“Like a fine black wine with abs.”
In his quest to play not only the highest-grossing superhero, but seemingly every culturally significant black American male ever, Chadwick Boseman took some time off to host Saturday Night Live. Newly crowned superstardom and undeniable charisma aside, Boseman hasn’t been known for comedy so far in his career, but, as with Black Panther and Marshall co-star Sterling K. Brown earlier this season, SNL rose to meet Boseman on his own terms, building sketches around his talents rather than expecting him to clown in some lazy Black Panther sketches.
Boseman’s monologue, too, was built around a self-awareness that, as Boseman half-joked, the show invited him on only after SNL has run through its narrow roster of Black Panther premises. The joke about Leslie Jones pitching a sketch where she just gets to have lots of sex with the Wakandan king is cute, while the one about a T’Challa-hosted talk show called Wake Up, Wakanda is eye-rollingly accurate as the sort of thing one imagines made it to read-through, at least.
As it turns out, Boseman took part in two Black Panther sketches that were both, in completely different ways, a whole lot smarter than Wake Up, Wakanda (or even that Leslie sketch). Sure, the idea of bringing back Black Jeopardy with T’Challa regally attempting to relate to the culturally unfamiliar vibe of not-royal black Americans’ problems isn’t the most original. (Even though Black Jeopardy remains a surprisingly viable vehicle for SNL’s black writers and performers to take hold of the show’s sensibilities, for a little while.) Kenan’s always funny as host Darnell Hayes, and, here, Leslie and Chris Redd both popped, as their contestants felt lived-in and present. But the conceit that Boseman’s king would initially fail to grasp the cultural divide informing questions about student loans and bad credit not only makes sense, but, as the sketch progresses, expands with a generosity of spirit that makes the premise all the funnier. When T’Challa rings in on a question about using your grandmother’s name to get cable by extolling the virtues of respecting your elders and their lifetime of sacrifices, Hayes takes a long, funny beat before answering, “That’s really nice. It’s wrong, but it’s really nice.” And when T’Challa (in Boseman’s purring Wakandan accent) finally catches onto the game, that makes sense, too. The warrior-king is brilliant and wise, after all, so when his answer about a white friend (c’mon, Karen) bringing her under-seasoned potato salad to a picnic starts out with his customary graciousness about Karen’s good intentions, before launching into a carefully reasoned summation of Karen and her “bland-ass potato salad,” good god, it’s hilarious.
Black Panther returns in the last sketch of the night, with Leslie and Redd returning as well as a pair of fans who have to repeatedly huddle with Boseman’s militantly woke (if conspiracy-minded) brother in order to determine their feelings about white fans Pete Davidson and Beck Bennett’s enthusiastic adoption of the “Wakanda forever” salute. Again, Redd and Jones are solid as hell, and the sketch hinges on a thoughtfully heightened examination of the cultural conversation about how this unapologetically black superhero film fits into Marvel’s cinematic hegemony. Like Black Jeopardy, the joke is delivered with a light touch and a forgiving spirit, even as Redd and Jones admit that seeing white fanboys imitating their hero’s gesture and catchphrase gives them complicated feelings. “It’s like indigestion, but racially,” says Redd, attempting to sum up his reaction. (Also, Bennett’s white Black Panther fan keeps pronouncing it “WaCANda,” which would set anyone’s tummy rumbling.)
In the non-Panther material, while Boseman doesn’t exactly make a case for a career change into wacky comedy, he anchored his sketches ably, even if a few of them suffered from some slack pacing. The magic mirror Disneyland sketch, for example, had all the makings of David S. Pumpkins’ lunatic absurd staying power, except that the inspired weirdness of Boseman’s R. Kelly showing up instead of Elsa or Rapunzel and doing inexplicably weird and shady stuff is given neither time to build nor the tight focus to really pay off.
The same goes for the (clearly expensive) fireman sketch, another weirdball concept that keeps dropping in loopy details without the disciplined writing or direction to do anything but dribble to its conclusion. The germ of an idea is there—with Boseman’s firefighter obsessed with getting home by six for a secret plan gradually revealed by his increasingly curious colleagues’ guesses—but the whole thing remains hazy when an absurd, writerly premise like this needs to be executed with confidence and commitment.
After yet another Alec Baldwin Donald Trump cold open set the episode’s satire gauge at “flabby,” Michael Che and Colin Jost propped things up with their customary one-two Update punch. Che’s offhand cockiness has gotten him in trouble of late, but he and Jost make a fine team when taking on the week in Trump administration bullshit. (This week in bullshit: troops to the Mexican border, Twitter wars with economic behemoths China and Amazon, and Stormy Daniels’ intimation that she’s going to describe Trump’s junk in detail, which Che notes, is an image none of us needs burned into our brain.)
Alex Moffat turned in another in his sneakily strong impressions, appearing on Update as Facebook mogul Mark Zuckerberg. At the top, I’ll note that playing up the idea of Zuckerberg being somewhere on the spectrum isn’t especially sensitive. Plus, I’m no doctor. But, on the other hand, Moffat’s impersonation maintains a harsher edge that paints Zuckerberg’s history of shady corporate behavior more as sociopathy than mental illness and, like his Eric Trump, the comedy is more about creating a character than mere mimicry. With an unsettling, yipping bark of a laugh and a series of practiced human reactions to Jost’s questions about Facebook’s role in mishandling everyone’s personal information and fucking our democracy, Moffat’s Zuckerberg has a core of petulant supervillainy, revealing he sleeps in some sort of rich guy resting pod and waving off Jost’s concerns by explaining, “According to our data sets, I don’t have to and you can’t make me.”
