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There has been much discussion and controversy around the current Saturday Night Live cast in terms of racial diversity…or any kind of diversity at all. It doesn’t take an overly perceptive person to realize that the cast is very, very white and tends to be fairly male-centered for most of the time. That doesn’t mean Strong, Bayer and the other talented ladies aren’t given a chance to shine or that Thompson and Pharaoh, the cast’s only African-American members, are not appreciated or used, but let's just say that the show’s focus is decidedly white and male. There hasn’t been a woman of color (besides Iranian-born Pedrad) since Maya Rudolph left the cast - and she was only half black as her father’s side were Ashkenazi Jews.
But I digress. With Scandal's Kerry Washington hosting, it’ll be interesting to see how SNL integrates her into the show. Will her race be a factor or will the elephant in the room be dealt with outright? As much as I’ve thought about it writing this intro, I can’t quite comprehend which of these would be less awkward. OK, instead of talking about it, let’s get to SNL and this week’s recap.
Like always, I’ll be writing the recaps “live,” meaning I’ll watch the sketch and immediately write a short blurb reviewing and recapping it. For each segment, I’ll rate it on a scale of 0-5 stars. At the end of the piece, I’ll share some quick overall thoughts and the best/worst sketch of the night.
Cold Open: * * ½
I truly don’t know what to make of this. I said in my opening that SNL would probably have to address the racial elephant in the room but I’m not sure devoting the first sketch of the night to it really worked. OK, I’ll admit that when Michele Obama (Washington) enters the sketch and is greeted by “It feels like it’s been years since I’ve seen you” from the POTUS (Pharoah), I laughed at the sheer gutsy-ness of addressing the issue so bluntly. I laughed again when it was clear Michele had to leave so that Kerry Washington could come back on as Oprah. But as the sketch continued, it felt less bold and more like a lackluster shrug of a apologetic sketch. Instead of poking fun at SNL, all it made me do is mourn the diversity in characters and impressions we might get from a more varied cast. By the time six different Matthew McConaugheys appeared, the whole thing just seemed a bit too smug and awkwardly self-referential, especially with a concluding cameo from Al Sharpton, who summarized the sketch saying, “What have we learned from this sketch? As always, absolutely nothing.” Maybe it’s just me, but that seemed like the saddest punch-line I can think of to start this episode.
Opening Monologue: * *
Hey, at least we have no lack of diversity jokes! Here, Washington tries to talk about her connection with SNL and Scandal but random cast members keep coming in and interrupting her hoping she could fix their problems like her character Olivia Pope. As always Moynihan tries his best and Vanessa Bayer has a few funny lines (Thank you Kerry Washington for that Miley jab), but the whole thing just felt very light and anemic.
Career Week: * * * ½
Nasim Pedrad has been on fire in the last few weeks and here she is again in the post-monologue sketch. Her Yemenite motivational speaker isn’t my favorite of Pedrad’s characters – it relied too heavily on repeated jokes and sound effects – but Washington brought lots of energy to the skit and had a great rapport with Pedrad. All in all, not a bad way to start the episode.
What Does My Girl Say?: * * * * ½
It’s a little strange to parody “What Does The Fox Say?” since Ylvis’ video is a musical comedy sketch to begin with. It’s a little strange, but I completely forgot about singing foxes after the first few bars of “What Does My Girl Say?” and never looked back. Funny, catchy and with extremely strong performances from Pharaoh and Washington, this music video is tailor made to become an internet hit. But unlike “Boy Dance Party,” which I thought was over-rated, this one really holds up. I said last week that this batch of players seems stronger in the writing and execution of prerecorded sketches rather than live ones and, if this is any indication, I might be right.
How’s He Doing?: * * * *
Wait a minute. Is SNL actually executing funny and insightful political humor? And it’s not the cold open? Am I dreaming? The sketch was simple - three folks on a talk show discussing how black voters view Obama - but the jokes were smarter and funnier than anything I’ve seen in this kind of content so far this season (or last, if my memory serves me). It also proved once again how nice it is to have a diverse enough cast so that sketches like this can be done. OK, I’m a little bitter that Thompson let it rip on internet TV recappers, but I’m a bit giddy from actually laughing at SNL, so I’ll let it fly.
