“This winter is so dark, Republicans don’t think it should vote.”
Ariana DeBose’s turn as Anita in Steven Spielberg’s new West Side Story might have elevated the Broadway star’s profile, but there’s always an added tingle of curiosity when a lesser-known host takes the SNL stage. And DeBose, having just won a Golden Globe for her scene-stealing musical role, took to 8H with an infectious strut, swaying into home base while playfully conducting her own entrance theme. That fully returned all-star Kate McKinnon joined her to belt out some Broadway duets in place of a monologue immediately asserted the show’s investment in taking advantage of what they had in the multitalented DeBose, who brought an infectious trouper’s showmanship to the gig.
It was the first “cast member butts into the monologue” bit of the season, I’m pretty sure. And while sometimes that signals the need to prop up a non-performer (or a performer the show’s discovered is a live TV dud), this was clearly a case of someone recognizing that a Kate McKinnon-Ariana DeBose doubles act would be a really fun and electric way to kick things off. In practice, watching DeBose belt out a medley of Broadway standards while Kate hammed it up beside her was straight-up delightful—McKinnon’s goofing around unable to obscure the fact that she’s got a fine voice herself—and the timely fist-bump on the “gay” in “I Feel Pretty” was especially adorable.
Kate and DeBose teamed up later in a Sound Of Music sketch, in which DeBose’s nanny (recommended to a neighboring family by McKinnon’s spot-on Julie Andrews), turns out to be just as musical as Maria, while being much, much weirder. DeBose’s hosting gig might be partly traced to her role in the Lorne Michaels-produced Schmigadoon!, but she and McKinnon are a match made in musical comedy heaven, as DeBose’s governess (like Maria, “recently kicked out of a nunnery for erratic behavior”) leads her new charges in a loopy rendition of “Do-Re-Mi” replete with references to everything from Homer Simpson to Queen Latifah, to IUDs. “These are children,” McKinnon’s aghast Maria objects.
DeBose lends her character a wide-eyed craziness that powers the sketch, a neat trick opposite McKinnon, and evidence of a backstage confidence that makes for a truly engaged and reliable host. That McKinnon’s Maria gets called out for her own song’s dodgy lyrics (“That’s so lazy,” Chris Redd’s child singer rightly says of “‘La,’ a note to follow ‘so’”), while even Kenan Thompson’s stern father figure is won over to croon a french fry-themed version of “Eidelweiss” is testament to the writers’ knowledge that DeBose could anchor the premise. Also, Kate McKinnon and Ariana DeBose should co-star in something very soon. Musical, buddy comedy, rom-com. Just make it happen.
The Best: All the DeBose praise aside, no sketch stood particularly high tonight. The one that made me laugh the most was the NBA On TNT, which posited a night where the entire Sacramento Kings lineup (including coaches and trainers) are out with Omicron, leaving the team to enlist fans and facility staff to get mud-stomped by the comparatively healthy Nets, 268 to 1 (at halftime). Kenan’s Charles Barkley is always a hoot, and here we got the added treat of Bowen Yang subbing in for a similarly COVID-afflicted Shaq as former NBA star and fellow giant human, Yao Ming.
Now, Yao Ming is a notably intelligent dude, but I still found myself laughing hard at Yang’s dour big-guy routine, especially since his Yao Ming doesn’t come off as dumb so much as removed from normal interaction by his size. “It’s just a snack for Yao,” Yang shrugs at Barkley’s delight at watching his former NBA colleague devour an entire pumpkin backstage. As for the rest of the sketch, the interviews with the battered fill-in Kings were also goofy fun, with Mikey Day’s diminutive rec league trash talker preparing to flee at the half since “basketball is an impossible sport played by giants and gods,” and DeBose’s winning girls-night replacement player (who has the Kings only free throw point) confiding that of course she asked Blake Griffin for an in-game selfie.
There could be a larger comic point in mocking the NBA’s baffling easing of COVID rules even as Omicron sweeps through the league/nation. But the NBA is hardly the only massive corporation putting money ahead of safety, and, besides, if you’re going to incorporate the daily reality of pandemic life into a your sketch show, sometimes letting that reality act as unspoken background to some silliness has its own comic power to it, as Chris Redd’s Kenny Smith posits that the Kings would need “some sort of Space Jam/Like Mike magical shoe situation” to mount a comeback.
The Worst: If there were no real highs tonight, the same goes for lows. Weirdly, I’m giving the bottom slot to a piece that made me laugh fair bit, as Chloe Fineman came out to continue the Elmo-Rocco feud. For the uninitiated, Rocco’s a rock, and Elmo’s having none of it, with a viral clip on Twitter taking its turn as the internet’s micro-obsession of last week. Now, Fineman does a fine Elmo, even if her actual face peeking out under her Elmo head is disconcerting. And, sure, the sight of everybody’s most chipper/insufferable Muppet pal losing his shit because Zoey keeps gaslighting him that her pet rock deserves the last cookie is amusing. (Even if I like my Muppets less crowd-baitingly irate at each other.) But while I laughed at Che sharing in-jokes with the inanimate Rocco, to Elmo’s fury, it’s such an easy bit—and one so destined to be shared ad nauseam online by morning—that it left me exhausted already. Especially considering how the rest of Update went tonight. (See below.)
