SNL: Hozier, Bill Hader, Cecily Strong (CREDIT: YouTube Screenshot)

This review was originally posted on Starpulse in October 2014.

Recent alumni returning to host “SNL” has lately served as an excuse to fill the episode with cameos, with last season’s finale hosted by Andy Samberg serving as a particularly egregious example.  That tendency is not a good fit for a show with a large repertory cast including several rookies and sophomores fighting to make themselves known.  Luckily, this episode only featured two cameos, only one of whom was a former cast member, and neither of whom overwhelmed the show.  Hader did resurrect a few of his most memorable characters, but he did not get in the way of what the current cast is doing.  The bottom line is, it is pretty much impossible to have a bad episode hosted by Bill Hader.  He was in a lot of sketches while a cast member, because he could take on the lead and the utility roles just as easily.  Thus, putting him in the entire episode, as is the norm with the hosts, served to guarantee at least one good performance per sketch.  Let’s take a closer look at each segment of the show:

Kim Jong-Un – The running time of this sketch was about 3 minutes, a speed that is practically unheard of for “SNL” cold openings in 2014.  It harked back to a time when the first sketch could get in there with a familiar routine, make it point, and get right to the “Live from New York!”  But the weird thing about this sketch was that Bobby Moynihan’s Kim Jong-Un impression is not particularly popular, nor has North Korea really been dominating headlines.  This sketch did not really focus on being timely anyway, instead making bizarre observational points about the Korean leader, such as how he fancies himself the world’s greatest athlete and that his haircut resembles Brad Pitt in his current movie.  Ultimately, this was admirable for being stranger than most openings, but disappointing for being too slight to do something with that strangeness. B-

Bill Hader’s Monologue – It has gotten to the point at which a musical “SNL” monologue must be about making fun of the fact that it is a musical monologue.  That does not, however, excuse the tiredness of this premise.  The surprising, but appropriate, appearance of Harvey Fierstein did excuse it somewhat, though.  Although, perhaps this could have been more successful with an even more left-field choice.  Bill kind of sounded like Keith Morrison while recounting his childhood.  As with Fierstein, he has an impression of the “Dateline” reporter in his repertoire. B

WXPD New York – Herb Welch is one of those rare “SNL” characters that never grew tiresome at all.  Still, there was no real reason to bring him back, except for the fact that he would supply guaranteed laughs, such as odd, tangential insults (“Why didn’t you take your wife’s last name?”) and unique misunderstandings (assuming that someone’s bag at a teen virginity pledge contains diapers).  One last thing: Taran’s anchor character said that he was filling in for “the ailing Jack Burns” – odd that he wasn’t replacing Jack Rizzoli, Jason Sudeikis’ WXPD anchor. B

The Group Hopper – This trailer for a parody young adult dystopian movie modeled its aesthetics mostly on current hit “The Maze Runner,” but it took aim at the whole genre.  Ultimately though, its best gags (such as the cuts to the random Asian adult character) really had nothing to do with the likes of “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent,” and that made all the difference.  Especially notable were the moments when it broke away from standard trailer and sketch pacing, such as Bill Hader’s king/queen getting his/her horns stuck. B+

Hollywood Game Night – “Hollywood Game Night” is indeed a real show on NBC, and while this sketch may have implied otherwise, it is actually fairly entertaining and decently challenging.  Also, the celebrity contestants are generally happy to be there (the open bar helps), so this sketch was not really making fun of anything, so much as it was just an impression showcase.  And that can be fine, especially as these were all solid impressions, particularly Beck Bennett’s newly debuted Nick Offerman.  Unfortunately, it then fell into the trap of no more than celebrities being dumb, which did not make sense with erudite actors like Morgan Freeman and Christoph Waltz.  At least Pacino’s answer of “prostitute the whole mattress” for the end of Rhett Butler’s last line, while highly unlikely, did have plenty of verve to it. B-

HelpFund – Pointing out the surprisingly low demands of third world relief funds is an easy joke, but this sketch made it sting by giving a voice to the supposedly helpless villagers.  Thus the joke was then about the patronizing mindset inherent in the idea of the first world saving the third world, a much more layered criticism.  Comedy ought to give a voice to the voiceless, a credo that “HelpFund” took to heart. B+

Jan Hooks Tribute/Love is a Dream – Jan Hooks, who passed away earlier this week at the age of 57, is regarded by more than a few as one of the greatest “SNL” cast members of all time.  The “Love is a Dream” short, directed by Tom Schiller and co-starring Hooks’ frequent scene partner Phil Hartman, was an appropriate and perfectly lovely tribute.

