“Adele could you stop? This is really more of a talking show.”
“I know it was random,” is how Adele said her goodnights after a show where the singing superstar was the host but not musical guest, but that’s sort of of where SNL in 2020 is at this point, right? In her monologue, Adele (joking about her svelte appearance by saying she only brought half of her traditional self) made reference to her new album not being done as one reason why she’s not doing the coveted (and hit-or-miss) double-duty in this fourth episode. But with COVID hurling sand in the gears of literally every human pursuit as the world grinds into its third quarter of pandemic shutdown, nobody’s really doing what they thought they’d be doing at this point, so why not?
Adele’s got a cheeky British comic thing going already. She showed a montage of her gleefully violating the Glastonbury Festival’s “please, Adele, cool it with the profanity” rider while promising to try and keep her tongue in check for live American TV. And she did, instead putting in creditable performances in a sparse number of straight sketches, a few pre-tapes, one piece directly targeted at those who just wanted to hear Adele sing, and one where the age-old tradition of SNL breaking was carried off to endearing effect. (Especially as the sketch itself could have used a visit from H.R. after dress rehearsal.) As is wise with all non-actor hosts, SNL didn’t ask Adele to do much she couldn’t reasonably do, and she did that just fine.
The Best: I noticed that everyone was wearing masks during the goodnights tonight without exception (Adele had a full-face plastic shield), a subtle but noticeable change of the sort we’re all coming to grips with as the reality of this worldwide pandemic shitshow really digs its pointy teeth in. It’s ghoulishly fascinating to think how people will view these shows in the future, the signifiers of a world incrementally transformed via live TV sketch comedy. The fortune teller sketch is the model for a COVID-era recurring sketch-to-be, with Kate McKinnon’s eerily accurate prognosticator telling outlandish but soon-proven tales of crying over proper grocery-washing etiquette, inexplicable hobbies, and being shunned forever for daring to eat inside a restaurant. Adele, Ego Nwodim, Heidi Gardner, and Bowen Yang’s best pals all—once the gag is revealed that the sketch takes place in 2019—have their innocent hopes for a better 2020 dashed by McKinnon’s baffling-then-horrifying depictions of just how apocalyptically hellish the next year of their lives is going to be. Everyone’s solid at selling their confusion at how they could possibly freak out at the FedEx guy for being late with their adult coloring books, or McKinnon’s impression of Yang freaking out that his finger-rash might be “it,” a yawning, gradual twist worthy enough of a darkly comic horror movie that nobody needs to overplay. The journey from 2019 to 2020 has warned us all off from saying blithely, “Well, at least it can’t get any worse” to such a degree that histrionics simply aren’t necessary.
The Worst: In what film geeks (and film geeks only) will forever refer to as the Heading South sketch, Adele, Kate McKinnon, and Heidi Gardner played three white divorcées whose post-breakup extended vacations to Africa have turned them glassy-eyed with sated lust for strapping, shirtless Black men, referred to repeatedly by the absently moony McKinnon as “tribesmen.” So that happened. The joke is on the women, whose sexual colonialism is seized upon by the African tourism board (apparently the entire continent shares one in this sketch’s conceit) to lure other such free-spending women of a certain age and tax bracket. The joke also rests on the running gag made of the anonymous shirtless model types recruited to parade behind the performers, a use of Black men as props that’s a “have your ironically offensive cake and eat it too” sour element. Sure, neither Chris Redd nor Kenan Thompson exactly fit the physical bill for the sketch’s premise (sorry guys), but using these dudes as a punchline just felt leering, and sort of creepy. Of course, all anyone’ll remember is Adele being unable to keep it together, and—in the tradition of live TV clips forever more—it’s pretty adorable. So here’s to enjoying one element in a problematic sketch, I guess.
The Rest: I saw some people online asking why Maya Rudolph just doesn’t have her own sketch show at this point, to which I’d respond with an enthusiastic head-nod, apart from the fact that she’s too freaking busy being awesome in too many places already. (Plus, she already sort-of did, and it didn’t get picked up, because the world doesn’t deserve Maya Rudolph—and it also wasn’t great.) Regardless of whether or not Maya should ditch the dead weight and anchor her own musical-comedy-variety series, or whether SNL should stop pretending they have faith in their groaning-at-the-seams current cast to carry the show, Maya was everywhere tonight. And I am not going to complain about that so much as note it, address that it is weird that a former cast member had more airtime than 80 percent of the cast, concede that asking mother of four Rudolph to uproot her life during a pandemic deserves more to do than her ever-solid turns as Kamala Harris, and move on.
