The expectation is always that Saturday Night Live will open each season with a bang. What Owen Wilson’s opening monologue (and subsequent Season 47 premiere) posited was, what if it doesn’t? Pre-empting any potential reviewer griping with signature laid-back charisma, Wilson recalled one such reviewer summing up the actor’s onscreen affect as that of “an old golden retriever laying next to a fire,” and noting that he’s never understood the idea that actors have to read all their reviews, and not just the good ones. “I find that the bad ones just don’t speak to me in the same way,” Wilson noted.
Well, rest relatively easy, Mr. Wilson. Saturday Night Live’s 47th season kicked off with all the comfy, pleasant vibes promised by the show’s choice of its initial host. Here I’ll say that Owen Wilson is a fine, unique actor with a lot more range than he’s traditionally given credit for, but his (and this episode’s) approach was right in line with the host’s tone-setting “let’s all just have a good time” monologue. And, honestly, that wasn’t the worst way to kick off a season with all the usual question marks, first-show jitters, and rampant speculation from your chosen internet pop culture site.
An unashamed cue card-dependent, Wilson nonetheless was just an easy performer to get behind all night. The appearance by actor brothers Luke and Andrew cheering Owen on from the audience, plus the Loki star’s reminiscences about his hell-raising middle-childhood (Owen really gave his father’s “3790 club” much of its flavor) lent the episode an easygoing warmth that carried through all of Wilson’s performances. And if this first outing took perhaps too much from the host’s looseness here and there, coming back to an SNL already in mid-season form made for a lot of fun, even if “mid-season form” doesn’t exactly inspire confidence that this overstuffed cast is going to be stretching the sketch comedy form or anything.
The most representative sketch, for good and ill, was the NFL On Fox, second-to-last piece. Wilson, aptly cast as former footballer turned staunchly square commentator Troy Aikman, anchored the action alongside new guy we’ll be talking about a lot more, James Austin Johnson. The joke—about the pair struggling to integrate chatter about new Fox reality(?) show Crazy House into their sports talk—has been done, but there’s a lot of possibility there in satirizing corporate synergy and the long history of jock announcers feigning interest in network-mandated pop culture bumpers. But the real laughs here come from Wilson and Johnson’s talking heads attempting to puzzle out the unfolding loopiness of Crazy House’s premise, which apparently involves a puppet roommate, celebrity cameos, and some sort of The Activist-esque social justice competition element. “Did I just see Stacey Abrams with the monster puppet?,” asks bewildered sideline reporter Erin Andrews (Heidi Gardner) as the show’s elements are parceled out at the bottom of the screen.
An encouraging sign all through tonight’s show was the regular infiltration of off-kilter laughs around the edges of sketches. Here, Wilson’s Aikman did the clueless jock bit just fine (“You know what show I really like, Dwight Schrute, remember that one?”), with Johnson playing an exceptionally deadpan straight man. Johnson’s Joe Buck repeatedly brushing off Aikman’s iffy speculations with a breezily cautious, “Let’s not guess,” was pitched just right to make the often stilted repartee between play-by-play and color man pay off. But the downside to Wilson’s coziness of delivery was that the sketch never really took off into the absurdity promised by the premise. Crazy House’s concept (the house was bought for the trio by a millionaire last-named Crazy, and roommate Suavé is one of the human women, and not the puppet monster) could have escalated into a David S. Pumpkins-style ascent of absurd laughs, while, here, it settled for pleasantly silly.
The Best: With a little sharpening, a few of the sketches tonight could have similarly broken out into something truly special. Still, I’ll go with the school board meeting for the top spot, citing a couple of different elements. For one, it addressed, at least for now, the elephant in the room. That being the question of how SNL is going to service all 21 (not a typo) cast members this season. A lot gets made about the sheer size of the cast the last number of years, and so here goes my nuanced and long-winded take: It’s too big. That’s two out (Beck Bennett and the screentime-starved Lauren Holt) out, three (Artistole Athari, Sarah “Sarah Squirm” Sherman, and James Auston Johnson) in, to a cast already groaning at the seams with underserved performers.
