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

A stellar Anya Taylor-Joy closes out Saturday Night Live’s 46th season with some joy, dammit

Image of Anya Taylor-Joy in Saturday Night Live
Anya Taylor-Joy stars in Saturday Night Live
Photo: NBC

“Everyone else was fleeing New York, but Lorne was like, ‘We should go back—for comedy.’”

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“I’m not an actor, I’m a [chess, budding Saturday Night Live] star!!

After watching a season finale overflowing with goodwill and relief like a Judge Jeanine Pirro wine glass, it’s tough not to go all Gene Shalit and make puns about this being a truly joy-ful way to end a tumultuous season. I’ll try, but I can’t make any promises. Still, Anya Taylor-Joy was aces as host, her mix of acting professionalism, comic confidence, and obvious enjoyment an utterly contagious center to what was easily the most breezy, funny, and relaxed episode of the year. Fuck it, it was joyful.

In an AVQ&A prepping for this last episode of Season 46, our own Cameron Scheetz, rightfully praising past host Emma Stone, said that Stone’s three hosting gigs were “like glimpses into an alternate timeline where she’s an undeniable star of the regular cast.” Anya Taylor-Joy fits in that category, as it turns out, The Queen’s Gambit star fitting into sketches with a seamlessness born of belonging. Even hosts who do well are often catered to, their successful Saturday nights due to the show deftly building around what the writers know the host can (and cannot) do. Taylor-Joy’s best sketch tonight, though, saw her stepping into a role seemingly designed for the specific gifts of the show’s biggest star—and running off with it.

There are few teams in SNL history more irresistibly funny that Aidy Bryant and Kate McKinnon, and few of their doubles acts better than when they stand stiffly side-by-side and make an unconvincing pitch for their characters’ latest joint business venture. If the bra store commercial wasn’t originally written as an Aidy-and-Kate joint, then nothing ever was, and the fact that Taylor-Joy ate up the role is testament to how damned good she is. Sure, I missed Kate, in the sense that I miss every second of SNL when Kate’s not on screen, but Taylor-Joy belted out her big, brassy-yet-precise character right alongside Aidy’s without making anybody think, “This would have been better with Kate.” That’s about as high a degree of praise as I can give the first-time host (who should already be penciled in for her second.)

The piece itself was, like so many of tonight’s sketches, buoyed by the effortlessness of tone, and good writing. Aidy and Anya’s New York “brawr” saleswomen (“bras” are for boobies, “brawrs” for breasts) run through all the beats of a Kate-and-Aidy special, naming off unlikely and dubious, high-concept feminine support garments like “the straight jacket” and “the load-bearing wall,” confidently assuring would-be customers that their plus-sized brawrs will fit every shape, from “the Chicago style” to “the Penn & Teller.” Beck Bennett comes out as the shop’s in-house designer and husband to one owner (who also builds prisons), and Heidi Gardner submits to what must be the most intensely extended comic boob-grab in Saturday Night Live’s history at the diagnostically deft hands of Aidy’s expert fitter. (Turns out, Gardner’s a 28Q, has a difficult relationship with her mom, and is pregnant—Aidy’s hands know all.) Like all such sketches about die-hard entrepreneurs, the sketch tosses off funny sparks as it barrels on, from the ladies’ shop having no identifiable characteristics from the outside (“Ignore that.”), to it being located on a street named for one of the Real Housewives Of New York, to Taylor-Joy’s assertion that they do not accept credit cards, “only personal checks and coins.”

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Taylor-Joy’s monologue (concluded ebulliently in her native Spanish) got the requisite Queen’s Gambit jokes out of the way with a dig at anyone who didn’t watch the pandemic streaming phenomenon (“What were you doing all quarantine?”), and one amiably goofy visual gag mirroring her character’s drug-aided ceiling chess strategizing. (Complete with Kenan as a confusedly spinning bishop.) If there was a minor weakness in Taylor-Joy’s game it was here, as, reversing the usual host trend, she was clearly more excited about getting into character(s). That said, rushing through monologue is no sin, as SNL continues to treat that required relic as something of a chore. Still, Taylor-Joy, surprising anyone not familiar with her intercontinental personal origins by describing her Miami-Argentina-England childhood journeys, did describe her nationality as “fashion week,” which is one more good joke than many recent monologues got.

