Lizzo works overtime to please. That’s her thing. Fifteen minutes before the writing and production staff of Saturday Night Live embarrassed her almost completely, the late news on NBC’s NYC affiliate gushed about Lizzo visiting people who were camping on the standby-ticket line outside 30 Rock, while her backup dancers served pizza. The network’s PR department was clearly on the job. Unfortunately, SNL’s writing staff didn’t bother to show up for her episode this week. What’s worse: Wherever the writers were, they apparently took the technical staff along, as this episode of SNL committed the cardinal sin of making a talented musical guest look distinctly ungreat in performance.
Normally, this rubric is “What killed.” The Easter wishes cold open didn’t kill, but it’s better than much of what followed. Before the show, I was thinking about SNL’s approach to political humor this season, and how it offers little in the way of sharpness or sting and definitely nothing approaching inspired madness (for some reason, I’m thinking of Dan Aykroyd’s Bob Dole threatening to stick a pen in the neck of a presidential debate opponent). Today, SNL likes its political humor fuzzy and soft, very olde-tyme variety show, oriented toward comfortable laughs.
You can’t get much fuzzier or softer than this sketch’s premise—the Easter bunny himself (Bowen Yang) welcomes various celebrities to offer Easter wishes on air (huh?). It’s an excuse to trot out the show’s impressionists to do short bits of their shtick, including Chloe Fineman as Britney Spears and Cecily Strong as Marjorie Taylor Greene, because that’s easier than pulling off a sketch with a beginning, middle and end. Coming off best: Mikey Day as Twitter vulture Elon Musk, Kyle Mooney as Jesus (just kidding, Jared Leto) and James Austin Johnson as Donald Trump, who spirals into his usual digressive pop-cultural arias that frankly aren’t that funny when you think about everything that’s at stake. (Same goes for the portrayals of Greene and Musk.)
I’ve been open about not being a fan of Please Don’t Destroy’s previous digital shorts. In fact, this is the first one that’s really worked for me. But work it did, even considered outside the dreck surrounding it. The premise was solid: Lizzo came to host but didn’t bring any new songs, so the spindly trio of writers have 10 minutes to cough up two great tunes, or spindly cast member Andrew Dismukes will kill her. Their failed pitches (including the Sopranos theme song) are inspired, as is the winner: “Horny Zookeeper.” Good setups, good payoffs, and Lizzo seemed comfortable.
“Orchestra” really says something about how misguided tonight’s show was: A sketch was tailored to the host’s unique musical and comic talents, and the producers ran it in second-to-last position, post-12:40 on the East Coast. Lizzo is a skilled flutist with a knack for physical comedy (see her new video, which I’ll get to in a minute). Here, she plays a musician auditioning for a symphony orchestra who confesses that the only way she can play the flute is if she twerks. She demonstrates this, to solid comic effect. The best moment: Aidy Bryant’s starchy violinist rises from her chair and, in maximum TV-movie hauteur, declares that if the full “DeVry Institute Orchestra” must also twerk to make the newcomer feel welcome, that is what they shall do. Good premise, good payoff, and for the first time, both show and host didn’t feel like they had just met 15 minutes earlier.
So much bombed, I could be here all night. But I basically am anyway. So to paraphrase Letterkenny (a show that knows how to make the crudest humor clever, even enlightening, and could offer SNL a workshop), if we’re going in, we’re going in, and we’re not stopping ‘til the job is done.
As mentioned, SNL’s cardinal sin is to make the host look bad. Tonight, the show managed to do it in both sketch and musical form. (I’ve been watching SNL live for more than three decades and can’t remember the last time that happened.) In this sketch, the first after the monologue, Lizzo and Aidy Bryant play music producers who are in the studio with the Black-Eyed Peas and are trying to breathe more inspiration into their limited lyrics. It’s cute (yes, surely there are more evocative touchpoints than “the people” or “the place”). But there are fundamental questions of urgency (this sketch might have killed in 2008, but why is it airing tonight?) and frankly punching down: Is it not conventional wisdom that the Black-Eyed Peas absolutely suck? Beyond that, it doesn’t serve the host well. Lizzo’s entire ethos is positivity—she doesn’t beef with other musicians—so although you expect her to appear in satirical sketches, immediately showing her neg on a washed-up musical act seems gratuitous.
This was the worst “Weekend Update” of the season, and maybe longer—the writing was anemic to lazy to occasionally depressing. Anemic: A cheap dig at Kamala Harris being the “invisible woman” (maybe if the show feels that way, it’s worth tackling in a sketch? But it would require the writers to define and polish a single four-minute topical premise). Lazy: Yet another tired gag about Biden’s alleged senility (this week, apparently he can’t find a face mask hanging on his ear), and Che on the subway shooter: He was found in a McDonald’s wearing a purple shirt because he was auditioning to be Grimace (seriously, that’s your entire take)? Depressing: Let’s top things off with a bit on children working in an iPhone factory. That never gets old.
