What makes a great Saturday Night Live host? The formula is a tricky one – a delicate combination of charm and talent and timing – but no host can succeed without one immutable factor: a willingness to laugh at themselves. Avengers: Age of Ultron star and official Sexiest Man Alive (according to both People magazine and probably most actual people) Chris Hemsworth probably doesn't find a lot of occasion to laugh at himself in his regular life, which is why his inaugural outing as host of SNL was such a genuinely funny surprise.
Endlessly game and refreshingly self-effacing, Hemsworth improbably slipped right into the cast for his first show, nimbly taking on such unexpected bits as "acting with a live chicken," "almost dying on a small Razor scooter," and "rapping gun sounds." Overall, it was a strong show, one that was also marked by a number of major turns from its regular stars (Kate McKinnon appears to have nabbed the coveted Hillary Clinton spot, which will likely turn out to be a major coup for her as we ramp up to next year's election, while Colin Jost flubbed a line during "Weekend Update" that ended up getting some of the biggest laughs of the show). And the entire time, there was Thor, giddily mugging it up for the camera in the best of all possible ways. No wonder this guy gets to play a god in the movies.
Finally back in the groove after a big break and the nerve-wracking SNL40, Saturday Night Live turned in one of its best shows of the season, and here are three superhero-sized highlights.
It's easy to imagine the pitch that might have birthed this idea: "It's a spaceship with a stellar crew made up of big personalities that runs into some trouble because of its unstable and cocky captain. And the captain is a chicken. It's like Star Trek, but with a chicken. No, a live chicken, someone needs to find a live chicken for this." (That no one played up the "cocky" angle is the only real shame of this sketch.) This is the sort of bit that could lead to actual disaster – not just the intergalactic kind that frames up the narrative – because not only are you asking a cast of professional actors and comedians to act with a chicken, you’re also asking a chicken to act.
Yet, who sold this sketch without cracking, breaking, or getting literally hen-pecked? Hemsworth. Cast as both a crewmember and the captain's human lover, Hemsworth not only acts alongside said chicken (hats off to both the chicken and her trainer, what a talent we have here), but actually acts well. He sells it, and the effect is one of intense, weird fun that’s hard to hard to accurately predict from even the best of pitches. And then there’s that microwave gag, so cleverly and clearly set up that it nearly guarantees a massive laugh from its audience (and a strong desire to find some fowl to nibble on).
"Avengers News Report"
There was little doubt that a Hemsworth-hosted SNL would have to make some space for a sketch centered on the Avengers – Avengers: Age of Ultron, in theaters this May! – but by jettisoning the dark and gritty bent that pervades the superhero series, this sketch actually offered up something new to the franchise, with laughs to spare. Sure, we might have seen Earth's mightiest heroes kicking back with some delicious shawarma at the end of The Avengers, but that was a mostly low-key celebration, and they deserve far more than that.
Styled as a news report – and, man, how great is Cecily Strong as the endlessly humorless newscaster, desperate for details? – "Avengers News Report" imagines a world where the Avengers win a monumental battle, and then totally party down on national television. "I'm cranked up!," Hemsworth screams, as he ambles through the crowd, mean-mugging and dancing the Running Man and, suddenly, we had a glimpse of what a real world filled with superheroes might actually look like (you know, fun). Punctuated by excellent casting, from Taran Killam as Iron Man to Pete Davidson as a confused and possibly bloodthirsty Hulk, this sketch only made us wonder, "wait, is this really how Age of Ultron ends?" Because we would not have a problem with that.
SNL has long struggled to make their send-ups of reality television work – remember earlier this season, when Blake Shelton took on The Bachelor in truly dismal fashion? – but they might have finally cracked the code last night. Is this The Real World? Is it The Bachelor? Survivor? American Idol? It doesn’t matter, because by tossing all those television show tropes we know so well into one big mess of faux-reality, SNL finally found a way to skewer the genre in their own way.
So You Think You Can Live With Brian? distills the reality show down to its essence, that heady combination of navel-gazing and self-doubt, and just lets fly with it. Long-time comedic partners Beck Bennett and Kyle Mooney are obviously well matched when it comes to this kind of thing (if there's anything the duo specialize in, it's fake television shows), but Hemsworth fit well into their half-sincere, half-deranged brand of humor, goofily serving up a fake show that will likely be greenlit for actual broadcast by the end of this weekend.