“So government doesn’t work and, frankly, I regret not taking that gun.”
For the first Saturday Night Live of this year of please-god-let-it-be-different, 2021, I’m here to paraphrase Stefon. This SNL had everything: a host who threw himself into sketches; the return of Li’l Baby Aidy; a political but not impression-driven cold open; a genuinely weird ten-to-one sketch; Bowen Yang as Fran Lebowitz; and that thing where everyone seems to be having a good time and even the mediocre premises are lifted up by the sheer professionalism on display.
The first of three first-time hosts coming up to kick off the year, John Krasinski made his mandatory “This is a dream come true” monologue statement feel just a little realer than is usual, as the onetime Office star turned super-buff spy guy and horror auteur brought the enthusiasm of a guy who’d always dreamed of doing a thick Philly accent alongside Beck Bennett pitching discounted submarine sandwiches. The recipe for a great SNL host is elusive. Can’t-misses miss, and seeming stiffs can be pleasantly surprising, the show’s eccentric and multifarious demands separating merely those who are good at hosting Saturday Night Live for hard-to-define reasons, and those who aren’t. (That’s not a helpful description, but its really that singular a gig.)
Krasinski’s a great SNL host, for the following reasons applicable only to this case. He’s comfortable on camera, and in front of a live audience. He’s willing and able to hop into different characters, and there’s always the sense that he’s invested in both the performance and in landing the sketch as a whole. I can picture him in the writers’ offices pitching in as to how he can better bring a piece to life. He adapted his talents to the needs of the comic logic of each sketch and never seemed to be just bulling his way through something for the sake of it. Yes, even when doing a love scene with a rat and a cockroach puppet on his head.
Of course, John Krasinski might have just swanned in, alienated everyone, given Kyle Mooney a wedgie with his new action hero muscles and left. I have no inside information. But the guy sailed through tonight’s 2021 opener not so much like a pro as like a cast member who’s poised to break out into a movie star. Yeah, come back any time, big guy.
All hail the return of Aidy! The second season of Shrill is very good and all, but we missed our Aidy something fierce over these first nine episodes. Pairing her up with BFF Kate McKinnon as a barely closeted lesbian couple on a GSN throwback episode of Supermarket Sweep was like a lovely, silly holiday present found behind the radiator after finally taking the tree down. At their best when their obvious real-life affection can shine through a prism of weird, desperate codependence, the duo made their Kris and Gina (they of the one-bedroom Vermont home filled with medically unsound rescue animals) another of their memorable doubles acts. With blandly smiling host Krasinski happily oblivious to the pre-Ellen bond of his star contestants (present and past, including Ellen and Portia), the sketch is all Aidy and Kate channeling their unspoken bond through their “gal pals’” simpatico devotion and produce-guessing acumen. (Aidy’s Kris reveals she has a doctorate in “grocery riddles.”) As with their Dyke And Fats, Kris and Gina’s placid veneer finally erupts in an explosively catharsis when, after Kris takes a spill on their way to find some bonus blueberries (damn those bad ankles), the mishap turns into a passionate declaration of both love and their barely concealed contempt with having to put up with so much bullshit. Kraskinski’s attempt to hurry the pair along is met with Aidy’s Kris screaming in pent-up, go-for-broke righteous fury, ‘You shut the hell up and let me talk to my FRIEND!!” Welcome back, Aidy.
