Justin Timberlake Brings Suit, Tie, And Comic Chops Back to SNL

Chris Willman
Stop The Presses! (NEW)

Has the Saturday Night Live stage ever been more crowded than it was at the close of this weekend's episode? Jay-Z, Paul Simon, Steve Martin, Tom Hanks, Martin Short, Chevy Chase, Dan Aykroyd, Alec Baldwin, Candice Bergen, and Andy Samberg were among the non-cast members squeezed onto the set for the collegial close, not to mention an unnamed tuba player.

That may provide the biggest testament to Justin Timberlake's star power and comedy chops: that he was able to preside over the most star-studded and cameo-crammed episode of SNL ever and not be overshadowed. But then, he had to learn how to stand out as the brightest star among luminaries back when he was sharing a stage with Fatone, right?

Just in case the other Justin who recently hosted should get any uppity airs, Timberlake's monologue turned into a lengthy sketch establishing him as the newest member of the exclusive "Five Timers Club," earning a smoking jacket and lounge privileges reserved for hosts who've gotten multiple callbacks. Among the things we immediately noticed during the skit: It's been too long since we've seen Candice Bergen. We still get slightly nervous every time Chevy Chase appears on TV. And Justin Timberlake is three feet taller than Paul Simon.

Finding all these guests something to do during the rest of the show sometimes led to some belabored nostalgia. An "It's a Date" (aka "The Dating Game") sketch not only allowed Timberlake and Samberg to reunite as the quiet-storm lotharios of "[You-Know-What] in a Box," but Aykroyd and Martin reteaming as the "wild and crazy guys" of the late '70s. The "Box" dudes continue to be amusing smoothies. If only whoever wrote their material also came up with a new line or two for the Czech-immigrant Festrunk brothers, who deserved better, after all these decades, than to merely compliment Vanessa Bayer's "large American breasts."

One familiar trope that was not repeated, sadly, was Timberlake as Robin Gibb, for perhaps obvious reasons. But we did get another expert bit of pop mimmicry as JT opened the show with an epic impression of Elton John, doing a severely personalized version of "Candle in the Wind" in honor of the late Hugo Chavez. "It seems to me that you lived your life like a candle in the wind/If a candle in the wind pulled out two pistols at a press conference," Elton/Justin riffed, going into stream-of-consciousness lyrics reviving every wacky thing Chavez ever did or said, including something about capitalism killing Mars that Timberlake felt compelled to assure us was not made up. (Clips of this show highlight are unfortunately not available, probably due to "Candle" rights complications.)

Things did get crasser, with the writers seeming to take inspiration, if you can call it that, from how game Timberlake had previously been to indulge in "Box"-type fare. So nearly every other bit Timberlake was featured in had a sexual context. Hard as it is to believe SNL wouldn't do a filibustering or sequestering sketch this week, any political satire would have taken valuable time away from Timberlake playing a mustachioed porn star in short shorts, or Timberlake wooing a transvestite in a rom-com spoof, or Timberlake in an iron breastplate having sexual designs on a pig. Was it the need to pander, a fear of offending Tea Party-ing viewers, or both? Come on, folks—Timberlake was born to play Rand Paul.

Casting Justin as a Caligula who's just seen the light of AA sounded like an inspired idea—and he's got the combination of arrogant stature and fake British accent to carry period parody off—but when you can find no better way to go out than on a bestiality joke, something has gone very, very wrong.

The Crying Game humor in his filmed romantic-comedy trailer spoof came off as very late-'90s. But if the sketch means that he has seen the light about generic rom-coms and will never make a Friends With Benefits again, we'll accept the sophomoric yuks as a guarantee on future enlightenment.

Things picked up when Timberlake adopted a wavy mullet and scary Louisiana accent as a geographically misplaced bailiff in the absurdist "Maine Justice," which had Samberg playing straight man as the defendant inexplicably facing Southern prejudices and roaming alligators in a Northeastern courtroom.

The most pointed line of the night didn't come from the writing room, but presumably from Timberlake's own mind, and almost slipped by unnoticed. In his performance of "Suit and Tie," JT changed a line to “My hits so sick/Got rappers acting dramatic"—undoubtedly a reference to Kanye West declaring on stage last week that "Suit and Tie" was not all that.

Again, it made you think of opportunities wasted, since someone could have had a lot of fun with Kanye's other tantrum this week, when he complained about his placement at a lowly No. 7 on a list of the greatest living rappers. But, when it comes to the guys who could have played West, Jay Pharoah and Kenan Thompson both looked to have been given the week off, mysteriously.

Amid all the celebration of Timberlake's fifth trip to the SNL hosting spot, it was hard to escape the sense that he was arriving late in a tiring season, after the writers had expended better material on far less capable singer/hosts like Bieber, Jagger, and Adam Levine. Yet his charm and capability carry the day even when he's carrying a fake piglet. Surely, the sixth time will be a charm... or the seventh... as Timberlake marches on in his tux toward the even more exclusive "Ten Timers Club."