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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Kumail Nanjiani brings some style to a middling Saturday Night Live

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Kumail Nanjiani (Screenshot: NBC)
Kumail Nanjiani (Screenshot: NBC)

“That is the way of my people.”

“I’m not an actor, I’m a [standup and newly minted movie] star!”

Kumail Nanjiani is an outstanding standup comic, with a voice uniquely his own, and his opening monologue in his first ever Saturday Night Live hosting gig was uniformly great. Looking like an old school movie star (if old Hollywood had such roles for a Pakistani man) in his Don Draper suit, Nanjiani had the audience in his grasp throughout, touching on the topic of racism and Islamophobia with a touch both light and jabbing. Nanjiani comes at subjects from delightfull odd angles, and follows them according to their own unexpected logic, as when he acts out the well-intentioned defense of Sikhs mistakenly attacked for being Muslim by bigots, or when he refutes other bigots assertion that Islam is against women because “the Koran says women can’t drive.” With his animated face and those expressive eyebrows working to punctuate the material, Nanjiani killed.

For the rest of the night, while he fluffed a line or two, Nanjiani did a good job with some just-okay material for the most part. Playing a douchey game show contestant, a smugly weird concierge, and a weird retirement home doctor, Nanjiani applied himself, but was too often left propping up some shaky premises.


Weekend Update Update

Sure, it looked like SNL was going to take a pass on the Harvey Weinstein thing, something the show was criticized for last week, especially when Colin Jost opened with an emoji joke (which turned into a Weinstein joke). But that joke kicked off a solid run from Jost and Michael Che mocking the now-disgraced producer that saw Che bringing up the comedian’s dilemma that jokes about sexual assault are too touchy and jokes calling Weinstein “a well-dressed skin tag” are too cheap. But the prevailing attitude seems to be “fuck that guy,” and both anchors nailed home some decent blows. Picking one, Jost is spot on with the timing as his joke about Weinstein entering a cushy “sex rehab” in Europe segues into a list of alternatives (no women, metal bars) concluding with an in-cadence “yeah, it’s a prison.” Seriously, fuck that guy.

Update isn’t lacking in satirical targets these days, so its quick-hit structure needs to be judged on what original ways Jost and Che can come up with to creatively point out how horrible things are under Donald Trump. On that front, tonight was solid, with Jost mocking Trump’s tweet about “imploding” Obamacare by bringing up the fact that Trump’s the one who’s actively sabotaging the health insurance of millions, and complaining that Godzilla doesn’t tweet while he’s laying waste to Tokyo. The best joke belonged to Che, as he deconstructed Trump’s embrace of that bullshit “war on Christmas” nonsense by pointing out that Trump supporters and other assorted assholes can’t wait to cry foul whenever blacks, gays, or women look to be recognized while they themselves demand their precious “Merry Christmas” be emblazoned on every coffee cup in the land. Che’s explanation that him saying “Happy Holidays” is his way of saying “all holidays matter” takes the premise and twists it right where it needs to go. Brilliant.

Only one correspondent tonight. (Jost and Che took time at the end of Update to urge people to donate to Puerto Rico—since Trump suspiciously continues to denigrate and ignore millions of brown-skinned American citizens in need—at somosonevoice.com.) Cecily Strong’s Ivana Trump is a vital, exceptionally acted caricature of the first Mrs. Donald Trump (that maniacal laugh is equal parts hilarious and unnerving), although there doesn’t seem to be much point to her appearance other than to show off Strong’s excellent character work. Sure Ivana Trump is in a weird feud with her younger replacement in the White House, but that reality show aspect of that particular shitshow is pretty irrelevant. Plus, if your joke hinges on someone lusting after Colin Jost, give me Leslie Jones, or bust.


Best/Worst sketch of the night

While I appreciate how this season has relied more on premise-driven writers’ sketches so far in theory, there haven’t been many memorable ones, and the Halloween party sketch here just wobbled around limply before slinking offstage. The conceit that Beck Bennett’s boss can’t always hear what’s being said on the speaker phone could work, I suppose, but the timing is awfully slack. Kenan and Aidy both manage to wring a laugh by underplaying their restrained horror at the boss’ increasingly irresponsible grossness in making their holiday cake, but there is nothing resembling an ending to speak of either. For a sketch featuring the cast decked out in Halloween costumes, this is about as low-energy as it gets.


