“We kind of got lost in it. The scene work was pretty damn good.”
For Oscar winner and current Bond villain Rami Malek, hosting Saturday Night Live is one of those intriguingly incongruous pairings. Never known as a comedian, the reliably intense Malek came out in a natty sweater vest and tie, telling the live audience that, “I never thought this would be my life.” He was talking about it all—the Best Actor award, Mr. Robot, possibly excluding the third Night At The Museum movie—but hosting Saturday Night Live might just be Malek’s least-expected gig yet. Thankfully, the show tailored itself to what Malek could do (act, play straight man, do a creditable Pete Davidson), with the No Time To Die star emerging, like most dramatic actors not known for wackiness, as both a good sport and a grateful guest. Hopping into co-star (in the Bond franchise and tonight’s episode) Daniel Craig’s arms during the goodnights, Malek made for a second (of three) solid if unremarkable hosts this young season.
I have to confess that Malek playing second stink-bug to Bowen Yang’s campily scene-stealing daddy longlegs in his first sketch made me a little nervous. Sticking your acclaimed thespian host into an insect costume and having him stand around while someone else gets the laughs isn’t the strongest vote of confidence I’ve ever seen. But Malek rose to the occasion in his limited number of sketches, his wonted intensity working wonders in a hammy two-hander with Aidy Bryant, and making the inevitable Squid Game pre-tape into something appropriately unnerving. And, in the impression-fest that was game show Celeb School, Malek just went for—and got—those laughs, aping Pete Davidson’s mannerisms with all the enthusiasm of a guy who saw his opening to truly get into the SNL groove. I’m not alone in my excitement that SNL pro and finally emergent comedy all-star Jason Sudeikis will be the first actual sketch comedian to host next week, but a good, offbeat booking necessarily transforms the show into something unpredictable. That can be truly dire, sure, but Malek’s off-center presence tonight made for a consistently funny, ensemble-centric show.
The Best: The last shall be first, as I liked the ten-to-one sketch best of all. But that gets its own place of honor, so...
Celeb School seems like the first time in forever that SNL has gone back to the everybody-gets-an-impression comedy well, which is really good news for Melissa Villaseñor, who’s been infamously underused on a show that’s lived on celebrity impressions for nearly half a century. These sketches are generally pretty disposable, functioning as they do to give most of the cast airtime with some quick-hit impressions. The sketch itself is traditionally just a clothesline to hang those impressions on, but at least this cast has some outstanding and unique voices to call on. James Austin Johnson continues to make his play to be the next Darrell Hammond, here trotting out an effortlessly accurate and funny Adam Driver, answering questions with the actor’s off-kilter, oddly emphasized cadence. Melissa gets to do her excellently self-absorbed Kristen Wiig, lobbing paper airplanes and then mugging as to whether that was a weird thing to do. (It was.) And Chloe Fineman does a fantastic Jennifer Coolidge, playing on the perceived overlap between the White Lotus star’s onscreen and offscreen personae.
Mikey Day had a single hook upon which he hung his bombastic John Oliver. Kenan’s host, Bert Simpson (again, a master class in one-line assassination), admonishes Day’s Oliver, “Your rant, though amusing, contained no answer,” and that’s about right for the impersonation, too. Redd was Lil Wayne, spacily not knowing what game he’s on (and wandering off at one point), but it’s the weakest impression from a specificity perspective. The big joke, though, was Pete playing Rami and Rami playing Pete, the two commenting upon the idea that they two (sort of?) look alike (they have those heavy-lidded eyes, I guess), and generally whipping the crowd into an infectious lgiggle-fit. Pete’s Rami comes in second (he doesn’t get anything about the voice right), but the idea that he keeps freaking Rami’s Pete out just by staring at him like he has “the soul of a Victorian child is trapped in his eyes” is funny. Malek really throws himself into his Pete, however, and if he sounds a little more like Jesse Pinkman at times, it’s undeniably fun to watch him cut loose and be the center of a sketch. Oh, and Bowen Yang does a funny George Takei, complaining about Shatner’s recent jaunt as geriatric space ballast. Mainly, it’s funny watching Kenan’s delighted host prod Takei into saying his catchphrase, with Yang playing up the Star Trek actor’s later-career cattiness to great effect.
