I had an argument recently about the effects of watching a Saturday Night Live host visibly read the cue cards. I was arguing that it's distracting and sometimes seems to imply a lack of skill that undercuts anything good the performer is up to otherwise. My opponent countered that the whole point of SNL is the roughshod immediacy, and since the cue cards can change at any point from rehearsals to the taping, we should just accept it as part of the show's infrastructure. Maybe because the topic was already on my mind, I was completely blown away by Melissa McCarthy's performance this past weekend. It's kind of crazy that she was never a cast member, because she's a sketch prodigy. The second-time host's skills made watching sketches like "Million Dollar Wheel" — a basic throwaway — like an informative course in how to cram scripts into your being, into your soul, so that they still feel unpredictable and improvised. A mediocre bit dies between the time it takes to set up and when you first check to see how much longer it can possibly lie on the floor until production's janitor comes to carry it away on a stretcher. McCarthy never let that happen, because she never really allowed you to feel as though you knew what was going to come next.
The cold open kicked off with Bobby Moynihan as Kim Jong-un delivering two pieces of important news: First, the reopening of a nuclear complex that will leave North Korea's enemies "chagrined and discombobulated;" and, second, lifting a ban on same-sex marriage because "it is simply the right thing to do" (his eyes were opened by his gay nephew's weekly book discussion groups at his apartment — the nephew was executed anyway, but not because of that). Jong-un's open-mindedness isn't an indication that he's switched teams, however — so don't go thinking that! — because he's had relations with over 17 million women, whom he provided with their first orgasms ("this is not a joke. You can applaud"). Just as he trails off into his NCAA tournament pool, Dennis Rodman saunters in wearing polka-dot pants, fist-bumps him, and delivers your "Live from New York!" Remember when Rodman blew up a cold open in 1996? I didn't, but there he is, preserved in his boa. It wasn't my favorite cold open of all time, but it was good enough.
McCarthy's gig was probably scheduled back when The Heat had an April 5 release date, before it had been pushed to June. Without a timely plug, McCarthy's monologue took advantage of her physical comedy capabilities and sent her tottering around the stage (or just lying on it) in sparkly red five-inch stilettos. By the time Taran Killam enters in a black bow tie to do a dance routine à deux, McCarthy has resigned herself to floor dancing — she's a lady who is "primarily in a Croc." The only joke of the brief segment is a kind of ancient laugh dinosaur (the first laugh ever heard by man in cave times: watching a beetle try to flip over onto its feet as the sun dips lower and lower over the crags and furry humps on giant fanged animals) repeated over and over, but McCarthy rolls around on the floor better than anybody out there, and the fact that she carried it off so well was a good omen for the rest of the show.
The next sketch was one of the best of the night. "Outside the Lines" skewered Rutgers coach Mike Rice by profiling an even more sadistic athletic mentor, Sheila Kelly (McCarthy) from Middle Delaware State. Wearing a serious and threatening pantsuit, hurling toasters at her players ("because you're toast!"), and forcing them to serve her meals ("this is shitty, shitty bread"), Kelly finally takes to intimidating the assistant coach (Jay Pharoah) by sending him stink-eye through the window as he gives an interview to Bill Hader (in another iteration of his great and varied investigative reporter) for the exposé. I guess it would be strange to call a Taser-happy character the right place to stick a subtle performance, but there was something meaty about this skit that came from both McCarthy's commitment and the premise itself. It was provocative and relevant without being insensitive, which is a tough note to hit. Speaking of tough notes to hit, we have to talk about why the Voice parody didn't work out as well as it should have, just like the Shark Tank sketch when Kevin Hart hosted. You'd think that this would be the most fertile ground ever, but something just isn't clicking even when all the ingredients are there. Are the originals just not serious enough — do they already seem like self-parodies? Is Jason Sudeikis kind of snoozing on his competitive reality co-host impressions? Or maybe the writers don't watch the shows religiously, or assume we don't, and just go really broad? McCarthy played a contestant on The Voice giving a poor rendition of the real masterpiece "Don't Mess With My Toot Toot" to judges Adam Levine (Hader, nailing it), Shakira (Kate McKinnon, kudos to you), Usher (Pharoah, ditto), and Blake Shelton (Sudeikis, B-minus!). They're all vying for her on their teams, which perplexes McCarthy ("Is there anyone who doesn't get picked by you guys?"), though she really needs that per diem because she currently lives in "a basement, except there's no roof." Oh, she lives in a hole? That's perfect for Blake, because "that right there, that's pure country." At least it ended on a high note when Cee Lo (Kenan Thompson) appeared because "when someone this freaky comes around, I just pop up like a chocolate whack-a-mole." But Cee Lo! Where is your kitten?!
