In his fifth time hosting Saturday Night Live, Jonah Hill didn’t do anything more or less than he had during his first four outings. That sounds like damning him with faint praise, but there’s a consistency to his shows that is admirable. Like many hosts that appear on the show as often as he has, Hill blends into the cast to the point where it doesn’t feel as if there is a host present. He can play lead and supporting roles with equal aplomb, and he never has his presence in a sketch come at the expense of the rest of the cast. The star-studded but under-rehearsed “Five-Timers Club” monologue was the rare miss on a night in which most sketches were at least solid if not spectacular.
SNL is still finding its creative feet this season, but this was an encouraging episode all the same. Let’s see what sketches people will be discussing until Liev Schreiber hosts next week.
Recurring characters — whether performed by cast members or oft-returning hosts — are a tricky proposition. It’s rarely unclear when a character will reach its expiration date, and often it only becomes truly obvious live on national television. Bringing out Hill’s long-running Adam Grossman in the post-monologue sketch could have reeked of creative desperation but, instead, it set the stage for a very successful run that lasted through “Weekend Update.”
Part of the reason this still works is that the innate concept of a six-year old Borscht Belt comic is incredibly solid. There’s an explosive energy in the way Hill portrays Grossman that not only plays in Studio 8H but plays across all of New York City. The other part is that the jokes themselves, while rolled out in a tried-and-true comedic format, are really good. There’s a time and place to deconstruct American humor, and there are times to honor its roots. Jokes about people’s age are trite, but, “Lilly’s so old that in history class she just wrote down what she was doing,” is an excellent burn all the same.
Finally: There are times in which one actor making another break mid-sketch is an insular, selfish act. Then there are times like this in which Jonah Hill realized he could make Leslie Jones laugh every time he sang a Bob Marley song. The former isolates the audience from the action. The latter invites them into the insanity. This was a fairly insane sketch from start to finish, and bought the show a lot of good will from the outset.
This sketch doesn’t just say a lot about the mood of the Democratic Party at this particular point in history, but SNL’s mood as well. If you watch the episodes in the run-up to the 2016 election…let’s just say the show doesn’t exactly come off well. It’s smug, condescending, and utterly unprepared for the eventual outcome. Watching Lin-Manuel Miranda insist that Trump would never be president in the wake of the Access Hollywood leak feels like watching a show from another timeline, not from 24 months ago.
This sketch will get a lot of attention between now and Election Night, and will either be seen as a prophecy or a last deep breath into a paper bag come Wednesday. Regardless, it’s a sign of how far the show has come in terms of wrestling with its own naiveté heading into the last elections, and how strong the show has become in depicting Trump’s America without having to depict Trump himself. No matter which way things go Tuesday, you can’t say SNL isn’t smug in its assertions about what will unfold.
Teacher Fell Down
Ninety-five percent of what I select each week has less to do with personal taste than what I think will be most discussed. Comedy is so subjective that I can’t pretend that everything I like will resonate with the majority of viewers. Often times my favorite things don’t appear here because I know they are intended for an extremely small audience of which I happen to be a member.
But this sketch was so damn strange that even though I imagine the majority of America forgot it happened as soon as it ended, it has haunted me to the point that I need to include it so we as a nation don’t forget that it happened. “Teacher’s on the ground!” is both a common refrain uttered by Kate McKinnon’s ailing driver’s ed instructor and also a sentence you might have to recite in a knock-off Duolingo app. “Teacher’s on the ground!” conveys its meaning, but it’s also phrased so bizarrely that it sounds like someone fed a neural network every SNL sketch ever and this is what came out.
The fact that this wasn’t the last sketch of the night probably has a lot to do with its effectiveness. Sketches this weird simply don’t happen before the first musical performance. If there’s a teacher on the ground, that teacher is on the ground between 12:50 am and 1:00 am Eastern Standard Time. There are rarely teachers on the ground when there is no pressing fear about the show running too long. And yet, this teach was on the ground right at the stroke of midnight, begging us to question not only her place in the universe, but our own. Did the show forget it was Daylight Savings Time and air it an hour early by mistake? Did time and reality as we know it shift the moment that teacher hit the ground? We may never truly know.