The retirement home sketch was Maya showing how charisma and delivery can elevate anything. The joke that hard-of-hearing retiree Rudolph’s adult grandkids have to shout the COVID-complicated particulars of their lives across a courtyard and up to her balcony involved some nice underplaying from Pete, Adele, Redd, and Ego, as what would, under normal circumstances, be glossed over, has to finally be bellowed out in embarrassing detail in response to Rudolph’s impeccably curt, “What?”s. Nwodim’s whole backstory about the deterioration of her relationship following an abortive three-way ends with her grinding her teeth while explaining loudly how she’s still living with her ex and the other woman in the house, because that’s just how the world is at this point. (“He opened the relationship to her, and closed it to me,” she explains with patient exhaustion in the end.) Again, Maya Rudolph—national treasure and the sketch wouldn’t have been half as good without her. Still, this cast is getting the shaft, repeatedly.
Sticking with the “thankful she’s here but why is Maya here?” theme (more later), the ten-to-one pre-tape problem persists (an extra-long intro bumper suggests another timing issue might be to blame), but seeing Maya and Adele awash in acid-wash in a horrifically on-point 1980s-style commercial for chemical-impregnated lavender-scent jeans to mask your “secret little lady scents” was going to make it into the show somewhere. With a feather-haired Beck Bennett writhing and crooning a love song to those women refined enough to stuff themselves into flower-stinking jeans you can’t touch, sit on furniture in, or wear if you’re pregnant (plus it burns when you pee), the ad was one of those SNL commercial parodies destined to show up on clip shows from now on.
At least they broke the dating reality show formula by letting Adele get strange as herself in the Bachelor sketch. First up, it’s a thankless role to portray the eligible bachelor/straight man in one of these things, so here’s to Beck for his character’s admission, that, despite once hurling “a shopping cart at a gay kid’s head,” he’s just what reality television is looking for. The idea that Adele—as Adele—would be looking to end her latest, album-inspiring heartbreak on The Bachelor allows the singer to send up her diva image (if she, indeed, has one of those), by busting out in song, Jenna Maroney-style, at every opportunity. For those disappointed that we weren’t getting an Adele musical guest in addition to Adele the host, the sketch was your consolation prize, and Adele herself wasn’t bad (as herself), crushing a champagne flute at Bennett’s unwillingness to see beyond her attention-sucking grandstanding, and eventually just giving in and allowing that all anyone really wants from her is a belted-out rendition of “Someone Like You” while she walks majestically out into the audience. It’s for the best, as Lauren Holt’s contestant put it, “Okay, I’m a huge fan, but I don’t feel safe with her here.”
Boy, do Jost and Che seem over this election. Sadly, as Donald Trump has discovered, pronouncing yourself bored with something toxic and potentially deadly doesn’t mean it’s going away any time soon, so pick up the energy a little, huh, guys? Short segment desultorily addressing the admittedly hard-to-satirize political reality, and then onto jokes about chain restaurants and animals, with a correspondent piece stealing Update. Not exactly an A for effort in a time where there’s material dropping into your laps every second of every day.
Melissa Villaseñor getting screen time is a relief, although the show—forever reliant on impressionists—continues to have no idea how to get her into sketches. Here, her spot-on, unexpected voices (The Little Rascals, Sia, Link from the Zelda games, a killer Stevie Nicks) were awkwardly crammed into a context-challenged two-and-a-half minutes, with the (admittedly sparse) audience simply not responding. Melissa’s a talented and endearing performer who’s never been given a fair shake in her time on the show, but—as Jay Pharoah’s Obama showed—even great impressions dry up fast if there’s no solid reason for them to exist.
The Update-stealer came in the unlikely form of Kenan, Bowen Yang, Beck Bennett, Mikey Day, and Chris Redd as the Village People, of all people. Appearing on Update to refute Trump’s un-ironic use of their anthems to pre-AIDS man-on-man sex, “Macho Man” and “YMCA,” Kenan’s frontman led the band in their own amended versions of their biggest hit, warning the virulently anti-LGBTQI politician that a cease-and-desist order (supposedly filed by Alex Moffat’s dancing Alan Dershowitz) is on the way. They also incur Colin Jost’s lawsuit-fearful interruptions by inserting lyrics intimating that Trump is complicit in the pedophiliac crimes of his late buddy Jeffrey Epstein, and that they’re going to shave Ivanka Trump’s head if Trump doesn’t knock it off with their music. The crowd was into it, and Kenan’s “Everything’s legal is you sing it in a song” pretty much encapsulated the ludicrousness of this latest feud between the Trump campaign and artists whose songs said campaign routinely co-opts without, apparently, understanding the almost specifically Trump-damning lyrics.
