“You know how wrong you have to be about politics for me to notice?”
“I’m not an actor, I’m a [rap, movie] star!”
Rapper and rising actress (or “Asian trumpet player turned rapper turned actress,” as she described herself) Awkwafina finished off her brief monologue by telling the story of when, back in 2000, she waited outside 30 Rockefeller Center to get a glimpse of Lucy Liu when Liu hosted Saturday Night Live. Knowing her tender age and the fact that she didn’t have a ticket would combine to deny her a chance to see the actual show, Awkwafina told the audience that it was still a meaningful moment, one that “totally changed what [she] thought was possible for an Asian American woman.”
It’s a sweet story with the unspoken bitter aftertaste that the Oceans 8 and Crazy Rich Asians star is the first Asian American woman to host SNL in the intervening 18 years. Still, she ended her own entry into the SNL-hosting club by giving a shout out to her hero, Liu, and asking for Liu to be her friend, which was, considering Awkwafina’s tale, genuinely endearing.
That goes for Awkwafina’s entire appearance on this second episode of season 44, where her overall gameness buoyed her sketches even as, for the second outing in a row, there wasn’t much to get excited about. Unlike last week’s season opener, there wasn’t one character-driven standout showcase like Adam Driver’s imperious Abraham H. Parnassus to elevate things. The closest Awkwafina got was her turn as Cecily Strong’s new dog-walker pal Deedee. Crashing a baby shower to back up Strong’s emotional, childless woman against the (as it turns out, mostly imagined) slights from her quartet of friends, Deedee’s grubby millennial little weirdo gives the actress her one shot of the night at scene stealing, but the sketch itself is sluggish around her and the shifting point-of-view of the joke never finds its target.
Awkwafina was fine—honestly, she seemed right at home, as if she were part of the cast. But the fact that this remains a cast in search of a strong ensemble personality makes that more a testament to Awkwafina’s game competence than anything else. I think her best moment played to that idea, as she underplayed her role as a realistically beleaguered-looking dating game contestant, wearily attempting to choose among the variously exhausting and ludicrous suitors in a game show called “So You’re Willing To Date A Magician.” There, alongside an occasionally breaking Leslie Jones, Awkwafina looked just the right shade of defeated as she confessed that, having just gotten out of a long relationship with a DJ, she can’t afford to look down her nose too far at the likes of Kenan Thompson’s penurious sleight-of-hand man Marconius Wilde and Pete Davidson’s David Blaine-esque geek-tricking Dante Raven, even as she finally decides that being alone is a better prize than having to go on a cruise with one of these GOB Bluths.
The fact that beery accused sex criminal and unhinged partisan conspiracy-spitter Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court by the Republican Party and collaborator Joe Manchin (D-WV) on Saturday afternoon left little doubt as to what this week’s Update would be about. Considering the track record of the modern GOP when it comes to putting human decency, common sense, and the integrity of America’s democratic institutions over self-perpetuating power grabs, it’s more than likely Colin Jost and Michael Che, along with the writers of tonight’s cold open, had these jokes in the trunk already, but they were still pretty solid.
Taking into account the towering rage of a lot of American women over the right-wing, Roe-targeting, accused rapist Kavanaugh joining spiritual forebear Clarence Thomas on a Supreme Court that will have overwhelming, unchecked power to control their bodies, seeing two smirky dudes delivering decent Anti-Kavanaugh shots is necessarily less powerful than it might be if, say, Fey and Poehler were still behind that desk. Still, shots were taken, and landed with a mildly cathartic regularity. Jost noting that, with just 51 votes, Kavanaugh still heard more “yeses” than ever in his life hit home. As did comparing Kavanaugh’s repeated lies under oath for a job as a Supreme Court justice to cheating on your wife during the wedding ceremony.
And Che’s material was even stronger, coming as it did at the whole dispiriting mess from a variety of angles. Mocking Donald Trump’s rape-culture-in-a-nutshell statement that Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s under-oath statement that Kavanaugh attempted to sexually assault her equals “a scary time for young men in America,” Che first just let it stand, explaining, “I don’t have a joke for that, I just thought it was hilarious.” Then, after introducing a joke about the upcoming Florida vote about re-enfranchising “millions of black and brown people unfairly incarcerated” in that state, he circled back with Trump’s words, concluding, “See, it’s a good line!” That’s some fine joke construction. Same goes for his bit about the five (out of six—respect to Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski) Republican women who voted to confirm Kavanaugh, which he compared to the white woman in a horror movie who don’t realize they’re in love with the monster. Echoing a black movie audience, Che cried “Oh Megan, you about to get ate,” before musing, “If a white lady in tears can’t get justice,” the Republicans are beyond reach at this point.