Miss Universe: * * * *
I was unsure of this sketch when it started, but by the end it totally won me over with its very unique, specific characters. The highlight, somewhat surprisingly, was Washington’s Miss Uganda, but Aidy Bryant and Kate McKinnon had hilarious cameos too. I’m not really sure what the Miss Universe sketch was trying to say, but it made me laugh and didn’t feature a recycled character from previous episodes. So I’m a happy camper.
Weekend Update: * * * *
I have to admit I had to Google Chancellor Angela Merkel to see who she is but that didn’t stop me from loving her (or should I say McKinnon’s) Weekend Update segment. McKinnon’s total commitment to the desperate, sad sack Merkel was marvelous to watch and, by the time she read her Google history out loud (“Jason Segal no shirt!”), I was laughing out loud. McKinnon really shines in a format like this and is welcome every week at the Update desk in my eyes. Besides, Meyer and Strong’s jokes were unusually strong (“The world series ended Wednesday when the Saint Louis Cardinals were defeated by Mumford & Sons,” being my personal favorite). Another segment involving Charles Barkey and Shaquille O’Neal, while featuring some good lines, didn’t quite live up to the other content, but I’ll give Pharaoh credit for some incredible eye acting.
Cartoon Catchphrase: * ½
This reminded me of the Game of Thrones game show last year in that the joke comes from the idea that supposed experts in a given field are really complete idiots. It didn’t work in the earlier sketch and didn’t work here because it just doesn’t make sense in the world of the sketch why these people are such imbeciles. The running joke of Aidy Bryant’s husband’s infidelity just felt tacked on and forced too. This didn’t work in just about every way.
Booker T. Washington Fall Carnival: * * *
My God, Jay Pharaoh is everywhere tonight! His Principle Frye is not my favorite reoccurring character but it sure beats another sketch with Kirby, Eddie or, dare I say it, The Californians. This sketch wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great either despite Washington’s best efforts.
Date or Diss: * *
One of my favorite stand-up comedy bits is Aziz Ansari’s hilarious rant about the mid-2000s MTV dating show Next (see here). This sketch wanted to cover similar ground but never really got the tone or jokes right. It both tried too hard and not enough. It felt too safe, too smug and about 5 years too late. Given Aziz’s material, it’s clear there is still comedy to be mined with such a set-up, but it didn’t translate here at all. That being said, I will add Bitch Apartment to my DVR.
Ice Cream: * * *
I’ve enjoyed Ben Moody’s filmed sketches in the past. This is a really, really weird one. There weren’t really any jokes but, hey, it tried something original and unique. Did it work? I’m not sure. But did it keep my interest? You betcha.
Best Sketch: I’m tempted to give it to “What Does My Girl Say?” but I’m gonna go with "How He’s Doing" because it tried harder, reached higher and delivered.
Worst Sketch: "Cartoon Catchphrase", no contest.
Musical Guest: Eminem
Eminem starts with “Rap God” backed by a band and one of the Duck Dynasty cast members on DJ duty. Just kidding, that’s Rick Rubin looking like a mixture between Si Robertson and that homeless guy who talks to himself on the subway. The song’s title is a bit unfortunate as it comes across as more than a little ironic – Em is still a gifted rapper but the song is not terribly memorable or original. He might have been a rap god ten tears ago but I’m not so sure in 2013. His next song, “Survival,” was perhaps a bit better but still, how to put this, run of the mill.
Kerry Washington was the best host of the year so far. She had great energy, slipped into eclectic characters well and was just downright funny. When Scandal ends, I’d be happy to see her join the cast full-time. This episode started on a rough note (and had one stinker near the end too) but it also featured some of the best and smartest writing SNL has seen all season.