SNL #39.4 RECAP: Host Edward Norton, musical guest Janelle Monae

Sometimes a show gets defensive before you have a chance to criticize it accurately, and pulls out a series of unnecessary stops to make you stop and think, why does this need to be happening? That’s the thought that dominated this installment of Saturday Night Live.

Why are Alec Baldwin and, of all people, Miley Cyrus, in this picture? Were they uncertain we could handle Edward Norton? Because the Oscar-nominated Norton could more than handle his own humor on the show. Trust in him. Trust in your cast. Let them be the ball. Be the balls. Be the BlueCrossBlueBalls. For instance…

We open cold with a message from the Department of Health and Human Services and Chairwoman Kathleen Sebelius (Kate McKinnon) about the launch of, and some tips to deal with all of the tech issues. Straightforward. Simple. Funny. For every political sketch that gets so wonky it loses sight of the jokes, there’s a political scandal that’s focused on something that everyone can relate to — a buggy website.

And then there’s the monologue, with our host, Edward Norton. “Alright, a hometown crowd. Thank you.” Wait. This is only his first time hosting SNL? You’d think that would have happened sooner, and he says Lorne Michaels first asked him to host back in 2000. Who asked for the cameos, then? Alec Baldwin is onstage during Norton’s monologue, anyhow. Coaching him through impersonations of Sir Ian McKellan, Woody Allen, and even Woody Harrelson. And the studio audience is excited to see Miley Cyrus onstage. Is anyone else tuning in for Norton looking for Miley? Or Molly, for that matter? Where’s the Venn Diagram that makes this make sense?

But, phew. Just like that, we’re back in business. Fake ad in the fake ad slot! It’s fall foliage time, and the ladies of SNL are out enjoying the weather and the leaves, and the what now? Move over Summer’s Eve. It’s time for Autumn’s Eve, pumpkin-flavored douche. “Why should your mouth have all the fun?” asks Cecily Strong’s character. Don’t worry, they have you covered on Christmas and St. Patrick’s Day, too.

Oh, look. Astoria Elementary School backdrop. Norton is dropping in on a class as Officer Rosen to talk about stranger awareness. “Stranger danger.” Nasim Pedrad’s student is onboard with this. All of this. Fun fact: She’s in a blonde wig and says her name is “Shallon,” which is the name of her real-life BFF from childhood in Orange County (and with whom I worked with at the New York Daily News). OK! Fun facts! Everything goes cross-wise real quickly. Big day for vans!

Kenan Thompson is back with another episode of “Steve Harvey.” Norton is his guest, the owner of Spooky City, with some fun Halloween costume ideas. Steve Harvey must not be that bright. Is Harvey too dumb to know they’re mocking him? Tune in to Steve Harvey’s next daytime talk show to find out…

Sketch of the night? Or just the latest, greatest example of how SNL’s best work is coming more often than not when it’s not so Live. For Halloween, with a voiceover from Alec Baldwin, it’s the Wes Anderson Halloween movie trailer: “The Midnight Coterie of Sinister Intruders.” With Edward Norton as an uncanny Owen Wilson, Noël Wells as Gwyneth Paltrow, Jay Pharoah as Danny Glover, Kate McKinnon as Tilda Swinton and more…I mean, a seriously great Owen Wilson impersonation from Norton here. Worth a second watch just for it. And yes, they nail the idiosyncrasies of Wes Anderson, too.

Now this was just silly. Not that that’s a bad thing. And now we’re in an office meeting, led by McKinnon with Cecily Strong, Beck Bennett, Noël Wells and Jay Pharoah. Brooks Wheelan is here as “Critter Control” guy Mitchell, and Norton is his buddy Russell, who is inadvertently or not channeling a little bit of Larry the Cable Guy, and they’re fascinated by the opossums in the air shaft. “So, we’re all just gonna ignore that happened?” That’s the last line of the sketch, but hopefully that doesn’t leave you with the impression you’re just supposed to have forgotten it all happened.

As opposed to…

After an ad break, we’re in a motel room for an illegal exchange of goods for money. Our shady characters are Mike O’Brien, Kenan Thompson, Taran Killam, and Bobby Moynihan. But wait. We’re waiting on the numbers guy. Norton is the numbers guy, Hank, playing straight up “Rain Man” impersonation. Because it has been 25 years since everyone else was impersonating Dustin Hoffman’s “Rain Man.” Only nothing from that point on proceeds as you might think it might. In praise of silly, stupid sketches that don’t have an ending.

Ladies and gentlemen, Janelee Monae. This is “Dance Apocalyptic.”

Weekend Update. Solid joke on Kanye West asking for Kim’s “brand in marriage.”

But only one guest to the Update desk this week. It’s Anthony Crispino (Bobby Moynihan) with Secondhand News. Crispino congratulated Seth Meyers on his big February gig. So, how do you feel about legalizing gray marriage?

The last half-hour began on a wary note. Very wary. Almost quite scary.

Guess we needed to save up some time for “12 Days Not A Slave.” Starring Pharoah as Cecil, who riles up the bar patrons in 1863 by not leaving the South immediately. And so we have another Miley sighting, trying to dance like a black person, because that’s comedy if we acknowledge the reality of 2013, right? Right? She can’t stop, and she won’t stop, but she should stop.

Still funny to see Beck Bennett get more airtime in the commercials than during the actual show, though.

The waitstaff of Ruth’s Chris Steak House is looking forward to getting off shift after Halloween dinner. Pedrad, Norton, Strong and O’Brien are our waiters, who also are all still virgins. Why don’t they just have sex with each other? That would end this sketch already.

Once again, Janelle Monae. This is “Electric Lady”

Five minutes to one! Norton has his best John Waters skinny mustache and double-entendres going on, as he displays the various treats in his Halloween jack-o-lantern. Filled with jokes, or the thoughts of jokes, or the whispers of the thoughts of what could be a joke, if delivered just right. Oh, why am I even bothering to defend this?

See you next week! Kerry Washington hosts, with Eminem as the musical guest.

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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