The thirty-ninth season of “Saturday Night Live” has seen a lot of changes in its cast from the past few seasons, but really not much change in terms of overall quality. You take the good, you take the bad, you take the Drunk Uncle, and there you have the facts of “SNL” in this decade. It doesn’t matter if you throw up a seemingly slam-dunk host like Tina Fey or a potential wild-card like Miley Cyrus: the core elements of the show are what they are, meaning that there’s little in the way that’s going to change until the new writing staff figures out how to work with the new cast in ways that honor the show’s history while forging its future.
That’s why tonight’s episode isn’t really about host Bruce Willis
and musical guest Katy Perry
, a past host who will undoubtedly end up in at least one sketch tonight. (Late update: Nope! I was wrong.)
It’s more about seeing if any synergy between the on-screen and off-screen talent has sparked something that might indicate how this version of the show will operate. It’s not about expecting a fully-formed unit bonded over an intense three-week period to suddenly appear on the small screen. Rather, it’s about seeing any hints about what this iteration of the show’s cast might offer. The six new cast members have barely made a dent thus far, and the returning cast members have largely done new iterations of old characters. There will be at least two weeks between this episode and the next, so the show needs to make some impression that will last for that fortnight. (Update: Ed Norton will host in two week's time, as announced during tonight's broadcast.)
As per usual, I’ll be liveblogging each sketch, assigning a grade to each segment in real time. As per usual, there will be those of you who might have an opinion or three about those grades. It’s how it worked when Willis was on “Moonlighting”, so why mess with tradition? See you back here at 11:30 pm EST when I kick things off.
Gravity: Oh good, more wire work! Because that worked out so well last week! Well, if you’re going to do a government shutdown parody, there are worse ways to go than using the number one movie in the country. Taran Killam and Cecily Strong are the two astronauts helpless in space, and only Kenan Thompson’s janitor remains working back in Houston. Unfortunately, Thompson’s only escape ideas come from “Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory”. Kate McKinnon’s Ukranian-born janitor isn’t much more help. There’s no real punchline to the sketch, which is unfortunate. The premise here was fine, but didn’t really go anywhere. A political-based sketch in the cold open with no teeth? Stop me where you’ve heard THAT before. [Grade: B-]
Monologue: Bruce Willis might be old, but hey he can STILL MAKE BABIES! Bobby Moynihan interrupts almost instantly, claiming that he’s a virtual son to Willis. The two start playing the harmonica: Willis with his usual panache, Moynihan more like someone that’s never played the harmonica before. This isn’t so much a monologue as a vanity project: We get it, Bruce! You wanted to be a musician. Just like every other actor! Now I’m worried we’re in for fifteen harmonica sketches tonight. [Grade: C-]
24-Hour Energy For Dating Actresses: Some commercials stress applicability to every day life. In other cases, we get something like this! I have no doubt that everyone involved with the show has first-hand experience with the incidents depicted in this parody. But for everyone else? Hard to say. I did plenty of theatre in high school and college, so I understand some of these jokes all too well. But it’s a very, very New York/LA sketch. It’s not as obtuse as “The Californians” in terms of its specificity, but it’s a little too insider baseball for my liking. Also? Why not have 24-Hour Energy For Dating Actors? Are they calm and collected? The fact that the comedian depicted as the final joke was male in this sketch gives off an unintentional but very revealing vibe. Am I reading too much into both? Perhaps. But the fact that I can read it at all means others probably did as well. [Grade: C+]
Black Ops Command Center: Some times, when you get hosts with tough personas, they go the opposite direction in order to derive laughs. (See Craig, Daniel.) Here, Willis plays up his action credentials in a sketch that parodies the normal maneuvers characters in war movies would make. It’s a good idea for a sketch, and the reactions by others to his increasingly graphic stories are amusing. But Willis’ delivery is all off: it’s rushed, clipped, and semi-unintelligible. It doesn’t help that he’s clearly reading off the cue cards, making eye contact with absolutely no one else in the sketch. Moynihan completely kills here, although I wish I enjoyed this sketch as much as his character did. [Grade: B-]
Barber Shop: Pop quiz: How much better would be this sketch be without Willis in it? That’s not a slam on Willis, who does fine work with weak material. But the interactions between Thompson and Jay Pharoah are really, really solid, and suggest a lived-in quality from the first moment. All of Willis’ anecdotes intentionally kill the momentum of the sketch dead, but it’s wholly unnecessary: Two-thirds of this sketch is comedy gold, and I hope that future iterations of this sketch (should there be any) take the time to develop just these two barbers further. Nothing else is needed. [Grade: B]
Boy Dance Party: We haven’t seen much in the way of digital shorts thus far this year, but here’s the type of thing I was hoping for in the introduction: a new twist on an old standard. There’s something here that harkens to the Lonely Island days, but also has the sensibility/visual style of material from last season as well. It really, really, really helps that the song is catchy as hell, which always pushed shorts such as “D$ck In A Box” to transcendent heights. This isn’t the new cast’s “D$ck In A Box”, but it’s a smart, slickly-produced, and finely executed short. [Grade: A-]
The Lady Gaga Show: If you close your eyes, Bayer’s Gaga sounds like Jacob The Bar Mitzvah Boy. I’ve never heard/seen Michael Kors speak, so I can’t tell if Willis is doing a really good job or a really offensive one. It could go either way, but again, I have no idea. After Kors, Kate McKinnon busts out her Penelope Cruz, which I believe was her very first character on the show. (Weirdly enough, she also busts out the same schtick as that sketch, by attempting to pronounce difficult-to-say words with subtitles displayed onscreen.) Killam’s DJ is a pretty inspired character (he has preset answers for each question on his keyboard), and as per usual Aidy Bryant does a lot with a little in her limited time. But come on: it’s a talk show sketch. The ceiling is pretty limited on these, with a few notable exceptions. Nothing awful here, but nothing fall-down funny either. [Grade: B-]
