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

A tepid Saturday Night Live doesn't give Dan Levy enough of a showcase

Illustration for article titled A tepid Saturday Night Live doesn't give Dan Levy enough of a showcase
Photo: Mary Ellen Matthews/NBC

“I’m sorry, do I suck somehow?”

I’m not an actor, I’m a [second-generation Canadian comedy] star!!”

Dan Levy should have been a sure thing as host. An award-winning comic actor with range, Levy seems like he’d be right at home taking the stage in 8H. And he was, really, with only the writing of tonight’s episode letting him down. His monologue pulled out the old studio tour bit with a COVID twist, something that the show did precisely nothing with other than have Aidy Bryant come out brandishing a social distancing pool noodle to whack the audience-encroaching Levy in the breadbasket. Levy’s dad was there, too, beaming proudly from within the plexiglass cage the show’d stuck him in after his ill-advised, cross-country, proud papa flight. If you’ve got Eugene Levy in the house and you can’t think of anything funnier than that for him to do, that’s a squander of unforgivable proportions.

Advertisement

As for the younger Levy, his acting chops were what shone, mainly in a pair of filmed pieces that gave him his best material. His showstopper musical number alongside Cecily Strong should have been, well, stronger, considering, and overall, there just wasn’t enough meat on the bones of his sketches for him to make a meal. The Schitt’s Creek star was effusive alongside his sketch legend dad in the goodnights about how much the experience meant to him, and that came through. It’s also undeniable that SNL left a lot on the table when it comes to what Levy could do.

Best/Worst Sketch Of The Night

On a night where most of the live sketches seemed stuck in the mud, it was a pair of Saturday Night Live’s not-live pieces that saved the day. The best was the last, the 10-years-later reunion of formerly bullied LGBTQ+ kids who were featured in those at-the-time attention-grabbing “It Gets Better” public service ads. With LGBTQ+ performers Kate McKinnon, Dan Levy, Punkie Johnson, and Bowen Yang all playing the characters (and Yang showing off a decade-old gawky teen picture of himself), there’s a refreshingly lived-in sensibility to the piece’s message that, sure, the bullshit high school gay-bashing did, sort of, get better. Still, ten years of living is going to make any feel good sloganeering ring a little glib in retrospect. You know, when, as Yang’s character explains, even posting “one vague opinion” about Lady Gaga can get you literally bullied out of town by fellow online gays. (“They’re so organized,” laments Yang.) Or when the joy of same-sex marriage’s legalization sours upon the grim reality of gay divorce. Or, in the funniest runner, Kate’s happiness at having two children is tempered by the unending growth and incontinence of her daughters’ chosen (and seemingly abandoned) pet iguana. (Noting that’s it’s, indeed, great that she is able to visit her wife in the hospital, McKinnon segues icily into the regret that, “She’s in the hospital because she got mauled in the face, by an iguana.”) Not a joke about homophobia being a thing of the past (since it’s not), the sketch acts as a humorously human riposte to the idea that hashtags and ad campaigns are sufficient to prepare you for just being a grownup.

The other filmed piece sees a selection of frustrated late-30s professionals turning to the internet for forbidden fantasies—in the form of a popular real estate ogling site. The phone sex line visual language turns out to be especially well suited for the languorously disaffected early middle-agers, who lounge suggestively and stroke their laptops while drooling over dreams of home ownership. (“I wanna flip that,” coos Mikey Day, while Levy purrs, “I would never live in North Carolina. But if I did, I could buy a big, gross mansion.”) And Cecily Strong nails it as the site’s personal safety valve—the no-nonsense, high-pressure real estate agent who picks up the phone when your wandering fingers finally click the big, blue “contact agent” button. Reality always gets in the way of the best fantasies.

Of the live sketches, it was Kate McKinnon’s surprisingly late-show first real appearance of the night that helped immeasurably, as she and Levy teamed up to passive-aggressively not quite object to the wedding vows of pal Ego Nwodim and unimpressive groom Mikey Day. McKinnon and Levy’s couple’s energy is so odd but so specific that it makes the sketch’s slow-burn premise come to life, as the pair couch their obvious distaste for the unassuming Day in just the right shade of glassy-eyed praise. (Kate does something with her open-mouthed smile while her eyes are screaming “No!” that alone should score her another Emmy nod.) With everyone else in attendance (including Nwodim) gradually revealing their own misgivings, the couple’s interruptions become less and less subtle, all without ever abandoning their monumentally insincere praise. (Kate again: “Mark-wise, it’s just like—no, he’s good.”) That Day’s groom finally wins the pair over by standing up for his own, admittedly pedestrian charms (“A male Grey’s Anatomy fan? There’s a red flag,” snipes Levy) is what finally wins the insincere duo finally (and arousedly) to his side is just another piece of the puzzle, finishing up the only live sketch that took advantage of Levy’s unique skillset.

