The Best and Worst of Last Night’s ‘SNL’ with Chris Rock

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“The culture’s changing, and I’m not a part of it. This shit is getting hip. This shit is getting blacker. This shit is getting fucking rappier. SNL is still a pretty white show. When I got hired I was the first black guy in like eight years — and In Living Color was just hip. The shit was hot. I wanted to be in an environment where I didn’t have to translate the comedy I wanted to do,” this week’s SNL host Chris Rock told Marc Maron in 2011 about leaving Saturday Night Live to work on the Fox series created by the Wayans brothers.

“[Playing] a Ubangi tribesman or whatever… to where, not that I thought they were racist… [but I] was the only black face that was going to be seen for an hour and a half… It feels racist. It’s not racist. But it just feels like it when that’s all you see… If you’re on In Living Color and you’re a Ubangi tribesman there was a black thing before that and one right after it. There’s a context.”

SNL has faced a number of diversity issues, but the hiring of cast members Sasheer Zamata and Leslie Jones (who also has a seat in the writer’s room with newcomer LaKendra Tookes) took steps in the right direction, offering guests a more inclusive environment to thrive in. And seeing five African-American actors in a sketch last night, with no caricatures involved, demonstrated why this is essential.

Prince makes a nine-minute appearance in last night’s episode for three numbers (“Clouds,” “Marz,” “Another Love”), with the backing of his band 3rdeyegirl. He wears a pair of appropriate three-eyed sunglasses (and rocks a full-on cat eye when the shades come off) — something us peons couldn’t pull off if we tried. It’s an electrifying performance that doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but confirms Prince still has it. After a tepid showing from Iggy Azalea last week, this is the jolt we needed.

The Best

“Chris Rock Monologue”

This one gets a shaky “best” vote. Chris Rock isn’t known for his feel-good humor, but the opening bit referencing the attack on the Boston marathon leaves audiences cold. He then moves on to talk about the Freedom Tower, the commercialization of the September 11 attacks, and Christmas. The jokes feel dated, but a devil’s advocate might suggest that time offers a new perspective. What started out slow finishes better than I predicted, but it’s an awkward transition.

“Vlog”

Sasheer Zamata’s Janelle has her own vlog, “How 2 Dance with Janelle.” Kyle Mooney is her lovesick bestie who spends most of the sketch talking about his boner. Rock plays Janelle’s father who crashes her livestream dance lesson and discovers what #fapping means. Jay Pharoah makes a brief appearance as the awkward older brother. “Vlog” gets close to great, but Rock’s delivery brings some of the energy to a screeching halt. It feels like there are some missed opportunities, but this scenario feels like a potentially fun, ongoing sketch for Zamata’s charming character.

“GoProbe”

The GoPro: made for the active, adventurous… and the middle-aged man who needs a colonoscopy.

“How’s He Doing with Chris Rock”

It’s fantastic to see five African-American actors playing characters (not caricatures) who reflect the stories they are portraying. This sketch has a great build-up that pays off when the group gets to the joke about Scandal and the Obama daughters.

“Weekend Update”

Pete Davidson talks about texting his mom photos of his penis. Jay Pharoah breaks out his hilarious Katt Williams impression. Michael Che stumbles, but keeps on trucking like a pro. It’s hardly a perfect sketch, but there are some memorable one-liners from all involved.

“Swiftamine”

Taylor Swift, who? I was distracted by Leslie Jones’ amazing horror face (and later, tutu!) when she finds out she’s been working it to a T-Swift track.

“Robbers”

This is a friendly bank robbery, where the crooks offer hostages a glass of water and a comfy chair to sit in. Aidy Bryant’s blood-curdling scream and the reveals that follow provide instant laughter.

“Women in the Workplace”

I might be warming up to Cecily Strong after seeing a few of her weird late-night sketches that don’t involve the “ex-porn stars.” This spoof on old workplace training videos is a bizarre one. I question how funny it would be if not preceded by an evening of lukewarm sketches, though.

The Worst

“Christie Cold Open”

Bobby Moynihan’s impression of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie always has its moments. But why are we digging into the Hurricane Sandy crisis for jokes? Audiences are acquainted with Christie at this point.

“Shark Tank”

SNL hasn’t been transgressive in ages. Unfortunately that means when the writers whip a topical doozy out of their back pocket, the audience reacts with total silence. And to make matters worse, SNL tends to play it safe in the end — in this case finishing a sketch about ISIS seeking funding on the reality show “Shark Tank” with the FBI nailing the baddies. Sigh.

“The Couple”

I love the old-school feel of this sketch. But Rock’s odd pacing and the awkward silence that happens when Leslie Jones forgets her line are just a few of the issues. Also, is that the second or third Uber joke of the night?

Musical Guest: Prince