Sterling K. Brown made everything better with his hosting job on last week's "Saturday Night Live," setting a new bar for hosts.

Too often the long-running sketch show relies on celebrity for its guests. With Brown, they got not only a tremendous actor -- beloved in TV's "This is Us," and with prominent roles in "Black Panther" and "Marshall" -- but a dedicated comedian with stage training. Unlike deer-in-the-headlights hosts, Brown vibed perfectly with the cast, which with stellar regulars such as Kate McKinnon and Kenan Thompson, frequently out-performs its writing.

In one bit that could have fallen pancake flat, Brown's otherwise normal Justin boggles at the idea his new girlfriend's parents don't revere "Shrek." They're having a stock family dinner; the elders joke they're usually in bed by 9, unless they get crazy and watch a movie.

Mom mentions they've rented "Coco," and the match goes to fuse. Brown escalates with the spot-on timing great actors possess, up to chunking water on the dad, shouting at him to keep Shrek's name out of his dumb SOB mouth, and peaking with the line every movie fan has said to another at some time:

"No! You're wrong! You're wrong, and you're a stupid person!"

Welcome to my voicemail.

Choosing how to deliver words, where to emphasize, how fast, loud, fervent or offhanded, is 90 percent of acting. The rest is makeup, I think, plus swords and ego. As with music, you have to know when to play rhythm, when to drive, when to step up, when to support.

In another woulda-been-silly-with-lessers bit, Brown plays a doc delivering advice that's everything except practical. He tosses off what could have been a punchline -- Answering "I just want to know why it burns when I pee!," he says "Because pee's hot, dude" -- and it's perfection. Another might have read and thought, Oh, here's a big laugh, and slammed it like anvil on coyote. But as a passing quip, stepping stone, Brown placed it like a master craftsman.

The Oscars rarely recognize comedic works, favoring the self-serious. The brilliant and touching "Lady Bird," to some far and away the best movie of the year -- to me, at least in the top three -- was nominated, rightly, but left out of the winner's circle. The joyous "Wonder Woman"? Nada. And yet, as Brown showed us again, it takes perfect choices, expert timing, real acting, to be funny. Joe Sixpack could read the "to be or not to be" speech from "Hamlet" and create a shiver or two. But mining laughs? That takes genius.

 

Reach Tusk Editor Mark Hughes Cobb at mark.cobb@tuscaloosanews.com or 205-722-0201.