We’re in the home stretch for 2013 episodes of “Saturday Night Live.” Starting tonight, we have a run of three weeks involving hosts familiar with the program. Paul Rudd is making his third appearance as host to kick things off, and if you think he’s the only actor associated with the “Anchorman” franchise that will appear tonight in Studio 8H, well, I have some swampland to sell you. Not only is Will Ferrell an alum of the show, but the film’s co-writer/director Adam McKay tweeted earlier today that he would be writing another iteration of a moderately-famous recurring sketch as well. (And others involved with the franchise have experience as well, almost too many to name here.)
What will be interesting to see over these next three weeks is how much the new cast gets integrated versus pushed to the side. Logically speaking, the latter will happen, which only once again raises the question of why "SNL" culled such a large cast together this season in the first place. Throw in the fact that there’s almost no way One Direction won’t appear in at least one (if not more) non-musical segments, and you have a very good chance that more than half of the cast will get next to no screen time tonight.
All we can do is sit back, douse ourselves in Brian Fantana’s “Sex Panther” cologne, and see what unfolds. As always, I’ll be liveblogging. As always, I’ll grade every segment in real time. In a first-time twist, I’m doing all of this from an undisclosed bunker in a country that doesn’t recognize extradition law in case I anger any of Harry Styles’ fans tonight. (He’s just dreamy, guys. I get it.) Come back at 11:30 pm EST for the start of tonight’s coverage.
The Sound Of Music Condensed: Come on: they had to do this, right? It’ll be a nice, simple, gentle parody of OH MY GOD WHO LET DOONEESE BACK HERE? Look, Kristen Wiig did many great things on the show. And she ruins them each time she comes back, especially when she brings back her least funny characters. I suspected she might be one of the “Anchorman” actors to return, but I don’t know how to solve a problem like Dooneese. (Especially when I initially called her Gilly, then thought her character's name was Judy. I was thrown by Wiig, is what I'm saying.) That’s too bad, since there’s plenty of humor to be mined from the incredibly corny “The Sound Of Music”, and the NBC staging in particular. (I mean “corny” in a good way. It is what it is.) But having Dooneese is doubly distracting: we don’t need this character in this sketch, and we don’t need Wiig stealing the spotlight this early. And hey, while we’re at it, let’s bring Fred Armisen back as well. Why not? He’s only been gone six months. We all wanted him back as well. Oh, there he is. Damned if I don’t, damned if I do. [Grade: C]
Monologue: Paul Rudd is there…and he’s instantly joined by One Direction. “We’re not here to outshine you!” says the one that a Google Image search tells me is indeed the Harry of the group. But Rudd’s not upset, because the other lead male members of “Anchorman” and here to back him up. Visually, it’s a little funny to see Paul Rudd on the same level of One Direction: They are the Hobbits to Ferrell’s Aragorn. This particular Fellowship sings “Afternoon Delight,” because “SNL” knows this once got laughs and probably will again. “Now we are Nine Direction!” proudly declares Rudd. What will truly be funny is when 1D’s younger fans look up the lyrics to this song and instantly reach puberty. This was low-hanging fruit, but really fun all the same. There was star power galore onscreen, everyone played their part well, and it’s hard to fault the show for going the safe route with its approach here. [Grade: B+]
Politics Nation: Because “SNL” can’t believe its luck with the ObamaCare website, we get another sketch about it now. That being said, the premise isn’t the website’s problems, but rather Al Sharpton’s inability to understand technology…or zip codes. Honestly, I kept waiting for the sketch to start, but then it was over. I really don’t understand the programming of the post-monologue sketches this season. They have been almost uniformly terrible, and this one made poor use of Paul Rudd to boot. I’m not even mad this was so terrible. I’m mostly just confused. [Grade: D]