The Rest: (I didn’t really see a conspicuous clunker tonight.) While Malek’s Davidson was the host’s one shot at full-on impersonation comedy, the Prince sketch just let him and Kenan do the same silly comic riff (accompanied by a “Kiss” riff) over and over again, and I laughed pretty much every time. With Ego, Punkie, and Chris Redd playing three filmmakers faced with the tough decision as to which performer (playing, it’s revealed, in the sketches biggest laugh, themselves) will essay the lead role in Jordan Peele’s new biopic. Redd doesn’t really do a Peele, but the running joke that everybody guesses the film’s twist (it’s actually a horror movie about racism) is a weird little joke. Speaking of racism, the sketch is actually about representation in Hollywood casting, with the lithe Malek’s shirtless Prince being deemed the better of the two, while Kenan’s broader version is, at least, Black. “I’m Egyptian—that’s in Africa,” says a hopeful Malek, with Nwodim’s casting person cutting him off with a definitive, “Don’t do that.” Still, when a late-for-the-audition Daniel Craig shows up as himself (for the first of several times tonight), all decked out in pantaloons as a prince and not Prince, he gets the role anyway, since he’s James Bond.
So far, so moderately pointed, although the thing that made me laugh repeatedly was the Prince-off between Kenan and Malek, in which their Princes are asked to react simultaneously to a given situation. (Prince getting hit with a football, Prince stepping on a Lego, Prince suffering from premature ejaculation.) They both mime the same guitar riff and finish off with their best Prince’s “Uhh,” and it’s just such a goofy idea that it keeps working. Kenan Thompson—can we all just renew our admiration for his ability to make a moment land with merely a line reading? Told that his Prince looks nothing like Prince, but that he’s getting that part since, “You are Black, and Rami is not,” Kenan’s “Thank you very much” hits with a smug actor’s confidence that’s another in his long, long line of tiny masterpieces.
The Squid Game filmed piece was another Pete-and-Rami show, with the initial country music video motif turning into a musical version of the dystopian Korean streaming hit. (SPOILERS if, like me, you haven’t seen Squid Game, as the piece apparently follows the series pretty closely, considering.) I’m not sure who came up with a “country music Squid Game parody” pitch, but kudos, you weirdo. As Malek and Davidson’s down-on-their-luck singers don the numbered green track suits and compete for either a globe full of cash or bloody death at the hands of a giant creepy animatronic girl doll (I’m sure it all makes sense in context), it’s really Malek who makes the jarring comedy work. As the duo’s loping country melody marches along with the contestants’ red light/green light game of death (again, makes sense), Malek’s frozen terror is a real thing, which makes the abruptly restarted melody that much funnier when neither he nor Pete are among the fallen. Toss in the beat where Pete tosses pal Malek off of a glass bridge (it all checks out, I’m sure), with an offhand, “And you go bye-bye now,” and this is funny enough to exist without all the actual topical Squid Game trappings. Which are, as noted, bananas.
Big night for Bowen Yang, with the school assembly seeing the second-year breakout adding another to his roster of campy star turns. As the student at the school’s bug presentation who’s decided to make his costumed science presentation into a showcase for the owning-it flamboyant gay boss that’s been gestating inside, Yang’s daddy longlegs (complete with ever-wobbling spindly comedy legs) scuttles imperiously all over his unsuspecting and nondescript schoolmates all the way to his buggy becoming. Yang can do a lot of things well, but there’s an empowering boldness to how he, similarly, has simply forced his characters into Saturday Night Live’s weekly pageant by sheer force of will and talent. As with all broad caricature, there’s always the fallout of people laughing for the wrong reasons, but none of that factors into how confidently funny Yang’s SNL characters are. Here, Heidi Gardner’s teacher and Kenan’s principal are tasked with contextualizing this dramatic little guy’s whole deal (his two dads are an executive at Bravo and a Republican, which does sound like a recipe for a drama-addicted little showboat). But, by this point, Bowen Yang just bringing it as an LGBTQ+ anything is crowd-pleasing, and slyly inhabited, enough on its own. (See tonight’s Update for more.) As Kenan’s ever-bemused principal says after Yang’s spider enlists Malek’s stinkbug into his interior narrative of club-hopping relationship drama, the scene work was actually pretty good.
An extra-long Update tonight, with three solid desk pieces and Jost and Che swapping fine one-liners. There’s been an obvious shift away from politics after four years of President Daily Disaster, and, while there’s still plenty of alarming and satire-worthy stuff going on (Republicans slow-motion coup, for just one example). But I’ve long advised (or begged) that SNL should just stop doing politics if its not really the show’s thing at this point, so I can’t really complain. Democrat(?), energy company shill, and one of two politicians working to destroy democracy and the environment Joe Manchin got a few jabs up top, but that’s about it.
