Saturday Night Live (Screenshot: NBC)

“I’m being told that that joke was actually written by a 32-year-old writer who went to Yale.”

“I’m not an actor, I’m a [movie, sort-of rap] star!”

The only other time Natalie Portman hosted Saturday Night Live, in 2006, there was still some comic juice in the sight of her parodying her prim and proper screen image by busting out in a Lonely Island-penned gangster rap. Twelve years later, in the way of all returning sketches, the newest Portman rap lacked the element of shock, although Portman was game for the new, not-Digital Short, being, if anything, more profanely game than before. It’s a funny bit nonetheless, with Beck Bennett taking over the condescending interviewer role from Chris Parnell (and catching a Time’s Up pin to his forehead for his sins), and Portman getting perhaps her biggest laugh of either outing by reprising Queen Amidala and threatening a cowering Alex Moffat at gunpoint. (“Say something about the motherfucking prequels, bitch!”) Andy Samberg reprised his role from the original, and Bennett hung the lampshade on the fanservice of it all by breaking in to call out the enterprise as being “almost exactly the same, but with current references,” which about sums it up.

But that was pretty much Portman’s only highlight of this resolutely average episode. Her monologue was funny mostly in spite of her, with a mention of NBC’s upcoming, inescapable Olympics coverage (hello, SNL hiatus) seeing commentators Kenan Thompson and Kate McKinnon breaking in to analyze her performance of such difficult host moves as a “double joke-joke into a triple applause break.” (McKinnon gets the biggest laugh by refusing to answer Kenan’s question about what hosts were unable to make the transition from “a charming intro” into a “light political joke.” I have some ideas.)

The monologue was a preview of SNL’s strategy for Portman, as she played the capable straight-woman role while the funny stuff happened off to her left, for the most part. Portman didn’t appear flustered by the live experience (laser-eyed cue card-reading aside), so much as she remained blandly irrelevant to it. Some hosts add their own energy to the night’s comedy, complementing the cast’s varied strengths. Others make for workmanlike foils, filling out the hosting duties while the funny stuff goes on all around her. Portman was the latter, a position more thankless for how unremarkable the sketches were around her all night.

Weekend Update update

Jost and Che got their Trump licks in (ewww) as usual, an exercise in finding novel ways to satirize the already ludicrous that they’ve honed to a reliable sharpness. Jost joshed about the relatively neutral-to-positive reviews of Trump’s teleprompter-reading at the State Of The Union, comparing it to being impressed when an animal (like that shower rat all the kids are tweeting about) does something sort-of human. And Che used a clip of Trump’s more-typical off-book stammering and yammering when asked to describe exactly what it was about the infamous Nunes memo that he claimed proves the “deep state” is out to get him to back up his contention that there’s no way Trump read a four-page document in its entirety.

But the pair got their biggest laughs by showing off their by-now unsurprising chemistry, riffing on each other and deploying the off-camera laugh line to fine effect. Jost, noting that Mel Gibson is planning another Passion Of The Christ, expertly deadpanned the joke about not seeing the film unless Christ announces, “You crossed the wrong guy.” As the audience gradually caught up to the cleverly edgy joke, he waited until the camera was on Che before doubling down with an out-0f-shot “Nailed it.” And Che, following up on his joke about Trump being flustered when asked to explain even the simplest goddamned facts, joked that Trump flailed around like “Colin when I asked him if his family ever owned slaves.”

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Three correspondent pieces tonight. Pete Davidson was himself, which is what he does best, here offering up anecdotes about his recent stint as a commercial pitchman and doing a jerk-off joke. Davidson’s gotten more comfortable on the show (especially as himself) and he takes the time here to let some uncomfortable beats in his story land with more poise than we’re used to. Referencing a worried father answering Davidson’s dumb “man on the street” commercial questions, and explaining the cast that’s been visible on his right hand (he punched a door, apparently) by announcing “I have mental problems,” Davidson keeps finding more depth of performance in his Update appearances, which is nice.

McKinnon and Cecily Strong’s joint appearance as French acting legends Brigitte Bardot and Catherine Deneuve was a funny near-miss. The fact that a number of French actresses have spoken out against the Me Too movement in Hollywood is a complicated, thorny example of cultural, generational, intersectional dissent in the women’s movement that could be the basis for some equally nuanced comedy, but here we have to settle for a pair of fine performances by McKinnon and Strong, and not much more. Like the similarly themed restaurant sketch from last week’s Will Ferrell-hosted episode, SNL raises an issue and then takes the first exit out of it, with the joke turning into a doubles act of the slightly younger Deneuve being gradually embarrassed by the aged and notoriously right-wing Bardot’s more blatant prejudices. Even there, though, the idea of these actresses holding sexual harassment in entertainment to a different standard doesn’t go much deeper than “oh, they’re French.” It’s like Nora Dunn’s old Babette sketches—amusing, but shallow.

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And then there’s Willie. It’s like I always say, “Look in the recurring sketch report, Willie!”