Where are we, as a nation, on Chad at this point? I object on a couple of grounds. One—Chad, as in the case of almost every returning character, has never been fresher or funnier than in his first appearance. Two—expanding Chad’s diffident stoner world to include broader and more elaborate setups smacks more of effort than inspiration. And third—and I’m prepared for backlash here—Pete Davidson’s become too good a sketch performer for Chad to encompass him the way he used to. All that said (and that’s a lot of “all that”), “The Haunted Manor” was fine for what it was. Chad’s car breaks down, the spooky, undead mistress of the big, spooky house he takes refuge in unwisely lays all her hopes of eternal redemption on Chad, Chad obliviously nods along to everything while understanding nothing. Oh, and Chad dies, but we’ll see if that sticks. Chad’s comic virtue has always been how his stunted agreeability to being exploited far outstrips the tortured overthinking of his exploiters—plus juvenile wordplay. (“Heh heh—gash,” he chuckles at the spectacle of ghostly Adele’s slit throat.) It’s just that Chad worked a lot better when he—and Davidson—seemed a lot more basic.
Trying to articulate why something isn’t working when that thing keeps existing in all its hammy, underwhelming glory is tough stuff, but here goes. Part of what’s so enervatingly bothersome about SNL and Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump is how it approaches the mendacious madness that incessantly spews from Trump’s mouth as some sort of addled, fugue state insanity rather than the hateful, pandering insanity of a screaming void of a human being’s disproportionate, solipsistic self-regard, bottomless need, and sneering, wanton cruelty. Plus, Donald Trump doesn’t do that fish-face thing with his mouth.
Other than that—yeah, this continues to suck, both in sucking, and in sucking the life out of the entire first half-hour of the show. Eleven-and-a-half minutes of this, followed by the ever-expanding cast intros, plus the monologue, plus the first ad break means we don’t see the first proper sketch until around the 30-minute mark. The rest of an episode plays catchup, and rescue worker, struggling to pump up the energy after the compulsory SNL weekly lecture on how least effectively to take on politics. Watching the recent Comedy Store documentary left me to recall how Jim Carrey’s initial (and considerable) success was as a straight-up impressionist, but his Joe Biden—rather than injecting some impersonation legitimacy alongside the requisite, Lorne-approved star ratings power—has quickly sunk to the show’s (and Baldwin’s) level. Cherry pick some of the most identifiable moments from the latest debate (campaign stop, speech, gaffe, or abortive interview), jazz it up with a little celebrity ham, and call it a sketch. There’s nothing of substance here, any more than an insulting caricature points and jeers, “Lookit the funny-lookin’ dude!”
Once more, when you’ve got Maya Rudolph in the house, you give Maya Rudolph some airtime, so it’s hard to begrudge what the show sees as a largely Kamala Harris-less news week turn into another cast-overshadowing role for the all-star. Still, debate moderator Kristen Welker isn’t exactly someone who called out for Maya’s specific skills, and you have to wonder how the rest of the women in the actual cast feel about the decision. As for the candidates, the show has decided that Carrey doing Biden—as much as the pick was hyped to the freaking moon—just isn’t interesting enough to concentrate on, so, once more, tonight’s cold open saw Carrey’s Biden morphing into another impression-ready celebrity. (And it’s not like Carrey does such a stellar Clint Eastwood in the first place.) The interior monologue that saw Biden responding silently to the attacks on his kids by decrying’s Trump’s “charity-scammin’ write-offs, lookin’ like they just came out of a two-week Vegas coke binge, sellin’ bad shoes to stupid people, Children of the GMO Corn” built up a little on-the-nose momentum, but that’s not much of a return on investment. Baldwin’s Trump calling the bi-racial Welker “Hoda,” “Padme,” and “Mindy” (“I loved your Project”) might pass for a satirical aside about Trump’s propensity for lumping all non-white people into one, Trump-hating blob, but it was really the only highlight there. Even a mid-debate intrusion from Kate McKinnon’s Gollum of a Giuliani only brought us a Borat joke about his fiddled-with (allegedly) balls. These cold opens are damaging the show. They’re not doing comedy any favors, either.
