Whenever a gorgeous stunner hosts Saturday Night Live there are two ways in which the show can use her: either as the perennial straight man, reacting to the antics to the cast members, or the writers unearth a hidden Lucille Ball in the glamazon (like Gwenyth Paltrow’s oft-hilarious hosting gigs). Last week, Oscar-winning superstar Charlize Theron took a second swing at hosting duties, and despite the actress’ obvious enthusiasm and committed professionalism, the show was rarely hilarious – and instead was a serviceable hour of comedy.
So because Saturday was Mother’s Day Eve, the usual political cold open took on a more maternal feel by featuring Sasheer Zamata’s Michelle Obama and Vanessa Bayer’s Hillary Clinton. I wish I could say that the skit didn’t stink, but I can’t, ‘cuz it did. First of all, neither Zamata nor Bayer get their impressions right – Bayer’s in particularly is noteworthy in its mediocrity (at times it feels like a really faded Xerox of Amy Poehler’s performance as Clinton). Aside from the not-great performances is the “meh” writing that pits the First Lady with the former Secretary of State (who was also a former first lady). So the jokes mine some tired jokes – Michelle Obama’s life is nice because she’s got little kids who still do stuff like give her Mother’s Day gifts, while Clinton’s life is too consumed with work. I’m not sure where the writers were going with this – are they saying that Obama’s life is more fulfilled because she’s a mom with kids? The two start trying to one-up each other with digs that are either condescending or passive-aggressive. It’s a bit reminiscent of the classic cold open that pitted Poehler’s Clinton against Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin. The writers in this sketch seem to try recapture the hilarious spark of the older sketch, but fail. Not miserably, but the jokes fail, nonetheless.
After that disappointing opener came a disappointing monologue. Theron took the stage and mined the joke that she’s gorgeous and perfect to the ground. The twist of the gag was that even though she’s seemingly perfect, she can’t sing. The cast members gathered around her and performed a -gag – musical number. The number is both self-congratulatory and sycophantic – something that often happens when the show gets a celebrity with wattage as bright as Theron’s.
Following the so-so monologue, we get a fake game show and one of the better sketches of the evening that uses one of the strongest members of the cast: Kate McKinnon. For some reason, she can play suburban moms perfectly. In the game show, called “Come Do a Game Show with Your Mom, It’ll Be Fun, Yes It Will!” The host is the mom and the contestants are her kids. Even though the jokes aren’t gut-busting, the specificity and McKinnon’s eerily-on point performance elevates the sometimes-flagging material.
After this well-performed sketch, the show followed up with another good sketch, “Girlfriends Talk Show.” I know that this recurring sketch is controversial and polarizing – lots find it grating and boring. What works for me about these characters is the poignant tone of the friendship between Kyra (Cecily Strong) and Morgan (Aidy Bryant). It’s clear that Kyra has the upperhand in the relationship – the two like each other, but Morgan’s whole social life rests on Kyra – it’s kind of like Amy’s obsession with Penny on The Big Bang Theory. In the caste system that is high school a girl like Kyra would yield lots of power and influence over someone as sincere and vulnerable as Morgan. And the white knuckled-way she grips on to their relationship makes the joke both funny and unbearably sad.
In last week’s installment of “Girlfriends Talk Show” Theron played the girl’s drama teacher, Christine – a ridiculous woman with theatrical pretensions. Like every “Girlfriends” sketch, the guest is on hand to make the disparity between Morgan and Kyra more pronounced. And in this instance, Morgan’s repressed sexuality causes her to be paralyzed by discomfort unable to handle Christine’s sexually-frank approach to acting.
What’s interesting about the “Girlfriends Talk Show” sketch is that unlike most SNL sketches, this one ran too short and felt a bit rushed. Usually it feels like the scenes run too long, with the audience’s discomfort palpable – but a few more minutes would be nice to explore Morgan’s feelings of inadequacy and panic.
