The ladies of ‘SNL’ shine on a solid Cameron Diaz episode

Cameron Diaz and Mark Ronson with Bruno Mars Bumper Photos

I approached the Cameron Diaz episode of Saturday Night Live with some trepidation. Diaz is funny, talented, and very likable (and very easy on the eyes), but her instincts as a comedienne often lean toward vulgarity and bad taste, as if she’s trying to show us that she can outgross out the boys. Also, her track record for crappy films has been pretty consistent lately, so I also question her choice in material. Because she’s out promoting a remake of Annie (which gets a shout out), Diaz hosted the Thanksgiving episode of SNL. While not a classic, it was a surprisingly solid effort, with some great work by the female cast members of the show. It’s gratifying to see that the boys club of SNL past has been banished, and though this cast’s comediennes haven’t proven to be comic geniuses like Gilda Radner, Jane Curtin, Jan Hooks, Tina Fey, or Amy Poehler, Cecily Strong, Kate McKinnon, Aidy Byrant, and Vanessa Bryant have each showed great promise. Add in Leslie Jones, who I think is just peachy, and the talented (if underused) Sasheer Zamata to round out the female side of the cast, and you have potential for some very funny moments – and on this episode, the ladies brought it (for the most part).

The cold open was another Obama sketch, but this time I actually thought it was okay. A spoof on the classic “I’m Just a Bill” tune from School House Rock, the joke was that Obama’s executive order to grant legal status to some 5 million undocumented residents was an exercise in bullying. Literally bullying, as he keeps throwing Kenan Thompson’s warbling bill down the Capital steps. Not to be outdone, Bobby Moynihan shows up as a laissez-fair Executive Order, who sums up his deal by singing “I’m an executive order, and I pretty much just happen.” I wish the show’s writers went further with the joke than Obama’s merely giving Congress a shaft – do the writers think it’s fair that the president’s order will help 5 million undocumented residents avoid deportation? Because SNL has always been stung with the charge of being too liberal, I think the writers don’t want to get too nasty with politics, aside from tweaking personal idiosyncrasies or scandals of individual political figures. Unfortunately, the show doesn’t take a stand, and the result is that a sketch with some great potential sort of ends up being harmless. Still, Thompson’s one of my favorite cast members and he was very funny, and the sketch was a surprisingly decent way to open the show.

Unfortunately, Diaz’s monologue was pretty awful. It was the standard, “superstar host tries to get  through his/her monologue, but is repeatedly interrupted by cast members pretending to be audience members.” None of it was terribly funny, and Diaz didn’t do a good job in selling her limp schtick.

The first sketch of the evening was probably the best of the episode, and a contender for the best of the season. The ladies of SNL get together to create the magic of “(Do It on My) Twin Bed.” This time the Pussycat Dolls-like girl band descend on their childhood homes for the holidays and proceed to act like spoiled boorish churls. As with the “Twin Bed” song, “Back Home Baller” is wonderfully silly and incisive in how it pin points the banality of adult women becoming infantalized by returning home. They take over the parents’ home, do their laundry, eat up their food, and don’t help or take part in the house work. The bizarre juxtaposition of a mundane situation like a childhood home and the baller/blinged out attitude of the women is great. And Leslie Jones has an awesome Missy Elliot-like solo rap about her mother leaving bowls of snacks all over the house. It’s all very funny and very smart – I only wish that this whole so-so season of SNL worked on this high level.

The next sketch referenced Diaz’s new Annie movie. Jay Pharoah did a servicable Jamie Foxx, and Bayer trotted out her enthusiastic child star to play Annie, while Diaz brought out her skanky Miss Hannigan from the new movie. The twist is that instead of Bayer’s red-headed mopped, Foxx’s Daddy Warbucks was looking for the new Quvenzhane Wallis Annie. What he gets is Leslie Jones’ 43 year-old Annie. Jones is a talented addition to the cast, but the writers are trading too much on her high energy – she’s more talented than that, but they’ve limited her to shouting and staring menacingly at the camera. The middle-aged Annie isn’t interested in singing or being adopted so Daddy Warbucks ends up hiring her as a security guard. A middling sketch that could’ve been more.

The next sketch was a fake ad – Nest-Spresso, a single-egg incubator that looks like a single-cup coffee maker. Taran Killam and Kate McKinnon play hipster urban farmers who are dismayed at how hard it is to raise chickens. Bayer’s smiling neighbor clues them in on the Nest-Spresso, a neat invention that instantly incubates and hatches a single egg. It’s a cute idea, made even cuter when a baby chick is plopped into the waiting glass mug. I also love that Bayer’s beatific expert doesn’t really understand the mechanics of the machine.

After the funny Nest-Spresso ad came another winner. An experimental theater play at a high school. As a former high school drama geek, I know the nonsense we put on and I know the tedium and resentment our loved ones felt having to sit through our crap. Experimental theater can be rewarding, but it can also be pretentious junk, as it is in this sketch that has our troupe decry the evils of Wall Street, Capitalism, gender inequality, lack of quality healthcare, etc. It’s all done with that grim, self-congratulatory smugness that only a liberal, overly politically correct teenager can muster. And it’s all done with barely any skill or talent, which makes the sketch even funnier. And as an added bonus, Thompson and Bayer play annoyed and increasingly appalled parents who are witnessing the travesty and feel trapped.

The Weekend Update in this episode was surprising because wasn’t ass-boring. The beneficiaries of lowered expectations (we’re talking Sarah Palin’s “triumphant” performance during the vice presidential debates here), Colin Jost and Michael Che do an okay job this week. Che, especially, gets some trenchant swipes at the current Cosby mess, when he pointedly tells the legendary comedian, “Pull up your damn pants.” He also does a quick bit about grieving over the loss innocence of Cliff Huxtable, a sentiment a lot of people are expressing (unfortunately, at the expense of the rape victims). As Che pointed out, “Cliff Huxtable practically raised me” encapsulating why so many people are having such a hard time reconciling the TV icon with a sexual predator.

