Look: Peyton Manning killed it on SNL in 2007, especially with the United Way sketch, during which he slammed kids with footballs and punished one little boy by sentencing him to 20 minutes in a Port-O-Let. I wouldn’t have wanted to follow that act, and neither, for some time, did Eli Manning. Professional sports and sketch comedy are kind of like olives and alcohol: Sometimes you get a dry martini; other times you get a salty, piquant kumquat margarita with horrible flotillas of blue cheese. The brothers Manning have represented themselves well across the comedy spectrum — remember the Simpsons episode “O Brother, Where Bart Thou?”? — and I’m sure basically anyone else who works for ESPN can come up with some kind of sports analogy for three people batting a thousand or the odds of a genetic pool having the dual characteristics of funny and sporty. Maybe that can be edited in. I can only come up with “it’s unlikely.” Considering those odds, Eli Manning did a great job of soldiering through this past weekend’s only-pretty-solid episode of SNL. Peyton may have an edge in the comedy hosting game, but Eli still has double the Super Bowl championships.
But first, it bears mentioning that Rihanna, who has negative one fucks to give, skipped the dress rehearsal of her performance due to illness, which was to take place in front of a (disappointed) live studio audience. Perhaps she can borrow some of the fucks reportedly given by Lorne Michaels and the rest of the producers. She didn’t seem as ill-prepared as, say, Lips del Rey, but one wonders if her dance in front of a giant goth spiderweb might have been more nuanced if it had been given a dry run. It doesn’t really matter, though, because Rihanna’s charm is largely due to the fact that she rolls blunts on people’s heads unapologetically and refuses to adhere to any sort of predictable pop-star lifestyle. I like Rihanna because of this, and even though her second performance (“Where Have You Been”) was a weird clash of Egyptian dancers and Hank Snow/Johnny Cash lyrical references, I don’t know that a dress rehearsal would have elevated it unless there were pyrotechnics that were spared when she was getting injected with penicillin and wandering around eating apples (the nerve!). Nobody wants a performer to call in sleepy, but the kind of performers who call in sleepy and still manage to pull off a show deserve some respect. Sometimes it seems like we fabricate fucks out of nowhere on slow news days. So that’s that.
After an intro parody of Fox & Friends (made accessible to the sizable chunk of SNL viewers who have probably never seen an actual episode of Fox & Friends by Bobby Moynihan’s great Brian Kilmeade impression: “What’s black and white and lies?” followed by his co-anchor’s protests, “Oh, no no no no no, Brian, do not say Barack Obama!”), Eli gave a fairly weak monologue — mostly revolving around his new New Yorker-by-way-of-Hoboken status and peppered with fuhgeddaboudits — his all. He didn’t pause for applause, but wasn’t as stiff as he could have been. He just seems so nice, it was easy to imagine living rooms full of moms across the country digging their fingernails into the seat cushions of their sofas, willing him to not let us see his eyes traveling across the cue cards. In place of a kind of bam-bam-bam automatic weapon wit, being warm and smooth in an intro is the best you can do. Speaking of those cushion-clutching moms, the intro was followed by a Mother’s Day–themed Amazon commercial spoof of the masturbation-inducing Fifty Shades of Grey e-book. It wasn’t “Shy Ronnie,” but who doesn’t enjoy seeing a child sing into a vibrator as if it were a microphone?
(By the way, the biggest criticism I’ve heard of Fifty Shades of Grey is that the word “quirked” is used recklessly and inappropriately: Smiles, mouths, and eyebrows quirk around like nobody’s business. Maybe due to the fact that the letter k — and qu- standing in for k-sounds — is funny, this has killed at least a handful of lady boners, and when I watched Vanessa Bayer shooing her husband and kids out of the bathroom as she luxuriated in the tub with a latex glove, all I could think of was the fact that our most famous recent piece of erotica could be so much sexier if it had had more verb diversity. Eli wasn’t in this one. He should have been.)
