Let me state for the record that Josh Hutcherson is adorable. The child-star-turned-Hunger-Games–heartthrob will lose none of his existing fans over last night’s lackluster Saturday Night Live episode. Hosting for the first time at age 21, Hutcherson was a genial, smirk-free presence. Unfortunately, the same unflappable sincerity that makes him terrific in films (did you see The Kids Are All Right?) hobbles his ability to do sketch comedy, much like that sword hobbled Peeta’s leg in the first Hunger Games movie. Sorry, Hunger Games mania is catching. Like fire, one could say.
As for the rest of the cast, they left me wondering if it was possible to enter a tryptophan coma five days before Thanksgiving. The episode felt slight and sleepy, as if everyone was eager to wrap it up, fly home, and collapse on their parents’ couch. On the plus side, a few new cast members got to strut their stuff, with promising results. On to the sketches!
Monologue: All of the episode’s Catching Fire jokes were crammed into Hutcherson’s intro, with Kate McKinnon emerging in head-to-toe Effie Trinket couture to conduct a cast version of the Hunger Games. “Don’t worry, Noel, it’s your first year. Your name is only in the bowl once,” Vanessa Bayer assures a nervous Noel Wells. When Wells gets chosen, she shakily remarks that she’ll at least “get more stage time,” at which point Cecily Strong storms the stage and yells, “I volunteer as tribute!” Then Kenan Thompson, in a ’70s polyester suit, confuses the raffle with a key party. (I’m guessing that the SNL costume department is putting this sketch on their Emmy reel. They’ve got my vote.) Hutcherson lands his best joke of the night when he tries to get the cast to simmer down, reminding them that Hunger Games is just a movie. “And a book!” McKinnon chimes in. Dumbfounded, he replies, “It’s a book?”
Office Boss: Until tonight, newbie Beck Bennett had yet to do anything for SNL that was funnier than those AT&T commercials where he interviews kids. This hit the mark. Bennett plays Mr. Patterson, the CEO of the fastest-growing start-up in history, and Hutcherson is Craig, his newly-hired assistant. “You’ll be fine. There’s just a few things you should know about him,” Kenan Thompson reassures Hutcherson. “He has the IQ of a genius, he loves fantasy football, and he has the body of a baby.” Sure enough, Mr. Patterson accompanies his corporate bro-speak with the physicality of a one-year-old: face-planting into furniture, shoving random objects into his mouth, and eating his spaghetti lunch by smearing it on his head. We haven’t seen this kind of old-school physical comedy on SNL in a while, and it feels like something Will Ferrell might have pulled off back in the day. The site of Bennett toddling across his office was, for me, the funniest moment of the whole night.
Girlfriends Talk Show: One of the better recurring sketches of 2013, the teenage gabfest “Girlfriends Talk Show” has settled into a nice groove. Aidy Bryant (“I’m the most Morgan I can be right now!”) gets a little wackier with every installment, and Cecily Strong (“I’m Kyra to the max!”) is still nailing those monologues about her psycho “older” boyfriend. Make no mistake, though: this is Bryant’s sketch. I’m starting to feel a spiritual connection with her dreamy, out-of-sync Morgan, who would rather talk about miniature Christmas villages than selfies, and who has 911 in her fave fives because she can’t stop reaching out to touch bees. If you can’t relate, well, you’re probably a witch with a “b” in front.
Animal Hospital: Hutcherson’s best character work happens in this sketch; he plays one of three cheerful veterinary nurses who casually inform people of their pets’ horrible deaths while handing them paperwork. There are some morbidly funny lines (“Where it says ‘pet status,’ I’m gonna need you to write ‘dead.'”), and Aidy Bryant gets a chance to use the getting-terrible-news face that’s becoming her stock in trade.
The Worst Lady on an Airplane: During the night’s only Weekend Update guest appearance, Bryant gives a how-to guide to travelers who want to annoy the crap out of everyone else on the airplane. One tip: watch a movie on your laptop with headphones, and cackle hysterically at every joke. (“Ma’am, can you keep it down?” “I don’t know, can you make Monsters University less hilarious?”) During the news segments, Seth Meyers and Cecily Strong crack two jokes about Mayor Rob Ford, which makes me wonder why Bobby Moynihan’s amazing impersonation didn’t make a repeat appearance. Come on, SNL:how often is a crack-smoking Canadian politician in the news? Carpe diem!
Bugs: Mike O’Brien’s short film premiered in the 12:45am slot, where the night’s most oddball sketches usually go to die. On a weak night, however, this one was a highlight. O’Brien plays Winston Sam Bass, a local news reporter investigating why bugs are always in such a hurry. We watch him follow live insects around with a microphone, trying to ask them probing questions; in Harlem, he interrogates a cockroach in Spanish. By the end of the segment, Bass is a broken man, quietly devastated by his failure to crack the bug code. O’Brien hadn’t made a big impression on me before tonight, but I’d be happy to watch Winston Sam Bass investigate a few more of life’s enduring mysteries.
Thanksgiving Guest: This obligatory Thanksgiving sketch merits mention strictly on the grounds of its awfulness. Hutcherson’s SNL promo photos include two shots of him on a date with a turkey, and they’re both funnier than this skit based on the same premise. Vanessa Bayer is admirably committed to embodying that turkey costume (once more, props to the costume department!), but more than any sketch this season, this one feels like the cast is making it up as they go along. Kyle Mooney shouting “glazed carrots!” into the awkward silence pretty much sums it up.
Tonight’s biggest disappointment may have been the absence of commercial parodies, which is where those Hunger Games jokes would really paid off. Didn’t the insane product placement surrounding the film – the official Hunger Games Subway sandwich, for example – inspire anybody in the writers’ room? Another thing that might have salvaged the evening: a Jennifer Lawrence cameo. Seeing as she just did The Daily Show on Thursday, I was hopeful that she’d secretly stuck around. Ah well. At least we got to see Haim dressed like this.
SNL goes live again on December 7th for host Paul Rudd. Have a happy Thanksgiving, and remember: Friends don’t let friends date turkeys.
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