Saturday Night Live Season 42, Episode 9: John Cena wrings some polite chuckles out of an exhausted cast

You’re tired right? It’s the holidays, I know I’m tired. I’m working a holiday show right now in my day job and that is EXHAUSTING.

But I take some small comfort in knowing that at least I’m probably not as tired as the SNL cast, who’ve been working one of the more exhausting schedules any cast has in a while. They’re only one show ahead of the normal run, but they’ve been doing them largely back to back with more eyes than normal, and the wear is starting to show.

How’s the Cold Open?

Case in point.

Look, I got paid actual real world money once to write about Breaking Bad. I’m a fan. But bringing on Bryan Cranston to play Walter White for what amounts to Tweet’s worth of joke isn’t going to do anything for me. And then not escalating the joke at all, just riffing on that same thing is pretty lame. This one is just a puff of a sketch, designed more to get a reaction than anything else.

This reads like a sketch that they figured out would be a viral hit (because bringing back an old character) and then moved on because they had a ton of other stuff to do. Like I said, this schedule must be killing them. Bennett’s Tapper is fine and McKinnon seems to be orienting her Conway a little more towards evil this week, but this is just a non-starter.

Who’s Hosting?

As Dwayne Johnson showed his surprising acumen for action comedy coming out of the WWE, Cena is increasingly making it clear that the guy could have a long and successful career in comedy when it comes time to make that move. The guy was a highlight in both Trainwreck and Sisters with a penchant for deadpan and a willingness to go far and do it with energy.

While they seem to limit his roles (more on that in a second), Cena is pretty much carrying this episode. He’s throwing himself headlong into every sketch and having a lot of fun doing it. It’s not a surprise that he’s good for comedy, but this guy could have a long career in it if someone gives him the right set of shots and he was really fun to watch here.

Cena’s monologue is solid, the only time they really play on his wrestling persona and everyone’s clearly having fun. Especially Moynihan who clearly has been waiting for the opportunity to dress up as Rowdy Roddy Piper. And it didn’t go musical, and seemed to even play with their penchant for it, so kudos.

What Sketches Are Worth Watching?

Through Donald’s Eyes

THIS. IS. MY. JAM.

Functionally an experimental short in the middle of the show, this is probably one of the more vicious bits of satire SNL has done in a while. This one didn’t get under Trump’s skin because…who knows, this one is way worse than anything Baldwin has done so far, portraying Trump as a petulant and simple-mindedly selfish person, propped up by a series of advisors and self-delusions. Not exactly new jokes, but jokes all told very well and with a smart veneer keeping it together. Besides, I’m into these weird dramatic shorts SNL has been doing this season. This is a phenomenal piece of work.

“Dyke & Fats Save Christmas”

I don’t know why I so love Dyke & Fats, but I do. I think it’s just kind of the joy of these two getting to own the things they’re labeled with and getting to have so much fun doing it. Bryant and McKinnon are strong performers and it’s great to give them a chance to shine.

“Dating Show”

This is one of those just works on the sheer goofy energy everyone is bringing. The chemistry between Cena and Strong is great, as is reminding us from time to time that Bennett and Mooney were brought on as a duo. Plus, any chance Strong gets to wring a little comedy out of her dramatic abilities is right up my alley. Out of all of the “John Cena is actually a massive jock of a human being” sketches of the night, this is my favorite.

“Yankee Swap”

This one is in this section almost entirely for the Kettle Ball gag, which brought the sketch to a quick and hilarious end. The weird bland/deadpan thing that happened in a lot of these sketches works the best here.

What Didn’t Work?

“Science Presentation”

And here begins the first of a weird recurring theme tonight. The “Cena is A Jock Who Conflicts With Nerds” sketch. There are numerous subconscious reasons for this I’m sure, but whatever they are, it takes over the show and gives it an occasional mean spiritedness I’m not sure is intended or good for the episode.