Best/Worst sketch of the night

On a night where most sketches left me musing, “Well, that... existed,”it’s more an exercise in plucking out funny moments rather than entire pieces. The pre-Super Bowl Patriots fans versus Eagles fans sketch saw returning SNL royalty Tina Fey and Rachel Dratch both bringing the broad (so to speak) as they represented the most vocal stereotypes of their respective hometowns. Dratch’s Pat’s fan led a Revolutionary War delegation from Boston, obnoxiously touting the steamroller success of those New England patriots, swilling pewter flagons of Dunkin’s coffee, and never shutting up about the heroism of one Captain Tomas Brady. And Fey, busting out the most Philly accent of all time, ranted about the scrappy, “iggle-eyed” prowess of the freedom fighters from Philadelphia. Pete Davidson had to stifle a laughing fit at Philadelphian Kenan Thompson’s revelation that, yes, he is from “West Philadelphia, born and raised,” while Fey bragged that all “iggle-like” Philly boosters are “swift, deadly, and our eyes are all al little too close together.” It’s cute, and—geographically obligated as I am to root for the ever-annoying Patriots—Beck Bennett’s exasperated founding father asking “Is there any way both could lose?” strikes a chord at this point.

The only thing close to a complete sketch tonight was the Stranger Things bit, even if the show missed a chance to have Portman play Winona Ryder’s harried mom, Joyce. (It’s the sort of physically obvious gag that, one supposes, was just too on the nose.) As it was, Portman played straight-woman as El, dodging Mikey Day’s Will as he desperately tries to wheedle a kiss and “some over-the-jeans stuff,” and setting up a succession of other superpowered kids. Noting that her telekeneisis causes a picturesque little nosebleed, El learns that Beck Bennett’s firestarter throws up in his mouth a little, Davidson’s speedster gets Flash-boners, Luke Null can make great chili at the cost of a massive brain hemorrhage, and Strong’s mind reader farts. (Of the two big ol’ fart jokes tonight, Strong’s is by far the better. Timing is everything with a fart joke.) By the time Aidy Bryant’s paranormal kid reveals that her “pretty good Borat” puts her into a two-week coma, the absurdity of the premise has built to successfully loopy levels. And Kenan’s arrival as a teen with the ability to end sketches at least finds a clever way to call attention to SNL’s weakness in the area. (Oh, Leslie is 50. That’s all.)

Speaking of fart jokes, that alien sketch was a lot of effort (Bennett’s makeup alone...) for very little payoff. By the time the sketch ends with Bennett’s butt-faced (and face-butted) alien bidding goodbye with a fedora perched jauntily on his rump, his commitment to the joke has built up a bit of goodwill, if not laughter. I love it when SNL takes a swing at a big belly laugh physical sketch, but this one was—pardon—pretty deadly, with Portman’s willingness to talk right into Bennett’s pulsing butt cheeks throughout theoretically rather than actually amusing. The reveal that Bennett’s blue-skinned alien’s face-butt inversion may all be in his mind rather than a characteristic of his race is a promising setup, but, man, SNL can’t help but explain its outlandish premises to the cheap seats right off the bat. When a sketch works despite such a prosaic construction, it’s due to actors more adept at playing off the silliness than Portman proves here.

The Kids’ Choice Awards at least reverses things, so that Mikey Day’s co-host can deliver some solidly desperate deadpan reactions to Portman’s sudden, scream-induced laryngitis. Here too, though, Portman must spell out the fact that she’s lost her voice, several times, as soon as it happens, which is awfully deflating. We can get it on our own, although, again, that Portman isn’t the most impactful physical comedian means that perhaps someone thought the training wheels were necessary to sell the sketch. Here, a few bits work. McKinnon’s Ellen Degeneres bursting out an uncharacteristic “Jesus Christ!” at the first sound of Portman’s producer-supplied vocalizer gets a genuine laugh, and Day’s increasingly dismissive asides to the whisper-voiced Portman gets a few chuckles.

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

Kenan can play Michael Che’s irrepressibly optimistic neighbor Willie any time he wants, as far as I’m concerned. Thompson’s such an essential performer on the show at this point, and his perpetually put-upon but twisted Willie makes the bit’s bad taste jokes land in spite of themselves (and in spite of repetition). “Sex dolls don’t have toe tags, Willie!” wouldn’t work for anyone else.

