'SNL' recap: Host Kerry Washington smartly handles heavy diversity mantle

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Image Credit: NBC

This week’s episode of SNL felt like it had something to prove, though what that was never became entirely clear.

If its intention was to prove that Kerry Washington brings a spark of energy to most anything she touches, it succeeded. If its intention was to prove that Jay Pharoah has grown into more than just a skilled impressionist — and judging by previous seasons, not without a considerable amount of work — then it succeeded. Further, it succeeded in addressing – but only addressing – the elephant in the room that is the lack of diversity in its cast.

SNL proved that it can still do what it has always done: slyly address an issue with comedy and confidence, without feeling the need to offer any real solutions or insight as to how to take care of the problem. Perhaps Al Sharpton said it best (what???): “What have we learned from this…as usual, nothing. Live from New York, it’s Saturday night!” Let’s hope he won’t be right forever.

Last night’s episode was full of sketches that left you confused but intrigued, maybe not laughing your hardest but probably wanting more. Diversity was the word on the tip of everyone’s tongue, including the show itself’s, going into this week’s episode. After Kenan Thompson’s remarks to TV Guide a few weeks ago that the lack of a black female cast member since Maya Rudolph left the show in 2007 is due to the show not being able to find black female comedians who “are ready,” the choice to have Kerry Washington host this week seemed appropriately timed.

Whether she was utilized to play every black female in the news who has been ignored in sketches for the last six years, or whether race was taken off the table altogether… No, scratch that, race can never really be taken off the table. And hot damn, did Lorne Michaels ever put race all over that sketch table last night!

If Thompson says the problem is black female comedians not being ready for the show, perhaps Washington has a break from Scandal coming up, because girl was ready. Even in the most middling sketches, Washington’s energy and commitment to an array of characters was the best part. Here’s to you, Ms. Washington. Let’s take a look at one of the more confusing (and probably divisive) episodes of SNL in a while:

Best Short
I didn’t want to like “My Girl,” I really didn’t. Do we need another SNL short about how much ladies be nagging dudes? Decidedly not. But the twist of equality in also showcasing the bro’s cluelessness, as well, and Washington and Pharaoh’s commitment to the song and rooftop dancing were greatly satisfying. And while they’re about two weeks too late on the peak of “What Does the Fox Say” fame, that song is just so damn catchy. “But he forgot about the cloud. And his cloud is full of BUTTS.”

Best Meta Cold Open

Well, that’s one way to address it: directly. Not only was Kerry Washington bringing us the First Lady for the first time since Maya Rudolph hosted in February of 2012 – “I feel like it’s been years since I’ve seen you” kind of flew over the audience’s heads – but she’d also be called on to portray Oprah and Beyonce in the same sketch (and no, Kenan won’t play either of them).

In case you weren’t clear on this sketch’s intentions, how about a written message from the producers to help you out: “The producers of Saturday Night Live would like to apologize to Kerry Washington for the number of black women she will be asked to play tonight…Ms. Washington is an actress of considerable range and talent and also because ‘SNL’ does not currently have a black woman in the cast. As for the latter reason, we agree this is not an ideal situation and look forward to rectifying it in the near future…unless, of course, we fall in love with another white guy first.” Hmm, funny and non-committal, just how I like my men.

Ironically, those were the only famous black women Washington played all night.

Best Showcase Sketch
This sketch went a little long and could have done with some shots to the school auditorium audience, but some head-scratching was worth it for the hip thrusts from 44-year-old career consultant Heshy from “City of Sewage Fires”, Yemen, played by an all-in Nasim Pedrad and this line from Washington’s Tammy: “I looked, Heshy. Respect my ability to assess a bucket.”

Best Chris Rock Stand Up Sketch
Sure, the game show (with Kenan Thompson doing his best Perd Hapley impression as the host) wasn’t particularly inventive; but it was also really funny. Not to mention Washington nailing the role of a Spelman College political science professor: “Yes we can and yes we did. Twice.” What would it take for black voters to turn away from Obama? Not becoming an atheist (“he does not”) or choosing Brett Farve for a potentially world-ending basketball game against Vladimir Putin, that’s for sure.

Most Uncomfortable Sketch
In an episode that was already hitting the race joke nail pretty hard, a sketch teasing the shortcomings of developing countries felt a little unnecessary. Vanessa Bayer, Kate McKinnon, Kerry Washington, and Aidy Bryant as “the woman” in Greenland, all gave great performances in their roles but after the first 30 minutes of the show, I was about uncomfortable-laughed out.

Cast MVP
Of course Kerry Washington stole the show with her energy and array of characters, but as for cast members we don’t always get to see a lot, Jay Pharoah shined last night, if for his eyeball-defying Shaq performance alone. Pharoah must have gone pitching crazy this week, debuting his singing voice in “My Girl,”, bringing back his love-him-or-hate-him Principal Frye and portraying President Obama and a bumbling Shaq.

Also notable in Weekend Update: Cecily Strong and Seth Meyers both breaking the fourth wall to address jokes not landing, bringing much bigger laughs.

Best Lines:
– Everything about white people watching The Wire: “Personally I thought white people would be more excited about their lines being tapped, considering how much they like The Wire.” “Have you even been at a party and a white person approaches you with a smile and you just know they’re going to want to talk about The Wire?” “It’s like, you watch The Wire, you ain’t volunteer at a school.”
– “Help, I have too many boners. What should I do? Sincerely, Mr. Boners.”
– Washington as Miss Uganda: “What is this? This is not right. Why is she…who are they…how is she?” with escalating rage.
– “Obamacare is doing only slightly better than Guitar Lessons by Mike”
– The Cartoon Catchphrase intros: “Hello my name is Diane and ‘I am what I am,’ and what I am is a small business owner.” “Hi, my name is Gwen and ‘what’s up, doc,’ I’m a registered nurse!” “Hi, my name is Vincent and ‘yabba dabba doo,’ I’m a waiter at a steak restaurant.”
Extras:
– Eminem’s performances don’t appear to be available on Hulu but he fluctuated between amping, inaudible, energetic and, at times, questionably lip-synced, with assists from Rick Rubin on “Berzerk” and Skyler Grey on “Survival.”
– It was great to see a Lou Reed tribute.
– I have to hope that Washington telling Bayer to handle her use of “da club” in her monologue was a shout out to her Save the Last Dance character making “slammin’” a thing so many years ago.
– The Cartoon sketch didn’t nail it the whole way through, but I really lost it at the third Duane appearance. Whether it’s Miss Greenland, an enraged girlfriend or a docile school teacher, a distraught Aidy Bryant gets a laugh out of me every time.
– WHAT HAPPENED AT THE ICE CREAM SHOP? I don’t know, but for a 12:55 spot, I like these experimental sketches, even if they’re more thought-provoking than laugh-inducing.
– The Diss or Date sketch was filler but some of the ladies’ lines were both terrifying and realistic to those kinds of MTV shows: “Three things about me are, I love fettuccine alfredo, if I’m tickled, I dump, and my doctor told me my tongue is as big as a horse’s tongue.”
– Amongst Angela Merkel’s Google history and “tiny e-mails”: Is toe hair normal?, Nickelback tour schedule, Jason Segel no shirt, and “Sorry wrong Friedrich, but how are you doing?”

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