March 30, 2014

THE SKED REVIEW: “Saturday Night Live” with Louis CK


Louis CK’s last visit to host SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE in 2012 was one of the show’s best recent episodes, and now that his signature Louie is resuming (finally!) on FX in May, he came back tonight for a return engagement.  Expectations were high, and there were definitely some inspired moments, although the night ended up being notable mostly for its oddness.

Things got off to a terrific start–if you don’t count the cold open.  That felt like an illustrated writer’s pitch:  you got Obama, and he’s been trying to appeal to young people like on that Between Two Ferns thing, so now you have aides proposing an Instagram post with Batkid, something with the cool new Pope, a Vine video of the Prez kissing Justin Bieber…  It’s always a pleasure to see Kate McKinnon’s Bieber, and Jay Pharoah’s Obama has become very assured, but that was all there was to be said for it.

After that, though, Louis CK’s monologue was a no-muss-no-fuss selection from his brilliant standup act, and no one could have asked for anything more.  It was followed by just about the edgiest sketch SNL has aired all season, a Black Jeopardy that dared to step on the toes of one of Saturday Night Live‘s most hallowed franchises from the Darrell Hammond/Will Ferrell days, and made it work.  Louis CK was the (white) African-American Studies professor competing with Pharoah and Sasheer Zamata under the baleful eye of host Kenan Thompson, only able to score a point when the answer was “White people lie about this” (because any answer would have been accepted).  The only mild disappointment was that the sketch didn’t have the nerve to follow through on its Final Jeopardy category of Rap Songs That Start With the Letter “N”.

The return of Baby Boss worked because for once SNL didn’t run a potential franchise into the ground, taking a good long break before returning to Beck Bennett’s infantile yet adult CEO.  Even though the bones of the sketch were the same as last time, it had been long enough since we’d seen it that it was funny all over again, and Louis CK and Aidy Bryant played their reactions beautifully.

The shortest Weekend Update in memory followed (the only desk piece was a return of Pharoah’s Stephen A. Smith, again insisting that every sports celebrity was his close personal friend), and then things got weird.  Bryant, McKinnon, Zamata and Cecily Strong sang a full-blown rendition of “Mr. Big Stuff” to a justly bewildered Louis CK, who had asked for directions to a bank–the singing was fine, and his reactions were well-timed, but it was all more puzzling than funny.

Even more puzzling and less funny was a bit where Louis CK and Vanessa Bayer were… cops?  a couple pretending to be cops?  who were going to have sex for the first time?  Or not?  In any case, both performers spoke their lines in a deliberately arch way that seemed meant to recall 1930s drawing room comedy, and Louis CK started having terrible trouble with his cue-cards, breaking eye contact with Bayer to read them.  His cue-card problems continued into the last sketch of the night (this time he was talking past Bryant), an attempted parody of the scene in romantic comedies where the guy (or woman, since one of the models invoked was Julia Roberts in Notting Hill) puts his heart on the line and declares his love in a big set-piece speech, complete with increasingly rousing background music–except this time, the speech was a parade of deliberate non sequiturs involving theme parks and plastic bags of calimari.  There were some funny lines, but it went on too long.

The night was unusually heavy on pretaped pieces.  A sharp parody commercial for Jos. A Bank ridiculed their insanely low prices by substituting their suits for paper towels, then the next pushed an initially funny joke too far and had no punchline:  Louis CK’s seemingly innocent visit to his doctor (Mike O’Brien) turned out to be because of his concern that he had a Darth Vader action figure up his butt, which was a worry shared (incorrectly, as it happened) by just about everyone in the doctor’s office, patient or not.  Kyle Mooney did another of his deliberately low-tech shorts, this one a campaign video for high school president that had lots of niche references but was short on laughs.  The brief promo for a 1970s-era TV show called Dyke & Fats, starring McKinnon and Bryant (and specifically credited to them), had only two jokes–the title and the turn at the very end when both women became furious when their captain (Louis CK) used those nicknames–and it was hard to tell what to make of it.  On the one hand, it felt like one of the action-adventures Dirk Diggler made in Boogie Nights, and on the other, it seemed to suggest a more pointed motivation that might have been seriously interesting if it had played out.

So, the night wasn’t a complete success–but it was far more noteworthy than most recent episodes, and even the sketches that didn’t work were more ambitious and distinctive than the half-hearted retreads of franchise skits the show relies on too often.  Next week:  host Anna Kendrick and musical guest Pharrell.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."