In his monologue, Kit Harington took questions (since it was another one of those monologues) from Game Of Thrones co-stars Emilia Clarke, John Bradley, and real-life wife Rose Leslie. It was funny enough, as “let’s get this over with” Q&A monologues go, with the joke being that even his fellow cast members can’t remember how the series turns out, while Leslie worries that Harington’s Game Of Thrones success won’t carry over enough to support their Uber Eats lifestyle. (Harington, having joked gamely about some of his less than GOT-lucrative roles, could only assure her that they’ll get by.) If there’s a criticism to be leveled at Harrington in his first hosting gig, it’s that it’d be more interesting if any of those three were hosting instead of the limited but up-for-anything Harington.
He wasn’t bad, really, and genuinely appeared to be into the experience, considering the number of times he put himself into some broadly exposed physical roles tonight. (For the Jon Snow enthusiasts out there—not one but two underpants sketches for you.) It’s just that, as far as sketch comedy goes, Harington isn’t exactly Mr. Versatility, adopting essentially the same tight, thin little voice for most of his roles. (Only in the final sketch of the night, when he gets to be comfortably British, does he feel anything like natural.) Still, Harington’s not an incapable comedy actor, just perhaps not the quick-change chameleon best suited for SNL hosting duty. And, unlike, say, Russell Crowe, his inaptitude for the gig was counterbalanced by an eagerness to please. Enthusiasm forgives a lot of sins.
Game Of Thrones sketches were an inevitability, so here’s to SNL for at least packing all their so-so ideas into one omnibus piece. Since HBO has deployed its departing stars to America for the all-out PR blitz this struggling little show clearly needs (freeing up four of them to hang out at SNL tonight), the joke that the channel is planning to blanket their airways/fiber-optic-ways with all GOT programming all the time is a solid framing device for the grab-bag of mini-premises on display. They are, in order of cleverness: Arya as Daria; Jon Snow goes to Riverdale; the HBO Kids duo Dire Guys and Hodor’s House; the all-eunuch No Ballers; a Sam and Gilly CBS-style sitcom; snaps-fest Wildling Out; Cersei And The City; and The Marvelous Mrs. Melisandre. Topping them all was the kicker, with Mariska Hargitay and Ice-T, blessedly playing their SVU characters while unpacking a crime of Game Of Thrones-standard depravity. Points for “Executive Producer: Dire Wolf.”
Now that that’s over with, this was the sort of writers’ show that made me wish for a more innately funny guy than Harington at its center. Eschewing repeaters, game shows, talk shows, news parodies, and nearly all of the tired SNL crutches, the show was largely premise-driven, which is deeply encouraging. Still, not that all the premises worked, or were free from some of the show’s other shaky comic underpinnings. The cruise ship sketch suffered from the worst structural damage, as SNL’s penchant for explaining the joke was in deadening overdrive. The central idea (a Michael Jackson cover band has quickly and ineptly rejiggered its repertoire into an all-Sinatra one in the wake of Escaping Neverland) needed someone more versatile than Harington as the lead, although Kenan, as usual, brought his signature underplayed charisma to the band’s newly rechristened Dean Martin funky bass player. But Beck Bennett, Heidi Gardner, and Leslie Jones started the sketch by calling out their objections to the switch, continued their objections to the switch, and fled after their objections had been heard, and objected to, by the band. A comedy sketch whose construction relies on straight-persons telling the audience how weird the premise is dulls whatever potential impact it’s got going for it, and SNL keeps on returning to it. (When Kate McKinnon pops out as an inexplicable Macaulay Culkin, her expert mugging is swept away by the trio loudly announcing that they recognize the reference, and calling out how inexplicable it is.) Still, it was at least ambitious to reveal that Leslie’s third wheel is butting in on two strangers at their table—until the sketch sputters out with Gardner and Bennett explaining that Leslie is a complete stranger to them.
