Manning Up on ‘SNL’

In addition to the usual array of actors, musicians and a smattering of political figures “Saturday Night Live” has been keen to have a number of sports figures also host over the years. From football alone they’ve had Fran Tarkenton, Joe MMontana, Walter Payton, Deion Sanders, Tom Brady and O.J. Simpson (where’s that rerun?).

Lately the only football stars have been from the Manning family. Peyton did a pretty good job hosting in 2007; Saturday it was the turn of his little brother, the quarter back Eli Manning.

Whatever his skills on the field, his timing and confidence are way off on the stage. But with the skills of the “SNL” writers behind him, he managed to pull off most of a show behind him.

It was surprising at first to see him fumble the monologue so thoroughly; the rhythms of it are now so familiar, it’s as if he had never seen anybody else do it. He rushed through parts he should have paused at and never milked the applause line.

Still, the writers were good in injecting a mildly amusing New Yorker’s insider that played up the fact he didn’t know much about the city at all (he recommended Olive Garden in New Jersey for a good Italian place).

Like Peyton, Eli did one good commercial – this one for a foundation that avenges bullying by big brothers. Otherwise they had to be funny around him, or make him funny by having him make faces in a long courtroom sketch that was nevertheless well written or that old “SNL” mainstay – making him dress up in drag for no reason.

As bland a presence as Eli Manning was, it was offset by the flamboyance of Rihanna’s performances, reliant on stage sets, large dancing casts and props as if each song were its own production number.

And to offset the humor black hole in the host, there was a great segment with surprise guest Sasha Baron Cohen in costume as the character for his upcoming film “The Dictator” doing dictator schtick that included bringing out Martin Scorsese as a hostage and torture victim, eliciting praise for the comedy lest he be zapped by punishing electrical volts.

As much as he pours on the promotion for his movies, Cohen is genuinely funny and “The Dictator” has the makings of being up there with Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator.” And why doesn’t Cohen just get signed to host some week? (Both comments not coerced).

Just as funny as Cohen’s appearance in “Weekend Update” was one from a toasted Kristin Wiig as the tanning bed lady – a perfect riff on an oddball character that surfaced during the week.

Even better was the Fox & Friends segment that opened the show that threw in and exploded several topical issues, as well as a menacing Rupert Murdoch from England, revealing that his idea for their show was to see how stupid hosts could be for a morning show.

Newest cast member Kate McKinnon had her first showcase doing a Swedish version of “Chelsea Lately,” “Helga Lately” that had everyone talking like the Swedish Chef Muppet (who got a shout out as “Toop Chef”), but throwing in English catch phrases. Funny and nutty for a minute, it was also a complete throwaway. Still, it gave Manning an opportunity to wear a blonde wig, so there you go.

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