Saturday Night Live: “Louis C.K./Sam Smith”
B+

Saturday Night Live: “Louis C.K./Sam Smith”

Louie, Dyke, and Fats!

B+

Saturday Night Live

"Louis C.K./Sam Smith"

Season 39, Episode 16

Thinking about why Louis C.K.’s two appearances on SNL have seemed so significant, it finally seems that he’s simply bigger than the show. Sure, there are megastars and celebrities aplenty hosting SNL all the time, but what I mean by “bigger” is that C.K. comes to the show as one of the select people in both SNL fields—comedy and television—who is doing innovative, challenging work that’s truly elevating both. The only other example I can think to compare him to is Richard Pryor in his one and only hosting gig in 1975, and even then, Pryor wasn’t messing with the conventions of television like C.K. is. (Pryor’s fitfully brilliant, controversial sketch show didn’t premiere until 1977—and it wasn’t ever the unique animal that is Louie.)

Which isn’t to say that C.K. has come to SNL to teach the old dog new tricks (unlike Pryor, who made so many creative demands that Lorne Michaels, after assenting to every one, reportedly muttered, “He’d better be funny” on the way out of the meeting). In his very funny first appearance, C.K. was content to don wigs, accents, and appear in a variety of standard—and mostly successful—SNL sketches with the understated but game energy of a professional comic performer. (The justifiably lauded “Lincoln” short film seemed the one intrusion of his signature style into the show’s standard rhythms apart from the monologue.) And yet, in that first appearance and this, C.K.’s presence has seemingly been the catalyst for SNL to bring its game up a level. For a show as justifiably criticized for complacency in its comic sensibility as is SNL, inviting a comedian of such estimation to host invites a lot of scrutiny. And for the second time, the Louie/SNL pairing was aces. Even if, again, it wasn’t as ambitious as its host’s day jobs, it was still damned funny, with a welcome vein of weirdness running throughout.

Not that the cold open was any indication, with Jay Pharoah’s Obama being convinced to parlay his Between Two Ferns appearance with a series of would-be viral stunts. The premise is—that Obama did that, I guess? And while Kate McKinnon’s Justin Bieber remains a fidgety delight, this was not a good start. (Obama’s doing the NaeNae! Obama’s wearing Pharrell’s hat! Here comes a Kardashian!) Political comedy on SNL has rarely gone for he throat—the oft-repeated mantra  “we attack both sides” essentially guarantees innocuousness—but sketches like this don’t even constitute satire. It’s a reference with a few harmless chuckles—let’s move on.

The monologue was—a Louis C.K. monologue. Which means that it’s of a piece with his oeuvre and people who admire the guy’s take on life, the universe, and everything loved it. And the rest of you—well, good luck to you. Like George Carlin, C.K.’s stock in trade is the brutally honest deconstruction of the hypocrisies we’d rather ignore, but leavened with an everyman’s side of self-laceration that Carlin generally didn’t bother with (or at least wasn’t as bothered by). Perceptive readers among you have sensed I’m a fan, but tonight’s set was, even cleaned up for television, great stuff. (He might not have been able to cuss, but speculating that God’s absent parallel mother figure may be dead and stuffed under God’s porch has the NBC operators busy, I’m sure.) The main objection to C.K.’s comedy seems to be that he’s preaching to a choir of those prepared to agree with him, but his all-encompassing and self-inclusive perspective takes the edge of any perceived hectoring. With shots at white people problems, first world problems, self-satisfied religious types, and those thoughtlessly keeping carelessly offensive language alive, the guy’s targets are always those (you know, us) who just can’t get over themselves. And at least it gave everyone a break from the “interrupt the host” and “impromptu musical number” monologue tropes, which now seem to be the only two acceptable formats whenever there’s not a standup hosting.

