Recap: ‘Saturday Night Live’ – Louis C.K. and Sam Smith

There have only been five new installments of “Saturday Night Live” this calendar year, so you”ll be forgiven if the pace of the season as a whole has seemed somewhat off. Throw in the fact that Seth Meyers left between one of the two lengthy breaks in the past three months, and you have a downright disjointed season. But starting tonight, “SNL” airs three new episodes in a row. Anna Kendrick and Seth Rogan will have their respective chances to shine in upcoming weeks, but tonight, it”s time for Louis C.K. to host for a second time. His first hosting gig back in the Fall of 2012 was a mixed bag, but did offer up some classic stuff (including the digital short “Lincoln” and the first installment of “Last Call,” a now-recurring sketch that tends to close out episodes) as well as fascinating disasters (“Mountain Call” is still cringe-worthy even now).

So we”ll have to see what tonight holds in store. As per HitFix custom, I”ll be liveblogging each segment, assigning it a grade that will undoubtedly render asunder any concept of reality for most of you. As per HitFix custom, I”ll gently remind you that comedy is subjective and that any difference between my comedic tastes and yours does not in fact impinge upon your right to find something funny that I don”t. As per HitFix custom, that gentle plea will not be read by those that see a letter grade, ignore the actual analysis, and storm straight for the comments section. It”s the lovely little dance we do each Saturday night, and it”s been far too long since I”ve worn my dancing shoes. Let”s boogie starting at 11:30 pm EST.

Affordable Care Act Viral Campaign: Inspired by the “Between Two Ferns” appearance, the White House social media team has new ideas on how to making signing up for health care seem hip. That involves taking pictures of Obama wearing Pharrell”s hat, a selfie with BatKid, and a video with a fist-bumping Pope Francis. Each time Obama wants to back out, Taran Killam”s assistant tells him a sad anecdote about someone in need of health insurance. The last photo op involves the President Of The United States kissing Justin Bieber, which means Kate McKinnon”s unbelievable impression returns. So that”s a plus. All of these things sound funny on paper, but the set-ups for each are just way too long, and even the build-up to the final kiss isn”t remotely shocking. It”s all fine, but just sort of there. [Grade: B-]

Monologue: Some hosts clearly just recite what the writers give them. And that's perfectly fine. Louis C.K., like many comedians who host, just drops his own material into this slot. Which is a good thing, since he”s kind of one of the best at stand-up in the country right now. There”s not much to review here, since this is just a five-minute slice of his fully routine. But this five-minute slice (which involves some amazing stuff about religion, atheism, and the possibility that God is divorced, amazing mostly because the material walked right up to the line of blasphemy and then giggled at it) makes me want to see both his stand-up and new episodes of “Louie” as soon as possible. So consider this a successful monologue. [Grade: A]

Black Jeopardy!: Louis C.K. plays a professor of African-American studies, confused at the lack of black history questions on the board. Instead, there are categories such as “It”s Been A Minute” and “Psssh”. Since “Celebrity Jeopardy!” was one the show”s all-time most successful recurring sketches, it”s great to see a variation that uses a familiar premise but gives it a fresh twist. It”s high-energy, celebratory, and even finds ways to make the wrong answers provided by Louis C.K.”s professor interesting. (The Michael Vick/Sarah McLachlan joke was amazing, with Kenan Thompson mispronouncing her name the icing on the cake.) It goes on slightly too long, and the product placement ads are a bit of a dud. But overall, this was a smart, nimble sketch that never settled into one type of comedic groove. That kept both those onstage and in the audience on their toes. Really great stuff here.  [Grade: A-]

Baby Boss: Honestly, I”m shocked that it”s taken this long for this sketch to come back, given how great the first iteration was. This one takes the physical comedy up about five notches from its maiden voyage, with vomit, secret handshakes, cake tossing, and a variety of other vaudevillian touches tossed in with relish and abandon. Beck Bennett is great with his character”s physicality, but also in how he slips in mannerisms that only a toddler (or someone after waaaay too many drinks) would employ. There”s no depth here, just really solid execution. And unlike the other two sketches thus far, it knows precisely when to end. [Grade: B+]

Jos. A. Bank: OK, I”m a sucker for this, since I”ve never figured out how the heck Jos. A. Bank can have the sales it does without going under in less than a month. So seeing them used as an affordable alternative to paper products is right up my alley. “Quantity Guaranteed” is a simple turn of phrase but also a pretty darn clever one. I”m afraid to say how much I”m enjoying this episode, because if I do, the next sketch will be the return of “The Californians”. [Grade: B]

Sam Smith takes the stage to perform “Stay With Me.” And the dude has PIPES, to the point where the gospel choir backing him up is beautiful yet almost superfluous. He looks like the lead singer of Mumford And Sons crossed with…well, any early ’80s New Wave singer. But even that can”t distract this Sam Smith newbie from the fact this is a pretty gorgeous, anthemic ballad. What I appreciate the most is that it”s clear Smith could take this about six levels higher in terms of vocal bombast, but stays within the song and gives just enough to make the emotions felt. [Grade: A-]

Weekend Update: Stephen A. Smith comes on to talk March Madness. Pharaoh”s impression is solid, but the shtick is always the same: He always hates to say bad things about his “good” friends in the sports world. (It doesn”t help that Colin Jost is still doing “Seth Meyers Lite” at this point, which hurts the banter inherent in interviews like this.) It”s an unusually short “Update,” one that barely got started before it ended, with punch lines meeting tepid laughter and an end that comes out of absolutely nowhere. Look, “Weekend Update” will get better again soon. This version just needs some time. Until then, it will be a work in progress. [Grade: C-]