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

If the sight of Alec Baldwin playing Donald Trump while lounging in bed in silk pajamas doesn’t sum up my feelings for this extended stint of “whenever he feels like it” Trump drop-ins, I don’t know an apt freaking metaphor when I see one. That Donald Trump does, in fact, spend his “executive time” furiously retweeting, verbatim, stuff he sees spouted by the three right-wing bias-mannequins of “morning show if Germany had won the war,” Fox & Friends is as verifiably true as it is unsettling. And Moffat, Heidi Gardner, and Bennett fill the shoes of the departed Taran Killam, Vanessa Bayer, and Bobby Moynihan with ably vapid enthusiasm as they play directly to their number one fan. The closed Trump-Fox News loop echo chamber is a vital source for comedy, but SNL’s Trump remains a sluggish, toothless target in Baldwin’s performance as much as in the perfunctory sketches’ writing. Having Trump, scarfing down Egg McMuffins and drinking his Diet Coke with two hands is, sure, whatever. And while it’s tough for political satirists to do more than have their Trump spout a list of the week’s worth of Trump’s irrational, mendacious, and/or hateful bullshit these days, well, that’s where the “satirist” part comes in. Yes, Donald Trump lied about the ratings for his State Of The Union speech, so, mentioning that is sort of a joke. (Better is Trump’s claim that the extra three billion viewers he’s claiming were “illegals,” which at least takes a stab at portraying whatever is going on inside Donald Trump’s head.)

But since Donald Trump is currently waging an escalating campaign to discredit literally any American institution looking into his and his campaign’s increasingly, inescapably apparent collusion with a hostile foreign power, some watery references to Republican Congressman and chief collaborator Devin Nunes as “my sweet little house elf” isn’t exactly razor-sharp stuff. (Again, the throwaway reference to Nunes being “so close to earning his freedom” is a more evocative line that might have led somewhere more interesting.) Back on the Fox & Friends set, the joke that blow-dried state news mouthpieces Steve Doocy, Ainsley Earhardt, and Brian Kilmeade are so hungry to back up Trump’s talking points about FBI corruption that they don’t realize the problematic nature of having Nation of Islam head Louis Farrakhan on the show is a funny idea. Chris Redd does a solid, committed Farrakhan, who, while confused as to why the race-baiting Fox show would have him on, is all too happy to share his own reason why the FBI is the enemy. (And why the all-white hosts are “going to die.”) As usual with these political cold opens, the good stuff generally comes when Trump-Baldwin is offscreen.

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In a bit that should have worked a lot better, considering the performers involved, the First Ladies sketch just never takes off, either. That Portman comes on to counsel Strong’s depressed and betrayed Melania Trump should have more impact, considering Portman’s history. And the succession of past First Ladies, too, is funnier in theory than in practice. Points to Aidy Bryant, whose Martha Washington, having materialized outside the White House window, just hacks her way inside with robust first First Lady determination. There are nods to jokes rather than, you know, jokes. McKinnon’s Hillary is always amusingly manic in her thwarted ambitions, responding to Melania’s reminder that she didn’t win the election with a gleam-eyed, laughing, “I know! I was there!” And Leslie Jones’ Michelle Obama proclaiming offhandedly, “And I can be president whenever I want” was funny. But the sketch feels awfully thin for one so packed with performers and promise. Plus, it could definitely have used Kenan’s sketch-ending superpower.

I am hip to the musics of today

Dua Lipa’s hoarse-voiced pop at least sounded different. A.V. Club music smarty Danette Chavez once called Lipa “a prepossessing pretender to the pop throne.” She meant it as a compliment, I’m almost certain.

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

Aidy Bryant gets the top spot on a nondescript week. See below for her buzzer-beater that sealed the victory.

Luke Null had basically one line in the Pats-Eagles sketch. But he got to say it more than once (and make some chili while wearing a blood rig later), so that at least beat Melissa Villaseñor this time out.

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

Portman played it straight again as one of three friends whose barside girl talk with friends Strong and Gardner is happily hijacked by Aidy Bryant’s brashly unpretentious Bunny. (Pronounced with a hesitation between syllables that was funny each time in Bryant’s delivery.) The joke is that the rough-around-the-edges Bunny’s (Bun-Ny’s) weirdo confidence makes her more romantically content than her picky and superficially pretty seatmates, a premise sold throughout by Bunny’s unapologetically carnal goals. Strategically dropping odder and odder personal details (she’s only 27, works in the kitchen of a men’s prison, is catfishing out-of-state dudes so they’ll settle for crashing at her place), Bryant makes Bunny’s singularly strange approach to finding love (or something) improbably endearing, even perversely noble. Coming as it does in the same spot in the show previously occupied by Kate McKinnon’s similarly desperate barfly character, one suspects Bunny will also be run into the ground after a while, although, like McKinnon, Bryant will no doubt always make Bunny worth a few bold laughs.

Stray observations

  • Cecily Strong’s Hope Hicks, describing the chaos in the White House: “There are no real jobs here. It’s more like when a group of strangers suddenly work together to push a beached whale into the sea.”
  • Portman’s best physical bit was the freeze-frame gag in the monologue, as McKinnon’s commentator uses the telestrator to circle the flop sweat on her brow.
  • 1775 Fey, mocking 40-year-old Thomas Brady, points out that he’s already four years past his life expectancy.
  • “Whether you’re an Eagles fan or a Patriots fan remember that child support was due on the first of the month.”
  • “So many of the things this woman says are problematic.”
  • And that’s hiatus until after the Olympics folks. See you back here on March 3 for the returning comedy stylings of Charles Barkley.

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