He was well under 6 feet tall, but James Brown has cast a long shadow, especially at “Saturday Night Live.” Eddie Murphy’s killer takeoffs of the Godfather of Soul helped cement his stardom in the early ’80s, and apparently so intimidated subsequent cast members that no one has taken on Brown in the 30 years since.
Until this weekend, that is, when the similarly short-statured Kevin Hart donned a pompadour wig and made the Hardest Working Man in Show Business a punch line again. It took most of the cast to play Brown’s band in a bit taking his regular one-by-one polling of the musicians — “Should we get more funky?” — to a silly extreme. Before long he was checking who was OK with chicken parm for lunch. The gag was good, but what really sold it was the dynamic host whooping it up and mimicking the soul great’s skittering footwork.
Hart was a strong host his first go-round two years ago and brought the funny again this time, energizing the show with his exuberance and his well-honed comic personality (parodied Saturday when Jay Pharaoh played Hart’s long-lost son). But he wasn’t the only attention-grabber this episode had to offer.
The highlight was out of the studio, a little film with Hart, Pharaoh and Kenan Thompson chilling on a corner in Bushwick and telling stories laced with elements of the Brooklyn neighborhood’s rapid gentrification. One’s a nanny, one deals with bitches all day as a dog walker, and all are curious about the new artisanal mayonnaise shop. If anyone is the audience for an earnest woman’s acoustic guitar rendition of O.T. Genasis’ “I’m in Love With the Coco,” it’s them.
The opening scene observed both the news of the week and the holiday weekend with Martin Luther King Jr. (Thompson) visiting a present-day teen (Pete Davidson) and lamenting that our corruption of his legacy is making the mountaintop harder and hard to reach. The modest Oscar recognition of “Selma” is bad enough, but when he sees a hashtag now counts as a protest, “Oh my God, that mountain is miles away.”
Twice we were favored with mock Calvin Klein commercials starring Kate McKinnon as the 20-year-old Justin Bieber, his immaturity inescapable as he murmured, “I’m a big boy now,” and stood on a box to embrace a model (Cecily Strong).
Even the musical numbers were intriguing as the eccentric Sia, in a ruffly blindfold, infused her songs with performance art. Her 12-year-old sidekick Maddie Ziegler (recently parodied by Jim Carrey on “SNL”) emoted with an older dancer (NOT Shia LaBeouf) in a sort of silent soap opera accompanying “Elastic Heart,” and “Chandelier” was simultaneously signed by a guy in clown makeup.
• Hart stayed pretty much unfazed as glitches snarled his talk show with Instagram abusers. A monitor showing the posts took a while to start up, and then a couch meant to whisk offenders into a dungeon got stuck on a wall mid-whisk.
• A scene about a dragon attacking a castle went nowhere because its main gag was a tired one: Everyone sings instead of fleeing, to Hart’s frustration. This bit’s most interesting moment came in the mid-commercial teaser, when we got to see the fire-extinguisher guy keeping an eye on the castle’s wall torches.
• Next week it’s another host-as-musical-guest episode with country singer and “The Voice” coach Blake Shelton doing double duty. It’ll be like “Blake Shelton’s Not So Family Christmas,” but with Leslie Jones instead of Larry the Cable Guy.