Saturday Night Live, Season 40, Episode 5, “Chris Rock/Prince”
November 1, 2014, 11:30 p.m. (EST), NBC
Luke Annand: Going into SNL this week, we have the return of another modern day stand-up legend who got their start in the industry as a one season performer on SNL back in the early 90’s. But unlike Silverman whose episode was all over the place in terms of comedy and saddled with a terrible band and annoying lead singer, Chris Rock’s latest turn as SNL host was a much more consistently good outing, helped immensely by one of the still biggest and best music acts today. Let’s get this out of the way. Prince blew the roof off the house last night. Usually a music guest does two songs. Once before Weekend Update and another during the 3rd half hour. But knowing how much of a get Prince is, they gave him a full 8 minute set to go through as many songs as he and his band can from his latest album. And the man did not disappoint, even if he wasn’t there during the end credit thank you’s. And while I do wish the musical guests would get more involved with the sketches like they did on SCTV, I’m glad Prince stuck to the music, since from all accounts the man has absolutely no sense of humor to him whatsoever. For a laugh, look up Kevin Smith’s lengthy story of him being hired to work for Prince circa 2000 from his first Evening with Kevin Smith DVD.
As for the rest of the episode, like I said it was a much more consistently funny episode than we’ve had so far this season. The opening sketch of The Kelly File with Governor Chris Christie and released Ebola nurse Kaci Hickox brought us something I thought I’d never see. A Fox Newscaster being the reasonable one in the sketch. Rock’s stand-up was good, even though you could tell he was self-censoring. Even with the late time-slot, you know that Rock couldn’t get away with too much of his usual apoplectic stand-up material. But once we got into “How 2 Dance with Janelle” the show basically became a modern version of In Living Color, both with Zamata, Pharoah, Jones and Thompson being brought front and center with Rock as well as with some more incendiary, racially political material. The previously mentioned sketch was great with Zamata as a 15 year old girl oblivious both to the popularity of her YouTube channel (“Shout out to whoever started that countdown to my 18th birthday. Don’t know what that’s all about, but whatever.”) as well as the unrequited crush/lust of her co-host Teddy. And even though the one angle of the sketch accidentally blocked Pharoah, he still nailed it as the older brother explaining to Rock’s concerned dad what “fapping” is. I also enjoyed the return of “How’s He Doing?”, the PBS show that look’s at how Obama is doing as President. And even though it’s another one joke sketch (how no matter what Obama does, black voters would still vote for him), it could easily apply to Democrats, or basically all left wing voters. Even though we know Obama hasn’t been the knight in shining armor we were hoping he’d be (especially in his second term, which applies to every 2 term President), he’s still preferable to any Republican candidate.
But of course, the best two sketches were in the last half hour with ISIS on Shark Tank and the anniversary sketch. With the former, this is hands down the best sketch of the night. It was topical, it was a great bit of satire that shows just how much capitalism is flirtatiously tied in with terrorist organizations and unlike other SNL sketches that go on too long or just stop, this sketch had an actual twist ending to it that ended it on a strong, memorable note. With the latter, we finally get a sketch that I was hoping for. A sketch that wasn’t immediately funny, but just a nice slice of life moment of a couple getting ready to go out on their anniversary and the tiny little squabbles they have getting ready. And even though Jones missed her cue at one point and stood around in awkward silence for a few moments (a huge no-no on a live show), she still had great chemistry with Rock. In the few minutes together, you bought them as husband and wife. This is the “blue collar Cosby Show” that Family Matters was supposed to be before it got turned into “goddamn Quantum Leap” (sorry for the Key and Peele reference there, but I’m still obsessed with that sketch from a few weeks ago).
So what did you think of Rock’s return to SNL? Was he better than Silverman or was it a case of the whole cast stepping up and Rock being there for the ride?
Jordan Ferguson: Before I get into the meat of your question, I need to pause, as you did, to talk about Prince for a minute. The musical guests on Saturday Night Live are almost always a slog. Even when the performer is someone I like, SNL is rarely a great showcase for their talents, and often, I would rather just get back to the sketches. When I am not writing about the show, I will often fast-forward through the musical guest, because there is usually little on offer here. But Prince was flat-out phenomenal. His set was absolutely incendiary, the sort of legendary performance that will stick out in my head as a gold-standard moment for what a musical guest can do. To say that Prince was my favorite part of the episode is not a slight against the rest of the show (though I’ll get to some of those); he was just that good, a rare gem from an area of the show that almost never captures my attention. He rocked it, and while that shouldn’t be surprising, it still bowled me over.
