Review: Saturday Night Live “J.K. Simmons and D’Angelo”

I’m totally the wrong person to be reviewing the cold open of this week’s Saturday Night Live – an interview show hosted by Seattle Seahawks’ Richard Sherman (Jay Pharoah) and Marshawn Lynch (Kenan Thompson). Honestly, I had no idea who they are aside from Seattle Seahawks players. Perhaps I should have outsourced this one to our very own Seahawks fan, Craig Kennedy. Even to write this paragraph, I had to Google their names, so clearly any jokes here are going to sail straight over my head. Given that, I’m going to jump right on to host J.K. Simmons’ opening monologue. Here’s a clip of the Seahawks cold open for you to enjoy, if you’re in to that sort of thing…

J.K. Simmons started things off by acknowledging his robust round of recent appearances from everything to his surely Oscar-winning performance in Whiplash to his infamous Farmers Insurance commercials. However, it’s Whiplash that shaped the monologue primarily with Simmons rehashing his performance as various cast members fail to match his tempo at the drums. Most rewarding was Leslie Jones’s reaction to his verbal abuse: “You betta pump your breaks, J.K.!!!!”

Alum Fred Armisen made a brief cameo appearance to bring the house down with a really amazing drum solo, which is all great and fine but it kept J.K. from actually having to be very funny. It sort of foreshadowed my ultimate reaction to the episode – J.K. Simmons is a great actor with tremendous range and talent. So, why did he feel so unfunny and wasted through the episode? And why has the connection between host and musical guest never felt more disparate than Simmons and D’Angelo?

The only commercial parody of the evening was a fairly clever Totino’s Super Bowl Activity Pack for Women, geared to keep a woman’s mind active while waiting on her husband and his friends during the Super Bowl. It was Vanessa Bayer’s biggest role on SNL in a long time, and she excelled at delivering the concept – simple though it may have been.

Following that, Simmons – sporting a hilariously full head of dark hair – hosted the “Miss Trash 2015 Live from Las Vegas” skit. Given that title, you could pretty much see where this was going. In a skit similar in tone to last week’s much funnier Blake Shelton-led Farm Hunk, many of the current SNL ladies paraded around acting as trashy as network censors would allow. I expected that Vanessa Bayer would again stand out as Miss Trash Vermont, the one woman who checked the wrong box on the Miss America/Miss Trash application form, but the skit ended before anyone could really do anything funny. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I wish it were a minute or two longer to allow the women a chance to shine.

Hosting a show called “Cinema Classics,” Kenan Thompson introduced a retrospective of an alternate ending of 1942’s Casablanca. I’m sorry, but hasn’t this been done before? Simmons did his best Bogart, and Kate McKinnon took on a Bergman who was anxious to leave for all kinds of reasons, including the impending Nazi concentration camps. At the end, I couldn’t help but wonder… well… WTF? Why offer a skit based on a supposed alternate ending to a 70-year-old film? Plus, if it hadn’t been done before, then it certainly had a stale and unnecessary feeling about it.

“Teacher Snow Day” was a perversely funny digital short imagining epic teacher debauchery during an NYC snow day. The highlight was Simmons rolling up in his mini-van naked from the waist down and later leading a high school band singing about the virtues of his ass. This was one of those digital shorts that required full commitment to the concept and a “we’ll do anything to be funny” attitude. Commit they did. Funny it was.

On “Weekend Update,” Michael Che screwed up his lines again, stopping the proceedings for an awkward 5-second pause. Aside from the standard news package, Cecily Strong re-appeared as the “One-Dimensional Female Character from a Male-Driven Comedy,” recreating her very on-point manic pixie girl parody. This character is an unexpected delight – the kind of weird chance you wish they’d take more often.

In unrelated news, Colin Jost wore another brown suit.

The second guest spot on “Update” brought out Taran Killam (oddly unmemorable in the first half of the episode) as his critic character Jebidiah Atkinson, this time reviewing the upcoming Grammy nominees. Killiam basically came in and saved the segment, playfully interacting with the audience’s groans over his bad puns. Reviewing Grammy nominees wasn’t perhaps as fruitful as his eviscerating film reviews, but his enthusiasm and command of the desk was a very welcome presence. Strong and Killiam FTW.

Remember that paper clip character that used to appear in Microsoft Word to annoyingly correct your mistakes or give you unwanted advice? Well, SNL apparently did since they revisited the character with an upgrade to a red pushpin, Pushie (Bobby Moynihan) – the “Microsoft Assistant.” I was all set to hate this one, but, dammit, it kind of won me over. Particularly when Simmons (as the elderly man trying to write a letter in Word) attempts to turn him off by using the “Murder Pushy” command. It was stupid. It was pointless. But somehow (mostly Moynihan’s brilliant, go-for-broke performance), as many of the back-half skits do, it made me laugh. Just a little…

Mike O’Brien, SNL’s arguably most unsung actor, played Jay-Z in what appeared to be a biopic parody called “The Jay-Z Story.” The gimmick of the skit involved white actors playing the major roles of Jay-Z, Kayne West (cameo by Jason Sudeikis), and Nas (Simmons). This was a very strange piece of comedy that (perhaps inadvertently) echoed the growing sentiment that Hollywood continues to demonstrate a low comfort level with ethnic entertainment. Watching O’Brien gleefully, whitely, talk about rapping made the skit funny (“This is insane! I can’t believe I’m great at rap!”), but the undercurrents of Hollywood’s not-so-subtle racism made the skit soar.

Side note: why hasn’t some ambitious SNL writer created a piece where O’Brien plays the great director Mike Nichols? The resemblance is uncanny, and, honestly, Mike O’Brien needs the love.

The show closed with “Career Day,” featuring Simmons (in another wig) as a parent attending career day at his embarrassed son’s (Pete Davidson) school. Simmons’ job was serving as a “Japanese messy boy,” an adult man who dresses as a child and makes a huge mess for the pleasure of wealthy Japanese women (“the boy eats in the manner of a pig”) to the tune of $45k. This skit finally gave Simmons the opportunity to sell some mediocre material as only an actor of his caliber could do (see: Whiplash). The one thing that kept it from being as great as you’d imagine it could be was the absence of one breakout, water cooler moment.

It would have been a great way to send out the show with J.K. Simmons eating “in the manner of a pig.” As it is, Simmons felt wasted and dwarfed by the experience, certainly not what I’d expected from such an omnipresent and memorable actor who made a career out of being noticed in the crowds.

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