‘Saturday Night Live’ Review: Season 40, Episode 13 with Host J.K. Simmons

By February 2, 2015

For those of you who may have been wondering why there was no review of “Saturday Night Live” from when Blake Shelton hosted the show, I was covering the Sundance Film Festival, and could not catch the episode during a busy weekend of independent films. But now that I’m back home in the middle of a Midwest snow storm, I’m here with my review of the most recent episode featuring Oscar nominee J.K. Simmons, following his rave reviews and plenty of accolades for his role in Whiplash. It was his hosting debut, so was he able to stay on tempo with the show’s high speed and energy? Let’s run through the sketches.

The Best

The Jay-Z Story – It’s really a shame that Mike O’Brien isn’t technically part of the cast of “SNL” anymore, especially when he’s turning in quality work like this. Mike O’Brien plays Jay-Z in the story of the rise of the now iconic rapper. It’s strange, hilarious and works inexplicably. O’Brien doesn’t do a single thing to act like Jay-Z at all, and makes the cheesiest possible narrative about his life, from the inception of his name to his meeting Beyonce. Bonus points for Jason Sudeikis as Kanye West and J.K. Simmons as Nas.

Casablanca – When Kate McKinnon does wonderful sketch comedy like this, it’s not hard to understand why she’s one of the four lady Ghostbusters who will be in the franchise reboot from The Heat director Paul Feig. McKinnon was flawless as Ilsa in Casablanca, and J.K. Simmons nailed Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine. This was just the right amount of silly, and it let Simmons use his fantastic acting and comedy talents. Even Kenan Thompson in the beginning as the TCM host was hilarious. It’s a shame this quality of comedy wasn’t running through the entire episode.

Totino’s Super Bowl Commercial – Super Bowl commercials are some of the most chauvinistic pieces of advertising, and I’m surprised it took “SNL” this long to tackle that concept in a fake commercials. Playing up the two-dimensional portrayal of women catering to a group of guys watching football, this was some truly smart satire.
The Average

Microsoft Assistant – It’s weird to think that in 2015, there are still people who are using the Microsoft Word assistant (which is a pushpin and not a paper clip now apparently), but here we are. That’s what makes this sketch feels like it’s from the late 90s, though not necessarily in a bad way. But anyway, Bobby Moynihan is awesome and lively as Pushie, and that’s what makes these sketch work pretty well.

Teacher Snow Day – It’s subpar recorded sketches like this that make me miss The Lonely Island. This barely made the cut as an average sketch this week. With the exception of the end with J.K. Simmons, this wasn’t nearly as clever as it should have been. The rhymes felt easy, and the effort put into making the video just didn’t seem like it matched the spirit of the idea. We know the writers and crew of “SNL” can put together great recorded music video sketches, but this definitely wasn’t one of them.
The Worst

Super Bowl Shut Down – Maybe it’s just because I’m not a sports guy, but this just wasn’t funny to me at all. It’s the job of “SNL” to deliver sketches that are funny to everyone, even if the audience is not entirely aware of the pop culture segment being skewered on the show. But in this case, the sketch felt flat comedically. There are plenty of sports themed sketches I’ve seen that landed despite my lack of interest or care in watching a lot of sports, but this just wasn’t one of them.

Miss Trash 2015 – This feels like the opening of a sketch that went on far too long. The premise wasn’t all that funny to begin with and the execution felt rushed and lazy. Even Cecily Strong seemed to recycle a character similar to rough around the edges women she’s played in various sketches before. The only interesting thing about this sketch for me was hearing that J.K. Simmons can sing pretty well. I wonder if he’ll ever do a movie musical.
The Weird

Career Day – This is such a weird idea, that the job at the focus of the sketch has to be a real one. It’s not surprising that it would be real considering all the oddities that are out there on the internet. J.K. Simmons makes it mildly amusing, if only because of how confident and earnest he is when it comes to discussing the job. This skill just makes me disappointed that the sketches weren’t better for Simmons to make his hosting debut.
Weekend Update

Michael Che had the big oops of the night, but since the length of the joke he flubbed was longer than a typical Weekend Update one-liner, it actually recovered much easier for the punchline. As for Colin Jost, his interaction with Cecily Strong’s one-dimensional girl character is what Weekend Update still needs more of. I’ve been watching some of the older but still recent episodes of “SNL,” and there was so much more interaction between Tina Fey, Jimmy Fallon and Amy Poehler, but there’s not enough of that between Jost and Che. We need more camaraderie between the two.

One Dimensional Female Character On the Super Bowl – Besides Kate McKinnon, there’s no doubt that Cecily Strong is one of the best cast members when it comes to recurring characters on Weekend Update. This is a newer one, but it’s certainly working out as a recurring character, and I’m a fan.

Jebidiah Atkinson Reviews the 2015 Grammy Nominees – I love watching Taran Killam do this character, because his delivery is what makes the jokes truly scathing. There’s so much of what he does as reaction to the crowds reactionary groans that feels improvised, and thus genuine. Plus, the character allows for some jokes that might otherwise be much more poorly received if in the hands of just another comedian.
The Host

First of all, let’s just take a moment to acknowledge that J.K. Simmons is the voice of the yellow M&M in all the candy’s commercials. I knew that Tom Kenny, the voice of SpongeBob SquarePants, Doug Funnie and Philip J. Fry, was the red M&M, but I had no idea that Simmons played his peanut counterpart.
Anyway, Simmons was fine as host, but the quality of the show seemed to be the issue, and it didn’t really let him cut loose and live up to the great potential we were hoping for. In addition, as far as the monologue goes, I just wish they didn’t mock his role in Whiplash so easily obviously with this drumming sequence. But hey, that Fred Armisen cameo was fun (though bringing Dana Carvey back would have been even better), and at least Simmons seemed to enjoy himself.

Saturday Night Live - Mike O'Brien - Jay-Z

Mike O’Brien – This guy isn’t even part of the cast anymore, but he had the best sketch of the night, one of the funniest performances, and has such a clear influence on the show despite being removed as a cast member. Achieving something like that from behind the scenes isn’t easy, but O’Brien is really building a profile akin to the work that Robert Smigel used to do with his cartoons back in the 90s (remember TV Funhouse?). Honestly, I’m just glad that his name appears in the Jay-Z short as “A Mike O’Brien Picture” because he deserves all sorts of credit for doing work like this.
The Final Word

Considering that the 40th anniversary special of “Saturday Night Live” is coming on Sunday February 15th, there’s probably a lot going on behind the scenes of the show that’s keeping the writers, crew, etc. very busy. And since this is the last show before that special, it’s not hard to see why the quality of the program fell some. It’s just a shame that it happened when J.K. Simmons was on the show, because it would have been nice to see a talented actor like him used to his full potential. But since he’s likely going to win an Oscar for his role in Whiplash, we’ll hopefully see him return to Studio 8H again sometime later.

By the way, did anyone else notice that the goodbye was a solid two minutes long, almost like someone forgot to turn off the live feed? Usually they roll credits and cut away, but this was a little awkward.

I’ll be back covering the 40th anniversary special of “Saturday Night Live” in a couple of weeks.

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Ethan Anderton
Some of his favorite films include Ghostbusters, The Empire Strikes Back and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, while his favorite TV series include LOST, Mad Men, 30 Rock, Parks & Recreation, Arrested Development and Saturday Night Live.