“Wait, I can see on the TV I look silly.”
Adam Sandler left Saturday Night Live in 1995, which seems about as improbable as Sandler’s boast about his often amiably lazy movies having made “over 4 billion dollars at the box office,” as the returning alum sung in his charmily silly musical monologue song, “I Was Fired.” Sandler indeed got canned back then, although it was largely the doing of then NBC president Don Ohlmeyer, who was engaged in a very public and ugly feud with Lorne Michaels for control of the show at the time. Chris Rock came out to contribute his own delightfully funny verse about his earlier own unceremonious SNL exit, while Sandler noted that also-fired Chris Farley (who was as big a presence tonight as much of the current cast) garrulously commiserated with Sandler at the time.
It was a fittingly genial fuck-you from Sandler (one lyric accuses NBC of “hat[ing] the Jews”), who eased back into his old launching pad with the ease of somebody with nothing to prove. Sandler’s time on SNL was undoubtedly phenomenally successful (until ratings started to slip along with viewers’ tolerance for the broad, bellowing antics of Sandler, Farley, and their fellow “bad boys”). And while Sandler’s proven himself capable of much more range than anyone then would have imagined when he was 23 (at least when he teams up with the right directors and decides to put “actor” back on his resumé) he mainly stuck tonight to what he was best at then, being silly and sweetly goofy.
In Tom Shales and James Miller’s oral history of the show, onetime SNL writer Bob Odenkirk explained how Sandler’s success on the show was often frustrating, but never surprising, or even especially resented. Noting how he and others who were turning out the sort of smarter, more ambitious material that mostly didn’t make it to air, still couldn’t help but concede that Sandler got more big laughs and audience love by just “sort of dicking around.” (Odenkirk went and made his own sketch comedy legacy elsewhere.) Not that that’s all Sandler’s got, but dicking around has gotten him to where he is, and the episode didn’t mess much with that formula.
In a night of puzzling behind-the-scenes decision making, Sandler shone most in a pair of pieces that showed off his skills at underplaying in sketches that would have fit perfectly back in his heyday. The Romano Tours commercial was Sandler the comedy professional, playing it straight in a thoroughly satisfying deadpan sketch where Sandler’s tour booker patiently rebuts some bad customer reviews. This could be an invitation for mean-spirited yelling, or passive-aggressive abuse, but Sandler’s even-handed explanation that miserable people will still be miserable even when tossing pizza dough in Italy emerges with its humanity intact. Sustaining the joke admirably, the piece sees Sandler’s pitchman alternating between the low-rent glories of a Staten Island-booked package tour (“See some different squirrels.”), and not-unkind advice that, even on a wine-tasting tour of lovely Italian vineyards, “We cannot change why you drink or the person you become when you do, okay?” Packed with lines that good (“The pictures you’re in are gonna have you in them.,” “You’re not your sister.,” “In Italy, you will still have those bodies and feelings.”), the joke just works better and better the more Sandler stays with it. It’s a contained, fully-realized little gem.
Just as good, albeit in a different key, is the erectile dysfunction commercial for the suspiciously butt-plug-shaped ED drug Rectix. Bringing back memories of some of Sandler’s old meticulously produced belly laugh ads (Schmitt’s Gay comes to mind), the piece plays out in straight-faced perfection as Beck Bennett’s reticent grown adult son gradually realizes that his solicitous dad (Sandler’s) sage advice comes from his happy ignorance about the means by which his lemonade-making mom (Aidy) has slyly introduced ass play into the couple’s longtime marriage. Colon Blow, Oops! I Crapped My Pants—scatology played straight is the SNL commercial sweet spot. Points for Aidy’s serene smile, and the side effect warning: May cause a shift in couple’s power dynamic.
On the other hand, Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett’s music video “Holes (Clothes)” misjudges a reliable SNL formula almost entirely. Especially coming as early in the show as it does, the bit—where the guys’ ultra-serious duo Von Bonjour croons about the way that clothes are really just holes used to cover up your body’s holes—deflates an already unpromising idea with a limp production. Even some of SNL’s lesser music video parodies score points by nailing the sound and look, but Beck and Kyle’s deliberately offhand premise is let down even further by a similarly underwhelming production all around. This one just played out to baffled silence.
