James Franco kicked off his fourth turn as host of Saturday Night Live – an unspecial milestone that doesn’t come with a commemorative jacket – with a little help from friends Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill and, best of all, an embittered Steve Martin, who whined angrily from his spot in the audience, “I used to be the center of attention.”
Aside from the cameos, and as SNL monologues go, Franco’s opener was otherwise unmemorable. His contributions to the show’s later sketches were, apart from a couple of stumbles, stronger.
Let’s get that stumble out of the way. Taking the prominent post-monologue slot was “Gift Wrap,” with Franco playing a shopping center gift wrapper whose paper cut turns very bloody, very fast. This gag has been done so many times – and so much better – that you wonder why SNL didn’t just re-air Dan Aykroyd’s classic Julia Child routine. Not only does the original Not Ready for Prime Time Player own the premise (apologies to Monty Python’s Sam Peckinpah-filmed tennis players), but unlike Franco, Aykroyd managed to lose blood without breaking character and laughing through the entire mess.
Franco showed a bit more self-control in “Spelling Bee,” in which he played a moderator offering up increasingly creepy and age-inappropriate word challenges for the youthful contestants.
But Franco really hit his stride in “Za,” a deluxe ham-covered slice of silliness in which his attorney character gives an impassioned, tongue-twisting and very wrong argument on the meaning of the word title word. If you thought Za was a slang term for pizza, Franco bets to differ, and sells the weightless concept with everything he’s got.
Another high point for the host was “Christmas Charity,” a digital short in which a busy executive (Cecily Strong) helps a homeless man. Franco’s essentially playing himself, which, as you’ll see in the clip, does exactly right by the sketch.
In “Reunion,” Franco plays straight man to SNL newcomer Heidi Gardner, who demonstrates again her knack for finding comedy in underdog characters Here, she plays Franco’s cousin, a seeming loser who doesn’t know it. The bit has a sweet turn with the arrival of a surprise visitor.
The host has only a small role in SNL‘s most significant digital short of the evening, making a brief, ghosty appearance in the Christmas Carol parody “Scrudge.” With Beck Bennett taking the lead role, the short adds little to the never-ending river of Scrooge knock-offs, and while “Scrudge” had its moments, the workplace setting seemed a missed opportunity for a show still looking to find laughs in scandals rocking the country from Hollywood to Alabama.