“When people see me on TV, they say, ‘Oh, this can’t be good.’”
Billie Eilish might be young (in her monologue, she reminded everyone that her 2oth birthday falls on the day of next Saturday’s Paul Rudd-hosted Saturday Night Live), but, yeah, she’s very young. Still, the singer-songwriter and former SNL musical guest mustered enough performer’s poise to pull off the rare and perilous host/musical guest double act with only a few nervous giggles (during the monologue) and the occasional frozen search for the cue cards (here and there).
Eilish joked about the very real fact that her actress and singer mom Maggie Baird’s self-penned, semi-autobiographical movie cast Eilish’s actual brother Finneas O’Connor as Baird’s movie son, while Eilish herself was conveniently written out of existence. Not a great vote of confidence from mom concerning Eilish’s acting potential there, although both of Eilish’s parents were on hand, enthusiastically introducing then singer’s first musical number, so all seems forgiven. On the show tonight, honestly, Eilish’s inexperience with sketch comedy (mom Baird was a Groundling) was more of an asset than a hinderance.
The double-duty booking might be losing some of its luster through overuse of late, but it’s still a hell of an ask for a non-actor, and Eilish did fine. She was capably protected by the writing staff, appearing on the safer ground of three pre-tapes. But you’re not a star since your fourteenth year without learning how to find your camera, and the multiple Grammy winner was clearly excited to hurl herself into the SNL mix, which is always a good look. Compared to notable double-disaster and cast-derided Justin Bieber’s hosting stint, Eilish was practically one of the gang all night. Gameness washes off a lot of sins.
The Best: While Rudd and musical guest Charlie XCX get the actual holiday show next week, there was a definite Christmas vibe in the air all episode. The best of which was the outstandingly creepy and well-executed “Lonely Christmas.” Starting out as one of those treacly commercials where a lonely older person is cheered up by the guileless generosity of the young, the pre-tape featured Eilish as the dewy teen spotting Kate McKinnon’s sighing senior across the alley from her festive family gathering. Through some Love, Actually-style handwritten placards, Eilish invites her neighbor over, only to gradually discover that the old woman is not only a Trump-worshipping crank and multifaceted bigot, but also appears to be committing a Munchausen syndrome by proxy campaign against her pale and shivering son, Rutger (Mikey Day).
The biggest news tonight was that Kate was finally back from filming the Tiger King movie, and, while she took her center stage spot from first sketch to last, this was a stellar reminder of just what she can do, even without dialogue. She and Eilish (and the increasingly desperate Day, wolfing down his own written pleas for help every time mom swims back into view) do some fine acting (Kate) and reacting (Billie) throughout, and the writing is tight and focused on revealing the joke of the woman’s madness in expertly deployed increments. That Kate’s first question is “Will there be any Black people there?” might be on the nose, but her follow-up, responding to Eilish’s alarmed shrug about Jews, sees Kate beaming and smiling as she writes, “Could you check?”
It’s the sort of escalating nightmare scenario that punches through all the corporate feel-goodery (it turns out the ad is for infamously sketchy tattle-site, Nextdoor), to remind those with sugary stars in their eyes that, even during the holidays, you can’t let down your guard when it comes to assumptions about your harmless-seeming neighbors. Unprompted, McKinnon’s widow writes to Eilish, “I didn’t kill my husband,” before blaming the deed on “Margaret.” Poor Rutger’s hurried announcement, “She is Margaret!” is an icy, perfect capper. Look for this one on SNL Christmas specials for years to come.
The Worst: Long, long ago, SNL writers Anne Beatts and Rosie Shuster got into a heated, last-minute Standards and Practices battle because they wanted their Nerds characters (Billy Murray and Gilda Radner) to, among other things, say “ass” during a Nativity sketch. Here, the asses are popping butts, Joseph is doing a “pimp walk,” baby Jesus is twerking, and the church lady attempting to make this year’s pageant relevant to the kids asks Mary, “How comfortable are you on a stripper pole?” The 70s were a long time ago, is what I’m saying.
The only real offense this time around is how tiresome all this would-be naughty Xmas provocation is. Heidi Gardner gives it her all as the brashly out-of-touch co-director, joining with Eilish to assure their youthful charges that they have “learned all of hip-hop” in preparation for their show’s bold new direction. Chris Redd (in donkey-suit) is on hand as the only Black kid in class, tossing a few knowing asides at how ridiculous it all is, but it’s far too little to redeem things from a “white people don’t get it” gag that was stale decades ago. Putting this thing so close to the top of show is a worrisome sign that the decision-makers at SNL thought such an exhausted (and exhausting), expensively mounted sketch would be a sure-fire killer.