The highlight was Colin Jost calling Elon Musk’s attempt to buy Twitter a bad business decision, “and I say this as someone who bought a Staten Island ferry with Pete Davidson.” When self-deprecating humor is the best part of your topical news segment, that’s one issue. When it’s surrounded by the ultimate self-own of writing this bad, it’s something else.
In “Six Flags,” Lizzo brings her date (Mikey Day) home, where he discovers her grandfather (Sarah Sherman) and grandmother (Ego Nwodim) look and act like the weird bald character who danced in the Six Flags commercials years ago. Minutes after you saw a sketch that makes you wonder why it’s airing now, here’s another. There’s a difference between sending up Citizen Kane and long-discontinued amusement-park commercials, and if you have a writing staff full of young fogies who consider ephemera from 15 years ago urgent sketch material, both show and viewer are in trouble. (See also this episode’s final sketch involving Beanie Babies.)
Based on what Lizzo has to offer, I had such high hopes for this show, and what we got was “Throne Room,” which may ultimately compete with “Vomitorium”—see the 1980 Burt Reynolds-hosted episode, or better yet, don’t—or “Royal Stripper” as one of the worst sketches ever aired on SNL. In ancient times, two party planners (Cecily Strong and Bowen Yang) try to orchestrate the perfect orgy and night of debauchery for their “insane depraved god/king,” because it’s a “big part of his image,” and they want to make sure the attendees’ planned sexual displays are worthy. A decent premise, but last week’s “Spring Flowers” sketch indicated this writing staff isn’t sophisticated enough to go there, and things ended up worse than anticipated.
Lizzo was actually great as a domme querying how she should use her eager “Tinder boy” (Dismukes). But a background player offers to make their kink worse, which shows this sketch writer’s hand. Ultimately, we see Kate McKinnon making out with an actual goat, and the “god/king” is revealed to be about eight years old, played by an actual kid. Listen, I’m the furthest thing from a prude—I cited Letterkenny above because it’s my favorite comedy on TV, and I have other bona fides that are frankly none of your business. But this sketch shows a fundamental miscalculation about sexual humor that’s bad enough to be a fireable offense. Putting a child in the sketch is not only unnecessary, it’s deranged: SNL soft-pedals so much sociopolitically, and this is the boundary you’re choosing to cross this week?
This takeoff on the compilations of crazy shit you see on TikTok was a repeat of something that felt like filler the first time it aired and now frankly seems like a waste of airtime. It’s cheap and easy, and literally anyone can do it: Plenty of people on social media publish similar bizarre/amusing/horrifying compilations every week. If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all, and they’re enough. This is not what we need SNL for.
(The comic highlight of my week: The numerous Twitter takes on Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s ridiculously homoerotic documentary on “The End of Men,” which friends have been sending me all day. But SNL had more urgent things to address, like the Black-Eyed Peas.)
Lizzo’s new single “About Damn Time” dropped on Thursday. I intended to give it just a skim but ended up spending some serious time appreciating its mechanics, a precision multi-point design ruthlessly focused on generating the ideal post-Omicron summer jam. It borrows drum and guitar elements from the Bee Gees’ “Love You Inside Out”, swipes a flute hook from “The Hustle,” and pours both into a Brothers Johnson-style super-early-post-disco frame, overlaid with lyrics about a stressed-out person’s re-emergence into the world to the awe of nearby bitches. (“Bad bitch o’clock” and “thicc-thirty” are likely to enter the lexicon before the summer is out.)
Which is to say, the song is good, and Lizzo’s performance in the video (where she displays a talent for physical comedy) is worth your time. Unfortunately, SNL utterly stranded her, undermining the live performance with a terrible audio mix that buried her vocals, even beneath the peppy flutes. Seriously: If your musical guest is actually going to sing live, do the bare minimum to get the damn levels right. Lizzo actually seemed to be struggling in the second song, seemingly breathless and visibly frustrated. It was shocking to watch.
I’m sharing this video, but it’s not the same performance I saw live. This was heavily remixed and sweetened before being posted to YouTube (and that’s frankly bullshit—the show should note it before posting):
- This show wasn’t just a miss, it was alarmingly bad on some very basic levels. If skulls don’t necessarily need to be cracked, there should be some serious Zoom meetings about reorienting the ship before the show returns on May 7 with Benedict Cumberbatch as host. If I were that guy’s agent, I’d be sweating right now.
- What the hell happened this week on the production side? Did a Batman villain drop in and surreptitiously disperse a talent-zapping gas into Studio 8H?
- The rapid deterioration of SNL’s writing has really been something to observe. Last season, it was clear things needed shaking up. The writing staff was overhauled for season 47. This season’s Oscar Isaac and Zoe Kravitz episodes were really promising. A month before the season wraps, we’re circling the all-time bottom of the barrel. WTF?