Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, Alex Moffat
Screenshot: Saturday Night Live

“Behind the scenes my ideas are much worse.”

“I’m not an actor, I’m an [SNL all] star!”

Bill Hader is an SNL all-timer. Any list of the greatest casts ever is suspect if Hader’s not on it. Beyond his exceptional mimicry, deceptive everyman Hader has the ability to imbue even the most sketchily written sketch character with an immediate, specific, and fully committed inner life that makes him the default center of attention. Which is good this time out, as Hader’s second time returning to host was full of sketchily written characters. And sketches. Whether retreads or let’s call them originals, the material Hader had to work with here was uniformly unimaginative. That he and a few other cast members—and returning alums—managed to yank a few sketches out of the mire was a testament ot performance. As has been the case for much of this season, the writing simply wasn’t there.

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Hader’s monologue was low-key delightful, a description generally that fits Hader himself in his more restrained roles. (Barry, his HBO “hitman turned actor” comedy series looks to be a promising vehicle for that more soulful side.) In interviews (like his sit-down with Paul F. Tompkins in the webseries Speakeasy), Hader always asserts how truly effortful his effortless-looking scene-stealing has always been. Coming out to confess that he’d just learned a lot of backstage SNL secrets that he’d missed during his eight seasons on the show, Hader projected the guilelessly sweet ordinariness lurking patiently under his live wire comic persona(s). (“You can’t buy those products,” he marvels about the usual post-monologue fake commercials.) Noting finally that he also just learned that hosts can cut a monologue as short as they want, the joke of the small army of expert SNL wardrobe and makeup people swarming him to get Hader ready for the first sketch was a charming little nod to Hader’s unassuming professionalism (as well as being a fun glimpse into the show’s inner workings).

The fact that the cutoff plaid, work belt, and blonde wig applied to Hader at home base formed his immediately familiar Devin getup for “The Californians” was as original a way as any to trot out a bit so comfortably predictable that, well, it’s formed the title of the recurring sketch segment of these reviews for the past few years. There’s nothing wrong with the bit, but there’s precious little right, either. A soap opera parody trafficking almost entirely in the cast’s various interpretations of the preternaturally laid-back SoCal accent (and obsession with driving directions), it has never changed, evolved, or otherwise done anything but provide opportunities for Hader, Fred Armisen (tagging along for a few sketches), and whichever cast members want to get in on the mugging, drawling fun. That the biggest laugh came when one of the series of over-dramatic reaction shots was given to a photograph of Vanessa Bayer’s departed maid Rosa showed how even the merest touch of variety stands tall in the midst of the amiable laziness.

Weekend Update update

Kate McKinnon is slated to portray every misbegotten member of the Trump administration, it seems, and I can’t imagine anyone complaining about that. Here she breaks out her glassy-eyed Betsy DeVos, following up on the billionaire Secretary of Education’s disastrous (for her and for America’s schoolchildren) appearance on 60 Minutes. Say what you want about DeVos—for example, that she’s a horrifyingly unqualified, right-wing dilettante out to gut public education in favor of religious charter schools favored by overwhelmingly white parents. Go ahead, say that. Anyway, McKinnon locks into the frozen, beaming, obdurate ignorance of literally anything about education DeVos displays any time she’s put on the spot, turning her attempts to justify her employment into accidentally revealing word salad. Asked by Colin Jost what happened on 60 minutes, McKinnon’s DeVos gabbles out, “The words that were coming out of my mouth were bad,” while she admits that she’s so widely protested by teachers, parents, and students everywhere because, “I do not do a good job and I can’t because I do not know how.” Apart from that, McKinnon manages to seed in some stinging nettles to DeVos’ conservative nonsense, constantly referring to states rights when it comes to school policy, like “in North Carolina, stop being trans and that’s what’s best for them.”

Pete Davidson continues his transformation from SNL’s stoned little brother to SNL’s oversharing little brother in recovery. Here, taking on NBA star Kevin Love’s lauded recent admission that he gets panic attacks, Davidson’s commentary hinges on outwardly praising the famous athlete’s honesty and mocking “one of the least hateable white guys on the planet” by comparing Love’s problem to his own widely documented (by him) struggles with addiction and mental illness. There’s a bracing vulnerability to Davidson’s self-effacing brashness (if that’s a thing) at this point in his tenure on the show, and his anecdote about his own truly harrowing childhood traumas serves as a truly effective punchline (and straight-up punch) to his sarcastic sympathy to Love, “But again, sorry about your free throw percentage.”

