Let's all take a moment to reconsider Death to Smoochy, because as Edward Norton proved last night, he is a damn fine comedian. In his first-ever stint hosting Saturday Night Live, the actor had flawless timing and total commitment to his characters – even the dumb ones, like a mob money-counter who talked like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man (which was basically Norton re-creating his own performance in The Score). The two-time Oscar nominee delivered some terrifically quotable one-liners: "What would I do for a Klondike bar? I'd suck anything you put in front of me. I'm serious." He even pulled off some deft physical comedy, which maybe isn't so surprising, considering his full-body performances in films like Fight Club. Norton isn't promoting anything right now, which makes me wonder if his SNL gig is an official break from the dramatic fare that made him famous. His next two films, Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel and the superhero comedy Birdman, are definitely on the lighter side. From what we saw tonight, that's a very good thing. On to the sketches!
Kathleen Sebelius Promotes the Obamacare Website – The cold opening is the week's best candidate for going viral, if only because we all need something to watch when we're hitting "reload" on Healthcare.gov. Playing Secretary of Health Kathleen Sebelius, Kate McKinnon offers tips for troubleshooting your Obamacare website experience. Tips include trying the "low res" version (a Geocities throwback site that says only "U WANT DOCTR? YES/NO"), loading the website in Swedish, watching health care-themed porn (Blue Cross Blue Balls) to pass the time, and clicking over to Kayak.com for a ticket to Canada. The rainbow-wheel gag doesn't quite work, but seeing a government official offer us all a helpful copy of Encarta Encyclopedia '95 feels disturbingly plausible. Kate McKinnon's deadpan delivery is what sells this; Kenan Thompson, bless his heart, would have cracked up about eight times.
Monologue –Edward Norton jokes that he was first asked to host in 2000, but being a method actor, he needed 13 years to prepare. I have another theory: He didn't want anyone to notice how much he looks like Dana Carvey. Alec Baldwin (who never actually leaves 30 Rock) comes out of the wings to share his "SNL Warm-Up for Dramatic Actors," which gives Norton an opening to do his killer Woody Allen impression. More randomly, Miley Cyrus shows up to announce her "Bangerz" tour. Baldwin has the last word to calm Ed's nerves: "I was worried the first time I hosted. It was 1991 and I was a huge movie star. And now, 15 times later, I have my own show on MSNBC."
School Visit –Finally, Nasim Pedrad gets the spotlight, and she comes out with one of the strongest characters this season. Told you so. Pedrad plays Shallon (Shalon? Shalone?), an Orange County elementary school student who considers herself the "unofficial" class leader. Officer Rosen (a beautifully flustered Norton) shows up to lecture on stranger danger. "Now let's say a man pulls up to the school parking lot and he's in a van, and he offers you some candy. What should you do?" asks the officer. "Whatever it takes to get that candy!" Shallon cheerfully replies, and it's all downhill from there.
Wes Anderson Horror Movie –Here's one for the film geeks, and it's flawless: a trailer for The Midnight Coterie of Sinister Intruders, a horror film directed by Wes Anderson. Norton (who appeared in Anderson's recent Moonrise Kingdom) plays the Owen Wilson character, who communicates with the murderers outside his home via typewritten notes, folded into paper airplanes. ("Dear homeowner, can we kill you? –The Murderers." "Dear murderers, no you may not –The Homeowner.) Even though many of the jokes are on-the-nose references to films like The Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore, it's a perfect send-up of Anderson's twee-ness. Starring a stop-motion mouse.
12 Days Not a Slave – A 12 Years a Slave parody was something I didn't expect to see on SNL this week, or ever. The last time SNL did a slavery sketch was in the 1970s, when the show still prided itself on being controversial. (The sketch was a Roots parody.) Over the last decade, we've seen the topic of slavery slowly re-enter the sketch comedy arena, thanks to brave comedians like Dave Chappelle, Key and Peele, and Azie Mara Dungey of "Ask a Slave" fame. Does joking about slavery mean we're talking openly about slavery, and it's therefore progress? I'd say yes, even though there's some discomfort when it's a show as white as SNL. In the sketch, Jay Pharaoh plays Cecil, an Antebellum slave set free by the Emancipation Proclamation twelve days earlier. Now a free man, he's shocked that the white people around him are still angry racists. ("It's been two weeks!") The best moment arrives when Edward Norton (playing an abolitionist named Zachary) warns Cecil not to dance in front of white people, because "once they see you dance, they will try to dance like you . . . and when they do, it will be a catastrophe!" And sure enough, there's Miley Cyrus, twerking in a colonial gown.
I'm a little disappointed that the Kim Kardashian-Kanye West engagement didn't warrant its own sketch, given how well SNL has done the Kardashians in the past. But it's hard to complain when this episode was so solid. As Norton said in the show's final seconds, as he stood next to Miley Cyrus's inescapable midriff: "Has anybody ever had more fun than I just did? No."
Last Episode: Bruce Willis Dances Hard, With a Vengeance