After a restful three-week absence, the cast and crew of SNL returned with plenty of new ground to cover — #racetogether, The Jinx — and a dependable fourth-time host at the helm. Over the past 14 years, Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson has proven himself to be a comedic performer all along. The resulting episode was a supercharged mixed bag of bangers and curios, notable for its weirdly overt and overtly weird sexuality. In one night, Kenan Thompson played both a dinner date constantly asked by multiple people whether he has a boner, and a TV chef who’s also a convicted sex offender. Meanwhile, another sketch ended with the Rock and Pete Davidson in a vertical 69 and Kate McKinnon being carried away by jungle natives. Yowza. Through it all, the host delivered every line with gusto, turning even so-so sketches into gems. During the monologue, Johnson notes that he is sometimes referred to as Franchise Viagra for what he brings to established series like GI Joe, The Fast and the Furious, and The Mummy. That title applies to SNL too.
The Rock Obama Cold Open
Key & Peele’s excellent series of sketches involving Luther, President Obama’s “anger translator,” may be better at expressing what Obama seems to be suppressing, but in terms of a pure sight gag, the Rock Obama rules. The return of this character provides a flip-book’s worth of great reaction shots from Jay Pharoah’s Barack before his Hulk-like transition. After he gets fed up with Ted Cruz, John Boehner, and Tom Cotton, thus satisfying the topical demands of a cold open, Pharoah morphs into Johnson, and people start flying through windows. The twist of this iteration is that when Sasheer Zamata’s Michelle Obama gets mad, she undergoes a similar transformation into She Rock Obama, played by Leslie Jones, in the exact way you would want it to be. As Rachel Sklar pointed out on Twitter, it was not so long ago that guest host Kerry Washington had to play Michelle Obama when nobody on the cast could, and now two cast members can play her in the same sketch.
Dwayne Johnson’s Franchise Viagra Monologue
Putting the host in a beloved role during the cold open is a prescient way to telegraph his dominating force throughout the rest of the episode. A less accurate harbinger of things to come is the monologue song, which was lightly amusing at best. Most of the female portion of the cast backs up the host in a sparkly musical tribute to his Franchise Viagra–ness, postulating other series into which he might inject that extra something. The audience doesn’t sound very into it, but it’s hard to resist at least smiling when Johnson suggests playing the kid in a new Home Alone movie, or pitches The Theory of Everything 2 in Stephen Hawking’s cybertimbre.
If Starbucks baristas can start a conversation about race, which they were forced to do by their corporate overlords for one very weird week, perhaps the mechanics at Pep Boys can start a dialogue about gender and sexual identity. This fake ad posits Pep Boys’ #genderflect campaign as a logical counterpart to Starbucks’ #racetogether, in a way that would probably be pulled before the end of one week. Bobby Moynihan and Aidy Bryant’s mechanics are well meaning and curious, and their hearts are not filled with hate, which of course means that these exchanges are disasters. The clientele isn’t offended or engaged so much as they just want their cars back. It’s funny because, as we sadly now know, it’s true.
WWE Promo Shoot
Now we come to the best sketch of this episode, and the funniest one in some time. In advance of WrestleMania, two opposing wrestlers record shit-talking promos that get a little too personal on just one side. Johnson’s Koko Watchout is a gentleman wrestler who wears a chrome-sequined dinner jacket and a platinum-blonde mullet, while Moynihan’s Trashyard Mutt is kind of a caveman character, draped in what looks like a buffalo pelt and carrying a gigantic cartoon bone. Koko’s surgical attacks on Mutt’s psyche keep heightening even when you think they can go no further, and Moynihan’s wrestler bravado gradually deflates in proportionate response. It’s masterful execution all around.
New Disney Movie
Because the recent live-action Cinderella was a success, we’re going to be seeing a lot more similar revamps. Perhaps one of these will be Bambi as directed by Furious 7 helmer James Wan. This sketch belongs to Taran Killam, whose impression of Vin Diesel as Thumper absolutely nails the smirking Diesel’s gravelly voice and sub-Stallonean delivery from the Fast and Furious series.
