The first time Michael Keaton hosted Saturday Night Live back in 1982, the New Joe Jackson Band served as the episode's musical guest (the next time he hosted, ten whole years later, Morrissey was on deck to provide the jams). The New Joe Jackson band may no longer exist, but Keaton happens to be in the midst of a major career resurgence (note to Joe Jackson: hey, maybe now it's time for that comeback tour), and a return to the SNL stage feels like a necessary, if not still amusing stop for the beloved actor on his way back to the top.
Keaton isn't promoting a particular project right now, and that relative freedom lent the entire episode an air of shaggy amusement – no Birdman sketches to cram in here, folks – that Keaton appeared to revel in. Despite a number of timely offerings, from a cold open that reflected the outcome of a Final Four game that had wrapped up mere hours before showtime to a CNN-centric sketch that allowed the cast to skewer a week's worth of news, the show was thematically scattered, mostly compelled to insert Keaton into wacky bits and letting him elevate them to something special (or, at least, especially unique). The overall quality of the episode was decidedly middle of the road, but Keaton's obvious desire to have fun and get silly with a cast of admirers was something to see, particularly in these three standout clips in which everyone flew their highest.
"Michael Keaton Tribute Monologue"
Returning hosts frequently use their monologue time to "catch up" the audience on what they've been doing since their last spin on SNL, a somewhat stale idea that Keaton played to hilariously off-kilter effect: "I had a baby." (Appreciative audience clapping.) "He’s 31." That would have been enough of a gag, Keaton flipping through everything that's happened to him in the last twenty-three years, but the monologue soon opted for a twist both clever in its underlying theme and hilarious in its actual execution.
It’s amusing enough to see Taran Killam and Bobby Moynihan fawn over Keaton, begging him to "play Batman (or Beetlejuice)" with them by way of a snappy and weirdly moving musical number, but the unspoken joke – that it's been so long since Keaton has hosted the show that it's now populated by comedians who grew up watching his work – added a smart new angle to the original aim of the monologue that only pumped up the jokes still further.
The monologue also helped set the stage for the episode's loose, occasionally odd, and frequently rambling tone, generously piling on unexpected elements, including Jay Pharoah gamely serving as sidekick, a video bit that is one the funniest things to happen all season, and a last-second kicker by Keaton that drove the entire thing home. The song is pretty catchy, too.
A Mike O'Brien recipe: take one part played out idea, add a generous dash of expected tropes, season with genuine charm, garnish with a bucketload of twists on said tropes. Voila! O'Brien excels at taking recognizable storylines – brunch with a significant other’s family, a group of friends ribbing the one outsider, best friends undone by one’s desire to grow and change – and morphing them into unexpected new stories that are both familiar and totally new. O'Brien's off-kilter charm isn't for everyone, but even SNL fans who don't dig his humor have to appreciate his unique worldview and ability to jangle his audience at every turn.
With "Prom Queen," O'Brien utilizes his most well known plotline yet: a cool high school dude (O'Brien himself, starring as senior apparently finishing up his sixth year as big man on campus) takes on a bet to ask the nerdiest nerdy nerd to prom and then turn them into the prom queen, all by virtue of his own coolness. Thanks to a dumb bunny mistake – hey, the guy is in his sixth year of high school for a reason – that nerd ends up being his math teacher, played by Keaton. The beats are all there, cribbed directly from She's All That and its teen comedy ilk, but that doesn't stop "Prom Queen" from being surprising and sweet in equal measure.
"Neurotology Music Video"
Although the back half of this season has been increasingly interested in taking on current events (from politics to sports, as evidenced by the early part of this particular episode), SNL has managed to really excel when taking on other new entertainment offerings, including Serial and The Jinx. Inspired by the recently televised Scientology doc, Going Clear, "Neurotology Music Video" takes aim at one the of the must amusing elements of that movie – clips from an early Nineties music video that would make anyone cringe – and uses it as an entry point to upbraid the entire movement.
Every single part of this video works, from the cannily timed updates ("died of pink eye" is a winner, but "in a hole" is a close second) to the glazed eyes of the Neurotology faithful (especially Colin Jost, stepping outside the "Weekend Update" desk for a well-cast turn) to the terrifying reminder of what 1990 fashion really looked like. Consider this one an instant classic, no matter what the consequences might be.