From two relatively strong sketches came the first dud – an spoof of a making-of documentary of Dragon Babies, an animated film about a group of adorable CGI-dragon infants who go on an adventure. Taran McKillan’s genial director participates in the documentary, giving an enthusiastic rundown of the film, only to have the feature undone with his star – Rich Shoulders, a retired Chicago cop who gets a job voicing the lead dragon baby. It’s a bizarre premise, but Mike O’Brien does a funny Chicago accent – it’s the flat, nasal twang that I hear everyday when I go outside. But OMG, it’s a terrible sketch – that makes no sense and relies on the unfunny notion of a grizzled Chicago cop being the voice of a cute cartoon dragon.
I wish I could say it got better – but it didn’t. Nasim Pedrad returns as Heshy, the poor man’s Tony Robbins. Theron appears as her success story, Gayle, a Heshy clone, who is just as pathetic. The biggest flaw of this sketch is it continues the silly tradition of having the guest hosts play unfunny carbon copies of recurring characters. I thought the first Heshy sketch was funny but mainly because of the brilliant, scene-stealing performance of then-host Kerry Washington; this time, Pedrad is joined by an equally-committed Theron, but the results are less funny, because the Heshy sketch works best when she has a antagonist.
I’ve decided that the current incarnation of Weekend Update will always be an innocuous filler – never really all that funny or memorable. Strong’s good, but Colin Jost proves yet again that his strengths remain behind the camera, not in front. None of the jokes registered or landed, and unfortunately, we had to listen to a Monica Lewinsky joke. The segment was enlivened by two spots: first, Barbara Walters, a favorite target of SNL stopped by for some good-natured ribbing. The legendary reporter was funny and was the epitome of a good sport (plus, we got a brief glimpse of the lovely Gilda Radner as Baba Wawa).
Bobby Moynihan returned as the Drunk Uncle. And like Bryant’s Morgan, Drunk Uncle is a surprisingly-deep character that would benefit with a longer, more developed sketch of his own. He’s clearly a working class white male resentful of the slow disintegration of white male privilege. He’s a relic of a time gone by, and he feels left behind. It’s a pretty thoughtful performance that is all too easily dismissed as merely racist gags and misuse of electronic terms. And like Bryant, Moynihan does an impeccable job.
The next sketch was another Turner Classics Movie – this time a spoof on the beach blanket movies, as well as, a topical reference to that dead giant blue whale that is threatening to explode because of the gas. This is a nothing sketch that is lit up briefly with Killan’s all-in performance as the Frankie Avalon facsimile. The whale finally explodes and Karan and his onscreen love Theron still do the twist and sing, covered in blood and core, like a beach version of Carrie. Then Kenan Thompson wonders in as a befuddled fisherman, who will eat the blown up whale guts.
The final proper sketch is arguably the best, and should’ve been moved up to the front of the show. McKinnon and Theron star as proprietors of Whiskers R We – a bizarre cat store with an even more bizarre staff. Theron lets herself look hideous in a ratty wig and adult braces as she plays an off-putting, intense misfit, who has a weird hostility toward the cats, but a weirder attraction to McKinnon. The performance is startling and brilliant, doing a wonderful job in creeping her audience out. It’s a very funny sketch, elevated by an even funnier performance by Theron.
The final sketch of the evening is a pretaped thing about foreigners confusing New Yorkers. It was alright – but it rarely moved beyond just “foreigners are funny!”
Some random notes before my final analysis:
- I liked that during Theron’s monologue, we got a quick glimpse of Maya Rudolph and Ana Gastayer as the Destiny’s Child goof Gemini’s Twin
- When McKinnon’s game show host mom was ordered to delete her Facebook account, she refuses saying “It’s my window to your world!”
- “I love surf music!” “Yeah, it’s just kinda nothing!”
- I love the gobs of Vaseline slathered on the lens when Barbara Walters was joking about the soft focus lighting she gets when she interviews a Kardashian.
So, Charlize Theron – who proved to be an adept comedienne in movies like Young Adult (and rent Woody Allen’s otherwise shitty Celebrity for her fantastic performance as an emotional supermodel) was saddled with so-so material. She gave her all, and if she was given funny jokes to work with, she might’ve been headlining an A+ performance, but instead, she would get an A for effort, for a C show.