Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Kristen Wiig closes out Saturday Night Live's 2020 with some of the same old favorites

Kristen Wiig
Kristen Wiig
Photo: Mary Ellen Matthews/NBC

“Uh, this is the Christmas show.”

“I’m not an actor, I’m a [former SNL, current cat-woman] star!”

The best moment of Kristen Wiig’s fourth hosting stint saw three all-time great Saturday Night Live women sharing the monologue stage. Wiig, after expertly underplaying her annoyance with her underperforming offstage assistant, Glen, launched into a Christmas show performance of “My Favorite Things,” that quickly went haywire. Later on, the joke was explained that 2020 was so off-the-charts “icky” (Wiig’s word) that the normal litany of placid “cream-colored ponies” and so forth have necessarily been replaced by scattershot, stream-of-consciousness imagery and flashes of trauma. But it’s better when the bit just plays out as Wiig being weird and off-book. The whole “when the bee stings” run from the original turns into a playlet about Wiig being stung so often in this (shit) year (of shit) that, as she croons, “And then I can’t feel my legggs!” When cold open Kamala, Maya Rudolph came out to gently correct Wiig (and, you know, see if she’s all right), their embrace felt big, and warm, and, for Saturday Night Live, thoroughly right. And when the duo was joined by current all-star Kate McKinnon, the feeling—after this, again, shit of a year—was one of rightness. These women. This stage, Being silly, and dumb, and doing the thing the three of them were simply meant to do.

Sure, they’ve all done plenty in addition to owning their respective SNL tenures. (Oscar-nominee Wiig’s in fighting trim to take on Wonder Woman, for crying out loud.) And being a star on Saturday Night Live is retroactively diminished if you don’t then go on to broaden, and deepen, your resume afterward. (Rudolph’s multifarious accomplishments are vaulting her to the head of the former cast member roster already.) But tripling up Wiig, Rudolph, and McKinnon at the start of this last show of (the shit year that’s been) 2020 is as much a benediction as it is recognition. With rumors about of McKinnon’s possible mid-season departure (she’s already the longest-serving woman in SNL history) adding a glow to the goofy bit—Kate eventually gets into it by belting out all the stuff the happily ate right before the show—Wiig’s monologue served as a lovely, suitably funny superhero team-up for three funny women who’ll forever be held up as Saturday Night Live royalty.

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But… (and you know I was going to stick a but in there), Wiig’s returns have, perhaps even more than other former cast members’, been pretty by-the-numbers affairs. In her time on the show, Wiig was a character machine. And the character-machine-devouring machine that was, is, and ever shall be SNL kept Wiig hopping, with everyone from Gilly, to her Target Lady, to Dooneese and her tiny hands, to Penelope, to Kat (of “Garth and” fame), to Aunt Sue, to Aunt Linda, and more all being wheeled out again and again. Oh, and again. That’s not Wiig’s fault—she was the sort of fully committed recurring bit factory that has Lorne chuckling to himself with contented, heat-seeking satisfaction. But when the first sketch after the monologue was Secret Word, a sketch, like most recurring bits, that has not changed one jot in its long, long history of diminishing returns, enthusiasm waned. Wiig’s ineptly attention-hogging Broadway diva, Mindy Elise Grayson is as bad at not revealing the period game show’s secret word as she is at sustaining questionable theater fare like All’s Well That Ends Welllll (About a blind girl stuck in a well. Sample dialogue: “Mama? Where am I? Why are the walls wet? Whose bucket is this?”)

The sketch is as passably amusing as it ever was. Wiig alternates incompetence with unintentionally revealing show biz backstage debauchery, while everybody else barely puts up with her slumming celebrity. Thankfully, Kenan’s on hand as host Grant Choad to do his thing making something out of very little. (His host responds to Mindy’s racist Broadway flop solo number with a perfectly pitched, “No! That is not okay—not even for the time we are supposed to be in.”) And, in keeping with the spotlight-sharing, possibly valedictory vibe of the monologue, Kate got equal time as a warring diva, “Austria’s leading comedic actress” and star of An Unresponsive Woman, the existentially blasé Elke Legerdi. (“I have nothing left to give, but if you ask, I will comply,” she moans in response to Grant’s announcement that it’s her turn.) There’s nothing wrong with catering to your illustrious guests on her homecoming, but a writers room that had Secret Word as first sketch out of the gate is not one brimming with creative enthusiasm.

