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Saturday Night Live Stumbles Along Despite James Franco's Charisma

Comedy Reviews Saturday Night Live
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<i>Saturday Night Live</i> Stumbles Along Despite James Franco's Charisma

It’s a good thing I was taking notes during last night’s episode of Saturday Night Live. As soon as the credits rolled I had forgotten almost everything about it.

Okay, look, I’m not trying to devolve into early 21st century blogger snark, here. I’m being honest: this episode came and went without making any impression, bouncing off my brain like it’s a trampoline. I could remember James Franco being a likable enough host, and recalled the pointless cameos during the monologue (Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill and Steve Martin stopped by), but the actual sketches, characters and jokes disappeared without any impact the moment they were broadcast. If any recurring sketches were rehashed with minimal changes, this would’ve felt like the most perfunctory and inessential episode of Saturday Night Live in ages.

At least we were spared another cold open with Alec Baldwin’s fatuous Donald Trump impression. (Baldwin’s considerable sketch talents are wasted on this show’s lifeless political comedy.) Tonight’s opening started with a solid premise—the news today is so pervasive and omnipresent that children can’t help but pick up on it, but so absurd, frightening and inappropriate that it’s hard to explain what any of it actually means to them. The kids asking a mall Santa to explain Roy Moore, Al Franken and moving the US embassy in Israel let Kenan Thompson, who remains one of the show’s perennial MVPs even after a decade and a half in the cast, play one of his regular stock types of the confused and exasperated everyman, while adding in a glimpse of the real-life desperation that drove him to become a professional mall Santa. Again, it’s a solid idea, and Thompson does his best, but unfortunately the rhythm is thrown off by a few visibly nervous child actors dropping their lines, and Kate McKinnon’s no-nonsense elf doesn’t really add anything. It might be the best sketch of the entire show, though, and when’s the last time anybody could say that about the cold open?

Franco was his predictably charismatic self throughout, although he struggled to keep a straight face in a few different sketches. Other than a couple different sketches where he played himself, and a few straight-up, in-sketch plugs for his movie The Disaster Artist, he felt less like a leading man movie star and more like a member of the cast. His two biggest showcase performances saw him try to manically wrap Christmas gifts at a department store while spraying blood all over everything (it was another in a long, long line of SNL sketches where the only joke is shooting Sam Raimi-style geysers of blood in mundane settings), and a courtroom sketch where he was a lawyer who insisted the defendant was talking about lasagna and not pizza when he used the word “za.” Franco was, if anything, overly committed to both sketches, neither of which landed. The blood sketch was simply too familiar to so many other sketches in the past, relying solely on shock value for laughs, and the lawyer sketch tried to use the repetition of the words “za” and “lasagna” like a version of The Simpsons’ classic rake gag. The lasagna sketch felt like an attempt at something Will Forte would’ve done on the show (namely the infamous potato chip sketch), something absurd and fixated with language and how we use it, but without Forte’s discipline as a performer or skill as a writer.

This episode also recalled another, superior Will Forte sketch about spelling bees. (Weirdly enough, the Forte spelling bee sketch from 2005, where he reeled off several minutes worth of letters while trying to spell the word “business,” aired on NBC earlier in the night during the vintage SNL primetime slot.) Tonight’s spelling bee sketch followed the format of a spelling bee closely, except Franco’s moderator, when asked to use the word in a sentence or provide a definition, would constantly refer to the childhood abuse he received from his step-dad Kevin, and how that’s now left him unable to feel any sexual pleasure unless he’s being debased as a “little pig boy.” Franco struggled to keep a straight face as the sketch dragged on, but it still wouldn’t have worked that well even if he didn’t break. It was too repetitive and rigidly formatted, with each contestant asking for an example of the word in a sentence and then a definition, with Franco repeating the same basic joke twice for every contestant. Other than the reveal of “little pig boy” as the last word, the rigid pattern of this sketch was predictable after the very first contestant. There wasn’t enough of a surprise here once the format was defined.

Some of the night’s best character work came in the night’s worst sketch, a misguided piece on the current sexual harassment and abuse discussion that portrays victims as hypocrites. James Franco and Kenan Thompson played two employees being fired from a generic office for sexual harassment. They both tried to apologize to the women they harassed before leaving, with Franco playing a handsome CFO who seemed to sincerely apologize for incidents that sound unintentional, and Thompson playing an old security guard whose apologies were overtly sexual in nature. The women (played by Cecily Strong, Aidy Bryant, Melissa Villaseñor and Leslie Jones) were angry and disgusted by everything Franco said, but flattered by all of Thompson’s far more lascivious comments. Thompson is hilarious in the role, which is like a mash-up of his “What Up with That” host Diondre Cole and his elderly sex enthusiast Grady Wilson, but the sketch itself is so fundamentally miscalculated that it’s hard to laugh at this performance. The victims are basically the butt of the joke here—they’re shown as overreacting to Franco’s questionable actions, and completely forgiving Thompson’s undeniable harassment because he’s a nice old man. It’s impossible to see what’s supposed to be funny about this, outside of Thompson’s performance.

Outside of the cold open, the closest thing to a highlight came from two pretaped segments. A video that starred Beck Bennett as a Victorian-era Scrooge stand-in who was Kyle Mooney’s modern day roommate had a few good lines but lacked the absurd inspiration and sharp point-of-view of most Bennett and Mooney videos. A clip called Christmas Charity saw Strong as a high-strung business executive trying to embrace the Christmas spirit by helping a homeless man played by Franco get cleaned up and back on his feet. The punchline was unexpected—he’s actually just James Franco, who grew a beard for a role, and just thought Strong was being nice to him because he was famous. The meta sting wasn’t strong or funny enough after minutes of build-up, and was lessened by a later sketch where Franco played himself again. (That sketch, the last one of the night, saw new cast member Heidi Gardner play Franco’s dirtbag cousin, “Pretty Mandy.” Gardner’s commitment to the character was admirable, but it dragged on too long and was extremely light on good jokes. Dave Franco also appeared, for the fourth cameo of the night.)

Weekend Update was about as tolerable as it gets these days. The jokes about Trump and the sexual abuse scandals in Congress felt soft and perfunctory. Strong returned as her white trash parody Cathy Anne, which still tries to get by on manic energy more than actual jokes. Michael Che starred in a pretaped segment that recalled Eddie Murphy’s classic “White Like Me” sketch, but where the focus was making fun of stereotypical “white liberal women,” who Che said made up most of his online critics. Like most of the show’s videos, it was well-shot and edited, and Che gave perhaps his best performance on the show ever. Seeing a man in women’s clothing hasn’t been inherently funny in decades, though, and although the central joke of nobody seeing through Che’s disguise even though he made no effort to hide his skin color was a good sight gag, the piece never really developed past the surface level. It was basically just “LOL white women” with Che in a wig. It’s another example of SNL seemingly trying to say something about society without ever actually getting to a cogent point—the women Che was hoping to confront are largely portrayed as unsympathetic stereotypes, but then Che does experience manspreading and mansplaining firsthand, and feels disrespected enough by some MRA-style asshole to call him out on his “toxic masculinity.” It acknowledges many of the issues women complain about are valid and problematic, but then also still wants to make fun of women who complain about things. The sketch wants us to think it’s saying something of substance, despite not really saying anything.

Maybe that refusal to take an actual stand is why it was so easy to immediately forget this episode?


Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games and comedy sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.

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