If primetime TV were high school, Kerry Washington would be the homecoming queen-slash-valedictorian. The Scandal actress is the mega-popular star of a hit show, so having her host SNL seems like a no-brainer. It just so happens that her guest stint was scheduled just as the controversy over SNL's absence of black women was reaching a fever pitch.
Two weeks ago, Kenan Thompson announced that he would no longer be the go-to guy for cross-dressing impersonations. (He's played Whoopi Goldberg, Maya Angelou and Jennifer Hudson, among others.) Jay Pharaoh has been a vocal advocate of hiring a black female castmember for months now, but he doesn't have quite as much pull as Kenan, a 10-year SNL vet and undisputed audience favorite.
The show was forced to address the controversy head-on, which was awkward for everybody. Still, Kerry Washington managed to make a fierce argument for the inclusion of black women on SNL simply by being so damn good in every sketch. If her secret agenda was to show SNL viewers what they're missing, well. . . Olivia Pope, you've done it once again.
Michelle Obama at the White House – This cold open should have been called "Lorne Michaels Addresses the Elephant in the Room," and it was a tricky place for the episode to start. For one thing, opening the Kerry Washington episode in the White House set us up for a Scandal parody, and the realization that she was playing Michelle Obama was a bit of a let-down. (Also: her Michelle impression was her weakest character of the night, which makes me wonder if this cold open was a last-minute decision.) Playing the White House Press Secretary, Taran Killam tells President Obama (Jay Pharaoh) that Michelle has come to see him, followed by Oprah. Unfortunately, since Jay is the star of the sketch and Kenan will no longer play women, Washington must leave the set to do a quick-change into Oprah.
While she's throwing on a new wig, NBC scrolls a producer's disclaimer apologizing to Kerry Washington "for the number of black women she will be asked to play" and acknowledging that "this is not an ideal situation." Which I guess was supposed to give me permission to laugh? In point of fact, it just made me feel bad that Washington was forced to trot out an Oprah impression (albeit a pretty good one). A more effective gag was the arrival of "six different Matthew McConaugheys," played by the white guys who make up the majority of the cast (minus Killam and Seth Meyers). Finally, Al Sharpton – the actual Al Sharpton, not the Kenan Thompson one – came onstage to put the sketch out of its misery, asking, "What have we learned from this sketch? As usual, nothing." Actually, Al, we learned that SNL needs a black female cast member even more than we thought. Thankfully, once the cold open was out of the way, things got a whole lot better.
Career Week Speaker – Here's another sketch that teaches us something: "The three steps to achieving success are one, self-confidence; two, having a computer; and three, power." That lesson comes courtesy of Heshi, a cut-rate motivational speaker from Yemen whose mark of success is driving a Honda Prelude. Nasim Pedrad gives us another solid new character this week, punctuating her sentences with pelvic thrusts and shareware sound effects. But it's Washington who walks away with this sketch, as Heshi's attitude-throwing assistant Tammy. When Heshi learns that the students haven't filled her "question bucket," she asks Tammy to check again. "I looked, Heshi!" Washington says with a snap of her gum. "Respect my ability to assess a bucket!" Even the sight of fashion icon Washington in double-leopard print is funny.
What Does My Girl Say? – Overheard in the SNL writer's room: "You know what will definitely go viral? Something that's already gone viral!" It would have been funnier a few weeks ago, but this play on Ylvis' "What Does the Fox Say?" is still the episode's must-see sketch. As a man (Pharoah) hosts a family gathering, his girlfriend (Washington) picks up his phone and sees that another woman has been texting him. The song becomes the ensuing argument: "What does my girl say?" "Yanh yahn yahn yahn yahn yahn!" "What does my girl say?" "Who dat, who dat, who dat bitch?" The song ends with a satisfying twist, and Kerry and Jay's mutual singing abilities are a nice surprise. Who knew that the line "his cloud is full of butts" could soar so gracefully?
As for Pharaoh, the role of the sensitive music-video guy, as frequently played by Andy Samberg, really suits him. Maybe he's the one who should be steering SNL's musical parodies now that the Lonely Island is gone. At the very least, it's rewarding to see him play a normal dude instead of doing another over-the-top impression.
How's He Doing? – This chat show assessing President Obama's popularity with black voters is a repeat from 2012, when Kenan Thompson (as the host) and Jay Pharaoh (as a writer for Ebony) did it with guest Maya Rudolph. I liked it even better this time around, with Washington joining the panel as a political science professor. The joke of the sketch is that Obama really can't lose among black constituents. For example, Thompson asks his guests, "What about the complaint that Obamacare is causing people to lose the insurance they already have?" Sighs Pharaoh, "White people love their insurance. Can you imagine having insurance so good that you'd be upset to lose it?" Adds Washington, "It's like how white people actually like their mailman. How good is the mail they must be getting?" There's a terrific rapport between these three, and after that botched barbershop skit a few weeks ago, it's a relief to see Thompson and Pharaoh co-headlining a sketch that lands.
Ice Cream – Your nightly "Whaaaa?" comes courtesy, once again, of Kyle Mooney, the reliable weirdo of SNL's short films. This time, he's working at an ice cream parlor when a hungry customer (Beck Bennett) jokes that he may need to be carried out in an ambulance. We see Mooney embark on a frantic, soul-purging search to figure out what, exactly, the customer could mean. Somehow it ends with him and Taran Killam choking to death on ice cream cones. It's not SNL's funniest short film the season, but it is the weirdest, and that absolutely counts for something. Could they possibly pull Kyle Mooney out of that digital video screen and give him a few more sketches? It's like Lorne Michaels is afraid of his offbeat humor affecting his product, when in fact, it could only make it better.
Despite Kenan Thompson making fun of TV recappers ("That would be like someone telling me about my day!"), there was still a lot for this recapper to like tonight. Washington – who only once referenced Scandal, and never once referenced her pregnancy – showed unexpected range. Also unexpected: Jay Pharoah emerging as tonight's MVP. Pharoah is hugely talented and a precise mimic, but never seems entirely comfortable on that stage. Tonight was different; he played a half-dozen starring roles, including his recurring Principal Frye character and a cross-eyed Shaquille O'Neal, and wrung laughs from all of them. Assuming that a more diverse SNL lies in the future, tonight's show offered a nice preview. See you in two weeks for a double-duty hosting stint by the never-dull Lady Gaga.
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