For another instance of Harington’s gameness being unequal to his comedy chops, the bachelorette sketch saw Harington’s groom performing an ill-considered burlesque number for bride Cecily Strong and her friends. Harington did his damnedest, stripping to a frilly bodice, heels, and, eventually, pasties, before giving the audience its first glimpse of his underpants of the night. But if there’s anyone who could make lines like “Lookie lookie and you might see my cookie” work, well, he or she was not onstage for this one. That said, the sketch almost worked in the margins, with weird little touches creeping in at odd angles. Strong’s gratitude that both her high school friends and her real friends could make it elicited a dismayed little “Hey . . .” from Aidy Bryant’s high school friend. And the punchline that Melissa Villaseñor’s most enthusiastic bridesmaid turns out to be Harington’s sister gave Melissa a broad beat to play. But the highlight was Kate McKinnon’s French burlesque teacher, revealed smoking (with a second cigarette appearing for the biggest laugh), and claiming her role to be “teacher, prostitute, ghost,” which she claims are all essentially the same thing in France. She presumably also came up with Harrington’s burlesque character, “Eva Brawn.” Come for the impressive, if pasty, abs—stay for the weirdness.
The office sketch, where Kyle Mooney, Beck Bennett, and Harrington irritate their coworkers with cartoonishly non-stop LARP-ing nerdiness also suffered from the fact that Harrington crammed himself into another pinched little accent. For such a narrowly conceived character piece to work, having someone who could keep up with Mooney and Bennett’s signature focus in such things was sort of a necessity. Still, the piece got a bit better as it went along, as the three office irritants’ commitment to settling their dispute over employee of the month honors saw them dragging exhausted boss Mikey Day into the spell-slinging fray by producing some compromising photos. The idea that their blackmail is less malicious than product of their unwavering adherence to their shared chivalrous code gives the three an air of at least reflected nobility, and their shouts of “Duplication spell!” while whipping out endless copies of Day’s horrified boss jerking it in the stairwell has a loony energy to it. And since the employee prize is a single ice cream cone, here’s to the restraint shown in not making a “game of cones” joke. Which I just did. Dammit.
Speaking of commitment to weirdness, that the first sketch after the monologue was the nephew pageant was at least evidence of the show planting its freak flag early. Whatever misgivings I might have had about this being a simple Motherboy riff were swept away, as the sketch turned on the pageant’s delightfully skewed take on the nephew-aunt relationship. Harington (in his first odd little voice of the night as last year’s winner) presided over the contest along with his doting aunt Aidy Bryant, whose crooning about her “clever and fun” sibling’s son’s unremarkable achievements and observations (his neighbor’s Great Dane weighs the same as his dad) emerge in Aidy’s signature, specific intensity. The details make the sketch here, with that nebulous bond between aunt and nephew relishing in the sort of half-interesting details one might pick out of an infrequent familial phone call. (Teaching your aunt emojis, being scared of sports, wrecking your knee doing a backflip, getting $20 in the mail.) Taking off into welcome absurdity, the pageant also features a musical number extolling the lesser virtues of nieces and pets (“Nephews are gold, nieces are silver, and pets, they are the bronze,” sings Aidy’s Aunt Patty), and concludes with a delightfully weird turn by pageant judge Kenan who responds to Aidy’s request for the winner by repeating, unhelpfully, “The boy! The boy wins!” Again, not really a winner itself, the sketch was at least working on its own original wavelength.
Same goes for the VR video game filmed sketch, where Pete Davidson’s gamer gets baffled, then annoyed, by the in-game NPCs’ inter-squad interpersonal conflicts at the expense of just giving him his zombie-rifle already. Harington’s Damien and Day’s Ethan both keep gumming up the zombie-killing fun by pulling Davidson’s gamer aside to complain about the other, with Davidson’s exasperated button-mashing only taking things to a new level of the passive-aggressive, maddeningly non-violent dialogue tree. The sketch makes good use of its video game setting, with everyone (including Ego Nwodim’s squaddie, who asks what the deal is with Damien and Ethan) bobbing and pausing in cutscene verisimilitude that’s pretty amusing.
SNL throttled back on Trump this week. Sample Update joke: Trump is a gabbling ninny whenever he has to do something like, oh, describe a token section of his racist Game Of Thrones wall (which is apparently equipped with “anti-climb” properties). The episode veered most toward Joe Biden jokes tonight, which is fair enough, I suppose. I did like the nimbleness of Jost’s jab at the supposed acronym of the pro-Trump group, “Independent Republicans Of New York,” currently attacking someone other than Trump for getting creepily and nonconsensually handsy with unsuspecting women: IRONY.
