Recap: 'Saturday Night Live' – Edward Norton and Janelle Monáe
The first rule about Ed Norton hosting the show: Let's talk about Ed Norton hosting the show
Edward Norton isn’t exactly known for his comedic talents, relying mostly on intense turns in such films as “Fight Club” and “American History X” for his rise to fame. But he’s had plenty of intentionally funny roles as well, such as in “Keeping The Faith,” “Death To Smoochy,” and his recent foray into the world of Wes Anderson films. For those with even a hint of interest in the behind-the-scenes world of Hollywood, Norton is also known as an opinionated talent who often provides creative input into his many endeavors, even when said input isn’t sought. But when it comes to “Saturday Night Live,” collaboration is the name of the game, and it should be interesting to see just how much Norton is willing to puncture his own persona tonight. Along for the ride will be musical guest Janelle Monáe. If you’ve never seen Monáe perform, you’re in for a treat.
In past weeks, I’ve liveblogged the proceedings. Tonight will be a straight recap, post after the show ends. There will be no real difference in the approach: I’ll grade each segment in order, giving my in-the-moment thoughts for each. But in recent weeks, it’s been tough to balance getting as many thoughts into each segment while also constantly updating the entry during commercial breaks. So I’m delivering this slightly later than normal in the hopes of focusing my attention on the show rather than HTML. I hope you understand, and I welcome any and all feedback about whether or not you prefer liveblogging or post-show recaps. But for now, on with the show!
Department Of Health And Human Services Message: “SNL” didn’t really deal with the government shutdown in a meaningful way. But with that over, it does lead this week with Kathleen Sebelius (Kate McKinnon) talking about the poor rollout for the Affordable Care Act website, which happened concurrently with the shutdown. So, that’s something! Then again, this is not really a smack down on the technological arm of Obama’s signature piece of legislation so much as a chance to make jokes about adult-themed movies such as “Bang Ambulance”. That being said…there aren’t enough “Encarta ‘95” jokes in sketch comedy these days. So that’s ALSO something! Do I need to say the show’s days of hard-hitting political satire are long gone again? Of course not. You know the drill at this point. [Grade: C+]
Monologue: Norton says that he was asked to do “SNL” thirteen years ago, but only now is ready to host due to his intense Method approach to acting. Discussing the “great actors” that have previously hosted the show brings Alec Baldwin onto the stage to offer advice on how to host. Rather than take over the monologue, however, Baldwin serves as the set-up man to allow Norton to bust out a few impressions. (His Woody Allen is amazing. The rest? Meh.) Sadly, Miley Cyrus returns because apparently we didn’t enough of her tongue last time. I…got nothing here. Until then, I was on-board. And Cyrus wasn’t bad so much as utterly unnecessary. We have a show with unlimited potential with a first-time host who can do anything asked of him. Did we need her coming in like a wrecking ball (see what I did there?) and throw things off before they barely got started? [Grade: B]
Autumn’s Eve Pumpkin Spice: Here’s a one-joke commercial…but it’s a pretty damn good joke. As someone who lives in Massachusetts, I’m used to being surrounded by ads for pumpkin-flavored items left and right from late August until…well, usually Memorial Day. (I saw a spa advertising “Pumpkin Facials” and burned the place to the ground. Well, in my mind.) What I like about this sketch isn’t just the content, but its context: Really, this is the spiritual successor to “Annuale,” the once-a-year period commercial from a few years ago. That sketch belonged to that era of “SNL” women, and this one belongs to the new generation. This commercial doesn’t define this new generation, but along with the “Girls” parody a few weeks ago, helps further cement this group as worth heirs to their predecessors. [Grade: A-]
Stranger Danger: Do my eyes deceive me, or is this Nasim Pedrad in the lead of a sketch, and a sketch immediately after the monologue? It’s too bad that the premise of the sketch is almost entirely lifted from a Dane Cook comedy bit. I’m not saying the show is ripping Cook off…but if you listened to his stand-up during the early phase of his career, you heard a variation on this sketch a while back. With all that out of the way…the inability of these students to understand why they shouldn’t talk to strangers is well-paced, crisply delivered, and features a fun sense of comedic progression. Norton basically plays the straight man here, and while Pedrad is the lead, almost every one gets in a few good lines. I’m still not sure how I feel about seeing someone else’s material so blatantly re-appropriated, especially given Cook’s own contentious history with this topic. There are only SO MANY comedic ideas, I get it. And I’m sure many of you have heard variations of plenty of premises that later made it into “SNL” sketches. But I can only comment on my own experience here. I laughed, but I also wondered what Cook might think upon seeing this. [Grade: B+]
The Steve Harvey Show: Norton is the owner of Spooky City, on the show to give advice on Halloween costumes. He loves costumes that are based on puns, such as “Face Book” (a book on a woman’s face) and “Cereal Killer.” The jokes come from Harvey’s inability to comprehend the costumes. It’s a fairly stupid premise…but Kenan Thompson’s energy sells the concept. That is good, since the sketch never really goes anywhere. “Stranger Danger” built upon its premise and took things to ever-greater levels. This sketch starts in first gear and never leaves it. It is fine, but ultimately forgettable. [Grade: B-]
The Midnight Coterie Of Sinister Intruders: Norton is Owen Wilson to Noël Wells’ Gwyneth Paltrow in this top-notch parody. Having Alec Baldwin narrate the proceedings is just icing on the already tasty cake. Everything about this is fantastic, especially how it recreates Anderson’s production design, musical choices, and editing techniques. Even the font selection would confuse someone fast-forwarding “SNL” through the commercials on Sunday morning. Sure, these are all ingrained and established Anderson signifiers at this point. But they are well done all the same, and offer Norton the chance to do something actually comedic. We haven’t seen that since the monologue. It’s a hit-and-miss show thus far, but the good definitely outweighs the bad so far. [Grade: A-]
