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

Maya Rudolph still owns Studio 8H, but Saturday Night Live can't rise to meet her

Maya Rudolph
Maya Rudolph
Photo: Mary Ellen Matthews/NBC

“I feel you. I still can’t tell if this is beneath me.”

“I’m not an actor, I’m a [got-damned award-winning, bubble bath-taking] star!!”

You’re goddamned right, you are, Maya Rudolph. While her second time hosting her old show and launching pad bewilderingly didn’t allow Rudolph to truly bust loose, the evening was a gently funny reminder that the multiple award-winner is an all-timer. The final (and best) piece of the night was an elaborate filmed The Shining parody, where, after a hauntingly funny trip through the memorabilia and ghosts of Studio 8H (scored to “Midnight, The Stars And You”), Maya is seen in a photo among the original seven Not Ready For Prime Time Players. And, apart from the able photoshopping job, she looks right at home there with her arm draped over the slim shoulder of the shockingly young Dan Aykroyd. Sure, Maya was three when the show premiered, and I shudder at the thought of how a Black woman would have fared on 1975 TV (just ask Garrett), but it’s such a fitting tribute to someone whose talent will linger at Saturday Night Live, inspiring the new kids each year until the end of time. (Which is probably how long SNL will run.)

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Rudolph (along with “The Maya-ing” guest stars Rachel Dratch and Tina Fey) was part of the most formidable female-fronted ensemble in the show’s often checkered history when it comes to that sort of thing. (“Maybe the women could talk,” was the primary suggestion of Fey’s spectrally coked-up late writer, Gloria Zellwig.) She, Dratch, Fey, Amy Poehler, Kristen Wiig (not to mention comic all-stars who just didn’t work out, Jenny Slate, Casey Wilson, and Michaela Watkins)—that stretch is legendary, for all the right reasons. And Maya Rudolph was front and center, the sort of versatile, perpetually on-point performer who inspired nothing but confidence in viewers. There are some SNL performers whose stardom came from effortful playing to the cheap seats (sorry, tonight’s guest Martin Short), and some who simply were stars on Saturday Night Live. That’s Maya. She has always been here.

Best/Worst Sketch Of The Night

The Best: Since I already played my hand, let’s talk about “The Maya-ing.” Some behind the scenes pieces are—if I may—so up the show’s own ass that they come off as cloyingly cutesy, or exhausting. Or both. This is neither, a serenely inventive, patiently constructed paean to the show’s past (and Maya Rudolph’s place in it) that still manages to be funny and pointed enough to remind us why we should care in the first place. In her monologue, Maya regally talked down to those aforementioned new kids, Andrew Dismukes, Punkie Johnson, and Lauren Holt (sorry, Chirpy, Little Deedee, and Callista Vagina), assuring them that, someday, they, too, might be just as great as Maya Rudolph. Here, Chirpy returns as himself, the conceit being that, in addition to occasionally donning spiky COVID headgear, featured players have to do page duty, with Rudolph blowing off her long-waiting car in favor of checking out the very real, photo-festooned 8H hallways. (Her fond regrets over not having gone for it with hosts Derek Jeter and Jeff Gordon turn to an expertly timed, unspoken hard pass on Kevin Spacey’s picture.)

Once she arrives in the studio proper, there’s a genuinely creepy (you know, in a good way) Alex Moffat as the ghostly in-studio bartender, assuring Rudolph that her money’s no good there. (Her standard beer-garita is on the house.) Fey (sporting a serious case of coke-nose and a hairstyle oddly reminiscent of original writer and Lorne Michaels’ then-wife, Rosie Shuster) welcomes Rudolph as one of the long-suffering woman pioneers of SNL, even as she bemoans the loss of self-destructive workplace affairs (and all that coke). Kenan (himself sure to haunt 8H alongside Fey and Rudolph once/if he ever leaves the show) is Scatman Crothers/Dick Halloran, whose sagacious talk of Rudolph’s former cast member “shine” eventually gets on Maya’s nerves a bit. Dratch is in an ominous bathtub, not in Room 237, but right on the stage. She’s not a ghost, as the trembling hand of Rudolph lands squarely on Dratch’s very alive face with a fleshy slap. (“That was just Dratch,” Maya assures her new ghost pals, offhandedly.) Some pieces like this just capture the show better than others. An elderly John Belushi dancing on his former castmates’ graves. A sad and lonely Gilda trapped in Tom Schiller’s Fellini-esque world of garish fame. Phil Hartman and Jan Hooks’ lovely dream waltz. (Jesus, I just realized as I’m typing this that everyone involved in these is actually dead.) “The Maya-ning” takes its place among those, a lovingly crafted time capsule of one of the people who’s made Saturday Night Live worthwhile.