Katy Perry arrives (with the set from her video in tow) to perform “Roar”. I’m not sure how to square the song’s positive message with the circle that is the costumes her band is wearing. But hey, that’s the mystery and the myth that is Katy Perry. I’m usually pretty hot or cold on her: “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)” is one of the best pop songs of this decade, but other songs offend my ears so much that I drive into oncoming traffic when they come on my car radio. This is the one exception to that either/or extreme: it certainly has an anthemic chorus that saves a rather mediocre set of verses. This sounds great blasted in the car or in a big arena, and is certainly within her overall output. But is it her best? Not really. [Grade: B]
Weekend Update: Congressional Chaplain Barry Black arrives to discuss his admonitions during the government shutdown. (Remember that? The shutdown? We talked about it way back in the cold open, which now feels like a long time ago.) His escalating rants aren’t groundbreaking, but well-executed. A middle-“Update” run of Bruce and Kris Jenner jokes are 1) great, and 2) make me sad that there’s a potential expiration date on the chemistry between Seth Meyers and Cecily Strong. After that back-and-forth, Brooks Wheelan appears on the “Update” desk to discuss the topic of tattoos: namely, those on his body. It’s great to see Wheeler get some screen time, and onscreen while not in full “brah” mode. (That’s all they gave him in the first two weeks.) A pretty good “Update” overall, which is as much flux as the rest of the show. But here, it’s easier to see the workshopping. "Update" i’s going to be an incubator throughout the season for new material, new characters, and newbies trying to get face time. “Update” has always somewhat served this purpose anyways, but there’s a heightened sense of that so far this season. [Grade: B]
Kirby: So, it’s “Armageddon”, but with Moynihan’s recurring character back for another round of inappropriate feline love. There’s not much to analyze: you’re either in or out on this character. I’m a huge fan of Moynihan, and his work this season has been confident and strong. But I’ve never been a fan of Anthony Crispino, and still can’t quite get on board with Kirby. It doesn’t help that Kirby doesn’t interact with people so much as engulf any scene he’s in, rendering the other four men in this sketch all but useless. [Grade: C-]
Centauri Vodka: OH GOD MY EYES. I’ll see Bruce Willis as a hippie centaur when I’m on my death bed. But poor John Milhiser: he’s been the most underused cast member thus far, and this is how he’s used now? As a guy suffocating inside a centaur suit? Sigh. This wasn’t a sketch. This was a funny visual someone came up with in the writer’s room, stretched out over three minutes. And yet it was somehow still too long! [Grade: C-]
Eddie Returns: Look: Taran Killam is “The Guy” now. Of that, we can be certain. With the departures of cast members such as Bill Hader and Jason Sudeikis, Killam has assumed the mantle of the go-to glue. With great power comes great responsibilities. With it also comes the opportunity to bring back his absolute worst character. Eddie is supposed to be comedically grating, but he’s just plain grating. His emphasis on the word “chon” isn’t funny the first time, and the next six hundred aren’t much better. Willis actually turns in a subtle performance, containing his colied anger until finally exploding verbally and physically. But man, it’s a long, long way to get to the sketch’s silver lining. This show might break the HitFix record for most “C” grades given out. Maybe the two-week break is a good thing for all involved. [Grade: C-]
Sigma: OK, this is more like it: two new cast members (Beck Bennett, Kyle Mooney) get to create two new characters in addition to an entire social setting: a fraternity with a low-key, almost adorable initiation. What works isn’t just the rules of their version of beer pong, but the attitudes each man displays: Overselling this world would have been a semi-disaster, and fully expected. But their quiet nature both makes you listen to what they say while simultaneously presenting the world of this frat house in a interesting, sideways manner. Who wouldn’t want to hang with guys who encourage pledges to draw the roller coaster of their dreams, regardless of the rules of physics? Maybe this sketch wouldn’t stand out so much on strong weeks, but this time around? It’s like water in the desert. Bennett certainly has the most face time thus far of the new cast members, and has been all over the place thus far tonight. [Grade: B+]
Katy Perry returns to perform “Walking On Air”. What happened to the lions? I’m worried about them. In place is a band and group of backup dancers all in white, and one extremely powerful fan just off-camera. Whether you love or hate Perry, she certainly has got personality to spare onstage. So it’s strange to see a piece of fabric upstage her here. It doesn’t help that the song itself sounds like one that any number of female singers could have performed. As a piece of filmed performance, it’s perfectly fine (unless strobes give you seizures, in which case, sorry). But as a Katy Perry song? It’s oddly generic. [Grade: B-]
eMeth: We’re already reusing pre-taped bits? Dear God. I don’t grade repeat sketches. [Grade: N/A]
Best Sketch: Boy Dance Party
Worst Sketch: Eddie Returns
Biggest Takeaway: File under “growing pains,” “overall exhaustion,” and “in-progress chemistry”. There are some good things to take away here: the core of the barber sketch was good, and the Sigma frat guys demonstrate that the new cast has the ability to bring good, fresh stuff to the table. But the lack of female presence this week meant that we only got half the story of this current cast. A lot of the sketches were male-heavy, and the more I think about “24-Hour Energy For Dating Actresses,” the worse its unintentional implications weighs on me. The show isn’t sexist. Let’s be clear. But that sketch, combined with the overall content, emphasized the male members of the cast in a way that felt imbalanced on levels above and beyond the mere screen time allotted each cast member.
What did you think of Willis’ hosting job? Did the show let him down, did he let them down, or did you think both worked well? After three weeks, which of the new cast members stand out to you? Are you excited for Ed Norton to host in two week’s time? Sound off below!