'Saturday Night Live' recap: Eli Manning plays dumb, Rihanna plays dirty, Sacha Baron Cohen and Martin Scorsese play along

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Image Credit: NBC

I know close to nothing about sports (except when I throw a balled-up piece of paper into the trashcan and know that it’s customary to shout “Kobe!” while doing so). But one of the few things I do know is the name Eli Manning. After all, here’s an athlete who has managed one of the rarest of feats in pop culture: being so high-profile in the zeitgeist that not only does an athletics layman like myself know his name, but he gets to step onto the Grand Central set and host Saturday Night Live.

So how did the Giants quarterback do as a primetime player?

If you had optimistically high hopes for Manning’s opening monologue on the third most exciting night of his life (after two Super Bowls),  you may have been slightly bummed by the fact that Manning couldn’t read the audience and thus made no effort to pause for applause or laughter (there was a lot of the former, but not so much of the latter). The brunt of the monologue was Manning’s self-proclaimed expertise about New York City, which included recommendations to get tickets to Cats and eat New York cuisine at Olive Garden.

Thus began the theme of the night: Manning as dimwitted doofus. Whether this reflects something about Manning’s public persona or if it’s simply an easy approach to writing for a gawky jock, I don’t know — but Manning was up for it, and in any case, he delivered on what he was given (although his cue card reading skills could use some polishing).

A fake advertisement for Fifty Shades of Grey on Amazon’s Kindle e-reader will most likely make its viral way through the Internet this week. Usually SNL‘s commercial parodies can be counted on for some hearty chuckles, but the send-up of the “mommy porn” erotica novel was thoroughly spot on. When a real Kindle ad followed after the next commercial break, all I could think of was Vanessa Bayer’s rubber glove.

The show wasted no time in giving sports fans a football-themed sketch. Dressed in a skin-tight motion capture suit, Manning played himself, tasked with performing a victory dance that his video game representation would reenact in Madden NFL ’13. His creative moves included dribbling a basketball, dribbling two basketballs and eating a sandwich, all of which played up some bizarre boorishness that still seemed too mean for poor Manning. (Andy Samberg’s hilarious one-liner as shaggy-haired Troy Polamalu salvaged the sketch’s otherwise oddball ending.)

The night’s first solid skit featured Manning as an accused murderer and Jason Sudeikis (another MVP of the night, appearing in nearly every sketch) as the lawyer who uses his client’s flirty texts — including “You up?” and “What are those big boobs of yours doing right now?” — to exonerate him. Manning knocked the goofy, hopeless flirt act right out of the park, showing no fear as he posed with a banana, demonstrated his emoticon impressions and eloquently pronounced the word “kewl.” If nothing else, the sketch made everyone realize just how awful texts are when they’re read out loud.

Another commercial featured Manning as a for-hire Big Brother bully, which was a thinly veiled jab at the rivalry between the host and his older brother Peyton, who hosted SNL back in 2007. Following that, Bill Hader reappeared as gruff reporter Herb Welch, who was sent to cover Occupy Wall Street (Manning played an enthusiastic protester). As always, Hader’s Welch had only one or two funny lines, which usually stem from his blatant racism towards Nasim Pedrad’s anchorwoman Wanda Ramirez. “As always, we apologize for everything Herb Welch said and did,” said Killam’s newscaster. Apology accepted (for now).

Ah, and then came Rihanna. Singing “Birthday Cake/Talk That Talk” in front of a giant spider web, the pop star delivered one of SNL‘s weirdest performances in a long while, falling somewhere between Lana Del Rey’s narcoleptic gyrations and Ashlee Simpson’s infamous JigGate of 2004. 90% of the performance was a pre-recorded vocal track and Rihanna patting her privates, and the other 10% was Rihanna muttering something and singing the occasional “ooh.” Her second song “Where Have You Been?” featured another transformed stage that held chaise lounges, giant curtains and veiled dancers (whom I’m sure offended someone, somewhere).

Weekend Update was particularly weak, after some throwaway jokes about Obama and Bin Laden and an appearance from Kristen Wiig (her first of the night) as Patricia Krentcil, the New Jersey tanning mom with an awesome toast-making party trick. Update took a turn for the bizarre when Seth Meyers welcomed his second guest from The Dictator, or “what many people are already calling the film of the year.” (I’m pretty sure nobody is calling it that.) Sacha Baron Cohen took the stage as Admiral General Aladeen from the upcoming comedy, although the stunt played of like a desperate plea for attention for the May 16 release. Cohen essentially recycled almost every one of his jokes from CinemaCon until Martin Scorsese popped up out of freakin’ nowhere, an amusing act which managed to save the publicity-begging debacle from sinking further.

Two one-joke sketches followed: “What Is This?”, a game show in which Abby Elliott played a host who took advantage of the show’s format to question her boyfriend (Manning) about the current state of their relationship; and “Helga Lately,” a Swedish spoof of Chelsea Handler that was as unnecessary as it was unexpected. Newcomer Kate McKinnon held her own as Helga Handler, who spouted gibberish for three minutes while peppering in key words like “vodka and red bull” and “Twitter.” Occasional giggles were to be had from Fred Armisen’s Chooveoeuf, Killam’s @Jomosexuell_Snarken, and another insta-hit, “Catch Up Mit Du Khlardashians.” Both sketches started out strong, but screeched to a halt about halfway through.

The rest of the evening’s sketches weren’t any better. The first featured Manning as a Velma Von Tussle-meets-Big Bird drag queen who breaks down after being eliminated from Miss Drag World 2012 (because “her junk fell out twice”). The second was an utterly unfunny Turner Classic Movies installment that explored a scenario in which Cheech and Chong were joined by a third member, Richard, who would bizarrely grow up to become Mitt Romney. Neither sketch really got any laughs, and rightly so, because neither sketch was very funny.

And that’s the show. Despite the unimaginative dumb-meathead approach, Manning was game for whatever silly scenarios were thrown at him — and unlike other hosts, he appeared in almost every sketch that made it to air. Even in a noticeably weak episode, the man showed he had courage, if not an exceptionally strong proclivity for comedic timing. Manning may not have completely scored, but at the very least, he was a good sport.

Read more:
Eli Manning hosts tonight’s ‘Saturday Night Live': Talk about it here!
Eli Manning and Lorne Michaels talk Chris Farley, living up to Peyton, and why athletes make good ‘SNL’ hosts
‘Saturday Night Live’ promos: Eli Manning is Team Wiig

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