I’ve noted that Jost and Che are clearly more invested in being clever than in being substantive, with a couple of deliberately audience-baiting jokes per Update standing in for any commitment to the whole fake newscast concept. And, as they’re both clever enough, it makes for a breezy weekly segment, especially when the two anchors mine their Odd Couple mismatch for laughs at the other’s expense. It was deflating when Jost picked up the cold open’s admirably on-point takedown of the NFL’s latest scandal and wedged in some hacky, “But who hasn’t written some bad emails?” commentary. But at least it came back when Che later revealed why he’d written the insulting email Jost cited as part of another joke. Watching the two anchors bat each other around is one of the chief enjoyments of Update under Jost and Che, while any cohesive satirical point of view really isn’t.
Still, Che doubling down on the cold open’s point that QB Colin Kaepernick is still being blackballed by the NFL (coupled with a de rigueur Giants slam) was solid, as was his joke about firefighters looking for “trickle-down” hose work to save Ronald Reagan’s wildfire-imperiled presidential library. I guess it’s all a matter of expectations. Update didn’t originate the whole satirical fake newscast concept, but SNL has made it a staple of TV comedy over the decades. That Update’s now been surpassed by better such shows more dedicated to the actual possibilities of the format isn’t necessarily SNL’s fault, so maybe I should just get over it.
All three correspondent pieces hit, although I question the need to have Chris Redd come out and comically apologize for a throwaway parting joke from more than a year ago. I clocked but didn’t mention Redd’s “Black people can’t get the coronavirus!” line back in February, 2020, but Che’s assertion that people have been clamoring for a retraction from Redd just isn’t a thing, unless it’s been flying very much under the radar for a year and a half. Redd’s piece itself is funny here, with Redd dropping some observational bits he claims the news hasn’t got time for. (Who actually drives blimps, anyway?) Creating a heightened version of yourself on Update is a tried-and-true move, and Redd is going for something of a Tracey Morgan thing throughout (“Colin, can I smoke weed in your house”?,” he asks at one point, while asserting that Jost’s new baby is named Cletus.) Che plays the offending clip twice (once in slo-mo), with Redd making a meal out of his reaction, and explaining that he went to community college. Just a weird central premise here, but I’m always happy when Redd gets to shine a little.
Bowen Yang had another winner, once more taking Jost’s introduction about a current event (here, the reveal of Timothée Chalamet’s “twink Willy Wonka”, aka “Twonka”) and spinning it out into a fine character piece. Introduced by Jost as “a proud gay Oompa-Loompa” (complete with chyron), Yang’s orange-and-green Wonka worker is taken aback that Jost has just outed him on national TV, casting aside his prepared statement about Wonka’s working conditions (they spend all night “rehearsing that song and dance we do when a child dies”) in favor of processing his new life. Apparently, Loompaland isn’t all that progressive, and his live outing is going to necessitate a phone call to his parents. Plus, what’s with Jost assuming he’s gay, just because there’s product in that green hair. “Okay, you just stepped out of the shower like that?,” Yang’s unnamed worker scolds Jost. Like his iceberg who sank the Titanic, Yang turns a costumed bit on its ear, infusing the expected one joke with something weirder and richer. That’s how you get an Emmy (nomination).
I didn’t know how hypnotist Linus Minus (Mikey Day) was going to work out, but, luckily, the alleged Broadway sensation brought along SNL security guard Kenan as his subject. Again, it’s a single, stupid joke taken to some cleverly absurd places, as the mesmerized Kenan’s slumber sees him conjuring a romantic scenario with Zendaya where he may have either made love to or killed the Euphoria star, but has definitely wet his pants in relaxation. “You made me piss myself on national TV?!,” Kenan snaps, attempting to strangle Minus, only to be repeatedly lulled back to his stupor, a trick that comes in handy when he finally confronts Che about all the strippers in his dressing room. Kenan Thompson is so effortlessly charismatic that pieces like this just would cease to exist without him.
Not a one. I don’t miss ’em.
Once again, the cold open is only really political by virtue of being the cold open. Let’s call it “topical,” then, since the only thing actually political about a racist, sexist, gay-bashing meathead sports figure getting canned is the inevitable championing of said bigoted butthead by right-wing/sports dudes in defiance of that darned “cancel culture.” The sketch doesn’t even bring that ding-dong discourse up, instead, focusing on the NFL’s persistent image problems, and the fact that societal awakening and the long, irrevocable trail of social media and email accounts are exposing the uncomfortable fact that a lot of very successful public figures are genuinely shitty people.
