Zach Galifianakis likes to make people uncomfortable, and he’s very skilled at it. Besides two previous hosting gigs (pianos, removal of facial hair and hair-hair), Galifianakis’s SNL past includes being thrown out of the audience for trespassing and getting canned after two weeks on the job as a writer, so when he advised the audience not to get their hopes up, it seemed like a suitable enough disclaimer: Galifianakis does what he does; he’s unwilling, or possibly unable, to do anything else. His shtick hasn’t changed much over the years, but his weirdness has found its place in the temperate tropical breezes between the ferns of time. His most recent turn as host was even better than when he dressed up as Annie and lip-synched to “Tomorrow” in 2010. Like a fine, stocky half-Greek wine, his brand of comedy is aging well, and this was a great episode despite universewide disappointment that Jennifer Aniston was nowhere to be found in the final seconds of her look-alike contest spot. That Vanessa Bayer was such a dead ringer only made it a crueler tease. If you need me, I’ll be crying over at Darrell’s house where I can re-cut everything with more egg rolls and Aniston.
When the cold open is “Fox & Friends,” you are free to zone as long as you catch the best Brian Kilmeade (Bobby Moynihan) reaction (confronted with a giant prop Big Gulp, he screams “OH MY GOD, ARE WE SHRINKING?”), nod to the guest (Fred Armisen’s great deadpanning of New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg), and then do a diligent slo-mo track through the corrections list (“Kentucky Derby losers are not turned into IKEA meatballs,” “The chupacabra does not deliver presents on Cinco de Mayo,” “New York exists outside the mind of Billy Joel,” “Plan B birth control is not masturbating”). The corrections served as a great lead-in to Galifianakis’s monologue, which was a similarly disjointed series of jokes ranging from playing charades with deaf people to getting urinated on in the parking lot of a Cracker Barrel. This season has featured a few less-structured monologues (Kevin Hart, Louis C.K.) and, maybe because I was pretty sick of the choreographed musical numbers, I’ve been really enjoying the shift. Galifianakis pawed out some mall music on the piano while riffing (“Here’s something you’ll never see in Braille: If you see something, say something”), as he does, and then explored the limits of Google (nothing for “How many Mexicans live in North Korea?” but if you’re searching for Dave Navarro’s candle count, the Internet’s got you covered). The audience was particularly warm toward ZG, sticking with him even when his setups weren’t followed by punch lines. The tone was right, but there’s also an element of spontaneity to these types of openers that seems to indicate the producers trust the performer — instead of being saddled with interactions with audience plants or a handful of background dancers, Galifianakis was turned loose like a wild, furry pony.
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“Game of Game of Thrones,” another proud member of the Bill Hader–hosted game show spot colony (they breed while you sleep), featured three GoT fans competing to test their knowledge of Westeros and beyond. Unfortunately for Duncan (Galifianakis), he was mostly quizzed about the beyond: the capital of Wisconsin, Roth IRAs, and the name of a single living painter. I don’t know if this sketch would have played as well without Duncan, dressed as a dragon, guessing the identity of a photo of Ruth Bader Ginsburg to be “I dunno, some old pilgrim,” but thankfully I’ll never have to guess. The premise of this sketch was sort of flimsy — surely there’s room in the ol’ noggin for practical information as well as a memorized geography of The Crownlands — but skits that take on grand media themes and devoted fan bases often fail much worse than this one did (remember Jeremy Renner doing The Avengers?). I’m no GoT diehard, so I’ll leave it to you guys to decide if the Nikolaj Coster-Waldau cameo was a wasted opportunity.
Speaking of wasted opportunities, I love Kate McKinnon, but her Martha Stewart wasn’t on par with her other grab bag of impressions in the Match.com parody that came next. In the micro-short, Stewart, a user of Match, extolled the virtues of a tiered macaroon and rough romance (“like a rustic burlap wedding invitation”), inviting a man with “callused hands and no debt” to “work [her] body” like the exquisite raw sourdough boule that it is. Part of me wished that Galifianakis had just played Martha Stewart because it was already so far out of left field. Why not go big? I wasn’t hurting to see Galifianakis in drag for long, though, because next came the Jennifer Anistonless Look-alike Competition. The host wore a wig, patterned skirt, and Friends T-shirt along with a very sour disposition at being voted eighth place in the contest — brought to you by Smartwater, naturally — after being beaten out by Taran Killam, Nasim Pedrad, and Bayer (Kenan Thompson’s Whoopi Goldberg was in attendance, too, for no real reason). The purpose of this sketch was to hit you with a ton of Helen Keller jokes followed by varied impressions of Rachel Green and her oh-oh-oh’s, which dangled the promise, of course, that Aniston would show up as the winner. When Galifianakis’s Hangover Part III co-stars Ed Helms and Bradley Cooper took the stage in wigs — well, I know how people felt at Coachella as they were expecting to see Daft Punk and got R. Kelly instead. Still, Galifianakis had some good one-offs (“Also, who the hell is Ross?”) and Bayer’s Aniston deserves a repeat performance.
Of Monsters and Men has terrible timing. When they took the stage to perform “Little Talks,” my ears detached and ran away because they have hit ultimate coy-folk capacity. Mumford & Sons, who were musical guests last fall, and the Lumineers, who dazzled you with their whimsy in January, had preemptively ruined this kind of music for me. I am done for the year. “Hey!” is dead. It’s a dead thing. I have nothing personal against this band, especially its energetic and beguiling Björk-like lead singer Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir, or the guy in the striped suit playing drums and trying very hard to dole out the shivers to listeners. Their second performance (“Mountain Sound”) gave me bad flashbacks to Hemlock Grove as I focused my attention on a man who looked either like a Culkin brother or a Transylvanian Jason Segel, take your pick, and imagined him in a weird supernatural homoerotic embrace with the band member who looks like a Skarsgard. The person I was watching with said he preferred the in-sketch song for “Darrell’s House” (“It’s the fiiirst time/Darrell’s having people over/to his house”) to OMM, but to be fair he was uncommonly fond of the Darrell jingle and seemed pretty serious about adding it to a mix so he could listen to it in his car. We live in a post-Lumineers world, and we have no choice but to adapt and retire our statement hats and suspenders until the weather turns.