Hozier – “Take Me to Church” – Irish soul rocker Andrew Hozier-Byrne is 2014’s indie rock darling, thanks to this haunting piece with devastating lines like “I’ll worship like a dog at the shrine of your lies.”  This was a no-frills performance of one of the best songs of the year, with Hozier sounding belting out those rich tones about as perfectly as possible. B+

Weekend Update – Colin Jost’s delivery continued to be uninspiring, but that is actually not a bad fit for his off-kilter punchlines, with the bit about schoolkids exposed to heroin becoming fantastic blues musicians being the best of this bunch.  Michael Che was also at his best with his most bizarre and inscrutable lines, notably his implication that Pippa Middleton might make him a victim of revenge porn.  However, Che did not curry favor with his joke about virginal comic conventioneers, quite possibly the most tired gag in comedy. Colin and Michael’s Grade: B-
Pete Davidson – This segment had nothing to do with the BET Hip-Hop Awards; it was just a tossed-off piece about how Pete Davidson’s low self-esteem is expressed in his love of hip-hop.  This did not have to be about the BET Awards, but it ought to have been cleverer.  A further examination of the existential implications of 2 Chainz always shouting “I’m real!” might have been more interesting. C+
Stefon – While Bill Hader’s last episode as a cast member put the perfect cap on Stefon’s appearances, it was inevitable that he would be resurrected for Hader returning to host.  Luckily, the recommendations of Weekend Update’s city correspondent are so detailed and so unexpected such that the formula may never exhaust itself.  Referring to Michael and Colin as “Barack” and “Mitt” presented a fresh feel, but of course the real meat here was the attractions of New York’s hottest clubs, with former MTV personality Dan Cortese becoming the surprise Twitter trending topic of the night.  Other highlights included the doorman who high-fives children of divorce, the Prozac Doobie Brothers (like the smooth jazz concerts in antidepressant commercials), and a club managing to open in the window between Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett’s deaths. B+

Advanced Puppetry Class – The first appearance of Anthony Peter Coleman is one of Bill Hader’s best sketches.  While this dishonorably discharged veteran-turned-puppeteer has not completely worn out his welcome, it would have been wise to leave this as a one-off.  Still, Hader has supreme control of this character, allowing for some excellent line readings like, “Here’s a joke: God.”  Also, the smoking gag effectively demonstrated that this was indeed an advanced class (unlike the original sketch taking place in an introductory class). B

Inside SoCal – Oddly enough, this edition of Todd and Casey’s local access show looked more lo-fi than its first appearance in the Jonah Hill episode from last season.  Like the original, this version was filled with West Coast skater slang, like “gangster” and “pimp,” which can be jarring on such an East Coast show like “SNL,” but Good Neighbor boys Beck and Kyle overcome that by taking on these characters with such knowing conviction.  Really, everyone in this sketch was keyed into the deadpan enthusiasm of sunny SoCal, with Hader notably exploring the comedic potential of trailing off into speechlessness.  Also, Kyle demonstrated how he will probably only ever be a niche sensation, with his darting eyes during the “Ill Investigation” segment at the pizza place showing how invested he is in purposefully bad acting. B+

Hozier – “Angel of Small Death & the Codeine Scene” – Hozier went with a tent revival-worthy foot-stomper for his second song.  The title was more entertaining than the performance itself, though the performance was great, too. B

Cat in the Hat – This tale of Seussian relationship drama managed for the most part to actually to pull off its tricky tonal mix of pathos and whimsy.  This was ultimately standard material about affairs and past lovers, though, but Bill Hader and Taran Killam managed to sell the humanity of the scene by playing the Cat and Thing 2 as real individuals and resisting the temptation to go broad. B-

The BEST OF THE NIGHT is a 3-way tie between The Group Hopper, HelpFund, and Inside SoCal.

Some Bullet Points:
-As part of its 40th anniversary, “SNL” has been airing classic episodes at 10:00 PM each Saturday.  Originally scheduled for the last one was the Alec Baldwin/Paul McCartney episode form 1993, but that was switched to Baldwin’s first hosting appearance from 1990 (with musical guest the B-52’s), which served as a veritable greatest hits for Jan Hooks, with such sketches as Greenhilly, The Garbo I Knew, and Brenda the Waitress.
-Bill Hader grew up in Tulsa, “like an idiot in some book.”
-From the mouth of Morgan Freeman: “We busy ourselves with games so that the mind does not wander to death.”
-“So a Pakistani teenager literally can change the world, while American teenagers literally can’t even.”
-Why do the billboards for “Seinfeld” in the Puerto Rican neighborhood say “I am Costanza” when translated?
-“I was NOT charged with war crimes. My favorite game is NOT Russian roulette. I did NOT lose a full year of my life in porno theaters.”