“I think I’m doing quite well.”
The thing is, Larry David knew he was not doing quite well at the midpoint of his monologue. No one needs to tell Larry David what’s funny, and those who’d try—you know, like TV reviewers—have only to cast an eye over David’s career to feel unequal to the task. But David’s aside came across like an acknowledgement that his deliberately provocative jokes about sexual harassment, hunchbacks (well, one particular, famous hunchback), blind people, and, yep, hitting on women in concentration camps were not working. Almost universally not working. Dead air and scattered murmuring not working. But, like his lazy breaking during a later sketch tonight, David’s shrugging nod toward how badly he was bombing carried an accompanying lack of concern. “I’m Larry Fucking David,” was the prevailing vibe, with a smirking, “And what are you gonna do about it?” as a chaser.
That’s neither an unwarranted nor in itself offensive way for David to approach his second hosting gig. In his first outing, David’s slightly above-it-all amusement was liberating. He threw himself into the silliest premises (including one all-time enduring weirdo bit) and mocked the very idea of him hosting Saturday Night Live even as he proved himself more than equal to the gig. But throughout tonight’s episode, David’s wonted crankiness curdled in some so-so material and, in his already internet-infamous monologue, collapsed.
Since, as noted, David’s monologue is being debated at the time of this writing with all the subtle, nuanced analysis Twitter is famous for, here goes. Nothing is off limits in comedy, or for comedy. Nothing. Comedy is the processing of human experience in unique and original ways intended to point up the absurdities inherent in that experience. Some experience—perhaps most—is shit. The best comedians turn shit into laughs. Some high, some low, but laughs, and laughs aren’t to be disregarded. The part of that admittedly high-handed sentiment that not-brilliant comedians ignore is “the best comedians.” There are way more bad comics than good, and the worst of them take the idea that comedy should have no restrictions as their cue to say mean-spirited, hateful shit in the guise of “telling it like it is,” or “pushing the envelope,” or being “edgy,” when all they’re pushing are buttons. Larry David is a comedy legend for a reason. But his monologue was shit.
Leaving aside the “edgy,” look at his joke about being a blind lady’s chauffeur and tell me a lot of effort went into either the writing or delivery. There’s a genuine energy to Larry David deigning to appear on SNL. He was famously fired from the show (under producer Dick Ebersol), after getting almost nothing on the air. Then he conquered comedy (later bringing fellow SNL also-ran Julia Louis Dreyfuss along with him). But the charm comes from David knowing he’s bigger than the room and still working it. Here, he just came off as lazy. (His Quasimodo bit, too, relied on a bland premise and the sort of half-assed shtick that would have played to an undiscriminating Studio 8H audience in the 1950s. Maybe.)
As to the more deliberately controversial material in the monologue, again, I say there’s no reason concentration camp jokes couldn’t have worked. I understand that some people disagree, and that’s fine. I will come down firmly in agreement with those who say that this concentration camp joke wasn’t well crafted, imaginative, or skillfully delivered, all of which turned it into a cringe-worthy exercise in bad taste without the confidence in either his material or his delivery to make anything more of it. It was a sour way to kick off the show.
Michael Che sounds tired. Which is not a criticism. His disdainful tone in describing Donald Trump’s most recent foot-stomping Twitter meltdown (this time about the fact that people closer and closer to him are being hauled into court by Trump-Russia special counsel Robert Mueller) is as valid an approach to this shitshow as any. And Che telling Trump to “answer all our questions like the public servant you are” is, in performance, especially cathartic. This was a solid Update, with both anchors getting in their shots ably. Jost dismantled Trump’s signature hair-trigger racist call for immigration bans after the recent NYC terrorist attack by asserting that we don’t judge all presidents by Trump’s disastrously inept and hateful tenure. (He also said that the program Trump is targeting, “The Diversity Immigrant Visa Lottery” is named in exactly the words to “make Fox viewers’ heads explode.”) And Che showed how to push buttons with a little more finesse, landing a “black people are always late” joke with the twist, “It’s okay for me to say that because... I’m racist.”
The correspondent pieces were all uniquely enjoyable, too. Leslie Jones got to goof around with some Houston Astros, with newly crowned champs Jose Altuve, George Springer, and Alex Bregman doing a “sneaker-upper” while Leslie runs the team down. But you can’t bring Leslie Jones down, and the sight of her taking the comparatively wee Altuve into her lap and raising her fist in triumph was a joyful thing. Again, some people don’t like Leslie. I love Leslie. She was great.