Moderately better was the old age home sketch, which served as showcase both for Nanjiani’s underplaying and Kate McKinnon’s wordless overplaying. Both got laughs, as Nanjiani’s doctor is forced to explain to a pair of visiting young relatives exactly why their 91-year-old grandmother is being treated for her eighth bout of V.D. Sure, “old people still having sex” jokes aren’t exactly fresh, but Nanjiani’s repeated “Would it make you feel any better if I said no?” to the visitors’ requests for details works each time, and his arguments in favor of the elderly residents’ autonomy at least nods toward a more enlightened sort of sniggering, if that’s a thing. But it’s McKinnon’s sketch, as her seemingly doddering granny slyly mugs to the camera in response to all the hubbub about her adventures as the home’s most popular date with McKinnon’s usual, confident aplomb. There’s always room on SNL for someone to go big and McKinnon does it better than anyone.

The game show sketch rests on the premise that Nanjiani’s jerky bravdo runs repeatedly up against opponent Cecily Strong’s far more sympathetic reasons for wanting the prize money, and on that score, it’s funny enough. The reveal that Pete Davidson’s equally douchey roommate in the audience is sporting a “Loser” t-shirt with an arrow pointing to Strong’s deaf daughter (who’ll get that big operation if mom wins) is pretty great, as both Nanjiani and Davidson attempt to sweatily backpedal their way out of this. (Nanjiani’s horrified shame makes for a fine little acting showcase.) But there’s not twist to the gag, just some limp escalation, and the sketch just sort of ends.

McKinnon returned as old (old) school Hollywood semi-star Debette Goldry, this time revealing her horrifying tales of bygone Tinseltown sexual awfulness in service of a sketch centered on those recent Harvey Weinstein revelations. As ever, the gag is that modern day stars (like Leslie Jones’ Viola Davis and Cecily Strong’s Marion Cotillard), while they too suffer sexual harassment, just can’t hold a candle to that time that Alfred Hitchcock burst into a recording booth and just jammed his hand down Goldry’s throat. (“In his defense, I was very blonde at the time.”) The joke always works because of McKinnon, obviously, but also because of the increasingly baroque tales of movie lot sex crimes she reveals, even though the sketch hinges on the actresses today having it soft, a conceit that rests uneasily when dealing with something whose details are all too real and fresh in the audience’s mind. Debette does lash out in sincere anger at least, calling on everyone to “take it seriously,” but the biggest laughs come from McKinnon’s bizarre details. Speaking of the time her newborn baby was snatched away at studio orders at the convent where she’d been sent to give birth in secret, McKinnon’s “Gosh, those nuns are fast” is offhand hilarious. (Plus I laughed when she called Cotillard “Macaroni Copacanana,” so sue me.)

“What do you call that act?” “The Californians!”—Recurring sketch report

Debette Goldry, Trump. And while not a recurring sketch per se, I’m calling Nanjiani’s turn as the weirdly insistent hotel concierge at least a distant cousin of Louis CK’s similarly deadpan hotel clerk. CK’s version was funnier, mainly due to stronger-written absurd details. (I still laugh thinking about the line “Argon, sir. It’s a noble gas.”) But Nanjiani, continually pressing the hotel’s Starlight Lounge on Mikey Day’s exhausted, recently released North Korean prisoner, kept building up the loopy elements nicely, a serene smile never leaving his kisser, even when the fed up Day socks him in it. Plus, the sketch actually had a final joke for the ending, which is always nice.

