Saturday Night Live, Season 40, Episode 5, “Chris Rock/Prince”
Aired November 1, 2014 at 11:30 pm ET on NBC (East coast version watched for review)
It’s a shame when the best segment of any given episode of SNL is the musical guest. This tends to occur in an episode with mediocre sketches and a lack of cohesion and identity, all of which makes it really hard to soldier on until commercials, when one can justify looking at tumblr or updating a watchlist on Letterboxd. This week’s episode is full of this kind of half-backed material, but luckily we were guaranteed one highlight, which did not disappoint, because…
Musical Guest: PRINCE!!! Man, his performance is so so so good. When it was announced last week that Prince would not play the usual two sets that an SNL musical guest does, opting instead to play a single eight-minute long jam, expectations were somehow set even higher than when it was simply “and musical guest: Prince.” And, boy, the purple one does not disappoint. Firstly, the set design is just great, with the whole set acting as a kind of video screen to display graphics of soothing clouds, sharp lightning, and some groovy lava lamp looking thing. With his band/proteges 3rdEyeGirl, Prince plays a medley of songs from his two recent albums, starting with the future-sex anthem “CLOUDS”, which quickly morphs into the instrumental funk masterclass “PLECTRUMELECTRUM”, before he ends the set with the hard rocking extended guitar solos of “MARZ” and “ANOTHERLOVE”. The whole set is just a fabulous Prince concert in microcosm, complete with the tastiest of licks to make you wish it would never end, because when it does, we go back to the rest of the show, and its low energy.
The Host: Was Chris Rock even a part of this episode? This seems like a weird rhetorical question, because of the obvious reasons, but apart from Rock doing his signature kinda-scream in all of the sketches he is involved in, nothing seems to bear his identity as a comedian. Sure, most of his sketches deal with black culture in a certain way — we get another rendition of “How’s He Doing?’, the fake-talk show that has black people rate the progress of President Obama, for example — but nothing really comes together. “How’s He Doing?” never grows beyond the basic premise of “Obama hasn’t been great, but black people still love him” and lacks the pointed critiques of the President’s policies from the earlier installments of the sketch. A sketch about ISIS pitching themselves on Shark Tank goes about as well as you would expect, and a sketch about a bickering married black couple seems to have an idea about commenting on the equilibrium of African-American marriage, but falls apart due to flat line readings, too many moments of silence, and the fact that Rock and Leslie Jones act as if they are on separate stages. Rock’s best moment comes in his monologue, when he calls the building of Freedom Tower on the same spot as the Twin Towers some “arrogant Floyd Mayweather crap”, alongside a dig about America’s uncanny ability to commercialize any holiday.
Weekend Update: Firstly, a few days before the airing of last night’s episode, new anchor Michael Che became a bit of a pariah online after making some unflattering/borderline misogynistic comments in regards to a video about a woman being cat-called in New York for 10 straight hours. The fact that this is not addressed on the Update could be argued as a smart move, but anyone choosing to make that argument probably would not end up looking very noble; the fact that last night’s Update isn’t very good doesn’t help matters either. Colin Jost and Che just did not come to the table with any worthwhile jokes — a Jost bit about a county in Utah banning non-permitted dancing has a punchline so easy that you probably filled it in the moment you read the setup — and opened with jabs at the panic caused by ebola that directly contradicts the tone of the sensible ebola-focused cold open. “Pete Davidson basically does standup” appears to be a recurring Update segment now, and while Davidson’s bit about how he texts his mom, who’s a nurse, pictures of his penis to check for STIs is the best segment of the panel, it just further makes one question the firing of Brooks Wheelan, whose purpose last season was basically “doing standup during Update”. Oh, and Jay Pharaoh and Kenan Thompson send up Katt Williams and Suge Knight, respectively, as both were arrested for stealing a camera. Kenan has the best line of the night when he starts speaking gibberish: “When you talk about the past, that’s all in the future.”
Best Sketch: This accolade easily goes to “How 2 Dance with Janelle”, the sketch where Sasheer Zamata plays a 15 year-old girl who is hosting a live dance blog when her father (Rock) storms in and gets real angry and confused about technology. This is because of Kyle Mooney, who plays Janelle’s best friend, and who carries a torch for her. Mooney is so great at playing introverted weirdos, and the look on his face when he tells Janelle that he loves her, a statement seemingly ignored by everyone in the room, is so puppy-dog sad, that it instantly crystallizes his whole character’s story.
Weakest Sketch: The previously mentioned sketch where Rock and Jones play a married couple wins this one. Between the stilted line readings, stilted acting, and just straight up dead air that would last for seconds, this one should have been cut at dress. The fact that it wasn’t is really the most telling example of how weak this show was.
Other Notes: The pre-taped stuff is iffy as well; the best bit is about super polite bank robbers, as it has some pretty great production value, and a great moment where Mooney and Bobby Moynihan, as bank robbers, play brothers on opposing sides of the Civil War to literally “teach a kid a lesson”.