Best/Worst Sketch Of The Night

The Best: In the cold open, Kyle Mooney, looking back on this unprecedentedly difficult year in live TV production, asked rhetorically, “Was every sketch perfect?,” before continuing confidently, “Yeah, pretty much we crushed it. Every sketch was a 10 out of 10—no notes!” And, sure, the show-opening feel-good sketch did take a few jabs at what was, as ever, an up-and-down enterprise. (Cecily Strong was nonplussed when a highlight montage consisted of only a clip from the time that controversially booked plutocrat dressed up as Wario.) But even stubborn non-apologists for a show that puts on a 90-minute live sketch/variety episode every week have to admit that this was one tire-fire of a year, and the degree of difficulty for the cast and crew of Saturday Night Live is something worth applauding, just this once.

It was the big four who got center stage for the bit, with undisputed all-stars Kate McKinnon, Aidy Bryant, Cecily Strong, and Kenan Thompson anchoring the cast-wide farewell. Nobody’s talked much about who’s staying or going from this over-full cast, but all four of these busy people could reasonably exit in the off-season, so they’ve certainly earned the honor. It was a sweet and well-earned victory lap for everybody, the long and applause break-swollen opener allowing for a happy variety of gags. After hearing his castmates’ shared pandemic woes, newly minted sitcom star Kenan smilingly noted that nobody seems to like it when he says he’s had a pretty good year, so he’ll shut up. Jokes about the show’s initial audience of first-responders saw a shot of one beleaguered medical professional poring over a medical textbook in the socially distanced, early-season audience, while the ongoing drama of self-owning musical guest Morgan Wallen got the first of several obviously relished shout-outs. And several of the responsible cast members did an extended mea culpa about that interminable Mike Pence fly sketch, with Kenan summing things up by admitting, “That’s what this season was like.”

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But it wasn’t all like that. Sometimes it was worse, as when longtime SNL music producer Hal Willner died from COVID (as did Michael Che’s grandmother, among others, no doubt), and the daily threat of infection made doing comedy in a pandemic hot spot not exactly the easiest of rooms. Season 46 premiere host Chris Rock stopped by to remind everyone that, yes, that was this season, and to mock roast “these dummies” for doing “12 more episodes” (actually 19) after that. One of the elements of Saturday Night Live that we fans/apologists cling to is that this is a hard fucking job—and that’s when the comedy professionals there aren’t filling 90 minutes a week during a truly terrifying, year-long health crisis. So when Kate broke down just a little bit when referring to her “family” who’ve worked beside her all through this horrible, frightening, decidedly un-funny year, I did, too. And, because these are comedy professionals, that emotional pat on the back was followed with an expertly sharp, puncturing laugh, as Aidy noted, “And like a true family,” we’re kind of sick of each other,” and looking forward to the more-deserved-than-ever hiatus. There was an endearingly human undercurrent to tonight’s show that echoed Aidy’s sentiment. This has been a tough, bad year, and everybody deserves both some time off, and some recognition for making it through at all. Never mind those who’ve managed to make comedy right in the chaotic heart of fear and loss. Have a great off season, everyone at SNL. You’ve more than earned it.

The Worst: Naw. Screw that. This was a solid, consistently funny and sure-footed episode. No notes.

The Rest: Okay, some notes. (It’s sort of my job.) Is it punching down to mock a gun nut for blowing his own penis off? Not when you do it right. Taking on the viral trend of prom night pictures of dads “comically” posing with a firearm while threatening their daughter’s dates, the filmed piece about one such wacky photo op gone very wrong worked on pretty much every level. It’s easy to point and guffaw at the modeling of an American masculinity which reinforces gun culture while asserting that young women are property and that the only thing assuring a daughter’s “virtue” is the threat of violent gun death on her hormonal suitor. But the performances and writing all made this one much more than a good gloat at some fictional karma. Beck Bennett’s shotgun-wielding dad, after shooting his dick off while humorously threatening Andrew Dismukes’ tuxedoed teenage date, pauses his agony enough to plead with daughter Heidi Gardner and Dismukes not to have sex anyway. “Yeah, we’re going to, but, okay,” solemnly swears Dismukes, as he and Gardner metaphorically complete Bennett’s tough guy emasculation by pointing out all the very obvious ways he could have sussed out that the couple has been doing so all along. Beck, ever adept at digging into the comically deluded psyches of American manhood, alternates among desperate pleas to Taylor-Joy’s seen-it-before doctor to reattach his buckshot-spattered genitals (“But you can just do it though, right?”), to defending his decision (“What is funny about holding a gun around kids?,” asks distraught mom Aidy), and offering Gardner and Dismukes the opportunity to hilariously and repeatedly assure him that they will, in fact, have sex tonight. In the long SNL history of Beck Bennett characters being humiliated for their self-impressed hubris, the line, “I blew my little dick off with my big old gun” might just be the capper.

