To paraphrase Amy Schumer circa 10:30 p.m. on Oscars night, “Anything happen this week?”
The last seven days have provided SNL with an approximate metric fuck-ton of topical inspiration. One piece, of course, was Will Smith clocking presenter Chris Rock (an SNL alum) at the Oscars, a true record-scratching, WTF cultural moment. In the endlessly fragmented dropped pie that is the television landscape, it’s rare that live TV unites everyone in the world in the conviction that they need to have an opinion on something.
Five days later, host Jerrod Carmichael—an established comic and star of the late, lamented (at least by me) NBC sitcom The Carmichael Show—earned a few headlines of his own by coming out as gay in his new HBO standup special, Rothaniel, which debuted on Friday. That doesn’t happen every week, and Carmichael is uniquely candid and moving in Rothaniel as he details this bumpy ongoing process.
So despite Carmichael’s less-than-household-name status, this SNL episode arrived with more anticipatory buzz than usual. Will the show summarize and contextualize the Smith situation in a way that only SNL can? Will the host—so perceptive and inventive in his standup—push the show to go afield on gay themes (a direction that led to one of the most laugh-out-loud-funny sketches of season 45)? Are both of these questions setting up unrealistic expectations?
Unfortunately, as it turned out, yes.
Carmichael’s monologue was nearly note-perfect. He acknowledged both big stories at hand (“I’m not gonna talk about it … do you want me to talk about it?”) and nailed how news coverage and incessant viral bloviating tends to expand time: the Oscars and The Slap occurred six days ago yet feel like they happened “somewhere between Jamiroquai and 9/11.” He got in some good digs at himself and Lorne Michaels’ insistence that he address the incident—”I have to be the least famous host in SNL history … I’ve been gay for 48 hours. I’m going to heal the nation?”—before calling on the only man who truly can.
Carmichael may be lesser-known to a nationwide audience, but the monologue established his bona fides as a sharp and exceptionally appealing comic voice. There’s a reason this man had his own NBC sitcom at age 27. (Seriously: watch Rothaniel and his two other HBO specials, and give The Carmichael Show a whirl if you haven’t.)
Alas, SNL’s writer’s room didn’t step up to meet him.
The “Fox & Friends” cold open didn’t kill, exactly, but it came off more successfully than much of what followed. Here, Fox News’ morning show welcomes Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, his insurrection-supporting wife Ginni, and former President Donald Trump. There were some sharp moments: Ginni describes herself as “the Yoko Ono of the Supreme Court” and Cecily Strong’s Jeannine Pirro decries Disney’s “exciting new project: Turning your kindergartner gay.” As Trump, James Austin Johnson nailed it as usual, going into digressive arias about the Oscars incident (which he brand “Slap”, a la “Wall”) and Jan. 6, which he begins by analyzing the structure of the word “coup” and ends by admitting the whole thing was intended to be one.
There were solid laughs to be had here, but they’re not altogether satisfying. There’s something disconcerting about the jolly direction—we are seeing people who are seriously trying to undermine democracy and legitimize discrimination softened and broadened into love-and-laughs-seeking Carol Burnett Show-type characters. (Why is Kenan Thompson’s Thomas constantly grinning? Have we ever seen the real-life justice smile?) A certain sting is missing.
“Seat Fillers” also didn’t quite kill—we might need to revisit these rubrics—but deserves a participation trophy for its attempt to address The Slap in a sketch. It’s a fun sideways premise: Two seat fillers (Kyle Mooney and Carmichael) interact with Will Smith (Chris Redd) around the infamous moment. What puts this in the winner’s column is Redd’s Smith, who spouts robotic crowd-pleasing platitudes between violent outbursts. But overall, it felt like a missed opportunity, especially in view of the weird PR machinations that have materialized as the week wore on. (Thankfully, Michael Che filled in many blanks on “Weekend Update.”)
In “Scattering Remains,” possibly the worst sketch of the season thus far, a family gathers on a cliff to scatter the ashes of their beloved grandfather into the ocean. Mortuary attendants (Carmichael and Andrew Dismukes) haul out a fully intact body and dump it onto the rocks below. Oh, but there’s more (yet less): Dismukes crawls down the cliff to retrieve an unrelated corpse, while Carmichael pulls out an urn which contains his soup lunch. Listen—tastelessness is fine; tastelessness can be great if it nails something about the culture. (See “Sara Lee’” referenced above.) Unfortunately, this was witless shock valuism, totally empty, reminiscent of something that would have been at home on SNL’s infamously nihilistic 1980-81 season.
Whenever SNL does a game-show sketch, my stomach drops. It’s usually a sign that inspiration has run dry that week. In “Is My Brain OK?,” the host (Kate McKinnon) quizzes contestants on how they’re reacclimating to society after COVID. It was all very meh and felt like it could have aired six months ago or last year, and I wonder if the script was in fact resurrected from the slush pile. There were a couple of good lines—the winning contestant was offered a two-week trip to Hawaii or the chance to “go back to your apartment and stay there,” and of course he chose the latter—but I saw sharper stuff about COVID-era social anxiety on Instagram today. (Sure, not every game-show sketch can be “Black Jeopardy” or “Meet Your Second Wife,” but this didn’t even rise to the level of “Word Crunch” from last month.)
On this week’s “Weekend Update,” Colin Jost mostly sat back while Michael Che delivered blast after successful blast on the Will Smith incident. Che took Smith to task on his assertion that love made him do crazy things: “You know what else makes you do crazy things? Crazy.” Other highlights included a comment on the Smiths’ open marriage—”You can’t sit there and watch another man jump all over your wife, without signing an NDA”—and his complaint, from a standup’s perspective, about Jada Pinkett Smith’s alopecia and insecurity about joke intentions. He also addressed Chris Rock’s self-admitted nonverbal learning disorder, going to a funny but poignant place others haven’t.
In a good move, SNL just let the artist do their thing this week, without unnecessary background distractions (although there were plenty of smoke machines in evidence). But they may have taken it a bit too far—in his second performance, Gunna did “Pushin P,” a top-10 hit on the Hot 100 and a moderate viral sensation among America’s dads and weathermen, who have been moved to do their own versions on TikTok. It might have made sense to smack a new layer on that performance.
Michael Che is this episode’s MVP, for delivering the punch and 360 perspective on the week’s big incident that didn’t come from sketches.
- Carmichael deserved better material. Definitely better than the bottom-of-the-barrel-dwelling “Shop TV,” which required him to seemingly finger-blast a doll (who has overgrown rainbow-colored pubic hair) from behind.
- The last sketch saw Bowen Yang and Carmichael as a gay couple in a commercial for affirming infant onesies printed with messages like “Future Twink,” “Lil’ Lez,” “Ass Man. Can’t Host” and “Holland Taylor Can Hit Me With a Truck.” It was beneath both of them.
- Red Rocket star (and former MTV VJ and sex-tape star) Simon Rex showed up in “Short-Ass Movies,” Pete Davidson’s digital short that extolled the virtues of streaming films of short duration. It was a cute concept (but not much more) elevated by the sight gag of Rex appearing as Jim Varney in every one of the Ernest movies.