'SNL' Recap: Edward Norton’s Debut Is Triumphant

Norton’s triumphant hosting debut led the best episode of the season so far with eight hilarious sketches outnumbering only two that fell flat (a season first.) Norton has to know comedy’s his bag based on his recent projects. As a first-time host, he finds the humor in these mostly Halloween sketches so quietly and honestly that you can only admire how natural he is at the night’s deeply varied performances. He’s well-prepared, focused, and his comic magnetism gives the show a powerful dose of intelligence. He plays well with others too.

On the last episode, SNL left the women behind and served up a heaping platter of boys club sketches. Now the women are back, of course (silly feminists, they were too busy in the powder room last time!) Ranked by presence from most to least there was Kate McKinnon, Nasim Pedrar, Cecily Strong, Aidy Bryant and Vanessa Bayer all getting substantial time on air.

Quick note: The show didn’t deal with it directly, but after the last episode, Kenan Thompson made comments concerning the show’s lack of black females that drummed up outrage. (There have only been four black females since SNL started in 1975.) However, the issue’s more complicated than the band-aid solution of “just recruit these hilarious women of color already.” To be fair, we can’t blame SNL entirely for its white-washed cast. The show’s had better demographics before, but white males still dominate both comedy AND the improv training theaters in numbers. The combined resultant of that is a show that’s blatantly un-diverse, but unfortunately reflective of the talent pool it draws from. Shameful, but true.

WATCH: Obamacare Website Ad Cold Open

Predictably, a riff on the healthcare enrollment site opened the show right on schedule. Kate shines in a less off-the-wall role than she’s usually chosen for as Kathleen Sebelius who is serenely unruffled by the site’s infuriating glitches. She offers inept troubleshooting advice and a hilarious list of on-screen FAQ’s and doctor-themed porn titles. Apple's rainbow spinning wheel covers her mouth. Smart.

WATCH: Monologue

Here’s the one everyone will talk about. As Norton explains why he hasn’t hosted in all these years, a grey-haired Alec Baldwin intervenes as Norton’s guide to hosting, spreading his star power all over the stage. Not the musical number we might have expected from Norton, but Baldwin challenges the actor’s versatility and Norton delivers on-point impressions of Ian McKellen, Woody Allen and Woody Harrelson. Norton doesn’t have to tap dance his way into your favor because he has the goods. Miley makes a cameo with yet another tongue joke. Even Norton seems to wince at her viewer-bait presence that falls flat. It’s impossible to accept that Miley’s there to give Norton advice on hosting SNL. This feels beneath Norton, and you almost get the sense that Baldwin is channeling his 30 Rock character as he happily eggs Miley on to up the ratings.

WATCH: Autumn’s Eve

We're back in lady-bashing commercial parody land, and this one about autumn douches doesn’t hold back on the gross-out humor. Props for the joke about the annual invasion of pumpkin products. Kate eagerly scoops pulp out of a pumpkin wearing a creepy grin. Was this a hat tip to SNL nerds who remember Gilda Radner selling Autumn fizz, the carbonated douche?

WATCH: School Visit

Norton starts off playing a cop warning naïve candy-obsessed students about strangers. Packed with tons of misunderstood traps, the students grab on to every single one and make a meal out of it. This sketch also allowed Norton his only chance of the evening to play a supporting role instead of being the star vehicle. Nice to have Nasim back in the spotlight.

WATCH: Steve Harvey Show

Norton as the persistent owner of Spooky City, Jack Pickle plays a "guess the pun costume" game with Steve Harvey. One by one, the costumes get marched out, but Harvey just doesn’t get it, and is convinced he’s got a weirdo on his hands. Take the so-bewildered-he-can’t-comprehend-Harvey’s-stupidity Halloween store owner, giant costumes, (fried eggs with pitchforks=deviled eggs) and Kenan’s dumbfounded asides to the audience and you have yourself a well-oiled sketch.

WATCH: New Horror Film (best sketch of the night)

Finally, the G-rated Wes Anderson horror movie you’ve been waiting for: The Midnight Coterie of Sinister Intruders. Alec Baldwin reprises his role as the narrator in a satire of The Royal Tenenbaums. The spoof is replete with all the recognizable Anderson trappings—diorama set pieces, his typography, short declarative correspondence, a stop-motion mouse and everyone playing the Tenenbaums. Norton intimately familiar with the Anderson form, plays Owen Wilson like a Zen master. This sketch was pretty genius, and steadily delivered gut-busting laughs.

WATCH: Critter Control Team

Critter control pro Brooks Wheelan recruits Edward Norton as his eerily convincing friend who is fascinated by the job. Their affection for the rodents builds as the buddies marvel at the possums while business meeting participants look on in shock. Worthwhile for the gag of seeing the critter control team’s feat dangling from the air vent.

WATCH: Drug Deal

It’s a drug deal in a motel. Norton’s rain man impersonation is spot on and he really sells the bit. This was patient and smart for a show that goes for splashy laughs. Ultimately, this didn’t have the requisite beats that make a 3-minute sketch work, and the payoff doesn’t merit the drawn-out setup because it cuts awkwardly. Still you need to watch it for Norton’s lengthy exchange about counting things, each one funny in a new way.

SKIP: Janelle Monae

The woman fills every nanosecond with impressive footwork, and you know she has genre-blending and showmanship down, but weird audio effects were her kryptonite and both her explosively visual performances fell flat. It appears that she’s belting, but somehow her voice sounds diluted. She delivers on the visual medium front, but this simply requires too much of the audience to follow her singing leaving viewers at home to wonder if they’re missing something because the live audience is cheering so loudly.

WATCH: Weekend Update

Cecily Strong’s become even looser and the jokes are funny but they’re not as cutting as they should be. If only writers could learn to be bolder with the topical stuff. But while last week’s update segment dragged, this moved at a better pace. Moynihan’s Anthony Crispino was the reliable man for the correspondent job, playing up the high-pitched notes like crazy.

WATCH: Virgins Miming Sex

This was an instant classic that should be revisited in a few weeks. Norton fits right in with the steakhouse staff as they amp themselves up for what they imagine their first-time will be like. (They avoid acknowledging that they’re appropriating black culture by explaining that when you talk about sex, you need to be smooth and sexy, son.) This was a strong game that got better with each outrageous move-the virgins cheer each other on as they flap their arms like a chicken and slip on the ice approximating sexual fantasies.

SKIP: Twelve Days a Slave

The Twelve Years A Slave parody obfuscates the point with too many ingredients. It’s 12 days after emancipation and Pharoah is clueless that the Southern saloon where his plantation owner drinks isn’t ready to welcome him as an equal. Norton’s character Zachary’s inability to be straight with his friend provides a heavier drag on the sketch, which finally finds the funny element with Aidy Bryant as the plus-size woman excited about the attention from the newly freed slaves. (1863 is fleet week for curvy women.) Miley’s twerking earns an ovation, but this just wasn’t focused enough to stick with the whole time.

SKIP: Halloween Candy (worst of the night)

Despite Norton’s commitment to the bit in the last sketch of the night, this was buried for a reason. The factors just don’t add up landing the performance in the not-so-great category. A creepy dad pulls a peanut scotch-taped to an M&M, a pez dispenser in his likeness, and packaged razors out of a pumpkin pail. Norton’s delivery is funny enough, but the sketch just outweirds itself into into oblivion. There’s the dad’s strangeness, his indifference to his troubled son and his estranged wife with no one to play straight to these absurd elements. Disappointing. Considering Kenan’s no longer tied up impersonating Whoopi Goldberg, he should have been there as the freaked out trick-or-treater.

Next up: Kerry Washington.

Image: NBC