Lost in the shuffle along with Beck Bennett, Heidi Gardner, Kyle Mooney, and Chris Redd, Levy was fine in the Super Bowl party sketch. There can’t be too many sketches mocking people who aren’t fucking taking this still-rampaging pandemic seriously enough, but the final gag of the bit was emblematic of how half-assed this one was. With everybody assuring each other that they’ve been good enough to earn a mask-less gathering for once, the entire quintet celebrates ultimately by dunking their bare hands into Bennett’s communal chili pot. It’s the sort of gross-out food gag the show’s regurgitated many times in the past, hampered here by how gingerly everyone has to actually perform the hand-to-mouth gag. I’m in no way hoping for the cast to put themselves in greater danger with a good old fashioned baby birding scenario or anything, but, like that genuinely unappetizing looking glop, the whole sketch was pretty tepid. The joke that most people’s COVID pods are, well, a joke of exceptions, plus-ones, and ill-advised “just this once”s has potential, but, apart from the fact that Bennett’s host reminds everyone of his career as a “mouth masseuse,” none of the comic reveals are inventively horrifying enough in their irresponsible touchiness.

Weekend Update Update

As the comic world adjusts to a post-Trump world (only exacerbated by the dude’s social media ban), Update’s going to have to find some new jokes to fall back on. And, never fear, it looks like Jost and Che have settled on “Joe Biden is old” as their main presidential landing spot. (With a “controversially handsy” backup.) I know that a seemingly stable, functional, not-dangerously insane guy who’s never appeared in a Bo Derek movie in the White House makes political zingers harder to come by, but, you know, that’s your job and stuff, guys.

Luckily, Trump’s miasma of mendacious madness lives on enough in the person of minor Republican lawmaker-loon Marjorie Taylor Green, giving the two anchors some familiarly racist, bug-nuts, low-hanging fruit to pluck. With the seriously de-powered GOP fleeing to the white supremacist fringes in its sweaty quest to cling to power, no doubt said minor Republican racist conspiracy kook is going to get plenty of airtime on Update and beyond. Here’s hoping Jost and Che (as both Update and head writers) can form a comic strategy better than they’ve managed in this admittedly new regime so far.

The “cancel culture” sketch isn’t the way, though. Mikey Day and Heidi Gardner’s sneering internet critics dive right into the murky and controversial waters of, you know, actually holding people accountable for what they say and do, and do nothing with it. The joke is that these two representatives of what conservatives are calling a conspiracy to silence opposing viewpoints (and not, as noted, simply holding up hateful shit people actually do and say for public scrutiny) are putting that same harsh spotlight on children. Like, babies. The joke could be salvaged in performance, I guess, but Gardner’s done far, far better in crafting Update personae, and if you’re one of the people who thought putting “#flushthis turd” on the Instagram post of a little kid was a trenchant hoot, then more power to you. If you’re going to do a sketch based on a really loaded premise and you do nothing with it, then nobody’s going to be happy. Well, not me, anyway.

Advertisement

“What do you call that act?” “The Gap Girls!”—Recurring Sketch Report

Okay, this is killing me. The premise of a couple insisting that everyone knows a song that they absolutely do not? That’s happened before, and I’m certain of it, and for the life of me I can’t find it at three in the morning today. Grr. So tell me what it is in the comments and make justified fun of me, please. Anyway, this wouldn’t be a direct sequel, but it’s fun to break a long sketch show into categories, so here goes the sports bar sketch, where Cecily Strong and Dan Levy’s suspiciously dance-attired bartenders attempt to regale their frustrated customers with the beloved football anthem “Hot Damn!” while the bar TV is out. What’s “Hot Damn!?” Why, they assure their puzzled patrons, it’s that old gridiron classic about players hugging and kissing out their differences after the game, and trying their darnedest to put the ball through “the football hole.” Kenan (see below) makes incredulity funniest, his “No, I do not. I remember what you just did, and I will remember that for a while” scoring the biggest, um, football hole score of the sketch. Cecily Strong and Dan Levy busting out a big, silly musical number should be more of a show-stopper than it turns out to be here, though. As everyone but Kenan gradually gets swept up into the spirit of the song, their choreography and singing should blend, and build, better. But it’s pretty adorable nonetheless, with Cecily, Levy, Beck Bennett, Alex Moffat, and Ego Nwodim all conveniently hiding their feet behind the bar for their big tap break, and it’s all raggedly infectious enough, with even Kenan’s lone holdout grabbing a top hat and cane to join the big finish. Happy Super Bowl Eve, everybody! Put the ball in the square!