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

Alec Baldwin. Donald Trump. Cold open. You get the drill by this point. Baldwin, who took last week off, appeared more energized tonight, perhaps trying to goose this serviceable weekly goof on Trump’s most recent and most obvious blunders and variously bigoted and/or just horrible actions out of its nice, comfy, top-of-show rut. Here, we are reminded that the person in the White House [consults list]: mocked Puerto Ricans’ accents and continued to suggest to residents of the hurricane ravaged island their misery is somehow their fault; pandered to religious bigots with that whole “we say Merry Christmas here” dogwhistle; is attempting to destroy Obamacare with an executive order since that hateful crap couldn’t get past the senate; sent Mike Pence on a taxpayer-funded PR stunt to shame black athletes for protesting against racism and police brutality; insulted a senator’s height; and bragged about his I.Q. after his Secretary of State called him a “fucking moron.” This conception of Trump as petty little buffoon is good for easy chuckles, the audience eats it up, and it all no doubt makes the real Trump seethe as intended. But the one clever touch here was Beck Bennett’s Mike Pence being sent on one PR jaunt after another ( a Starbucks without Merry Christmas cups, a gay wedding) and being told by Trump to “bail out!” every time.

The It sketch saw SNL once again putting Trump spokesperson/apologist/huan with terminal shame deficiency Kellyanne Conway (Kate, as ever with the crazy eyes) into a horror scenario, her glassy, fame-mongering turning her into an unholy creature of the night. Last time, she pulled a Fatal Attraction on Jake Tapper, while here, she courted airtime from Alex Moffat’s Anderson Cooper, attempting to lure the CNN anchor into the rain-gurgling sewer where she lurks, Pennywise-style. Again Kate McKinnon doesn’t miss, and her performances (Conway’s shift into Hillary Clinton guise is what eventually lures Cooper down below) are deeply committed, and deeply unsettling. The filmed piece is well and disturbingly shot, and the inevitable “it was all a dream—or was it?” ending throwing one more genuinely creepy shock scares at us on the way out. As far as Trump-adjacent targets go, Conway’s seemingly bottomless capacity for contemptuously denying empirical, verifiable truths and her equally insatiable hunger for the TV cameras being translated as literal ghoulishness isn’t bad, as far as damning metaphors go.

I am hip to the musics of today

P!nk is just striking, something I always forget until I see/hear her perform. Here, let fellow A.V. Clubber Annie Zaleski run down why.


Most/Least Valuable (Not Ready For Prime Time) Player

Kate McKinnon’s take top spot two weeks in a row, and Cecily Strong had a hell of a show, so I’m giving it to Kate again. I’m only human, people.


Of the new people, poor Luke Null, huh? Hang in there, new guy.

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

There’s been a consistent theme on Saturday Night Live since Donald Trump incomprehensibly became a thing that the women in Trump’s orbit are being dragged along more or less against their will. But if there’s one person who seems to fit that description more than any other it’s the First Lady herself, who as video evidence readily shows, can clearly not stand her husband’s touch. So the short film that ended the show, about Nanjiani’s beleaguered customer service rep at the Gucci call center in Pakistan works as a loony but touching portrait of two lonely people forming an unlikely friendship. Cecily Strong’s Melania is a strangely affecting presence here, as her complaints about the trophy wife life emerge like weird poetry, and both she and Nanjiani create real characters in just a few minutes of screen time. Plus, her gambit of deliberately giving her mailing address as “The Red House” so she’ll have an excuse to call her friend again is a great joke.

Stray observations

  • “The only thing we’re mixing is Frisbee and golf—let’s eat some ranch dressing!”
  • Jones’ Viola Davis tells of a time when, after she rejected a producer’s advances, he threw “10 or 12 phones” at her before she figured out that he was trying to knock her shirt off with them.
  • “It was a real ‘You scratch my back and I’ll keep mum about the girl who drowned at your pool party’ situation.”
  • Debette says that classic Hollywood starlets had a special code to tell which men to stay away from: “He raped me.”
  • “The hurricane actually did blow some buildings back together.”
  • After the mini-controversy about SNL’s use of a real auto glass repair company last week, the fact that Nanjiani’s weird clerk makes a point of naming the actual hotel chain he supposedly works at suggest another hastily written corporate statement on the way.
  • Jost calls new policies about U.S. relations with Niger “a direct challenge to Trump’s autocorrect,” which got delayed gasps from the audience. “I liked it,” said Che.

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Danny Peary's Cult Movies books are mostly to blame.

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