Saturday Night Live, Ep. 40.08: “James Franco/Nicki Minaj” is the season’s most mismatched outing

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Saturday Night Live, Season 40, Episode 8, “James Franco/Nicki Minaj”
Aired December 6, 2014 at 11:30 pm ET on NBC (East coast version watched for review)

Let’s just dive right into this, shall we?

The Host: James Franco is a renaissance man if there ever was one, as he points out in his monologue and practically every time he goes on some kind of comedy variety late night program to promote his work. This never really comes out in his SNL appearances, as Franco comes off as just being happy to be there. Sure, we are always safe in the knowledge that at some point Seth Rogen will show up, as is his wont, and he shows up twice in this episode, but nothing of the non-jester side of Franco ever really shows up when he heads down to 30 Rock. You’ll see hints of the strange underbelly of Franco occasionally, like in the “Peter Pan Live” sketch, where Franco does an oddball Christopher Walken impression for the ages, which is really less an impression and more a post-modern performance about how our impressions of celebrities are actually just one singular impression broadened to the point of absurdity. But ultimately, James Franco is just a hard working guy who will break at a line about pooping his pants.

Musical Guest: Nicki Minaj ends up being as big a part of this episode as the host, appearing in an update segment and two sketches, in addition to her two musical performances. Weirdly, the non-musical capacity turns out to be the better part of her work on the show. Minaj’s two performances are stunted, with her flubbing a verse in the first and overall just seeming absent-minded. Part of the appeal of Nicki is the insane amount of charisma and swagger she brings to her songs, and while some of that is on display when she is acting, it’s totally absent when she is performing.

Weekend Update: The update desk has always been the show’s best environment for more straightforward political commentary. Part of this is due to the trappings of it being a fake new shows, part is largely due to update being more authorial than the rest of the show. Sometimes this means you just have someone swinging for the fence instead of necessarily trying to be political (Dennis Miller), but that approach only works if you have someone with irrationally piercing wit (Dennis Miller). Modern versions of Update have not really had a sharp political edge since the end of “Really?! with Seth and Amy”, but all of that has changed with Jost and Che behind the desk. The cold open had already dealt with the Eric Garner grand jury verdict, as the cold open has become the place for SNL to make its political points and move along. So it’s a bit of a revelation to see Jost and Che open Update by seriously digging into the consequences of the verdict. After Jost exhaustively explains to a flabbergasted Che the ridiculousness of no indictment being made, Che responds simply by saying “No, I knew it. I’m just surprised every time I hear it.” And where Update even a year ago would’ve moved along, Che goes on to talk about how “it used to be you’d have to say you were racist to avoid jury duty” and that better juries are the only way to prevent miscarriages of justice like this; Jost retorts by comparing holding a grand jury involving race in Staten Island to when the Rodney King trial got moved to a predominantly white suburb. There’s no guarantee that Jost and Che will keep Update as a platform for airing political grievances, but couple this approach with great one-liners, solid panel segments like Leslie Jones, relationship expert, the return of Anthony Crispino, and Nicki Minaj playing Kim Kardashian, and we may be witnessing the birth of a new classic Update anchor team.

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Best Sketch: From a pure sketch standpoint, this accolade goes to the “New Password” sketch, wherein Pete Davidson’s character’s brain has to purge unnecessary information in order to remember a new network password. What proceeds is an increasingly specific lists of references that are no longer vital to Davidson’s existence. This sketch is all concept, but when that concept has James Franco shouting at Taran Killam impersonating a song, – Savage Garden’s “I Still Want You” – Aidy Bryant as the word Rhombus, and ends with a Billy Zane line from Titanic (“Who remembers a Billy Zane line from Titanic?”), who needs character arcs? But the real standout of the show is a short by former cast member/current writer Mike O’Brien. O’Brien was responsible for the “Monster Pals” short from last season, and his penchant for embodying loneliness and fleshing out weird ideas is on full display in “#Growaguy”. O’Brien’s creative voice is so singular that seeing SNL allow him to do his own thing earns the show at least a season’s worth of goodwill.

Weakest Sketch: The episode is in no way coherent, not that any episode of SNL is particularly coherent, but the quality is all over the place. With out and out winners, like the return of Tonker Bell in the “Peter Pan Live” sketch and Franco playing a local politician angry that he lost to a four-year old, paired with tonal duds, like a sketch about a troll bridge and the ex-porn stars going through the motions, there is nothing to really build momentum segment to segment.  The weakest sketch, however, is “Jingle Ballerz”, where a nativity play is performed by people doing weak impressions of musical personalities like Rihanna and RiFF RAFF, made all the more weak next to proven goods like Kate McKinnon’s dynamite Justin Bieber and Jay Pharaoh’s Kanye, perfectly cast as baby Jesus. Even a surprise Beyoncé impression by Nicki Minaj couldn’t make this sketch interesting enough merit a second viewing.

Other Notes: Nicki Minaj appears to accidently drop a couple f-bombs in her first performance, which her second performance, with a few bleeps in it, seems to corroborate. And is Daryl Hannah messing up Charlie XCX’s name when announcing next show’s guest the first outright announcer flub in SNL history?

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