Speaking of templates that could be retired for a few years or so, the first sketch was Black Jeopardy, and here goes my first attempt to delve into the tangled racial sensibilities of Saturday Night Live. (Many have tried—some have never returned.) The premise of the sketch, like the twice-repeated (so far) “home Starbucks machine” ad seems on its surface to be troublesome—that a “black” version of Jeopardy would be made up, not of categories about general knowledge, but instead categories (like “Had That Been Me,” and “PSSSH!”) which truck in stereotypical ideas about African American cultural minutiae. The fact that there’s a white contestant (C.K., energetic and on-point)— an African American studies professor from BYU bewildered and not a little disgusted by the lack of historical questions and the two black contestants’ familiarity with the contemporary slang and speech patterns on the board—could be seen as reinforcing the questionable point of view. And yet, as with a talk show sketch from the Kerry Washington episode earlier in the year, the mitigating factor is that the sketch is written largely from the inside out—I don’t know who wrote the sketch, but Kenan Thompson, Sasheer Zamata, and Pharoah’s performances inhabit it as its central figures. That SNL is a very white show is a cliché because it’s true, so it’s interesting when a sketch makes it to air that seems not to care that its sensibility might be outside a white audience’s comfort zone. The joke is clearly on the professor who, as his assumed cultural superiority proves worthless, starts trying to assert it more aggressively until, running up against a final question, (name rap songs beginning with the letter “n”), he realizes that he’s simply not as central as he thought. It’s not a great sketch—the joke about Black Jeopardy always going up late is not an example of it being written from the inside—but it got me thinking, and the professor’s answer to the question of what white people lie about (“What is having no money?”) gets a huge laugh with Kenan’s response that it’s correct because “The truth is, we would have accepted any answer.” Plus, when’s the last time SNL featured a sketch with three people of color as the leads? I’m just sayin’.

The return of the baby executive is next and I’ve been truly shocked it took this long. In the “cliché because it’s true” category, beating recurring characters into the earth with a sledgehammer is the big one, but I actually giggled with delight when the premise revealed itself. Beck Bennett’s physical comedy is just too good and precise to quibble, especially when Aidy Bryant and Louis played it so straight as they were pelted with cake and watched Bennett’s various uncoordinated movements. (Bryant, especially, took those two cake hits to the head like a trooper.) Bennett’s combination of baby work and deadpan seriousness just gets me—I especially loved his closing, “If you’d wave that box around just out of my reach I’d like that a great deal.” Maybe it’ll get as old as The Californians, but I’m gonna choose to live in the now.

The only commercial parody posits that suits from discount clothier Joseph A. Banks are inexpensive and poorly made. The joke that they’re so cheap that they can be used instead of paper towels doesn’t add much—look at the oversized suit dispenser!—but the tagline “Quantity guaranteed” is clever enough. Still, it just seems like one SNL writer got a bad suit once and had to write the pain away.

Update is next and, while I won’t go so far as to say that the team of Cecily Strong and Colin Jost is making me forget Amy and Tina (or Seth and Amy, or Tina and Jimmy, or Dan and Jane), it was a marginal improvement. There’s still a propensity to go for lame, toothless photoshop jokes (cat covered in cotton balls, Chris Christie in drag), but at least the pair don’t seem as nervous or just plain grateful to be there as they have since Colin took the left-hand seat. While there was no quoteworthy political content to speak of (not a good sign), the anchors’ deliveries were more confident, which is a good sign. Jost’s way of nailing a sarcastic end line may sound like he’s aping Seth Meyers, but it’s still effective. It’s a tough gig—they’re growing into it. Only one correspondent, but it’s always nice to see Jay Pharoah’s Stephen A. Smith talk sports and his improbable connections with the figures therein. Again, with Pharoah’s estimable mimicry skills at its disposal, it’s refreshing when a lesser-known black celebrity like Smith makes the cut. Pharoah, interestingly, has toned down his cartoonish impression of the excitable sports pundit, giving more attention to the writing, which remains inventively loopy. This time out, Smith’s name-dropping claims a relationship with Julius Randle suspiciously like that of the Sisterhood Of The Traveling Pants, and says that Mike Krzyzewski shares Lean Cuisines on Smith’s voluminous forehead. The best is for Michigan State basketball coach Mike Izzo—“If ever want to call him I just ask Siri to complete me.”

After Update is when things took an extended detour into eccentricity, and I for one loved it. I’ve always dubbed that last sketch of the night “ten-to-oneland,” where the conceptual pieces that don’t require celebrity impressions or game show parodies, but hinge on one weirdo idea are let out to play. Tonight, it was more like “thirty-to-oneland,” with the last six sketches goofing around with unapologetically outré material. They weren’t all gold—but they were all appreciated.