The Worst: As noted, this episode came off like a wasted opportunity. There weren’t any bad sketches, but there weren’t any that really seemed fully engaged in showing off their gift of a host, either. The choreographers sketch was most emblematic of that, since, how do you have Maya and Kenan squaring off as arch Broadway types and former lovers named Richard Perquest and Tanya Katank and not just whack that thing out of the park? The timing was off and the pace was flat, leaving unforgivable silences around what should have been a showcase for two inveterate showoffs. There are weird enough little ideas nibbling around the corners to suggest what could have been. Kenan keeps misidentifying commonplace things for the pair to conspire around (“The big, black window” = chalkboard), and, apparently, Rudolph’s dance diva was wont to display herself bottomless at every opportunity in the pair’s bucolic past. But, like the indifferently choreographed dance number (in a sketch about choreographers, no less) that ends the piece, this one never finds its footing.

The Rest: The cold open ditched politics almost entirely for the first time in what seems like a damned decade. I mean, the fact that Florida has become the cautionary example of COVID-conspiring Republican lawmakers eager to trade lives for tourist dollars is sort of political, but the sketch itself is more of a pile-on at the expense of the teeming crowds of drunken, horny dipshits currently swarming Florida beaches, their mask-less, shirtless buffoonery even more dangerous and irresponsible than usual in Spring Break 2021. I’m always groaning at the sight of another game show sketch (broken record: ditch game show and talk show sketches for a season and see what sprouts), and putting one right in the cold open got a double groan. But, hey, it had Maya right out front as (I can only assume fictional) MTV host Cece Vuvuzela, riding herd over a selection of said horny idiots as they compete to see if they can help constitute Florida’s “fourth wave.” “We are so close to the end—let’s ruin it!,” is the show’s motto, and if the horny dummies involved weren’t especially memorable, well, yeah, they were not. Making fun of irresponsible dong-dongs flouting all common sense and public good so they can vomit Bud Light Lime on each other might be easy, but it should be a little more effortful.

After last episode’s (thankfully affectionate and appreciated by its subjects) extended Update piece about YouTube’s reaction video stars the Williams brothers, it’s clear that everyone at Saturday Night Live has been in the same boat as the rest of us in numbly watching funny internet videos for a year straight. So this week, Hot Ones’ Sean Eveans gets the big call-up from streaming to TV (or is that a lateral move at this point), as his so-dumb-it’s-perfect YouTube talk show welcomes none other than Rudolph’s returning Beyoncé. The show, for those who’ve spent their lockdown learning new skills or reading books instead, sees famous (sometimes SNL-related) guests attempting to answer the usual chat show array of questions while downing a series of increasingly hot-sauced chicken wings. There are some jokes native to the source (Mikey Day does a passable impression of the leather-tongued, unassuming Evans, while there are sauces with names like “Hitler’s Anus Roasted Reaper Sauce”), but it’s mainly Beyoncé/Rudolph’s show, as it should be. Warily noting that she’s unsure about the whole, Solange-recommended experience, Maya’s imperiously glamorous superstar tries her damnedest to keep her cool under the assault of novelty hot sauces, with Rudolph gamely slathering herself with sweat, water, milk, and, as she demands from Kenan’s worshipful wig wrangler, six ice cubes placed underneath her meticulously groomed mane. Honestly, just listening to Rudolph enunciating “wig” as “whig” is enough for me to be perfectly happy with the whole enterprise.

There were a pair of further filmed pieces tonight, both music videos. Of the two, I’ll give the lower slot to the musical primer on “NFT”’s, simply because the incomprehensible new blockchain/collectable GIF(?) boondoggle is destined to spawn the usual raft of condescendingly explanatory emails to my inbox. (Honestly, not gonna read em.) Still, if you’re going to baffle viewers with an obscure concept that clearly (according to the audience reaction) about 4 percent of people have heard of, then at least you can populate the resulting sketch with Kate McKinnon as a patiently no-nonsense Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, yes-and-ing the rapped pitches of students dressed as Morpheus and Robin, for some reason. (Honestly, I have no idea of the reason.) In the end, it’s musical guest (and apparent star up the upcoming “white boy summer,”) Jack Harlow’s singing janitor who finally gets it concerning the “non-fungible token” industry. Which, again, no emails necessary. “Okay, that was just a list of complete nonsense,” Yellen notes in response at one point, and I’m gonna go with that. Please feel free to lord it over us old farts when your, um, super-valuable internet mini-movies(?) buy you that Viper, dog.

Better was the Boomer-bashing vaccination video, if only because I had the slightest idea what it was talking about. (Plus, I’m old, but GenX-old, not Baby Boomer-old, so eat it, Boomers. USA! USA!) Anyway, almost everybody in the cast got to dress up like their grandparents and boast about how they’re hogging all the first doses of the COVID vaccines, even though they voted for Trump (but just for the tax breaks), “crashed the economy three whole times,” and love to scold these young kids today about student debt when they went to school for free, essentially. SNL is so good at these sorts of mini-movies (which, as I understand it, are not NFTs), and this one’s a great chance for everybody involved to do their thing. Kenan gets the break and steals the piece, his OG boasting “It is what it is” about his lifetime of line-hopping, before dozing contentedly in his luxury La-Z-Boy.