Kate McKinnon returned as German Chancellor, Angela Merkel. As with most good-to-great impressions on the show, it isn’t that McKinnon looks, sounds, or acts like Merkel (she doesn’t), but it’s that the comedienne has distilled the spirit of what makes the politician so interesting: she’s a smart woman operating on a world stage, dominated by men, but she is increasingly seen as the voice of reason. McKinnon’s Merkel has shades of Poehler’s Hillary Clinton – a smart, over-qualified woman, who is smarter than everyone in the room, and she can’t handle that. McKinnon’s Merkel also has a strange, though endearing, awkward side, one that is crushing hard on Barack Obama, and one who is constantly chafing at the various constraints that are imposed on a woman in her position. Nora Dunn once lamented that during her tenure on SNL, the female cast members had no one to play during the political sketches (she famously played presidential candidate Pat Shroeder), so it’s particularly joyful to see the ladies have opportunities to break into political sketches.

After McKinnon’s star turn, came Killam and Strong as Charles Manson and his fiancee Star Burton. Killam did a generic “crazy psycho” impression of Manson, and the pair did just okay, but faltered in comparison to McKinnon’s strong work.

We then had the recurring character of the adult baby CEO. I don’t get the appeal of this character, though Beck Bennett is mesmerizing in his ability to accurately mimic the spastic, unrestrained movements of an infant. This kind of character is very old fashioned SNL – the sort of weird, eccentric character that has an identifiable trait, like It’s Pat, or Debbie Downer, or Matt Foley. These kinds of characters exist to spawn catch phrases and to be discussed at water coolers (remember those?). In this installment, Diaz is Bennett’s wife, and she proves to be a decent straight man, without much to do. Zamata and Thompson play a couple who are guests – Thompson’s angling for a promotion and Zamata is his supportive wife. The conceit of a guy going to a boss’s house for dinner in hopes of securing a promotion is also very retro, which is alright, except Thompson is wasted, merely reacting to Bennett’s performance (Zamata gets some fantastic dry, withering notes, though).

Thompson and Diaz star in the next sketch – probably the worst of the night as hosts of an animal show. Reminiscent a bit of Tracy Morgan’s Brian Fellows, Thompson’s not happy with his animal show hosting gig because his monkey castrated him last week. Diaz shows up with a lemur. And by the way, what with the real baby chicks and the real monkey and the real lemur, is that a thing, where the show uses real animals in the sketches? The joke of Thompson’s genitals ripped off by the monkey is repeated over and over again, and it was never funny to begin with.

Next, Kyle Mooney and Bennett get another one of their strange-but-great sketches – this one with Mooney’s dimwitted slacker confronting Bennett’s bully in the hallways of a high school. It’s done as if it were Mooney’s amateur chat show – an Internet ‘Wayne’s World.’ Mooney’s performance as the awkward, dopey, and posing slacker is pretty interesting, as is Bennett’s turn as his nemesis. The thing about these kinds of sketches is, they’re never hilarious, but I appreciate the ambition behind them.

After that, we get another installment of Bayer’s poetry teacher. I liked the character the first time it ran, but I’m not so sure it can sustain recurring status. Bayer gets the mannerisms and vocal tics down and she’s pretty funny – but the character is supposed to be a bland nothing, and it’s difficult to stretch out the joke for more than one 5-minute sketch. But for what it was, it was OK. We get Bryant as a student who writes an ode to her stepdad (who wears a t-shirt that looks like a tuxedo, “uh oh, he fancy”), and Thompson’s tribute to Friends is pretty funny. Then Diaz stops by – in disgusting white girl blond dreds, by the way – as Bayer’s fellow poet pal, who wrote a paean to the UPS delivery man, that quickly becomes sexual, to the delight of the male students in the class.  Again, not a bad sketch, but not a great one – just eh…

The final sketch – Night Murmurs – which features the ancient art of phone sex ads. Except in this one, the ladies have some interesting requests which include Diaz’s instructions on how to handle a special delivered package, Strong’s request to drive her old grandmother out of a trailer, and McKinnon’s sorted tale of losing a bet and being pummeled with a turkey. It’s all weird stuff that’s sold because the actresses act the hell out of the sketch, making the bizarre non sequiturs funnier than they seem (I love the strange, “sexy” and “relaxed” poses that Strong gets into while she’s purring about her grandmother’s trailer).  Not a hilarious sketch – but a good one – that will remind some of the retired porn stars sketch (which I actually do like).

So, all in all, a good episode – Cameron Diaz didn’t dominate in her sketches, but she played nice with the others and she left her over-sized star power at home. It’s the kind of host one hopes for – someone who doesn’t mind looking silly, but isn’t intent on proving to the world that she should be placed as permanent host. As seen in many of her films, she’s willing to make herself look ridiculous for a laugh – which is great for an SNL host. In this episode, though, the writers seemed to play it safe with their star – unlike, say, Melissa McCarthy or Emma Stone, who when hosting, reveled in portraying ugly misfits and misanthropes that belied their real life beauty.

Next week James Franco is hosting. I didn’t like his last hosting gig – I found him strangely wooden and uncomfortable. Just as the Woody Harrelson show was all about pot, I’m sure the James Franco outing will reference his strange performance art persona, as well. After him, we’ll have Martin Freeman – the most charming man to come out of Great Britain, and stealth Meryl Streep replacement, Amy Adams (who I thought did a great job when she first hosted – her Heidi Klum was amazing).

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Filed under Celeb, celebrity, Comedy, movie, Television, Writing

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