Chris Rock stumbles on his return to ‘SNL’

Chris Rock and Prince Chris Rock is a singular talent and voice – a big problem when he’s supposed to play different characters and be part of an ensemble. Not a terribly versatile actor, his delivery is often a loud, harsh roar. As a stand-up comedian, few are his equal. His point of view is fearless, taking on a diverse range of topics which include politics, relationships, race, and sexuality. But on SNL, Rock wasn’t able to thrive as a performer because he was unable to stamp down on his raucous persona, and therefore often was limited in what kinds of sketches he could work in – another problem (which exists to this season) is that black comedians (as well as female comics) are badly served by the writers who cannot seem to figure out what to do. On Rock’s return, he stumbled badly, done in by subpar material, lack of preparation, and disappointed acting.

As always, the show opened with a political sketch – this time Bobby Moynihan brought out his New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who was in the news because of his heavy-handed response to Ebola. The jokes have the potential of being sharp and on the point, but it feels as if the writers are afraid to go too far, and merely create vaudevillian-like situations that have the actors mug and throw around lazy one-liners and cliches (hey, New York and New Jersey are dirty!). As nurse Kaci Hickox, Kate McKinnon gets to show off some fun comedy as the woman who was unfairly quarantined by the New Jersey governor. The so-so sketch ended with both Christie and Hickox slapping each other silly. There were some okay one-liners, including McKinnon’s slam that Christie “looks like a cartoon on a pizza box.” As for Moynihan – he’s always good for a laugh, though the sketch doesn’t give him much to do. As Fox News anchor, Megyn Kelly, Cecily Strong’s performance is generic and bland, but then again, so is Megyn Kelly.

For his monologue, Chris Rock took the stage like a pro. The topics he chose were predictably dicey: 9/11, the Boston Marathon bombing, Jesus Christ, anti-gun politics. As always, the comedian is willing to take on subjects that are usually thought of as sacred, and he manages to skewer the false piety, while avoiding to cheapen and trivialize the problems. While taking on the Freedom Tower, he renames it the “Never Going in There Tower,” and when pledging never to support another cause again he declares, “If you see me talking about a disease, I got it.” Rock’s delivery was aces, he paced the stage like an energetic prize fighter. It was a great monologue – one of the best ones of the season. Unfortunately, it was also one of the few high spots of the episode.

The first proper sketch had Sasheer Zamata play a teenaged vlogger, who is chafing underneath her over-protective father (Rock). Kyle Mooney, as always, adds nervous energy as the sad BFF of Zamata, who is firmly stuck in the Friend Zone. While trying to show off some suggestive dance moves on the Internet, Rock’s blustery pop barges into her room, appalled at her behavior. The sketch starts of slow, with Rock noticeably tripping over the lines and reading the cue cards, but the story picks up speeds and actually does get funnier, only to end on a strange note (the sketches never end satisfyingly).

After that there was a so-so camera ad with middle-aged men into extreme sports. The twist, the camera was a colonosopy camera. A strange concept, but well-filmed.

Then comes a recurring sketch I never liked, “How’s He Doing” – that works on the racist premise that black voters are so blind and unsophisticated that they’ll follow President Obama no matter what he does. I never understood why this joke was funny. While I can see the jokes striving for pointed commentary, it merely settles into silly stereotyping. That, plus a silly Kim Kardashian-Ebola joke (Kardashian claimed more black victims in America than Ebola) that already made the rounds as an Internet meme, makes this sketch a blah. The only thing that made this worth watching was some of the one-liners Rock got: “cologne I rescued from this magazine” and “Run into R. Kelly’s house and see what happens.”

Another Weekend Update, another week when the correspondences steal the show from Colin Jost and newly-outed sexist, Michael Che. Pete Davidson showed up to sample more of his great stand-up, this time telling a story about how his allergy to latex led him to believe he contracted an STD. Jay Pharoah brought out his amazing Kat Williams, while Kenan Thompson played Suge Knight.

The Shark Tank spoof took on a potentially powerful joke, ISIS pitching its terrorist agenda to win the prize. Unfortunately, as with other political jokes, the show’s pointed commentary feels like it’s going nowhere.

Another fake ad slams Taylor Swift. Well, not exactly. Apparently if folks who aren’t 12-year old girls listen to Swift’s music with pleasure, they experience vertigo, and should take some Swiftamine, the pill that helps you with Taylor Swift onset vertigo. It’s a funny joke because it spoofs Swift, yet at the same time, affirms her place as a pretty awesome pop star.

After the Taylor Swift ad, we have one of those couple sketches, with Rock and Leslie Jones starring as a warring couple. It is well-performed (I don’t understand some of the other reviewers who wrote that Jones stumbled – she seemed fine), but not terribly well-written. It felt like a nothing sketch, and both Rock and Jones deserve much more.

The final sketch is the best sketch of the evening. Another installment of the Women in the Workplace, this time Strong and McKinnon host a diversity video. Both actresses perform the strange, off-putting deadpan presentation wonderfully. It’s funny to see the dated approach to diversity and racism. Rock and Vanessa Bayer play the bad actors well enough, but it’s Strong and McKinnon who crush it. It’s a shame that such a well-performed, well-written sketch is hidden in the back, underneath an hour of mediocrity.

So, all in all, a thoroughly disappointing episode, given just what a brilliant performer Rock is. Also, this episode highlighted that despite some overtures towards diversity (hiring a larger number of black performers), the writers still aren’t sure how to better serve the black cast members (funnily enough, maybe the diversity training videos the writers are spoofing may be of some use). As a member of SNL, Rock was a victim of this issue and as a host he suffered as well. In the next couple of weeks, Woody Harrelson and Cameron Diaz will host. Both are popular actors who have had success in comedies, so it’ll be interesting to see how they fare in what is shaping up to be a slow season.

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Filed under Celeb, Comedy, Television, Writing

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