The heaven sketch, too, made room alongside its high concept for everybody to just get inventively weird, as two groups of angel types compare notes on the final design for man and woman. What could be nothing but “men are like this, but women are, etc” gags instead mostly went in for absurdity, a most welcome trend tonight. I’m imagining a thoroughly burnt-out writers room getting the giggles over the idea that the male-looking angels have decided that the male of the human species should have just one giant toe, or that male nipples are there to form the eyes “of a giant face to scare off predators.” Some of my favorite sketches are like that, where a premise serves not as the sketch’s only joke (call it the Big Ear Family family of sketches), but where it serves as a framework upon which the writers can hang increasingly odd little ornaments. Here, it’s the workplace comedy of one team thinking their terrible ideas are the bomb (Chris Redd’s designer came up with the exquisite fragility of testicles), while office decorum commands everyone else to sigh and get back to work on their own, not-stupid plans, assuming that the higher-ups (God, in this case) will sort things out. I liked that Melissa Villaseñor’s outlier female angel is into the guys’ hairy, single-toed, superfluously nippled, fragile-balled creation before she’s sent out into the corridor, and that even the far superior women’s design still has some kinks to work out. (“Squeezies” will no doubt eventually be focus-grouped to “breasts.”) The kicker that this particular office has to deal with the Boss’ tiresomely chummy son (Kyle Mooney, in the role he was born to play) inserting himself into the proceedings is the perfect goofy kicker.

Saturday Night Live will be on hiatus for Pride this year, so it was delightful to see openly gay SNL cast members Punkie Johnson, Bowen Yang, and Kate McKinnon (alongside Taylor-Joy, as McKinnon’s girlfriend) deconstructing just what a Pride 2021 is going to mean after a year of isolation. According to the filmed piece, it’ll be pretty much the same, in that Yang’s “funny” guy will be heartbroken that his crush would rather him be the hot guy, and that intersectional debates will expose that not everybody is as well-versed as they pretend to be. “Podcasts,” Yang’s debater admits sheepishly after being called out about what reading he’s done to support his points about “individual responsibility” versus “collectivist politics.” (He really just wants some Chik-fil-A.) Johnson will continue to accidentally hit on straight girls who think that “gender is just clothes.” And lovers McKinnon and Taylor-Joy will host, even though they moved in way, way too soon thanks to the pandemic, and they’re in the throes of yet another breakup. It’s a paean to the complicated reality behind our rush to “normalcy” (when “normal” was never that great), while acknowledging, as Johnson notes gratefully upon busting up the group’s latest argument, “Oh, God, I missed this.” Plus, musical guest Lil Nas X showed up to resplendently remind everyone everywhere that Marsha P. Johnson and Harvey Milk broke ground so that gays nowadays can “post hole” and “shake your filth.” It has been a long time.