An oddly underdeveloped sketch is saved by some top-notch character work from Dwayne Johnson. The performer must have convinced all parties involved that he could carry the weight of a sketch through sheer force of will, and it turns out he was right. The premise is this: Kenan Thompson and Vanessa Bayer are out at anniversary dinner when they’re rudely interrupted by Kenan’s former jury duty mate, Jerry, a self-described “big bag of meatballs,” and his British date, Gemma (Cecily Strong). That’s it. Although there’s an excessive amount of focus on boners, it ultimately adds up to one of the quirks that make Johnson’s lunkhead distinct. Jerry is a very particular guy, and this is his showcase.
This one’s likely going to prove to be a divisive sketch. It’s a scene from the fake classic 1983 romp Escape From Jungle Island, which is clearly modeled after Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Johnson plays Dr. Bones; Pete Davidson his young sidekick, Shortlong; and Kate McKinnon is Miss Reese, the female companion who openly lusts after our hero. When poisonous darts from jungle natives require mouth-to-body contact, the horny Miss Reese volunteers her services — which are summarily dismissed. Some may write off the man-on-man poison sucking that follows as trading off antiquated notions of gay panic, but that’s a reductive way to look at it. The joke is not merely that the men prefer to do this themselves, but the gleeful way they throw themselves into the task, even in defiance of logic, and how it’s staged. Like those mechanics in the Pep Boys ad, this sketch means well, whether it offends you or not.
Frat guys have had a bad run lately, what with all that racist chanting. Now they’re losing their hair too. This fake ad for Brograine doesn’t have much to do, but it’s memorable for two great things: the visual of frat guys with Ben Franklin pates and the tagline simply being an over-enunciated Borat quote: “Isss niiiice!”
If Kate McKinnon only had her ensemble of Weekend Update characters to go on, she would still be a valuable addition to the SNL team. This week, she brings back her terminally traumatized Russian lady Olya Povlatsky to talk about the resurgence of the ruble. This time, Povlatsky reveals that she was born inside a frozen lake and spent much of her girlhood longingly planning her eventual funeral. (Etta James’s “At Last” will play as she is lowered into the frozen ground.) You can see some of the jokes coming, but the palpable despair in McKinnon’s eyes helps them sail over the plate. In contrast to Povlatsky’s dire circumstances, Kenan Thompson returns as Michael Che’s neighbor Willie, the most optimistic man in the world. Willie and Povlatsky may have both endured dire circumstances — Willie spent his childhood looking for Easter eggs in a litter box — but at least he’s delusionally upbeat about it.
Cooking With Paul
Kenan’s Paul Montaigne is a James Beard Award–winning chef who is also a thrice-convicted sex offender. On his cooking show, Thompson is joined by Johnson as his sidekick Mitch — who also happens to be his parole officer. It is a very daring premise that doesn’t quite move beyond its essential ick factor, but everybody involved gets a pass for being willing to go there in the first place.
It’s tempting to call this sketch the low point of the episode, but it’s hard to dismiss the vehicle for Kate McKinnon’s phenomenal Robert Durst impression. (She fully captures the way he seems to try to blink away reality with his entire face.) The problem is that the whole improv-show setup seems like an awkward bridge built just to take us to the Durst impression, which could have come up any other number of ways. I guess having Olya Povlatsky on Update meant not squeezing in McKinnon’s Durst immediately after Colin Jost’s brilliant takedown of The Jinx’s theme song. It’s also strange that the Rock isn’t in this sketch — it’s like that song on Raekwon’s first album where Raekwon doesn’t even have a verse. (Okay, it’s barely like that.)
There’s a shock at the beginning of this sketch when Taran Killam is revealed as an unflappable criminal. Handling his interrogation are Vanessa Bayer and Johnson, whose good cop–bad cop routine is fundamentally flawed. Johnson’s bad-cop threats are just a little too tame, a lot of them involving Bayer’s boyfriend Jeff, who apparently has a legendary tray of snacks. It’s another undercooked premise that doesn’t really build to anything, but is saved by Johnson’s shouty enthusiasm.
In this follow-up to his man-on-the-street segment in Times Square last year, Kyle Mooney takes his socially anxious interviewer character to the circus. Almost immediately he finds someone even more awkward than he is, a man who keeps prompting his kid to give a better on-camera answer until Mooney withdraws his question — “What’s your favorite part of the circus?” — and walks away. (“Some things it’s better to not really get involved in.”) The combination of cute kids, MS Paint–level graphics, and the interstitial image of Mooney cowering as clowns throw bowling pins over him make for an entertaining way to close out an episode that marked a punchy, Viagra-stiffened return after three weeks away.