New featured player Heidi Gardner had easily the best showcase of any of the new kids so far, with her “Every Boxer’s Girlfriend From Every Movie About Boxing, Ever,” Angel, showcasing a fine flair for character work. Turning every innocuous Che news prompt into a cue for a heartfelt emotional appeal for her man to hang up his gloves and think of their kids just worked, Gardner making her strongest bid yet for more airtime. Like a lot of featured players on Update, the character looks like an audition piece, and those can fizzle out. (Think departed Jon Rudnitsky’s hilarious Dirty Dancing bit, which led to... not being on the show after that season.) But Gardner seems like she has the chops. Funny stuff.
The return of Mikey Day’s Donald Trump Jr. and Alex Moffat’s Eric pulled off the impressive feat of improving on what’s already been a pretty funny sketch. Mainly, it’s Moffat’s Eric, conceived as the guileless manchild to Don Jr,’s wannabe slickster, blurting out damning secrets and succumbing to his brother’s attempted distractions. There’s some satire in the depiction of these presidential bros being different sorts of public embarrassments, but it’s Moffat’s physical comedy skills that make this one fly, with Eric’s discovery that there’s actually a pouch-full of delicious sugar to dip his Fun Dip candy stick into seeing Moffat get the episode’s biggest laughs on sheer strength of performance alone.
Larry David got the giggles halfway through his sketch about an obnoxious executive of some sort introducing his new wife (Cecily Strong) to his employees at a party. This is one of those sketches where the setup is never adequately established—is the joke that Strong’s ill-defined “gay-friendly” diva is of indeterminate age, or that the imperious David has to recite all manner of gay subgroup lingo. (David saying “twink” a lot seems to be what finally sets him off.) It’s a sloppily constructed sketch not helped that David can’t keep it together, although Kate McKinnon kept finding laughs by underplaying her Jim Halpert-style amusement at what her boss has gotten himself into.
There was a similar case of meager premise syndrome (M.P.S.—consult your physician) to “The Baby Step,” a truly unpromising “baby rappers” music video whose only real joke is the fact that David repeatedly refuses to be in the thing. Playing on David’s notorious prickliness is fine, but there’s no real joke to the piece other than “Larry is grumpy, SNL is hacky. On the surface, the sting of self-awareness could be a thing, but there’s no snap to things, and no ending. I did laugh at Kenan Thompson (in giant diaper) answering David’s contemptuous question about how long he has to be on the show before he can stop doing stuff like this with a sincere, “I wish I knew.”
The quest for the next “Celebrity Jeopardy” slogged on in tonight’s introduction of “Celebrity The Price Is Right,” complete with Beck Bennet’s energetically mediocre host Drew Carey. These sorts of sketches are rarely more than an excuse for cast members to try out impressions not strong enough to carry a whole sketch, and here we get, cluelessly bidding on a washing machine: Chris Redd’s Lil Wayne (he likes that sizzurp), Alex Moffat’s Chris Hemsworth (he’s friendly and Australian), Kate McKinnon’s Tilda Swinton (vocally so-so, but delightfully weird), and the return of David’s Bernie Sanders, railing against the inherent capitalist greed of the game while going off on tangents about cleaning his one suit in the rain. (The one relatively biting line is Bernie’s assertion that, if he can’t win, “I’ll bring everyone else down with me!”) Throw in Cecily Strong’s humorously dippy Sofía Vergara, Melissa Villaseñor’s nondescript Ariana Grande in cat ears, and resident Trump Alec Baldwin doing his still-obliviously funny Tony Bennett, and the whole thing breezes past without making enough of an impression. So to speak.
The Ad Council awards sketch had a decent concept—David’s old-timer ad exec’s old public service announcements are decidedly unpalatable to his modern audience—but suffers from listless execution. The old ads are lovingly recreated 80s relics (complete with VHS tracking errors), their do-gooder messages submarined at the last minute by punchlines that battle one injustice only to slip in some vintage homophobia, ableism, and/or racism right at the end. But it takes forever to get going, the pacing is off, David (in really good makeup) doesn’t have any good reactions to the embarrassing clips, and it just sort of peters out.
The high school morning show “Fresh Takes” wasn’t bad, giving Day, Moffat, McKinnon, and David some funny business as the freshmen (and one creepy faculty gossip enthusiast) ape vapid morning show patter. Pete Davidson and Chris Redd have a funny bit as “Fresh Take” sponsors the Magic Club, and Day’s host introduces McKinnon quickly as “my friend who’s a girl, I like her but not that way,” that’s a nice character touch. Still, this is another sketch that feels half-realized, although Day’s signoff about David’s teacher being “in hot water for comments he just made” is another fine delivery.
