JK Simmons seems like a pretty inspired choice to host “Saturday Night Live,” with his acting versatility baked into his lengthy track record in both the most serious of dramas and silliest of comedies. He”s been in seemingly everything, but his recent award-winning turn in “Whiplash” is getting him the kind of attention not often bestowed upon him. Look for at least one sketch tonight parodying that film, and at least one or two others that reference one of his many, many, many roles.
I”m primarily curious tonight about the show”s focus. After a bad episode with Blake Shelton, and the fortieth anniversary show right around the corner, how much attention can really be on this episode? The worst case scenario is that there are a lot of half-formed ideas that don”t really reach fruition. But the upside could be that this could be a weird, loose, completely bizarre episode that emerges from the chaos.
Which one will we get? That”s why we liveblog each episode: To find out. Come back starting at 11:30 pm EST and comment along in real-time as I grade each segment in succession.
Super Bowl Shut Down: Richard Sherman and Marshawn Lynch have a talk show. It”s a little like “The Barry Gibb Show,” in terms of a primary host prone to angry outbursts and another reticent to say anything. Pete Carroll arrives, but isn”t angry enough for Sherman”s tastes. At least he gets Lynch to laugh a little, which is more than this sketch did for me. The whole part with “The 12th Man” band felt completely off, like there was supposed to be about 90 seconds more of material that got oddly skipped. Pharaoh and Thompson were fine as hosts, but there wasn”t much here beyond “two guys we kind of know from the media doing what we”ve seen on SportsCenter”. The best part? Sherman going off about the New York non-blizzard, which probably should have been the topic of the cold open instead of this. [Grade: C+]
Monologue: “I”m really nice in real life,” Simmons insists, although his treatment of the cast during this attempted song belies that fact. “This is not your weird little videos: This is the opening of the show!” bellows Simmons to Mooney. He also notes that “all hair is ridiculous,” which means the bald man writing this recap now will follow Simmons loyally from now on. Bryant notes that she misses Blake Shelton, which makes…one person that does. Eventually, Leslie Jones tells Simmons to “pump his brakes,” because she can get away with that. Fred Armisen eventually appears to play the drums, because of course he does. The “Whiplash” gag was going to appear at some point tonight, so this got that out of the way. This was the laziest way to do it, but there you have it. [Grade: C+]
Totinos Super Bowl Activity Pack For Women: “Anything for my hungry guys!” This is a simple but effective satire that deconstructs commercials in which women exist merely to serve men food and then get the hell out of the way. At first, I thought we were getting a retread of “Boy Dance Party,” but I liked the focus on Vanessa Bayer, her quiet desperation, and the sad eyes behind her wide smile. Bayer”s had very little to do this season, and this was a great example of why the show needs to use her more often. [Grade: A-]
Miss Trash 2015: So this is what they went with for the post-monologue sketch? Fascinating. This absolutely can”t be the best segment left in the tank. It”s a mean-spirited, unfunny train wreck that doesn”t have a beginning, middle, or end. I spent the majority of the sketch looking at it much in the way that Bayer”s confused contestant did. Two more sketches like this, and even I will start missing Blake Shelton along with Aidy Bryant. [Grade: D]
Cinema Classics: This iteration of the sketch features an alternative ending to “Casablanca.” Kate McKinnon”s Bergman is giggle-inducing from moment one, especially once she realizes that a concentration camp is potentially in her future. The chemistry between Simmons and McKinnon is great, and the new dialogue is fantastic. (“I”ll wave at you through one of the little windows. It”ll be our thing!”) This is a topsy-turvy ep: What works really works, and what doesn”t crashes to the ground with thunderous force. I”m getting…whiplash. YEAH I WENT THERE. [Grade: A-]
Teachers” Snow Day: This should totally be up my alley: A musical sketch involving almost the entire cast. I thought I”d be on board immediately. Unfortunately, it takes a long time for this to get out of first gear. But once a pantsless Simmons arrives on the scene, the pre-taped segment finally takes off, both in terms of musical heft and visual scope. On a purely technical level, it never ceases to amaze me how the show can pull this kind of stuff off in just a few days. Just look at “Lazy Sunday,” which is brilliant but also (intentionally) looks like it was made for $12, and compare it to something like this from a production perspective. “SNL” recognizes that fiscally investing in this type of sketch is just as important as anything staged live, and in doing so has helped create a new type of comedic visual vocabulary in the process. This wasn't the apex of this type of comedy, but still represents the type of growth that's often hard to see without taking a step back. [Grade: B]
Weekend Update: The One-Dimensional Female Character From A Male Driven Comedy (Cecily Strong) is back, this time to talk about the Super Bowl. As with last time, she doesn”t really talk about the ostensible topic but instead works her way through a fake movie plot. Remember how Strong and Jost didn”t have chemistry as co-anchors? They still don”t have chemistry behind the “Update” desk, even with her in-character as a guest. Later on, Jebediah Atkinson (Taran Killam) makes his return to discuss the Grammys. Atkinson”s shtick is honed to a fine point by now, with the audience antagonism pitch perfect. (He loves to egg them on, and they love to pretend to be offended.) Michael Che didn”t have a strong start to “Update,” but his segment about Black History Month stamps was top-notch. And while Jost wasn”t good with Strong, he absolutely nailed the delivery on jokes about Joe Biden”s campaign organization “DTF” and the first Latina Disney Princess. Aside from the first interview segment, that was a really strong “Update”. [Grade: B+]
Letter To Phil: Bobby Moynihan is “Pushie,” the Microsoft Word visual assistant, who keeps interrupting a letter that Simmons” confused user is trying to write. (“You selected ‘JUST BOXES”!”) Things go from silly to sour as the option to “Murder Pushie” is discovered, and Pushie uses iTunes and pictures of his daughter to solicit sympathy from Simmons. This was a C-level sketch that got an A-level performance from Moynihan. He took a rote piece of writing and elevated it to something special. [Grade: B]
The Jay-Z Story: Mike O”Brien sighting! He”s playing Jay-Z, because WHY NOT damnit. O”Brien plays Shawn Carter as someone perpetually pleased anyone likes him. (“This is insane! I can”t believe I”m great at rap!”) Jason Sudeikis makes a surprise appearance as Kanye West, which I believe makes this his first time on “SNL” since leaving. By the time Simmons appears as Nas, the segment has gone on a bit too long, but it”s still cool to get O”Brien”s face as well as sensibilities onscreen. I think his best work comes from marrying the cerebral and the emotional, and this only had half of that equation. Still, O'Brien is a singular talent, and getting half of him is still getting more than all of lesser comedians. [Grade: B]
Career Day: Simmons tells his son”s classroom that his profession is “Japanese messy boy.” Initially disgusted, everyone in the room eventually gets transfixed by his story. The total lack of shame on Simmons” part here makes the sketch work as well as it does, although less time on his story and more time on the fascinated follow-ups might have made this work even better. [Grade: B-]
Best Sketch: Cinema Classics
Worst Sketch: Miss Trash 2015
How Was D”Angelo? He looked like Rango in the first performance, and Dystopian Prince in the second, but damnit his new album is faaaantastic. So he can dress any way he wants. It”s soul music with a bite, with a clear message added to the grooves. The second performance in particular was outstanding. “All we wanted was a chance to talk/ 'Stead we only got outlined in chalk” he sang in “The Charade,” with the chalk outline behind him on the floor and band members wearing “I Can”t Breathe” t-shirts. A powerful performance of a powerful song.