The Rest: Speaking of internet buzz, the upcoming gritty reboot of The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air got the SNL treatment with Urkel. These fake commercials are so routinely well-produced that we tend to take them for granted by this point, but Chris Redd was great as the new Steve Urkel. Family Matters’ show-hijacking comic irritant is now revealed as the lovelorn genius son of an alcoholic mother, whose nerd-rage spills over into potential violence. “Should I do that?,” Redd’s Urkel sneers as he taunts Laura Winslow’s unworthy suitor with a gun. Quoting horrified reviews as if they’re raves is a reliably funny gag, with Rolling Stone cited here as saying, “Family Matters is the #1 worst choice for a sitcom to modernize like this.” And while the implicit joke is on the never-ending push to mine old shows for often deeply unnecessary new content, the piece is solid on its own, with Kenan’s Carl Winslow now a tormented Chicago cop willing to dispense interrogation room torture along with some tough love, and profanely assuring the troubled Steve that “family fucking matters.”
There’s an element at Saturday Night Live that lives in a cold sweat that someone, somewhere in SNL’s viewership might miss the point of a sketch. So many talented writers emerge from their time at SNL bursting with sketch ideas that don’t rely on someone in the cast asking “Are you saying that [insert premise of sketch in a skeptically comical manner]?” (For evidence, see: Bob Odenkirk, Tim Robinson, Natasha Rothwell, Julio Torres.) In the Sappho sketch, Kate and DeBose team up for their third collaboration of the night, in what might have been something if not for SNL’s stalwart need to point and shout, “See? That’s the joke—right there!” As a couple of lesbian classics professors whose excited translations of a newly discovered scroll from the ancient Greek poet of woman-woman love Sappho gradually reveals their inability to separate their personal lives from their work, the two queer women, once more, make a fine team.
Jokes about a marginalized community are always better on SNL when it at least appears like the jokes are written by people inside that community. And all the jokes here about gay women (too-hasty cohabitation, too many pets, a lack of love from their gay male brethren) are, in McKinnon and DeBose’s hands, the sort of lived-in lines that make the sketch feel less of a hacky cliché-fest than it might otherwise. But the professors’ presentation of Sappho’s supposed poetic laments (“Nancy, we just met/You’re scary and a bitch/Please move in with me”) are repeatedly interrupted by audience members making skeptical faces and asking, almost verbatim, “Hey, wait a minute, aren’t you two just imprinting your own issues onto this long-ago text?” Yeah—yeah they are. That was the joke, and we got there without any help. Ugh. There’s even a funny ending to the sketch that gets torpedoed by the impulse, as Mikey Day’s (wait for it) skeptical presenter offers to translate one final stanza, reading, “I went to the doctor/I went to the mountains/I looked to the children/I drank from the fountains.” You can hear someone in the writing process saying, “Look, I get it, but let’s just play the song over the ending, just so people get it.” We got it.
Sarah Sherman has clocked in for a couple of SNL’s two-person local commercial sketches in her first year. She’s good at them, although, like so many idiosyncratic performers hired by Saturday Night Live, being slotted into a pre-existing and predictable sketch format seems something of a waste of potential. Still, she and Pete Davidson (doing more with a characterization that usual) are funny in the sort of sketch born from wee-hours TV commercials for struggling local businesses. Here, it’s a formalwear shop, the married proprietors of which boisterously advertise their oddball wares, including a limousine constructed from two conjoined Toyota Corollas. What’s souring here is how the sketch veers into one long joke at the expense of the couple’s singularly unimpressive teenage son, Donovan (Andrew Dismukes).
Everything about consolation date Donovan (presented as an option for parents worried about their daughters being “penetrated” at the winter formal) is depicted as repellent, from his bathroom habits, to his social awkwardness, to his perpetual “swamp ass,” and it curdles what seemed like another sketch about low-rent hustling businesses into the relentless pummeling of a child. I dunno—there might be some intention here to paint the surly Donovan as some sort of creepy incel (his mother calls out his “huge computer and two ugly friends”), but, as game as everyone is, all the punching down just felt like piling on.
