Saturday Night Live Review: "Scarlett Johansson/Wiz Khalifa"

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<i>Saturday Night Live</i> Review: "Scarlett Johansson/Wiz Khalifa"

A recent late night comedy kerfuffle, brought on by Conan writer Andres du Bouchet’s exasperated string of mean tweets knocking the Jimmys’ brand of so-called “prom king comedy” (lip-sync contests and pranks with celebrities), has served as a useful wake-up call to comedy writers of all stripes. du Bouchet makes a fair point: what passes as funny these days is often as tread-worn, tired, and banal as CBS David Letterman…only thirty years younger.

Nowhere is this tension between staid and daring more apparent than with 40-year-old Saturday Night Live. And with fourth-time host Scarlett Johansson as guest host, we get an episode that serves as case-in-point. SNL is not at all sure which brand of comedy it wants to traffic in.

One news story has dominated the week: racial strife in Baltimore in the wake of the death of Freddie Gray. Aware of this, SNL dutifully took three shots at it. Two attempts failed, one connected. Michael Che and Colin Jost’s Weekend Update jokes were pointed, if not clever (for clever, see Cecily Strong’s White House Correspondent’s Dinner speech). The sketch “Orioles” was worse—less pointed, less clever. The dumb fumblings of a baseball broadcast team? That’s the best Baltimore satire SNL has for us? Sadly, it is only the pre-taped “Blazer,” a 80s cop-show send-up, that delivers any true bark or bite in regards to the Baltimore headlines. Taran Killam plays a tough, city cop who only beats up the black bad guys. Buried late in the show, “Blazer” pulls no (metaphorical) punches. It is hard-hitting, satirical, cleverly conceived, and very funny…despite the heavy subject matter.

So if both creative possibilities exist at Saturday Night Live, the safe and the risky, what’s the benefit of ever choosing the banal? If Weekend Update is so brazen with Kate McKinnon’s outlandish Ruth Bader Ginsberg, why does it tiptoe around Bruce Jenner? Of course we all know that Jenner’s transgender story is serious stuff…that it requires a sense of human compassion and understanding from us all. But this is SNL. What’s funny about the Jenner story isn’t that we aren’t allowed to make jokes about it, it’s that we must. It’s part of how we cope as humans, living in a world of surprises.

Scarlett Johansson does a serviceable if forgettable job as guest host, but this episode is most notable for Taran Killam and Aidy Bryant’s star turns. Both cast members were in more sketches than usual (Vanessa Bayer, too), and both were outstanding.

Killam’s sex-crazed, Atlanta talk show host Cory (“Right Side of the Bed”) is one of his funniest recurring characters, but his work in the aforementioned “Blazer,” “Black Widow Trailer” (as Thor), and the strange and wonderful “Dino Bones,” added up to what may be his strongest SNL episode ever. Early in his SNL career, Killam seemed kind of pointless to have around, a kind of whiter Jason Sudekis. This season, he really has started to emerge as a valuable asset.

Aidy Bryant is always great, but SNL hasn’t always known what to do with her. Her Manny Pacquiao (“Mayweather-Pacquiao Cold Open”) was inspired casting, and Bryant didn’t disappoint. Her ever-awkward Morgan in “Girlfriends Talk Show” is one of the most fascinating (and true) female characters we’ve ever seen on Saturday Night Live—the girl we all know will be great if she can just get through adolescence and suburban high school. And her Fayanne the Earth-mother musician in 10-to-1 “Jingle Writers” was another home run.

Worth mentioning is that more appearances by Aidy, Taran and Vanessa meant fewer opportunities for Kenan Thompson to play his same character ad nauseam…a good thing. But it also meant almost no Kyle Mooney…a very bad thing. The Beck Bennett-Kyle Mooney pre-tape has been one of the most consistently funny things about SNL40. One hopes that with the emergence of Bryant and Killam, we don’t lose our Beck and Kyle.

(What a great night for wigs! Johansson, Strong, and Killam’s dorky wigs in “Right Side of the Bed” and “Dino Bones”...Johansson and Bryant’s amazing wigs in “Jingle Writers”...Saturday Night Live is the best-made live television show in the world right now. The artisans that work behind the scenes deserve mention and acclaim.)

Wiz Khalifa gave two strong performances as musical guest, his SNL debut. The first with Charlie Puth, “See You Again,” an anthemic tribute to actor Paul Walker from Furious 7, and then “We Dem Boyz.” Khalifa has a talent for investing his music with a kind of non-ironic joy, which is refreshing to see…though it may just be the cannabis, for which he is famously known. Still, he really delivered the goods, bringing a great energy to the episode.

SNL40 only has two more episodes left, and though early season fumbles and missteps have been mostly polished (or glossed over), there remains that nagging middle age identity crisis that frequently dogs the show when there isn’t a break-out cast member to distract us. Which cast members stay, which ones go (I’m betting on departures from Kate, Kenan and Vanessa), how Weekend Update is retooled for Season 41 (my hope is a Michael Che, Leslie Jones tandem), and what new faces appear next Fall will say a lot.

Here’s to more creative insurgency with the ranks.

SNL NEXT: (5/9/15): Reese Witherspoon with Florence + The Machine

Chris White writes and directs independent feature films. His latest, a showbiz comedy about looking for Bill Murray, is called Cinema Purgatorio . Follow Chris on Twitter.

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