An EA games sketch followed, which crawled tediously along until Eli, in a black onesie outfitted with motion-capture balls, offered the game directors his mimed victory poses: throwing a grenade and emitting a high-pitched squawk, brushing shoulder-length hair, and composing, dropping, and then eating an invisible sandwich off the floor. He committed to the physical goofiness well, and this proved to be his strength throughout the show, especially in the sketch that followed. In this, probably the best offering of the night, Manning was on trial for murder and Jason Sudeikis, as his attorney, attempted to prove his innocence by reading a series of text messages sent as the crime was being committed. This one was funny for two reasons: First, seeing a grown-up dude facially embody emoticons such as ;P and :o is an un-panned placer deposit, and second, there’s something unnaturally funny about the universal trajectory of texts that every person under the age of 50 has received on at least one weekend of their lives: “You out?” “You out?” “You out?” with a “Who dis?” thrown in for good measure. Also, a nice self-take of Manning with a banana standing in for his junk. (Accurate? No. “The banana is larger.”)
As a nod to the aforementioned United Way sketch, Eli was then featured in a “Little Brothers” parody spot, championing a crew of youngsters harassed by their older brothers. This one was tough: On the one hand, it lacked the comedic punch of “United Way,” but on the other, it’s always fun to see an athlete give a 10-year-old a swirlie. Maybe the joke suffers ever so slightly from the removal of straight-up hero-athlete-on-helpless-child cruelty (after all, Eli’s giving swirlies and wedgies in retribution, whereas Peyton was just being an older-brother sadist), the sharpness of the joke dulled a little bit by something kind of sweet and just. Although he did wield a crossbow, recalling We Need to Talk About Kevin, so I guess it wasn’t that vanilla.
I am reluctant to even mention the next sketch, because aged reporter Herb Welch is a character that makes my eyes shut like clams poked with metal skewers. Eli may have been great as a hippie-outfit-bedecked Occupy Wall Street protester, but you can only watch someone get thwacked in the face with a microphone so many times before you go to the kitchen to run the blender so you don’t have to hear what’s going on. Eli wasn’t featured on "Weekend Update" — which may have been for the best, since this week’s Update wasn’t quite as snappy as the rest of the offerings this season, even with the additions of Sacha Baron Cohen (plugging The Dictator) and Martin Scorsese — so he next appeared in the “world’s easiest game show” segment “What Is This?” as Abby Elliott’s reluctant and commitment-phobic boyfriend. This was a fun little inflatable bounce house of a sketch, and could have been pushed way further than it was — Eli’s role as charming joke foil suited him well, but it would have been fun to see his limits tested a little more (you could pack this sketch full of shrugs and squirms, and more of this :o face). I’d like to see this sketch again, especially because Abby Elliott is so great and deserves as much screen time as she can get.
Ah, but then things got Ikean with an almost Ionesco/absurdist Swedish version of Chelsea Lately (“Helga Lately”). Manning was impressively adept at rattling off fake Swedish peppered with words like “championship,” “meatballs,” and “football,” but it was hard to know what to make of the sketch as a whole. Kate McKinnon licking a fish dipped in vodka? Kenan in a blond Afro wig? Swedish Kardashians? When will they all just turn into rhinoceroses and get crushed under a hail of Malms and Hemneses? And then things got even weirder, and the evening more populated by the song of crickets, with “Miss Drag World.” Eli Manning in drag could have been funny, but a dress and the moniker “Miss Chicken Fried Steak” does not a hilarious situation make. He wore his frosted lipstick well, and the failure of this sketch was not his fault. It was just one of those ideas that should have been swaddled, placed into a basket, and sent down the river to a free college improv show.
The show ended on a semi-solid (a gelatin consistency, maybe) note with “TCM Comedy: Cheech and Chong”: Eli played the straitlaced sidekick in the back seat of Cheech and Chong’s hotboxed ride (or wearing a sweater over his shoulders as they rode a giant alien joint in outer space), who exited the plot earlier with each subsequent appearance due to his aversion to the magic plant. The best part of this sketch was Sudeikis’s Robert Osborne rolling a joint, hitting it, and then scrambling his own name. The worst part of this sketch was that the punchline (Manning) jumped out of the promisingly funny situation before things heated up. In a way, it summed up what kept Manning’s performance from being all that it could have been: the good and kind kid brother who was framed as too sweet to be sour and too nice to be mean. He was great in that he did all that was asked of him and gamely got silly while never flubbing or skipping a beat — but he was so good at what he did with the material he was given that I felt his range could have been tested more. If you’re going to slap frosted lipstick on a quarterback, you better make sure you don’t give him lead poisoning for nothing. There are a lot of Giants fans out there who would hate to see that happen.