“They make us shout, ‘How dare you?’ at our TVs.”
Sometimes you get what you ask for. Over my time reviewing Saturday Night Live around here, I’ve made plenty of observations—some might say complaints—about SNL’s more unfortunate recent tendencies. And while nobody’s saying that the more propitious changes made in these first six episodes of Season 47 are a direct capitulation to these, let’s call them, demands, well, they’re not saying that. That would be stupid. But I’d like to imagine that SNL has made some of these shifts (in sketch variety, casting, ringer deployment) at least partly in response to the, let’s call it, constructive criticism the show’s received over the last few years.
Let’s go to the scorecard on tonight’s low-key but intermittently very funny episode. Intriguing, unexpected booking? Check. Jonathan Majors is about to become a huge freaking deal (of the sort only bestowed these days on the star of a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie), but he’s the sort of actor a larger than usual percentage of SNL’s audience will have had to Google in preparation for the show. And if Majors wasn’t as comfortable in the host role (or, indeed, most roles) as one of last season’s other template-breaking, white-audience-baffling guest hosts, the Lovecraft Country and The Harder They Fall star slotted into the position as well as most other dramatic actors do. Majors was used sparingly in ensemble sketches, and paired more than once with Kenan Thompson, who, among his innumerable gifts, remains SNL’s human comedy safety blanket.
Going down the rest of the card: A bracing lack of recurring characters? Check. Not a famous friend of Lorne’s in sight to suck up oxygen desperately needed by an over-full and attention-starved cast? Check. A continued vacation from game show and talk show sketches? Okay, there was one talk show, but Strange Kid Tales was pretty delightful, and functioned more as a Kenan delivery system, which is always a good thing. Toss in some genuinely impressive work from some unexpected sources and a show-stealing mega-performance by Taylor Swift, complete with accomplished mini-movie backing, and the episode, while not blessed with the most natural live comedy performer as host, was top-to-bottom unpredictable. I’ll take that over waves of recognition applause and the same old crowd-pleasing rehashes any night.
The Best: Let’s stick with Kenan, as he and Majors anchored Syfy’s latest supernatural talk show, Strange Kid Tales, as a pair of guys understandably freaked out by their parade of child guests, all bringing along their tales of real life horrors. Look, the idea of a child innocently dropping the observation that there’s a man in red that only they can see is reliably creepy as hell. It’s something to do with kids’ tendency to blur the line between guileless imagination and straight-up premeditated nightmare fuel that leaves you with one of two equally queasy options. Either they’re fucking with you, or there’s a lady who comes into their room and sings at night that you can’t see. [Pauses to shake out the heebie-jeebies.]
Kenan and Majors are naturalistically hilarious as they, professing their distaste for their TV gig from the jump, greet every twist and turn in the visiting kids’ tales with visceral rejection. Majors is at his most comfortable here (see: Kenan as security scene partner), but man, does Kenan Thompson excel at filling out a wisp of a character with snatches of a relatable inner life, as his co-host can’t help but express his obstinate objection to these kids’ spooky-ass anecdotes of blankly accepting communion with the spirit world.
“Man, I do not like this show!,” Kenan’s host exclaims partway through, but a TV gig’s a TV gig, even when confronted with a little girl named Coraline who sees her dead grandmother in the corner at night. “Imaginary friends are ghosts!,” he cries, before shutting things down. The specificity of Majors and Kenan’s reactions are what makes the “scared guys are scared” joke really work, though. “He knows the name of the ship!,” Majors states with alarm as a little boy in a blazer and tie explains how he was shot down in WWII “when he was old.” Nuh-uh. As Majors’ host blurts upon first seeing the little weirdo, “There’s nothing behind his eyes!”
The Worst: The royal matchmaking sketch was an ominously flat post-monologue leadoff. It hid Majors among the lineup of suitors vying for the unimpressed hand of Chloe Fineman’s queen, but nobody was especially energizing. Majors just just didn’t pop with comedic presence all night, and his entrance as the armor-clad and unfunnily named Prince Howie The Conqueror, only got amusing once it was revealed that Howie was just some guy trying to cheat on wife Ego Nwodim. (Majors’ underplayed embarrassment in the face of Ego’s disdain was the funniest thing he did all night.) Punkie Johnson fared best, her boldly up-for-anything lesbian commoner finally winning the queen’s hand—or at least a potential bi-curious makeout session once the queen gets tipsy. Still, for the first sketch out of the gate, this was alarmingly flimsy stuff.