Jost and Michael Che continue to hold up their centerpiece segment, finding their own individual approaches to the week in Trump’s bullshit. Update isn’t required to create and maintain sustained satire (something SNL has struggled with in the Trump era). Update throws darts. And Che and Jost have only gotten more adept at hitting targets as they’ve asserted their own deliveries in their co-anchor roles. Someone actually hissed at Che tonight after a joke about Donald Trump Jr’s impending divorce, prompting Che to respond, “You know what we do here, right?,” without missing a step. And his question about the rumored sex tape of Trump senior and Stormy Daniels saw Che coming at the issue from his signature original, offbeat angle, asking seriously, “What if it’s good? Are you prepared for that?”

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Best/Worst sketch of the night

Aidy Bryant got stuck playing the straight woman role a couple of times tonight, which I found myself getting annoyed at. For one, Aidy is hilarious, all the more so when she’s allowed to cut loose. But thinking about it as the show went on, it struck me that the real issue in those two sketches (Irish game show, old man and young wife) was how they relied on an SNL template that just calcifies more and more. Set up a wacky premise with colorfully weird characters, and have one or more sensible characters react by repeating, essentially, “That’s a weird and wacky premise that I, a sensible character, find weird and wacky.” There are other comic conceits than that. Like, innumerable other ways to approach a comic situation, but Saturday Night Live lives so much in its own handful of sketch ideas and structures that their repetition becomes irritating. The Irish dating game sees everyone but straight woman Aidy doing Irish accents, which is fine. (McKinnon and Cecily Strong’s are, well, strongest.) The joke that all Irish people are inbred because of their fondness for banging their hot cousins doesn’t establish itself as anything but a vehicle for cheap laughs. (Is that an Irish stereotype? I’m part Irish, and I don’t know that one.) And while everyone involved has a cheeky go at the material, the transgressive laughs aren’t odd or bold enough, and Aidy is left asking—again and again—why these Irish are so gross and weird.

The same goes for the “fucking the old guy” sketch (as I suppose I’ll call it), a broad bit of physical comedy where Aidy joins in with Gardner and Melissa Villaseñor as the “normal” friends who repeatedly yowl in disgust as pal Strong mounts her wheelchair-bound, elderly husband (Hader) once his erectile dysfunction pills kick in. There’s, again, a shot at shock value here, although it works a bit better, as—under a tiny courtesy blanket—Strong’s wife blithely mounts her husband on his mobility scooter. Honestly, I can’t recall another SNL sketch off the top of my head that hinges on extended onscreen simulated penetration. So that’s something. And Strong is such a fine actress that she makes her self-righteous matter-of-factness improbably, if comically, believable. Meanwhile, Hader makes a meal out of his codger’s every utterance while the conjoined pair rocket around, knocking over the furniture. Still, the joke rests on the same tired structure, for all its broadness.

The “Canadian Harvey Weinstein” talk show sketch, like the Irish sketch, rested on stereotype. Unlike the scattershot randomness of the Irish one, though, here the main infraction is how lazily the piece rests on the idea that Canadians are just so polite, don’t you know. For a show that’s taken some decent swings at sexual harassment and the Me Too movement, it’s a little bewildering how thin this joke is, even as the performances (from Hader, Strong, Gardner, and, weirdly enough, Arcade Fire in its entirety) get predictable but undeniable laughs. Hader’s producer admits to being “a monster by Canadian standards,” apologizes, and then resigns from his powerful position immediately, while even his victim and the interviewer apologize for the trouble. The fact the the HR rep who took Hader’s confession also resigned is a funny escalation of an indifferent premise.

The same goes for the alien abduction sketch, which doesn’t have much going for it other than Hader’s amusingly silly performance as the unfortunate Scandinavian-accented spa employee who ran afoul of some probe-happy aliens. Anal probe UFO jokes haven’t got much—sorry—juice left in them at this point in comic history, and, Hader aside, the staging and writing here just never took off.

“What do you call that act?” “The Californians!”—Recurring sketch report

Apart from “The Californians,” a pair of Hader-centric favorites reappeared, to unadventurously pleasing effect. SNL has always lived on celebrity impressions, and, with Hader in the house, the return of the screen test sketch (this time for the original Jurassic Park) let Header bust out his truly uncanny Alan Alda, Al Pacino, and, to a lesser extent, Clint Eastwood. Funny stuff. And there was the usual mixed bag of cast impressions to go along with Hader’s trio, although the fact that the show continues to do these quick-hit celeb sketches only underscores how the present cast doesn’t have a Bill Hader to rely on. Unsurprisingly, Kate McKinnon’s Lisa Kudrow, Ellen Degeneres, and Jodie Foster were best—and Foster’s Clarice Starling-intense reading terminates in her hilariously breathless proclamation “That’s the happiest I’ve ever been. It’s my birthday.” Otherwise, Heidi Gardner continues to show her impressive performance chops (she pops) as a solid Drew Barrymore, and Leslie Jones does a decent Whoopi Goldberg. But, even in these drive-by impersonations, no one else makes much of a mark. And points off for Mikey Day’s Pee Wee Herman, which is serviceable but redundantly repeats Taran Killam’s performance in the exact same sketch a few years back. If Saturday Night Live is always going to dip into the impression well, these sorts of truncated bits are going to be unsatisfying unless the performances are a lot more Hader-worthy.