On Update, Jost deadpanned about a lot having happened since the show was last on the air. (There hadn’t even been a white supremacist, fascist coup incited and planned by the outgoing president and his anti-democratic GOP accomplices yet!) And, gazing over the still-smoking landscape of the first four weeks of 2021, I’ll admit to a little trepidation on how SNL would come out of the gate without either of its rickety Trump or Biden celebrity crutches to wobble around on. But overall, tonight’s episode was about as comfortable as it’s been in years with folding real world chaos into the everyday reality of sketches. The currently unraveling Game Stop stocks (sorry “stonks”) story got plenty of airing tonight, and the talk show Zoom call sketch managed the historically difficult task of constructing a strangely substantive framework around a sketch that was funny on its own. The fact that nearly all TV interviews are conducted remotely is overripe for gags about interrupting toddlers, animals, and the like at this point, but I got the giggles pretty early on when homebound stock expert Krasinski’s home decor crept into the background. Unspooling with finely calibrated comic escalation, the joke that Krasinski has two Village Of The Damned-style creepy twins who’ve festooned his Zoom background with terrifying artwork is enhanced once the little darlings show up, in the form of Kate McKinnon and Mikey Day. Premise overselling is a Saturday Night Live sin that the sketch avoids nicely, the kids’ bottomless weirdness (“Why did we like it, father?,” they ask in unison about seeing porn on the neighbor boy’s phone) played off expertly by Krasinski’s dad as just kids being kids, even as Cecily Strong and Beck Bennett’s in-studio anchors get more and more wigged out. (“I hate that she said my name,” Bennett’s pundit stammers after Kate’s twin takes sonorous issue with him disagreeing with her father.) And, hey, you’ll come away with at least the talking points about the whole Game Stop thing.
Similarly, the “COVID bubble” game night sketch seemed about to go one way, but then swerved into an increasingly loopy series of reveals (literally everyone involved in the suburban trust pod was involved in the aforementioned white grievance terrorist attack on the Capitol) that landed with equal parts comic and satirical force. That everyone among the three couples (except for Heidi Gardner’s undercover fed) was secretly not only breaking pinkie-swear quarantine but taking part in a seditionist attack on a democracy that didn’t go their way for once is the sort of premise that could sink under too heavy a touch. But everybody involved (Krasinski, Gardner, Aidy, Beck, Kyle, Cecily) was playing a distinct character (instead of there being one wacky person and a roomful of people pointing out how strange that one guy is), with the piece putting effort into every comic turn along the way. That a “normal” white suburb actually serves as a warren for rabid conspiracy kooks and hidden white supremacy, again, could emerge as an obvious comic idea, but loading the sketch with people who are each funny in their own way keeps our attention zipping back and forth. It’s energizing. There’s Gardner’s shock at each successive arrest. (“But it’s Brad! Sweet, angry Brad!” “Not crazy Goldie and dishonorably discharged Keith!”) And then there’s the immediate resignation of every arrestee, accompanied by a request to just grab that one, immediately identifiable article of terrorist active wear. (Cecily’s desire to put on her cape that celebrates her “Southern heritage” is thankfully denied.) There’s a lot of very ticklish (not to say incendiary to notoriously fragile but necessary white SNL viewers) material that’s going to inevitably get turned into sketches this season, and I have to say that—for an episode at least—I’m impressed.
“The Loser” features another fine turn by Krasinski, as a jock big brother whose stirring defense of his put-upon younger sibling only reveals a whole lot of very gross and/or disturbing reasons why Andrew Dismukes’ little brother should be, if not shunned, then watched pretty closely. SNL’s done this sort of comic switcheroo filmed piece before, where the school age victim turns out to be the author of his own torment, and I can’t say it’s my favorite form of punching-down comedy. The joke here rests on both Krasinski’s un-ironic defense of his brother’s gradually revealed, increasingly unpleasant traits (I did laugh at the concept of charcoal underpants for his “medical gas”), and the elaborate grotesquerie of Dismukes’ maladies. (That inverted foreskin thing sounds rough, indeed.) But while taking the wind out of an after school special’s message of unwavering loyalty and tolerance is fine, the sketch plays out in increasingly ugly piling-on. (“That’s been there all day!,” beams the proud Krasinski, deflecting the bullies’ assertion that their cruelty has caused Dismukes to crap his pants.) Everything about the bit worked for me except its underlying sensibility, I guess.