Advertisement

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

Slotting tonight’s cold open in here for tradition’s sake, although the NFL pregame sketch was about as innocuous (not to say irrelevant) as anything called political satire could be. It’s been a while since a wheeze of a cold open couldn’t be laid at the feet of Alec Baldwin’s limp and buffoonish Trump, but, just like political satirists, SNL reviewers will now have to find other things to make fun of. Here it’s Kenan as stalwart football talk host James Brown (not that one, or that one) riding herd over a quartet of indifferently executed impressions of sports figures nobody’s particularly familiar with. (At least not familiar enough to grant anything but effort-recognition to Alex Moffat’s attempt to ape former coach Bill Cowher’s vocal tics. Which he apparently has.) The premise of the interminable piece (when it finally sort-of coalesces) is that this year’s Super Bowl ads are taking diverse approaches to the practice of advertising their products during a period of political unrest during a potential super-spreader pandemic event. Fair enough—tricky work for the gang at Sterling-Cooper, to be sure.

But, man, does this go nowhere. Redd has a few funny character moments as former Viking, Seahawk, and Lion Nate Burleson, and Kenan’s JB presides, as always, with aplomb. But the ads themselves (again, once the sketch actually announces what it’s about) are about as watery as it gets. I confess to overlooking the fact that SNL has, in fact, chosen a Joe Biden in Alex Moffat last week. I apologize to Mr. Moffat, without reservation. And yet—the fact that the first two shows of the Biden administration with a supposedly locked down Biden in the house haven’t featured Moffat’s Biden at all is sort of telling. Last week’s Kate McKinnon-starring cold open managed to fold the expected politics into an endearingly personal sketch, but, here, the clunkiness of the semi-satirical content smacks of an SNL that wishes it hadn’t conditioned viewers to expect their political comedy front-loaded. Any chance to slam Papa John’s is fine (even if the pizza chain has jettisoned its racist founder), and there was a bit of earned audience discomfort at the fake ad’s appeal to Pizzagaters and QAnon lunatics. The rest were forgettable, deadened further every time the sketch threw back to its roundtable of nonentities. Aidy did a funny bit as both Super Bowl coaches, and if the gag about having to do a quick change in response to Redd’s inconvenient question was manufactured wackiness, it was Aidy in a bald cap, and therefore okay with me.

Advertisement

I Am Hip To The Musics Of Today

Phoebe Bridgers liltingly lovely voice and evocative songwriting might be the go-to malaise anthems of disaffected youth everywhere (our own Katie Rife called Bridgers’ album Punisher a soothing balm,” and she’s on the money), but she will scream her lungs out and smash a guitar. Unsurprisingly, Bridgers’ thrilling, gear-changing “I Know The End” was saved for her second humber, that out-of-nowhere shift into primal scream a vocal cord X-factor. And if the amp she even more unexpectedly smashed into sparking disrepair was gimmicked as part of the piece’s theatricality, the effect worked to shock viewers who thought they had Bridgers figured out as just another pretty voice. Both songs were great, incorporating some bracingly live violin and horns and a second-song guitar duel with the singer head-bumping the chest of her lead guitarist. And I liked how skeleton aficionado Bridgers ditched her bony onesie for a sparkling, droopy necklace that recalled a ribcage for “I Know The End.”

Most/Least Valuable Not Ready For Prime Time Player

Kenan Thompson steals scenes, and bless him for it. On a show where a lot of live sketches just failed to lift off, there was Kenan, expertly and effortlessly charming them into the air somehow, even if temporarily. As BET Black History Month show host Dr. Jeremiah Thibodeau, Kenan got to lay back and play sniper, an invaluable and irreplaceable skill of his, as a series of well-meaning(?) white guests came on alongside the cringing Black friends who’ve come to explain/apologize for them. The sketch itself was a parade of stereotypes of performative, half-understanding whitey (Levy’s showboating activist is, naturally, sporting kente cloth), but the point being made about Black people having to navigate the thorny relationships of Trump-activated woke white allyship is solid. Kyle Mooney fared best of the guests, his rhapsodically smitten trust fund artist and husband (of Ego Nwodim) a broad but fleshed-out portrait of a guy whose festishized love of all things and people Black comes yoked to a dopey cluelessness about what a caricature it makes him. (“He’s a kind man, and he has a lot of money,” Nwodim assures Dr. Thibodeau.) But it’s Kenan who anchors things, his patiently irritated scholar allowing his guests to out themselves while interjecting with signature understated precision. Plus, the way he pronounces “hwhite” is simply delicious.

