This season of Saturday Night Live has been far from a disaster, but could the star of The Disaster Artist save what’s been an inconsistent season thus far? Despite James Franco’s best efforts, the answer was no. Every episode has had its share of highlights, but digging through the misses has sometimes taken more effort than would be ideal. There’s always something that works, but the show is still trying to pair this writing staff with this cast in a way that consistently highlights the strengths of both.
Next week’s Kevin Hart-hosted Christmas episode may break the streak and provide the first top-to-bottom strong episode of the Fall/Winter run. In the meantime, let’s ignore the coal and focus on the gifts that SNL gave us this week. Here are three sketches people will be discussing over the next seven days.
Visit With Santa Cold Open
Cold opens haven’t exactly been the show’s strong suit this season. Those involving Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump have often seen initially loud audience reactions turn into muted laughs within seconds. Rather than look at the epicenter of 2017’s storm, this cold open pulls back to see how the current political landscape is affecting the next generation of voters. Shifting that perspective yielded the best opening sketch of the season.
Having a group of kids deliver awkward questions to Kenan Thompson’s Santa is on one level a cheap way to get laughs. On the other hand, many kids are asking similar questions every day. Like the Trump sketches, there’s little exaggeration here, but the presentation of this truth hits a lot closer to home. It’s one thing to talking heads to discuss present-day issues without any clear sense of how to solve them. It’s another thing to see pre-jaded children approach their teens already aware of sexual harassment, the dying coal industry, and the word “feminazi.”
Kate McKinnon, who often serves as the in-show voice of compassion, tells the final child that things won’t always be this bad. But the sketch suggest there’s a lot of damage to undo to ensure things don’t get worse by the time these kids reach the voting age.
There’s drama, there’s intense drama, and there’s “realizing Leslie Jones might actually throw up on live television” drama. There’s a grand tradition of gross-out sketches throughout SNL‘s history (Massive Head Wound Harry, anyone?), and now we can add this insane, over-the-top, legitimately upsetting installation to the mix. We were all Leslie Jones last night.
Several things contributed to this working. Franco’s commitment to his character’s holiday cheer. McKinnon’s consistent attempts to not break. The sheer unpredictability of the blood spurts, which added genuine tension to the mix. The interplay between audience and actors, with the former all but egging on the latter to take things to that next level. If any of these elements collapsed, the entire endeavor would have crashed through the floor. Instead, everything managed to tightrope walk its way to the end, leaving comedic carnage in its wake.
This was base. This was dumb. This was puerile. This was fantastic.
It’s hard to quantify how much a host’s commitment can add to an episode of Saturday Night Live. But it’s easy to see when a host is giving it her or his all. That doesn’t save a subpar sketch: That lasagna sketch was always going to be bad, but Franco sold it as if it were Celebrity Jeopardy. But that effort can sometimes take a fine sketch and send it into the stratosphere. This is such a sketch, with a simple premise that works because of Franco’s utter commitment to the material. It’s not that other hosts couldn’t have played this character. It’s that only Franco could have played this version of this character. When the right host gets the right role, it reminds you why SNL is so potent.
The key to what makes this sketch sing? Diction. Franco’s enunciation: Each line of dialogue is razor-sharp, imparting purpose but also decades of pent-up frustration. On paper, a line like, “Little Pig Boy comes from the dirt” isn’t inherently funny. But at that point in this sketch, uttered in that way by Franco, it turns into one of the greatest jokes in Season 43. Its precision comes from a very patient, repetitious series of call-and-responses that arrives at that atom bomb of a punchline.