The NYU film school Q&A saw Aidy and Taylor-Joy team up hilariously once again as a pair of student moderators asking peer-generated questions to the increasingly befuddled cast of an HBO comedy show (Punkie, Bowen, Heidi, Pete Davidson, and Ego Nwodim). With the resulting questions emerging as a mishmash of starstruck thirst toward “breakout heartthrob” Pete, and ham-handedly “serious” questions to everyone else, the bit was less a takedown of those young people today, and more a hard-learned approximation of the sorts of questions actors are asked by people unequal to the deceptively difficult task of celebrity interviewing. Here, the joke ping-ponged around from the students’ softball questions to Pete (and even “Frisbees or dogs?” is a funnier head-scratcher than expected), and things screeching to a halt so Ego’s cast member can be asked, with effortful seriousness, “As a Black woman, could you please explain race?” I like a sketch that keeps moving its target, and Bowen Yang’s actor is repeatedly flummoxed by the students’ efforts at serious questions like, “How has being gay and Chinese prevented you from being happy?” Again, there are plenty of (non A.V. Club) celebrity interviewers that this sketch could be referring to, so putting the awkwardness all on some NYU kids sort of defangs it a bit. Still, there’s a ticklish intelligence at work here that’s witnessed how public discourse is framed by those without the skills. (Aidy’s interviewer eventually slips into something akin to cave-speak, her strangled agenda emerging in the question to Johnson, “You’re girl gay, so no wear dress?”) Believe me, it’s not just students who suck at this sort of thing.

The Celtic Woman sketch is one of those specific cultural references that clearly tickled some people behind the scenes at SNL enough to convince everyone else that the viewing public at large will get the joke. (I had to Wikipedia the titular musical ensemble, a quartet of sultry Irish ladies who, the sketch asserts, are the current craze among godmothers everywhere.) With Aidy, Cecily, Kate, and Taylor-Joy essaying the roles of said women, it mainly worked, even for those of us who, while suitably old, have no idea what the hell it is that’s being parodied. There are the sort of testimonial lines for the show that sound like the cream of a writers room brainstorming session. (““If you loved Riverdance, but wished they could use their arms ...” “The Lion King for Karens.” “If I had to describe it in one word, I’d say, ‘Ireland.’”) The biggest delight was just watching these four women barely keep it together as their harmonies wobbled (Cecily was barely right on the edge), the sight of Aidy, Cecily, and Kate doing their thing the sort of weekly treat we’re going to miss when one or more of them departs.

Hollywood Squares seemed ready to be another parade of celebrity impressions, but instead took a hard left into the pitfalls of broadcasting old media stuffed with problematic famous people. Kenan got to (briefly) break out his Bill Cosby, his center square ubiquity leaving a big hole in GSN’s rerun, as his once-beloved mugging is replaced by an apologetic title card. Same goes for former Subway pitch-creep Jared Fogle, unfortunately seen ogling the underage Olsen twins before he, too, is replaced, and former NBC exile Matt Lauer. Even the unsullied celebs have it tough, as Taylor-Joy’s Emma “Baby Spice” Bunton’s people have requested the former Spice Girl’s effusive, badly-aged praise of Cosby and Fogle also be deleted from public memory. (We only see a glimpse of Kevin Spacey before the show signs off, all eight squares but Bunton’s being pixelated. While cold open visitor Chris Rock recently and disappointingly tossed in with the “but what about cancel culture?” comedy crowd, here the joke is that tossing out some shitty people really isn’t going to cost us much as a culture that we can’t afford to lose. Unless you have syndicated repeats to fill.

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Weekend Update Update

Update was Update, and we’ll get there. But nobody’s going anywhere until we talk about Cecily Strong’s triumphantly physical and delirious return as Fox News bigot-blowhard Jeanine Pirro. Cecily’s turned the suspectedly sloshed former judge and current human racist Nextdoor post into an all-time Update caricature over the years, but can we all just step back and applaud her aim in repeatedly nailing Colin Jost with her ever-swirling glass of prop red wine? Here, she appears mainly to gabble incoherently about the Fox-hyped “border crisis,” and how Mar-a-Lago smells like “a bathroom stall that’s been freshly sprayed with Poo-Pourri.” (She means it as a compliment.) Breaking out into song during a political comedy segment has been a disaster zone, traditionally, but if you can’t appreciate Cecily Strong as Jeanine Pirro submerging herself completely in a tub of box wine while singing “My Way,” then what are we even doing here? Plus, if you thought that her Pirro splashing Jost from behind the desk was something, those final long-distance shots while knee-deep in wine were a thing of dippy majesty.

