At first glance, Octavia Spencer as Saturday Night Live guest host makes perfect sense. Fresh off her second nomination, the Oscar-winning actress (for The Help) may be the warmest, most admired and adored actress of her generation. It’s a big-time, big-win booking for SNL.
But not every talented and adored screen actor has been successful in the high-pressure, fast-paced, live television world of NBC’s legendary Studio 8H. Many just aren’t cut out for it. So given a second look, there may have been a moment of apprehension about Spencer’s first time on SNL. We certainly don’t want to see America’s newest sweetheart fail.
That she succeeds—in spite of a couple of not-so-successful sketches—is both a testament to Spencer’s well-honed comedic instincts and the incredible company of players Executive Producer Lorne Michaels has whipped into shape over the past couple of years. The affable Spencer arrives at a fine moment in Saturday Night Live history. And she knocks it out of the park.
Which is not to say the episode is anywhere near best-of-season. Casually funny, one-joke sketches like “Drug Company Hearing”—a riff on how many drug names sound suspiciously like female African-American names (Boniva, Femara, Cymbalta, Allegra, etc.)—and “Spencers Gifts HQ”—another lazy name riff, Octavia Spencer as Spencers Gifts mogul—really do bring down the episode’s overall quality. “Wine Bar,” another mishandled attempt to critique cultural appropriation by glib white girls, goes completely off the rails…primarily because Spencer is given an absurd, almost nonsensical character (re: Tracy Morgan?) that never quite connects us to the sketch’s intended premise. Still, even in these duds, Octavia Spencer shines. She’s totally game, eager to please, happy to be here. And in this, she saves the episode from being a complete loss.
Most of the buzz for this episode will be about Kate McKinnon’s Gump Jeff Sessions and recurring Kellyanne Conway texting commercial bumpers. Or about Melissa Villaseñor’s coming out party in “Zoo-Opalis Voice Actors,” where she delivers the most incredible Kristen Wiig imitation you’ve ever heard. But it is weirdly wonderful “The Chocolate Man” that’s the sketch we should be buzzing about. Beck Bennett plays a man, just fired from his job for bringing a gun to the office and attacking his coworkers, who returns the very next day as a bizarre, picture book candyman determined to make amends. Bennett came to SNL from the alt-comedy, YouTube team known as Good Neighbor (which included fellow cast member Kyle Mooney and SNL writer-director Dave McCary). His instincts have always been offbeat and non-traditional. With the departure of Taran Killam, he’s become the show’s most obvious go-to for its traditional, bland white guy. But Bennett has resisted this type-casting—especially this season—playing shirtless Vladimir Putin to wide acclaim and starring in off-kilter roles like the Chocolate Man. The sketch may be the episode’s darkest, most disturbing effort, but it’s also its best.
The episode’s political content was sharp and funny, even without Melissa McCarthy’s Sean Spicer or Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump. Weekend Update’s jokes were on fire again, and Kate McKinnon’s Jeff Sessions performance (in a not-so-great, Forrest Gump-inspired cold open) was pure genius. If not for the existence of Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse, pre-tape “Republican Movie Trailer” might have had a bit more bite, but no worries—it is Alec Moffat and Mikey Day’s Eric and Donald Trump Jr. appearance on Weekend Update that delivers the loudest political laughs on the night. Moffat and Day are working on something far funnier than political parody here. This is comedy character-craft at its best: two contrasting characters that are completely at odds if not for their shared (dubious) objectives.
“Youngblood,” a pre-tape short film pitting seemingly wise chess-master Kenan Thompson against street smart Pete Davidson in a generational street fight, is fantastic—a perfect example of a new comedic tone that has emerged this season on Saturday Night Live. There is a wistfulness to “Youngblood,” a sense that the laughs are coming from a different place. There is artfulness to the piece and a commitment to its cinematic ambitions that we’ve not seen on this show since the days of Tom Schiller. The piece is a complete work, a stand-alone that doesn’t need the context of SNL to make sense to its audience. What an exciting development for the show, and a true sign of growth.
Father John Misty’s (née Joshua Tillman) performances of “Pure Comedy” and “Total Entertainment Forever” were outstanding. Father John’s music and lyrical content is reminiscent of Bob Dylan…or maybe a less pushy Elvis Costello. Both songs he performs are brand new—from the record Pure Comedy, which releases April 7—earnest, full of questions, yearning. Overall, the performance comes across as deeper (dare I say it?), more profound than most SNL musical guests. Which is not to say Father John doesn’t know how to have a good time and deliver a great 8H live performance. (He also makes a pretty good cover star on the first issue of Paste Quarterly.)
So all-in-all, a decent show, but not SNL 42’s best, and definitely made better by the joyous performance of guest host Octavia Spencer. No doubt, Spencer will return to Saturday Night Live soon and often. Hopefully, the show will find better, more consistent material for her.
NEXT WEEK: Scarlett Johansson and Lorde
Chris White writes and directs independent feature films. His latest is
an award-winning, southern gothic comedy starring Patti D’Arbanville and Michael Forest. Follow Chris on Twitter.