Brow Beat

This Saturday Night Live Spelling Bee Goes to Some Dark Places

This week’s Saturday Night Live featured a hilarious horrorshow of a spelling bee, in which host James Franco, as an uptight announcer named Kevin Black, takes a group of tween contestants on a tour of the dark recesses of his psyche. Normally, spelling bees only give viewers a chance to look at life-long psychological problems at the exact moment they develop—kids cracking under pressure, losers visibly loathing themselves when they miss a word, the winner realizing his or her life just peaked at 14—so it’s refreshing to see a spelling bee where the damage is old and well-established. The structure’s smart, too—the opening makes it seem like this is going to be a sketch about Kate McKinnon and Alex Moffat covering the spelling bee. Then, a full minute into things, Melissa Villaseñor asks Franco to use her spelling word—“berate”—in a sentence. Here’s the sentence he gives her:

Berate. I’m dead inside because my stepfather used to berate me with insults and emasculate me with feminine nicknames. Berate.

There are two ways the sketch could go from here. The obvious one is for Franco to continue using random and wildly inappropriate words and definitions, maybe aware of and embarrassed by what he’s doing, maybe not, along the lines of the teleprompter gag in Anchorman. But it’s funnier by far for him to keep obsessively circling the same traumas as more of his backstory comes to light—not to mention much, much creepier. Here’s the definition he offers Villaseñor for, again, “berate.”

Berate: To use insults and feminine nicknames, such as “Stupid Suzy Tampon Princess” to emasculate your stepson and make him dead inside. Berate.

Things don’t get better for the hapless spelling bee contestants from there. It must have been greatest hits week in the Saturday Night Live writer’s room, though: just as Franco’s bloody turn as a gift-wrapper echoed Dan Aykroyd’s famous French Chef sketch, this wasn’t the first time Saturday Night Live did a sketch about a dark, disturbing spelling bee presided over by a joyless, psychologically damaged authoritarian: