Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

A feeble Saturday Night Live asks too much of first-time host/musical guest Halsey

Screenshot: Saturday Night Live

“Am I in hell?”

“I’m not an actor, I’m a [perhaps ill-advised double-duty SNL] star!”

There was nothing inherently wrong with the idea of a Halsey hosting/musical guest gig. Some three dozen or so performers have done the same, and not all of them were renowned comedy performers when they gave it a shot. Sometimes it even worked. (Justin Timberlake gets all the pub, but Queen Latifah could come back anytime.)

The problem here is wasn’t Halsey. She wasn’t remarkable in any way, but the singer gamely held up her limited end of her sketches as ably as, say, a one-season featured player who was destined to never quite break out. But this was a dire Saturday Night Live that neither catered to its neophyte host’s strengths or surrounded her with sketches or performances strong enough to buoy her. Lost in a wheezy shuffle of lazy premises and indifferent execution, Halsey was no worse than the show cobbled together around her. That’s about the most I can say for what was no doubt intended to be her breakout evening.

Best/Worst sketch of the night

Be careful what you ask for. After a season where SNL’s reliance on splashy celebrity guest impressions has been criticized for turning the show into a cast-wasting Lorne Michaels cocktail party, tonight’s episode was given back to the players. (Alec Baldwin’s Trump had a brief vocal cameo, but that’s it.) There were also no talk show sketches, game show sketches, or quick-hit parades of mediocre celebrity impressions. Instead, the episode took very welcome swings at conceptual writer and performer pieces, which, again, is what I’m always hoping for more of, so the fact that the sketches tonight were uniformly uninspired isn’t a good sign. For one thing, it’s likely to see the show fall back on the same, tired old stuff. For another, it throws a harsh spotlight on the idea that this season’s writers just aren’t simply that great, as opposed to being held back by SNL’s cruise-ship-institutional instincts.

On an episode like this one, I pick out the little pleasures. Kenan was everywhere, not so much enlivening bad sketches as imbuing them with his smoothly confident underplaying as a sort of exemplar of professionalism in the face of disaster. As wildly funny as Kenan Thompson can be as the focus of a sketch, he’s as valuable holding things together as deadpan straight man, his dogged ebullience confronting the crazy/disappointing people around him a consistent pleasure. In the sketch about the fact that apparently every single elected official in the state of Virginia thought blackface was fucking hilarious, Kenan’s damage control expert copes with his white colleagues’ cluelessness with aplomb, patiently prying out their past indiscretions and present insensitivity with equal parts bemusement and wry amusement.

Same goes for the restaurant sketch, where his laid-off mailman dad happily reveals his new side hustle as a cake-squashing internet cam performer with a pleasantly chipper lack of shame. Speaking of being careful what you wish for, though, the piece doesn’t work otherwise, even though its weirdo concept comedy is, theoretically, what SNL should choose over yet another repeat or cookie-cutter template sketch. Like a truly unnerving number of the sketches tonight, this one played to hesitant chuckles and, ultimately, silence.

A similar mixed bag was the piece about Mikey Day’s architect son being interrupted by calls from his hectoring, accident-prone parents, played by Beck Bennett and Halsey (doing the exaggerated native New Jersey accent that she broke out in the monologue, and was essentially her lone character contribution). Here, too, the joke premise is solid enough—Day’s befuddled businessman keeps gleaning increasingly alarming facts from his garrulous parents’ passive-aggressive messages. And Melissa Villaseñor and Chris Redd both had nifty little moments as Day’s curious clients. (“Put them on speaker.” “Yeah, I feel we’re a part of this now.”) But whatever promise there was was sunk, repeatedly, by sloppiness on almost everyone’s part. Halsey blows the reveal of her final injury by holding up her previously hidden bandaged hands too early. Bennett pivots just far enough to show how his leg casts don’t close in the back. And the final gag about Bennett falling down a flight of stairs is framed so ineptly that we see Beck’s plastered legs lying motionless at the bottom of the frame while the sound effects assure us he’s tumbling painfully down the steps. Call it picky, but anyone familiar with Lorne Michaels oft-expounded theories of verisimilitude in comedy know that these were all major, sketch-torpedoing errors.