Jost and Che dispensed with their end of the political material tonight breezily enough. (See below for more on that.) The episode seemed fixated more on the “light prop comedy” of Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) busting out some KFC to call William Barr a chicken than the fact that the Attorney General of the United States refused to appear before a congressional hearing about his obvious, Constitution-shredding efforts to exonerate the president he’s supposedly overseeing. Yeah, it was, as Jost put it, a pretty irresistible comedy spectacle to see “an old man go to town on a bucket of chicken at nine in the morning,” but if that’s where the satire ends, you’re doing less than the bare minimum. Jost did joke about the country apparently having no rules any more, while Che dug at the Democrats for treating the Trump administration’s blatant and escalating contempt for American democracy and the rule of law “like a white parent dealing with a screaming kid at the supermarket.” Then it was on to jokes about Applebee’s and marshmallow Peeps.
At least Kate McKinnon got to come out once more as her determinedly no-bullshit Elizabeth Warren. And if Kate’s Liz didn’t take Jost and company to task again by waving a copy of a certain SNL reviewer’s complaints about the show’s lack of political courage, the piece did see Warren mocking the ongoing slighting of her campaign by the press. I’m not sure why Warren is being given the decidedly Trump-ian trait here of giving her Democratic opponents childishly insulting nicknames, but she’s got a point about her substantive progressive policy proposals being overshadowed by the press’ infatuation with the sight of Beto O’Rourke doing “parkour in a Starbucks.” (“I guess, you know, I’m settin’ myself apart from the other candidates by sayin’ what I’m gonna do and how I’m gonna do it. Whoa, what a crackpot idea!”) If Warren’s specifics about, say forgiving college debt, or universal childcare are derided as too wonky compared to the coverage of the “clown car” of her Democratic opponents, I say bring it on, both in the national discourse and on SNL.
For the other correspondent piece, we take you to . . .
“What do you call that act?” “The Californians!”—Recurring sketch report
Opera Man, everybody! What the hell, it’s the sort of easy-going Sandler throwback silliness he can likely crank out in the shower in the morning (although Sandler did bring back writers Robert Smigel, Tim Herlihy, and Steve Koren to help out). And, of all the possible returning bits, Opera Man’s blend of light pop culture satire and high culture was destined to go down smoothest. Besides, on another night where SNL exhibited its intention to dial way back on the ambition when it comes to political material, Opera Man’s jokes about the Democrats seeming plan to nominate yet another 70-year-old white man for president was about as pointed as things were going to get.
I’m calling the Sandler family reunion a recurring bit, since it’s essentially just another Walken family reunion with some mediocre Sandler impressions swapped in. Seriously, for such a uniquely imitable former cast member, you’d think that the current cast would have some better Sandler voices in their pockets. It was up to the still-giggling Jimmy Fallon to drop by with a decent Sandler, something he auditioned with way back when. It’s cute enough stuff, but, while the cast was underused all night (a malady afflicting most former cast member comebacks), nobody really picked up the Sandler and ran with it, which was the only reason to do this sketch in the first place. (Unsurprisingly, Kenan comes off best as the Sandler-by-marriage who hasn’t really gotten into the schticky swing of things yet.)
And speaking of ringers, what was with all the Kristen Wiig tonight? I like Wiig just fine, but she never served with Sandler, so her two appearances (at the reunion, and later being gamely gross hitting on Kate’s returning Sheila Sauvage) served to highlight how hard the current cast gets elbowed aside whenever an old hand/big star feels like dropping in to play. As for the sketch—what do you say at this point? I loved Sheila’s last call barfly’s resilient, boozy bravery the first time out. Which I believe first aired around 1987, right? Anyway, Sandler, McKinnon, Wiig, and Kenan’s ever-horrified barkeep all went through the same old distasteful moves, as Wiig and Sandler’s swingers waver in their scabrous desire to introduce the equally noncommittal Shiela’s questionable charms into their greasy, cyst- and colostomy-bag-filled lovemaking. That this baseline tolerable rotten old chestnut didn’t steal the ten-to-one spot as is its wont is about all the good there is to say about it.
I’m slotting the cold open in here, partly because that’s been the place where SNL dumps its requisite political sketch of the night, but mostly because the show goes out of its way to use yet another Family Feud sketch to announce a conspicuous surrender. I’ve been accused of being the only person who wants Saturday Night Live to do more political material, and, while I’ll concede that the show’s Alec Baldwin-dominated Trump material has been something of a mild-mannered slog, I’ll cop to that. If for no other reason than the show has the irritated ear of a president who’s not only actively advocated for governmental censorship of Saturday Night Live for being all mean to him, but whose mid-candidacy presence as host damaged the show’s rep to an extent it’s still trying to live down.