Pest Control: First Pedrad gets a lead role…now Brooks Wheelan does. Dogs and cats, living together…mass hysteria! Right on cue, after I just mentioned it, Norton gets to play an actual comedic character in a sketch, in this case a man with an affinity for rodents helping his friend root out an infestation in an office building. Apparently not only Ed Norton can do impressions…so can the possums inside this office’s ventilation system. Norton and Wheelan play two dumb characters, but the writing’s specificity keeps it from being “two yokels sucking up sketch oxygen”. I’m not sure this will be Wheelan’s break-out character, but it’s still good to see any featured player get a chance in this crowded cast. [Grade: B-]
Numbers Man: Norton plays a “Rain Man”-type figure, attending a gangster meeting to help verify a million-dollar exchange. But instead of being able to count the number of dollar bills in a bag, he can only count the number of doors in a room. It’s an OK premise, but the sketch lasts waaaaaay too long, and doesn’t really go anywhere after the premise is established. Side note: I think this was our first Taran Killam sighting of the night. Given his near ubiquity this season up until this point, that’s somewhat surprising. [Grade: C]
Janelle Monáe takes the stage to perform “Dance Apocalyptic.” As great as Monáe’s voice is, I could watch her dance and straight up perform for hours and never get sick of it. Bruno Mars gets a lot of press for putting on a fantastic stage show, but Monáe gives Mars and his band more than a run for their money. This song contains the best of Motown coupled with a modern sensibility that makes the whole song feel timeless. Close your eyes: she sounds like a young Michael Jackson. Open your eyes: she performs like a young James Brown. Now forget those references: Monáe is her own thing, and that thing is the real deal. [Grade: A]
Weekend Update: “Update” is starting at 12:20 am, which demonstrates how much material the show came up with during the two-week break. Unfortunately, that two-week break didn’t yield better guests than Anthony Crispino, my least-favorite recurring Bobby Monyihan character. (Yes, even more than Kirby.) Crispino is the only guest in what feels like an unusually short “Update” segment. But while I like Meyers/Strong, and want to see them develop some chemistry, I’m OK with “Update” being short if the show feels it has enough material in its sketches/preproduced segments. Plus? This “Update” didn’t really have any solid material, so the shorter, the better. That’s a general rule that applies to all parts of the show. [Grade: C+]
12 Days Not A Slave: This sketch starts off horribly, not because the subject matter is somewhat awkward but because the pacing of it is completely off. Norton’s inability to keep Jay Pharoah’s newly-freed slave from understanding the danger he’s still in simply doesn’t work due to the pair constantly tripping over one another, and it prevents the audience from really sinking its teeth into the sketch. Luckily, Aidy Bryant saves the day, when her character announces that the past twelve days have been the best of her life. (A stereotypical joke? You betcha. Did I laugh entirely due to Bryant owning it? You betcha!) I’m happy to see Pharaoh in a non-Obama role, but I wish it were in a sketch with stronger material…and one that didn’t feature a “Back To The Future”-type scenario in which Miley Cyrus’ ancestor invents twerking. How on Earth did that sketch devolve into a “white people can’t dance” scenario? Your guess is as good as mine. [Grade: C]
Ruth’s Chris Halloween: Hmm. I’m of two minds about this one. There’s always a place for a stupid sketch that feels like a late-night improv session that somehow snuck on air. But that only works if that improv session is as funny in the cold light of day as it is at 4 am after three Red Bulls. This? This doesn’t really work, even if Cecily Strong’s Sexy Dracula is pretty great. Ninety percent of the ideas in this sketch feel like they shouldn’t have made it out of the first draft, even if Norton’s willing to play a virgin who thinks “slipping on ice” is a viable move in bed. [Grade: C-]
Janelle Monáe returns to perform “Electric Lady.” I pretty much owned up to being a superfan in the first segment. Are you surprised that I love this as well? Of course not. It’s not as catchy as “Dance Apocalyptic” but has some great electric guitar lines underneath its syncopated dance rhythms. I’m gonna stop typing and start dancing the way that Norton’s character feared I might back in “12 Days Not A Slave.” [Grade: A-]
Halloween Candy: Wow, this is the most 12:55 am sketch is ages. It’s beyond strange, but also the best use of Norton all night. BY FAR. Why does his character put kale chips inside the wrapper of a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup? Why is his son dressed up as “bones”? Who is Adult Ruth, and why is she in that house? Who cares? Maybe it’s just the late night exhaustion working here, but I laughed at almost every line in this sketch, and laughed hard at more than a few. I mean, look at this line: “These razors are still in the pack, so all they can arrest me for this time is GENEROSITY!!!” There’s so much in that line that implies the bizarre history that led this man with the John Waters moustache to think the empty DVD case for “Cars 2” is the ultimate statement of control. I can see many of you picking that as your least-favorite sketch. And I can understand why. But man, was that sketch precisely on my comedic wavelength. This was a trick-or-treat kind of episode, but ended on the best treat yet. [Grade: A]
Best Sketch: Halloween Candy
Worst Sketch: Ruth’s Chris Halloween
Biggest Takeaways: Norton wasn’t afraid to be weird, and when he was, the show had its best results. Pedrad had a high-profile episode after weeks (and really, months) of being all but forgotten. The new cast members didn’t get to do much tonight outside of Wheelan. Bryant’s star is definitely rising on the show.
Next Week: Kerry Washington hosts. “Scandal” fans, rejoice. All those who hate it when I point out that no one in the current cast can play the First Lady Of The United States, weep.
What did you think of tonight’s show? Sound off below!