The Rest: The Audacity In Advertising Awards suffered the same lack of urgency. It’s not a bad idea—having Majors and Heidi Gardner’s ubiquitous pitch-people (“I signed a hundred-billion-year contract!,” Gardner’s Flo from Progressive beams) single out companies’ penchant for tone-deaf mercenary pandering lands a few blows. Energy giant and ocean-despoiler BP wins for an self-congratulatory ad about a fisherman wiping down an oil-slicked dolphin, sending Andrew Dismukes’ intern up to play scapegoat. And the wrenching online heart-to-heart between James Austin Johnson’s finally out of the closet father and Kyle Mooney’s tearful adult son elicits Majors’ co-host bantering blankly, “Wow, that must have sold a lot of Facebooks.”
I can appreciate the premise, eschewing as it does tiresomely timely specific newsworthiness in favor of a broader and more off-center target. “Don’t you make landmines?,” Flo imitates viewers watching companies put on hot-button commercial mini-melodramas about, for example, “two undocumented lesbians getting prison married.” Again, I want to encourage such writers room and sketch-selection tendencies, but this one, like the queen sketch, simply lacked a driving comic dynamism to go with the premise’s potential.
On the other hand, those Please Don’t Destroy guys are officially getting the call-up as SNL’s official new Lonely Island. The pre-taped bit—in which the guys’ excitement that Pete wants to do a music video piece with them fades at the realization that they are to be the “Three Sad Virgins” of the video’s title—is a coronation. After being slotted into the latter half of several shows this season, this comes second after the monologue, and the way that the song singles out each member of the writer-performers by name announces the show’s desire that people tell the trio apart for future reference.
According to Pete’s lyrics, John (Higgins) is the “loud but not very smart” one, Ben (Marshall)’s the one with fart-breath, and Martin (Herlihy) has a weird penis. (And, yes, two of the three are SNL legacies, if the names Higgins and Herlihy sound familiar.) Making themselves the butt of their own jokes is not a bad strategy, here allowing the PDD guys to play up the nerdy, absurdist sad-sack vibe they’ve been cultivating for themselves. (That was my real doctor!,” Herlihy exclaims in bewilderment after Pete claims that the song isn’t really about them.) Throw in a coffin-nailing bridge from musical guest and superstar Taylor Swift, crooning sweetly about how they’re “gonna die alone,” and this functions as the group’s official knighting as core members of the Season 47 team.
As for the night’s pre-tapes, I liked Man Park equally well, a commercial pitch for a place for friendless-but-for-their-girlfriends guys to go walkies and sniff some butts (metaphorically speaking). The phenomenon of men in relationships investing their emotional well-being solely in a partner is, again, an off-center but well-observed premise to hang a sketch on. Ego Nwodim complains that boyfriend Pete Davidson “rockets information at me for 25 minutes straight” as soon as she steps in the door. This sees her joining New York’s beleaguered women in dragging their stay-at-home mates to a fenced-in area where their constitutionally awkward feints toward male camaraderie can find a superficial but important echo chamber of their peers.
“Marvel?,” one timid male of the species ventures, before a chorus of “Marvel! Marvel!” welcomes him to the pack. The joke that “masculinity makes intimacy so hard” might come off as hacky if not for the little details, like one male pair’s tentative introduction of the touchy debate over who is the GOAT resulting in an immediate bond for life. (“Michael Jordan or Tom Brady?” “How about Bo Burnham?” “Will you be my best man?”) “Men are taught that it’s weak to rely on each other,” pronounces Heidi Gardner’s proud girlfriend sadly, admitting that it might just be tougher to be a man than a woman, before demanding that that be struck from the record. Hey, at least guys can bond over IPAs and the driving, manly insecurity of “Mister Brightside.”
The Broadway benefit sketch succumbed to SNL’s reliance on a particular joke structure. (I call it the “Hey, those strange people are acting strangely—isn’t that strange!” construction, and at least Mikey Day didn’t get saddled with the thankless role of increasingly bewildered gawker this time.) Bowen Yang and Cecily Strong are a match made in stage heaven, as their long-idled troupers trot out their catty, cocaine-addled banter to the mounting discomfort of parents Kyle Mooney and Aidy Bryant.
