SNL does its damnedest to protect Ronda Rousey

SNL does its damnedest to protect Ronda Rousey

And the call of an old nemesis brings Tina Fey out in the middle of a blizzard

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Selena Gomez, Ronda Rousey, Cecily Strong (NBC)
Selena Gomez, Ronda Rousey, Cecily Strong (NBC)
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Saturday Night Live

"Ronda Rousey/Selena Gomez"

Season 41 , Episode 11

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“I’m not an actor, I’m a [kicking people/aspiring action movie] star!”

Hosts from the sports world haven’t covered themselves in the same kind of glory they’re used to on the diamond/rink/court/field/ring/pool/slopes when appearing on Saturday Night Live. And while Ronda Rousey adds octagon to the dubious roster, she didn’t embarrass herself in her hosting gig, not that she was given a lot of opportunities to fail. Wisely—and usually for sporty types—the show protected her a good deal, featuring Rousey in two filmed pieces and limiting her live participation mostly to quick snatches of dialogue. Sure, she was staring down the cue cards pretty hard in the Bachelor-style sketch, but she took some of the gas out of the issue in her monologue, a funny bit where Beck Bennett and Taran Killam called the monologue like a fight and she made a joke about possible brain damage from her defeat at the feet of Holly Holm. (She also gave props to Holm, which was classy.) On the scale of athlete hosts from The Rock to Nancy Kerrigan, I’d put her at right about a Fran Tarkenton.

Weekend Update update

Good Update tonight, as Colin Jost and Michael Che had some fine tag-team energy and some solid jokes. Che kept hammering away at the #OscarsSoWhite controversy and Donald Trump’s latest example of—being Donald Trump. (On the Oscars bringing in black presenters to offset the across the board whiteness of the nominees, he delivered, “’Cause nothing says solving racism like forcing black people to present white people with gold.” And following up with a joke that the Academy nominating a film called Brooklyn populated by only white people was like a slap at Spike Lee specifically was right there, too. The Trump dig—calling his supporters “window-licking waterheads”—was so baldly harsh that it suggests Che’s ongoing resentment at having to play nice when The Donald hosted isn’t going away any time soon. Jost piled on, speculating that Trump is playing some sort of game to see how awful he can be and still be a viable candidate “like the velociraptors testing the fence at Jurassic Park.”

Leslie Jones did her thing with an extended (perhaps over-extended) pitch to be Leonardo DiCaprio’s new girlfriend. Lots of people don’t like Leslie’s brash, “making Jost uncomfortable while talking about her personal life in explicit detail” Update persona. A lot of people (including me) do, but this one went on too long. Still, as she puts it, she is “a funny bitch.”

And then there’s Willie. I like Willie, too, the inappropriately upbeat victim of seemingly all possible misfortune giving Kenan Thompson one of his best outlets. Here, relating his ongoing streak of horrifying life choices and disasters, he made me laugh as usual. My favorite of three solid Willie-isms, his enthusiastic, “It’s like the asbestos-removal crew said—‘My God, there’s someone alive in here!’”

Best/worst sketch of the night

Sure, there’s no question which sketch is going to get the most attention tonight, but, for a sharper bite-laughs combo, I’ll take the Oscars parody over the most welcome (if slightly disappointing) return of Tina Fey as Sarah Palin. While it’s called something else for the purposes of the sketch (The Screen Guild Awards), the Oscars’ consistent paleness is the target for this pointedly funny bit, as the best actor nominees are revealed to have ever-smaller parts in simulacra of acclaimed current black-led films like Beasts Of No Nation, Creed, Straight Outta Compton, plus movies about Thurgood Marshall and housing discrimination. It’s textbook sketch-building, starting with a recognizable premise (a nomination for the Stallone character in Creed) and building the absurdity until Jon Rudnitsky’s “unidentified voice on phone” is revealed as the final nominee. But classics are classics for a reason, and this one’s executed to perfection. (Beck Bennet’s character “Dave” got his nomination for interrupting a dramatic scene between Thurgood Marshall and his wife to warn them that the the library is about to close. “Thanks, Dave,” says Michael Che’s Marshall.)