Pete Davidson came out strong as himself (where he’s strongest on the show, admittedly), addressing Kanye West’s Trump-praising tirade that happened after the cameras went off last week. Noting that there’d been some debate as to whether he or Che should take this one, Davidson explained, “He’s black and I’m crazy, and we all know which side of Kanye’s at the wheel right now.” In a fine two-for-one burn, Davidson called Kanye’s rant (in which he apparently doubled down on his whole “slavery was a choice” lunatic revisionism, among other things), “one of the worst, most awkward things I’ve seen here, and I saw Chevy Chase talk to an intern.” He also unveiled his own red baseball cap, replacing Kanye’s made-in-China Trump wear with one reading “Make Kanye 2006" again. Burn. Davidson’s battles with mental illness have become a potent and energizing part of his comic persona, and it carried weight when he told Kanye to get back on his meds. Davidson’s “No shame in the medicine game” is as good as anything in Kanye’s newest lyrics, and, as Davidson put it, “Being mentally ill is not an excuse to act like a jackass.”
Mikey Day and Alex Moffat returned with their Trump sons doubles act, which still has juice in it, thanks to Moffat’s turn as the perpetually loose-lipped manchild Eric Trump. Again, it ain’t subtle stuff, but Moffat’s is a genuinely hilarious piece of character work, taking the tack that Eric’s less-visible role in defending his daddy’s words and deeds stems from the fact that Eric is the babbling exemplar of stunted white male privilege. Here, he flinches from brother Don’s exploding fist bump, and is entranced by the new king puppet his brother got to keep him occupied. Moffat’s performance is as delicately funny as the joke is blunt, Eric’s desperately furtive attempts to ape his brother’s practiced cool-bro mannerisms almost endearing, even as he gleefully relates his dad’s “black, gay Jew” joke before Don Jr. hurriedly cuts him off.
Best/worst sketch of the night
For the first sketch right after the monologue, the dance crew sketch squeaked by on Kate McKinnon’s typically lived-in supporting performance as one Baby Teeth (“It made sense to me, but I’m stupid.”), and the low-key loopiness of the revealed premise. Awkwafina’s challengers (Leslie, Kenan, the guesting Travis Scott) rev up to serve Chris Redd’s crew and then strut their stuff happily to various game show themes. It’s a silly little conceit that never quite blasts off in performance, although it did give everyone a chance to show off some sweet, goofy moves. (Mikey Day and Redd, especially.)
The Cleopatra number was just an amiable nothing of an idea. As Cecily Strong’s queen objects, Awkwafina’s royal beautician and her two assistants (Kenan and ate McKinnon) make her over into the asp-headed, eye-shaded image we all know, and that’s it. I liked the joke that Kenan’s catty helper smashes a vase with her unflattering picture on it when Cleo snaps “Delete that!,” but, apart from that, I hope ancient Egypt wordplay like calling someone a “mess-opotamia” is your jam.
“The Pumpkin Patch” might not gather the viral steam of David S. Pumpkins (and we’re unlikely to get a pumpkin-humping Halloween special out of it, thankfully), but it was some prime Beck Bennett-Kyle Mooney film piece weirdness. Called out by their seasonal farm stand boss (Day) for what they and double-daring coworker Awkwafina did to the patch’s prime pumpkins after closing last night, the pair somberly come clean about getting freaky with the fruit. Bennett and Mooney’s ability for deadpan dimness serves them exceptionally well, as the pair abashedly but straight-facedly ’fess up (“This is not our finest hour.”), their blank hopefulness that they’ll be able to keep their jobs persisting right through to the point when they are rightfully fired. There’s an interlude where leering pumpkins’ round mouths send them into a fugue state of gourd-lust, but the real laughs come from the duo’s genuine, if temporary contrition. (“Does it change your opinion of us as people, sir?” “Yes.” “For worse?”) There’s even an ending that’s sort of sweet, and sort of sick, and the film-ending legend “Happy Halloween From SNL” stamps the show’s pride in its creation with perverse and deserved pride.