Wiig also got Sue, the aunt who can’t keep a secret. (Mindy and Sue also appeared the last time Wiig hosted, so maybe she just really, really likes playing them.) Thematic resonance aside, this is even less prone to innovation that Secret Word, with Wiig’s surprise-spoiling Sue trying everything up to and including her inevitable, sketch-ending wall-smash to keep from making her family’s big Christmas reveal all about her. Reaching back through the mists of time, I seem to recall the Farley-like knockabout energy of this one in its first, almost identical incarnation. (Here, Lauren Holt’s holiday-returning nurse was able to get a last-minute COVID vaccination, marking it forever as a 2020 sketch. Because 2020 is shit.) But, for all her brassiere-baring, leg-writhing, Elf On A Shelf-devouring mugging, Wiig can’t wring juice from a long-desiccated bit that wore itself out midway through it’s second appearance. Again, if “Um, what about Sue?” is one of your big ideas for Kristen Wiig’s return to the show, it’s not a great sign.

Best/Worst Sketch Of The Night

The Best: The USO sketch at least wasn’t a returning bit, and had the kernel of a funny idea in it (plus another good role for Bowen Yang), so it’ll get the top spot on a truly underwhelming show. With Yang’s 1944 fellows being at first nonplussed by “toughest guy in the unit” Yang’s anachronistically catty duet with Wiig’s singing nurse (he plays the wronged woman in “Doin’ Me Wrong, And Doin’ You Right”), the sketch was a nice showcase for the new guy to show he can hold a stage alongside a big-time SNL star. And I’m a sucker for sketches with performers aping old-timey patter, so Alex Moffat, Mikey Day, Beck Bennett, Kyle Mooney, and Andrew Dismukes’ dogfaces gamely trying to parse the internal logic of what they’re seeing (“Is this a play?”), before falling prey to the duo’s funky-soul melodrama is just silly enough to work. (Oh, and musical guest Dua Lipa shows up as the song’s other woman, to pantomime-paw Yang in the big finish, if that’s your thing.) Hardly the show-stopper it was intended to be (it sputters to a non-ending), but at least it had an infectious energy.

The Worst: An episode like this sticks so doggedly to the median in terms of quality that there’s less a worst sketch than a most enervated and underwritten one. So here’s to the Home Alone 2 alternate ending, where Wiig’s Pigeon Lady bloodily murders the Wet Bandits so she can take advantage on the slow-on-the-uptake Kevin’s offer of a credit card-subsidized stay at the Plaza. Asking Melissa Villaseñor to impersonate the 12-year-old Macauley Culkin didn’t produce anything noteworthy, sadly, and while Wiig’s might be SNL’s first ever Brenda Fricker (don’t hold me to that), the logical turn of the sketch doesn’t provide it with reason enough for all the effort. (You know, with the blood-rig and all.)

The Rest: The two filmed pieces were good, but not great. Wiig’s turn as the beleaguered and overlooked Christmas morning mom turned on the single joke that moms are often overworked and under-appreciated on the big day, which, yeah. And Wiig made the role work with some ever-simmering but never-exploding, trodden-down disappointment as her exuberantly rapping brood extols the virtues of all their neat stuff. (She got this nice robe—now she’ll go make breakfast in it.) The minor escalation that the stash of auxiliary presents spotted under the tree turn out to be for the family dog (including a robe) works nicely, ending with the capper about the happy family picture being immediately posted online even though mom’s eyes are closed. Be nice to your moms, you guys.

A Teacher, FX/Hulu’s wrenching (yet salaciously viewer-grabbing) new drama about female-teacher-on-underage-male-student predation, gets a course-correcting comic sequel in the form of a Season Two change-up where Ego Nwodim’s functional adult and no-bullshit educator rebukes awkwardly available student Andrew Dismukes in clear, boundary-setting terms. Nwodim’s very good as the middle-aged teacher who greets her C-minus student’s fumbling hints about a forbidden affair and some SAT help with appropriate scorn. She’s got health care and a parking space, and has no time for Dismukes “limp-ass little neener,” especially since he can’t name a single U.S. president. (His hopeful “Huckleberry?” can’t breach her sense of right and wrong, puppy dog eyes or no.) SNL’s got it’s own spotty history with this exact premise, so maybe it’s a course correction there, too. But mainly, this is Nwodim’s show, her confident contemptuousness at discovering principal Wiig is already molesting the little dummy emerging as, “Yeah, I’ve got that swagger that you have when you’re not a pedophile.”

The Grinch sketch at least explained why we didn’t see Pete Davidson until that point. With former Grinch Jim Carrey tweeting his resignation from the Joe Biden role earlier in the day (more later), it was Davidson who had to endure all the glueing, and green-ing, and—in the case of this morning-after in Whoville threesome sketch—a fuzzy pot belly and tighty-whities. And he was actually pretty good, as the happily sated Grinch who parlayed his Christmas Eve redemption into a night of polyamory with Who-parents Wiig and Mikey Day. (Davidson’s underplayed sleaziness at least was a lot less green-hammy than Carrey’s.) But as a sketch, the premise is the only joke, unless you count inevitable gags about the Grinch’s heart not being the only thing that grew three sizes, which I exhaustedly do not. Throw in a Seuss-ian hand on a stick (with ominously moveable finger) and you see where we’re going here, as bewildered Chloe Fineman and Kyle Mooney (SNL’s current go-to elf types) ask leading questions about the noises they heard all night. He’s a mean one, indeed, Mr. Grinch. You get it.