Michael Che mocking “Oath Keepers” seditionist Stewart Rhodes was emblematic of what turned out to be the best, sharpest Update of the season. Rhodes, the white supremacist C.H.U.D. recently arrested for his role in plotting a violent, right-wing coup, wears an eye patch, leading Che to mock Rhodes with various pirate jokes and other eye-related wordplay, all while repeatedly asserting, “That wasn’t an eye joke.” They were eye jokes, with Che gleefully taking license to mock the self-proclaimed militia leader. Che never brought up the fact that Rhodes’ eyepatch resulted from violent conspiracy theorist Rhodes shooting himself in the face while working as a (checks notes) firearms instructor, but he didn’t have to. He also never mentioned Pete Davidson’s infamous joke about right-wing Republican Dan Crenshaw’s own eye patch on Update, but, again, he didn’t have to.
It was a series of low-blows and cheap shots, and it worked splendidly and repeatedly because the target has, by his actions, put himself on the firing line. (Presumably without proper eye protection.) Davidson found himself the target of bad-faith conservative ire for mocking Crenshaw, with Fox News pointing to former soldier Crenshaw’s war wound as off-limits for jokes. And while Crenshaw (holder of some seriously ugly opinions and repeatedly linked to fringe hate groups) rode the wave of outrage to force Davidson to apologize on Update, Che’s broadsides against Rhodes were a cheeky riposte to the idea that civility trumps all when it comes to mocking a true and proven asshole.
There were some clunkers along the way on Update tonight (Che joking about Biden taking naps is about as lazy as it comes), but both Che and Jost were more focused and, well, nasty than they’ve been in a while, and I’m here for it. It’s a nasty America right now, Donald Trump’s shocking ascension allowing Republicans and other aggrieved white people to think that it’s safe to yank off their masks (COVID and Klan) without peril. Well, peril is what’s needed. When GOP Senator Roger Marshall (R-KS) got roasted by stalwart and beleaguered anti-COVID health professional Dr. Anthony Fauci (the fed-up Fauci’s mic caught the doc calling Marshall “a moron”), it was because Marshall was grandstanding about Fauci’s government salary by threatening to make Fauci’s pay public (even though it’s already public). Jost doubling down by joking that the offended Marshall didn’t know what “moron” means is mean—and necessary.
Jost segueing a joke about President Biden’s low approval ratings into a swerve about Jefferson Davis (“another president who had a disastrous start to his first term, yet he became an inspiration to generation of republicans even to this day”) was a cheap shot about Southern voters preference for out-and-proud bigot candidates—and it landed because of its targeted nastiness. SNL’s penchant for playing both sides is cliché at this point, but things have escalated so far so fast in the post-Obama years that playing the snarky middle courts comedy malfeasance. It’s time for political comics to take off the padded gloves, put on those ones with the ball bearings hidden in the knuckles, and start tossing haymakers. That tonight’s jokes were also deftly and maliciously on-target made Update feel as potent and dangerous as its been in years. Political comedy might have proved utterly ineffectual when it comes to counteracting the rise of white supremacist authoritarianism and such, but that just means it’s time to punch harder—and smarter.
Another show without a repeater? Do I hear music in the air? Is this the promised tomorrow? Seriously—keep it up.
By the way, the presidential cold opens don’t count as repeats. They’re my rules. As for tonight’s return of James Austin Johnson’s Joe Biden, I’m of (at least) two minds. Johnson’s Biden remains a fine, sly characterization. Apart from his Hammond-like technician’s ear, Johnson provides a guiding conception behind his Biden. SNL’s strategy of seizing upon the easiest-to-perform handles on a political figure can be absolutely deadly, political sketches turning into a predictable series of tics and catchphrases. Johnson’s Biden is a trickier creation. “Old and tetchy” is in there, certainly, but not to the “Sleepy Joe” extent of simpleton hashtaggers everywhere. Instead, Johnson plays the 79-year-old President as beleaguered sore winner, his inheritance of a Trump-triggered disaster zone poisoning his hopes for avuncular good will and incremental progress. It’s not as readily buffoonish as Alec Baldwin’s Trump (or Jim Carrey’s Biden, for that matter), but that’s a good thing.
That said, the cold open’s central premise—Biden blames crowds thronging to Spider-Man: No Way Home for all America’s current problems—is pretty inconsequential in its randomness. I like a weird idea—Biden’s obsession here seems to stem equally from the correlation between the Marvel movie’s record-breaking opening and the subsequent Omicron surge and the fact that he and Jill couldn’t get tickets. But there’s a hell of a lot of stuff going on should the SNL writers room care to write a Joe Biden cold open, and this is what they came up with?
I’ve said before that SNL sometimes finds a fresh and illuminating angle on a current event when the writers come at it from an oblique angle. But having Biden field questions about the pandemic (and Russia’s current posturing about invading another country) and merely steering things back to an MCU multiverse theory about why things are so god-awful is less defiantly out there and more irritatingly inconsequential.