“Weekend Update” featured Hader’s James Carville, an impersonation that’s been gaining momentum for a while and has now reached critical mass. Looking forward to a summatime spent with his friend Alligator Joe (an alligator) and his ever-present sidekick, the ghost of Grammy Carville, Hader mimed dealing cards throughout his visit to Seth Myers’s desk before getting into a tickle war with Grammy’s spirit. Tech correspondent Randall Meeks (Armisen) popped by, too, demonstrating Google Glass’s ease of use by repeating commands and whipping his head back and forth like Willow Smith on the Geek Squad. I might be alone in this, but I’m cooling off on Cecily Strong’s “Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With at a Party,” and not just because I have to type her long-ass name every time I write a recap. It’s getting a little repetitive and I wish it could be nudged out of its narrow, drunk, scornful box — maybe by introducing her friend Alana (“she’s disgusting”) to the camera, or dwelling more on the topic of cicadas.
I wonder what she’d make of Racist Jim the Red M&M, whose missteps as a greeter at the M&M store inspired him to ask forgiveness of his coworkers in a way that “GYWYHSACWAAP” might regard as logical (at least, “for all intents and porpoises,” he’s not hiding behind a façade). Galifianakis, as Racist Jim, stumbled a bit over cue cards but nailed his digs at Noreen (Pedrad), a Pakistani woman who remained, in Jim’s mind, a Native American; a gay couple (Moynihan and Tim Robinson) whose lifestyle “really makes [him] sad” though he’s willing to “bury the hatchet” (sorry, Noreen!); and, finally, a black man named Joe (Thompson), who interrupts Racist Jim’s apology and gets chastised to not speak out of turn (“this is not a movie theater”). All hell breaks loose when Racist Jim breaks into “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and when he’s summarily fired he asks his boss (Jason Sudeikis) if he has any reservations about his decision, prompting him to again apologize to Noreen. Why some racial sketches work (so few, really) and some don’t is probably a magical combination of writing and performance, and this one hit in a way I didn’t expect it to.
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But I’m saving my serious praise for “Darrell’s House,” the next sketch, which was presented in two parts. Playing a more relatable cousin of Rupert Pupkin, Darrell (Galifianakis) is the host of his own cable access show that hinges on the idea that he’s never had people over to his house, probably because he’s crazy. Marcus, an unseen cameraman, is instructed to add snacks, a celebrity guest, music, and winks in postproduction, and Thompson stands in for the absent star guest Jon Hamm, optimistically hoping that he’ll somehow end up in the final tape. Watching the first part of “Darrell’s House” was confusing, though it was not totally unable to stand on its own (watching Thompson fake his way through munching on invisible snacks was a highlight), but the payoff in Part 2 was worth it. In fact, it opens up an interesting possibility to do this more often with sketches, breaking them up and resolving them later. It’s been done before (“Z-Shirts,” most recently), but I don’t think it’s ever been done so well.
“Michael Jordan’s Wedding” was one of the less successful offerings of the night, though coked-up jugglers (Galifianakis and Sudeikis) emceeing a wedding seemed like a good jumping-off point. Unfortunately, it only amounted to increasingly drug-dusty beards in the wind, though Jay Pharoah’s Dikembe Mutombo is irrefutable proof that grotesque prosthetic hands never fail to steal the show. Too small (Dooneese), too tall, doesn’t matter. There’s just something funny about false fingers. Next up was a pretaped parody ad for New Balance, the sneakers for chubby guys in their late thirties/early forties who crave cushioning support to aid in “just stand[ing] there.” Galifianakis, Robinson, and Moynihan sweated through their plaid shirts walking up subway steps in this brief segment, and though there wasn’t much substance in it, I think we might all want to consider switching over to Vibrams just to be above reproach. Nobody likes to mess with a masochist whose soles get tattooed with every single fucking errant pebble on his or her daily constitutional. You can’t argue with that kind of commitment to pain.
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Thankfully, the night didn’t end there: Back to “Darrell’s House” we went, now with egg roll inserts and a lively soundtrack by Al Jolson. As it happened, Darrell was able to score Hamm as his guest (judging from the lack of response, it seems likely that Hamm’s scenes were shot before the live taping), but when that footage was intercut with what had been shot during Part 1, we wound up seeing Darrell lurking in the background of Hamm’s shot, texting on his phone. I’d like to think that Amanda Bynes is responsible for the chilling image of a winking eye superimposed onto Galifianakis’s face, but even if she’s not the cultural touchpoint, I thought “Darrell’s House” was a huge success. So was the show itself — it wasn’t my favorite, but something in there felt fresh. When something didn’t work, it was at least brief (if brief’s not your thing, you’d probably be interested in viewing “Kanish,” which didn’t make the final show but is available online), and it was nice to be reminded that there’s much more than cue card proficiency to being a good host.
Next week!: Kristen Wiig, reprising Gilly (NOOOO!), and Vampire Weekend. After Ben Affleck and Kanye West appear on May 18, Season 38 is officially a wrap and we all come one step closer to what could be a drastically different SNL landscape. The calendar on your wall is ticking the Saturdays off.