John Goodman has hosted Saturday Night Live 13 times, and I remember him fondly from the show's mid-'90s glory days. So maybe my expectations were a little too high this time around, when Goodman took to the stage for the first time in 12 years. Now that Goodman's sitcom days are over, I was expecting to see more of the magical, menacing presence he's brought to the Coen brothers' films. Instead, most of his sketches peaked with visual gags: John Goodman dressed as a giant snowflake, John Goodman dressed as a woman, John Goodman trying on skinny jeans. That would have been okay if he'd brought more comic zing to the show, but this was one of those nights when everybody seemed a little bit off. The mopey Kings of Leon didn't do much to help the energy level, either.
Obama Mandela Cold Open: President Obama (Jay Pharaoh) apologizes to the American people for the PR disaster that was Nelson Mandela's memorial service. He then launches into a speech about healthcare.gov, as the schizophrenic sign-language interpreter from the Mandela memorial (Kenan Thompson) sidles up to the podium and does his thing. Kenan Thompson's improvised sign language is hilarious – Spiderman's web slingers for "world wide web," the Thriller dance for "I was not thrilled" – and I want him to be my charades partner. I was also happy to see the return of German chancellor Angela Merkel, played by Kate McKinnon as a lonely sadsack who idolizes Obama like a teenage girl idolizes Katy Perry. (You can see her previous appearance here.) The sign-language-interpreter scandal was the perfect choice for a cold open; it's not only a funny story, it's an ongoing one. The more topical SNL's political spoofs feel, the better.
Monologue: Goodman explains his 12-year absence from SNL by saying that he was busy working on films, and now he can't wait to get home to his wife. In that spirit, he joins with Kenan Thompson to sing a touching holiday tune about reuniting with loved ones: "All I Want for Christmas is Booty." John is a great blues crooner and I'm happy to see him perform, but is it weird to hear the voice of Sully from Monsters Inc. singing about booty? A little.
Three Wise Guys: Whenever SNL royalty like Goodman performs, a few guest stars are bound to show up. Last night, we got Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro, riding camels alongside Goodman to deliver gifts to the baby Jesus. They're not the wise men though; they're from Jersey. Get it, wiseguy? Considering the softball premise and the talent involved, this sketch wasn't the laugh riot it should have been. A few of the baby-Jesus jokes hit the mark, though. (Sly: "You know what? I hear his father's in construction." Bobby: "Yeah, but I heard the kid might not be his.") Anyone else thinking that they didn't rehearse this one? Like, at all? There's no blocking, tons of awkward pauses, and De Niro seems to be reading his lines off the monitor for the first time. (Stallone lands more jokes, despite having appeared on SNL only once before.) Also, Stallone and De Niro are in town promoting The Grudge Match, which takes some of the joy out of their cameo. It doesn't feel like they're doing it for the love of John Goodman; it feels like a press obligation. True, last week's Anchorman 2 cast was in the same boat, but you got the impression that host Paul Rudd really wanted them there.
Fire Safety with Shallon: Last time we saw Shallon, an elementary school student who talks like Matthew McConaughey, she flipped Edward Norton's "stranger danger" lecture into an argument for getting into vans with strange men. (Imagine how much candy a van can hold!) This time, it's John Goodman's fire-safety lecture that she misconstrues. By the end of the sketch, the entire class is convinced that they should spend Christmas Eve standing in their fireplaces. Except for Aidy Bryant, who doesn't have a fireplace, and delivers the sketch's funniest line. I'm sad that this Shallon bit wasn't as funny as the last one, and I blame it on rhythm; somebody skipped a line early on, and from there on, everything seemed one beat off. This skit probably killed in dress rehearsal. (If so, can we please see a video of that, internet?) Personally I'm willing to give the girl another chance. Let's see Shallon on Career Day, convincing her classmates that they should be just like those pretty ladies who hang out on street corners.
H&M Rap: The most fun skit of the entire episode is this pre-taped rap tribute to H&M, which nails everything great and terrible about the retailer: the cheap prices, the tiny sizes, the clothes that disintegrate in the dryer. It pretty much sums up the entire disposal-clothes culture, with the exception of factory fires in Bangladesh. (Too dark?) In fifty years, when our grandchildren ask what it was like to shop for clothes in 2013, we can show them this sketch.
Too Hot: It's the inevitable John-Goodman-in-drag skit! Thankfully, it is impossible for John Goodman in drag to be anything but hilarious. Goodman plays flirty office worker Genevieve Lazarra, who's suing her boss (Beck Bennett) for wrongful termination: She was fired for being "too hot." Genevieve is bashful with a high-pitched giggle, until she's asked to respond to the question "Do you enjoy sex?" "Oh yeahh," she replies, her voice falling several registers. This is territory that Goodman knows well, and the laughs come easy.
Weekend Update: Super predictable this week, unfortunately. Kenan Thompson (why is he in every single sketch tonight?) plays Santa, in response to Megyn Kelly's Fox News tirade about Santa being white. "You've heard of Secret Santa? Well here's a secret for you: I'm black as hell," he quips. There are jokes about white guys taking credit for everything black guys do, and white people being afraid of a black dude breaking into their homes at night, and they've all been made already by The Daily Show and/or Twitter. We also get an appearance by Drunk Uncle (Bobby Moynihan), who is starting to lose steam, though I still love his yuppie-mocking one-liners: "Can you put some quinoa in my spin class please?" Surprise surprise, John Goodman joins him at the end as Drunker Uncle, slurring, "All I want for Christmas is for my two neighbors not to be Chinese anymore." I wish that they'd gone further with this bit. Weekend Update needs a shake-up; I guess Seth Meyers leaving after the next episode will qualify.
Given how lackluster this night was, I'm wondering why SNL shoved all of its new talent into the background. We got a lot of Kenan. But where were Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett, who generated some of the season's biggest laughs and then vanished? How about John Milhiser, Mike O'Brien, Brooks Wheelan and Noel Wells, whose names I had to look up how to spell because they've done so little worth writing about? This is not unusual for SNL. The featured players are often under-featured, and more often given the boot after one or two seasons. But this is an unusual year; the featured players make up nearly half the cast. It's time to see what they can do, besides two-second celebrity impressions. Next week is the "holiday episode," hosted by Jimmy Fallon with musical guest Justin Timberlake. I'm sensing some Bee Gees in our future. See you then!