Weekend Update Update

Hey, so Donald Trump has spent the last day or so actively talking with his conspiracy-lunatic lawyer and the traitorous former general he pardoned about possibly ending American democracy with a little martial law-aided, year-end coup. Taking the sure-to-endure comedy route of ignoring the biggest issue of the moment and pretending it’s not happening, Colin Jost started out Update with a harmlessly cheeky montage (set to Semisonic’s “Closing Time”) of minor Trump inanities already rendered so meme-impotent that they barely register. It does end with that time that the guy about to be elected to the presidency mocked the physical disability of Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski to a crowd of gleefully jeering MAGA morons, so the bit ended with a little bite. But, still—there’s some ugly shit going on, and just spouting applause lines about this being Trump’s last few week’s in office is about as unambitious as a coup-concurrent Update can be.

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Maybe it’s the self-satisfaction that’s so galling, as Jost and Michael Che continue to position themselves as the coolest kids at the party while using their guaranteed ten minutes of airtime—doing a national satirical fake newscast—to rush through the news without making too much of a fuss. Just wouldn’t look cool.

Update was fine. Che did a funny joke about how Tom Cruise is short, and the two ended on that bit where they out-Stefon each other with live readings of embarrassing jokes they wrote for the other. Jost has to say something racist, while Che wound up writing this Update’s funniest line, bringing up Jost’s fiancé ScarJo, and her widely derided stance on casting representation. See you in 2021.

Three correspondents all were pleasant enough. Chris Redd debuted his smoothly clueless Smokey Robinson, grabbing up the recent internet mini-outrage about the legendary singer’s unfamiliarity with the word “Chanukah.” About as harmless as the story deserves, Redd’s portrayal was still amusing, Robinson’s malapropisms presented less as cultural or actual illiteracy than the result of him simply being too placidly out-of-touch to worry about things outside his immediate ken.

Heidi Gardner brought out a new character in her growing Update highlight reel, her “Instagram influencer” Landis Trotter’s holiday gift ideas gradually revealed as thinly veiled product placement. (That SNL was presenting real products as Landis’ pitches was pretty rich, considering.) The whole joke is right there (she recommends Che purchase an elaborate industrial-medical scanning system for Lorne), but Gardner, again, shows her facility with inhabiting a focused character in miniature, the glassy-eyed Trotter eventually revealing, upon being called out for her hucksterism, a childlike neediness for validation that’s genuinely creepy. You know, in a funny way.

And Willie’s back! Kenan, never leave. Or leave when you want, but stay until then. Willie’s the template for a recurring character that won’t overstay his welcome. Short, inventively varied within its formula, and with Kenan Thompson. Can’t miss. This time, Willie’s had a tough time as usual (COVID edition), as ever without losing his seen-it-all optimism. Even the incremental reveal that his recent vaccination was just part of an organ harvesting scheme, and that, at one point, his even less-lucky old dog Lucious became part of a fur coat can get Willie down, something, in Kenan’s beaming performance, remains improbably endearing. “They replaced your organs with newspaper again, Willie!”

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“What do you call that act?” “Garth and Kat!”—Recurring Sketch Report

Secret Word, Sue, Willie. I would welcome one of them back any time.

“It was my understanding there would be no math”—Political comedy report

And the new Joe Biden is… Alex Moffat. Maybe SNL was as taken aback by Carrey’s decision to hang up the pearly choppers and snowy wig as the rest of us. Or maybe they listened to those whiny critics who claimed that farming out the juiciest political impressions to a parade of Lorne’s pals and/or high-profile guests in town that week was underserving the actual cast. (Of course, not all critics are that whiny.) Regardless, it appears that five-season veteran Moffat will get the gig going forward (assuming somebody irresistible doesn’t express interest in time for the post-New Year return), and here’s to him. His entrance in the cold open worked better conceptually than it did in practice. Having it look like just another “Old Joe” joke before Moffat pulled a Willy Wonka and popped up after a cane-fall should have been more energizing that it turned out to be. Maybe it was the blocking, with Moffat’s entrance stuffed awkwardly between a flag and podium at the rear. And Moffat’s pop-up wasn’t especially crisp. And he mumbled a few of his lines. And it did sound at times like he was affecting Will Ferrell’s George W. Bush impression. Other than that—good luck, buddy!

