It’s very hard to let Saturday Night Live have its cake and eat it too. I can’t fault the show for opening as it did tonight. A bit of a furor had built up about the show’s un-diverse hiring this summer, exacerbated by Kenan Thompson’s interview with TV Guide where he said the show wasn’t finding black female comedians who “are ready” for the show, and later Lorne Michaels’ comment to AP that he’s aware of the issue and is sure the show will get more diverse sometime. Kerry Washington is the host this week, and the cold open revolved around her having to play every black woman in the news.
It was a clever wink to the show’s presence in the news and a far smarter idea than, say, a Gilbert & Sullivan spoof. At the same time, I’m sure there’s some understandable blowback out there on the internet (I haven’t checked myself yet). I laughed, and I was happy SNL was acknowledging that there’s a problem, but at the same time it’s a sketch comedy show, so it’s having fun with it, and it’s hard not to feel like the audience is being told to relax and forget about it. “What have we learned from this sketch? As usual, nothing,” Al Sharpton intoned at the end of the cold open. Everyone knows the show has a problem, and everyone knows that SNL has never been the best at changing course quickly. Let’s hope Al was just kidding.
Tonight’s episode was pretty strong, one of the best of the season so far, anchored by fine work from Washington in her first time hosting. It also barely leaned on any of the new cast members. I’m not looking to impugn them or demand their swift firing, since every one of them has done something in these early weeks that showed real promise. But at the same time, so far the show has not really convinced me that it absolutely needed to hire all of these guys. When those six Matthew McConaugheys walked in to the cold open, it was a great sight gag, but also a telling one.
Okay, okay, this is a sketch comedy show, on to the jokes. Kerry Washington did a great job tonight! She never gets to be funny on Scandal, but she’s got the chops, and her performance was very seamless in every sketch she was in, which is about the biggest compliment you can pay to a guest host on SNL. She was the standout of the first sketch, featuring Nasim Pedrad as Heshie the motivational speaker from Yemen, which relied on Pedrad’s perfect physical timing with a number of sound effects, and Washington’s unimpressed drawl delivering lines like “respect my ability to assess a bucket!”
The What Does The Fox Say? spoof, long-awaited, was nicely done. I didn’t know that the show could find a particularly interesting angle on spoofing a comedy video that’s already very wacky (last year, with Gangnam Style, they basically just replicated the video and laughed at how weird it was) but they did. Again, Washington was the standout, nailing every one of her cues (in an extremely well-edited digital short). The idea of being nagged by a girlfriend is a little hacky, but since Jay Pharoah wasn’t really portrayed as the hero, I could deal with it.
Then “How’s He Doing?” just took me down. This was a very, very strong run of sketches to start the show. It’s been a while since we saw “How’s He Doing?” (Maya Rudolph’s episode, unsurprisingly) but this was its best edition yet, since it included some extended riffing on white people loving The Wire, and reading recaps of The Wire. I am always, always in favor of my profession being mercilessly mocked, and I mean that sincerely. My ultimate goal is for SNL to rip me to shreds in a sketch one day.
The Miss Universe sketch was where things started to get rockier. There were a lot of funny elements to that one—Aidy Bryant’s Miss Greenland was terrific, draped in moose furs and proclaiming herself “the woman” of the country’s three people. All of the jokes fell into very broad stereotype territory—in eastern Europe, the kids work in factories, in South America, everyone’s on coke, in Africa, people…can’t speak English very well? Oof. I’m a sensitive ducky, I’ll admit, but I felt a little iffy laughing at some of those gags.
Weekend Update was a highlight—just a bunch of solid one-liners, and for the first time (I think), Cecily got to interact with one of the panelists, Kate McKinnon as a very lonely Angela Merkel (McKinnon really is the queen of Update panel. She’s so good at it). As both a ridiculous basketball nerd and a huge fan of Inside The NBA who has argued for its inclusion in the A.V. Club’s top shows of the year, I always have a weakness for Kenan’s Charles Barkley (which I think is getting better and more subtle) and the addition of Jay Pharoah as a cross-eyed Shaq was pretty fantastic. “I like raisins. They’re like grapes. Only they small.”
Everything after Update was a little less memorable, although there were no duds. Cartoon Catchphrase was an excellent attempt at writing a game-show sketch and making it interesting, with a little narrative arc to follow, but the premise of the show was so stupid and each punchline was a little too predictable (although I loved the final gag about Aidy Bryant having just married her jerk husband yesterday).
The return of Principal Frye was pretty much what it always is, and I have nothing further to say on the topic. Date Or Diss was an exercise in having its three female contestants say the most horrifying things possible, similar to the former porn stars. Kerry Washington did some of her finest work of the night here. “I have a birthmark that screams, I sleep through all of December…”
I loved, loved, loved the final sketch of the night. Can SNL do something like this every week, please? I assume, perhaps wrongly, that it was the work of Kyle Mooney, who led the sketch and so far has been the new cast member who’s made the strongest impression on me. It reminded me of his (and fellow cast member Beck Bennett)’s work as Good Neighbor, but it was just beautifully made, nicely dreamlike, still funny (if not in a zingy, punchline-y way) and just generally really involving. I love these videos. More of these videos, please. These videos every week. They can be at 12:55, I don’t care. As long as I get to see them.
- Taran Killam tries to cue up Beyonce. “I hope she’s wearing that sparkly dress with all the sequins!” “SHE’S WEARING A BATHROBE!”
- “Help, I have too many boners. What should I do? Sincerely, Mr. Boners.” “Mr. Boners, I don’t know what boners are, but believe in yourself!”
- “Have you ever seen a white person in a hotel when they’re told the room isn’t ready? They act like there’s a death in the family.”
- Among the things Angela Merkel has googled: “Angela Merkel boxy,” “is toe hair normal,” “Jason Segel no shirt.”
- Charles Barkley had a good summer. “I installed a seafood buffet in my SUV and I started my own line of big and tall mock turtlenecks. I’m my only client.”
- He doesn’t think Shaq can play center for the Kings, though. “You’re crazy, man. You got the body of a baked potato.”
- I love fettuccine alfredo, if I’m tickled I dump, and my doctor told me my tongue is as big as a horse’s tongue.”