Aidy’s character has fond memories of her parents taking her to watch Brick and Blythe’s show biz patter, a memory Aidy finds increasingly disturbing as she realizes she’s brought her young daughter to see two dissolute vipers (and Majors’ window-climbing dancer) snipe at each other about how they hate everything except their shared love of nose candy, blow, toot, and other old-timey terms for coke. The payoff that the little girl loves songs like “Everybody Today Is Doin’ Drugs!” sees SNL continuing this season to actually bother with endings, which I can appreciate, but, apart from Strong and Yang’s obvious love of hammy stage types, this was another sketch that just never took off.
The Bone Thugs-N-Harmony commercial was, like the once-popular harmonizing rap group itself, the sort of pleasantly forgettable thing I’ll find passably entertaining should I ever hear it again. (Or maybe I’ll just be thinking of when Key & Peele did a better version.)
Once again, it was the correspondent pieces that stole Update. There’s an ongoing right-wing coup fomented and encouraged by a major political party going on, but Che and Jost did only passing work in ragging on seditious Republican taints on American democracy (or just taints) like Steve Bannon, Josh Hawley, and book- and mask-banning Texas Governor Greg Abbott. They’re solid enough one-liners, but if Update wants to coalesce around a coherent satirical strategy, now’s the time to buckle down and do it. Or they can just goof around about e-bikes and Vin Diesel. Either way.
After five episodes where it looked like featured player James Auston Johnson was going to run away from the field, fellow new kids Aristotle Athari and Sarah Sherman both had outstanding showings here. For Sherman, it’s about time, as the internet sensation’s loyal fans have been vocal in their understandable concern that the bracingly weird Sarah Squirm would be smoothed out, homogenized, and otherwise wasted on Saturday Night Live. Appearing as herself to give her impressions of her time on the show, Sherman immediately introduces some danger into Colin Jost’s night by saying, of the ridiculous vulnerability of live TV, “I could say something right now that could ruin my life, and yours.”
She doesn’t do that, instead going in for a running gag taunting Jost with cancellation for some perceived on-air creepiness. “Self-proclaimed nipple expert Colin Jost caught mansplaining live on television,” is just the sort of thing that could bring a guy down, with Sherman gleefully holding court for for her three, long-overdue finest minutes of the young season. Poking Jost is traditionally Che’s thing, but Sherman makes merry sport of turning her supposed behind-the-scenes rundown of the ins and outs of being a featured player into a full-on, on-air mockery of Jost for the sort of things he’s probably not guilty of, but sort of feels like he is. Hilarious and most welcome.
Aristotle Athari emerged from his own featured player shadows a few episodes ago, and he kills it again tonight with another character that seems like something the comic’s been just waiting to spring on us. The setup about artificial intelligence is a throwaway, as this is just a showcase for Laughingtosh 3000, Athari’s astoundingly well-realized stand-up comedy bot. This could have been deadly stuff (rather than killer stuff), if not for Athari’s minutely observed take on just what such a creature would sound like, and for how fully committed he is in the character.
With James Auston Johnson’s gift for impersonation and Sherman’s signature edgy weirdness, it was looking like Athari’s unassuming regular guy was going to slip away into one-season nothingness. But this is his second show-stealer, and I’m finding myself thinking that it’s a real horse race which of these new faces will make the strongest impression when it’s all said and done. Robot-comic might have gone very badly indeed, but Athari turns his three minutes into a precisely calibrated little showcase for his own brand of finely inhabited strange.
It’s the concept of a robot actually learning as it progresses that makes Laughingtosh 3000 so compelling. That a robot comedian might exhibit the clipped, stuttering speech pattern and eerily incomplete approximation of human interaction of an early simulacrum prototype is one thing, but it’s watching this uncanny creature ape our mannerisms with only the merest flicker of self-awareness that makes him so mesmerizing. Jost cuts Laughingtosh 3000 off before he can reproduce a necessarily bloodless approximation of our penchant for “Black people vs. white people” humor, but, honestly, with only our example to extrapolate from, Laughingtosh’s material couldn’t be much worse. Athari’s a comer, and a stealthy one.