“What do you call that act?” “The Californians!”—Recurring sketch report
Just Debette Goldry, Kate McKinnon’s battle-scarred old Hollywood trouper, back for another round of pre-“Me Too” old school show biz horror tales. (She was once lobotomized by the studio for daring ask that her costume be cleaned.) The joke, as ever, is that a roundtable of modern-day actresses (here Cecily as Marion Cotillard, Heidi Gardner as a solid Allison Janney, and Awkwafina as Sandra Oh) decry the very real sexism of the modern entertainment industry while Goldry (star of Shimmy On The Train Tracks and The Jiggle Sisters) punctures the solemnity with anecdotes about, say, how Hollywood power players used to demand her fingerprints to cover up their “party murders.”
There’s always a delicate push-pull in these sketches, with the legitimate concerns of present-day women having to contend with Goldry’s walking example of how things used to be a whole lot worse. This time, there’s the added element of Awkwafina’s Oh addressing the lack of representation for Asians in show biz (you know, like not hosting SNL for 18 years), only for Goldry to explain that there were plenty of great roles for Asian women in the 1940s—and she should know, since she played all of them. (“I was a brunette, what’s the damned problem?”) I liked how McKinnon’s Goldry kept absently reaching out to hold Oh’s hand throughout, leaving Awkwafina’s actress to express a begrudging sisterhood in not swatting her abused old colleague away. Oh, and Debette accidentally caused the Lindbergh kidnapping. She had an audition.
“It was my understanding there would be no math”—Political comedy report
Introducing the cold open as CNN’s Don Lemon, Kenan called Saturday “a somber day for many Americans,” which is an accurate representation of news anchor understatement. (See: “towering rage of women,” above.) Still, SNL managed to summon up a little righteous anger at the fact that numerously accused sex creep and un-judicial rage-bro Brett Kavanaugh is now going to be on the Supreme Court, counterpointing Lemon’s words with the frat party atmosphere where Heidi Gardner’s Dana Bash stands flinching at the beer-swilling grabass going on in the Republican senators’ locker room. There’s a pair of new GOP impressions to wheel out, with Beck Bennett unrecognizable behind the bloated pucker of Mitch McConnell prosthetics and Cecily Strong as Maine’s fake moderate and deciding vote Susan Collins. (Pete Davidson also donned a wig as the always-concerned but never-acting Jeff Flake, taking a pie to the kisser from his colleagues and admitting, “Okay, you got me—I stink.”)
Lobbing sports metaphors (“we thought we were going to have to bring in our closer, Mike Pence” until Democrat Joe Manchin “scored in his own goal,” explains Kate McKinnon’s Lindsey Graham), and spraying beer, the old white men behave like the hard-partying fratboys of Kavanaugh’s school days. It’s a decent encapsulation of Kavanuagh’s now-infamous temperament and history, with Gardner warily embodying Graham’s boast “We made a lot of women real worried today” in the midst of it all. Strong’s Collins—emerging into SNL’s sights as a prominent villain in this ongoing GOP shitshow—captures the Maine senator’s quavering hypocrisy as she asserts, “We should believe women, until it’s time to stop,” and claims not to be in this for the attention even as she urged everyone to pay attention to her grandstanding, interminable 3 p.m. speech in which, as she says, she told all her female supporters, “Psych!” Alex Moffat’s Chuck Schumer got a little screen time, being interviewed explaining that he and his Democratic colleagues had some hope when Dr. Ford testified since, unlike Anita Hill, she’s white. (“But it turns out Kavanaugh is white too, so . . . ”) He also got nut-tapped by a strutting, turncoat Joe Manchin, continuing SNL’s conception of the Democratic leadership as all too comfortable being bullied by the rule-flouting jock assholes on the other side of the aisle.
Keeping Alec Baldwin’s unilluminatingly broad Donald Trump out of the cold open for the second week in a row is a good start. And if it’s unlikely Matt Damon’s entitled, red-faced Kavanaugh will drop by going forward, this is a decent swing at incorporating some late-breaking awfulness into the requisite opening slot. It’s a long road ahead—comedically and otherwise—and SNL at least showed that its willing and able to make some adjustments on the fly.