“What do you call that act?” “The Californians!”—Recurring sketch report
Trump returned (see below), along with his sons. I have a feeling The Price Is Right will be back... and back... and back.
Alec Baldwin’s Trump took his usual spot in the cold open, here visiting former campaign manager and current on-bail, house-arrested indictee Paul Manafort (Alex Moffat). Stripping down for a shower-chat to avoid wiretaps, the pair (along with Bennett’s fully clothed Mike Pence and Kate McKinnon’s even more Gollum-like Jeff Sessions) ran through the latest batch of barely fictionalized Trump idiocy. There were the usual, mostly unadventurous laughs at everyone’s expense, along with a few that stung a bit harder than usual. Trump telling Manafort that he’s going to be doomed in prison thanks to Trump’s racist statements was nice and harsh, as was Trump noting that Harvey Weinstein could have avoided his fall into ignominy over his history of sexual assault “if only he’d gotten elected president.” And McKinnon’s Sessions keeps getting weirder, revealing tonight that he’s part opossum (complete with tail), and describing himself gleefully as “a sneaky lyin’ little villain.” Plus, that Bennett’s Pence explains that he’s not nude in the shower because “I’m not married to the water,” sums things up nicely on that front. If they’re going to keep wheeling Baldwin’s serviceable Trump out each week, then at least this sketch suggested that SNL is prepared to try out some new things.
The fact that the post of White House press secretary has passed from Melissa McCarthy’s pugnacious Sean Spicer to Aidy Bryant’s smugly disdainful Sarah Huckabee Sanders is a great opportunity for Bryant, who slips right into Sanders’ truly infuriating censoriousness in the service of incessant untruth. Not being up on my Demi Lovato (the sketch helpfully has a reporter point it out), the conceit that Sanders escapes the daily pressures of blatantly lying while sneering at the press for pointing out that she’s blatantly lying by casting herself in a sexed up video for “Confident” was something I had to compare during the commercials. Still, Aidy killed, and SNL continues to do some of its best comic analysis of the Trump administration by getting creative about getting inside the various figures’ heads. That people are willing to twist reality and themselves into knots daily to conform to whatever Donald Trump tweets while on the toilet that morning calls for creative approaches.
Miley Cyrus, everybody! That’s all I’ve got.
In an episode where Kate McKinnon was relatively underrepresented, I’ll go ahead and give the top spot to Heidi Gardner for her Update turn, a funny, fully-realized character that should open up some opportunities.
On the other hand, fellow new kid Luke Null gets one line, which is actually a step up from most episode this season. C’mon new guy. We’re rooting for you.
Easily the best sketch of the night proves what I’ve been saying since Beck Bennett and Kyle Mooney were brought on board: Just give these guys five minutes at the end of each show, give them no notes, and let them crank out a perfect ten-to-one sketch. The faux “very special episode” sitcom they create here is a little masterpiece of Bennett-Mooney weirdness. Porno-quality acting, David’s untrustworthy, beer-addicted fish-sitter cousin CJ suddenly hurling chairs at Mooney’s concerned roommate, inexplicably unrelated interstitial shots (including a dinosaur outside the White House), and, finally, David hauling off and stabbing Mooney in the gut, all rendered with the pair’s signature knowing incompetence. Great capper to a bummer of an episode.
- In the cold open, Cecily Strong’s Melania finds herself drawn to the unusally quiet and attentive inflatable Trump decoy Trump’s left on Air Force One. Points for looking just like Otto from Airplane!
- Oh, Liam Hemsworth pops up as himself in the Price Is Right sketch, where he makes his usual inoffensively pleasant impression.
- There’s a credit in the very special episode for someone we’ve never seen named “Burger Dad,” which made me love the sketch even more.
- The same goes for the fact that Angel’s kids are named “Mikey, Nicky, and Peppers.”
- For a truly dark Saturday Night Live concentration camp joke, you’d have to look into the never-aired files under O’Donoghue, Michael: “The Good Excuse.” O’Donoghue’s reputation as comic genius may have been inflated over the years, but the guy took chances. Check out Dennis Perrin’s biography Mr. Mike: The Life and Work of Michael O’Donoghue for a fuller picture of early SNL’s most transgressive voice.
- Since we’re talking concentration camp comedy, current Senator Al Franken once cast his elderly Jewish parents as camp-garbed inmates, necessitating Lorne Michaels to ditch the proposed sketch and yell at the Nazi-uniformed Franken (and partner Tom Davis), “Never make me cut your parents again!” Tricky business, Nazi comedy.