SNL: Paul Rudd Battles for the Spotlight in a Cameo-Filled, One Direction–Hosted Episode

I know it’s been mentioned a thousand times, but I’d be failing in my duties as a recapper if I didn’t note that Paul Rudd has obviously made a deal with the devil. Or scientists. Maybe a vitamin company. He is 44 years old, but he is not 44 years old. Why has his face stayed the same for 20 years? I’m not superficially interested; I’m curious on a molecular level. I’m staring at this and it’s destroying everything I thought I knew about life, mortality, and acceptance. (This is a topic of special significance to any of us old enough to recognize the revival of Bill Brasky from the late-’90s SNL catalogue. Paul Rudd has beat us all.)

Rudd hosted Saturday Night Live with musical guests One Direction this week, and even with special cameos from some of his Anchorman 2 costars (along with SNL alumni Kristen Wiig and Fred Armisen), it didn’t quite one-up the show’s delightfully weird previous episode, hosted by Josh Hutcherson. Whaaaat? I know! It’s not that Rudd wasn’t a great host or that there weren’t several funny sketches — Dan Charles the One Direction super-fan, a divorcing couple who caught the Fleetwood Mac dance bug, and a woman haunted by memories of past boyfriends were among my favorites — but the relative quiet surrounding Hutcherson and Haim created a lot of room for new, oddball material and characters that I found myself missing this week when Dooneese and Ron Burgundy crashed the party.

Speaking of Dooneese, Kristen Wiig’s doll-handed songstress, we didn’t have to wait long to see her familiar long forehead. The cold open this week dealt with The Sound of Music live experience, which for me was only experienced secondhand via your horrified tweets (Carrie Underwood is praying for you, haters). SNL’s condensed version cast Kate McKinnon as Maria and Taran Killam as the Cap’n; as soon as Killam excuses himself to take a “meeting” after eating too much streusel, Dooneese emerges from the gaggle of Von Trapp children to make her songbird voice heard as she sings about sewing chickens to floors and walls. Soon, she’s groping McKinnon’s breast with her tiny plastic hand and using her ass to blow her father’s missing whistle. There was a time when I loved Dooneese, but even when she was warbling under a spotlight à la Susan Boyle, her charms are less powerful now than they once were. Armisen and his attending bubbles appeared at the close of the sketch so he could deliver “Live from New York” with Wiig.

Rudd wasn’t concerned about being eclipsed by returning cast members, though: His previous hosting stints were coupled with big-name musical acts (Beyoncé, Paul McCartney), and he was looking forward to finally occupying his own “Paul Rudd Show.” Sadly, One Direction and all of their hairdos crept up behind him to steal his thunder yet again. Once Rudd realized that the lone cheer for Liam wasn’t a funky pronunciation of Paul, he brought out his “man band” backup: former SNL cast members Ferrell and David Koechner, and Steve Carrell (who lent his voice to SNL’s Ambiguously Gay Duo along with Stephen Colbert), all of whom — as you know from the press tour to end all press tours — costar in Anchorman 2. After Carrell told One Direction to “sit on Santa’s lap and ask for a pair of balls,” the whole crew renamed themselves Nine Direction and launched into “Afternoon Delight” in all of its myriad harmonies. My happiness at seeing Rudd hosting was mucked with a little by realizing that I now wanted Ron Burgundy — not Ferrell, but full-on Burgundy — to host instead. I love Rudd, but the desire to see a fictional character doing sketch comedy as other fictional characters is, it turns out, very strong.

“Politics Nation,” featuring Al Sharpton (Kenan Thompson) and Rudd as unpaid Huffington Post contributor Peter Douchet (if you’re Sharpton, that’s “doo-shit”), was kind of a yawn other than the image of Thompson wearing the clothes of a clergyman jogger. The pretaped “Dan Charles: #1 One Direction Fan” made up for it. Rudd played a Brony-esque 1D fan in a sea of tween ladies, leading chants and serving up competitive sass, interrupted only by a phone call from his wife announcing the birth of their baby. Click. There are more important things at stake, like cattily singing “Oh, oh, oh, you don’t know your basic facts” to a 12-year-old who hasn’t done her boy band homework. This was excellent material for Rudd, who can verbally slap a teen across the face without seeming like a dick about it. It’s hard to think of someone who could carry this off as well as he did. Also, as Harry mentioned while signing an autograph “all over” Rudd’s back, Dan Charles really is a beautiful name for a little girl.

The Fleetwood Mac divorce sketch worked so well for me that I wonder if I don’t have some kind of Rumours pass that I subconsciously hand out. I don’t care, I loved it. Vanessa Bayers and Rudd played a couple negotiating the terms of their divorce-in-progress while dining with their lawyers (Thompson and Pedrad). They’ve both moved on — Rudd with a secular Wiccan, Bayers with a man named “Duncan Danish” (she becomes upset: “The way you say it makes it sound like a joke”) — but how can you move on when “I Don’t Want to Know” comes on repeatedly and reminds you of how loosely, how fluidly the two of you used to jiggle in your shared boudoir?