I’m hardly the first critic to take SNL to task for its too-often watery political content. In the SNL oral history, one-time Ralph Nader referred to the show as a .275 hitter politically, which, if you’re going with a baseball metaphor, sounds pretty good. But in comedy, unlike baseball, missing more than 70 percent of the time doesn’t make for a near-Hall Of Fame legacy. Still, when it hits, it hits, and the film about the fact that Donald Trump can now send unblockable messages to every phone in the country ably summed up the various ways that could go wrong considering the way that Trump intemperately sprays his gibberish all over the internet during his morning dump. Sometimes political sketches get unfairly swamped by expectations that they’ll take on more than they’re designed to, and this one is limited, but on-target and funny. “Is that even information?,” asks Leslie Jones in response to Trump hijacking her phone to remind everyone that September 11th happened. And the turn, with Jones’ coworker blissfully free from Trump’s “Amber alerts” (musing about how Tiffani Amber Thiessen used to be really hot) because of her choice of a certain terrible phone company is a funny reveal to the gag.
Same goes for the Ted Cruz commercial, where Cruz’s two-person hype crew (Kenan and Awkwafina) vainly attempt to make their notoriously charisma-deficient candidate look as cool as Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke. There’s nothing especially insightful about the sketch’s take on Cruz, but settling for some expertly deployed absurdist character assassination in the form of portraying Cruz as a sort of walking black hole of human likeability and attractiveness is justifiably mean-spirited. Because, seriously, fuck Ted Cruz.
I am hip to the musics of today
Travis Scott likes autotune. And lasers. And stage fog. He also appeared in the dance battle sketch, dancing joyfully to the Final Jeopardy thinking music, which was pretty endearing.
Most/Least Valuable (Not Ready For Prime Time) Player
Ego Nwodim got to dance a little in that dance battle sketch. Keep paying those dues. We don’t want another Luke Null situation on our hands here. (Here Nwodim is being funny. Elsewhere.)
Cecily Strong gets the top spot tonight. I wasn’t bowled over by her Cleopatra and baby shower showcases, but she was good in them, and, on a middling episode, sometimes quantity is what takes the prize. That said, her Susan Collins—certain to return, since Collins’ position as the GOP’s pretend-compassionate fence-sitting enabler has been exposed so completely this week—was right on the money. (As a Mainer and constituent, let’s just say I’ve been waiting for the country to catch on for a long time now. As Strong’s Collins predicts, here’s to her being unceremoniously swept out in favor of potential challenger, former Obama National Security Advisor, and someone who won’t continually embarrass my state, Susan Rice.)
“What the hell is that thing?”—The Ten-To-Oneland Report
Shoving Debette Goldry into the last slot of the night seems just another in her long string of humiliations. I like these sketches quite a bit, but this spot is for weird ideas that don’t fit in anywhere else, not for old troupers out for one more go-round.
- “Becky’s whole thing is, she’s a nightmare.”
- I love Leslie. Full stop. But, c’mon with the breaking, Leslie.
- Same to you, Pete. Plus, that was some sloppy work popping up next to Awkwafina in the magician sketch. C’mon, son.
- The design of the wet blap of sodden confetti that falls to the stage when Beck Bennett’s Ted Cruz hits the confetti cannon button is gloriously gross.
- Jost mentioned the little fact that the New York Times ran an extensive report on the Trump family’s long, still-active history of massive tax fraud, suggesting he give the alleged $500 million in dodged taxes to Puerto Rico, or to let millions of displaced Puerto Ricans live in his buildings, which Jost described as “Trump’s biggest nightmare.”
- Che, on a new line of Game Of Thrones-branded whiskey: “So strong, you’ll forget she’s your aunt.”
- Davidson didn’t deny Kanye is a “musical genius,” but compared listening to him on politics to listening to “hot dog-eating genius” Joey Chestnut on politics.
- Awkwafina’s Sandra Oh: “It’s an honor to play women who give long speeches immediately after taking a shower.”
- Next week: Seth Meyers returns to host SNL for the first time since leaving the show for his own back in 2014, along with musical guest and Lorne Michaels’ buddy Paul Simon.