Then there was the movie studio bus tour, an effortful bit of cringe comedy where Kenan’s passenger got most of the laughs. Levy did fine as the coffee-addled trainee tour guide who can’t stop himself from spouting inappropriate conspiracy theories about Doc Brown grooming Marty, or intimate personal details (Jurassic Park’s Dennis Nedry is his boner-shrinker), while—as is his curse—Mikey Day’s straight man veteran guide had to point out that his colleague was being inappropriate. (As an aside, there are other joke constructions than this. And why is it poor Day’s lot to play the same role time after time? Did he lose a bet? Steal Lorne’s popcorn?) But, again, it was Kenan scoring from the cheap seats, as his passenger’s enthusiasm for seeing the actual car from The Flintstones movie happily transfers over to the total shitshow going on at the front of the bus. “Uh, I don’t get it, could you explain?,” he beams in mischievous glee, looking to prolong the mortification of Day’s supervisor at Levy’s lesbian dinosaur joke. Even in a so-so or even dire sketch (see the cold open) Kenan’s just an oasis of funny.

And when it’s a funny sketch with an equally on-point partner to pass off to, Kenan’s simply a killer, as with the Update segment from Thompson and Chris Redd. As YouTube sensations and musical archaeologists Twins: The New Trend (twin brothers Tim and Fred Williams), Kenan and Redd channel the youthful duo’s seriously infectious (to the tune of 100 million views or so) live-listens of well known songs they’ve never heard before with a deeply affectionate silliness. The joke they settle on is Che’s bewilderment that the guys have never heard songs like “In The Air Tonight” or “Jolene,” seeing the twins responding in head-nodding enthusiasm to other new-to-them musical delights like the Friends theme and the alphabet song. It’s fine—the fact that two very young Black men might not have come across Phil Collins or The Eurythmics at this point in life is a lot more plausible than the piece’s substitution of Thomson and Redd make it, but there’s nothing mean-spirited here. It’s just Kenan and Redd being relaxed, confident, and very, very funny. So, yeah, Kenan wins the race tonight.

Advertisement

I didn’t see Chloe Fineman or Andrew Dismukes at all tonight (Punkie Johnson had her biggest show so far), but poor Melissa Villaseñor’s only screen time was getting hosed down with aerosol disinfectant in Levy’s underwhelming monologue. Nice sparkly dress, though.

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

No live ten-to-one sketch tonight, which is always a disappointment. The “It Gets Better” piece was good, but could have come anywhere in the show’s lineup. Ten-To-Oneland is a wild, strange garden that needs tending, people.

Advertisement

Stray observations

  • The SNL nerd in me thinks it’d be interesting to hear from Eugene Levy about the time in the 80s when then-producer Dick Ebersol actively but unsuccessfully tried to poach SCTV stars for his post-Jean Doumanian takeover of the show. (We did see Levy and pal John Candy in an old SNL cameo during the week’s promotional ads.)
  • That’s a nifty bit of physical underplaying from Alex Moffat in the “Hot Damn!” sketch, pulling out his cell phone at Levy’s mocking suggestion that everyone pass the time with phone-porn, before unobtrusively slipping it back in his pocket again.
  • “With hard work and vigilance we were able to get through the season with only 700 cases!” Ha ha haaa, yeah—don’t go to the Super Bowl, people.
  • Levy, expressing his monologue excitement at hosting: “My 13-year-old self has fainted in a really needy, melodramatic way.”
  • The party sketch ends with Kate’s Dr. Fauci, beseeching people in vain to stay home, and Bowen Yang as Psy. Because, well, you see—yeah, I got nothin’.
  • Jost’s biggest and best laugh was a passing reference to “former social media influencer Donald Trump.”
  • Che’s best, in reference to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ retirement: “‘I’d just like to finally spend some time with my family,’ said Amazon workers.”
  • Che also got in a swipe at former musical guest Morgan Wallen, whose anti-mask bullshit was followed up by some caught-on-camera racist bullshit this week. Che, naturally, blamed the latter on Jost’s influence.
  • Redd’s twin, hearing the SNL theme music for the first time: “It’s a whole lot of saxophone! Like, too much?”
  • Next week: Our third first-time host in a row, with Watchmen star and One Night In Miami director Regina King, plus musical guest Nathaniel Rateliff.
Advertisement

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Danny Peary's Cult Movies books are mostly to blame.