“Blue Georgia” never quite found a joke other than the switcheroo, too, with the Georgia diner’s denizens all espousing progressive values to the surprise of visiting New Yorker Pete Davidson. It was cute enough, and Kenan and Aidy were especially funny, with the snap finally coming once a health inspector mentions that nobody’s wearing a mask. “Now that’s Georgia!,” Pete signs off in his best Looney Tunes impression, although, as the sketch mentions in passing, “Stacey Abrams country” is a lot harder to pin down these days.
Lest fresh was the TV theme songs sung by the main character sketch. The impressions were all good, though (Cecily’s Julie Andrews is amazing singing the non-existent expositional verses of the Bridgerton theme), and Krasinski busting out what he swears is the true Office theme song (“Scranton! Scranton, Scranton, Scranton...”) is pretty funny.
Stealing Update is a long and storied tradition, and Bowen Yang’s already proving himself master at it. If you didn’t know you needed Yang as newly-minted Netflix celebrity Fran Lebowitz, well, join the club. Now, nobody’s here to say that beloved humorist and author Lebowitz isn’t hilarious, but the joke that Kyle Mooney’s Pretend It’s A City co-star Martin Scorsese finds every cranky New York observation coming out of Yang’s mouth shriekingly funny is about as eloquent a takedown of “a fixture” as I’ve seen in a while. And while, again, nobody here is saying that fashioning yourself as the only sane voice in a world gone mad and crabbily making half-jokes about it isn’t their cup of coffee, the worshipful dynamic here epitomizes the ossification of fandom into idolatry in a way that’s actually, you know, funny. And Yang’s clearly having a blast, his Fran responding to Michael Che’s question about how the city is doing emerging in eye-rolling, unreadable vehemence as, “Oh, I love it. It’s the worst. It’s disgusting. I’ll never move.” And here’s to Kyle for turning his muppet-like, guffawing, wordless Marty into a pitch-perfect wall for Yang’s Fran to lob worn tennis balls at, right up to him ripping off his own prodigious eyebrows in hysterical ecstasy.
Jost and Che returned freed from Trump jokes and thus free to shift their passing focus to Trump enablers, both in congress and storming the halls of congress. It’s going to be an adjustment for everybody, sure, and here’s to the pair broadening their target gallery, for all our sakes. Tonight’s episode saw the show picking out another rotting, racism-riddled piece of low-hanging Republican fruit in the form of actual Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Cuckoo Town), which, okay, is understandable. Kate McKinnon and Cecily Strong did far better with more time to work on the QAnon nutjob in the cold open, but Jost’s callback to Greene’s video-captured rant about the California wildfires being caused (stopped?) by “Jewish space lasers” fit squarely in the genre of jokes sort of writing themselves. Still, guys, write better jokes. Jost did branch out to Greene’s fellow Republican conspiracy buff Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), drawing a comparison between the need to punish violent criminals who plotted a coup and punishing the violent neighbor that beat the shit out of Rand Paul that should draw the intended performative conservative ire on the Sunday talk shows. Update going forward will have to live without the guaranteed obvious punchline that was Donald Trump, but guaranteed punch lines are, as we’ve seen both on and off TV, incredibly tiresome.
And speaking of laughable right-wing figures who are about to be sued to smithereens by Dominion Voting Systems, Beck Bennett had a lot of fun playing noted television pillow pitchman and actual presidential advisor on whether or not to declare martial law, Mike Lindell. Again, now that Trump’s out of office, here’s to the hope that there will be fewer such too-broad-for-Veep figures cluttering up our attention spans, but, with the bombastically boneheaded Lindell still working overtime giving the hard sell on GOP voter fraud lies, at least Beck got a big, fluffy character to sink his teeth into. As with Kate’s opener (it’s coming), the most potent part of the bit is in Jost merely confirming that some of the most over-the-top details of how an admitted “former crack addict” and pillow salesman had the ear of the actual United States president on matters touching on the future of democracy are 100 percent true. “That was just a standard pillow meeting!,” protests Bennett’s Lindell upon Jost asking why he was seen entering the Oval Office with a list clearly reading “martial law.” Again, though, the fact that Bennett’s created an energetically loopy characterization enlivens the piece considerably, Lindell’s widely touted former crack habit emerging as perhaps not quite as settled as he’d like people to think. Is that slanderous? A cheap shot? Perhaps courts will decide—once they’ve finished that whole Dominion thing.
