Saturday Night Live, Season 40, Episode 11, “Kevin Hart/Sia”
Aired January 17, 2015 at 11:30 pm ET on NBC (East coast version watched for review)
Welcome back to the second half of SNL’s 40th season. Last year saw the cast and crew bring out a new title sequence, a few alumni hosts, and build up a pretty good reserve of goodwill. Now let’s watch as we see the show take the majority of that goodwill and burn it right off.
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The Host: Kevin Hart has been a box office monster for at least a year now, with every project he stars in reaping ridiculous profits. And while none of those movies have been as critically successful as they have been financially, this level of success for Hart is long overdue, as he is one of the funniest stand-up comedians year after year. Hart brings that stand-up mindset and his motormouth delivery to the monologue to open the show, as he laments about the surprise dangers of all the wildlife that comes with the new neighborhood he’s living in — the punch line “You don’t need thumbs to scare me” has a particularly endearing ridiculousness to it. With the exception of one sketch, the rest of the show couldn’t seem to maintain that level of ridiculousness. Hart is in fine form, playing the few high energy notes he has sketch to sketch, but the cast and the writers aren’t able to get any ideas built around him to settle into a rhythm. In one sketch, he’s running around shouting at people who are too busy singing to get moving. In another, he delivers snappy jabs at a terrible Instagram post, but then isn’t able to keep the premise intact in the wake of it being repeated too often, and unfortunate technical difficulties. For as funny as Hart is when its just him on stage with a mic, it would be a shame if what he became known for was being the best thing in bad entertainment.
Musical Guest: Sia has already produced two of the strangest videos in recent memory, “Chandelier” and “Elastic Heart”, so when word got out that Maddie Ziegler, the dancer featured in both of those videos, would be accompanying Sia to 30 Rock, a weary public braced itself for performance art it wouldn’t understand. Ziegler only dances on stage during “Elastic Heart”, with another performer, while Sia sings the song standing static in the middle of the stage, facing the left. This means that during the performances of “Chandelier”, the audience gets a mime signing the song along with Sia. The singing is technically sound, with the more somber version of “Chandelier” seemingly likely to inspire a thousand contemporary dance routines, but the real pleasure is in watching a musical guest trying to expand what can be done on SNL. Normally the show’s viewers would have to wait for a Kanye West episode to see the musical segments try something new, and while neither of Sia’s performances are as daring as West’s, they are a welcome breath of fresh air.
Best Sketch: Casting Kevin Hart as James Brown is such a smart idea that it’s a shame we can’t go back in time and somehow work him into Walk Hard. This ends up being the only sketch from tonight’s episode that finds a way to take its premise and flesh it out in interesting ways. As it turns out, James Brown would never do anything without a verbal commitment form his entire band, meaning we get questions like “Should we get more funky?” and “So that’s 10 chicken parms with mustard?” and get to giggle along as Hart’s version of Brown tries to pull the answers out of his bandmates. If only the rest of the episode were this assured.
Worst Sketch: The biggest problem with the sketches tonight is that no work seemed to go into fleshing out any of the premises. From the opening sketch “Why’d You Post That?”, the Instagram sketch that is two-thirds longer than it needs to be and wastes the fact that apparently Hart’s character has a dungeon in his studio, to the go-nowhere singing sketch, to the 10-1 sketch where Hart as a rapper writes a song revealing all of his crews’ secrets that doesn’t bother coming up with enough interesting secrets to reveal, no sketch is worth the five or so minutes of full attention they presume to deserve.
Weekend Update: Soup to nuts, Update is the funniest segment of the night. Coming into the new year with none of the growing pains that it dealt with in the first half of the season, Jost and Che are on point the entire time. Jost digs into Mitt Romney’s continual presidential campaign (“Charlie Brown will finally kick that football”), Che addresses Selma getting snubbed at the Oscars (“Just think of all the great roles for black actors after they’ve won Oscars: Snow Dogs, Catwoman, Weight Watchers”), and Kate McKinnon has a great panel segment as Jost’s neighbor who writes passive-aggressive notes to address her complaints, like “Dear elephant people upstairs, I sorry you is elephants” and “Dear Mario Batali of hot garbage”. The only real crime here is that Update gets cut short by a couple of minutes this week.
Other Notes: Worth checking out: The cold open, which is essentially a Pete Davidson stand-up bit that gets framed as a conversation between him and Martin Luther King about the latter’s legacy, and McKinnon as Bieber in a pre-taped bit making fun of Bieber’s recent Calvin Klein ad. Next week we do a total 180, as we welcome host AND musical guest Blake Shelton.