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And then there’s the return of Stefon. I’ve said before that there are precious few recurring characters and sketches that have earned the right to keep taking up airtime past the second outing. Bill Hader’s got two of them. (I will defend his turns as Herb Welch to the end.) Stefon, lie every other recurring sketch, never varies much, relying as he does on Hader’s characterization, some built-in prankish cue card shenanigans (from former writer John Mulaney, another of tonight’s ringers), and Hader’s unintentional breaking because of it. (Unlike, say, Jimmy Fallon, Hader never seems to think he’s being adorable, which makes his struggles to maintain Stefon’s club kid diffidence irresistibly hilarious.) Here, as ever, the bit is simply a series of increasingly outlandish NYC hot spots and the outré attractions to be found therein, and, as ever, I laughed my ass off. The joke that Stefon’s commitment to his disreputable guide duties leads him to ape the cadence of the names of these ludicrously disreputable places (Goosh, I’m Off To Church Mother, and Stand Clear Of The Closing Doors Please this time out) always works, and the landmines Mulaney leaves for Hader in the cue cards keep the joke alive. It’s not the best Stefon, but it’s Stefon, and I’m fine with that.

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

The episode started out with a pair of ringers right off the bat, as Fred Armisen reprised his blandly disreputable Fire And Fury author Michael Wolff while 12-time host John Goodman barrelled into an impression of ousted Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Interviewed by Alex Moffat’s Anderson Cooper, Goodman made quite an impression, crushing a real-looking prop water glass in his paw and bellowing out “Trump is a moron!” with abandon, now that his muzzle has been removed. Armisen’s Wolff, too, is a strong portrayal in that he channel’s the author’s self-promoting carelessness with the truth behind his salacious White House tell-all, dismissing the importance of separating all-too-horrifying Trump truth from too-good-not-to-believe possible bullshit.

McKinnon stopped by as her other Trump administration figure of the night, with her opossum-like Jeff Sessions—getting more rodential every week—admitting that Trump fired FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe on Trump’s obstructionist orders, and bemoaning the fact that he was forced to “take away the pension of a Christian white.” With no Trump himself (in the person of Alec Baldwin) this week, the show, as usual, was a hair more cutting in the cold open, but the sketch landed more because of the various performances. Hader, playing long-departed White House communications buffoon Anthony Scaramucci was, in Hader’s performance, a hoot, if not a particularly deep one.

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I am hip to the musics of today

On of my favorite jokes in the brief but beautiful history of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is when Carol Kane’s peerlessly crotchety landlady Lillian Kaushtupper attempts to ferret out whether her new tenants are some of those dreaded hipsters by blurting out, “Are you now or have you ever been a member of Arcade Fire?” Still, hip though they may be, Arcade Fire showed tonight that there performatively melodramatic, driving rock is just too striking to write off as mere affectation. Gold lamé suits, dry ice fog, a singing fiddle player, True Stories-esque projected imagery, all in service of the Canadian band’s enduring power.

Most/Least Valuable (Not Ready For Prime Time) Player

Kate McKinnon had Jeff Sessions, Jodie Foster, Lisa Kudrow, and Betsy DeVos. She was also a Californian, for what that’s worth.

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Luke Null got to play Eddie Vedder, if only for a few respectable bars, so he leaps just ahead of Melissa Villaseñor. Even though she was in that sketch, too (as Gwen Stefani.) Look, Luke needs a win.

“What the hell is that thing?”—The Ten-To-Oneland Report

As far as crap jokes go, the extended commercial for a line of thoroughly ineffective hidden office toilet items managed to get weird enough to outpace its grossness by the end. (Not sure we needed to see two, mercifully brief, glimpses of the contents of Beck Bennett’s secret poop spots.) Hader’s horrified boss is another example of Hader’s ability to make even small characters pop, and Bennett’s desperately trapped office pooper, too, managed to hint at some deeply strange depths. “It smells like regular lamps to me!,” is not a line reading just anyone could get away with.

Stray observations

  • As a result of his onstage quick change, Hader’s Devin wig is cockeyed through the subsequent sketch.
  • Arcade Fire’s second song is picked up in progress coming out of commercial.
  • Some inbred Irish maladies, according to Hader’s bachelor: bird bones, Tic Tac teeth, brown blood, strawberry nose.
  • Che describes Trump’s ongoing frenzy of firings looking like “he’s trying to get us under the salary cap.”
  • After describing her drop-in visits to public schools as meeting with “cute blacks and the occasional stinky poor white,” McKinnon’s DeVos curses, “Oh, I did a fudge.”
  • For Stefon, Roman J. Israel, Esquire is the new Spud Webb.

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