SNL Recap: Christoph Waltz and Alabama Shakes

How do you top Bieber? With an Oscar winner and a Grammy nominated band. Granted, Saturday Night Live hasn’t been classically funny this year but it only takes a few sketches to turn the ship around. SNL has yet to string a complete hour and a half together this year, sort of like the Lakers. The pre-produced pieces have been unique but uncommon and sketches seem to get funnier after Weekend Update. Placement is everything on SNL. Swarovski Crystals, anyone? 

Christoph Waltz won an Academy Award for “Inglorious Basterds” and is nominated again for this year’s “Django Unchained.” Waltz is a talented, intensely dramatic actor but every performance of his has a tinge of comedy – especially in his Tarantino films – and his ability to [mostly] mask his Austrian accent should leave the door open for a diverse array of characters. And if you can get past Brittany Howard’s “John Mayer meets Dave Matthews” singing face, you’ll really like the sound of Alabama Shakes. I have high hopes going into this week.

Every week I’ll have a live-blog sketch-by-sketch SNL recap, including grades of each sketch. Agree or disagree, this is why we have comment sections.

Cold Open – Carnival Triumph: The writers must not trust Jay Pharoah’s Obama impression because this is usually time for the trademark SNL Cold Open political sketch. Instead they went for a juicier current event and made it into a Carnival cruise hellscape. Jason Sudeikis and Cecily Strong (the more Cecily, the better) serve as the cruise ship’s entertainment directors who “haven’t showered in four days,” but still look great. Sudeikis and Strong officially designate the Karaoke Bar and a few of the ships’ restaurants as toilets and will do whatever they can to entertain the passengers. Bill Hader plays a hypnotist and the passengers desperately want him to turn them all into chickens. Pharoah does an impression of a comedian doing an impression of Chris Rock who is horrified of the “dookie on the walls.” And Bobby Moynihan arrives as “Dan the Animal Man,” carrying a monkey skeleton and blaming the people for eating his monkey – even though the ship still had food. But at least they’re on their way to Mobile, Alabama. Strong opening. (B)

Monologue: “First of all, Austrians have a wonderful sense of humor. Germans not so much.” The first German-speaking host in show history, Waltz just wants to dispel people’s opinions of Austria and points out examples of sketches that didn’t make the show like “Casual Hitler” and “Austrian Who’s on First.” He then proceeds to sing an Austrian song that is taught to all Austrian children called “Smile, Damn you, Smile.” This is a concise opener that isn’t bogged down by the host’s inexperience speaking on stage or reading cue cards – See: Adam Levine or Justin Bieber. Waltz has fine timing and actually seems comfortable up there in front of the lights. 2 for 2 so far. (B)

What Have YOU Become?: Contestants on a game show start off telling their finest achievements to Waltz but realize that their lives have actually been pointless. Waltz is basically a prop in this sketch early on, pitching the same question to each contestant, but Kenan, Hader and Aidy Bryant’s performances hold this sketch up for the first post-Monologue sketch. Waltz finally breaks down and admits his own life hasn’t turned out the way he envisioned. He exclaims that his parents wouldn’t let him be a dancer and made him go to “Game Show school.” (B-)

Papal Securities: “What will you do after you’re Pope?” How often will SNL have an Austrian host who can play Benedict XVI without putting on a fake accent? And right when the Pope announces he’s retiring?! What timing! As there are “No other testimonials available,” we’ll just have to take Papal Securities at their word on how they are with Papal retirement. They apparently have been helping Popes prepare for their future since the last time a Pope retired – in 1415. This is what SNL does best and it’s been a while since they’ve been this consistent. (A-)

Tippy: This Nasim Pedrad character (yes she’s still on the show) feels like a character that she’s been sitting on for years. A mixture of Kristen Wiig’s “Penelope” and Pedrad’s own “Bedelia,” Tippy butts into conversations and tries to be a part of every moment of conversational laughter but always misses out. This is a 12:45 p.m. sketch at best. The only plus was that they knew when to end it. (C-)

