‘SNL’ Review: Mother’s Day with Reese Witherspoon

Despite having only hosted SNL once before last weekend, Reese Witherspoon occupies a significant footnote in the show’s history: she hosted the first post-9/11 episode. It was a pivotal moment in modern American comedy that historians remember less for Witherspoon than for the cold open, in which Paul Simon performed a moving tribute to the city’s policemen and firemen, followed by Lorne Michaels asking Rudy Giuliani if the show was allowed to be funny, to which the mayor responded: “Why start now?” After that crucial icebreaker, Witherspoon joined the cast in crowd-pleasing sketches like “Celebrity Jeopardy” and “Wake Up Wakefield,” – an episode that Will Ferrell considered “benign,” but important for having occurred at all.

Longtime SNL producer and talent-booker Marci Klein offered this insight on Witherspoon, who was 23 at the time, in the oral history Live from New York:

I’ll never forget how remarkable Reese wound up being as host. She just did a terrific job and never let the pressure get to her. Reese was a total pro. She showed up with her baby and worked really hard. Everybody was impressed. I will always be grateful for the way she acted. It was such a difficult time for everybody, maybe the most difficult time ever in the history of the show.

Fourteen years later, the stakes were far lower for Witherspoon, who has since starred in several box office hits and won an Oscar. But in a season of SNL that has seen some female hosts overshadowed by the powerhouse ladies of the cast, the Legally Blonde star showed up to play with the same poise she possessed in 2001. Like Amy Adams and Scarlett Johansson, Witherspoon rarely stole the spotlight, opting instead to share it (wisely) in duo and ensemble bits that have proven to get laughs in the past. The result was a sweet Mother’s Day episode with a lot of familiar laughs, but enough dark turns to make the host’s return a little less benign.

2016 Republicans Cold Open. Now that the 2016 GOP field has reached a minimum number of crazies, SNL launched its first parody of the herd, with Cecily as a DJ at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference, introducing a bass-tickling Mike Huckabee (Beck), a move-busting Dr. Ben Carson (Kenan), a glow-shirted Ted Cruz (Bobby), a motorcycle-straddling Carly Fiorina (Kate), a skateboarding stoner Rand Paul (Kyle), and an oil-chested Marco Rubio (Taran). Thankfully, the cast threw to the credits after the introductions, rather than linger in long talking points like so many of the GOP debate sketches did during the last election cycle. And as we saw in last year’s “GOP at Coachella” cold open, there’s plenty of fun to be had by portraying the increasingly older and out-of-touch Republican candidates embracing youth culture.

Monologue. Reese Witherspoon began the night with the most adorable moment we’ve seen on the show this season: each cast member bringing out their mothers to apologize for something they did as a child – some hilarious, like Bobby writing his name on the wall in marker and blaming it on his grandmother, and some a little too creepy, like Kyle watching soft-core porn while his mother slept on the couch nearby. This was followed by a reel of home movie clips of cast members as kids – teenage Cecily doing an anti-drug PSA (“Where’s my cocaine?!”) and a clip of Kenan from D2: The Mighty Ducks. By handing things over to the cast and their mothers, Reese’s monologue accomplished two things: 1) it revealed an affecting, personal side to these performers, getting us “on their side” at the top of the show, and 2) it set the tone for a cast-driven episode in which the host would lead from behind. With so many SNL episodes coming off as mere stops on a publicity tour by a celebrity promoting a movie or album, it’s satisfying to see an episode showcase the cast, without any annoying promotional plugs.

The Scene in LA. The night’s valued post-monologue slot went to this odd LA talk show with Cecily and Reese as plastic cougar-y women who get caught in awkward hot-mic moments – barking at an assistant to pick up Poise Pads, ripping a fart. Besides the lame potty humor, the pacing was way off here, with the first audio mishap not coming in until the sketch was halfway through, and the ladies’ characters weren’t consistent or funny enough to make this work as a character sketch. I don’t know… this bit must have killed at dress rehearsal for it to land so early in the night, let alone in the set list at all.

Picture Perfect. With the fart jokes out of the way, the night segued into an impressive winning streak, starting with this Pictionary-style game show with Bobby having to draw the Prophet Muhammad. It’s rare to see SNL play with fire like this (the Dakota Johnson “ISIS” sketch was the closest we’ve seen this season), and delightful when all the elements work together so perfectly – the hilarious reveal, Taran’s maniacal game show host, the inclusion of Kenan as Family Matters’ Reginald VelJohnson, the categorization of the Prophet Muhammad as a “trendsetter.” With a face that’s impossible to detest, it’s always fun to see Bobby handle these racy scenarios.

Mr. Westerberg. After giving us the hilarious “Blazer” last week, writers Michael Che, Tim Robinson and Zach Kanin came back with this perfectly heightened scene about Hallmark employees imitating their boss (Bobby, again taking on an edgy role), with one of their impressions revealing a terrible truth about him. This was Beck’s finest performance on the show to date, with the rest of the cast playing straight to allow this dark concept to gradually boil over. Best of the Night.

Weekend Update. Colin Jost and Michael Che scored with some great two-liners, with Jost’s joke about astronomers nicknaming a distant galaxy “Dad” echoing his great National Hug Day joke earlier this season. The bit with them reading jokes their mothers texted them didn’t land quite as well as the mom moments in the monologue (I think we need to see footage of Jost as a kid to prove he’s human), but watching Jost interact with Leslie Jones during her set was amusing as always – certainly more enjoyable than whatever it was Jones was there to do. (Read love letters she wrote because she doesn’t like technology? Who knows… these desk setups always unravel so quickly.) But the two-shot with Jost has always led to laughs, with her Creamsicle ad-lib earning high praise from an original cast member. Reese Witherspoon made a rare host-Update-appearance with Cecily as the Girls You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With at a Party (VII) boozily ranting about Bruce Jenner coming out as a transformer and putting out Amber Alerts to find their friend Amber. I’m usually a little annoyed to see a celebrity team up with a desk character – more often than not, it bogs down the timing and marks the character’s decline (see Peter Dinklage with Drunk Uncle and Chris Martin with Garth & Kat) – and Reese, while well matched in the character’s voice, made it tough for Cecily to control the flow like she normally does. Kenan closed out the segment as Willie (III), the optimist whose bouts of misfortune have grown so nefarious – locking his schoolmates in with a shooter – that, like many SNL characters, his core has eroded into a catchphrase.

