The good news for Jonah Hill? There’s almost no way his hosting duties on “Saturday Night Live” will receive the scrutiny that befell Lindsey Lohan’s attempt last week. So even if Hill falls flat on his face tonight, it’s not like people will treat him any worse than her. Or, you know, the way people treated him on “Allen Gregory.” So there’s that! Coming along for the ride is the band that changed Zach Braff’s life, and perhaps yours as well: The Shins. It’s yet another artist I actually know, and not because I spent six months trolling hospital waiting rooms hoping some girl would put her headphones on my ears and start up a wonderful yet complicated romance whose end was anything but certain.
As per usual, I’ll be reviewing each sketch. As per usual, you’ll get outraged by the grade I give each one. Why ruin a good thing now, right?
The Rush Limbaugh Show: Taran Killam portrays the controversial talk-radio host, who laments the loss of “slut” companies such as Turbo Tax but welcomes new sponsors like “Barney’s Butt Crack Balm” and “Depends For Racists”. This isn’t a sketch: it’s just a list of ideas thrown out in the writer’s room and then repeated onstage in a slightly re-arranged order. Some of the fake sponsors were funny, but talk about a lazy way to start the show. “SNL” had the chance to attack the real Limbaugh, and instead went for imaginary companies. Oh well. [Grade: C]
Monologue: Non-irony looks weird on Jonah Hill, no? But hey, he’s excited about his past year, and he’s got every right to be. But rather than let him do the monologue live, “SNL” cuts to a pre-recorded bit that shows his past week’s interactions with the crew. It’s slickly produced, and has some really funny bits involving ever-shrinking glasses and ever-growing scarves, but we know he’s great on film. Maybe this will be the first “SNL” to feature an hour of digital shorts? Only time will tell. When we actually return to the live stage, Tom Hanks comes on to take over the live spotlight, talking about “The Kickass Twins” (aka, his two Oscars) and generally making me wonder if Jonah Hill is actually hosting this week. [Grade: B]
Benihana: Adam Grossman is back in the HOUSE, y’all. Grossman was a highlight of Hill’s last appearance, so it makes sense to bring him back. This Borsch Belt six-year old is a one-man show, leaving everyone else onstage essentially mute for the entire running time. But it’s such a wonderfully specific character (he cried every time he saw an African-American until he was three???) that it’s OK. Grossman is older than his age and yet somehow avoids all the pitfalls that plagued his “Gregory” character. I think it’s seeing how amused Grossman is by his own humor that makes it work: It doesn’t make what he says any less offensive, but it shaves off the harsh extremes that made his animated character so insufferable. [Grade: A-]
Science Finders: It’s a direct parody of ESPN’s Sports Science, only with infinitely more crotch shots. The approximately four hundred replays of the initial impact aren’t funny, but the joke grows steadily more amusing by the time John McEnroe got involved with follow-up genital attacks. A phantom shot “from hell” brings on the crew from “Ghost Finders”, who realize a phantom threw a potentially fatal tennis ball into Hill’s…well, balls. But by the time we reach CPR-via-crotch-shot, however, things have bent around the curve back into Unfunnyland. I’m a fan of physical humor, so building a digital short around crotch shots isn’t necessarily a bad idea. But instead of variety, this one mostly provided overkill. [Grade: B-]
J-Pop America Funtime Now!: I’m happy to see this back, if only to give Vanessa Bayer a chance to play someone within twenty years of her own age. I love this pair: they answer they tests using stickers and origami, and make “Try Harder” faces in order to take their studies more seriously. Hill plays Martin, a friend of Bayer’s character from Jewish Day Camp. And I can’t understand a damn thing he’s saying. I think he’s attempting a “wise old sensei” voice, but he comes off like a sedated Bane from “The Dark Knight Rises”. Since so much of this sketch is based on Jason Sudeikis’ teacher puncturing the energy of his misguided students, it’s unfortunate to add in a character that drags down the energy of the entire endeavor. The only time I can understand Hill is when he breaks up into a laughing fit about halfway through. I got the point of his character, but his lack of diction cut off any chance to deepen the comedic impact past his initial appearance. [Grade: B-]
The Shins take the stage to perform “Simple Song.” Some Shins’ tunes double as a sleep aid. But this one features powerful, chiming guitar chords with tasteful organ and keyboard underpinnings. What the song has in direct impact it lacks in ambient space: I prefer songs like “Phantom Limb” due to their epic atmospherics. “Simple Songs” does have a bridge that lets the song breathe, but maybe this song’s a bit too, well, simple for my tastes. Good stuff, but not in the upper echelon of their output. [Grade: B]