The Rest: On the other hand, the TikTok filmed piece did an admirably strange job at pointing and laughing at the sort of stuff those darn kids are watching on their phones instead of taking out the darned trash. I’m of (at least) two minds here. One applauds this season’s continued openness to prodding the formula here and there, and gingerly trotting out something new. Here, the quick-hit channel-jumping style of the piece bracingly mirrors the parade of weirdos (intentional and not) you’re likely to find revealing themselves online.
Kenan makes me laugh with ease, so his sketchy self-defense guru (“Okay, yeah, I got shot that time”) got me right from the jump. Following Kenan, we see snippets of everything from a live-action Homer Simpson, to a self-serious cover-song artist, to a ranting white guy with white grievance issues, to tales of young, copiously broadcast love, all threaded with the phones user’s ongoing argument with her dad about, yes, taking out that darned trash. It moves fast enough to work on its own buzzy energy, and even manages to develop a few characters along the way. (Like Chloe Fineman’s fanatical Blake Lively fan, eventually revealing that her conspiratorial obsession with Lively’s red carpet dress has roped in the Illuminati.)
Still, I don’t know how much of this we need as a rule. (This is the part where I try to put the brakes on a potential recurring bit before it gathers too much momentum.) This was good for what it was. It broke through the stylistic sameness, and even closed out its rapid-fire gags with an actual, satisfying ending. (The phone scroller eventually discovers, to their horror, that their beleaguered dad has himself made a viral video about his ungrateful teen not taking out the trash.) But it’s not the sort of thing to build a franchise on, as tempting as it may be for some at SNL to want to connect to those darn youth of today. Let it go at one.
“Kyle’s Holiday” was another happily odd filmed piece, this time seeing Kyle Mooney continue his reign as Saturday Night Live’s resident sweetly insufferable sad-sack. Cringe comedy is Kyle’s domain, albeit with an improbably soulful edge—his characters (including the “Kyle Mooney” of these behind-the-scenes sketches) are as lonely and unloved as they probably deserve, yet Mooney mines social awkwardness and sweaty self-delusion for some relatable pathos.
Here, his effortfully nonchalant amble through the SNL offices nets him none of the desired co-worker holiday hang time, even when he jokingly suggests that Bowen Yang come over should his visiting parents’ plane go down. (“Jesus,” the elf-suited Yang mutters.) It’s only self-styled outcast Eilish who truly sees Kyle, even if she’s ultimately taken aback by Mooney’s revealing fantasy about taking terrifying revenge against the one cast member he claims to hate. (“Run,” Eilish tells a passing Mikey Day once Mooney’s left, “Quit the show. You’re not safe.”)
With Mooney now plying his singular brand of deliberately off-putting cringe comedy on Netflix, him confessing, “They don’t know how to use me on this show” lends a little bite to his usual self-deprecating shtick. (“Even the Please Don’t Destroy guys said I shouldn’t be alive,” he reveals to Eilish.) And if Kenan still calls him “Beck Bennett,” well, Mooney’s only been there since 2013.
For the first sketch after the monologue, the Christmas cards were—fine. With a cast this big, the premise allowed for nearly everyone to get some airtime, although Melissa Villaseñor and Alex Moffat were saddled with the dullest set-up work as the couple running through all the family and friends who’ve sent them holiday greetings. Of the vignettes on that fridge, it was only really Bowen Yang and Kenan who scored big, as the middle aged gay couple posing with the terrifyingly decrepit pet dog their expensive and invasive medical treatments refuse to let die.
Kate was the friend of someone’s mom who nobody can really get a read on. (“What’s my deal? Am I a lesbian or a wealthy widow?”) And Eilish makes something of the mean girl from Melissa’s past who clearly only keeps Melissa on her Christmas card list to continue tormenting her former victim. (“I love that I still have that power over you,” Eilish’s serenely smiling, self-described “high school bitch” purrs.) I admire the effort to get everyone involved, even if the sketch itself is fundamentally as disposable as Christmas cards after the New Year.
Hewing hard to the whole holiday thing, the would-be Christmas anthem, “The Night I Met Santa” stuck host Eilish in a spangly red dress and let her do her thing as leader of a three-person singing group, all of whom have embarrassing tales of awkward encounters with Old Saint Nick. I get the logic of making Eilish the musical center of the piece, but dammit if this isn’t a near-miss because that center isn’t strong enough.
Kate and Ego seek to pump up the sketch’s energy as the backup singers, and I’m always here for a sketch that goes off in odd directions you don’t expect. But everything just felt a little flat, as each woman in turn grudgingly reveals their own cringe-worthy run-ins with Santa. Kate’s recalled questions about the Claus’ reproductive health segues into the deliriously strange query, “Or are the elves your children, and you keep trying to make a tall one?” Ego, too, remembers her abortive flirting with the jolly old elf, concluding with an inexplicably awkward penis-grab, because, “My brain doesn’t work?” Luckily for everyone, Kenan’s visiting Santa is a forgiving sort, even after Kate responds to his proffered gift with a Borat impression. As Eilish’s singer admits, “We’re weird, but we love you, Santa.”