With the rumor being that Lorne Michaels is promising unprecedented latitude for established cast MVPs Kate McKinnon, Cecily Strong, Aidy Bryant, Kenan Thompson, and Pete Davidson to pursue other gigs in order to give the people what they know and want, SNL is more top-heavy than it’s ever been. (And Kate seems to have taken one of her free passes right out of the gate.) Is this gambit going to pay off? I wonder, especially since the speculation is that Lorne wants to keep his big guns on board for the show’s undoubtedly lavish 50th, meaning the big five will be popping by for three more years like this. Not to be that (old, tiresome) guy, but SNL started out with seven, and if the intervening years saw the show increasing the number of cast members, the concept of a tight, versatile ensemble still holds value. Twenty-one is too diffuse an array to form a collective identity, taking the show further still from the (admittedly idealized) image of a troupe.
All that being said, the school board was a consistently funny way to utilize literally everybody while hopefully creating a blueprint for how topical sketches might go this year. The way that school boards across the country have been invaded by politicized loonies and right-wing opportunists is ripe for parody, and the idea of glancing off of actual issues (astroturfed “parents groups,” beleaguered school boards who didn’t sign up for this shit) while prioritizing the individual jokes here is very sound. SNL’s frustrating both-sides joshing is wont to turn political sketches into lukewarm oatmeal, and one way to spice that up is to let each performer bring some singular energy to each gag. That Cecily Strong’s anti-mask commenter turns out to neither be a parent nor from the school’s district is just one of a parade of funny ideas and performances that kept this everybody-in sketch rolling along nicely.
Aidy’s school neighbor would rather complain about those kids in the parking lot who “vape and anal each other,” while Bowen Yang’s dreadlocked, years-too-late Obama hater bounced up and down like a boxer before launching his killer “Hussein!” material. Alex Moffat and Ego Nwodim’s exhausted moderators cut off a folk-singing trio and Sarah Sherman (wearing a variation of her traditional, clown-flavored stand-up garb) before they could even start. (“Smart lady,” Sherman concedes.) Meanwhile, Wilson’s teacher reveals that his skimming of the school’s new COVID protocols has seen him making a serious, lawsuit-guaranteeing error in separating his students. And then there’s Kenan as “Scary Gary Loomis,” upset that his elaborate, 300-actor haunted house has been cancelled, and Pete as Dog the Bounty Hunter, for some reason, and it was all a series of swift, weird little comic jabs whose cavalcade of irate nonsense made for an impressionistic portrait of how unsuspecting school boards have become political battlegrounds. If SNL is going to maintain this staffing level, this is as good a way as any to keep everyone involved.
The Rest: The Talking did The View without having to worry about specific impressions, and I’m here for it. Too often the impressions and verisimilitude become the joke on SNL, so here, Ego, Heidi, Aidy, and Cecily just got to be weird and specific, creating archetypes without pandering to impressions for their own sake. As each number of the four-person daytime gab-fest is taken aside by network doctor Wilson, the sketch touched on the recent on-air The View COVID false-positives while foregrounding the actual jokes, which were consistently good. Again, Wilson could have grounded things with a bit more commitment, but he was funny, gradually emptying the set of everyone but Nwodim as he ineptly tries to deliver the bad COVID news with discretion. (He lays his hand on Aidy’s head to surreptitiously single her out, but only after explaining that that’s what he’s going to to on live TV.)
Here, too, what was so encouraging is how the sketch was more about the jokes than the premise, and riffing on a thing without meticulously recreating the thing is awfully freeing. So Heidi’s panelist can be “Dee Dee Calrissian,” while Aidy’s McCain-esque blowhard can’t stop talking about how well-endowed her husband is, and Aidy and Cecily can hint at an ongoing feud by sniping very lived-in personal insults. Ego warns Dee Dee, in an aside, not to appropriate Black slang, and Cecily is finally wheeled off by Wilson because she has HPV, not COVID. (“Does that mean we can’t be on TV?” “It does.”)
