SNL Episode 14: Kevin Hart’s Magical Z-Shirts

First of all: We missed you, Don Pardo, and I really hope you’re recovering from your broken hip. I’d send you an edible arrangement of candied Z-Shirts if I could. Feel better.

I am familiar with Kevin Hart, and I like him. His energy and delivery have the effect of making me slowly scoot toward the edge of the sofa until I’m basically doing a wall squat. It’s as if he’s telling a particularly engaging story at a loud party, and during his monologue I was thinking that this episode was going to be something special. I enjoy seeing stand-up comics host SNL, but in this case I’m not sure that Hart’s approach was a good match for cue-card-based ensemble pacing. It seemed, at times, as though he wanted to gallop ahead of the scene like the taxidermied undead horse in the Steve Harvey sketch, and he ran into trouble on a couple of occasions when he tripped himself up (and called himself out on it during “Weekend Update”). At times, this trait served as a strength (Z-SHIRTS, Z-SHIRTS, GET YOUR Z-SHIRTS), but when Hart was trapped in a dead-ender (Shark Tank, how badly I wanted you to work) his boundless enthusiasm tended to draw attention to the desert landscape of jokelessness. I don’t think that this was within Hart’s control, by the way — not looking so closely at the jokelessness wouldn’t have made it disappear. However, I’m glad I finally started watching The Walking Dead, because I really would have hated to have missed what Nasim Pedrad was doing with Carl Grimes.

The cold open focused on how everyday men and women will be affected by the sequester budget cuts. Obama (Jay Pharoah) doesn’t expect us to be well versed on the finer points of the sequester, thankfully (it’s Saturday night; brains are off duty). Actually, he has no idea how money works, either. Border patrol agents (Bill Hader) are happy to allow “every 10th Mexican” to skip across the border, astronauts (Kate McKinnon) will have to do without their protective glass face shields, public school teachers are finally off the hook for a good portion of the reading list (“Good luck reading Beowulf, you monsters!”), and — well, let’s just say that we already noticed that the meat inspections were the first to go. I don’t think we had to end the whole thing with a nod to the Village People, but I’m not going to be the guy who robs SNL of its Taran Killam slow, sultry slide offstage. Luckily, America will quickly forget the sacrifices we’re making for the cuts because we’ll soon have “another way worse financial crisis to deal with.” Always.

I loved Hart’s monologue, and not just because I giggle whenever anybody talks about Panera Bread, which obviously translates to Bread Bread — a good name for a postdated Shaggs song. Who orders a Reuben at Panera, by the way? Hart’s visit to New York City for SNL was his first since he bore witness to a homeless man putting his palms on a fellow diner’s sandwich at Bread Bread, thus co-opting it and scaring the shit out of Hart when he thought he might be next. The comic stuffed his entire Reuben into his maw in order to claim ownership, then panicked that the homeless guy would reach in there to grab it out, thus infecting him “like the Outbreak monkey.” He also mentioned that he once auditioned for SNL and was turned down after his impressions failed to hit the mark when he whipped them up on the fly (famous last words: “I’m so talented I can develop some right now”). Avery Johnson didn’t jell because white people don’t know who Avery Johnson is, his silent Robert De Niro fell flat (“I felt like that was racist”), and despite the “perfect combination” of sharing a skin tone with Denzel Washington, shooting an imaginary gun and saying “It’s Training Day, bitch!” wasn’t deemed a winner, either. This monologue harnessed everything that people either love or hate about Hart, and because I’m a fan, I found it refreshing — no bells and whistles, no audience plants, no piano medleys, just a man (and if you still weren’t sure who he was, a genuine Real Husbands of Hollywood commercial sneaked up on you during the break) and his jokes.

Steve Harvey Show, I wish I loved you. Kenan’s impression isn’t bad, but this sketch always leaves me feeling a little cold. This time, Harvey opens by apologizing to an audience member who caught fire and lost her eyebrows, briefly introduces us to photos of his “Doggelgangers,” then brings on Hart as a guest whose phobia (pronounced fo-by-a) of horses stealing his jewelry causes “a little pee to come out of my hole, and I’m not talking about the hole in front.” I almost laughed (so sad to write “I almost laughed”) when Hart talked about horses hiding fingers inside their hooves, but by the time Hart and Thompson were hiding behind a chair from a stuffed horse on wheels, I was sort of over this one. The Situation Room is also a toughie for me, despite Jason Sudeikis’s excellent Wolf Blitzer (“Scientists have found a new cause of cancer, and it’s [unintelligible mumbles]”). Quvenzhané Wallis (Hart) becoming Pope Benedict’s successor is kind of a great idea (“the first African American, first female, and first child Pope”), but besides Fred Armisen’s Peter Turkson giving her the stink eye and then finally being won over by Quvenzhané doing the Dougie, this sketch didn’t get much further than presenting us with the image of Hart in Wallis’s Oscars outfit riding a cardinal “like a horsey” (“that’s got to be a first [in the Vatican], but it probably isn’t”). This chapter of the show closed with a repeat of the very divisive Starbucks Verismo ad, which I found sort of offensive last time but many of you found hilarious. I know, I know. LIGHTEN UP, RECAPPER. Sorry!