If the response is that SNL’s political courage and sophistication has always been more pose than practice, I can’t argue that much. But SNL has a platform, and one that it’s courted, developed, and climbed to intermittent heights of ratings (and even critical) success. Basically, throwing in the towel when you’re in the position to most directly affect a sitting president (who you arguably helped elect) is cowardly. Or lazy. Or cynical. Anything but ambitious. So starting off the episode with a head-fake toward another political sketch before jerking back to safely mediocre ground is your way of saying that all this heat is either too much, or too hard? Fair enough. But trundling out one of your most reliably unimpressive bits of quick-hit, uninspired celebrity impressions in its place is an act of contempt for anyone who thinks having a 90-minute stage of live TV satire involves some fucking effort. And courage.
The sketch was what it was. Cute. Disposable. Filled with lackluster impersonations and easy, crowd-targeted references. (Props to Ego Nwodim’s committed Okoye/Danai Gurira, the one standout in the Avengers vs. Game Of Thrones matchup.) Nobody’s forcing SNL to do political satire. But if the mission going forward is to safely backpedal on politics, then you’d better be a whole lot funnier and more original as a sketch comedy show, because right now, you’re courting irrelevance on both fronts.
I guess the Snapchat sketch was . . . political? Using the ongoing and very real violence and political turmoil in Libya as backdrop for a harmlessly silly sight gag is in questionable comic taste, but here’s to SNL for remembering that Tripoli exists, I guess. Throw in some added disregard for the (again, very real and growing) threat to journalists around the world (and here in America), and, well, the joke about imperiled reporter Mikey Day being unable to control the Snapchat filters on his phone is still . . . cute? Sandler popped up to do his Iraqi Pete accent, while Beck Bennett’s analyst couldn’t stop gushing over how darn cute everything was, much to the disgust of Cecily Strong’s Brooke Baldwin. Politics, SNL style.
At least we know who Tom Holland will play should the boyish Spider-Man ever host SNL. Fun fact: Mendes was born three years after Sandler was fired from the show.
Nearly every cast member proper got shunted aside for the chummy mush of another camera-hogging alumni reunion show, so here’s to Kate McKinnon, I guess. She does a really good Elizabeth Warren, a pleasantly ordinary Brienne of Tarth, and was really the only person to stand on her own tonight. Distant second to Ego Nwodim, who gave it her all in her customary single shot, while Aidy deserves some recognition for her slyly satisfied smile in the Rectix ad.
I’d complain about giving over the last slot to Sandler so he could sing the Chris Farley tribute song he debuted in his Netflix special, but I have a human soul. Say what you want about Farley’s affect on Saturday Night Live’s already broad tendencies, or his (and Sandler’s) noted fratboy Republicanism, or the way he went out (a fate, Sandler sings, he was not only prepared for, but not-so-secretly courted in deference to his comic heroes John Belushi and John Candy), but it’s hard not to love a guy who made people laugh so much, and so freely. And Sandler’s song is a genuinely touching thing, mixing heartfelt and obvious love with clear-eyed digs at a beloved pal who died way too soon. For someone who watched Farley’s rise and crash with helpless, sometimes guilty laughter, Sandler’s whimsical lament that Farley isn’t around to make him happy anymore was as right a way to end Sandler’s first return to SNL as you could hope for.
- Sandler/Opera Man gives a musical dig to Funny People co-star Seth Rogen for stealing Sandler’s “schlubby guy gets the hot woman” shtick.
- Kenan’s Steve Harvey sums up Thor’s quest to restore Asgard as “some kind of white nonsense.”
- “It vibrates?” “What, did you think it doesn’t?”
- Jost’s list of people Democrats have held accountable: Scott Pruitt (sort of); Roseanne Barr.
- Che got two audience groans tonight, to his obvious delight. One a joke about the Pope berating hairdressers about gossiping (“Especially when that gossip is, ‘Did you hear what happened to those altar boys?’”), and the other when revealing that a newly discovered jellyfish’s “transient anus” only appears when it’s needs to expel waste “and on its husband’s birthday.”
- Pete Davidson also broke into Sandler’s monologue to sing about being fired. After Sandler reminded him he hasn’t actually been fired yet, he advised, “Be patient, ‘cause it’s comin’ soon.”
- Next week: Emma Thompson, people. Plus the Jonas Brothers, if that’s your bag.