Wilson starred as himself in the Pixar sketch, centered on the upcoming (and let’s hope fictional) fourth Cars movie. With just snatches of his dialogue from the unwritten script to work from, Wilson gradually realizes that his beloved Lightning McQueen has become deeply problematic for some reason, with lines suggesting everything from creeping on underage girl cars, to seducing married women (or car-women), and liberal use of the “r-word” to James Austin Johnson’s pitch-perfect Larry The Cable Guy/Mater. (Even though Mikey Day’s director assures him it means “rusty,” he allows the aghast Wilson to skip the 11 lines where it most definitely does not.) That Wilson is ultimately bought off by one look at his lavish contract buttons things up predictably, there is, once more, an electrically eccentric buzz to the writing, as when Wilson’s McQueen, asked “Why her?” by Mater when McQueen seduces Mater’s sister, answers with a deliciously insane, “Power.”
The only filmed piece of the night was fine, a new Star Trek series (Star Trek: Ego Quest) taking on the spate of bored billionaires hot-rodding around outer space. Wilson’s Jeff Bezos, Alex Moffat’s Richard Branson, and Day’s giggling nemesis Elon Musk all vie for resource-hogging, satellite-smashing space superiority, and it’s all amusing enough. Kenan’s Amazon employee beaming in with a package only to be tossed a Gatorade bottle in lieu of a bathroom break is about as pointed as the sketch gets. That said, I don’t really have a bad sketch to single out, which ain’t bad.
The Worst: But, since I set up this format and all, the funeral sketch should have worked a lot better. The joke that the family’s deceased grandmother seemed only to worship and hang out with very problematic celebrities during her weekly trip to play the Atlantic City penny slots is fine, but that family members keep explaining why the reveals are so horrifying deadens the momentum. Of course, Kenan dolled up as granny’s favorite lounge singer (the legally distinct Levar B. Burton), singing “I Believe I Can Fly” perks things up.
It’s odd that, after a solid, season-opening political cold open about the stalled infrastructure deal, Colin Jost started out by begging the audience to show interest in an infrastructure joke. SNL’s history of having less to say when there’s a Democrat in the White House (than, say, a right-wing, twice-impeached reality show host and sexual predator) has always struck me as laziness. Sure, a Joe Biden offers less in the way of low-hanging political fruit than a Donald Trump, but that’s an opportunity to try a little harder than just having someone read out already-insane transcripts while making requisite funny faces.
Anyway, the new Jost and Michael Che is the old Jost and Michael Che. They’re both smug in different ways, both relish making people groan uncomfortably from time to time, and neither seems all that ambitious behind the Update desk. I may be engaged in wishful thinking that tonight’s sketches represent a more offbeat comedic identity for the show this season, but Update could sure use a similar overhaul. And I like Jost and Che on Update. It’s just that the world has changed and they haven’t. They’ve been doing the job for a long time.
Ego Nwodim scored nicely as the missing Black woman (no name asked for or given) whose ten-year disappearance has garnered approximately one-millionth the media coverage as the missing (now, unfortunately, confirmed murdered) internet personality Gabby Petito. The concept of “missing white woman syndrome” is a deep and ugly one, but Nwodim’s disheveled survivor finds a light touch in illustrating the differences in public interest depending on the race of the women in question. It’s the sort of vivid, short-form character piece Nwodim does so well in places like Comedy Bang! Bang!, and it’s nice to see her get a spotlight, as her victim bemoans the discrepancy in rewards offered for her (a Chili’s Too gift card) and Petito’s (10 grand) return. (“You gotta go to an airport!,” Nwodim exclaims.) Dark and broad at the same time is tough to do. Nwodim does it.
Pete concluded his segment as himself, reporting on his time at the Met Gala, by exclaiming, “I can’t believe I’m back!” Among the major players rumored to be moving on, it’s indeed surprising that Davidson returned to SNL, although he showed up throughout, and his Update pieces remain a no-doubt powerful draw. And while Pete’s come a long way as a sketch performer (his Dog in the school board sketch was a lot of fun), his audience-pleasing Update segments remain his strongest presence. Here, Pete was Pete, using his party dress Met ensemble to mock his homophobic uncles, Top Gun, and, as ever, himself. (“I look like if one of the three blind mice sold fentanyl,” he assessed his Gala look.) I’m puzzled he came back, but not sorry.
I was a little worried that SNL kicked off with a talk show sketch this season, but taking The View out of The View kicked it up a serious notch. No repeats tonight, which is only fitting for the first episode of the year. Dare we hope for two in a row.
