Saturday Night Live, Season 40, Episode 18, “Taraji P. Henson/Mumford & Sons”
Aired April 11, 2015 at 11:30 pm ET on NBC (East coast version watched for review)
The Host: Taraji P. Henson is that elusive creature known as the “black character actress.” Yes, many have thought them extinct but, as pointed out by the wonderful podcast Denzel Washington is the Greatest Actor of All Time Period, the working black actress is something to be cherished. Henson has been working steadily since the late 90s, but thanks to her role as Cookie on Empire, she has appeared to have, per her monologue, “made it.” Henson blends in well with the cast and commits to the loony worlds the show has her inhabit. The best sketches of the night, however, are the ones that don’t have her play straight woman or second banana. This is most prominent is the obligatory Empire sketch, where Cookie becomes a new cast member on Sesame Street and immediately runs roughshod over the show, stealing and devouring Cookie Monster’s cookie and turning Elmo into a new fur coat. Henson has the makings of a great host, and hopefully next time she stops by SNL, the show will build an entire episode around her strengths, rather than just half of one.
Musical Guest: Mumford & Sons are in the middle of a hard rebranding cycle. Which makes sense: Regardless of their skills as a songwriter, a band can’t go around as the banjo-band for their entire career and still expect people to take them seriously when the indie-folk bubble bursts. So tonight’s performances find a new Mumford & Sons, who’ve come to impress and amaze with their electric instruments and t-shirts. B0th performances have tight rhythm parts, a smattering of crunchy guitars for color, and Father Mumford belting warm, passionate vocals. This new plugged-in Mumford hasn’t reinvented the wheel—the first song sounds like if Kings of Leon were huge Blur fans, the second like if Coldplay copied the right parts of Radiohead—but no one is asking them to. Instead, they’ve smartly changed their direction, and are poised to be at the top of alternative radio for years to come.
Best Sketch: The return of “How 2 Dance with Janelle” kicks off a run of killer sketches that end the night. While “Hollywood Game Night” features three spot-on impressions in Kate McKinnon’s Jane Lynch, Beck Bennet’s Nick Offerman and his mustache, and Henson’s Wanda Sykes, “How 2 Dance” has the kind of internal logic that most of the parades of impressions lacks. Henson plays Janelle’s mom, who has a thing or two to show her daughter about what dancing is. Her gyrating and swiveling strike the right balance between embarrassing and charismatic. Henson’s physicality brings the show into a wonderful pocket of energy that bleeds into the rest of the show, and keeps the ball rolling as the night wears on.
Worst Sketch: “QVC” commits the cardinal sin of the episode: Having Henson just deliver setups to characters, rather than getting to drive the action through laughs. And while McKinnon’s character is two steps away from entering her staple of recurring bits, those two steps are crucial to making the sketch work, since that character is the only engine in the sketch capable of delivering laughs.
Weekend Update: In short: Weak one-liners, good panelists. In long: Jost’s best joke involves grilled cheese, sex, and the new issue of What? monthly, and Che has a good jab at cops liking the Apple Watch because it doesn’t have a camera on it. Neither of them, however, are particularly on their game tonight, and never really get the studio audience on their side. Perpetual panel MVP Kate McKinnon comes back as the crazed fresco artist Cecilia Gimenez, the first truly funny aspect of this night’s Update, and builds to a great punchline comparing Jost to Beetlejuice. The buzziest aspect of the segment, however, is the arrival of Billy Crystal as Jacob the Bar Mitzvah Boy’s father. While probably inevitable, Crystal is a great fit, even if his performance is a little raw, and the sight of an aged man having the mannerisms of a 13-year old is strong enough to carry the panel through its runtime.
Other Notes: Darrell Hammond drops by the cold open to play Bill to McKinnon’s Hillary, which begs the question: Were the credits prerecorded this week instead of being read live? Scarlett Johansson will host the next episode on May 2, and while no musical guests as been announced yet, maybe her band, possibly formerly known as The Singles, will be performing that night. (For those keeping score at home, that’s two Avengers and three superheroes hosting SNL this season).