee at the Heinz factory assembly line didn’t go anywhere and felt like it belonged on a variety show 50 years ago, and aside from Killam’s commitment to the part and Freeman briefly tripping over his American accent, “Assembly Line” felt more like a time-filler than a fleshed out idea. I wish SNL had dumped this in favor of the bizarre cut-for-time sketch “Santa Traps” rather than relegate Freeman to a relatively lifeless straight man role.
Holiday Gig. Here’s what happens when Nick the Lounge Singer, “What Up With That?” and the Sudeikis/Hader drinking buddies sketches have a threesome – the night’s second musical sketch starring who else but Kenan as the host of an annual Christmas event at Pine River Lodge, with Freeman subbing in for Armisen as the saxophone player and Taran as the mysterious ne’er-do-well Roman providing the only decent punchline in the form of modeling those sexy red boots. Kenan’s repeated line “Red boooots!” got plenty of laughs, but everything else just seemed like they weren’t sure how to play it.
Waterbed Commercial. After showing up as the haughty teenage choir soloist in “Christmas Mass Spectacular,” Aidy made her second appearance as an overly confident singer in this weird and fun 10-to-1 commercial jingle sketch (“Our waterbeds are the beeessst!”) alongside Freeman as her milquetoast husband and owner of Waterbed Warehouse, who blindly supports her as his company’s “celebrity” mascot a la Flo from Progressive Insurance: “I just hope I don’t lose her to Hollywood.” I really hope Aidy took that glorious custom-made comforter home with her after the show, because it’s totally not weird to sleep on your own face at night, right?
See you next week for SNL’s final episode of 2014, when our usual reviewer Erik Voss returns to recap Amy Adams’s second hosting stint with musical guest One Direction.