Lena Dunham’s ‘SNL’ hosting debut is solid

Lena Dunham hosts Saturday Night Live with musical guest The National on March 8, 2014.After the so-so debut of Jim Parsons last week as Saturday Night Live, I was cautiously optimistic for this week’s host: Girls star and scribe, Lena Dunham. Over all, the writer/actress proved to be a solid, funny presence in a show that had good-to-decent material. None of it was as funny as Melissa McCarthy’s episode, but none of the skits were terrible either. And while Dunham proved to be a good player, her limitations as a sketch comedienne also were evident. Still, it was an enjoyable outing.

The cold opener was another serviceable President Obama impression by virtuoso, Jay Pharoah. The skit was spoofing the idea that Obama isn’t tough enough with Russian president, Vladmir Putin. And though it’s true that Obama doesn’t pose in beefcake photo ops, riding horses bare chested, to imply that he’s a wimp is silly – but in the sketch’s reality, Obama is looking for help with his image. So he gets help from Liam Neeson, who makes a cameo, playing up to his Bryan Mills, Taken character. Neeson is a good sport, and steals the scene from a just-okay sketch. I wonder if the guy ever hosted (on a personal note, whenever I see Neeson, I get a little sad because I always think of the late, great Natasha Richardson when I see him).

The opening monologue is often a great way to gauge if a host is going to do well – and Dunham’s opener shows both the actress’ strengths and weakness. The woman’s funny and has good timing, but instead of feeding off the energy of the audience members, she seems a touch intimidated by the crowd.

And the audience seemed happy to see Dunham. And though I’m not a Girls fan, I do like young female auteurs and appreciate what the lady’s accomplished. During her monologue, she was adorably geeky and enthusiastic. Because she’s so identified with sex, the jokes in her standup act centered around cast members popping up on stage and sharing salacious details of their sex lives, much to Dunham’s chagrin. It’s like people confuse Dunham with her Girls  character. And though, she’s not a standup comic, she did well with her monologue.
The first skit was pretaped which worked best for Dunham, and as a result was arguably her strongest. She, Cecily Strong, Taran Killan, Kenan Thompson are pals driving, enjoying “O-o-h Child” by the Five Stairsteps – a lovely 70s soul ballad. Strong starts off a sing-along, with Killan and Thompson joining in. When it’s Dunham’s turn to sing her solo, Strong’s GPS interrupts to give out directions. The group quickly jumps back to the song, and they’re having a great time, but then Dunham’s cut off by the GPS again. This happens repeatedly, but only when Dunham’s supposed to sing, and she starts to take it personally. It’s a goofy skit, but very funny – only undone by a ridiculous ending when the gang gets to their destination, and a bound and gagged Brooks Wheelan struggles in the back seat.

Then came a spoof on Scandal. The sketch made me think of Kerry Washington’s triumphant hosting gig. Sasheer Zamata finally gets her own skit, and she does a good job, but it’s Dunham’s skit. She plays Kelsey, an outsider, who cannot blend into the Shonda Rimes universe of hyper-competent professionals who can operate in a fast-paced world. She’s just an ordinary person and is constantly amazed at the uber competence of those around her. And because she doesn’t get the “tone” of her surroundings, Kelly’s constantly standing out like an eager intern. I usually find tv show spoofs boring, but this was funny, because of Dunham’s inappropriately impressed Kesley.

The next sketch was also enjoyable: In the faux MTV2 show What’s Poppin’ a bohemian jazz group passes itself off as a rap group. Strong, Aidy Bryant, Dunham, and Mike O’Brien play the band of ragamuffin bee-boppers, who are completely clueless as to how strange and square they seem (Bryant’s character plays an amped flute). It’s a great sketch because the band – That’s a Rap – is hopelessly not hip-hop. O’Brien swipes the scene as the only guy in the crew, Jerry, whose rapper name is “Tim.”

