A month ago, Chris Rock wrote an essay for the Hollywood Reporter about race in Hollywood, specifically mentioning a sketch he appeared in with Sasheer Zamata on SNL earlier this season as an example of normalization of black actors being able to do comedy without having to always represent the black community:
Twenty years ago when I was on Saturday Night Live, anything with black people on the show had to deal with race, and that sketch we did didn’t have anything to do with race. That was the beauty: The sketch is funny because it’s funny, and that’s the progress. And there are black guys who are making it: Whatever Kevin Hart wants to do right now, he can do.
Indeed, Kevin Hart has exploded as a mainstream box office draw in recent years, starring in studio comedies like the Think Like A Man films, Ride Along, and now, The Wedding Ringer (aka that Hitch-like movie with the previews that are ruining “Uptown Funk” for everyone). Like Chris Rock, Kevin Hart appeared alongside the cast’s black performers in bits that often had little, if anything, to do with race, suggesting a gradual normalization of diversity on the show. I’ve never been quite sure why black hosts tend to result in an uptick of screen time for black cast members – it’s not like the hosts cast sketches, and Hart doesn’t strike me as a comedian who is picky about what races he works with. But if it gets us away from an SNL trying to “represent” different minority groups and closer to an SNL trying to do different, interesting comedy, I’m all for it.
But despite Kevin Hart’s Hollywood stardom, his chemistry with SNL has dwindled. Hart remains a sharp, charismatic performer whose bravado can carry him through the weakest bits, but this recent episode lacked the fun surprises – Quvenzhané Wallis as the new pope, the hilarious “Z-Shirt” commercial – that saved his first outing in 2013, leaving us with a series of mildly funny sketches that rarely went deep enough to score the big laughs. Even with a strong, well balanced cast, and an impressive commitment to special effects in sketches, SNL in 2015 appears to be every bit of the mixed bag with too many duds that it has been throughout Season 40.
Martin Luther King Cold Open. The clearest “race sketch” of the night was this cold open featuring Kenan Thompson as the ghost of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. helping a teenager (Pete Davidson) with his homework, only to learn how far behind race relations still are in 2015: “And who speaks for diversity today?” “I don’t know… Macklemore?” The sketch seemed a little predictable, given the holiday and the recent Selma Oscar snubs, but Kenan’s clueless idealism as King (compared to the pop-culturey Ghost MLK Kenan played two years ago) produced some solid laughs to start the show.
Monologue. As a comedian, Kevin Hart was given a solid 8 minutes for his monologue, which he spent telling a somewhat hokey story about dealing with raccoons in the LA suburbs that only got funnier as it went along. Hart is a natural with comedic timing as a solo act, jumping from beat to beat at a breakneck pace that rarely gives the audience time to breathe. That speed would occasionally limit him in live sketches, which require a steadier give and take as the cameras and cue cards keep pace. But overall, Hart was still fun to watch, especially in the moments where he controlled the flow.
Calvin Klein Ads. Kate McKinnon’s Justin Bieber is one of the funniest things on SNL these days, hitting hard in whatever context they throw her into. In this three-part runner (only two of which aired in the live broadcast; see below for the third part), director Rhys Thomas cleverly adapted Bieber’s print ad into a series of shorts depicting Bieber as a wannabe big-boy sex symbol, bragging about his obviously-padded peepee and angrily kicking a razor scooter.
Why’d You Post That? SNL’s latest stab at social media culture was this talk show with Kevin Hart yelling at people who post stupid Instagram photos. The writers only really scratched the surface of the annoyances regular Instagram users encounter, with a few generic shots at touristy posts and inappropriate selfies. But the image of the perpetrators getting dragged into a terrifying hell wall was SNL absurdism at its finest, with a fun little justification from Hart: “Yes, I have a dungeon behind my set. Each of my guests get trapped in there for a week to set their minds right. Is it illegal? Of course. If you want to stop me, you can call 911. But we all know you aren’t gonna do it. (Laughs maniacally.)”
Corner Boys. One of the stronger moments of the episode was this short directed by Matt & Oz with Kevin Hart, Kenan Thompson and Jay Pharoah as guys on a corner in Brooklyn coming to terms with the gentrification that has overtaken the neighborhood, with artisanal mayonnaise shops, dog walking businesses, and Kareem and his life partner riding a tandem bike. The themes may not hit as hard with viewers outside of New York, but “Corner Boys” is nonetheless one of the funnier takes on the trend we’ve seen the show do.
Get On Up. Kevin Hart played James Brown in this flat joke sketch, with the Godfather of Soul insisting on asking each member of his huge band if they’re ready to get funky… which resulted in incoherent bickering over a half-dozen different issues. Considering SNL has already (famously) done a sketch about James Brown’s excessive vamping, I’m not sure this sketch was something we needed to see.
Soap Opera Reunion. Aidy Bryant played a talk show host reuniting the cast of a soap opera, with the walk-in music of one of the actresses (Vanessa Bayer) being a dopey fart song. It was an amusing start to a sketch, but it felt like a missed opportunity to justify the insulting music with Kevin Hart as a sound engineer who doesn’t speak English (well, kind of… the sketch was never clear on that), rather than just hone in on Hart being a diehard fan who hated Bayer’s character.
Weekend Update. This shortened news segment (perhaps due to Kevin Hart’s longer monologue) saw Colin Jost and Michael Che apparently staying the course on their flavorless joke reads in the new year, while the two-liners themselves remained as occasionally great as ever: “It was announced that Idina Menzel will sing the National Anthem at this year’s Superbowl. Then she’ll sing ‘Let It Go’ as a tribute to the NFL’s domestic violence policy.” Meanwhile, Kate McKinnon continued winning this episode as Mrs. Santini, Colin’s vaguely foreign neighbor, reading sarcastic notes she leaves people in her building: “Dear elephant family in 6H. I am so sorry you is elephants, and every step you take ruins my life.”
We Must Move On. Another musical sketch in which nothing happens (by design, of course) saw the cast as a medieval court abandoning their kingdom after a dragon attack, singing operatic ballads about leaving instead of actually leaving. Despite the cast’s commitment to the melodramatic belting and a fun giant dragon eye sight gag, a straight guy calling out the musical reality may have been done a few too many times at this point, causing the “let’s draw this out” structure to drag during this long stretch of the night.
Kevin’s Son. Not since Jay Pharoah’s first season have we seen an entire scene – as opposed to a cold open press conference or desk bit – constructed around one of his impressions. (Anyone remember that awkward ”Denzel Washington at the Return Counter” sketch?) Jay’s Kevin Hart (technically, his son who talks, moves, and dresses exactly like him) is as accurate as any of his impressions, as evidenced by the studio audience’s generous response, but placing a celebrity side by side with a cast member imitating them seems to be the lamest pander SNL is still OK with pulling. That said, Leslie Jones as an ex-lover lifting and screaming at Hart gave us some of the best physical comedy we saw all night.
Listening Party. The one sketch of the night that gave Kevin Hart the freedom to showcase his character work and an amusing scenario to bounce off of was this 10-to-1 sketch with Hart as Chocolate Droppa, a hard rapper performing for his crew a new track that exposes all of their secrets. The reveals created some great moments, including a perfect Weekend At Bernie’s reference, and Hart’s entertaining chorus of “Pew pew pew pew! Pop pop! Pop pop! Gunshot sounds!” might be the new “Apples” melody that gets stuck in our heads for the next few weeks. Best of the Night.
I’ll see you next week, when Blake Shelton will pull double duty as host and musical guest.
Erik Voss is a writer and performer living in Los Angeles. He performs at the iO Theater on the house teams Wheelhouse and It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way.