Djesus Uncrossed: Jesus is back, bitches. He’s risen from the dead and is wielding a samurai sword. Waltz plays a literal cross-bearing Jesus who is out for Kill Bill-style revenge against the Romans. This pre-produced skit is a great avenue for the SNL cast to try out impressions. Taran Killam shows that not only can he do a solid Brad Pitt impression; he can even do Brad Pitt’s character in Inglorious Basterds. That’s called talent. This “Djesus Uncrossed” trailer even has a quote from Rolling Stone film critic Peter Travers, who says, “I never knew how much Jesus used the N-word.” (A-)

The Jamarcus Brothers: Awww yeah. Taran Killam and Cecily Strong play a sensual couple that is pitching a new bedroom soundtrack by the Jamarcus Brothers. Kenan and Jay Pharoah play jerry-curled singers in matching ruched-velvet suits. The third Jamarcus brother, Englebert Jamarcus, played by Waltz, ruins every baby-making tune with his presence. This sketch isn’t complicated. It is basically Waltz playing a weird character and Cecily Strong selling it like it’s the new Barry White album and it turns out pretty well. (B+)

Alabama Shakes – “Hold On” You’ve heard it and you probably like it. Kind of like the Black Keys without drumming McLovin and Dan Auerbach’s luscious vocals.

Weekend Update: Update starts off with pretty strong jokes. Taran Killam plays a barrenly parched Marco Rubio who [shockingly] reaches for water, AGAIN! Kate McKinnon does a fantastic Russian grandmother who saw the meteor. She tells Seth that her dream was actually to be hit by the meteor so that it would free her from the village. Then, Jay Pharoah comes on as ESPN’s “analyst” Screamin’ Stephen A. Smith. I don’t think that SNL’s main audience actually knows who Stephen A. is but Pharoah’s impression is the best Stephen A. Smith impression I’ve seen. It’s also the only Stephen A. Smith impression that I’ve ever seen. Pharoah has the intonation and delivery of Smith down and regales Seth with stories of how he is “close personal friends” with Kobe, Steve Nash, Pau, and Dwight. (“Steve Nash and I have held hands on many a hot-air balloon ride, Seth.”) Good jokes, good guests. This might just be the best SNL has been all year. (A)

Regine: Fred Armisen is in drag and insults everyone in the sketch. This is a recycled SNL character that allows Armisen to act out and basically test out a character that would be perfect for the New York version of “Portlandia.” The audience is graced with a nice Armisen upskirt visual for a solid minute. The only highlight of the sketch is everyone, including a hysterical Bill Hader, all trying to hold laughter back as Armisen writhes on top of them with his legs spread wide. (C+)

Fox and Friends: This sketch is the same every time so instead of writing about the sketch itself, I’m going to just put some of the highlights from the “corrections crawl” that never fails to impress.

  • Armadillo is not Spanish for “arms dealer.”
  • “Adele” is a singer. “A Dell” is a computer.
  • Bruno Mars is from Earth.
  • There are no Americans in the Bible.
  • Kobe beef is not meat from the flesh of Kobe Bryant.
  • A “period piece” is not a movie that only plays during one week of the month.
  • Kate Upton is not dating a glacier.
  • A transgender is not a car that can be driven by men and women.
  • The “T” in BLT does not stand for “terrorism.”
  • Mumford’s daughters are not in foster care.

(B- for the sketch, A+ for the crawl)

Alabama Shakes – “Always Alright” Sort of like “Hold On,” but different. Apparently they have hipsters in Athens, Alabama too. Who knew? Brittany Howard shows that her guitar isn’t just a prop and is a decent player.

Secret Admirer: Waltz writes a love note to Cecily Strong that reads like a “crazy person’s manifesto.” Kind of cute, kind of sad and the reactions to Waltz’ questions are pretty funny. It doesn’t really matter. It’s 12:58 and anything works at this point. (B-)

Overall, this was a well-written, well performed hour and a half. It had its down moments but this was a complete show. I had my doubts about Christoph Waltz’ range and comedic prowess but the host proved that he was the correct choice and should be asked back. The writing was finally on par with the standard that SNL tries to uphold, we’ll find out if it’s the same next time.

Also, for my take on all things, be sure to follow me on Twitter, @Jonathan_Biles.

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