And since we’re talking about it, the karaoke sketch was a hot mess, too. Villaseñor, Cecily Strong, and Halsey—as scavenger-hunting sorority sisters wreaking havoc while singing 4 Non Blondes—had some promise. Again, I’m all for oddball ideas whose jokes come from escalating absurdity—I liked how Villaseñor tasked Pete Davidson’s audience member with caring for an enormous (live) Macaw for the rest of his life as part of her pledge-prank. (“And it’s racist!”) But the sound cue got blown so we couldn’t hear what the bird said, and the timing of the sketch was blown, too, so the three singers were sent scurrying back up onstage trying to catch up to their music cue. Timing-wise, the fact that the goodnights ran for a full three-plus minutes while the band vamped and Halsey and the cast awkwardly hugged was indicative of how off-the-rails the episode was. Which would be less of an issue if we were laughing the whole time. As it was, the entire episode had a distinctly J.V. feel about it.

Gaffes aside, two sketches tonight helped crystalize an underlying complaint about the last few seasons. Melissa Villaseñor busted out her full-out, undeniably impressive Lady Gaga impression on Update. And, later, the black SNL cast members were all comically upstaged in their Black History Month tribute by uncomprehendingly condescending “allies” Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett. In each case, Saturday Night Live hedges its bets, couching each piece as a smug put-on, rather than just, you know, crafting a showcase for the performers untainted by paternalistic meta-chuckling. Villaseñor’s been looking for a breakout spot like this since the talented impressionist was hired—and then left mostly sitting on the bench. And if SNL’s track record in racial humor and casting hasn’t been discussed enough, then—yeah, it hasn’t. Winking at its own inner workings—from backstage battles for airtime to offstage tone-deafness about its own persistent whiteness—is an SNL staple, and that’s fine. It’s part of the show’s DNA from the very beginning to position itself as both part of and rebelling against showbiz conventions and network politics. But both of these pieces are undermined, not enhanced, by the choice to present them as sketches that the show couldn’t find actual room for on their own. If you want to showcase Villaseñor’s formidable talents, then write her a damn sketch. If you want to give the show’s black cast members a voice, then write a Black History Month sketch that doesn’t come off like a smirking mock-apology for your inability or unwillingness to actually do that.

Oh, and Halsey, Aidy, and Kate got a music video, making fun of the co-opting of sexy Valentine’s Day by decidedly un-sexy well-wishers. (Your mom, your son, your boss.) It’s a well-produced but unmemorable echo of the glory days of “Back Home Ballers.”


Weekend Update update

Jost and Che are never having more fun than when there’s an irresistibly, off-the-charts ridiculous political story that week. So the fact that, as mentioned, Virginia’s governor Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring are both embroiled in matching blackface racist scandals gave them plenty to work with. (Virginia’s Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax is also now facing two sexual assault accusations, making Virginia, at least temporarily, the new Florida.) As with Kenan’s sketch earlier in the episode, the pair’s jokes landed with the satisfying sounds of gleeful piling-on. Che started off by admitting that it’s sometimes a chore to make jokes about politics and current events, before warming to this particular task nicely. He also kept throwing Liam Neeson onto the fire for added heat, combining the most recent spate of racist bullshit with a joke about Gucci’s “blackface sweater.” (Speaking of Neeson, Che advised, “Anything that makes him laugh, don’t make.”)

It’s unfair to assume we got an extra-long Update this week because the show wasn’t itching to give us more Halsey, but the three correspondent pieces were more than customary. And only one of them worked, really, as Villaseñor—in white suit and blonde wig—finally got her Lady Gaga on the air. And it was worth waiting for, Jost’s paper-thin frame for the bit hand-waved off by Villaseñor’s tour de force. “I’m supposed to tell a joke after that?,” ad-libbed an impressed Che after Melissa’s exit. Indeed.

Heidi Gardner’s making Update her personal highlight reel, and her Valentine’s Day advice segment with Mikey Day saw her, once more, giving very specific life to a broad character. The long-time couple (complete with joint Instagram handle “Once Upon A Snuggle”) turn out to be a co-dependent nightmare (“And real mature, you’re in your hat-hole!”), with the ever-impressive Gardner elevating the slight bit, well, a bit.

Alex Moffat’s Guy Who Just Bought A Boat was a very funny take on smug douchebaggery the first time. Now it’s an excuse for his rich dick to drop lines like “Choco leads to taco” while his repeated asides about his inadequate penis inadequately take the misogynistic stank off of them. The audience started groaning. I thought it was in my head for a second.


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

I think Moffat’s found his footing nicely. But the Guy Who Just Bought A Boat is the quintessential signature bit with nothing left to say.

“Them Trumps” came back. Its one joke—that a black Donald Trump (or Darius Trump here) would have been arrested about five minutes into his first, crime, treason, and scandal-ridden day in office—remains a pointedly funny one. I like especially how Kenan’s President Darius Trump immediately accepts how screwed he is at the first provocation. But there’s nothing else to the bit but that repeated gag, a choice that leaves a whole lot of satirical ammo on the table.


