While almost no wrestler (or really, any performer) has the crossover appeal of Dwayne Johnson, it’s genuinely surprising that more professional wrestlers have not hosted Saturday Night Live to this point. The best wrestlers and the best SNL hosts both have natural charisma and ability to perform live on national television. Throw in the fact that he’s been excellent in comedic films such as Trainwreck, and John Cena makes for a natural if overdue appearance as host.
While Cena gave it his all throughout the episode, this turned out to be one of the more forgettable episodes of the Fall run. Nothing was overtly terrible, but very little was truly excellent, either. Some strong ideas keep threatening to rise to greatness, only to fail in execution. When you commit to a live, 90-minute sketch comedy show every week, this can happen. Still, here are the three sketches people will be talking about during the run-up to this show’s final episode of 2016.
The Lead With Jake Tapper Cold Open
Not having Alec Baldwin in the cold open? Bad surprise. Having Bryan Cranston as Walter White in his place? That’s a GREAT surprise, and represents the kind of cameo that drives conversation about the show. Did everyone in the audience understand all the Breaking Bad references in this cold open? It certainly didn’t seem so. Did it make it any less funny for those that did watch it? Absolutely not. “Walter White as the new head of the DEA” is such a great idea that AMC is probably green-lighting it as we speak.
Perhaps the most striking thing about this cold open was its brevity. Rather than have Cranston’s cameo come at the end of a string of other fake nominees, or even overly extend his appearance to milk every Breaking Bad joke possible, this cold open introduced the conceit and ended the proceedings with almost unbelievable speed. This isn’t a criticism but praise: More sketches would fare better were they a minute or two shorter. Brevity is both the soul of wit and the secret to successful sketch comedy.
The Karate Teen
Now, I know “Farewell, Mr. Bunting.” “Farewell, Mr. Bunting” was a friend of mine. “The Karate Teen,” you’re no “Farewell, Mr. Bunting.” Still, in terms of cultural touchstones, it’s hard to beat The Karate Kid, and I imagine this will generate enough interest based on nostalgia alone.
That’s damning it with faint praise, but there are still some fun elements inside this parody. Catching a penny with one’s eyes closed isn’t any less dumb than catching flies with chopsticks to prove one’s fighting prowess, and the sight gag of watching Mike Day’s Daniel Laruso stand-in get punched out of his pants and through four sets of walls was undeniably amusing. The MVP here? Cena as the muscular faux-Johnny Lawrence, complete with voice that sounded like he just inhaled a metric ton of helium. This is a featherweight sketch, but it provided laughs on a night sorely in need of them.
Through Donald’s Eyes
Outside of the cold open and “Update,” not a lot of this week’s episode focused on Trump. In this inventive pre-taped sketch, the perspective gets switched: Instead of having the audience gaze at Trump, we see the world through his eyes. What results is something lyrical, unsettling, and overall very impressive. It lingers in the best possible way, with seemingly hundreds of details packed into this short film.
Two things are particularly striking in this sketch. The first concerns its cinematography, which places the camera inside Trump’s skull and captures the surreal flights of fancy that ensue based on his overall mood. From the headline “False Report, Biased,” to the shift in lighting after he hears bad news about himself, there are plenty of visual cues that really sell his mindset.
The second is both more obvious and more striking: The replacement of actual sentences with verbal fragments, meant to elucidate what Trump hears versus what is actually said. When Mike Pence tries to get Trump to focus on work, what Trump hears is, “Other people. Other people not Trump.” A voter wearing a Make America Great again hat repeats, “Thing you promised…thing you promised,” over and over again as Trump’s office turns red.
Ultimately, this version of Trump finds solace only in himself, but it’s a hollow solace, one born out of a projection rather than reality. It’s a mixture of David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick rolled into an intense psychological examination of the President-Elect. This isn’t a sketch meant to provide comfort or easy laughs. That may put some people off, but it’s exactly the type of uncomfortable humor the show needs to explore more often, and it was the unequivocal highlight of the week.