It was a short and not particularly biting or memorable Update itself, but the correspondent pieces were both low-key winners. Kenan’s Charles Barkley is one of the SNL all-star’s best impressions, his sonorously enthusiastic Barkley riffing in off-the-cuff inappropriateness about his gambling habits, the state of Minnesota (“the only thing black in Minnesota is toenails”), and, taking a hilariously vindictive offramp, lake- and river-folk. Kenan can carry a bit just by virtue of how relaxed he is in character, and his Barkley’s rolling delivery makes jokes about picking fictional inner-city Hogwarts Central in his NCAA bracket segue into the revelation that it was from an old, unmade Wayans Brothers script someone sent him in 2004 reliably funny.
Alex Moffat got the biggest hit of the night with his new character, movie critic Terry Fink, whose “macrodosing” LSD strategy for seeing every current release has left him a smooth-talking lunatic. There was more than a little Casey Kasem in Moffat’s beaming patter, but no matter, as Moffat scored another Update success that, one imagines, will be run into the ground before his SNL tenure is up. (See: Guy Who Just Bought A Boat.) The joke’s in the juxtaposition between Fink’s glib professional tone and his pronouncements that Dumbo is “ a terrifying journey through hell” with a “touching jihadi message,” and A Star Is Born is a thinly veiled depiction of his drug-fueled experiences at Penn Station. Add to that Fink’s confidently insane and easily repeatable rating system (Dumbo gets three screaming hot dogs and one Dr. Robotnik), and we’re sure to see Terry Fink again and again, until we forget why he was so funny the first time.
Only Kenan’s Sir Charles, encouragingly.
The cold open was Trump and Baldwin-less tonight, so that alone is a bit of a present. Again, we’re in the midst of a right-wing, white supremacist takeover of American democracy led by the most buffoonish blowhard bing-bong to ever soil the White House, but if SNL wants to take a week off from its heretofore labored Trump material for a week, then I think we could all use the break. Instead, we got the mixed blessing of a Joe Biden sketch. Mixed because, on the one hand, because the bit relied on some relatively toothless and un-insightful jokes about the former Vice President and current unannounced presidential candidate’s currently newsworthy habit of invading women’s space and comfort zones. Not to wade into a complicated issue of generational attitudes toward appropriate interpersonal behavior except to say, “Hey, old man, women are creeped out by your lack of boundaries and old man paws, so knock that shit off, huh?,” I’ll stick to critiquing the sketch. Announcing itself with Cecily Strong’s statement of purpose, “Joe’s a good guy and he means well, he’s just a little behind the times,” pretty much sets the bar for how pointed the sketch is going to be, with the garrulously handy Biden’s penchant for too-close sniffing, shoulder-rubbing, and other creepy-uncle behaviors being played off as essentially harmless. Which is one way to go on Biden, I guess, although the fact that Biden keeps making jokes about the controversy at campaign appearances suggests he’s leaning into such enabling coddling without learning much.
On the plus side, Biden’s current newsworthiness brought Jason Sudeikis back to 8H, which is a much more encouraging and welcome development in the long-term guesting arena than Baldwin’s has turned out to be. A stealth pick for SNL MVP in his eight years on the show, Sudeikis’ tooth-flashing, bluff Biden was always a note-perfect impression, capturing both the practiced wild-card folksiness that made Biden a ready caricature of himself, and the slightly out-of-touch aging Washington pro that continually reminds us how slickly manipulative that persona can be. The sketch itself treated Biden’s boundary-breaking in mostly predictable fashion, with Sudeikis’ enthusiastically befuddled Biden getting the laughs through force of performance and personality. As to whether the joke that his touchy-feely style is only appreciated by Leslie Jones’ black undecided voter is a stereotype-driven cop-out on the whole issue, well, yeah, it is. ( My biggest laugh was Sudeikis’s seemingly offhand appreciative observation after the enthusiastic Jones went to town on his butt, “Oh, her thumbs,” so I might be part of the problem.) Still, as this undoubtedly soul-sucking election cycle grinds on, the prospect of having Sudeikis in the house every once in a while is a bright spot on the bleak horizon.
