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Chris Rock on ‘SNL’: Maybe Next Time, All Monologue?

Chris and Prince do ‘Saturday Night Live.’

Wiping out the ghosts of Bastille and Imagine Dragons past, this weekend’s SNL didn’t mess around with any flavor-of-the-week B.S. On host duties was Chris Rock, returning for just the first time since 1996; on musical-guest duties was the forever icon Prince. For the record, during Rock’s ’96 hosting gig, the band was the Wallflowers. (Says Wikipedia, of that long-ago November night: “Dana Carvey makes a cameo appearance, most notably as George H. W. Bush, who tells Norm MacDonald’s Bob Dole to give up hope on the … election.” F YEAH, 1996!). And so, with all due respect to “One Headlight” — truly, I am currently in the midst of conceiving a karaoke arrangement for it as we speak — this had the potential to be a touch more classic.

But here’s the thing: Some people’s skill sets are more particularly attuned to the strange demands of SNL. Last week Jim Carrey hammed it up like the crazy person that he is, and turned in the exact kind of sloppy hit-or-miss mania that the show does at its best. This weekend, though, was a little sleepy — with the primary exception, sensibly, of the monologue. Like Zach Galifianakis (who went absurd) and Louis C.K. (who busted out a hand mic), Rock basically just did a mini-set. And while it was a little shaky at first, it slow-burned its way to magic.

Dressed in all black, Rock paced around, working himself into a hell of a groove. Winding his way through the Boston Marathon bombings to the perma-fears of post-9/11 New York, Rock got to the Freedom Tower and a devastatingly simple bit. “They should change the name from the Freedom Tower to the Never Going In There Tower. ‘Cause I’m never going in there! Are you kidding me? My God! … does this building duck?!” He mentioned an anti-gun event he’d done in D.C., and how his participation got him all kinds of kooky death threats online. “‘Imma put one in your head’ … ‘I’ll slit your throat’ … ‘Don’t you dare come between me and my weapon!’ And I realize: Oh my God, I need a gun!” And then he explained how he’d come to a conclusion: “I will never get involved in any charity, or cause, for the rest of my life … if you see me talking about a disease, I got it!”

The rest of the show had its moments. The “black intellectual who’d never not support Obama, even if Sasha and Malia told him to ‘shut up, bitch’ in public” was pretty fun …

… as was Bobby Moynihan as Chris Christie (he put himself through kindergarten by working as a mall Santa), the “colonoscopy for chill bros” camera GoProbe, Jay Pharoah and Kenan Thompson crushing it as Katt Williams and Suge Knight, and OUR DUDE Pete Davidson on STDs: “I sent it in a nice way. I was like ‘Hey, ma, sorry to bother you, do you see anything wrong here?’ She responds, ‘Yeah, Pete, definitely something wrong. You’re sending me pictures of your penis.”

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Elsewhere: Beck Bennett and Kyle Mooney gave us another solid prerecorded bit about polite bank robbers —

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— and Kate McKinnon and Cecily Strong, as bedazzled ’90s queens, blacked out and entered some kind of perfect astral plane together:

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There were some truly off moments, too, none more so than a bickering-married-couple sketch Rock did alongside Leslie Jones (still, sharing that much screen time with Rock must have been a hell of a moment for Jones, who’d just been promoted from writer to cast member). For the most part, though, it wasn’t anything more than flubbed lines and weird pacing. Rock was a cast member on SNL for three years in the early ’90s. But that’s a career footnote. He shines when he’s the only dude onstage.

In a great new profile in this week’s New Yorker, Rock says, “Part of me gets a little bored with standup sometimes … It’s like any kid: you get really good at a video game — what’s the next game?” The article’s about Rock’s new movie, Top Five, which he directed and also stars in; the rub is that this might be Rock’s first movie — at the age of 49 — to succeed in translating all that makes him great as a stand-up to the screen. (Advance word on the festival circuit has been mostly positive as well.) The article leaves you full of hope and joy for the dude, but the SNL monologue does just serve to remind us: When it comes to pure stand-up, there is only one Chris Rock. So: hopefully not too bored?

Oh, yeah — Prince (with a cameo from young gunner Lianne La Havas) played, too! Turns out he’s pretty good at music!

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