Pete Davidson, too, got one last chance to do his thing for the season on Update, joking about everything from anti-vaxxers to his favorite subject, himself. (Describing his eyes as “looking like he just woke up and hasn’t slept in days” is some stellar self-analysis.) His typically discursive piece was even more rambling than usual, although Davidson eventually settled in for some easy COVID-denier and Florida-bashing, suggesting that perhaps shipping everyone who doesn’t want to mask up or get vaccinated go live in the already do-literally-anything state would solve two problems at once. (Plus, the vaccine-laced opioid air drops should take care of the rest.) Easy joke? Sure, but Davidson’s made his own brand of slouchy sense as he’s found his footing on Update over his seven seasons, a journey Davidson himself acknowledged gratefully, signing off by saying, “It’s been an honor to grow up in front of you guys.” Honestly, it’s been a real pleasure watching Davidson do so as a sketch performer as well.

Jost and Che did their things, too, concluding a record-approaching tenure behind the desk with familiar confidence in material that could be truly cutting, if that were more of a priority. Jost took some shots at Republican obstructionism, Republican sedition, Republican sex scandals, and Mitch McConnell (R-KY), shown smiling while Jost described the scene as the Senate minority leader “at the demolition of a children’s hospital.” Che baited the audience as ever, scoring the closest to the groans he’s always seeking with a joke about New York’s restaurants returning to 100 percent capacity. (“New York nursing homes will remain at 900 percent.”)

The annual joke swap was the duo’s main focus tonight, though, as each (according to them, and I choose to believe) read out jokes written by the other which the reader has never seen. As ever, Jost’s jokes were runners-up, mainly focusing on Che’s personal life and, this time, getting Che to use the phrase “Blue lives matter more,”which clearly earned Che’s grudging respect in its Michael Che-like audacity. Che’s jokes are, in contrast, all about having his friend and coworker out himself as the secret bigot his lily-white appearance hints at.

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Old Update alum Seth Meyers does a bit on his late-night show where two writers (Black Amber Ruffin and gay Jenny Hagel, both women) tell similarly loaded jokes about their respective communities that their white, straight, male boss can’t say. There, the joke is more about two people who (until The Amber Ruffin Show started, anyway) didn’t have a network platform to do knowingly cheeky material at their own expense. Here, the conceit is that of two bros whacking each other with deliberately offensive and insulting lines until guilty laughs fall out of the joke piñata. The bit’s enduring popularity lives in the odd couple pairing of Jost and Che, playing up the idea that there’s a whole lot of animosity and unbridgeable cultural distance between them. But it’s mostly of a piece with the Stefon school of live TV fuckery, an energizing reminder of SNL’s button-pushing potency.

“What do you call that act?” “Coffee Talk!”—Recurring Sketch Report

Just Judge Janine.

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

Just Judge Janine, although the continued politicization of a life-saving scientific solution to a crippling worldwide pandemic means that essentially any sketch touching on masks, shots, or social distancing is by default political. There’s plenty to say about how SNL traditionally withers, politically speaking, whenever there’s a less nefarious, racist, or just plain nuts figure in power, but that’s a discussion for another time. This season—since Joe Biden’s election at any rate—has seen the show ditching much of the political cold opens, and (with apologies to Alex Moffat’s indifferent Biden), I’m fine with that, honestly. Saturday Night Live doesn’t have to do political satire. In fact, it’s proven so shaky at it that it’s probably better for everyone that it rests up until there’s another easy target in sight. Sadly, it probably won’t be long.

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I Am Hip To The Musics Of Today

Lil Nas X opened with the sort of first number that Madonna at her height only wishes she could have pulled off. Apart from “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” itself, the singer, torso bared and flanked by similarly grinding male dancers, was joy, defiance, and controversy all in one sinuous package. Madonna courted controversy for image and sales, and more power to her, even if her attempts to graft greater political meaning onto her provocations were never quite as convincing. Lil Nas X is controversial simply for existing as a Black gay young man, unashamedly getting his sexy on on live television to the no-doubt red-rimmed rage of a significant number of people. A veteran provocateur since he was just internet trolling, the singer has become a bona fide phenomenon, his irresistibly infectious tunes inextricably linked to the extended coming-out that is his burgeoning career. That’s a long-winded way to say I loved both of these performances, with the follow-up, the more outwardly conventional “Sun Goes Down,” crooned to the camera in performatively cocksure sexiness while Nas sported bright lipstick and a blinding white suit marked with two jagged, bloody bullet holes. Outstanding and immediate, all over.