So, yeah, that sketch #2 (Dating Show is #1). While this one hits close to home in some ways (I’m from Alabama, I know the jokes being made here all too well), that only helps the weird non-specificity stand out more (Nick Saban is an impersonable guy, why would you not?). The goofiness and Cena’s dedication is admirable, but it’s a sketch that shows its cards right up front and doesn’t go anywhere or ultimately have anything else.

“The Karate Teen”

That sketch #3.

I just didn’t get anything here. It’s kind of a long wind-up for an obvious joke that never made the second turn-around. This is all production value, but can we admit at this point that we’ve gotten everything we can get out of The Karate Kid. What else can you parody about The Karate Kid? Nothing.

“Where’d Your Money Go?”

Again, another sketch that never really went anywhere. Cena’s Gronkwoski is a fun impression and I kinda love what Moynihan’s doing, but it’s directionless as a sketch and kind of just wanders to no conclusion. Thompson’s Charles Barkley is like 90% of the laughs here honestly. Maybe my lack of sports knowledge hurt me, but there was nothing there.

But I still know that there’s nothing to that McGregor impression.

“United States of Talent”

Just bad. There’s only so much to get out of audacious or gross-out humor. Sometimes you get “Farewell Mr. Bunting.” Most of the time you get this, wherein a prop owl shits and vomits all over Cena and Day. That’s the joke. For 3 minutes. Wee.

“Erotic Bookstore”

Points for the sheer outsized goofiness of the whole thing, but just seemed like they had “Cena kinda looks like Fabio if you put a wig on him” and sputtered around that premise for a while. It looks like more fun than I laughed at it, and maybe that’s my problem.

Weekend Update!

Another week, more Trump jokes to attempt to deal with the horrifying 80s-satire we now live in. Jost and Che are in a groove for better or worse, buoyed largely on the show around them. They seem to get at least one or two good digs in a week, float around a series of “eh” material. I wish they would be a little more pointed, but what they have does work.

The line of the week is in regards to Trump’s recent announcement that he would continue executive producing “Celebrity Apprentice” during his Presidency to which Colin Jost responds that this is “an absurd, unethical, and possibly illegal conflict of interest… only on NBC!” I’m a sucker for biting the hand that feeds. Thanks The Simpsons!

Both the correspondent pieces were fun, a strong night considering Strong and McKinnon are (for me) the current Update/Show MVPs.

Merkel’s return is welcome, considering her resurgence into the spotlight as something like the last defender of sanity in the Western World, and McKinnon has a lot of fun with her. The details aren’t as weird, but that line about the alt-right (“In Germany, we call it ‘Why Grandpapa lives in Argentina now’) is killer.

Cathy Anne has been a character I’ve had a mixed relationship with, but this was one of her more fun appearances, actually finding something weirder and more specific and actually making a solid observation or two. Kudos for finding the center here Cathy Anne.

Did You Actually Watch The Musical Guest?

No.

MVPs!

This was a great night for Kenan, who’s this show’s glue in a weird way. The most veteran cast member, he can be counted to show up in pretty much any sketch and do something to get a laugh or to keep the train chugging. That seemed to be a lot of tonight for him, keeping things moving and hilarious and getting whatever laughs there were to have.

Season so far:

Kate McKinnon – 2
Cecily Strong – 2
Beck Bennett – 1
Jost and Che – 1
Leslie Jones – 1
Kenan Thompson – 1
Ensemble – 1

Final Thoughts!

Tonight just felt aimless in a big way. There wasn’t enough going on in any given sketch and Cena and the cast can’t save all of them through sheer energy. Take a break SNL, it’s gonna do you a lot of good. But we know that’s not happening, so let’s hope the holidays gives them a little more incentive to get a fire going.

Season Rankings (Shamelessly stolen from SNL Scorecard)

  1. Dave Chappelle
  2. Tom Hanks
  3. Lin-Manuel Miranda
  4. Emma Stone
  5. Kristen Wiig
  6. Margot Robbie
  7. Benedict Cumberbatch
  8. John Cena
  9. Emily Blunt

Next Week: You have Casey Affleck over for the holidays! It’s gonna be real intense, I’m sure.

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