Dan Charles, #1 One Direction Fan: This shouldn’t be funny, but somehow Paul Rudd throwing shade on pre-teen girls for their lack of One Direction trivia knowledge is somehow adorable. It helps that there are certain takes in this pre-produced bit when either the girls involve look genuinely amused at Rudd’s performance, or when Rudd decides to add a little bit extra sass to his delivery. The punchline of the awkward autograph was obvious, but this was a fun (albeit again totally expected) way to get One Direction involved in other aspects of the show. [Grade: B]
Divorce Meeting: Here we have an odd mixture of bizarre wordplay and even more bizarre dancing to Fleetwood Mac’s “I Don’t Want To Know” Hmm. I’m of two minds about this sketch. I’d love to see this without the musical interludes and completely filled with the David Ives-esque wordplay instead. Or maybe I just wanna see Vanessa Bayer flirt-dance for four minutes straight. It’s a little like chocolate and beer: I love them both individually, but not sure I want a Hersey’s Bar in my winter lager. There is one great sketch here than ironically had two good premises neutralizing the other. There’s still some good stuff onscreen. It just doesn’t reach the heights another draft or two might have helped this reach. [Grade: B]
One Direction takes the stage to perform “Story Of My Life.” Philip Phillips has to be absolutely PEEVED that he didn’t write this song, right? Look, One Direction isn’t for me, but I get the appeal with a song like this: They are horribly earnest and there’s no obvious vocal dud in the bunch. (Growing up in the ‘80s, there was always one to three members of any boy band that never got a solo.) The slam on most pop bands is that they sound alike, and until this song, I could have been held at gunpoint and not been able to discern if One Direction or The Wanted sang any particular song. Now? 1D has at least one thing for a non-fan like me to identify. And that’s certainly not nothing. [Grade: B]
Weekend Update: Jacob The Bar Mitzvah Boy is the HOUSE, y’all! I’ll miss Seth Meyers’ obvious glee at getting to play off Bayer’s nervous child. That being said, there’s something just off about this iteration: The pauses are awkward, the timing of the interplay is off, and it only really starts to work with Jacob’s admission that he’ll miss Seth when he leaves the show. As with Stefon, Meyers has developed a relationship with Jacob that offers something along the lines of emotional continuity for long-time viewers. I’d actually like to see Jacob talk to Cecily Strong so the latter can bring the former out of his shell. As I predicted a few weeks ago, “SNL” could not WAIT to bring back Jebidiah Atkinson back to the fray. “Run things into the ground much?” says Atikinson, as a way to defang any criticism of…well, that last sentence, I guess. This time around, he’s slamming holiday stories such as “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “Frosty The Snowman.” Taran Killam lands better jokes with his attack on “A Christmas Carol,” but an odd detour into The Bible leaves the character in No Man’s Land: If you go there, you kinda have to really GO THERE. Otherwise, what’s the point? Since GOING THERE isn’t possible on “SNL,” it both offended people for whom it would be offensive by simple fact of inclusion, and yet didn’t strike enough of a nerve for those for whom controversial humor such as this would be in their wheelhouse. An interesting attempt, but one that didn’t ultimately succeed. Don't worry: we'll see Atkinson five more times this season. [Grade: B-]
Michelangelo’s David: Oh, so this is how you get male front nudity on television. It’s a one-note joke: Rudd’s model has a small penis, and everyone in Florence mocks him for it. But the energy on display (and the unexplained but amusing anachronistic dialogue) is somewhat infectious. There’s not much “there” there, but everyone seems to be having fun, and somehow I see the phrase “fig twig” entering the general lexicon. Years from now, on “Jeopardy!”, this will be the answer to the clue, “This is the ‘SNL’ sketch that featured Leonardo Da Vinci saying the word ‘peen’.” So, there’s that! [Grade: B]