Above-it-all smirkiness gets tiresome. Jost tonight blew past Trump’s upcoming subpoena (for yet another New York-based alleged financial scam) by calling it “legal news where somebody definitely won’t get convicted,” and the imminent possibility of a Russian invasion of Ukriane by making fun of “track suits and counterfeit cologne.” Again, I’m not expecting Update to become peak-era Daily Show at this point, but if you’re going to do political comedy, I’m going to call you out for being so blithely hacky about it.
There was a barely-pointed bit where Jost announced his intention to lay into China’s human rights abuses (which have led to a U.S. diplomatic Olympic boycott), only for Olympics-airing NBC to flash up the “technical difficulties” card. Che, too, seemed eager to breeze past the news part of the fake news, although his joke about Fox News’ recent victimization fantasy about the guy who set the network Christmas tree on fire landed hard enough to no doubt prolong Fox’s self-congratulatory campaign against the non-existent “war on Christmas.” (“Nothing has ever explained Fox News better than a rich white lady calling a homeless man ‘Scrooge,’” Che mocked Fox morning anchor Ainsley Earhardt.)
Two correspondent pieces tonight, with Punkie Johnson getting a chance to do a few minutes of above-average stand-up as herself. Her tales of dealing with her family for the holidays had some highs. “Damn, he ain’t got no foot? That potato salad must be delicious!,” Johnson roared with appreciation at Che’s corroboration of her theory that that particular side dish can only be properly made by relatives who’ve known real pain.
Johnson scored most by simply getting the chance to show herself to the SNL audience for a change. Her best lines—like disdainfully noting that men “smell like Newports and excuses”—benefitted from her being loose and endearing, as she laid out all the reasons why being an out lesbian is going to turn her upcoming New Orleans visit into a mine field of baby-hungry grandmas and skeptically bigoted uncles. After some playfully scandalous jokes about her plans to ensure she has a gay daughter, Johnson shouted out, “Ma, I’m pregnant!” Which, if true, congrats, Punkie.
Fellow featured player Andrew Dismukes did his best to use Update as a springboard to the big time as well, with a very funny nature segment in which his trained, prognosticating octopus scribbles out the dire prediction, “You will die in 7 days.” Dismukes, face-painted in tiger stripes here, has been a stealthy standout since joining the show last year, and this is one of my favorite things he’s done.
A funny idea (like, say your football-predicting cephalopod regretfully telling you, “I’m sorry, my friend—it is what I see” on live TV) can fizzle out without a sustaining comic framework. Here, it’s Dismukes’ trouper’s resignation to continuing with his segment despite the dire news that carries the joke all the way from the initial octo-bummer through to his second attraction, a dog who communicates through button-pushing voice synthesizer. “Are you going to die?,” the dog (actually two puppet arms and one very nervous real pooch) spells out, with Dismukes bravely urging Taco the dog to do the bit they’d practiced. Dismukes’ fondness for conceptual bits like this recalls other onetime features players like Mike O’Brien and Tim Robinson, both of whom have gone on to flourish. (Albeit elsewhere.)
In spirit, if not in the specific business involved, Kate’s return saw SNL dusting off the stilted, two-person testimonial gag for the commercial for the deliciously named Business Garden Inn & Suites & Hotel Room Inn. With Eilish taking Aidy’s traditional place alongside McKinnon as part of the glassy-eyed spokespeople for a singularly unimpressive business (Aidy was on hand as Doreen, the concierge “having a hard month, every month”), it was once more a rundown of the hotel and function hall’s carefully observed would-be selling points. (The “Band-aid colored blanket” vies with the chair with “a small stain in a place you have to touch.”)
These sketches work so reliably (apart from Kate and Aidy’s involvement) because they’re clearly the result of a writers room-full of white-boarded petty grievances and first-hand experiences. Calling a mid-priced travelers hotel “a stock photo you can sleep in,” and “the place where that man did those things” is just fine writing, with McKinnon’s glazy-eyed, robotic sales pitch sending the whole commercial into some sort of eerie, bizarro alternate dimension where the yogurt fridge is padlocked at 8:59 a.m., sharp. (“You wanted yogurt?,” Eilish’s employee states, grinning emptily, “Wake up at 4, bitch.”) Even Eilish’s brother and bandmate Finneas scores as the night manager/bellhop/guy who’ll direct you to the strip club (if you’re a man) when not watching Joe Rogan videos without earphones in the lobby. (“I. Am. Chaos,” he intones, ominously.)