And speaking of old jokes, can we just all get on the same page that the “Mike Pence is secretly gay” schtick is, at the very least, incredibly tired? Like the Biden age thing, the entire conception of noted and documented gay-basher Pence being in the desperately closet is—to use a technical term—lazy as fuck. Is Mike Pence—who spends seemingly every waking day looking for ways to hurt the LGBTQI community—desperately throwing up walls to obscure his own uneasiness with his sexuality? Jesus, I don’t know. Some people are just assholes. And the comic premise that all hateful anti-gay people are actually in denial about their own same-sex attraction is the hackiest line of attack possible, rendering impotent any other point of view on a fundamentalist politician whose entire career has been spent attempting to bring America in line with his even-for-a-Republican narrow, right-wing bigotry. Beck Bennett is a victim as well as a perp here, letting a sonorous voice and some inevitable gay-panic jokes play him as Pence.

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We got Maya, apparently in it for the foreseeable haul as Kamala Harris, reliably stealing the spotlight from Moffat as Harris arguably has done at times from Biden. There was another soft-pitched applause line telling Pence “I won more votes” in shutting the vaccine-receiving veep down, although who doesn’t appreciate the sight of Maya/Harris stage-slapping the lack of flavor out of the protesting Bennett/Pence’s mouth? Kate showed up as a dye-dripping Giuliani again, to little purpose, and Mikey Day was on hand to—as is his lot, seemingly—point out every joke in case anybody missed it. Carrey’s exit might have left SNL a little wobbly this week, but it was plenty shaky when he was here, too. Moffat’s got big shoes to fill. Not so much Carrey’s (he was barely here long enough to break them in), but the long path of Saturday Night Live’s most memorable politician performances. I hope he keeps the gig—and that he grows into it, fast. Buddy, now’s the time to determine whether you’re Dana Carvey’s Bush or Fred Armisen’s Obama.

I Am Hip To The Musics of Today

Accuse me of still harboring an old white guy nostalgia-boner for Bruce Springsteen And The E Street Band’s bar-band performance last week, but I found it very difficult to muster up any interest in Dua Lipa’s guide-tracked, choreographed, and carefully couture numbers tonight. I like neo-disco as much as the next person (the first number even featured that cheesy-cool laser “pew” sound throughout), but both songs filled me with emptiness. Which is a tough trick, conceptually.

Most/Least Valuable Not Ready For Prime Time Player

Aidy and Cecily are off doing their things. Kate is Kate, although funnier as herself in the monologue than as any of her characters. Kenan should rightfully rise to the top on an effortless pair of turns.

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But here’s to Alex Moffat. All the best, mister. No pressure, but this is pretty much going to define your career on SNL. Maybe altogether. Have fun out there!

As a general note, I’m pleased that this was a cast-focused ensemble episode, with Moffat’s casting seeming to indicate that building up the people who actually work there is a priority for the rest of the season. That said, gang, this is the time to step up and make a sketch—or the show—your own. Not to recede into the background. Step up. And have fun out there!

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“What the hell is that that thing?—Ten-To-Oneland Report

Another week, another final sketch slot devoured by show-creep before it could see the dawn. The back third of tonight’s show went: Sue, commercial, second musical performance, commercial, band vamping, commercial, goodnights. Wiig’s farewell was genuinely sweet, as she called SNL her home and praised the current cast to the moon. It would have a little more poignancy if the show proper hadn’t actually ended some 20 minutes earlier.

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Stray observations

  • I spent the whole Grinch sketch wondering why the boy Whos had pointy, sealed-up noses, while the girl Whos did not. Maybe Wiig just didn’t want to have plugged nostrils. Or maybe there’s something about Who anatomy. We may never know.
  • Wiig told the monologue audience about her new twins, a word, as she tells them in deadpan “fun fact” surprise, “Which I found out are two of the same baby.”
  • Wiig, Maya, and Kate singing in unison, “When the dog bites/Ow, it bit me!/Please arrest that dog!” is pretty much all I never knew I wanted.
  • Of one of her notable Broadway non-triumphs, Mindy Grayson beams, “The New York Times said, ‘Uh-oh.’”
  • There’s a long and thoroughly understandable legacy of wariness among Black Americans when it comes to medical treatment in this country. But here’s to Michael Che for doing an extended Update run where he makes taking the deeply necessary and scientifically vetted COVID vaccine sound like it’s just not cool enough.
  • And that’s a lid of SNL in 2020, everyone. See you after the New Year, when, well, I just hope you’re all around in the New Year. Stay safe. Stay home. Wear masks. Take the vaccine if and when the government gets its shit together to make it available to you. Finish line’s in sight, people. Don’t be the dope who trips over his own laces.
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Contributor, The A.V. Club. Danny Peary's Cult Movies books are mostly to blame.