The cast did get to do some admirable underplaying in the filmed Trump ad, where a group of diverse Biden supporters yet worry that four years of a stable, not-insane bureaucrat in the White House might rob them of not just ghastly spectacle, but their identities as people secure in who they are. (People who fucking hate Donald Trump.) Rachel Maddow dutifully tweeted her reassurance after the sketch aired, which is a bit funnier than the sketch itself, but there was more thought in the gag than the whole, “You comics are sure going to miss [insert shitty American politician/punchline]” cliché. Everybody (Kenan, Punkie Johnson, Ego, Alex Moffat, Pete, Melissa, Bowen, Beck, Andrew Dismukes) really dug into their characters as people, making their potentially hacky reservations about a Joe Biden presidency of course-correction and competence feel both selfish and comically relatable. Luckily, Kenan hits upon the tingly spectacle of Donald Trump representing himself at one of his inevitable post-presidency trials, which seems to assuage most of the group’s worries. And the sketch did make room for the cast to simply lay out some of Trump’s legitimately horrible words and actions on national TV, something that never, ever gets less potent. (Hey, remember when he used the ableist slur to mock someone he himself chose for his administration, or the time he mocked a reporter’s physical disability? “‘Kids in cages’ wasn’t even a phrase before Trump,” Villaseñor’s voter muses incredulously.) Seriously—comedy will be fine without Donald Trump. (See tonight’s cold open for irrefutable proof.)
H.E.R. might not be Adele, but she’s got a hell of a voice, and—apart from SNL continuing to not know how to properly mic up its musical acts—her soulful vocal stylings should have scratched viewers’ itch for a killer female songstress tonight. Loved the Prince-style intro to “Damage,” as well.
Maya Rudolph is not—I repeat not—in the cast at this point, and is therefore ineligible.
So, let’s go with Kate. Her Madame Vivelda was a more subtle creation than the sketch seemed prepared to throw at us, and while the tourism sketch was—again, I’m gonna go with “problematic”—Kate as a glassy-eyed commercial pitch-person is a guaranteed winner.
Neither Aidy nor Cecily appeared (I didn’t see them in the goodnight’s either), suggesting that Aidy’s out in that cow field still. (Or filming Shrill.) If the huge cast, COVID, and six straight live show weeks mean that Saturday Night Live is engaging in some staggered scheduling when it comes to who’s in the building each week, then more power to them.
The new kids keep getting lines, which is encouraging, considering.
Ten-to-one sketches (or, has been the base of late, three-to-one sketches) should be live. Maya and Adele in dangerously synthetic stink jeans was pretty great and all, but this is the spot where a writer’s weird idea gets the grudging nod to see if SNL still has room for that conceptual egghead stuff, and that risky vibe only comes across in front of an audience. In a show where the number of cast members continues to grow while the number of cast-driven sketches continues to shrink, this is the one little patch of playground the weird kids should be able to hang onto.
- After Chloe Fineman busted out a Tiffany Trump last week, SNL just let this week’s eminently mockable T.T. debacle at a “gays for Trump” rally sail on by. Another snub for the most-ignored Trump.
- Bowen Yang in full leather biker getup. Just sayin’.
- Adele’s unsettled confusion at the psychic’s prediction is all of us: “Why do I know the name of the Postmaster General in 2020?”
- Despite her monologue swear jar (Kenan’s going to get right on giving that haul to charity), Adele’s only cuss was in calling herself “a right prick” in the Bachelor sketch.
- Che got the only two laughs from me from the Update jokes. First, his fake crying at the end of his explanation for his lack of coherent takes, “I don’t know where I’m goin’ with this. It’s been a really weird week, and I really, really thought the president was gonna die.”
- Then, on reporting about the uproar over a boar and her piglets being slain in Italy, “But it’s like they say, ‘Nothing good ever happens on a playground near the Vatican.”
- Okay, and if someone was going to make a Jeffrey Toobin joke (and the episode made two), Che’s reference to the New Yorker contributor’s “jerk” being “dry as hell” is about as good as it’s going to get.
- SNL has announced that, for the first time ever, it’s starting the season off with six live episodes in a row without a week off. May god help us all.
- Next week: John Mulaney makes his push to be the fastest ever to get into the Five-Timers Club, as he returns for his fourth hosting gig in less than three years. The Strokes will make their fourth appearance on the Halloween episode, too, although it’s taken them since 2001.