“Weekend Update”: Paula Dean appears to talk about her bad year. First she got the “sugars,” which usually can happen when you lick sticks of butter like they are popsicles. Now she’s involved with a sexual harassment lawsuit involving her brother, and her use of the “n” word (not “nutrition”). After that, Andy Samberg appears as….Sarah Palin? Huh. At least they admit up front that Tina Fey isn’t doing this, which gives the proceedings a meta element. “Don’t worry: I’m filling in and I’m KILLING it!” Samberg insists. Well, they had to do Palin somehow given the premiere of “Game Change”, and that was about as well as they could do. After all, they don’t have any females in the cast. Oh wait, they do? Want to tell “SNL” this? It’s not always clear they are aware. Coming in to save the “Update” day: Stefon! He’s here to talk up parties in clubs named “Kevin????” that feature trivia games such as “Sean White or Bonnie Raitt?” and were founded in 1709 by black Irishman Sinbad O’Connor. Bill Hader came SO CLOSE to not breaking, but naturally burst out into laughter when describing human Roombas. If he ever makes it through this with a straight face, we’ll know the Mayans were right. [Grade: B+, almost entirely on the strength of Stefon]
Primate Research Center: Hill’s scientist introduced Brutus, an advanced ape with the apparent ability to speak. And what does Brutus talk about? All the sex the two of them have been having. “I no addicted…I scared!” Brutus says, in regards to his relationship with Hill’s backside. I’m guessing that’s Armisen in the prosthetics, but I don’t really know. (That’s a compliment: how often can you NOT tell who is portraying someone in a live sketch?) I’m not really sure how to grade this. On one level, it was a spectacular disappearing act of a performance by Armisen. But there wasn’t a lot to the sketch after you realized it was about interspecies rape. [Grade: A for Brutus, B- for the sketch]
Liza Minelli Tries To Turn Off A Lamp: Wiig’s Liza is The Target Lady on a helluva lot more drugs. While the vocal tics get old quick, there’s a fantastic physicality to her performance. Sadly, this could have used about another three hours of practice with the band, and the percussion and wind instruments never quite synched up with her activities onstage. And since those sound effects were supposed to provide a good chunk of the laughs? That’s a problem. Also, it’s time to point out that somehow “SNL” has buried Hill more than they buried Lohan. Is Tom Hanks still in the building to tag in, the way Jon Hamm was on call last week? I’m genuinely curious. I don’t think Hill’s been bad. He’s just been absent, for the most part, reduced mostly to “straight man” duties for reasons I just can’t fathom. [Grade: C+]
The Shins relieve Hill of his semi-duty with “It’s Only Life.” It’s a more laid-back song, which gives me the chance to realize Kevin Spacey will play lead singer James Mercer in any movie based on this band. Mercer knows how to craft a pop hook, and there are about eleven concurrent ones in this number. It’s a gorgeous tune, one that makes me wish it came out while I was in college so I could throw it on the second side of a mix tape and then give it to a girl who would then said she’d rather be friends. [Grade: A-]
Anniversary Orchestra: What starts out as a sweet gesture on their anniversary turns into a rendition of Coolio’s “I'll C U When U Get There”. It seems like a weird choice, until you learn he was listening to the song when he saw her profile on Match. The best part of the sketch? Sudeikis playing Bobby Moynihan’s hair with his violin bow. So freakin’ random. And yet, not as random as the sketch breaking the fourth wall to lead the crowd in song. But hey, at least Hill and Wiig are having fun. Which makes…two of us. But you know who has the last laugh here? Coolio, who will apparently live until the year 3162. [Grade: C+]
Best Sketch: Benihana
Worst Sketch: The Rush Limbaugh Show
Biggest Surprise: Why bring on Jonah Hill and make him the straight man in all but two sketches (his first and last)?
Amount I’ll Remember This Episode Come Monday: Zero. At least Lohan’s episode was a memorable trainwreck. Tonight’s effort felt like a cast and crew burned out and uninspired. “SNL” tonight announced Sofia Vergara as host on April 7th, which gives everyone involved three weeks to recharge their batteries and hopefully salvage what’s been a very up-and-down thirty-seventh season.
What did you think of tonight’s show? Did Hill underdeliver, or did the show underutilize him? What’s your tolerance level for Stefon now: still funny, or overexposed? And will Bayer, Abby Elliot, and Nasim Pedrad ever break through while Kristen Wiig is still on the show? Sound off below!