As with the monologues this year, there’s been a blessed restraint on SNL’s part from going to the well. Majors’ makes six straight monologues without a gimmick, musical number, audience Q&A, or celebrity drop-by. And, as with most of the episodes this season, it was all new premises. Not all of them worked, but I’ll restate my assertion that I would rather watch Saturday Night Live try out new ideas and fail than have to smile grimly through yet another warmed over bit that halves its entertainment value with each successive retread. I’ve never gone into a show wishing for another go-’round of a hit sketch. (I’ve got no more than five examples from the show’s entire history that prove the rule.) But I’m always going to grade for degree of difficulty when the show lets its writers try out something new.
As mentioned, new go-to political impressionist James Austin Johnson retreated into nondescript character parts tonight, so we got Aidy Bryant kicking things off as her cheerfully pandering Ted Cruz. As when the still-absent Kate McKinnon trots out another of her male political impressions, this one’s not particularly lifelike to the Texas Republican and perennial right-wing troll. Still, Aidy clearly has fun mocking a person who routinely stokes racist division and predictable white grievance when not fleeing his constituents as they freeze to death, so I’ll allow it.
This time out, Cruz essentially served himself up to SNL like a particularly gamy Thanksgiving turkey, with the noted not-defender of his family attacking venerable children’s institution Sesame Street, and, more specifically, the very notion that Big Bird would, by feathery example, encourage kids to get the approved and life-saving COVID vaccine. Fleeing to the current furthest reaches of the conservative media (and outright conspiracy lunacy even Fox News won’t touch), Newsmax, Aidy’s Cruz presents his own children’s TV bloc (alongside the network’s White Power Rangers), Cruz Street.
Taking aim at Sesame Street’s longtime teachings of “numbers and kindness,” Cruz touted his (gated) street’s adherence to most dangerously nutty tenets of fundamentalist conservatism. It allows SNL to at least spotlight some of said lunatic fringe’s latest outrages, as Cecily Strong’s perpetually gun-toting Marjorie Taylor Greene (an actual sitting Republican congressperson) boasts of her (real-life) practice of publishing the home phone numbers of Republicans who dare vote for a single Democratic policy initiative. “Pussy,” Strong’s MTG snarls at one of the show’s child actors when he declines to handle her loaded AR-15, before proudly noting that those lawmakers have been swamped with death threats from MAGA cultists.
The sketch’s six minutes aren’t as funny as they are pointed, serving mainly to expose just how far into authoritarian white nationalism a major political party has openly sunk itself. The show is sponsored by the letter Q, naturally, with Greene running down just how perilously bananas that conspiracy cabal has gotten, before exiting with the chillingly succinct, “I represent America.” Pete Davidson dons a bald cap and munches untested supplements as former Fear Factor host and current bloviating, self-blowing bonehead Joe Rogan, advising the show’s vaccination-stricken off-brand Big Bird on how to deal with the (medically disproven) side effect that his “doink don’t work.”
I have no idea what Alex Moffat’s Bert and Mikey Day’s live-action Ernie are doing there, except to freak me out and make tiresome gay jokes, while Aidy’s Cruz tries to spin the couple’s love into something more palatable to the show’s over-65 viewers. And Chris Redd is stuffed into a garbage can as the unimaginatively ripped off Oscar The Slouch, embodying every white stereotype of the scrounging underclass. Again, if SNL merely serves to remind everyone on national live TV that a current GOP censorship strategy is to, as Cruz notes happily, swarm unsuspecting school board meetings to bully bureaucrats into banning all mention of institutional bigotry, that’s a bolder public service than the show traditionally provides. Just a shame it’s not funnier.
Perhaps Jonathan Majors never stood a chance, as this episode is likely to be remembered mainly for Taylor Swift’s emotional, stirring, ten-minute performance of her newly re-recorded breakup anthem “All Too Well.” Apart from the buzzy real-life origins of the song, Swift’s performance, complete with her accompanying short film (starring Stranger Things’ Sadie Sink being ghosted by Teen Wolf’s Dylan O’Brien), is a true heartbreaker, the on-the-nose timing of some punctuating snow, wind, and autumn leaves only underscoring how central to the night this performance was going to be.
Nobody needs me to sell Taylor Swift as a singer-songwriter, but I can say that the lacerating lyrics to this one keep on yanking this listener’s emotions to tatters for all ten of those minutes. I’ll dare to say that Swift was a little pitchy at times (come at me) during the marathon performance, but I’ll always take a rougher live rendition than a canned, guide-tracked, and pre-packaged one. Again, it’s a great song and performance, irrespective of just which faithless movie star “All To Well” is about, and the format-breaking length of the number here suited the occasion that Taylor Swift is having. There are some “where were you when?” SNL musical moments, and this is right near the top.