In the other political bit of the night, we went across the pond, as musical guest Sara Bareilles’ “She Used To Be Mine” played over a montage of Kate McKinnon’s Theresa May coping with her current image as a Brexit-bungling, un-Churchillian mess of a Prime Minister. Inevitably drawing the memory to the show’s “Hallelujah” farewell to Hillary Clinton, the piece cements Kate’s place in the “questionably toned, mawkish musical summation of a fraught politician’s career” genre. What are we doin’ here? The piece itself is lovely on its meticulously polished surface, with McKinnon making her subject’s lonely pariah status subtly and humorously affecting, as the PM ventures out into the streets, only to be shoulder-bumped, bird-pooped, and flipped-off by some Coldstream Guards, before changing into a Union Jack unitard for some Sia-esque interpretive dancing, and a dream ballet and makeout session with Harington’s understanding Churchill.
But Brexit is a catastrophic, xenophobia-driven mess, and May’s lack of leadership in finding a way to manage (or, better yet, scuttle) the nationalistic nonsense is worthy of a lot more insightful and/or harsh assessment than Bareilles’ winsome lyrics and May’s final pronouncement (“Well fuck you, I’m trying”) leave her with here. As with the Biden sketch, there’s a mushy, centrist “all in good fun” toothlessness at play here that’s breezily proficient, and thoroughly disposable. Not all political satire has to be mean-spirited, but none should be so pointlessly deferential.
Putting aside the questionable use of her music in the May sketch, Sara Bareilles was pretty great. Feelingly sung, liltingly lovely, deeply personal piano ballads are hard to resist when someone is as expert at them—and at staring down the camera—as is Bareilles. And if the piano sound of “Saint Honesty” sounds a little like the final ad break interstitial SNL band’s noodling, that’s not a problem, really.
Something of a welcome team effort tonight. Points for letting Ego Nwodim into the mix—it’s like someone is finally learning from how ill-used Sasheer Zamata was.
If you’re going to do a sketch about doctor Leslie Jones preparing to stick her impossibly long-nailed fingers up the host’s bum, then the last sketch of the night is the snuggest fit, I suppose. The joke about a dude being squirmy about anything butthole-related is beyond old, so it was neat how Harington’s patient (British, thankfully) knowingly deflected his nervousness with good humor. And once the broad butt stuff kicked in, the episode’s streak of oddball specificity returned, as Cecily, nurse Leslie, and orderly Pete Davidson all threw in funny little touches. (“Funny Little Touches” is not the name of this sketch, but it could be.) I laughed at Pete’s immediate command, “Give up!” while wrestling Harington’s legs above his head, and Cecily’s runner about Jones’ physician being the best proctologist in Arizona (excluding Phoenix). The reveal tossed in another goofy layer (Harington’s Undercover Boss is delighted at his employees’ performance) that ends things as pleasantly silly as they started.
- Newly beardless Harington joked about him looking like Jon Snow just got signed by the Yankees, admitting that he genuinely doesn’t know why that’s funny. Ask Johnny Damon.
- For the second week in a row, a funny bit player’s name escapes me at press time. (Last week, that was writer Bowen Yang doing funny work as Kim Jong-un.) So give it up for the funny audience member dragged out for demanding Game Of Thrones spoilers while exclaiming, “Bitch, I didn’t come here for sketches!”
- McKinnon’s behavior coach, after Biden asks why, unlike Trump, his inappropriateness is a thing: “Unlike his voters, your voters actually care.”
- I also laughed at Jones’ voter excitedly greeting Biden as “Obama’s granddaddy!”
- Che, chiming in on the accusations against Biden, says he can see it, since Biden gives off the vibe of “one of those uncles that calls Spring ‘sundress time!’”
- One nephew’s listed interests reads “No geodes.”
- No doubt AV Club comrade Myles McNutt is busily updating his #EmptyCupAwards after Kyle, Beck, and Kit’s prop work in the office sketch.
- “Here’s something about me. When my nephew Dylan first got a detention at school, I sobbed so hard that they took me to the hospital.”
- Terry Fink, after Colin Jost points out that A Star Is Born came out last year: “Oh Colin, you still believe in time?”
- “You can’t put a price tag on colorectal health.” “Where would you hang it?”
- Next week: Host—Emma Stone. Musical guest—[hold for worldwide squealing] K-pop megastars BTS.