Actor Woody Harrelson is out promoting the latest Hunger Games film and hosted Saturday Night Live last week. Known as a genial performer, he first hosted SNL, in 1989 during his Cheers years when he was known for playing the sweet but dim-witted bar tender, Woody Boyd. In the years since, he’s graduated into full superstar status, even surpassing Ted Danson or Kirstie Alley. Along side his movie fame, he’s also known for his penchant for pot. Unfortunately, the writers exploited this side of his public persona and ground it to the ground. Still , this was a solid, if unexceptional episode, in which the host did a good, if unremarkable job.
The cold opener was yet another political sketch. At this point, the folks behind SNL should accept that their politics skewering days are behind them. In the opening sketch, Jay Pharoah trotted out his President Obama and Taran Killan got to play Mitch McConnell. Pharoah is great as Obama, but the performance is mechanical now. At least in this skit, Obama’s unnerved by the midterm elections which handed the his party its collective ass on a big ole platter. In the sketch he and McConnell are meeting for a drink as a way to “reach across the aisle” but quickly the two become drunk, going through various stages of inebriation. It was neat to see Obama getting maudlin while drinking his feelings. And just as quick the guys bond and become frat boyish, crank calling Hillary Clinton. Sasheer Zamata strolled through to do her so-so Michelle Obama, but the look of panic on Killan’s face was priceless. As expected, there were no laughs and just prove my earlier point that SNL should leave the politics to The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.
Harrelson’s monologue was the first (of many) that teased him about his predilection for drugs. Because he last hosted in 1989, he brought out his guitar doing a cover of Taylor Swift’s “1989″ with redone lyrics that included late 80s minutia that was shady at best because of all the drugs he did. Because Woody Harrelson does a lot of jokes. The joke got stale real quick – even when his Hunger Games costars Josh Hutchinson, Liam Hemsworth, and Jennifer Lawrence stopped by to help him with his little ditty. Though the monologue was the epitome of laziness, Lawrence was adorable when she saved her awful flub with a pot joke (she’s a funny lady).
The first proper sketch was initially funny, but then sort of petered out when the joke proved to be unable to sustain a whole sketch. At first the sketch looked like an easy spoof of terrible, bland CBS family sitcoms - The Dudleys, starring Kate McKinnon and Beck Bennett. Though it wasn’t original, it tweaked sitcom tropes and was very funny, but then it takes a turn when the show is repeatedly retooled because of viewer feedback. McKinnon and Bennett are dumped for Harrelson and Kenan Thompson as a gay couple and because viewers complained of lack of intimacy (something Modern Family viewers bring up), the guys engage in a silly bit of PDA. Obviously, the sketch is made to mock professional complainers. It was okay to see Harrelson and Thompson run fingers all over each other, but it wasn’t a funny enough of a joke to go past a minute.
The next sketch was another okay, so-so affair, which is strangely dated for 2014. Cecily Strong starred as Desiree, a contestant on Match’d one of those appalling MTV dating shows that featured some of the most disgusting people on the planet. The writing was okay (Desiree’s line, “I’m horny as hell and here to fix that”). The guys who are competing to win her hand in dating are Bennett, Killan, and Kyle Mooney, all of whom play various degrees of douchery with expert ease. As with the kinds of shows Match’d is mocking, the guys are introduced and have to spout off some awful, smutty puns that are supposed to be sexy. The twist of the plot is that the host of the show (played by Harrelson) is Desiree’s dad. Before the guys know that they’re hitting on daddy’s little girl, they lay on the awful sex talk, and quickly turn into fine gentlemen when the secret is revealed. These kinds of shows have been parodied to death, but it’s pretty funny, and Strong was good (when one of the guys said he’d like to meet her mother, she chirped, “You can’t shake hands with a ghost”)
Next we have another pot joke, this time making fun of the misunderstading of the new pot laws in New York. It’s treated like a movie trailer, where potsmokers emerge from their apartments (clad in PJs and sweats), and march through the streets like freedom fighters. Harrelson, with blonde dreds, is featured, and new guy, Pete Davidson is the leader. It’s a funny sketch (with some amazing production values, by the way).
The next sketch took place in the locker room of a high school football team. Harrelson is the coach, trying to motivate his players, but the rub is that because of new safety rules, it’s much harder for the guys to tackle. To avoid the risk of concussions, the new way of tackling, involves the gentle laying down of one’s opponent. There’s something priceless in seeing Harrelson cradle Pharoah’s head (“put your princess to bed”). Thompson pops by as a former player, completely addled by years of getting knocked on the head on the field. Thompson plays the intense, but very confused guy very well. And in a shockingly good ending to a sketch, the players trot out wearing crazy-big helmets that look like novelty items.
Weekend Update happened, and Leslie Jones showed up to stole the sketch with an energetic performance as a relationship expert. Her monologue was about reclaiming “crazy bitch” as a badge of honor, in reference to the story of the woman who got stuck in her boyfriend’s chimney.
Then Killan and Harrelson showed up to talk about True Detective. Killan played Harrelson’s True Detective costar, Matthew McConaughy. Harrelson was hitting the cue cards really hard in this one, and Killan’s impression was just okay, but anything to distract from Colin Jost is appreciated.
Another sketch, another drug joke. This time Thompson, Harrelson, Killan, and Bobby Moynihan play bar flys, lamenting the “old” New York. Thompson, Killan, and Moynihan reminsced about closed restaurants and how the neighborhoods have changed, but Harrelson’s character is stuck on how crack is different now. The sketch was very well-acted, but the drug theme was silly and felt a bit endless.
Next came a camping sketch, that like the crack-bar sketch benefited from enthusiastic performances that elevated ho-hum writing. Sitting around a campfire with his pals, Harrelson is singing a strange song about apples, and is frustrated when none of his friends join in. It’s funny to see the other characters try to sing along with Harrelson, sounding exactly like him, and yet being scolded by him for not singing the song right. In frustration he pitches his guitar and pouts (I loved seeing his bottom lip tremble during his tantrum). In the end, the friends admit that they knew the song all along and were playing a joke on him. All the performers did a good job giving life to some strange jokes.
The last skit was another Last Call sketch with Harrelson and McKinnon, the later playing the particularly repulsive bar fly. It’s a gross sketch with the two characters each one-upping each other in the disgusting department (McKinnon’s job? “Replastering unpopular glory holes”). McKinnon’s performance is brilliant and Emmy-worthy and Thompson is fun as the appalled bartender who ends the sketch resignedly pour gasoline on his bar to burn it down after Harrelson and McKinnon collapse into each other’s arms in heated passion.
All in all, a good entry – nothing stood out, but Harrelson proved to be a good host. He dominated in most of the sketches and gave strong, committed performances. The next episode will be hosted by Cameron Diaz, a funny actress (and only the second female host this year). Like most great screen comediennes, she doesn’t have much vanity, so it’ll be great to see what kind of job she does.