On the praise train, I’ll also point out that Chris Rock was allowed to just be Chris Rock in the monologue. Sure, he was censored, but he also wasn’t forced to shoehorn a song into his monologue, and I think I am well-established as finding the “and, I guess, here’s a song” portion of most monologues tiresome. Chris Rock is not a natural sketch comedian, not by a long stretch. The problem Rock has run into again and again throughout his career is his limited abilities as an actor. Chris Rock is at his best and funniest when he is Chris Rock, which is why he is one of the greatest stand up comedians of all time but doesn’t have an indelible or iconic role to his name. It is also why I think Top Five, the movie he hosted to shill for, might be the best Chris Rock joint yet: he seems, finally, to be playing himself in a way that will let him just be funny rather than striving to fit into a box where he has never seemed comfortable.
This leads me into a point I think I’ve referenced before but that is becoming more apparent by the week: this is a cast of SNL that is full of line-flubbers. I really enjoy this group, but at least once or twice a week, people are missing lines, stepping on cues, or freezing up. Sometimes, they save it (like Michael Che, who mangled a joke only to throw out a “Prince, ladies and gentlemen!” that made me forgive him and then some), but often, its just a mistake lying in the middle of the sketch. Rock messed up a few times, but I am always sympathetic when a host does this, even if they are an alumnus of the show: this isn’t their job, and hasn’t been for a while. But this cast has a growing problem with the line flub. I am not sure how to fix it, but it is increasingly problematic.
I was less taken with the episode as a whole than you, Luke (which may be a trend at this point). I thought the monologue was fantastic and Prince had an all-time great sketch, but the rest of the evening didn’t stand out to me. The ISIS sketch was “bold,” but it wasn’t all that funny, and though I appreciated it having an ending, it was one that didn’t land, so much as it felt like the show backing off on its premise at the wrong moment. In another non-surprise, I liked the Bennett/Mooney bank robbery sketch a lot, because though it was one-joke, it kept finding weird new angles on that joke and didn’t overstay its welcome. Before turning things back over to you, I have to give props to Kate McKinnon, who just keeps making material work when it shouldn’t through sheer force of personality. McKinnon always has a take on the characters she plays, which is a hard and rare thing to pull off in the by-default underwritten world of sketch comedy characters, who do not have a backstory beyond what is needed to make a joke land. Her performances always feel live in, and even when you can tell she is selling under-written material as hard as she can (like her Kaci Hickox), she makes it work.
Who do you think was the best asset to the show this week? Do you see the line-flubs as a mounting problem like I do?
Luke: I see the line flubs as a problem in that I’m concerned for the performer’s job security. We might complain about the quality of sketches or performances or whatever is going on at any given week, but that’s the nature of doing a live show. To make a sports analogy that may or may not work, SNL is the entertainment industry’s version of a triathalon. It is a grueling, daunting multi-task that as soon as it’s over, you’re given one day of rest and then it’s back to an accelerated training period that you have to re-learn what you’ve done before. And there have been numerous cast and writers that no matter how talented they are, they just can’t do it. Or at least need a bigger learning curve. And I’d hate to see someone like Leslie Jones or Michael Che get cut at the end of the season for not being able to pull their weight. The only times an SNL cast member should leave a show is when either their film or TV careers are taking off or if they personally aren’t satisfied with the work they’re doing on the show and isn’t the right fit.
As for the best asset, I’m still going to go with Chris Rock. I agree that he’s not the best sketch performer (his most memorable bit on his stint at SNL in the early 90’s was a Weekend Update rant about Peanuts that SNL loves to trot out during their retrospective clip shows), but whether it’s because he demanded it or the writers and producers decided to do it for him, the bringing to the forefront of Zamata, Pharoah, Jones and Thompson was a huge boon to a show that gets accused of a whitewashed cast. Yeah, this might be them overcompensating, but so what? If this allows for cast members that are always in the background to finally be in the spotlight, so be it.
