It’s a strange feeling to watch an episode of Saturday Night Live hosted by first-ballot All-Time Cast Member Will Ferrell and think, “Hmm, maybe Ryan Reynolds should have hosted this one instead?” Rather than look at this episode as a failure, perhaps it’s better look at it as the prime example of how absolutely nothing about this show is predictable. A host simply brings potentiality, not actuality, to the proceedings. For whatever reason the show decided to largely avoid material that would remind people what made Ferrell such an integral part of the cast that legitimately saved the show from cancellation in the mid-1990’s.
Somebody somewhere decided this wouldn’t be a nostalgia show, and that’s fine: I’m sure “More Cowbell II: The Cowbelling” would have been a viral hit, but might have also tarnished the legend of the original sketch. It’s a bold choice to not rely on easy comedic pops. Not leaning on the past would make sense were there not a heavy presence of other SNL alums in the first half of the show, pushing the existing cast to helplessly watch in the wings.
The show returns in December with a killer trio of hosts: Jennifer Lopez, Scarlett Johansson, and Eddie Freakin’ Murphy. The show has a chance to make up for the two recent lackluster shows with those three episodes. For now, let’s see what sketches people will be discussing over Thanksgiving dinner.
Will Ferrell’s Ryan Reynolds Monologue
Look, this was probably just an inexpensive way to screen test a series of buddy comedies featuring the duo over the next six years, but when the results are this funny, shouldn’t we just laud the on-air experiment and then move on with our lives?
Invoking the best Elf / Step Brothers energy possible, Ferrell goes full fanboy when he spies Deadpool himself in the audience during the opening moments of his monologue. What follows is a tricky series of stammers and stutters that could have gone as poorly as that tire fire of a cold open (which hopefully gets sent into the Milton Berle vault, never to be seen by human eyes again), and yet works as a master class of awkward comedic timing. On the page, there are only a few lines of dialogue. But this translates into minutes of charismatic exchanges between the two.
It’s hypocritical to dunk on the debate sketch for having too many cameos (which will happen in the following paragraph, spoiler alert) and praise Tracy Morgan’s appearance here, but there’s something both larger-than-life yet fragile about Morgan at this point that anything he does in Studio 8H is a blessing. Invoking “The Prophecy” in which Ferrell/Morgan have a symbiotic relationship that linked them through the decades is exactly the head-scratching comedic moment we’d expect from these two, and it’s never explained, but I’m certain there’s already a Reddit thread with hundreds of comments analyzing it, Room 237-style.
2020 Democratic Debate
Clocking in at over a whopping 12 minutes, this was the equivalent of a late-1960’s Grateful Dead “Dark Star” jam, weaving and meandering and seemingly never-ending. But rather than take the audience through an experimental musical journey into the reaches of the cosmos itself, this sketch gave a preview of how the cast’s involvement in anything topical will almost certainly dwindle as we get closer to the 2020 Presidential election.
Now, in many cases, some of these cameos will disappear due to the natural attrition inherent in the race. But it’s not as if the celebrities on display here will be leaving the race anytime soon, either. That means Woody Harrelson, Larry David, Maya Rudolph, Rachel Dratch and Fred Armisen might be popping back in quite a few times between now and this time next year to deliver 5-7 lines, receiving reverential but ultimately polite laughter as recompense.
The fact that I don’t think this sketch is good yet will be discussed is the point SNL is making with these cameos: It’s impossible to ignore them, even if the sketch quality is subpar. Part of why you bring these people in is the name recognition, and part of it has to do with the fact that of course they can bring comedy chops to the game. These are all seasoned pros that are excellent at what they do. But it’s impossible to cut to someone like Chris Redd, delivering his one line in a meta-theatrical rush, and see precisely what’s missing in a sketch like this: Anything that connects this sketch to this point in the show’s history.
Cameos like this are part and parcel of the SNL package. But when they take up nearly 25% of the overall sketch time for the entire night, they signal just how Not Ready For Primetime the show thinks its Players are. That’s a shame, because this is a great cast and they won’t get better until they get more opportunities in sketches like this.
Cinema Classics: The Wizard Of Oz
If you bought me a few adult beverages, I’d probably tell you that I would have slotted “Weekend Update: Guy Who Just Bought A Boat On Thanksgiving Dating Tips” here, but putting another Ryan Reynolds-dominated sketch here would be the height of hypocrisy at this point. So let’s go with a sketch that involves a movie that everyone knows and actually has a solid chunk of the cast in it.
It also features one of Ferrell’s most potent comedic devices: His ability to go from “quiet” to “violently screaming” in six nanoseconds. From the moment he screams,
“What we were wearing???” to an evasive Dorothy, the sketch goes from okay to great. “I wish that tornado had killed you!” is an objectively terrible thing to say, but Ferrell’s Dr. Pickens is also a competent doctor horrified by Dorothy’s dream. Putting the focus on her unconscious objectification doesn’t completely undo the tenuous position the sketch takes by having the cast act on its knees to affect people of short stature. However, it’s ultimately a piece that dignifies those that come to check on Dorothy rather than having a laugh at their expense.