Heidi Gardner, too, keeps turning in especially well-realized character pieces, this time bringing back Angel, the long-suffering, hard-as-nails-but-fed-up girlfriend of every movie boxer ever. Delivering her take on the news of the day invariably sends Angel speechifying about how she’s not going to watch her man risk his life one more time, but Gardner is just brilliantly funny, with Angel fairly vibrating with righteous anger and wrenching, melodramatic concern. Plus, the detail that her blue collar brood (Mikey, Nicky, and Peppers) has a new baby sister named Keno is outstanding stuff.
Black Jeopardy is the sketch everyone’s going to remember, and rightly so. If it’s not better than the Tom Hanks installment, it’s pretty damned close.
The two Aidy Bryant-starring short films were both really funny. The Nike ad for ladies’ leggings lived in specificity, the joke that the supposedly sports-designed stretch pants are ideal for sloppy, braless lounging seeing Aidy and Kate McKinnon extolling the virtues of the leggings’ soda-wicking technology and the exertion of ordering in one single bagel.
And the Aidy B/Cardi B bit was more proof that Aidy Bryant is the queen of SNL music videos. Taking her cue from the episode’s musical guest to assert herself backstage, Aidy gives the verbal smackdown to Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett’s condescending “girl talk” talk, defiantly tells host Boseman she’s not afraid of him, and tells the SNL Instagram page that she’s fucked all the show’s writers an performers and found them boring. Aidy’s got a combination of performing fearlessness and good girl ordinariness that makes her an irresistibly watchable comic force. (“Is she really from the Bronx?,” asks Mooney, while Bennett responds, confused, “She’s from north central Phoenix.”) When her hero the actual Cardi brushes her off, Aidy’s determination to interpret it as affirmation from her new best friend sums up her appeal perfectly.
Similarly, the Life: DACA Edition board game commercial was another well-executed SNL ad parody, with Melissa Villaseñor pulling the Dreamer card and seeing her trip around the board taking a nightmarish detour into the alternative path created by capriciously racist bureaucracy. You gotta laugh, right? Or break some shit. Villaseñor did a good job showing her player’s will to play—or live in this rapidly coarsening and ugly country—drain right out of her face.
The fertility clinic sketch, like the firemen, could have been something—with a little more immediacy. Mikey Day does decent reaction work as the world’s first pregnant man, increasingly horrified at the announced details of his impending “pee hole” delivery. But it seemed like there was going to be more meat to the gender role comedy here, and even Day’s fine deadpan work didn’t have the structure around it it needed. Still, Aidy’s explanation of the potential “tuliping” complications was... vivid.
And the restaurant sketch was just odd enough to be sort of charming as Boseman, Kenan, Kate, and Cecily’s jazz quartet delivered their musical complaint to the baffled staff. I’m always in favor of an absurd premise that isn’t belabored but allowed to just be absurd, and the twist that their complaint against Melissa Villaseñor’s hostess has an unexpectedly human cause is a sweet way to end the thing. Plus, Boseman’s repeated “Ooooohhh, yeaaahhhhhh” refrain at least introduces the possibility that the next famous figure he’s destined to play might be Louis Armstrong. Make it happen, Hollywood.
Angel (she’ll be at her sister’s), Black Jeopardy, Trump.
Saturday Night Live is locked into this version of Donald Trump, and I can’t see any way to make it work at this point. (As much as Alec Baldwin keeps hinting about being tired of the gig, I’m way ahead of him.) A dispiriting classic example of knowing the words but not the music, the cold open, once more, subsisted on a rundown of Trump’s aforementioned ignorant, incompetent, hateful, or just plain baffling bullshit and Baldwin’s conception of him as a malaprop-spouting, pop culture-addicted boob.
The audience kept gasping tonight, and I can’t for the life of me figure out why. The strategy this time seemed to be to have Trump express his callous indifference to human decency with more bluntness, but calling the gathered Baltic leaders, “gypsies” and “Borat” isn’t so much broad as bluntly dull. I get that it’s hard to satirize this... person. But people do it, and brilliantly. It’s just hard. Certainly harder than this. The only possible saving grace to these interminably irrelevant sketches is that they shoot low enough that they might actually succeed in getting under the actual Trump’s skin.
Cardi B, described by our own Clayton Purdom recently as “an inspired rapper with preternatural, outsize charisma,” was, essentially exactly that. And that’s even before the strategic shadows and suspicious medium close-up in her second number gave way to an audience-stunning reveal of her heretofore-concealed pregnant belly. (An all-time SNL/performer act of TV PR scoopage.) Cardi—who’ll have even more to talk about when she co-hosts The Tonight Show with Fallon next week—busted out a pair of electric numbers and a huge reveal all in her SNL debut. Not a bad night.
Sort of a team effort this time out, so here’s to the winning duo of Redd and Jones, with an assist from Kenan.
There was no sign of Luke Null, not even in the goodnights that I could see. I take no joy in reporting this.
The Black Panther summit: “We know your history. You don’t give stuff back.”
- Doctor Aidy, on Day’s impending urethral delivery: “The best way to describe it is with a Looney Tunes metaphor.”
- It’s not a joke so much as a bit of prosaic reality, but Baldwin’s Trump confide, “I don’t care about America. This whole presidency is a four-year cash grab, and admitting that will probably get me four more years” is at least lightly cathartic to hear.
- Kenan, in full Panthro garb asking Boseman to hook a fellow black hero up, defends his bit, winking, “15 seasons, baby.”
- “Sprite! How did we get to be the black soda? We don’t know!”
- “You remember poking. It was flirting for cowards.”