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

No Baldwin. I’m in. Still, let’s find something better to slot into the cold open, huh? The Meet The Press sketch was about how media outlets overhype salacious but relatively irrelevant stories and slight more important but less sexy ones. Got it. And while the fact that it looks an awful lot like Amazon and Washington Post head Jeff Bezos was blackmailed over dick pics by the National Enquirer on orders from the fucking president, the sketch similarly goes for the crotch over the head, so to speak. With the panel of pundits all (except for Leslie Jones’ mortified Donna Brazile) enthusiastically speculating on the nature of Bezos’ member, the sketch isn’t laugh-less. There’s a certain welcome dedication to the pundits’ meticulously reasoned predictions, and Kenan, again, is a rock. The sketch almost takes off into the absurdist, gonzo stratosphere when Kate McKinnon brings back her cadaverous Wilbur Ross, whose ruminations on the rumored pictures leads him to reminisce about some of the most decadent rich-monster acts you can imagine. Including “dick picks,” which, in his plutocratic evil, means lining up homeless men so you can choose which of their penises to have swapped with yours. (“If it’s too big, you fall over.”) And, after much speculation about which one of Lorne Michaels’ friends would get the nod to swan in to impersonate proposed Attorney General and Bigfoot party and toilet pitchman Matthew Whittaker, at least Aidy Bryant got the gig.


But what are we doing here? In all of the stories to come out of this bountifully ridiculous political scene in the weeks since the last SNL, this mediocre dick joke is the one you pick as the opener? Even if it had been peerlessly hilarious in execution, the choice suggests a serious lack of ambition in political satire, a form of comedy that nobody is forcing anyone at SNL to do. But if you’re going to do it, then do it. This is like looking at an enormous, whirling, challenging shooting gallery, spotting a target that fell off onto the ground, blasting it from an inch away, and then congratulating yourself on the hit.

The Women Of Congress film gave all of the women of SNL some screen time, although the premise—a Charlie’s Angels parody? With Trump as Charlie?—was largely an excuse for a bunch of funny badass female legislator nicknames. Referring to Trump’s SOTU reference about his presence being responsible for a record number of women serving is a setup to the joke that every one of these badass women loses her mind in outrage, however, which isn’t especially in keeping with whatever empowerment vibe the piece had going for it.


I am hip to the musics of today

Count me among those who had to do some research when I heard about Halsey’s unexpected host-musical guest showcase. In her perfunctory monologue, Halsey summed herself up jokingly as the favorite of angsty teenage girls everywhere, and I’ll chalk up my ignorance to that. Still, she’s an emotive, pleasant singer, and if her showpiece second number (in which she painted a pretty good, floor-size portrait while she sang) was as good a showcase for guide tracks and traced guide-lines as it was to her singing, it was still a visually impressive trick.

Most/Least valuable Not Ready For Primetime Player

Melissa Villaseñor’s Gaga might not have made her way into a proper sketch, but it was great. Again, for a celebrity impression-happy show like SNL to underuse its most adept impressionist week after week makes no sense, so here’s hoping this is the boost she needed. Good night for all the Melissa monsters out there. Kenan’s game professionalism wins him runner-up.


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

Why was this a Riverdale sketch? The show exists, fair enough. But nobody involved came packing a must-see Riverdale character impression (as far as I know, anyway), and dressing up a meager premise with an indifferent sort-of parody of a sort-of cult show isn’t doing anyone any favors. For the sketch itself, Pete Davidson broke out an unexpected British accent (not bad) as a corpse-specializing method actor, whose supposedly realistic gas noises and rigor mortis twitches infuriate Kenan’s exasperated director. Still, here’s to at least trying something weird at the tail end of a genuine bummer of an episode.


Stray observations

  • “I’m Chuck Todd, and I’m still figuring out my whole look.”
  • Halsey’s was the most egregious evidence yet that nobody at Saturday Night Live is really into the monologue any more.
  • Kenan’s consultant, bailing on his not-getting-it white colleagues: “Delete any Facebook photo labeled ‘Halloween’ and hope for the best.”
  • Apologies that Melissa Villaseñor’s Lady Gaga number isn’t embedded here at post time—apparently Jost wasn’t kidding when he said SNL couldn’t afford the whole song.
  • And I guess 4 non Blondes is asking for big money these days, too. Huh.
  • An actual sketch about the history of black performers on Saturday Night Live would have been a whole lot more interesting. Yvonne Hudson’s story alone.