Rolling right along to the next one: Bobby Moynihan and Cecily Strong reprising their roles as caustic employees, this time at Barnes & Noble, who let loose on their coworkers when they think they’re about to get canned. Hart plays their boss who lost the battle to quell the steady stream of insults (Clark was called a “Jolly Green dickhead,” Trenton was asked why he always looked wet, as though “[he] hatch[ed] out of an egg every morning,” and poor Randrew’s (Killam) “crawl space” of a brain was packed full of “orphan bones”) as well as his struggle not to break up and laugh at Tim Robinson’s old-timey Carl (a human “sleeping bag full of garbage”). This sketch is nothing but a hunt for one-liners with a flimsy premise, but there are always a couple of good zingers on which to hang your hat, like Vanessa Bayer and McKinnon as conjoined twins sharing a pancreas or Moynihan and Strong re-enacting a resuscitation attempt peppered with “bitch”-es. Hart breaking character to laugh seemed almost like a way for him to let off steam and release some of that adrenaline that was visibly kicking around in his system — and speaking of adrenaline, we have to talk about Macklemore and Ryan Lewis.

Are you done with “Thrift Shop”? Fine, I don’t even want to discuss the music. Have you ever seen someone leaping around a stage like Macklemore? He was like a very skinny Too Much Coffee Man, and I thought he was going to rip open his leather tank top to reveal 50 tiny Macklemores playing horns and powering him from within. The clapping during “Can’t Hold Us” was serious clapping, the kind of clapping where you figure that whoever didn’t clap in the audience was probably Tasered in punishment for breaking solidarity. At one point, Macklemore hitched a piggyback ride (the episode’s theme! I see it now!). Also: Did you catch the Daft Punk ad during commercials? Or were you JUST TOO AMPED?

“Weekend Update” featured strange bedfellows Kim Jong Un (Moynihan) and Dennis Rodman (Pharoah), whom people have been mistaking as stars of “a new Rush Hour movie” but who are really more like Winnie the Pooh and Tigger (off an appalled look from Rodman, “Oh, no, I said Tigger. It’s OK!”). Tomorrow they “start Jedi training.” Before Hart came out for an installment of “Really?!?” we were treated to a Photoshopped image of the Fresh Prince of Downton Abbey, who headed up to Yorkshire after “he got in one little fight and his mom got scared.” Seth Meyers and Hart applied the rapid-fire “Really?!?” questions to the Voting Rights Act, calling the South “the Michael Jordan of racism” and getting in a few good jabs (“nothing is more racist than having one black friend,” “not only did Mississippi wait 150 years after Lincoln, they waited six months after Lincoln the movie”) despite Hart fumbling with a cue card and starting over with “Damn it, Kevin, I got it.” In fact, I kind of liked that he handled it that way.

Speaking of race, which found its way into almost every single skit, The Walking Dead parody cast Hart as Lyle, who attempts to join up with Rick & Co. just before being bitten by a walker. Once his symptoms start to appear, Lyle plays his growling and staggering as a pimp walk (“it’s called swag, son!”) and plays the race card when the crew grows suspicious. Of course he bit Maggie — “Would you rather [he] eat some fried chicken and watermelon?” When Lyle starts calling for white-people brains, Carl (Pedrad) shoots him, much to Rick’s (Killam) relief. “Good work, Carl. I knew we weren’t racist.” Hart was great in this sketch (holding up a severed foot, citing diabetes), but I felt like it could’ve been much tighter. Then again, it was light years better than the Shark Tank takedown, which should have been a contender. It really should have. Other than McKinnon’s spot-on Barbara Corcoran impression, however, this was the night’s biggest stinker. Obviously, McKinnon was the only Tankhead, which makes me sad. Sudeikis! You don’t just phone in a Kevin O’Leary impression! Do it proud. Hart was left floundering with a lampshade-in-sunglasses presentation that offered few jokes (“Greetings, shorks”), and it was clear pretty early on that this sketch had withered on the vine.

Mysteriously, Z-Shirts was the best sketch of the night. It should’ve been grating and annoying, but Hart sold it. Is it a B-shirt? Is it a C-shirt? No. Is it a D-shirt? Is it an E-shirt? “You’re dead behind those eyes,” Robinson tells a manic Hart, but Hart won’t stop — in fact, he follows Robinson across several sketches into a funeral home to find him when he’s eulogizing his mother to pick up with “Is it a W-shirt?” Naming the brand Zappy is so funny. I don’t even know why. It just is.

It might not have quite achieved Z-Shirt caliber, but the next sketch was also better than many of the night’s earlier offerings: Patricia (Bayer) and Dante (Hart) vying for the same voice-over role for a Dove “Bites” ad, delivering an identical script revolving around bubble baths, “flowers from the man I love,” and a warm massage. I dig Vanessa Bayer, and whatever she was doing with the ends of her sentences (bringing a “good bookeh” and “the whole bageh” of chocolates to a desert island) was really working for me here. Hart has a great voice, so although this wasn’t my favorite SNL moment of all time or anything, it made me disappointed that there weren’t more moments like this earlier in the night. We closed up shop with Hart as the anchor of 360 Degree News, a man surrounded by eight cameras in order to show “every possible angle” of the story. After landing himself in a neck brace following a minor car accident, the quick chair swivels necessary for the broadcast become impossible, and the anchor is forced to confront the fact that perhaps the normal amount of cameras would have done just fine (though this is, of course, tough to swallow at first: “It’s 360 news, you stupid son of a bitch”). Hart’s head flopping onto his shoulder without the support of the brace and his gritted teeth as he warned about the Lean Cuisine recall were nice touches, and it was too bad that this episode wasn’t more of a success overall.

Next week! Some nobody you’ve never heard of.

Filed Under: Comedy, Justin Timberlake, Kevin Hart, Late Night, NBC, Saturday Night Live, SNL

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Tess Lynch is a contributing writer to Grantland.

Archive @ PhloxLombardi

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