One thing that’s forgotten about the early years of SNL was how much it was a show that anyone could host. While hosts from the old days were more often handpicked from Lorne Michaels’ rolodex of awesome comics, like Steve Martin or Buck Henry, the show also took risks with host bookings that it never would these days. An 80-year-old German immigrant woman who won an “Anyone Can Host” contest in 1977. An 8-year-old Drew Barrymore in 1982. Ron Reagan, son of the president, in 1986. SNL even dared to allow directors like Francis Ford Coppola and Quentin Tarantino to host once, even though they led to catastrophically bad episodes (Coppola “hosted” by directing the episode from the tech booth – an experiment that didn’t really work).
Given this eclectic history, it’s a little sad to think that hosting SNL has become a sacred privilege reserved for A-list movie stars and superstar alums of the show. The only bookings to make us do double-takes in recent memory have been famous athletes who can barely read cue cards and Betty White, a beloved sitcom veteran who got the gig by being old, apparently. More recently, the show has fallen into a frustrating pattern of musician-hosts pulling double duty and people NBC really wants us to pay attention to. Considering how crucial The Voice is to the network right now, Blake Shelton hosting SNL isn’t any more surprising than Adam Levine doing it two years ago. Not much better, either.
Of course, my pet peeves over SNL’s safe host bookings shouldn’t take anything away from last weekend’s admittedly satisfying and often surprising episode. Despite being a bit of a stranger in a strange land, Shelton was effectively cast in roles that exploited fans’ perceptions of the country singer, as if producers followed to the tee the playbook for a successful show that they used for Woody Harrelson last fall. Compared to last week’s uneven outing with Kevin Hart – who, to be fair, possesses far more nerve and comedic ability than Shelton does – the show seemed more comfortable allowing experienced cast members (specifically Bobby Moynihan) to carry the weight when needed, resulting in a showcase of this cast’s talent in the middle of a season that will hopefully see more of it.
Patriots Press Conference Cold Open. SNL’s coverage of the NFL “deflategate” initially followed the belabored press conference formula, with Kenan’s Bryant Gumbel throwing to Beck’s Bill Belichick throwing to Taran’s coy Tom Brady: “All I know is that a football is a pigskin, so I just assume that the air in the football is how much air was in the pig when it died.” But things really took off with Bobby Moynihan’s entrance as “assistant equipment co-manager” Dougie Spoons, who fired back at reporters with a delightful nod to A Few Good Men: “Son, we live in a world that has balls, balls that need to be inflated by men with pumps. … You don’t want the truth, because deep down in places you don’t talk about at Superbowl parties, you want me on that ball, you need me on that ball!”
Monologue. After a few nervous jokes, Blake Shelton teamed up with the cast in a Hee Haw jug band bit that enjoyably exposed the disconnect between the simple-natured country singer and the too-cool comedy world of SNL, with cast members taking the hacky two-liners about his family a little too far: “You know how Blake’s grandfather is an IDIOT, right?” This would be a common theme throughout the night, with Shelton mocking his country good ol’ boy image with merciless takedowns of Iowa and odd ballads about magical boots. While this isn’t the first time a host has gotten by on charm more than true comedy skills, it’s a trick that works well when the cast is ready to take the wheel. This week, they most definitely were.
Farm Hunk. The monologue led into a hilarious Bachelor-style show with Blake Shelton as a hunky farm boy cycling through equally shallow dates – all from Hollywood and with some background in porn – seemingly OK with the horribly mundane life that would await them in Iowa: “My town is really ugly and stinky and far away from things.” “I love that.” The women of the cast were notably stellar here, perfectly echoing each other in their reads of “Can I steal him for a sec?” And as usual, Aidy Bryant was a particular highlight: “I so glad we got some alone time, because I’m ready to – I’M SORRY MY DAD IS DEAD!” Best of the Night.