As to that Palin sketch, here’s to the power of Lorne Michaels’ persuasiveness to get Tina to reprise her most famous SNL impression (and in a freaking blizzard, no less). Still, while Palin’s recent dadaist, alternately bananas and horrifying ramble in lending her still-relevant-to-some-people endorsement to Trump was as sure a thing for SNL as you’ll ever see (especially with Fey agreeing to appear), the sketch itself wasn’t as sharp as it could have been. The expected references to Palin twisting her own family’s misdeeds into political hay and this Palin’s “bless some of the United States of America” landed well, but like the Fey-Poehler sketch parodying Palin’s almost as nonsensical Katie Couric interview in 2008, the sketch might have been better served simply by using Palin’s own self-impressed gibberish rather than the comical word salad the writers came up with here. Plus, as much as it warms my SNL-nostalgic heart to see that Darrell Hammond is apparently in for the long haul Trump-wise, asides revealing he realized all along that Palin was going to go so far off the reservation mostly served to sap the comic momentum from Fey’s accurate-as-ever impression.

The show actually started out rather strongly, with the requisite “Rousey beating the shit out of someone” sketch being dispatched with some care in the Mean Girls-meets-Carrie filmed piece where Rousey’s wallflower turns the tables on Vanessa Bayer’s bully and her prank-playing minions by, well, beating the shit out of her. Bayer’s great, attempting to maintain her supercilious evil while getting pummeled, and Beck Bennet’s affectless line readings are funny, too. And Rousey did some fine simulated violence.

Her other filmed bit, a rap where would-be players Jay Pharoah and Taran Killam’s braggadocio about their penises alternated with pal Beck Bennett’s increasingly detailed revelations that he’d remain fully dressed (complete with hat) while giving oral sex was fine. Bennett’s come-on “when I pull down my pants, there’s another pair of pants” was nice and odd—but the sketch mainly pointed out how, in the post-Lonely Island days of SNL, filmed musical bits are a lot more hit-and-miss than they used to be.

“The Super Crew” sketch had a few chuckles, but the whole “inept superheroes with dumb powers” concept has been done, and done better. (The Specials remaining an underrated example, although I may be the only person who fondly recalls the old SNL sketch “The Interesting Four.”) I did appreciate Leslie Jones’ Aviana, who can fly, but only as fast as you can walk, and only for ten seconds, and only twice a day, but this one could have used a fresher spin on the concept.

“What do you call that act?” “The Californians!”—Recurring sketch report

What’s odd about tonight’s recurring sketches is not so much that SNL repeated them (that’s SNL), but that they were of such modest charms on their first go-round. A reality show sketch is de rigueur for any sketch show these days, so the return of the Bachelor-style “Bland Man” number wasn’t a surprise, especially since it both hid Rousey in the crowd and allowed every female cast member a few juicy lines. It was called “Farm Hunk” when Blake Shelton hosted, but the ladies’ identical “I like this” overtures to Taran Killam’s generic fellow are the same, as are their increasingly bizarre biographical details. It’s a reliably amusing format—I liked Aidy Bryant’s revelation that she has six kids, and that one of them always has a lot of cash but won’t tell her where he got it—and Killam’s deadpan dullness makes him a better straight man than Shelton was. His introduction that “I’m from Chicago or Denver, or something” made me laugh, as did his immediate “Let me walk you out” once Shasheer Zamata announced that she was “the black one.”

The Bakersfield town meeting sketch makes its, what, third appearance here? Again, it’s a chance for some quick-hit goofiness that’s always worth a few chuckles, but that this mild, unsurprising sketch is turning into one of this cast’s most revisited recurring bits just indicates how shallow the pool of such sketches is in the current incarnation. Some laughs—Kate McKinnon and Kyle Mooney do funny Irish and Dutch accents, respectively, and, as ever, Bobby Moynihan’s initially sensible councilman reveals a bit too much about himself—but if you’re going to do a kooky town meeting bit, set out to top Parks And Recreation or retire the thing. I know Pawnee, Bakersfield, and you are no Pawnee, comedically speaking.

