James Franco returned to "SNL" this weekend to promote his new film "The Disaster Artist," and promote it he did.
Several of his co-stars dropped by during Franco's fourth time hosting "Saturday Night Live," and the biopic about the worst movie ever made was mentioned directly in two sketches. Franco is charismatic, but he's also inconsistent, so the question coming into the night was which version of Franco we would get.
It wasn't quite the sleepy Franco who left Anne Hathaway hanging at the 2011 Oscars, but there was still something off about the night. Most of the sketches were more weird and directionless than usual, which is a huge disappointment after such a stellar show last week. Whether it's Franco, show fatigue or just the looming holidays, this was one of the most uneven shows so far this season.
As usual, we're ranking all the sketches from worst to first, including the Cold Open and the regular “Weekend Update” segments. We'll skip the musical guests, because they're not usually funny -- unless Ashlee Simpson shows up. We wrap up with a look at the cast-member who had the strongest week. Also, in these early episodes, we'd like to see if the new kids are getting any screen time. “SNL” recently added Heidi Gardner, Luke Null, and Chris Redd as featured players.
Gift Wrap Desk
The fact that James Franco was absolutely awful at gift wrapping while working this desk may have been the funniest part of the sketch, even if we were supposed to be laughing more at the blood pouring from his paper cut. After fumbling with a fake arm, the sketch doubled down on the blood jokes and got even worse. Honestly, this bit had nowhere to go and that's exactly where it went.
MONOLOGUE - James Franco
Seth Rogen and later Jonah Hill showed up to mess up James Franco's question-and-answer session with the audience with a lot of grousing about the fact that Franco was on his fourth hosting stint, while Rogen has only hosted twice. Then Steve Martin showed up just to lament that he used to host “Saturday Night Live,” but his career isn't that hot anymore. So suddenly this sketch is looking to be more depressing than funny? After the “Santa Claus” cold open, it's difficult to get a sense of what the vibe is they're going for here, but it's not humor.
“Can you tell me, what did Al Franken do?” the first kid on Santa's (Kenan Thompson) lap asked for Christmas. Sidekick Amy (Kate McKinnon) clarified that Roy Moore is on a registry more than a list (referring to Santa's naughty list). The kids lined up to be way more aware of the world around them than any of us would like, making us as depressed as Kenan Thompson's Santa was by the end of the sketch. As Kate McKinnon pointed out, the world is absolutely bonkers right now, and it was disconcerting to hear it coming from the innocent mouths of children surrounded by Christmas cheer. This sketch made us both uncomfortable and kind of sad, but at least most of the kids were able to get through their clunky lines. The fact they stumbled over the depressing news of the day means maybe they don't know all about it, and that's some small Christmas miracle.
Kyle Mooney invited his roommate, Beck Bennett's classic Scrooge archetype, to join him, Alex Moffat and Chris Redd for a fun night out in this pre-taped sketch. But while he dresses the part, he's really just a modern-day douche-bro, which kind of took away any charm and potential for unique interactions the sketch had. It played around with the trope a bit by having Franco act as the ghost of Christmas present (sort of), but was more just weird and off-putting.
Once again, a sketch with potential didn't really go anywhere. A clear send-up of the classic Christmas trope of a successful person taking in a homeless person to help them turn their life around … only this time the homeless person turned out to be James Franco living that way for a part. And then, it was a commercial for his film “The Disaster Artist.” So, yeah, it kind of fizzled out at the end and didn't really know what it was supposed to be, which is kind of the theme of this whole show.
Za v Tsuh
James Franco was a passionate lawyer who built his entire case around “za” being slang for lasagna rather than pizza. He clearly had a lot of fun laying out the different pronunciations of the “za” and “sa” sounds in the two words, and it was his enthusiasm that made the otherwise ridiculous sketch entertaining. It didn't end particularly well, nor did the other players do much to add to the laughs. This one was all Franco, and he sold it.
This was another sketch that played up the idea of a double standard with sexual harassment. James Franco played a corporate CFO who seemed to make mild innuendos that disgusted everyone, while Kenan Thompson was more the charming “dirty old man” stereotype as the office security guard. One was vilified by the office staff, but the other remained beloved even as what he said was much, much worse. Then, to make the sketch make even less sense, Thompson's Charlie wasn't even getting fired for his clear sexual harassment, it was for a list of other crimes. The message about harassment was completely muddled, with the sketch making it look like allegations are being applied inconsistently.
James Franco worked out his personal issues while working as the judge for one round of a middle school spelling bee. The sketch gets extra points for slipping in a second narrative of humor with Alex Moffat and Kate McKinnon as the announcers, the former possibly being completely unable to spell. The words escalated until Pete Davidson was given the word “little pig boy,” and Franco's story escalated into some weird mistress degradation fantasy. This was a case of weird actually working to generate uncomfortable laughs, which on a night of subpar sketches, we'll gladly take.
Heidi Gardner was stellar as “Pretty Mandy,” James Franco's ridiculous cousin who is worried about him. He lost that Oscar and now everyone is talking about that bad movie he made. He clarified that he made a movie about making a bad movie (another shout-out for “The Disaster Artist”), but mostly was uncomfortable around her. Not so Dave Franco, who slipped out at the end to bond with their “cousin.” The sketch was silly and cute, but worked because of Gardner's commitment to the character.
After tackling harassment through most of the night, and even through a lot of the earlier segments, Cecily Strong's “Cathy Anne” character came on to ask why Al Franken was resigning if he wasn't going to apologize -- if he had nothing to apologize for, why resign?
The show hit hard on Franken and harassment this week, with mixed results, by running almost like an independent series within the show, “Update” had the strongest take. Michael Che even went “undercover” as a liberal white woman to try and understand that world, though not as immersive as Eddie Murphy did when he went out on the streets as a white man. Okay, it was actually completely ridiculous, but Che still managed to mine a few laughs out of the stereoytpes.
PLAYER OF THE WEEK
The rest of the cast really didn't do much in a week where the guest host dominated the sketches more than they usually do. And no single cast-member stood out above the others, as very few of them had more than one memorable role on the night. It was easily the most balanced show of the season in representation, making it even harder to make this decision.
Cecily Strong was solid as Michael Che's neighbor Cathy Anne, while the most surprising turn of the night came from newcomer Heidi Gardner's "Pretty Mandy" character in the closing sketch. That said, though, Kenan Thompson really stepped it up this week as both a frustrated mall Santa and as pervy Charlie, the security guard fired not for his blatant sexual harassment, but all the other horrible things he's done.
“Saturday Night Live” returns next week with host Kevin Hart and musical guest Foo Fighters, airing live coast-to-coast at 11:35 p.m ET/8:35 p.m. PT.