Hey, Kate’s back! And the cold open saw her playing Doctor Anthony Fauci again! And the show brought back that wobbly premise about CDC employees shakily acting out would-be instructional premises while McKinnon’s Fauci waves his hands and tells everybody to ignore what they just saw. Note the lack of exclamation point.
What, exactly, are we going for here? I get that Kate’s return is a big deal, and her Fauci telling the whooping crowd, “I’m baaaack!” was a pretty irresistible in-joke. But, as with the first time, is the joke that (and here, I’m genuinely asking) the CDC is filled with failed wannabe actors? That Fauci is the only sane and responsible person in charge of COVID messaging? That SNL once more thinks that simply dressing Kate and Aidy up as male members of the government is funny enough that nobody has to write them a decent cold open?
The sketch takes a few requisite swipes at Republican easy, seditious targets like Aidy’s Ted Cruz (R-TX), and tandem AR-15 trolls Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) and Lauren Boebert (R-CO). Cecily Strong’s Greene corrects her gun-wielding, COVID-denier pal Boebert (Chloe Fineman) that “Greene” is actually pronounced “Gun,” while Boebert happily reminds everyone, “Guns don’t kill people. People people people.” Giving airtime to these dangerous loonies, even to mock them for being the chattering, racist, gun-fetishist nimrods they are, might be giving the publicity-ravenous elected assholes what they want. Still, with the GOP essentially being run via Twitter rants and race-baiting, that ship has pretty much sailed.
Essentially, whatever satirical hay is being made by such unfocused, watery sketches like this one is of the self-satisfied and utterly harmless kind. Maybe somebody can pull a few Omicron variant facts out of the lukewarm flow, but, with the second year of a still-rampaging pandemic to work with, this is awfully tame and ultimately irrelevant stuff.
Billie Eilish started out both of her most enjoyable musical performances tonight seated in a darkened set and singing longingly, a potentially cringe-worthy sameness belied by “Happier Than Ever”’s gathering-tempo ascent into bracingly anthemic pop-punk thrashing. Follow-up “Male Fantasy” remained in angsty, lilting heartbreak key throughout, but was likewise buoyed by Eilish’s heart-on-her-sleeve singing and songwriting. Eilish joked in her monologue about still being judged by people’s impressions of her as a teenager. But she was a pretty impressive singer and songwriter as a teenager (which she still is, for another week), and she’s only getting better.
Did I mention that Kate’s back? She got the cold open, “Lonely Christmas,” standout side characters in “Santa Song” and the Christmas card sketch, and closed things out in the ten-to-one. So, yeah, Kate’s back, and everybody’s going to have to deal with being bumped away from the food bowl now that the big dog has come home.
After Kate, Punkie Johnson made a move, with a memorable role (alongside pop-by guest Miley Cyrus) in the Christmas card sketch, and her Update piece. About time.
With that in mind, the rest of the (absurdly over-full) cast all chipped in with some decent ensemble work. Sadly, the biggest victims of Kate’s return continue to be Melissa Villaseñor (stuck playing straight-woman to a refrigerator’s worth of holiday cards), and Sarah Sherman (who got to dance in scrubs alongside Eilish in the TikTok sketch).
“What the hell is that thing?”—Dispatches From Ten-To-Oneland
The ten-to-one spot came in the form of Business Garden Inn & Suites & Hotel Room Inn, which is the sort of place you’d wind up stumbling into on a bleary-eyed drive through Ten-To-Oneland. I’m always resistant to a recurring sketch taking up this slot, but it was weird and moderately unsettling enough that I’ll give it a pass. It’s in McKinnon’s eyes as she tells potential guests about her hotel’s fitness for such activities as “after-prom hand stuff” and attending the funeral of that aunt who died driving the wrong way on the Taconic State Parkway.
- Kate goofing on motel sketch scene partner Eilish by ever-so-slowly poking her on the arm is as funny as the rest of the sketch, and shows the obvious affection from the staff that led to the singer being invited to host.
- “He asked me what my name was, and I said ‘Beth.’ And he said, ‘Get away from me, Beth.’”
- In her monologue, Eilish flashed up a picture of 16-year-old Colin Jost to illustrate her point that nobody wants to be judged on who they were back then. Serious “but he was such a quiet boy” vibes in that picture.
- While the Christmas card sketch wisely utilized a grotesque puppet for Yang and Thompson’s Franken-dog, poor, live Taco wound up turning his back on the audience on Update. Good boy, Taco.
- Bowen Yang unaccountably weeping into an enormous bowl of noodles pretty much sums up the whole TikTok experience for me.
- Next week, SNL throws to an actual comedy performer (imagine such a thing) as Paul Rudd hosts the last 2021 show of this benighted and pandemic-blighted year, with musical guest Charlie XCX.