Kate’s continued absence only serves to expose what a weird, unwieldy enterprise this 21-person cast is engaged in this season. It’s providing a bracing meritocracy in theory, and featured players like Athari, Sherman, and James Auston Johnson (along with the Please Don’t Destroy guys, bringing the total effectively up to 24 people) have intermittently seized their moments.
That’s leaving some second-tier players in limbo. Punkie Johnson continues to work her way into the mix, but rarely in a meaningful capacity. Melissa Villaseñor has never been used properly, her off-season outburst at her perpetual and baffling misuse on the show still right on the money. Heidi and Chloe are a few steps ahead, their ability to inhabit characters with immediacy their strongest attributes. Dismukes keeps popping when he gets a chance, and Redd is fully established by this point, as is Ego. Moffat, Day, and the Beck-less Mooney fill out everyman roles when not wheeling out a character they actually can do something with.
That leaves the all-stars in Aidy, Cecily, Kenan, and Pete, all of whom chose to stick around for another year, and rewarded for their loyalty. And while it’s occasionally intriguing not to know who’s going to get to work that week, it’s also contrary to a perhaps overly nostalgic conception of the show as a true ensemble. The number of cut for time sketches each week only hints at how much unused material is produced by so many comic minds all jostling for stage time, and it continues to keep this iteration of Saturday Night Live from developing a coherent identity. Not looking to get anyone fired here—the show’s cast is set at 21/24 for the season. But too often I’m left with the uneasy feeling that I’ve just watched a show with no center.
“What the hell is that thing?”—Dispatches From Ten-To-Oneland
Majors was most comfortable in his very last sketch, a nicely oddball number about a middle-aged pastor and his wife announcing to their congregation that they’re not only opening up their marriage, but that its the congregants from whom they’re preparing to choose as bedmates. Ego Nwodim is effortlessly in charge of the sketch, driving the couple’s blithely upfront campaign for some spice, with Majors’ white-haired preacher eagerly along for the ride.
Ego’s become a quiet all-star herself this season, both here and in the queen sketch bringing an underplayed authority that serves to anchor sketches that otherwise might evaporate. Here, telling her parishioners that she and her husband have enjoyed “24 beautiful years of marriage—and also last year,” Ego’s half of the ready-to-swing couple makes their choice not so much a target for mockery as a wryly amusing and affectionately human bit of inappropriate weirdness. Rebuffing Kenan’s game organist in favor of Kyle’s “weird but in a sexy way” choir member Travis, the couple finds their assembly more than willing to give it a go, leaving Ego to lay out some ground rules with confident forthrightness. (“Positions we enjoy include missionarily—list is over. You know, we are pastors.”)
Unlike, say, the theater sketch, this ten-to-one bit is free to let the weirdness infect everybody involved, with the congregation’s own kinky readiness revealed in a gentle wave of silliness. I’m not the only one intrigued by the couple’s roleplay of “baseball manager and umpire in a fight,” right? Regardless, while it’s not the weirdest the ten-to-one spot has ever seen, the sketch’s character-based comedy is certainly welcome.
- The advertising sketch has an In Memoriam segment for dead streaming concerns with silly names. But the put the very-much alive Tubi on there, which makes no sense. Sure, it’s an appropriately dumb moniker, but Pete Davidson’s got a new show on Tubi, for crying out loud, and my wife and I are currently pandemic-bingeing 1970s British horror series Thriller there. Don’t you take away my Tubi.
- Lots of child actors onstage tonight, with serious props going to the little girl who finished the spooky kids sketch dutifully alongside Aidy, and then threw a triumphant fist-pump and a bow as soon as the camera pulled out. Look for that kid to make the main cast around 2033.
- I knew that commercial Emu and his annoying human companion were married.
- As Jost puts it, “Never break up with Taylor swift, or she will sing about you for ten minutes on national television.”
- Jost notes that the middle ‘K’ in recently indicted Trump crony Steve Bannon’s name “stands for three ‘K’s.”
- Sherman, sporting a bright jumpsuit-and-suspenders ensemble notes that she looks like “Chucky went to Sarah Lawrence.”
- Next week: More Marvel, as Shang-Chi himself Simu Liu hosts, alongside musical guest Saweetie.