Better was Chris Redd’s turn as new New York Mayor Eric Adams, who’s already proving himself a ripe subject for enduring SNL mockery. With the self-aggrandizing former cop and newly elected Democratic mayor evincing a penchant for attitude over sensible policies (about COVID restrictions, police reform, the relative human worth of “low-skill” New Yorkers), it’s going to be a long (and for Redd, at least, profitable) ride for the people of New York, and the sketch sees Redd pull out an assured and smartly funny characterization.
Introduced ably by a brash, equally “swag”-obsessed spokesperson in DeBose, Redd’s Adams bullies the press corps as they dare to question why, for example, he’s demanding in-person attendance at New York schools while students and teachers are falling to Omicron at record rates. (Apparently, even Adams’ swag couldn’t hold up against the ’rona, as he’s now walking back his stance a bit.) “I’m just playing—unless you like that,” is Redd’s approximation of the new mayor’s tough guy routine, a potent take on a guy whose anyone-but-a-Republican mayoral victory has carried along with it some seriously questionable baggage.
With Redd making fun of the outspoken Adams’ habit of whipping out his “I was a police officer” cred to silence legitimate criticism (“I was a cop for 97 years!”), the sketch tosses in a ripe new New York public figure to SNL’s mix. “You’re all mishearing me and you’re making me misquote myself,” Redd’s Adams blurts upon being called out, a pretty trenchant observation of how politicians elected on attitude and pandering to the “he tells it like it is” crowd wind up shunning those in the press who’ll dare question them with on-the-record facts. Buckle in, New York.
I was all prepared to ding SNL’s still-and-forever baffling inability to properly mic musical numbers for Bleachers’ muddy vocal mix. Then I re-read Alex McLevy’s otherwise positive review citing Jack Antonoff’s penchant for obscuring his own vocals, and now chalk Bleachers’ fun but slightly underwhelming pair of performances up to a mutual missed opportunity. While Bleachers is essentially Antonoff’s one-man band, I especially appreciated his playful interplay with his sax section in “How Dare You Want More.” Still, it was disconcerting watching a guy so invested in presenting an energetic pop-rock spectacle while straining to catch the lyrics Antonoff seemed so bashful about belting out.
With DeBose having starred alongside Cecily Strong in Schmigadoon!, it was only more evident that Cecily was not in the house tonight. Here’s hoping it’s just due to her tagging out for a Kate McKinnon-style hiatus to do something interesting. Note: I fucking hate having to speculate on cast members health status in this section every week. Same goes for Aidy and the seemingly absent Punkie Johnson—please be having a good, creative, and restful week off.
I know it was another Kate night, but I’m giving the top spot to Chris Redd. He had Urkel, Eric Adams (a potential franchise), and the NBA sketch. Plus, Kate wins so often that I’m grading on a curve now. My rules.
The almost complete marginalization of Melissa Villaseñor continues to be the damnedest thing. (She got one line in the formalwear sketch tonight.) Melissa famously deleted her supposedly drunken intention to quit the show last year, but I have to agree with her sentiment at this point—she does deserve better.
“What the hell is that thing?”—Dispatches From Ten-To-Oneland
Well, I can’t rightly complain when SNL gives me what I ask for. The last sketch saw a kitchen-ful of Texas-based steakhouse employees dealing with their overbearing manager’s temper, and sentence-ending use of the incomprehensible sign-off, “lurr.” Heidi Gardner, James Austin Johnson, Dismukes, DeBose, and Alex Moffat all trot out their variations on what the sketch steadfastly contends is a Texarkana accent, as they squabble incoherently over a working salad station. (Honestly, I kept worrying Johnson was going to chop his fingers off.) Big, and broad, and weird, the sketch battered along with everybody clearly having a great time. Is there such a thing as a Texarkana accent? And does any one of the gabbling characters here possess one? I dunno. (I’m from Maine, where we all talk like this, too, apparently.) Not the most consequential sketch, but if ten-to-one is the home for half-realized, oddball premises, then this one belongs there.
- Boy, they’ve cut Ansel Elgort all the way out of those West Side Story commercials, huh?
- Che, on the decision to put author Maya Angelou on a quarter: “Which is not what Black people mean when we demand change.”
- Introducing Bleachers’ second number, DeBose sported a Covenant House T-shirt, which is worth a link.
- “Okay, now she’s joking, but she’s from the Bronx, so is she?”
- “You know what rhymes with ‘cough?’ ‘Tough.’ I mean it doesn’t, but it should.” Love me a good joke about how English doesn’t make a klick of sense.
- Jost jokes that deceased murderer Robert Durst was only the fourth most-hated New York real estate figure—over photos of the Trump kids.
- Che, on the Pope urging everyone to get vaccinated, “especially since priests work so closely with kids.” “That wasn’t an eye joke,” Che asserted once again, in response to audience groans.
- Next week: It’s another SNL alum, as Will Forte hosts, along with musical guest, Eurovision champions Måneskin.