And then there’s the child rape courtroom sketch. I’m sure that’s not what they call it in the writers room at SNL, but, considering the not-inconsiderable outcry after the “underage teen boy is seduced by his teacher” idea ran the first time, its recurrence here seems to indicate that either no one at SNL reads criticism (which, fair enough), or that they’re making a stand that anything can be made into a sketch (which, agree wholeheartedly). Or, a more likely third option, that this is an easy laugh that has enough cultural leeway so they can throw it out there and riff on the same, generally crowd-pleasing gags without getting in too much trouble. While that cultural double standard (that older women preying on underage boys is okay because guys think it’s awesome) is certainly pervasive enough that picky critics who point out the fact that SNL would never in a million years do a gender-flipped version of the sketch get called the PC police, it’s that very pervasiveness that makes the sketch so hacky. There’s nothing lazier than taking up a comic cliché and then delivering exactly the jokes inherent in the cliché (not to mention doing the exact same jokes for a second time). Still, PC police or no, Davidson’s factual, highly descriptive testimony is funny, the list of names his admiring classmates gave him is funny (this time: the chosen one, king of everything, the revenant, Three’s Humpany, Diary Of A Pimpy Kid, velocitaptor, and ”my man,” but, like, the way Denzel Washington says it), and I laughed at the craftsmanship, even as I told myself it’s probably time to re-read John Irving’s Until I Find You again for some perspective.

“It was my understanding there would be no math”—Political comedy report

#OscarsSoWhite, Trump, Palin—all handled a fair degree of incisiveness and laughs. I’ll take it.

I am hip to the musics of today

Whether surrounding herself with a semicircle of turtlenecked finger-snappers while wearing a thigh-slit dress or desperately trying to work up some adult content (and controversy) by having a mixed-gender pair of dispassionate-looking dancers strategically paw her on a black satin-sheeted bed set, Selena Gomez looked like she was playing dress-up and sang two safely provocative, utterly disposable pop songs.

Most/Least Valuable (Not Ready For Prime Time) Player

With his monologue sports announcer, never-nude rapper, jock in the bullying sketch, and his return to Ten-To-Oneland with Kyle Mooney, this was Beck Bennett’s biggest show in recent memory. While new guy Jon Rudnitsky continues to struggle for airtime, the wealth was spread pretty evenly otherwise, as everyone rallied to keep the host from harm.

“What the hell is that thing?”—The Ten-To-Oneland Report

The audience wasn’t following along (perhaps they were thinking about how the hell they were going to get home at 1 a.m. in the blizzard), but it was good to see Mooney and Bennett back in the final spot where they belong. Here, their socially backward officemates’ attempts to assure coworker Rousey that of course they’ll bring the dogs, towels, rags, bucket, and a couple of extra TVs to her party are just the sort of weirdo character stuff they do well, and that I maintain the show would benefit from more of. Not their best, but certainly in their wheelhouse, and what Ten-To-Oneland is meant for.

Stray observations

  • Something went wrong there at the end, necessitating a repeat of the funny Settl dating app sketch from the Ryan Gosling episode to fill the last few minutes before the goodnights. Since the show was (rather unconvincingly) accused of stealing that bit the first time, look for that noise to resurface.
  • Hammond’s Trump, admiring Palin as the total package: “She’s got it all: Smart, legs, yelling, everything.”
  • Che, over a story about the blizzard forcing NYC to tell people to stay in their homes: “The one guy ignoring these warnings—my boss.” [Cue picture of Lorne.]
  • Che says the Oscars broadcast is “so long and white and boring it might actually win an Oscar.”
  • Jost’s done a similar joke before, but his delivery was great on the fact that it was recently “National Compliment Day... dad.”
  • Aidy Bryant’s superhero Queen Aquata just really likes the beach, and eating sand hasn’t hurt her yet.
  • Jost on a woman who’s turned her property into a sanctuary for thousands of cats: “Reached for comment, her husband left 10 years ago.”
  • Taran Killam’s Bland Man, living up to his name: “I love the moon. But I also like the day, you know? With the sun?”