Just two weeks away from Saturday Night Live’s 40th Anniversary special, bringing in an Academy Award nominee like J.K. Simmons was a good move. But unfortunately, SNL didn’t quite live up to the potential of his sizeable talent. Though Simmons grounded each of his sketches with solid character acting, many of the night’s live sketches faded before hitting their mark.
The cold open “Super Bowl Shut Down” scored a hit against Mayor DeBlasio’s overblown snowstorm panic, before Jay Pharaoh’s Richard Sherman and Kenan Thompson’s terse Marshawn Lynch made the expected turn toward the Deflategate controversy and Super Bowl hype. Thompson generated quiet laughs for this sketch, offering deadpan lines to balance Pharaoh’s energetic Sherman.
Simmons’s introductory monologue morphed his genuine jovial nature into the hard-driving terror of his fearsome Whiplash maestro. His withering criticism of drumming by Kyle Mooney and then Pete Davidson led to a hilarious interaction with Leslie Jones. Every moment of Jones on the show was great last night; seeing her tower over Simmons yelling, “You need to pump your brakes, dude!” was pure joy. The monologue concluded with a cameo from former cast member and actual drummer Fred Armisen because …why not?
The highlight of the show was “Casablanca’s alternate ending”: Both Kate McKinnon and Simmons nail the feel of the classic film, but McKinnon throws romance to the wind and jumps at the chance to get on that plane. Simmons drives the scene forward, doing his lines with all the gravitas of Bogart, allowing McKinnon to become an Ingrid Bergman eager to get out of her man’s arms: “Is the plane full of fuel? Do you need help? Is there a hose I can use or something?” The pacing was a tad slow, but the sketch offered strong writing, a good premise, and great performances from the guest and one of SNL’s best players.
“Teacher Snow Day” continues SNL’s rap parody video streak. As usual, it’s a one-note joke, but watching a school full of teachers light up, snort lines and cook meth while the kids are away is pretty hilarious. Simmons rolls in as Principal Heffernen: “The dress code is out! I’m not wearing pants!” (He wasn’t.) The chorus may become the mantra of overworked teachers everywhere: “Teach the children / Teach them well / But when it snows outside / They can go to hell.” This one will get a lot of airtime in teacher’s lounges this week.
Musical guests this season have been all over the genre map, with this week as no exception. D’Angelo (with The Vanguard) laid down smooth soul grooves from his acclaimed album Black Messiah, leading with “Really Love,” a ballad rich with flamenco beats and poncho fashion for the first song. But it’s socially relevant “The Charade” that will get the critics’ attention, with D’Angelo performing in a hoodie and his band wearing “Black Lives Matter” and “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirts atop a chalk outline on the stage floor.
Weekend Update reinforced everyone’s realization that Michael Che is ready to take over the desk and rescue all of us from the failed Colin Jost experiment. His extended “Black History Month stamps” routine nails it with suggestions for “other black heroes” who should grace US stamps. We all know Jackie Robinson, but what about Johnnie Keyes, the first black man in interracial porno? “Could you imagine what Johnnie Keyes had to go through in those days? Jackie Robinson got death threats, but he was just playing baseball with the white people.”
Che and Jost also rolled in two of their best current Weekend Update guests. Cecily Strong’s One-Dimensional Female Character, a good opportunity to land some jokes at the expense of bad film/TV writing, and Taran Killam’s Jebidiah Atkinson, who trashed Grammy nominees and any other musician who caught his ire: “Oh, and to answer your question, Bono: ‘Without you!’”
In the rest of the show, despite all the available talent, the live sketches were generally weak. “Miss Trash USA” had all the pieces needed for success: the women who reliably deliver (Bayer, McKinnon, Bryant, and Strong) delivered believably trashy regional contestants at a parody pageant, and Simmons’s slightly skanky host persona fit the vibe. But the sketch didn’t seem to have much purpose or drive. Or an ending.
“Pushie” the Microsoft Word assistant (surely inspired by Clippy (and who doesn’t hate Clippy?) gave us Simmons and Aidy Bryant in Midwestern accents, Bobby Moynihan in a ridiculous push-pin costume, and the hope of murdering annoying Microsoft features. How could this fail? Maybe by trying to build an entire joke around something from 1999? (Though, to be fair, the joke about a font named Helvetica Bonham Carter was a great touch.)
Saturday Night Live takes off a week to prepare for its three-hour, 40th Anniversary special on February 15. The show will most certainly be the most watched episode of the season. Here’s hoping the SNL writing staff is up to the task of both celebrating the show’s illustrious past and delivering fresh new laughs for the future.
SNL NEXT: 40th Anniversary Special, February 15
Chris White writes and directs independent feature films. His latest, a showbiz comedy about looking for Bill Murray, is called
. Follow Chris on Twitter.