I am young enough to enjoy One Direction but old enough to be creeped out by my inclination to choose my favorite among them (shh, it’s Niall, but we don’t need to talk about that here), which put me in an odd position for judging their performances. I felt like an austere grandfather. “Story of My Life” and “Through the Dark” were very sincere, even though in the two years since the band last appeared on SNL, their hairstyles have turned into Philip Treacy hats. Probably due to their X Factor genesis, their televised live-performance skills are sharper than a cute, newly honed cleaver: They work hard enough to make you appreciate the effort, but not so hard that you feel sorry for them.

The Seth Meyers departure countdown has begun, which remains depressing even though Cecily Strong is doing a bang-up job at holding down her side of the desk. This week, Jacob the Bar Mitzvah boy (Bayers) got misty, and it wasn’t because of whatever befell his friend Jeremy because of his peanut allergy. What will happen when Jacob is reciting his speeches to Strong, who obviously terrifies him, without his paternal pal? We also got to reconnect with our recently made friend Jebediah Atkinson (Killam), the 1860s-era critic who last time slammed the Gettysburg Address and now turns his critical eye on holiday movies. As usual, he’s got some points (Charlie Brown could use a little One Direction coif assistance), but he knows he’s treading on thin ice when he rips into the story of Jesus’s birth (he “shouldn’t do this one after the audience went full bitch over the Snoopy joke”). I love Jebediah’s willingness to break the fourth wall so openly on “Update,” where reacting to the temperature of the audience has a loose rule book. It seems to give Killam a lot of space to play around, Stefon-like, and it was nice to see him come back.

Just to scandalize the youngsters who were allowed to stay up past their bedtimes to see Harry Styles, “Michelangelo’s David” aired some minuscule sculpture penises in full view. That’s cold! Rudd played the model for the unflattering artwork at an unveiling, accompanied by his girlfriend (Strong), whose levels of disappointment only increased when she learned that, despite the sculpture’s state of repose, its “full erection shows he’s ready for battle.” Rudd was so up for this sketch — pardon me — that it almost came together (he’s “a grower, not a shower,” as they said back in 1504), but I still expected it to go a little bit further. I mean … you know what I mean. Now that the children had been exposed to disappointing nudity, it was time to push the envelope for another demographic with a spoof trailer for White Christmas, the black holiday movie for white audiences. Take that, Tyler Perry/Best Man Holiday. Rudd as Madea (gun in hand) and Mike O’Brien as a guy with a necklace layered over his turtleneck made this “the Macklemore of movies” (according to Essence magazine), but though the skit seemed to be designed to offend (and closed with Jay Pharoah asking if they were all going to get in trouble), it didn’t sound any alarms for me. It seemed that SNL was taking itself to task more than anything after so much racial controversy.

I wanted something better from “Santa’s Elves,” which seemed to have good bones on it. Visible bones, actually, because Santa is fresh from the spa and a 150-pound weight loss. His attending elves miss fat Santa. Who wouldn’t? Hipster Santa is a terrifying sight; we know this already. With Santa cycling on his elliptical machine and trotting out the girlfriend (McKinnon) he picked up at Whole Foods, I wondered what this sketch would have been without the moral Greek chorus of elves who “look like dog toys.” Rudd’s skinny Santa needed more script room to stretch out and do CrossFit before his helpers tore him to shreds for including reindeer meat in his new diet.

“28 Miles Away” featured Rudd as Victor, a Papa John’s employee and dud of a one-night stand who crashes our nostalgic heroine’s (Strong) past-boyfriends fantasy. Among Strong’s past lovers — Oliver, with the haunting cologne; Carlos, collector of “exotic cars”; Jennifer, her “sweet guilty pleasure”; and Adrien, the artist with the “erotic watercolors” — comes Victor, in a stained apron, and his now-deceased friend Tony, who walked in when Victor had her on the sink. His presence is like a deuce dropped onto the page of a Danielle Steel novel, but how can you be mad when he brought garlic knots?

“28 Miles” could have closed the show, but luckily we got a Bill Brasky sighting, the first in more than 15 years. The Brasky sketches (there have been seven in total) were cowritten by Ferrell and Adam McKay, and this time Rudd and Killam join Ferrell and Koechner in a frenzy of red-faced, buck-toothed admiration for the mythical figure that is Brasky. Brasky’s friends are, as always, very drunk and very loud, which is complicated this time by the fact that they have congregated to celebrate him at Chuck E. Cheese. What kind of a legend is Brasky? He “gave AIDS back to the monkeys,” and circumsized a buddy “with a jagged tuna-fish can while … on a trampoline.” You know: that kind of guy. I don’t know if it’s the teeth (the prosthetics are difficult to work with, yet very effective), but I love Brasky, and Rudd’s chemistry with his Anchorman 2 costars worked excellently here.

So far, it’s been a mostly smooth transitional season for SNL, and though I didn’t laugh as hard at this episode as I did during the previous one, the shift in tone has worked to its advantage. The weirder it gets, the fresher it seems (I know some of you are going to come after me with your tweets asking why this show is still on the air, so I’ll give you the Dan Charles side-eye in advance). The next two shows feature John Goodman (a former Bill Brasky buddy) with Kings of Leon and Jimmy Fallon with Justin Timberlake. All I want for Christmas is for them to be handed things like “Bugs: Where the Heck Do You Gotta Be?” and to creep around the floor in filthy Papa John’s uniforms. It would make a lovely nativity scene.

Filed Under: Anchorman 2, One Direction, Paul Rudd, SNL, Will Ferrell

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Tess Lynch is a contributing writer to Grantland.

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