James Austin Johnson had one of the most immediately impactful first episodes for a featured player ever. Coming out to the distinct sound of everybody straining to see just who was under that Joe Biden makeup, Johnson had big shoes to fill. No, not Alex Moffat’s, as Alex’s indifferent and never-embraced Biden is officially no more. (Moffat got the consolation prize of playing Chuck Schumer in the cold open, which seems about right.) A presidential impression is an SNL golden ticket, and Johnson cashed in with a more interesting and inhabited Biden than either Moffat or visiting POTUS Jim Carrey pulled off.
New hire Johnson was likely brought on because of his viral Trump, a sensational creation made of uncanny vocal impression with a free-form, improvisational snap. No doubt Johnson will have occasion to bust out his Trump at some point in what promises to be some even more hellish election seasons to come, but his Biden is a similarly smart and canny character, balancing exaggeration and verisimilitude in a way most SNL impressions don’t. It’s already miles better than Alec Baldwin’s Trump, and that’s without all the already clownish, exaggerated Trump-isms to play with. Introducing the warring factions in his Democratic Party (Cecily Strong’s Kyrsten Sinema and Aidy’s Joe Manchin vs. Melissa Villaseñor’s AOC and Ego’s Ilhan Omar) as they argue over funding his Build Back Better agenda, Johnson’s Biden is folksy but animated, forthright but exhaustedly willing to bargain. His Biden has a breathy, gabbling cadence that suggests a realized character instead of seizing on handles, and if it’s not a Will Ferrell or Dana Carvey-style gut-buster as yet, it’s the sort of actorly conception that can theoretically carry the cold open for years. The kid’s good.
As for the sketch, that’s pretty good too, especially considering how dire the Baldwin stuff got, and how comparatively difficult Biden is to make funny. I came to dread SNL’s cold opens over the past five years, which is not how you want your comedy show to start. Here, apart from the novelty of a new Biden, the writing was sharper, as, perhaps, the lack of such a big, buffoonish, reliably ridiculous target to lob tomatoes at allowed the writers to dig a little deeper for the jokes. Cecily, naturally, was the standout, her Sinema continuing her agenda-stalling grandstanding by hinting that she’s deriving some deep satisfaction from being in the limelight. (Sinema: “I want no roads.” Biden: “No roads? Why?” Sinema: “Chaos.”)
The cliché has always been that Saturday Night Live mocks Democrats for their inability to govern, while Republicans are just straight-up villainous. However accurate you feel that might be (I’d call it increasingly spot-on), it is indisputably harder to fashion a political sketch around people who aren’t, say, laying the groundwork for an authoritarian fundamentalist ethnostate while baldly championing an alternate reality where the myth of white American exceptionalism is exalted above actual history. (Especially when led by a would-be dictator and convicted fraudster who once hawked his own line of mail-order meat.) And it’s convenient (for the sketch, not for America) that the current Democratic agenda is threatened by two of the party’s own being so nakedly beholden to love of donor dollars and personal aggrandizement. (“If I vote for electric cars, they’re gonna kill me,” says Aidy’s Manchin.)
Anchoring all this is Johnson, whose Biden is both vocally specific and, more importantly, built from the inside out. Johnson’s impression nails the way that Biden, never the most confident speaker, occasionally swallows the end of one phrase on the way to another, robbing his oratory of an easily parroted cadence. Physically, Johnson’s on point, too, with his Biden’s emotional appeals to listeners punctuated with shrugs and conspiratorial leans. With the stalled negotiations still underway, the sketch rightly focuses on the players involved, with Manchin’s pork barrel conservatism and Sinema’s infuriating vague obstructionism leaving the frustrated Biden gamely trying out his cheerleading compromise muscles. Political comedy is better when you’re not just aiming at an easy mark.
There was a nostalgic lack of showiness to the staging of Kasey Musgraves’ two songs tonight. “justified” got the season one, spotlight-and-stool singer-songwriter treatment, while “camera roll” started out with a likably clumsy pull out from a Polaroid in the foreground. For a performer as would-be intimate as Musgraves, I liked the largely unadorned focus on her singing and playing, and the two songs were lovely. I dunno—as SNL has made its musical-variety element an afterthought over the years, reviewing the musical numbers has likewise proved a matter of “Gee, I liked/didn’t like that song.” I liked these songs just fine.