You poor Saturday socialites who can't see "Ham Bake-Off" will have to engage your imaginations now, because it's not available online ("Push It" is still as expensive to get the rights to as it should be, I guess). Picture, if you will, McCarthy in a pig apron and a blonde-gray bob entering herself in a HoneyBaked ham ("an exciting meat") cook-off for what seems like it might be the 15th consecutive year. Last time, the judges advised her to work on the presentation of her dish, so she grabs the mic from the host (Sudeikis in a mustache), jumps off a trampoline, and engages in a dance routine with Moynihan and Killam, who are wearing pig suits and fierce expressions, while lip-synching "HAM." The confetti rains down after she's shot them with invisible guns and hobbled them for the spit. This can't have been an easy one to pull off, which might be why I was so tickled by it. Maybe this should be a thing: rocking with Will.I.Ham and Britney.
The timing of the next sketch seemed like it was going to be a little too nose-to-tail for me at first, but the pretaped "Bathroom Businessman" PSA was saved by a U-turn at the end (no spoilies). When a desk lunch of poison sandwich drives you away from your cubicle to the bathroom, are you ever afraid you're "flushing [your] career down the toilet?" The portable Bathroom Businessman, which comes in a suitcase ready to assemble, follows you into the john so you can hook up your paper shredder and scanner right in the stall! What great news (it's not great news), until you find that you're blocked from your workspace and the buzzer is going to sound from within your poor exploding body.
I generally like Phoenix, but "Entertainment," which they performed first, is not my favorite. I was also very distracted by the fact that there will only be so many more years for Paul Dano to play Thomas Mars before one of their appearances goes in a rogue direction and ruins the whole effect. Is somebody on top of this? Can somebody get on top of it if not? They rocked mildly. There were a lot of jackets. The jackets remained on the band for "Trying to Be Cool," which features airplane noises and lots of synth. I kind of felt like an episode of Entourage had just ended. It wasn't bad, but I thought it was lacking compared with their appearance on the show in 2009 to promote Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. Let's not play "remember when," because I'm worried that "Weekend Update" might lose its host and we'll be looking back fondly on this halcyon period. Meyers was great as usual, as were Bar Mitzvah boy Jacob (Vanessa Bayer, explaining Passover) and Charles Barkley (Thompson, strapped for cash after a string of gambling losses, and unqualified to comment on Wichita State athletics because he "didn't even know Wichita was a state"), but Drunk Uncle (Moynihan) and Peter Drunklage (Peter Dinklage's gray-haired, sauced alter ego) stole it when they visited to slur about tax season. They let their pickled brains free-associate on Tumblrs/tumblers, immigration reform (boos from the audience), and then broke out into song ("I Want to Know What Love Is"), which, you know, is tough to beat. I'm hoping we see Dinklage host one of these days (let's resurrect last year's Facebook petition).
And then it was "Million Dollar Wheel" time. Hader played the host of a Wheel of Fortune rip-off whose letter-turning vixen had called in sick (well, alcoholic). Filling in, McCarthy and her hair, a meringue of yellow AquaNet magic, couldn't find the D's and revealed the puzzle preemptively. And it should have been one of those skits that sat there like a bag of hair for five minutes and left you feeling empty, broken, and depressed, but instead it was just something to be forgotten with no hard feelings. Maybe it was how McCarthy shimmied around, retreating back to "her area" when chastised, or maybe it was just that she seemed to perform the thing as though she was giving it a lot of credit. She never indicated or projected discomfort or any sense of "how stupid is this," and she was so charming that I wound up forgiving the skit for misspending my time. "Pizza Business," luckily, was built on a much sturdier foundation. McCarthy walks into a bank with a pizza and a dream: to secure a small business loan by convincing the bank's employee (Sudeikis) to give her money for eating other people's cold, leftover pizza. Their chemistry is poppin' off, and this is the sketch to watch if you want to see McCarthy deliver her lines as if she's possessed by a comedy acting spirit demon. She slow-mo's gobbling pizza and cruising by admiring hordes of children, honking her horn with gravitas. This character is like Megan from Bridesmaids’s trucker aunt, and I loved her.
It's almost as if our collective appreciation for the "Swarovski Crystals" family of sketches has left an imprint on the show, because "The Art of the Encounter (Integral Tips for Meeting and Keeping Your Perfect Mr. Right)" had that same otherworldly gauziness and pair of glassy-eyed cohosts that I enjoy so much in the almost–one o'clock slot. Cecily Strong and Kate McKinnon, dazed and wearing the shade of beige that situates them firmly in 1993, attempt to address the ubiquitous problem of being the kind of single person who drops his or her steak on the floor at a party because he or she is so nervous ("Do you? Have you? Yes, you have, if you are") by playing videos showing what not to do ("let's see by watching"). McCarthy doesn't impress Killam by drinking from the punch bowl, but after taking a few pointers she increases her skill level by reciting sports scores ("13 was one of them") and making "the right kind of physical contact" (cupping his elbow while raising one knee, fondling his sweater with her little finger, offering to do the splits on his face). It works ("you seem submissive — can I buy you dinner?"), because the little finger is a powerful seduction tool.
Next week: Another second-time host, Vince Vaughn, and Miguel, whose lyrics I've misheard a thousand different ways that are too embarrassing to print.