Mr. Big Stuff: Louis C.K.”s character asks for directions to a bank, which prompts a musical response from four women sitting on a stoop. The women all have phenomenal voices, and Louis” responses in between the lyrics are timed well and generally funny. (“Did you rehearse this? Because this is a song!”) Halfway through, his character stops things cold and essentially drops a monologue that would fit well within Louis C.K.'s stand-up routine. Normally, I don”t like when people break character in the last few seconds of a sketch, but it”s nice seeing Louis C.K. get down with the ladies at the end. Given how stand-offish he seemingly was at times during his last hosting gig, it”s great to see him fully commit to a sketch like this. Without his precise counterpoint to the song, this would have been a trainwreck. But he helped make this an enjoyable, albeit semi-forgettable, sketch. [Grade: B]

Doctor”s Office: A routine visit to the doctor”s office turns dark when Louis C.K”s patient reveals he might have a Darth Vader action figure in his rear end. And he”s not the only one, as several other people in the office express similar concerns. In the end, none of them have any figures inside them, and a title card reading “It”s Better To Know!” flashes across the screen. As a stealth parody of those “One To Grow On” ads, I have to give this props. But as an actual piece of entertainment, I”m not sure the ending amounted to much more than a non sequitur. This is a hit-or-miss approach, and for me, this was a miss. An interesting miss, but a miss all the same.  [Grade: C]

Pajama Foreplay: This…is…so….so…so…strange. I mean, SO STRANGE. Normally, I feel fine writing these sketches up as they go along, getting a feel for them on the fly. But I sat dumbfounded at this one, waiting for it to reveal its premise. Would this turn into a musical? Were these two trying out some elaborate role-play? What as up with the randomly insulting things Louis C.K.”s police officer said to Vanessa Bayer”s character? (“I don”t like talking to you.”) The “robber” that enters the scene near the end only seems to solidify the fact that this is intentional artifice, but the sketch ends with Louis C.K. flubbing a line and then breaking character right as the camera goes to black. (As much fun as it was seeing him let loose in “Mr. Big Shot,” here it felt slightly off-putting.) Honestly, I don”t know how to grade this. Maybe later on I”ll realize some level of brilliance I can”t see right now. But as of this moment, I have to grade this as a dud. Without any context grounding this, it's a hopeless cause to figure out the purpose of this. Just don't quote me on this grade later. [Grade: C]

Dyke And Fats: Me in the first ten seconds of this segment: “Ooooh boy.” Me during the last ten seconds: “Ooooh yes!” Had this been a “Sabotage”-esque exercise in recreating ’70s police shows, this would have been fine, if a bit pointless. But having the “Created By Kate McKinnon And Aidy Bryant” onscreen at the end after the two ream Louis C.K.”s police chief for calling them “Dyke And Fats” was pretty damn brilliant. “Those are our words and only we get to say it!” the two scream at him, turning the entire segment around in a heartbeat. Neither have been pigeonholed on “SNL,” but this seemed to come from a personal place for both of them and as such gave this segment some surprising power. I wouldn't want every sketch to feature overt personal expressions, but when they are done like this, they not only add an interesting comic angle but also a way for audiences to identify with the artists onscreen.  [Grade: B+]

Sam Smith returns to sing “Lay Me Down,” this time with only a piano and cello as backup. Once again, Smith”s voice is the star here, but I”ll confess it”s a bit too slow for this time of the night. Yes, I”m old. This is on me. Ryan is sleepy. He”s happy, since this has been a great, fascinating episode of the show. (Even the failures, aside from “Update,” have had some merit.) He”s also talking about himself in the third person, which is NOT a good sign. [Grade: B]

Chris Fitzpatrick For Class President: Dear Kyle Mooney: You are funny. I bet you can do other stuff besides this. But you pretty much only do this on “SNL” at this point, which means I can only assume you”re shy and afraid to try new things. But come on, man: Just try. You”ve hit the ceiling of this type of mumblecore, low-production video shorts. Yes, it”s semi-amusing to see the “Getty Images” watermark inside footage of car chases. But it”s not funny enough when you”re leaning on your singular type of humor. Having a subgenre in which to play is great. Having only one note to play within the subgenre is not. [Grade: C-]

Three Minutes: A man begging his girlfriend take him back turns ugly fast, when pleas for forgiveness turn into pleas to…save Baby Jessica from the well, and other odd things as well. Since this sketch isn”t all that funny (save from the repeated instances of “Shhhhhut up!”), can we talk about the overuse of incidental music under the sketches tonight? I didn”t understand it during the “Pajama Foreplay” sketch, and I don”t get the faux-Explosions In The Sky underpinnings here. Using familiar music as a punch line is a staple of the show. But tonight the mix of these unremarkable melodies has been incredible loud and obtrusive at times since “Update,” often drawing attention away from the sketch itself. [Grade: C+]

Best Sketch: “Black Jeopardy”

Worst Sketch: “Weekend Update”

Biggest Theme: Risk-taking. This was one extremely weird show, and I can see a dozen people having a dozen different reactions to it. Only the cold open was really anything resembling “safe,” as writers/performers got the chance to try out some really interesting material. The fact that not all of it work isn”t really important. The last thing tonight”s episode felt was “stale,” and as such, it was overall a joy to watch even when it wasn”t fully working.

Next Week: Soooo many “Pitch Perfect” jokes. I can”t aca-wait.

What did you think about tonight”s episode? Sound off below!