Wishing Boot. The night’s strong first half continued with this bizarre music video about a magical boot that rescues troubled southerners. Written by Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider and directed by Rhys Thomas, the video was a pitch-perfect parody of everything that makes country music great: longwinded anecdotal verses, people getting saved by divine forces, and rustic clothing.
Celebrity Family Feud III. The episode hit a speed bump with this unnecessary impression based setup pitting the The Voice against American Idol – or in this case, the cast’s stronger impersonators against younger cast members impersonating the hosts of a show no one watches anymore. As the laughs began to fade in the latter half, this sketch smelled like an excuse to remind viewers to watch The Voice, with Blake Shelton finding a convenient cop-out to avoid getting too physical with Taran’s Adam Levine.
Weekend Update. In perhaps the most interesting news segment we’ve seen all season, Colin Jost and Michael Che both experienced unusual ups and downs – Jost with an awesome read on the line “This Wednesday was National Hug day… dad…” and Che receiving crickets after a joke about the late Saudi King Abdullah (the setup left out the critical reminder that women are forbidden to drive alone in Saudi Arabia… so while the joke wasn’t sexist, a less-informed viewer – i.e., the kind of person watching on Blake Shelton night – might have thought otherwise). In a funny meta bit, Bobby Moynihan dropped in as Che’s high school buddy Riblet, trying to steal his job: “Your job is reading. I’ve been doing that since I was 15!” If it weren’t for Riblet’s over-the-top reactions after each joke, Moynihan wouldn’t make a bad Update host at all – at least, it was nice to see these two-liners read with some personality. Pete Davidson made a fourth Update appearance with an amusing story about his girlfriend finding gay porn on his computer, which led to some explorations of homophobia reminiscent of his first appearance: “Look at me, I’m the complete opposite of gay. I don’t mean straight, I mean gross. You’ve seen gay people, they’re beautiful! I might be a straight 5, but I’m a gay 1.” (Pete’s assessment of Jost as “a straight 8, and a gay 10” was perfect.) Sasheer Zamata closed out the segment as Nicole, a financial expert with tips that turned into bitter jabs at Che, her ex-boyfriend. Nicole didn’t have much dimension other than her hostility toward Che, but as the bit gassed out she revealed her new boyfriend: Riblet. A fun ending to an atypically personal news segment.
Parole Board. Blake Shelton returned to straight-man mode as a member of a parole board in this replay of the Shawshank Redemption scene with an old Morgan Freeman-y inmate candidly examining his life – except here, the inmate is a vicious cannibal with no hope for parole. It was a funny twist, and Kenan’s jovial confessions created some fun mental images: “Did I eat those people? Yes I did. Did I enjoy it? Immensely. Would I do it again? Point me to a homeless shelter.” But given the confines of the parody, this read more as an amusing McSweeney’s dialogue than a fully active sketch.
My Darlin’ Joan. In another fun concept that struggled with energy issues, Blake Shelton played a songwriter who helped an elderly widower compose a love song for his late wife (based on the real-life story that went viral in 2013). The long build-up made the inevitable twist – the lyrics shift to focus on unflattering aspects about the wife (“Our dinners were silent and we never had sex”) – too transparent early on, resulting in a long period of Shelton’s uninterrupted singing, with Taran’s approving harmony as the old man proving to be too little, too late.
Magician. The one off-type absurd character played by Blake Shelton this episode came in the 10-to-1 slot, as a heckler at a magic show who goes from skeptic to true believer, leading him to beg the magician to use his powers to make him rich and give him guns for hands. It was a clever script that Shelton handled faithfully, despite the fact that it’s a pretty generic role that could have been played by any host. Once again, Blake Shelton chose to do something sexual off-screen, hiding behind the curtain while testing out the autofellatio powers he doesn’t have. (Seriously, man, it’s SNL at the end of the night. The people who listen to your music have gone to bed. A guy trying to go down on himself is hilarious. Just do it.)
I’ll see you next week, when J.K. Simmons will host with musical guest D’Angelo.
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.