The worry (for fans of forthright comic premises) is that the sketch would pander to the “hey, we’re all thinking it!” crowd with regard to the uncovered e-trail that is now former Las Vegas Raiders coach Jon Gruden’s prolifically offensive, on-the-record remarks (about women, gay people, Black people, probably other groups we haven’t even heard about yet). Thankfully, and kind of surprisingly, the sketch doesn’t start buck-passing about “guys being guys,” instead making the NFL press conference a funny event in itself—that also happens to sack Gruden and, it turns out, pretty much everybody else involved. Colin Jost plays perennially sweaty, image-protecting NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell (good casting there), joshing that at least Gruden’s bigotry is keeping the league’s appalling head-injury denialism off the front pages, and boasting of the NFL’s diversity under his watch. (“And I know our Black coaches would agree—both of them.”) Cecily Strong kicks things off as league PR person, “Prefers to remain anonymous,” who can’t get off the stage fast enough in the face of the ongoing nightmare that is her life.
Once more this season, it’s new featured player James Austin Johnson who gets the starring role in the open, playing Gruden. (Under prosthetics—it’s still unlikely many viewers know what Johnson actually looks like at this point.) The sketch’s take is that Jon Gruden is a jerk who’d still be in a job if the NFL weren’t forced into self-protective public relations mode, which, fair enough. Johnson’s bluff portrayal allows his Gruden to make all the expected excuses for his red-handed assholery, explaining unconvincingly that he was only referring to the complexion of a Black player’s sense of humor, and that his repeated use of gay slurs in reference to Goodell, among others, was just that darned autocorrect. (Apparently Gruden, a naval buff, meant to call his commissioner “a flaming frigate,” which he helpfully explains is when “a warship performs oral sex on another warship.”)
Accepting his firing by exclaiming that “appearances matter,” is this Gruden’s way of saying “We all say this stuff, but I got caught, so whatever,” which, again, is pretty accurate in all likelihood. Both Gruden’s replacement and the equipment manager replacement of that replacement come and go with due speed, as they reveal, mid-speech, that they’ve said and done some stuff, too. Again, I’m actually impressed that the sketch didn’t cop out, for the most part. (It’s a low bar when it comes to SNL’s penchant for watery waffling on controversial issues, but the sketch clears it.) Hacky comics and commenters complain that, of course sports guys are gonna be sports guys, so what about [insert other problematic sports figure here]. But the point that the sketch hews to is that that attitude toward bigotry and general shittiness is sort of the problem. Jon Gruden isn’t being made an example of because he’s white, conservative, defiantly mask-averse, and high-profile—the guy’s being fired because a court case uncovered a pattern of hateful behavior that made it impossible for even the whistling-past-the-trainwreck NFL to ignore (and employ) him. It’s called the free market in a changing (for the better) business landscape, and Gruden found out that even being a slightly above-average football coach (career record, including postseason: 122-116) can’t protect you from that.
Redd emerged as Colin Kaepernick, the guy who hasn’t played in the league for four years for daring to suggest that racism is a thing, taking a bitter victory lap and deadpanning, “Huh, I wonder if anyone tried to warn people about this before?” And the fact that the league that’s now proclaiming zero tolerance for bigotry also countenanced a franchise calling itself the fucking Redskins right into the 21st century doesn’t go unremarked-upon (it was Gruden’s messages to the now-unnamed Washington team that kicked all this off). Heidi Gardner’s WFT cheerleader (and “chairman for women’s relations for the NFL”) condemns Gruden’s use of offensive language while introducing Kyle Mooney’s new WFT mascot, Giuseppe, The Stinky Italian. (“Dis don’-a feel-a right,” confesses the Mario-quality mascot.) Apart from the no-brainer of a decision to ditch some atavistic jerk-ass, the idea of big businesses navigating just what they can get away with when it comes to increased intolerance for such stuff is pretty complex, comedically. So here’s to SNL for actually making this funny on its own (new guy Johnson’s already proving himself invaluable), while, surprisingly, not just jabbing viewers in the ribs about how the world is getting too darned sensitive for serial bigots with coach’s whistles.
There were more ringers in the musical performances tonight than in the show proper, with Young Thug’s two numbers seeing everyone from Gunna and fun.’s Nate Ruess (on the melodic “More Than Anything”) to a shirtless and skins-smashing Travis Barker on “Tick Tock.” Speaking of, was that the single shortest musical performance on SNL ever? Get on that, SNL Stats/SNL Network. I’m hip and all (see segment title), but if Young Thug regularly incorporates a live electric-rock backing band to his famously eccentric rapping, I am here for it. That was electric (not a pun), with Barker’s drumming stealing the show. (Again, from a song that was over seemingly before it began.) I liked how Young Thug stood aside and just watched his band appreciatively for the entire finale of “Tick Tock,” too. Very cool vibe.