Just to break up the flow, Cathy Anne made another welcome return trip to Update, this time telling unwilling neighbor Michael Che her thoughts on that whole white supremacist coup attempt. Cecily Strong’s had her own mini-hiatus this season, but she came back, well, strong tonight. Cathy Anne always works better than I think she’s going to, Strong’s solid conception of the downtrodden but indefatigable New York loudmouth making Cathy Anne’s ramblings emerge with added dimension. Those who gripe about SNL’s so-called political point of view both overestimate how “radical” SNL has ever been and underestimate how a cast and writing staff can flesh out an admittedly left-of-center sensibility through characterization. Cathy Anne might be a drug-addicted, dumpster-napping dirtbag, but, in Strong’s portrayal, she’s especially good at spotting bullshit when it’s raining down to her level. When Che asserts that she has to have been shocked to see heavily armed terrorists storming the Capitol, she responds, “Oh, do I? I’m not shocked, okay? These are white supremacists! Listen, when someone tells you who they are, believe them the first time.” As much as Beck Bennett put into his Lindell, it’s Strong’s conception of a lowest-rung woman with literally nothing to lose and no one to please that makes the stronger piece in practice.
Dong-dong, the Trump is, well, not dead, but gone from Saturday Night Live at least. And, with Jim Carrey’s attention grabbing but equally underwhelming Joe Biden also departed for more lucrative pastures, this first SNL of the Biden era found a blessedly sweet spot of character comedy and politics in the cold open. Kate, as herself, anchored a show-opening talk show called What Still Works?, a conceit that allows her to run down some top stories of the day freed from the straitjacket of meticulous wigs and indifferent satire the show’s been trotting out for four-plus years. Having Kate be Kate is an inspired touch, following up on the all-too-relatable energy of her Dr. Wenowdis bit(s) by injecting her own pandemic-pinging last nerves into an interrogation of the likes of Cecily Strong’s Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-4chan), Twitter and Facebook CEOs Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg, and Pete Davidson as one of the guys throwing the stock market into turmoil.
The attitude is everything. Kate’s rightfully beloved, her big star status yet relatable enough for us to identify with her patiently bemused repeated questioning of Greene’s actual elected status. “People can Google you and it’ll say she’s a real member of the U.S. government?,” McKinnon purrs in mock-confusion, a tack that pays off time and again throughout the eight-minute opening. (But, man, does time fly when you’re not watching Alec Baldwin’s Trump.) So non-confrontationally dry is McKinnon’s line of questioning that nobody really gets angry, their matter-of-fact answers only underscoring the absurdity of, well, everything. Plus, Kenan got to come out as a recently vaccinated O.J. as Kate’s proof that even the accelerating vaccine rollout isn’t working all that great. O.J. jokes aren’t necessarily anything I’m clamoring for at this point, but Kenan’s wonderful, Simpson keeps doing things, and, while it’s hard to fault a system that provides a COVID vaccine to a 73-year-old man from a higher-risk demographic, it’s also hard to to sympathize with Kate’s fuck-it-all smile as she pronounced, “All right, so, the vaccine rollout—it doesn’t work.” Rolling out Krasinski as Tom Brady to show how something that clearly does still work in 2021 is supported by, as Brady confesses “almost no one” only cements Kate’s audience-surrogate near madness, although the resurrection of Brady’s continued smug Trumpiness does at least provide some insight there. Honestly, if Kate wants to do this every week, I’m down.
