Bill Hader makes a triumphant return to SNL

Bill Hader and Hozier Bumper PhotosTwo weeks ago, Sarah Silverman returned to her old stomping grounds for a great turn at hosting SNL. Last week, Bill Hader came back. Unlike Silverman, Hader enjoyed a fruitful and successful tenure during his time. A beloved performer when on the show, his return highlighted just how much the show has changed (and not for the better). Hader’s presence let viewers imagine that they were watching SNL during one of its stronger seasons when he was a cast member.

The cold opener was an awful way to open the show. Bobby Moynihan starred as Kim Jong Un, it a weird performance that was energetic and fully-committed, but ultimately stupid. Thankfully, he doesn’t do a racist yellow-face minstrel act a la Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but the all-white cast of the sketch only highlighted that despite the show’s push toward diversity, there are still blind spots, and it would’ve helped  if maybe an Asian-American comic or two would’ve been part of the ensemble. It should give Lorne Michaels a hint that maybe sporadic jabs at diversity won’t work, and that concerted enduring efforts would work better.

Bill Hader’s monologue was good. He shared a bit of his back story (neat trivia bit: Will & Grace diva Megan Mullaley star discovered him) and then admitted that he couldn’t sing. Then his Skeleton Twins costar Kirsten Wiig showed up and pushed him to sing. He’s reluctant, insisting that he can’t, but his pal ropes him into a song with her pleasant voice, only to be horrified by Hader’s low and flat drone, which is very off-putting. Then Broadway legend Harvey Fierstein joins the pair, and urges Hader to sing like him – because Hader’s a great impressionist, he mimics Fierstein’s gravely rasp and the two duet joyfully.

I normally hate musical monologues, but I love, love, love Harvey Fierstein, so I thought the monologue worked really well. I also think it’d be great if Fierstein host a show, too. I know that he’s not exactly part of the zeitgeist at the moment, but he’s a funny guy and just the sort of “out of left field” celebrity that would’ve been booked in the first few seasons of SNL.

The first proper sketch had Hader’s Cold War-era reporter Herb Welch return. I always liked this character, even if the joke is immediately apparent. His casual racism and misogyny is pretty funny in a Mad Men sort of way, and Hader’s spot on. The sketch had Herb at a high school covering a virginity pledge story. The funniest spot has Herb mistaken Cecily Strong’s abstinence activist as Latina, which has him speak bad Spanish to her and sing out, “from the bodega to the boardroom.”

After the Herb sketch we get a pre-filmed fake movie trailer, The Group Hopper – a post-apocalyptic sci-fi film based on a YA book. Pete Davidson and Sasheer Zamata star in this funny spoof on all of the tropes that include Davidson being thrown endless bags of duffel bags and the weird esoteric minutia that plagues these kinds of movies. The production values are fantastic and the fake trailer is beautifully done.

The spoof of Hollywood Game Night was another winner. Kate McKinnon does a very good Jane Lynch. Cecily Strong was also solid as Sofia Vergara, while Taran Killan was adorable as Christophe Waltz. But the real stars of the sketch were Hader as Al Pacino and Wiig as Kathie Lee Gifford. Wiig’s Kathie Lee is a sarcastic, mugging mess, gripping a bottomless glass of wine. Though Hader was hitting the cue cards a bit, his Al Pacino is always hilarious. The gist of the sketch is that the show’s ridiculous. I never watched HGN, but from judging from this sketch, it seems to be a ridiculous show. The sketch is reminiscent of Will Ferrell’s Celebrity Jeopardy sketches. By the way, did Lynch really win an Emmy for Hollywood Game Night???

After that, the best sketch of the night comes up. I always feel a bit hairy watching those charity commercials, where a rich, white celebrity roams around a poverty-stricken village, guilting viewers into sending checks. Hader is Charles Daniels who insists that for only ¢39, a village would be saved from famine. The condescension is expertly skewered, with the poor villagers having to school these patronizing dummies that maybe these campaigns may not be the most efficient or helpful way to combat poverty.

Because this season saw another death of a SNL great, Jan Hooks, I was curious to see how the episode would deal. Wiig and Hader somberly introduced a wonderful, but surprisingly sad, musical parody that Hooks and the late Phil Hartman starred in, Love Is a Dream. It was beautiful and especially poignant because both Hartman and Hooks died much too soon. Though I would’ve chosen another sketch that shows off Hooks’ prodigious talents (the diner sketch with host Alec Baldwin would’ve been great), but it’s sweetly appropriate. It also reminded me a bit of Steve Martin’s tearful tribute to Gilda Radner, when he introduced their 70’s sketch “Dancing in the Dark.”

Weekend Update has become the part of the show when I go get a soda or something. I stuck around because I knew that Hader would bring back Stefon. And he did. Surprisingly, I wasn’t as enamored with the return as the audience. The joke has become very predictable: Hader’s Stefon is asked to suggest some choosy night spots, and instead of giving practical advice, he comes up with some insane underground clubs. John Mulaney returns briefly from starring in/writing/producing his so-so sitcom Mulaney to break up Hader. I get that people like this Carol Burnett-esque nonsense, and even I like it when SNL cast members break, but this feels more like pandering than anything.

Pete Davidson returns, too, after a triumphant Weekend Update with another small sample of his great stand-up, this time, joking about buying a gold chain, and the absurdity that it entails. What does he do with all of his extra swagger from wearing the chain? Finish his dinner. Davidson will be a star and I can’t wait to see more of his work.

Another Hader favorite returned in the next sketch: Anthony Peter Coleman, the Grenada vet who suffers from PTSD, and who takes puppetry classes to deal. The Anthony Peter Coleman sketch was the only highlight in the Seth MacFarlane sketch, and in this episode, it’s a high point, as well. Poor Anthony and his puppet Tony both struggle with terrifying memories, horrifying poor Taran Killan’s naive puppet teacher (does anyone do horrified better than Killan?). The sketch goes into a Deer Hunteresque moment when Tony the Puppet is crawling through the jungle with his friend, who steps on a landmine and gets blown up into snowy bits. And when Moynihan’s puppet sings the Sesame Street theme song, Anthony joins in, droning “can you tell me how to get, how to get the nightmares to stop?”

The late-in-the-night sketch was another great installment by Beck Bennett and Kyle Mooney who do some great weird stuff. As with the duo’s other work, it’s not a knee-slapper, but it’s so well done and subtle, that it makes me wish the show did more like this. In their “Inside SoCal” Public access show (it will remind viewers of Wayne’s World), Bennett and Mooney host the skuzzy and sad lives of the burnouts that live in their Southern California area. Hader steals the scene as a stupid who’s trying to interpret art.

The final sketches are usually the worst, but this episode ended on a surprisingly high note. It was a Cat in the Hat sketch, with Hader as the Cat, who joins a home where Cecily Strong is the mom and Davidson and Bryant are her two cute kids. The only thing is, the Cat and Strong’s Linda have a history. Obviously things are awkward as it’s clear that the Cat hasn’t gotten over Linda. Now, the bestiality thing is gross (as is the implication that Bryant’s dancing little girl might be part cat), but it’s a funny sketch, with the Cat’s whimsy slowly turning into a melodrama.

 

The 40th series of SNL is off to a solid start. Though the Chris Pratt episode was just, “eh” the Sarah Silverman and Bill Hader twofer was pretty great. Next week, yet another comic great is hosting: Jim Carrey. Carrey got his start on In Living Color, so he’s a sketch comedy vet (though his hyperactive mugging does make him sorta steamroll over his costars). Hopefully, he’ll be able to dial down his megastardom and be a team player.

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