The stoop sketch, with McKinnon, Bryant, Zamata, and Strong taunting the nonplussed Louis with a choreographed “Mr. Big Stuff,” fits perfectly with the host’s persona, as he unpacks the illogic of their abuse (“Did you rehearse this? This is a song?”), the accuracy of their insults (“I am Mr. Medium Stuff at best,” “Yesterday I had eggs for every single meal—hot eggs three times in a day”), and the lyrics (“Oh, so you’re like a prostitute”). The singing’s impressive, Louie’s deadpan is dead on, and his little dance at the end was freaking adorable.

The doctor sketch, with first Louie, then Kenan, Bennett, and Bryant trying with desperate nonchalance to have Mike O’Brien’s deadpan doc inspect their respective butts for Star Wars action figures, could have been smirky and juvenile, but instead played out in admirable restraint. Each patient’s tortured attempts to make their insistent request sound like no big deal is a quiet little masterpiece of underplaying, punctuated with hilarious mock outrage, with O’Brien’s patient skepticism being best of all. Louie’s “Considering my age and all…” vies with Kenan’s “I doubt it!” for biggest laugh, although the sheer randomness of Bryant denying there’s a Darth Vader possibly up there—“I’m a lady!  There could be a General Grievous”—ups the ante nicely.

Then, I guess I’ll call it “the pajama sketch” next, with C.K. and Vanessa Bayer playing out a particularly stilted seduction scene alongside their shared criminal investigations, logistical discussions of how to have sex through their sleepwear, and a swelling background score that threatens to turn it all into a musical number but never does. Again, I’ll take an oddball premise with some funny performances over another talk show sketch any day, and Louie’s run-together delivery of “pajamasnow” and pineapplejuice” alongside his and Bayer’s commitment to the silliness really makes it work. It’s weird enough that Louie’s possible flubbed line at the end fits right in.

Then it’s “Dyke and Fats!” I love “Dyke and Fats!” This, credited in the 70s-look cop show to Kate McKinnon and Aidy Bryant, has the air of something these two women like to riff on for fun that they made into a sketch. And as I say, I love it. Two funny women reclaiming their identities from the labels they’re slapped with with huge laughs, huge bratwurst, and the names “Dutch Plains as Les Dykawitz and Velvy O’Malley as Chubbina Fatzarelli?” Please bring this back as much as you want, Aidy and Kate.

Speaking of things I can’t get enough of, if SNL wants to just give Kyle Mooney four minutes and a camera every week, I think we’d all be better for it. While his stoner’s campaign ad for high school president wasn’t his funniest of the season (I still laugh thinking of the beer pong bit from the Bruce Willis episode), but it was filled with the sort off offhand details that make Mooney such a valuable presence on the show. (I like that you don’t get his collected poems free if he wins, but if you do get a discount.)

And then the actual ten-to-one sketch, with Louie’s rejected lover’s plea to Bryant spinning out into more and more insane ideas. It’s the very model of a last sketch, giving a chance for Louis and Bryant to continue the straight-faced quirkiness of the back half of the show. (The way his soothing “shhh” turns into a crisp “shut up” exemplifies the ethos of ten-to-oneland.) With the show going two-for-two with Louis C.K. hosting, the common denominator seems pretty clear.

Stray observations:

  • After the show went down, I tried to write while an old episode of Louie played on FX in the background (the anti-masturbation advocate episode, if you must know.) Couldn’t do it—got sucked in. Louie is a great fucking show, is what I’m saying.
  • “I’m wearing a wifebeater and child murder shorts.”
  • “Is it a matter of money? Because I’ll reimburse you for the pajamas up to 100 dollars.”
  • “Only we get say that! Those are our words—we love each other and we’re friends!”
  • “Is it crazy to love someone so much that you try to kill them?” “It 100 percent is.”
  • Taran Killam, Nasim Pedrad, and Bobby Moynihan were practically nonexistent this episode.
  • I am hip to the musics of today!: Sam Smith was the musical guest. I had never heard of him. His combination of fey, faux-shy camera flirting and simpering, meandering pseudo soul made me think very ill of him indeed.
  • The Pepsi Mini Cans commercial right after the monologue had me convinced it was the first ad parody of the night. So they’re like regular Pepsi cans—but smaller? I suppose you could just drink less Pepsi, but what do I know.
  • Louie thanking the backstage crew, including name-checking Phil the lighting guy, made me like him even more, if possible. 

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