James Austin Johnson, it’s your Rookie Of The Year trophy to lose. With his Biden, Larry, and Joe Buck, Johnson had three roles that just popped, and, in his way of inhabiting even the most nondescript characters here, I’m getting serious Darrell Hammond vibes already.
Kate is off doing something we’ll no doubt enjoy at a later date, so she’s out. I also saw no trace of Kyle Mooney, who may still be mourning Beck’s departure. Of the new kids, Aristotle Athari had the more traditional scraps to contend with, while Sarah Sherman had one especially juicy (ew...) role alongside second year featured player Andrew Dismukes (see below). Punkie Johnson had a couple of small roles, and, while I’m glad she’s back, SNL isn’t giving me much hope it knows how to use her. Again, with 21 mouths to feed, it’s going to be an especially tough year for anyone to grow unless they shoulder some others aside.
“What the hell is that thing?”—Dispatches From Ten-To-Oneland
I thought the Crazy House sketch could have served ably in the ten-to-one spot, but here’s to a good poop joke, especially when it gives the B-team a chance to shine. The commercial shoot, about a married doctor couple who promise they will in no way “mess around with” your mailed-in stool sample, saw Dismukes and Sherman confidently stake their weirdo flags. The escalation of the joke is calibrated nicely, with director Wilson worriedly advising the pair that their emphasis on not being interested in doing things to people’s poop all but assures people will think exactly that. Sherman and Dismukes pair up well in their eccentric energy, leaving us to wonder whether they’re actually unhealthily obsessed with their patients’ waste, or just awkwardly unable to reassure us they’re not. Chris Redd’s glaze-eyed mailman chiming in to also reassure people does not reassure people. A final sketch that showcases offbeat ideas and performers is what ten-to-oneland was meant for. Here’s to this season committing to that.
- Despite this being a solid episode, the New Englander in me laughed hardest at NBC scoring its ad for the upcoming Tom Brady-Bill Belichick football showdown with Adele’s “Hello.”
- Wilson gets caught before the funeral sketch giving himself a pep talk of “Pace, pace pace,” before asking “We ready?” I love live TV.
- Ego’s Ilhan Omar describes herself as “designed in a lab to give Tucker Carlson a heart attack.”
- She also says to Biden, “I can’t believe I’m going to say this to my white boss, but it’s going to be okay.”
- Pete comes out as Andrew Cuomo, who describes himself as “the governor-ish of New York.”
- Cecily gives some hilarious irate gibberish at the school board meeting, after warning everybody, “I am concerned and I am also crazy.”
- Heidi, at the same meeting, on critical race theory: “My question is what is it and why am I mad about it?”
- The school’s name was recently changed to “Robert E. Lee Was Bad Middle School.” Progress.
- Another performer I’m surprised came back is Melissa. After dropping a (quickly rescinded but not inaccurate) complaint about her time being seriously underused on the show, she again didn’t have much to do. Not even her excellent Owen Wilson impression. On a show hosted by Owen Wilson.
- Jost got his groans in a joke about Catholics seeking religious exemptions from vaccinations: “What’s more Catholic than letting someone else die for your sins?
- And Che, on Chicagoans worried that President Obama’s library will lead to gentrification: “It’s just a painful reminder that Obama is half white.”
- As Saturday Night Live gets older, the memorial segments come more frequently. Tonight, Che and Jost gave over a few minutes at the close of Update for a montage of Norm Macdonald jokes, the goodnights were preceded by a card mourning the death of former NBC exec and initial champion of the seemingly doomed SNL experiment, Herb Schlosser, and Jost held up a cue card reading, “We’ll miss you, Ken!” (Note: longtime SNL producer Ken Aymong isn’t dead, but Jost’s gesture seems to mean he’s retiring.)
- 15 year SNL directing vet Don Roy King also retired, but I didn’t catch any onscreen tribute.
- I’ll just echo everybody and ask why Jost was the only cast member not masked up during the goodnights.
- Welcome back to The A.V. Club’s review coverage of Saturday Night Live, Season 47. Hope you’re all healthy and had as peaceful a summer as possible, considering. I’m Dennis and I’ll be your guide. As Wilson said in the monologue, “Yes! We are doing it!”