John Cena has fun in a so-so episode of ‘SNL’

John Cena and Maren Morris Bumper PhotosWhen John Cena exposed his arms during his monologue, I gasped. But not in lust like Leslie Jones, but in shock (and curiosity). They weren’t arms so much as lumpy pillars of marble. It was a scary sight. In fact, John Cena is a sight. The wrestler-turned-actor follows in the tradition of Hulk Hogan, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, as the muscle man-turned comedic film actor. Cena has proven that he has solid comic chops (see his great turn in the Amy Poehler/Tina Fey starrer Sisters). He gets a lot of comic mileage from his mountainous physique, go-for-broke attitude, and smirky good looks.

As host of Saturday Night Live, he proves to be a genial presence who seems to have a lot of fun playing off his macho man image. The writing on this episode wasn’t on par with the last three excellent episodes, so it’s a testament to Cena’s considerable likability that this episode wasn’t a total dud.

The cold open wasn’t a Donald Trump bit, which is good because as great as Alec Baldwin in, the show is running out of ideas on what to do with the character. There’s only so much you can do with the two-dimensional Trump that the writers boxed Baldwin in, and maybe a couple weeks off will let the writers come up with stronger stuff (and there will probably be more Trump-related news stories, ripe for satire). Instead, we get a great cameo from Bryan Cranston as Walter White, who is the new head of DEA. It’s a great joke, as all of Trump’s cabinet appointments feel like they’re out to destroy the very agencies they’re in charge of. Having Walter White be the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration is a great gag that unfortunately doesn’t get taken to its potential, because before we get settled into the joke of Trump’s asinine choices, Cranston-as-White shouts out, “Live from New York, it’s Saturday night!”

As a monologist, Cena did well, supported by an incredible Bobby Moynihan, who challenges the real-life Adonis to a wrestling match (he’s easily vanquished). Of course when Leslie Jones enters the stage, she’s a worthy opponent, but is quickly undone by her attraction to Cena (she slips him her room key card). Kenan Thompson also slips by, with a sly move, slamming a folding chair across Cena’s back (which turns the chair into toothpicks). Cena coasts on his charm and easy sense of humor, and the heavy lifting (no pun intended) is left to Thompson, Jones, and Moynihan, and it’s a nice monologue.

In fact, that’s how the show worked for the most part. Cena is thrown into a sketch – primarily as a sight gag or straight man – and the other performers graciously do the hard work. I’m not writing this to imply that Cena is a lazy performer, just a limited one, but one that knows how to work within his limits. And though the writers hewed too close to the “big lug” theme, Cena seemed to transcend any hackiness of the material with his good attitude.

The best sketch of the mixed big is “Hook a Hunk” a fake MTV dating show that has Cecily Strong’s babe choosing from three hunks: Beck Bennett, Kyle Mooney, and Mikey Day. Cena pops up as the hunky host, and before we know what’s happening Strong and Cena find themselves attracted to each other, much to the consternation of the other guys. Cena’s smiley goofiness works well with Strong’s increasingly besotted and committed character. And as a neat and sweet twist, Bennett and Mooney find themselves in each others arms. It’s a surprisingly nice ending (that shows how far SNL progressed from the bro queer-baiting humor of the early 1990s).

The other great sketch – which wasn’t funny out loud, but well written was the Through Donald’s Eyes sketch that allows for us the viewers to see the world the way Donald Trump does – and it’s as messed as you’d imagine. Trump’s world is filled with syncophantic loved ones, his triumphs, and most importantly, gigantic hands and the chiseled looks of He-Man Cena.

The other great moments happened during the Weekend Update with Kate McKinnon as Angela Merkel and Strong as her recurring  Cathy Anne character, and the recurring Dyke & Fats sketch with McKinnon and Aidy Bryant. I’m not a huge fan of recurring sketches – often they lean hard on catch phrases, but what’s great about the aforementioned sketches is the strong writing and the committed performances. McKinnon as Merkel is great because it has shades of her Clinton – a frustrated, brilliant woman in a man’s world (though Merkel’s vulnerable while Clinton’s a shark – at least according to McKinnon’s performances). McKinnon’s Merkel is still pining for President Obama and is lamenting the lost opportunities of working with Clinton (she imagines the two having slumber parties – can you imagine?) As Kathy Anne, Strong slides up to the Update desk to decry the decline of American civility since the election, grousing about the rise of the Alt-Right. The joke, of course, is Kathy Anne’s sour look at the world, coupled with her malapropism. Strong’s physicality often has her playing beauties, so it’s great to have her play a grotesque.

The Dyke & Fats sketch is great because again, like with the gay twist in the Hook a Hunk sketch, it wouldn’t happen before. It’s great for the fictitious Chicago cops to embrace labels that would’ve normally been slurs – and Cena’s chief avoids insulting them, before condescending to them by offering the backhanded compliment that they’re great cops “for women” which sends both Dyke and Fats on a righteous tirade. It looks like a lot went into these sketches, production wise, so it’s a bit strange, that they’re so brief – I’d like to see these sketches extended.

The rest of the show was a solid C+ effort. Cena was the brightest spot in all of the sketches that exploited his looks and physical presence. The Science Fair sketch was alright – we get it, colleges reward athletes at the expense of academic integrity, with Cena’s college athlete putting together a dismal science project (tacking bananas onto a board), while the other students offer real projects, only to be shot down by the panel.

Another judging sketch – an America’s Got Talent-like sketch – has Cena and Day as a pair of falconers, except they’re using an owl, instead, who just keeps vomiting in their faces. Thompson has some nice moments as the befuddled judge, but otherwise, this sketch is a bit of a did.

There was also a couple ho-hum sketches in which Cena was merely a prop – an office Christmas party sketch and a romance bookstore sketch. Both benefited immensely from Aidy Bryant’s committed character work – in the former, she’s hanging on the ledge of her building by the tips of her fingers, while gripping the office Christmas tree. Instead of being concerned for her safety, her office mates are more worried about the Christmas tree. In the romance bookstore sketch, Bryant’s bookstore clerk scurries to a bookstack, where she meets up with her Fabio-like bodice-ripper romance hero, Cena, done up with a long, flowing wig and a puffy white dress shirt. Both sketches are nothing sketches – not bad, exactly, but very funny, though they prove that even in mediocre muck, Bryant is a find.

As far as pre-taped segments go, the aforementioned Dyke & Fats ruled, but there was a solid, if unspectacular, Karate Kid parody that went on for too long, and hammered the joke (Cena’s bully blasted Day’s Karate Kid through a succession of walls so hard, that Day flew out of his pants) relentlessly which diluted the impact of the joke. Still, Thompson was on hand to provide some nice, underplayed comic relief.

Random thoughts:

  • It’s funny that the show parodied America’s Got Talent – cast member Melissa Villaseñor was a contestant on the show. BTW, she was chosen because of her mimicking skills, and she’s not being used very well.
  • Even though McKinnon slayed as usual, Strong and Thompson were right up there, proving their mettle,too.
  • In the game show sketch, Thompson as Charles Barkley, showed that he is filling in nicely for Bill Hader’s former job of hosting fake game shows.
  • Next week, Casey Affleck, out doing the awards circuit right now for his new film Manchester by the Sea will be hosting. Brother Ben is an SNL vet, so we’ll see if humor runs in the family.
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