I actually didn’t like the bank robbery sketch too much. I liked the production value of it and the fact that it was shot in widescreen, but other than that the one joke of the sketch was already over and done with after the 2nd time they repeated it. I don’t mind the “one joke” sketches (see “How’s He Doing?’), so long as it’s an interesting or good enough joke to repeat. And I just didn’t find it funny in that situation. Bennett/Mooney 11:30 sketches work when they embrace the weird and low-fi approach. This just seemed too slick and polished for their own good. Even the GoProbe commercial, which wasn’t that great, still had the advantage of one of the weirder cutaway moments of the night (the archival footage of the “Grandpa’s colonoscopy”). If I seemed really into this episode, it was only because I was highlighting the good stuff off the bat. The GoProbe and Swiftamine commercials were weak and the 90’s Women in the Workplace Diversity video while a great idea was about halfway there in terms of execution. And I agree with you on McKinnon’s depiction of Kaci Hickox. Kinda reminded me of the portrayal of Typhoid Mary in The Knick. A broad caricature that scuffs an otherwise impeccably brilliant series. I mean, she literally skips out of a court house and says “Go fuck yourselves” to the doctors who were trying to convince the judge that just because she’s asymptomatic doesn’t mean she not carrying the disease in the thickest of Irish accents.
What did you think of that last 90’s based sketch? Did that land for you or not? And what about Weekend Update? Pete Davidson had his 2nd monologue and I thought he was better there than before. His whole bit about lambskin condoms was the biggest LOL moment of the segment for me. And I like when Pharoah and Thompson come on together as a pair, although I like their basketball commentators more, particularly for Pharoah’s cross eyed Shaq impression. But he killed it again with his Katt Williams and the WTF look he gave to Suge Knight.
Jordan: You’re absolutely correct about the way Rock’s presence either directly or inadvertently brought Zamata, Pharoah, Jones and Thompson to the forefront. It was a great thing to see, even if none of the sketches were home runs. As for Katt Williams, it felt like another Jay Pharoah impression that is technically impeccable and a little hollow. Pharoah is really funny, and an insanely good impressionist, but it is rare that he combines the two. His impressions never feel lived-in to me. He captures cadence and little tics, but he never fully brings the characters to life. As for Pete Davidson, I didn’t love this bit as much as his previous ones, but it was still really funny, and he shows real mastery of his bashful, slouch-y tone. The kid definitely has force of personality, and I hope the show keeps using him as well as it has been so far.
As for cutting performers, I think its ruthless, but the nature of the business. I don’t think we’ve reached that point for anyone in this cast (Jones’ flub was the worst I’ve seen in a very long time, but she is still brand new), but come the end of the season, if some of the cast isn’t cutting it, I would understand them not being asked to return. Again, I do not think anyone should be on the cutting board yet, but if it happens, I wouldn’t necessarily be opposed to it.
Finally, I thought the ‘90s-based sketch was pretty standard stuff for the show, but elevated by Cecily Strong and Kate McKinnon. Strong’s blithe acceptance of the racism and sexism hit for me, and McKinnon’s quiet absurdity were enough to make me chuckle, though I still think it was a weak sketch saved by some strong, centered performances.
What is the biggest thing you hope to see when the show comes back in two weeks? Woody Harrelson and Kendrick Lamar sounds like a rock-solid line-up to me, but I am curious what you’re looking to see the show as a whole do at this point in the season.
Luke: I’m not as familiar with Kendrick Lamar as I should be (the only Kendrick I’m a fan of is Anna), but I have high expectations for Woody Harrelson since he’s one of those rare actors like Gene Hackman, Kevin Kline and John C. Reilly in that while drama is their bread and butter, they can still be insanely funny when they put their minds to it. I’m just hoping they don’t go too overboard with the weed jokes. As for the show as a whole, I’d like to see them do a least one truly solid episode where every sketch hits, every joke lands and everything just comes together really well. I think we were close this week (or at least closer than others), but we’re not quite there yet.
- “Michael, go sweep the driveway.” “That’s not even a real chore!”
- “Last year, I voted for Bill De Blasio because I liked his son’s afro. And it counted. Just as much as a smart person’s.”
- “Kim Kardashian has claimed more black victims than Ebola.”
- On November 15, Woody Harrelson and Kendrick Lamar.