High School Theater Show II. Despite playing out almost exactly like the first version with Cameron Diaz in November, I much preferred this reprise of Aidy Bryant and co. as preachy drama nerds staging a heavy-handed blackbox performance. The cast moved more fluidly to arrive at their obnoxious morals, even if Leslie’s out-line sounded like a placeholder joke that was never rewritten. Aidy and Kyle seem uniquely tuned into their high school selves – between this setup, “Improv Show,” and the teen incarnations we’ve seen in “Girlfriends Talk Show” and the various Good Neighbor shorts, these two have mined a lot of interesting comedy out of the self-conscious millennial type.

Southern Ladies. Another ensemble character piece with Reese Witherspoon sharing the spotlight was this gathering of gabby southern women sharing increasingly twisted��anecdotes: accidentally hitting up her son on Tinder, husband woke up from a coma and brought a demon into the house, being pranked by a sperm bank, etc. I didn’t mind the loose structure here, like a female take on those “Bar Song” sketches (with Jason Sudeikis and the guys crooning “Take a Load Off” in between dark stories), but this sketch felt too clunky, with a script packed with funny one-off details designed more for a table read than a live performance.

Waterslide. One of the more baffling moments on the show this season was this “scene” with Beck and Kyle as lifeguards manning a waterslide (with actual running water, because this is SNL, and this sketch just would not work without functional water jets) while others rushed on and off stage, playing equally incomprehensible characters, all in a little over 2 minutes. Look, I’m all for sketches running shorter rather than longer (this episode was pretty good about that), but this sketch was clearly cut down from a more reasonable runtime that might have given us a chance to figure out what the hell was going on, leaving us with this confusing mess where the funniest thing was the way Beck pronounced “cinnamon.”

Whiskers ‘R We III. Kate is just so damn funny as an elderly lesbian feline lover in these cat rescue commercials that I can’t blame Reese Witherspoon for wanting to join her. The bit may not have reached the comedic heights as Charlize Theron’s or Amy Adams’, but it still delivered some great moments, including a cat named Mufasa with a mane around his head… “but I’m pretty sure he’s just some nobody from Delaware.”

Digital Exclusive: Inner White Girl. SNL also posted this “digital exclusive” (which probably means it was cut for time, wasn’t edited quickly enough, or wasn’t considered strong enough for the live broadcast) with Leslie Jones receiving some help from a magical “inner white girl” (Reese Witherspoon). It’s a shame this short didn’t replace some of the duds in the episode – its racial commentary is on-point, with the clever choice to have other characters call out Leslie talking to herself – a provocative piece in the vein of Inside Amy Schumer or Key & Peele that would have given the episode some nice variety.

Additional Thoughts:

  • Some more trivia from Reese Witherspoon’s first episode in 2001: Apparently, Ben Stiller was scheduled to host the week after Witherspoon (to promote Zoolander), but cancelled last minute, with his publicists blaming the national tragedy. But according to Marci Klein in Live from New York, Stiller went on other talk shows to promote the film, leading her to the conclusion that Stiller just felt burned Witherspoon – not he– got to host the season premiere, post-9/11 episode.
  • Also, Reese Witherspoon’s first hosting gig was also the debut episode of Amy Poehler and Seth Meyers. Nothing like having your big break coincide with one of the worst days in American history.
  • Speaking of which, hearing the voice of Pete Davidson’s father (a NYC firefighter who died during the 9/11 attacks) in his baby video was heartbreaking.
  • Best: “Mr. Westerberg.” Worst: “Waterslide.” You’ll See It Online: Monologue, “Picture Perfect.” Worth It For the Jokes: “Whiskers R’ We.”
  • It got missed under the the shouted guessing of “Picture Perfect,” but Cecily as Rosie Perez trying to decipher Beck’s drawing was pretty great: “Moon! Moon! Moon!”
  • Another fun line that didn’t get the laugh it deserved: in “Southern Ladies,” Cecily’s justification for why the sperm bank people are pulling disgusting pranks on her: “I parked in their private space, I guess.”
  • Cecily and Beck topped the screen time leader board this week, with Sasheer Zamata once again landing at the bottom.
  • “This cat is a gift from God. At lease, that’s what he tells the members of his cult.”
  • Finally, in this week’s “SNL Stole My Bit!” report, many online are claiming the premise of “Picture Perfect” was lifted from a sketch from the Canadian sketch show This Hour Has 22 Minutes. Check it out here. The premises of the two sketches are pretty much identical, with the same ending joke, and the 22 Minutes version was posted in January. However, considering the Muhammad cartoon controversy was in the news this week with the PEN Gala honoring Charlie Hebdo, and recently with the Texas “draw Muhammad” art show, it’s plausible that SNL writers might have conceived the idea independently. I doubt that will lead to any skeptics accepting parallel thinking as a valid explanation, or persuade SNL to start googling sketch ideas before writing them.
  • I’ll see you next week, when Louis CK will host the season finale with musical guest Rihanna.

    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.

    ‘SNL’ Review: Mother’s Day with Reese Witherspoon