White Christmas: “Everything you’d expect from a black holiday movie…but with white people!” Oh dear. For the first half of the sketch, I couldn’t tell if “SNL” was actually in on the joke, or if this was the most offensive thing the show had ever done. But right around the time the white men started performing New Kids On The Block, I breathed a sigh of relief. That’s much clearer than Aidy Bryant complaining about her man leaving her for another white girl. It’s still a somewhat odd premise for a sketch, especially considering the outcry a few weeks ago surrounding the cast’s racial composition. But this wasn’t about “SNL” so much as pop culture in general, specifically the surprise by some media outlets that movies such as “The Best Man Holiday” might actually have crossover appeal. So it’s a different thing altogether. This wasn’t a particularly funny execution of the idea, but at least this won’t cause a huge uproar tomorrow. (Wait. Of course it will.) [Grade: B- if the show was doing what I hope it was doing, which I’m pretty sure it was, but get back to me on this after I've slept on it]
Santa’s Elves: Hey, it’s the rest of the cast! I’ve missed you onstage all night! And they miss Fat Santa, who has spent the past few months in a spa losing weight...and losing his wife in the process in favor of a Chili’s waitress who does impressions of a “sexy chicken.” Now, having a svelte, douche-y Santa is a fine premise for a sketch. But the other actors are so good at playing cute, sympathetic elves that everything Santa does actually offends the audience and places them directly on the pointy-eared side of the eleves. (Noël Wells is particularly great here.) I’m all for Rudd not playing the straight guy in a sketch for once, but this didn’t particularly work. [Grade: C+]
28 Miles Away: Cecily Strong’s bored wife is having memories of hot affairs from her past, one of which apparently involves Rudd’s Victor, who worked at an airport Papa John’s delivering her pizza AND pleasure. Cecily Strong hasn’t been in many sketches this season, but makes the most of this, with her two-pronged approach to her happy and sad memories of old relationships. Strong doesn’t always play “real” characters, often choosing affection over grounded realism. Here, she gets to do both, and proves she can do both equally well. Not a huge shock, but important for the show as a whole going forth. And hey, Brooks Wheelan sighting! That's like seeing a unicorn at this point. [Grade: B]
One Direction return to sing “Through The Dark,” another pleasant, acoustic-based ditty. This one has slightly more problematic solo parts, but this five can harmonize like mofos, so all’s forgiven when the chorus hits. Also, it’s important to note that in a sea of “hey, gurrrrrl” songs, it’s good to hear a song about helping their would-be romantic partners rather than conquering them. It’s a simple thing, but it’s effective all the same. Here’s where the instrumentation augments the message: singing this same lyric with processed keyboards would negate its impact. Aaaaand now I’ve spent more time analyzing 1D than in my previous 38 years on this planet. [Grade: B]
Bill Brasky: After the front-loading of all the guest stars, it’s easy at this point in the show to forget that happened nearly ninety minutes ago. But then we get this as the 12:55 am sketch, and we remember it all once again. There’s only one current cast member in this sketch, but given that every other segment tonight since the monologue has been guest-free, it’s fine to have only Killam present here. This is the McKay sketch mentioned at the outset of the recap, and it feels like every other version of this same premise. That’s actually not a bad thing in this case. It’s almost impressive that McKay could tap into this vein after such a long time. What stands out the most is how frozen in time this sketch feels: It belongs in another epoch of “SNL” history, one that is neither better/worse than the current one, but had such a different mentality that having it transplanted into the thirty-ninth season feels somewhat jarring. Both the ‘90s and the ‘10s have sketches that deal with displaced male masculinity, but explore that theme in marvelously different ways. Having the two so starkly in contrast in instructive and fascinating. [Grade: B]
Best Sketch: Monologue (A lot of “fine” sketches, but nothing truly standout.)
Worst Sketch: Politics Nation
Did The Newbies Get Pushed Aside Tonight?: Yes, but not because of the guest stars but rather because 16 people is an insane number to have on an "SNL" cast.
Next Week: John Goodman and Kings Of Leon
What did you think of tonight’s episode? Did the show use Rudd well? Were the guest stars too much, or not used enough? And did One Direction covert any non-fans? Sound off below!