‘SNL’ Orbits Around a Red-Hot Bruno Mars

Chris Willman
Stop The Presses!

Elton, Mick, Taylor, and Justin, you've got company. Bruno Mars may be "Locked Out of Heaven," but he was instantly ushered into the very small pantheon of musicians who've successfully pulled off dual hosting/singing duties on Saturday Night Live.

Mars was shoehorned into nearly every sketch, a risky gambit that paid off painlessly. It's a wonder Lorne Michaels didn't take the Obama impression away from Jay Pharaoh so Mars could get a prominent spot in the opening debate sketch, too. But from that point on, in every bit but "Weekend Update" and the deliciously vicious Brad Pitt commercial spoofs, this season's fifth episode was intelligently designed to revolve around Mars. (And Jason Sudeikis, too, since SNL seems to want to squeeze the most possible out of him if this proves to be his final season... but even more so Mars.)

His standout sketch was a bit that imagined the Pandora web radio service being run by a team of engineers carefully monitoring each user-driven channel. When the system broke down and vocals began disappearing from different artists' channels, it was up to "Devin the Intern" to jump in and impersonate Steven Tyler, Justin Bieber, Louis Armstrong, and (at great, impressive length) Michael Jackson. The host did such a good job of faking Billie Joe Armstrong's fake British accent on "Basket Case," maybe Green Day could tour with Mars filling it while Armstrong completes rehab.

Aside from an expertly performed (if only mildly funny) musical monologue, the other sketches didn't require Mars to croon. But he gave good mugging, and occasionally more. Best of these non-musical moments was a short film, "Sad Mouse," that had a Mars stricken by grief donning a mouse costume and being driven to further melancholy by the failure of (presumably real) Times Square tourists to wave back at him. The skillful body language that we'd seen when Mars approximated Steven Tyler's leaning-to-the-left posture or Michael Jackson's shoulder-shaking worked even when he was just hunched over as a furry.

Even in the sketches that didn't work, he acquitted himself. For no good reason whatsoever, the incomprehensible "Haters" bit was the first post-monologue skit. Wait, what are we saying, "no good reason"? The producers always think that putting a host in drag is a draw, and they're probably right.

The unamusing "Wilderness Lodge" sketch—which revolved around the thin conceit of a homosexually inclined Yeti—was more reasonably saved for the sleepy final stretch of the show, and at least proved notable for Mars' enviable ability to read cue cards while wearing a patch over one eye.

And the one bit in which he followed directly in Timberlake's footsteps—playing one of a quarter of angry animatronic robots in a broken-down carnival funhouse—showed that it is still possible to be funny in 2012 while Doing The Robot, especially when you're sweet-faced Bruno Mars wielding a knife.

All this might have been mere fodder for getting Mars on casting directors' A-lists if not for two impressive musical numbers that surely put his upcoming sophomore album release, the December-slated Unorthodox Jukebox, on the top of a lot of Santa want lists. His three-week-old "Locked Out of Heaven" single may have won some favor with previously resistant rock fans Saturday night, and the pogoing by his horn section and guitarists showed that band choreography can beat actual backup dancers, done right.

His second number, the yet-unreleased "Young Wild Girls," answered a critical question: Can Mars bring the kind of wit he showed as an SNL host to his music? While the song isn't outrightly funny, there was a knowing amusement to how Mars took the kind of ballad he usually reserves for earnest sentiment and put a slightly more wry girl-crazy spin on it.

Though he started to crack up when it was time to do his Louis Armstrong impression, Mars really only messed up once—and it was literally in the final moments of the program, when he stumbled over the line "Until we meet again." Not a bad time to lose it, given the voluminous amount of screen time he'd been given in the hour-and-a-half prior.

Warmth, wit, and (sure) soul? Personality-wise he's a triple threat. Whether this could translate to a feature-length acting gig remains to be seen, but his talent is anything but sketchy.

Is there anything he can't do? Yes: imitate Katy Perry. Reassuring, in a way, to know that even as gifted a luminary and mimic as Mars has his karaoke limitations.

What pop star do you think could follow in Mars' estimable comic footsteps as a host/musical guest?