The Barfly Awards continued the generational warfare, albeit this time shifting the focus to the hardest-drinking members of the elder community. (Kate McKinnon’s white-haired Peaches is revealed to only be 41, but it’s a very lived-in 41.) It’s basically a chance for everyone to show off their drunk acting, and everybody does fine at that questionable but long-standing comic art form. Maya—winning all the awards as the nightdress-wearing Sally O’Flappy—is the standout, her grandmotherly ramblings inevitably trailing off to end each acceptance speech. And the “Biggest Bummer” category gave Heidi Gardner (with marking pens jammed all through her unruly hair) the opportunity to essay “your favorite high school teacher” turned pitiably chatty and blearily praiseful drunk at the end of the bar. As with the Covid-iots cold open, there’s nothing wrong with building a comic premise around something deeply sad and pitiful, but, while filled with performers giving it their all, this one just felt inadequate to the admittedly low-ambition task.

Weekend Update Update

Jost may have been name-checked in the NFT bit for his “punchable face” (rhymed with a reference to the ever-delightful Ron Funches, who should host sometime), but sometimes his smirk can be used for good. Taking on the ongoing, gun-based bloodbath taking place thanks to the recently out of hibernation mass shooters of America, Jost guaranteed his own week of hate mail by going hard after those lawmakers still obstructing the overwhelmingly favored, fucking least-we-can-do step of universal background checks for people who want to purchase automatic orphan-makers. It’s all just people parroting talking points into each others’ red faces at this point in this charade of a gun debate, so here’s to Jost for actually managing to turn one of those points into an actual joke. “If you actually cared about the Second Amendment, you’d also care about the ‘well-regulated militias’ part,” he adresses Republican lawmakers, “And I don’t know if you noticed when they almost hung you two months ago, but our militias aren’t super well-regulated.” Good, hard turn on that joke. Enjoy your week, Jost.

Che did his thing, playing contrarian in response, talking about having bought a gun himself once “all those white kids started talking about getting rid of the police.” (Enjoy your week, Che.) And, apart from anyone’s (hidebound, red-faced) position on the issue of guns, it’s energizing to have two engaged and funny comic minds working through a comic premise alongside each other. They’re a weird team, are Che and Jost, but their push and pull sensibilities aren’t often dull.

Bowen Yang did his thing, too, hijacking his supposed heartfelt plea on behalf of his fellow AAPI citizens in the wake of the Trump-incited pandemic of anti-Asian violence in this country in favor of steering white guilt toward his own pet causes. (Apparently, North Brooklyn needs more Paneras.) Yang, while playing, wasn’t playing, though. Setting a guilt-trap for Jost right up front (“Yeah, I set your ass up,” he taunts Jost about his self-mandated “Asian Cast Member” chyron), Yang finally expressed his up-to-here helplessness when trying to speak out against bigotry. Throwing his hands up, Yang summed it up succinctly: “If someone’s personality is ‘punch an Asian grandma,’ it’s not a dialogue. I have an Asian grandma. You wanna punch her—there ain’t no common ground, mama.” Pulling out the Chinese expression meaning “fuel up,” Yang, after first chiding Jost for having cut the “gay Passover bunny” Update piece he really wanted to do (it was 20 minutes long), told (white) viewers to “do more” than sign online petitions and tip their manicurists well. (“You should do that, specifically,” he told Jost.) Pointing to the outpouring of money to hate crime victim and actual Asian grandma Xiao Zhen Xie at the hands of some whiteboy asshole (all million bucks or so of which the woman is giving away to fight racism), Yang cited this being the year of the metal ox to suggest that non-asshole white people strap in and actually confront bigotry. Update pieces take lots of forms, and no doubt Yang is still steaming about that gay Passover bunny idea, but this is one of the most compelling.

Cecily Strong had a big night playing Trump-era goblins (her Marjorie Taylor Green makes an appearance sedition-breaking into Kamala Harris’ house at one point), here bringing out noted Trump fabulist, abortive Kraken-releaser, and so, so screwed litigant, attorney Sidney Powell. Strong can screw her mobile face up into just the right degree of caricature, and her cockeyed Powell exhibits the appropriate combination of cocksure condescension and glassy-eyed desperation. Noting that her defense in the $1.6 billion Dominion voting machine libel suit relies on her lawyers’ assertion that nobody with a single functioning brain cell could take her months-long, Trump-sanctioned campaign to overturn an American seriously (call it the Tucker Carlson defense), Strong’s Powell also seeded the ground for an insanity plea, occasionally slipping a few turkey gobbles into her carefully practiced spiel. Man, Cecily is amazing at constructing a character out of minutely observed, escalating silliness. And, as a reminder, all that Kraken stuff that so enraptured your Fox News-loving extended family was, by Powell’s own scrambling admission, “too ridiculous to be believed.” Great work, MAGA nation! Turkey noise!