Most/Least Valuable Not Ready For Prime Time Player

In the spirit of a truly fine and family-feeling episode, I’ll just say that the cold open ably separated this unwieldy cast into tiers. Kate, Aidy, Kenan, and Cecily are the stars whose (eventual or impending) flight will leave holes it’ll feel like nobody can fill. Beck, Kyle, Ego, Melissa, Pete (although he’s straddling tiers one and two), Heidi (who should be), Chloe (coming up fast), Redd, Mikey, Alex—all variously valuable to the overall enterprise and waiting expectantly for a chance at the top. The new kids (Lauren, Andrew, Punkie, Bowen) got their joke about waiting their turn, but it’s Yang and Dismukes who look poised to move up. (Che and Jost are their own cool kids island.)

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There are too many people to service properly here. I don’t look forward to a single person leaving, which doesn’t make sense, but I’m betting that a good number of them are going to exit, one way or another, before next season. Saturday Night Live is such a strange and unique show biz beast, with cast chemistry and balance being perhaps the toughest qualities to discover. This season—like the abortive season 45—was an asterisk period for the show. (Again, sorry sports fans, but your teams’ short-season championships can’t compare to those that were settled on a full and functional field.) This was the do-over pandemic season where nobody left and everybody got a chance. Next year, I suspect, there’ll be a lot of changes, and, while that’s a good and necessary thing, tonight’s episode showed how even a wobbling, incohesive, bulging cast like this one can come together to put on a hell of a show. Best of luck, everyone.

“What the hell is that thing?”—Dispatches From Ten-To-Oneland

Beck Bennett as Vin Diesel can keep listing off things Vin likes for a long time as far as I’m concerned. As much as I appreciate the beefy enigma that is the Fast And The Furious star, Bennett’s take on that “welcome back to the movie theater” F9 commercial really nails Diesel’s particular brand of stone-throated, stolid intensity as he earnestly confided all of the little things he’s missed during the movie-less pandemic. While Bennett is, sure, playing off of the idea that Mr. Diesel’s penchant for playing lunkheaded but self-serious badass hero types might hew close to home, his impression works so well because it captures the genuineness that’s part of Diesel’s whole schtick. As he rattles off his love of everything from straws to “that hand-dryer in the bathroom that’s louder than a choo-choo train,” this Diesel keeps his eyes locked intently on the changing cameras as if daring anyone to doubt his deep and enduring affinity for that cinema trash can whose hole is smaller than the stuff you have to throw away. Bennett’s Diesel handles sincerity like it’s a rescued bird he’s afraid he’ll accidentally crush in his mighty paws, and dammit if I didn’t believe in Diesel when he blurted, “Did you ever see a movie? It’s amazing!” It sure is, buddy.

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Stray observations

  • I do not want to know what happened to that hairy, haunting naked man model from the heaven sketch. Oh god, it’s right behind me, isn’t it?
  • Kenan asserts that the season’s second audience of “second-responders” was a lot more fun, consisting as it did of people who stand around at a disaster scene and exclaim, “Aw, damn, look at that!”
  • As to the conclusion about “cancel culture” not ridding of of anyone worthwhile, screw Jeff Dunham and his racist-ass puppets.
  • Also, Morgan Wallen. (See tonight’s parade of Morgan Wallen jokes.)
  • Pete Davidson jokes that the only good thing to come out of the pandemic is “getting Chrissy Teigen out of our lives.” Darn cancel consequences culture strikes again.
  • “For queer cast members, what’s it like to do comedy in a world that cavalierly mocks your very existence?”
  • “Okay, I have a question. I’m gay, so I can hit you, right?”
  • That was longtime production guru Akira Yoshimura among the featured players, complaining that this was his only line all season. Don’t worry, big guy (who’s been at SNL since 1975), your time will come.
  • And that’s a wrap on the A.V. Club’s coverage of Saturday Night Live, season 46. I’m Dennis, and, for the next few months, I’ll be vainly attempting to readjust my sleep schedule. And, in keeping with tonight’s show, I’ll sign off by saying that I’m honored that you read these reviews. See you in the fall, you kooks.
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Contributor, The A.V. Club. Danny Peary's Cult Movies books are mostly to blame.