Machine Gun Kelly awkwardly and half-heartedly hops up on his drummer’s bass kit during “My Ex’s Best Friend” and then carefully tosses his guitar offstage. (No crash, so presumably to a game roadie.) And if that’s not as try-hard cringe-worthy as, say, dancing on the conference table of a bunch of bored record execs, well, it’s the sort of rehearsed and market-tested mini-shenanigans that comes to mind whenever I hear the phrase “pop-punk.” Still, and at the risk of drawing the ire of Eminem, I sort of liked Kelly’s two numbers tonight. Especially the emotive (not to say emo) angst of “Lonely,” which sounds like the track playing over the series finale of a really good CW show. I’m fairly sure that’s a compliment.
We got Aidy back. And Cecily. So hard not to pick them. But then, Kate destroyed, and set herself up as a serious show-opener candidate. Bowen Yang did Fran. Andrew Dismukes was all over the place, too. With everyone back on board, it’ll be interesting to see how the roles get parceled out from here on. (But welcome back, Aidy.)
Just when you’re looking at the clock ticking over to 12:57 and thinking that another SNL is going to end on the comedy anticlimax of a final musical performance and some awkward band vamping, along comes a sex rat. Before then, I thought we’d have to settle for the admittedly odd and character-based sketch with Krasinski and Beck as a pair of old school advertising pitchmen desperately trying to recapture the salad days of their national sandwich chain. You know, before some young whippersnapper comes in with the idea of an all-protein salad (which is just a heap of cold cuts, you guys). Oh, and because their last big idea was for a commercial spokesman who turned out to be a truly terrible human being. And, honestly, this would have made a fine ten-to-one bit, especially with Krasinski and Bennett both tucked into their heavily accented characters’ brash overconfidence, their prosaically over-explanatory jingle the company chose not to use, and their shared delight that the old “We’ll kill ourselves if you fire us” play still works. Kenan leading a board meeting is always a good idea, too, his exec here blurting out a firm, “No! Stop it!” upon the duo hitting on the idea of bringing said disgraced sandwich mascot back. (I could name the chain, but screw product placement, and, besides, Community did it much better.)
But what do you know. Three minutes left and SNL treats us to 2:56 of true weirdness, as Chloe Fineman admits her sexual encounter with Krasinski’s date was pretty wonderful, even if he insisted on wearing his huge stovepipe hat throughout. Now, I didn’t know exactly where this was going. I’m not god. But I definitely wasn’t expecting this setup to turn into a Ratatouille scenrio, complete with Kyle Mooney as a sex expert Remy, steering Krasinski by his hair. Nor, I have to confess, did I see it coming when Remy whipped off his own little hat to reveal Aidy as a cockroach named Bugatouille with a Sopranos accent (and Paulie Walnuts’ hair) whose only skill is telling the difference between a DVD and a PS2 game. Then again, I wasn’t looking for the camera to pan to Pete Davidson as sex critic (through binoculars) Anton Ego, typing away in awed appreciation of the man-rat team’s lovemaking skills, or his expressed intention to head down into the subways with “a bag of shredded mozzarella” to lure and capture his very own “sex rat.” Now that’s a ten-to-one sketch. Or maybe only a three-to-one sketch.
- Here’s to whichever writer came up with the name “Centipediatric” for the name of evil twin Mikey Day’s multi-bodied baby sculpture.
- Some are suggesting that heaping scorn onto fringe dipshits like Greene is only feeding their potential in this social media-driven shitshow called modern political discourse, but Strong nonchalantly offering Kate, “Gun?” upon sitting down was deeply funny.
- Krasinski’s monologue whipped out the fake audience questions bit, but at least Kenan was there. “I got a question—kiss Pam!”
- Ego Nwodim’s asker doesn’t like the new, buff Krasinski. “Jim is soft.”
- Corporate synergy aside, as the Peacock streaming ad stressed, we are all watching an ungodly amount of The Office during lockdown. Kiss Pam.
- Speaking of, that Wayne’s World reunion commercial for a leading food delivery service somehow lured Mike Myers and Dana Carvey into their old costumes again. So look for that during the Super Bowl, if that’s your thing.
- The in memoriam title cards featuring former SNL hosts keep coming. RIP, Cicely Tyson.