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“What do you call that act?” “The Roxbury Guys!”—Recurring Sketch Report

Maya brought back Beyoncé, but that was less a recurring sketch than a returning visitation from the goddess(es).

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

Hey, Joe Biden (sorry, “JaBiden”) is back! It’s been a suspiciously long time for Alex Moffat to get back into the fake choppers and so-so impression, so good on him, although the presidential facsimile’s extended absences suggest that there’s not a lot of confidence, either in the performance or the show’s handle on how to lampoon a non-Trump head of state. (Jost did a “Biden falls down” joke on Update, which was about as pointed as things got.) The real attraction here was—wait for it—Maya Rudolph, as her Kamala Harris hosted a Passover gathering in an attempt to reach out to Republicans like Aidy Bryant’s Ted Cruz and Cecily’s Taylor Green. And, as Second Gentleman, Doug Emhoff, (deep sigh) Martin Short. Look, I love Martin Short as much as Maya obviously does. (As evidenced by her goodnights shout of, “I love Martin Short!”) But this sketch had the right idea at one point by simply hurling a stuffed version of Biden’s apparently snippy dig Major at Short and letting him flail around on the floor while everybody else got on with things for a while. Martin Short is a lot, especially when you get him in front of a live audience, and I’m not sure that his appearance alongside onetime sketch show co-star Maya did the sketch proper many favors.

Perhaps sensing that this wasn’t tight enough for a cold open (and just think about that), the sketch settled in for some lukewarm political jabs and an unfocused take on just what Emhoff’s deal is (slow-jamming lover-man? petrified shrinking violet? guy who keeps uncomfortably caressing close to Maya Rudolph’s breasts?). Cruz confesses, “My only crime is loving too much—and sedition,” and Kenan’s newly elected Senator Raphael Warnock sums up the racially biased GOP voter suppression efforts in Georgia as “You saw Roots? That’s, like, how it’s going.” And Maya’s Maya, although, once more, the show hasn’t picked a characterization lane. From all appearances, the Vice President is a competent and committed public servant without any obvious handles to latch onto, so the show has settled for hinting that Harris is merely waiting for Biden to retire (or, you know), so she can take her rightful place in the Oval. Which is fine, if you do something with it.

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I Am Hip To The Musics Of Today

But I kid 23-year-old white rapper Jack Harlow for being on Chet Haze/Hanks’ approved, all-white cultural appropriator summer listening list, as the guy has addressed his own uneasy position in the Black-rooted genre with some eloquence during his short career. Bringing out Adam Levine to back himself up in his second number didn’t help, though. I dunno—not for me? I did find myself, as I listened to Harlow’s tongue-trippingly low-fi and conversational flow, thinking that it’d be cool to listen to some Lonely Island again. Where are those CDs?

Most/Least Valuable Not Ready For Prime Time Player

Cecily grounded a number of pieces tonight (her sozzled host of the Barfly Awards was some fine work), so she gets the top spot. That even though the new kids all got to share the monologue stage with Rudolph. And even if Chirpy got booted for only being five when Maya first started on SNL, here’s to Andrew, Punkie, and Lauren for the nice spotlight turn.

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Melissa’s continued underuse continues to baffle.

“What the hell is that thing?”—Dispatches From Ten-To-Oneland

That’s “The Maya-ing,” and if I steadfastly (some would say grumpily) maintain that this is the spot for live stuff, the short film was such a perfect way to close out the show that even I can’t find anything to complain about.

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Stray observations

  • As Maya notes in her monologue, we have all indeed been through a year that’s been “a real kick in the clam.”
  • Maya’s four kids were all in attendance, with Rudolph assuring them that, with all the wigs and funny voices, the evening will be just like home except, “Mommy’s gonna be wearing a bra.”
  • “Oh, Callista, I hope you’re funny because you’re very, very stupid,” Rudolph tells Lauren Holt upon Holt questioning Maya’s Breakfast Club mis-remembering of the good old days.
  • Dude, it’s takin’ all my concentration to keep from blowing out my pants on your janky-ass show.”
  • “Sum 41,” muses Maya, looking over the musical guest photos, “That’s when music was music.”
  • Next week: Daniel Kaluuya is in the house, another of this season’s genuinely impressive and intriguing bookings. Musical guest, St. Vincent, who’s very nice.
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Contributor, The A.V. Club. Danny Peary's Cult Movies books are mostly to blame.