The obligatory Girls spoof is decent trailer that makes fun of the spate of bible movies that are coming out – except it’s an Adam & Eve movie, with Dunham as Eve, as portrayed by her Girls alter ego, Hannah Horvath. The show spoofs some of Dunham’s feminism and naval-gazing soul searching. And Killam shows up with an okay impression of Adam Driver. I wish the jokes were a little more than just “wow, there’s lots of nudity in Girls” but as I said, it’s an okay sketch.

The next sketch was the first of the evening that disappointed. In What Are You Even Doing? You’re Being Crazy!, Dunham and Naseem Pedrad play two tweens who both hit puberty “three hours ago.” They’re squirmingly awkward as they obsess over boys, including Kevin Mooney who shows up as Rogan, a classmate, who’s nonplussed at the girls’ ridiculous nonsense. And then Jon Hamm shows up. Huh. He looks about as confused as I was. But it did remind me that Hamm is overdue for an appearance as a host. The sketch wasn’t very funny, and it’s always a little hairy when some cast members are playing kids and others are adults.

The Weekend Update this week was pretty good and it shows that Cecily Strong is very good as anchor, and Colin Jost is growing. Unfortunately, they aren’t interacting with each other. The jokes – mostly about Russia and the pope – all landed okay, but the sketch was elevated by Killan’s funny post-Oscar Matthew McConaughey (and by the way – let’s let that sink for a moment: Matthew McConaughey has an Oscar – Peter O’Toole doesn’t. I’m just saying…) Then Vanessa Bayer slides by with – surprise! – Fred Armison, who is apparently morphing into Woody Allen. In some more Putin-bashing, the two play the Russian president’s childhood pals, who defend the guy, but then indulge in petty, junior high school complaints about their friendship with him. It’s a strange joke, but Armisen is always welcome.

The next sketch was probably the saddest because there were so many great elements that could’ve spun off to a great sketch, but instead the sketch just laid there…The thin plot had a group of women at a jewelry party. Strong played Marisol, a vivacious Latina in the guise of Sofia Vergara, complete with eye-popping sexuality and an indecipherable accent. Her boyfriend, Bruce (O’Brien), a men’s rights activists. In this sketch Dunham (who looks just like Tina Fey), is appalled at Bruce’s activism.

What’s so disappointing about this sketch is that mens rights activists totally deserve to be shat on by sketch comedy – but the writers didn’t go far enough with the jokes, seemingly afraid to get too political or feminist; the tone was haywire because O’Brien’s Bruce, despite being an MRA, was still a decent guy, which undid the crappy things he supposedly did (like close down two Planned Parenthoods and advocated for unequal pay). If the writers trusted that the audiences wouldn’t necessarily feel alienated with more aggressive humor, then a pointed satire on how ridiculous MRAs are would be fantastic – especially when the host is a feminist artist like Dunham. Instead it was a weird, half-assed way of injecting some vague bits of feminist comedy without really committing to it (though, Bayer’s on point one-liner about the genesis of MRAs as being frustrated doofs was pretty funny).

And the writers also wanted this to be a relationship skit, too – with Strong’s Marisol as being not all that attracted to the lanky Bruce. And their breakup feels like an appendix to the original skit about an MRA getting his ass handed to him by a group of women. But still, Strong’s performance is pretty good – and I see shades of Gilda Radner.

The last skit was Pharoah’s turn as Kat Williams. A lot of folks are down on this sketch – I think it was funny – but that could be because I’m a Kat Williams fan. In the sketch, Williams has a talk show – and it’s another way for some SNL cast members to trot out their impressions: Killan’s predictably funny as a grizzly and confused Harrison Ford (complete with earring) and Pharoah’s Williams is fantastic (I love the wig). Dunham’s Liza Minnelli is off, though – and it’s a little strange to include Minnelli, anyways – and Noël Wells gets to slide in, last-minute with her okay Lena Dunham impression at the end.

After being let down by Jim Parsons last week. Despite being a talented and often-brilliant comedian, hosted a disappointing episode, Dunham was able to lift the quality of the show with a committed, excited, and enthusiastic performance. I’m really excited about Louis C.K. hosting next week.

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