Once again this week, we can only assume that whatever Kate McKinnon’s working on is going to be very enjoyable. I’m not at all sold on this platooning approach to Season 47—I get that Lorne wants to hang onto his stars, but there’s being flexible and then there’s pandering in order to cling to the past.
That said, here’s to the new kids (and second-tier older kids) getting some space. James Austin Johnson is simply integral to the shows plans this season, clearly, with another strong and varied show of spot-on (and lived-in) character work. Again, I’m getting a strong Darrell Hammond feeling from Johnson, in that he seems far more comfortable as other people than himself onstage, but it’s working for him and the show, so that’s fine. Sarah Sherman receded a bit this week, but she seems like someone primed to break out as things go on. We’ll talk about Aristotle in a minute.
Aidy jumped at the chance to jump into a series of display beds alongside Malek for the mattress store sketch, where both actors had a ball going big as a married couple whose shopping trip gradually reveals a tumultuous home life. With Bowen Yang playing a fine straight person to all the couple’s Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? roleplaying, the sketch gave Aidy an overdue opportunity to truly command the screen, and the piece took its single (if unexpected) gag into some deliciously loopy directions. It’s one thing for Bryant and Malek’s pantomimed bedtime routine to turn into dissatisfied sniping and romantically-thwarted, surreptitious, under-the-covers masturbation, but another whole escalation to turn into a home invasion scenario, complete with actual guns inexplicably materializing under the showroom bed-pillows. Aidy lives to imperiously bellow lines like, “You reek of vermouth and whores!,” while Malek, thrust into a parody of his more traditional dramatic fare, matches her over-the-top intensity. There’s the performances, and there’s the writing. Just a great little showcase all around.
Still, the race is between Johnson and Yang, with the new guy winning by a prosthetic nose.
“What the hell is that thing?”—Dispatches From Ten-To-Oneland
Here we go. I’m still not sure exactly why Daniel Craig came back to anchor this one alongside Cecily Strong, but he was funny enough as a bewildered club-goer who can’t understand his date’s infatuation with international singing sensation, Angelo. Angelo himself is a white-haired, pony-tailed enigma, whose mumbled, improvised songs may or may not make use of Craig’s audience suggested words, and who gives the previously unseen Aristotle Athari his own belated showcase. It seems like a sketch character Athari may have done before elsewhere, so well-realized is the conceit. Athari makes Angelo a laugh-out-loud creation, his identical-sounding snatches of supposedly off-the-cuff songs emerging in a vaguely accented near-whisper, and his repeated requests for Craig to repeat words like “bicycle,” and “banana” transformed into some truly inspired gibberish. (Each winds up sounding something like “parfabalbas,” although Athari’s delivery is delightfully, serenely unintelligible.) When Malek finally comes out (again, to Strong’s amazement) as the equally renowned dancer Todd (“Oh my God, it’s Todd!”), the sketch just piles up expertly, Todd’s accompanying, improvised dances equally inscrutable, with Malek’s wide-eyed immobility a perfect match. This is the sort of ten-to-one sketch I long for, (and whose sensibility I wish would seep into the show overall). A singular premise, unburdened with commentary or external logic, grounded in performance. That it finally makes clear why Athari is on the show in the first place is a nice bonus.
- Johnson’s Gruden signs off with the probably inevitable, “See you on ESPN in a few months.”
- Malek pays tribute to his in-attendance ER doctor sister and teacher twin brother for their dedication to helping others, adding, “But I have an Oscar, so...”
- Kenan’s game show host notes that Adam Driver’s voice sounds “like it’s been changed to protect his identity,” and now he’s ruined Adam Driver for me.
- A couple of jokes about the new, bisexual Superman, with Jost noting that DC claiming that the Riddler has always “been down for whatever,” and Redd mocking those offended by a fictional character’s sexuality. “I don’t care about what real people do with their sex life, so why would I care about a stencil?”
- Next week: Jason Sudeikis and musical guest Brandi Carlile. Guesses on who’s going to play which AFC Richmond Greyhound. I see Aristotle as Dani, JAJ as Beard, Dismukes as Colin, Kenan as Isaac, Moffat as Jamie, Day as Roy, Heidi as Keeley, and a returning Kate taking on Rebecca.I’m not obsessed with Ted Lasso, you are.