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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Sam Rockwell’s moves can’t rescue a listless Saturday Night Live

Sam Rockwell (Screenshot: NBC)
Sam Rockwell (Screenshot: NBC)
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“This guy—I like this guy. He’s pretty good.”

“I’m not an actor, I’m a [big-ass, honkin’ movie] star!”

Sam Rockwell’s monologue was Sam Rockwell’s first Saturday Night Live hosting gig in miniature. I joked earlier in the week that if the show just let Rockwell dance and be his scene-stealing, sneakily magnetic self for his five-minute monologue, I’d give the episode an automatic A. Sure, I was lying, but the show kicked off with an attempt to play to Rockwell’s unique skill set nonetheless, letting him introduce his character actor screen cred to a nationwide TV audience by joking that his recent Golden Globes win might mean a bump up to full-time leading man status. (Personal choice: The movie that gave him the best chance so far to show what a singularly talented character man can do in the lead is his turn as weirdo game show impresario Chuck Barris in Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind—whose DVD extras contain some prime Rockwell dancing, by the way.)


That the monologue is basically an excuse for Rockwell to show off his loose-limbed, funky dance moves (and impossibly slick splits) is certainly a present to SNL viewers everywhere. The thing is, SNL muffs almost every move that Rockwell pulls off so easily, surrounding the host with an indifferently choreographed, hallway-sprawling musical number where chest mics pop, the music lags, and the pedestrian camerawork flattens the whole production. It should be electrifying, with Rockwell hitting his marks effortlessly in his “Brad Pitt” leading man audition (“Ninjas!” he cries delightedly, incorporating karate kicks into his dance moves alongside Kate McKinnon). Instead it—like much of this underwritten and sluggish episode—largely squanders Rockwell’s signature live-wire energy. That he seemed so stifled all night might explain Rockwell’s entry into the SNLfuck” club in the Mr. Science sketch, in which an unintentional “fuckin’” slipped out in his frustrated kids’ show host’s bottled-up anger at the two peerlessly funny dummies (Cecily Strong and Mikey Day, keeping it together admirably) he’s stuck with.

Weekend Update update

Speaking of profanities, Colin Jost dropped an intentional, apparently network-defying one while reporting on Donald Trump’s racist reference to non-white countries as “shitholes” this week, and I’m here for it. In a true horror show of a week (the show didn’t even mention the fact that the population of Hawaii thought they were going to die in a nuclear firestorm Saturday morning), Jost and Michael Che’s faux news showcase was the one saving satirical grace of the episode. (See the political comedy report below for the wet slaps SNL otherwise trotted out.) Claiming that NBC had requested that any jokes about Trump’s shitty bigotry avoid the actual words he used, Jost, deploying his mischievous smirk to its best effect, essentially said “fuck it” while actually and accurately reporting the president’s “shithole.” The FCC will no doubt have some words (and fines), but, again, fuck it. If the White House is indeed turning into a shithole on multiple fronts under Trump’s, let’s call it “leadership,” then taking the gloves off is not only warranted, ballsy, and funny, but it also introduces some of the reckless edge Update—and Saturday Night Live as a whole—needs if its political comedy is to have any relevance at all.

Che picked up on the vibe in his follow-up to Jost’s joke, expanding on the cathartic shock value of his co-anchor’s S-bomb by unpacking what Trump’s outburst really means beyond its own “Trump said a naughty word” inappropriateness. The Che-Jost partnership has found its equilibrium as the two have embraced being on the same side, but at different vantage points. Here, Che noted how he was underwhelmed at the revelation of Trump’s language, because he’s operating from a place that isn’t surprised at all by white politicians saying racist things. “Oh, boy, did it start with ‘N’?” Che joked about his initial reaction, garnering groans from the audience at the implication that, of course, Trump’s S-bomb was, at bottom, actually an N-bomb. Or, to adopt Update’s “call things by their names” policy for the night, Trump meant “niggers.” Che knows it, and you can groan all you want. Che’s also great at not settling for the surface of a joke, as he implicated himself in thinking of less-affluent countries in unflattering terms while going on to say that calling African countries or Haiti “shitholes” deliberately ignores the undeniable fact that Western countries (like the United States) have despoiled and exploited those countries for their resources for centuries. Again, Che got gasps for his comparison that it’s like a molester accusing his victims of “growing up weird,” something he’s no doubt quite appropriately happy about.

Aidy Bryant was pointed and adorable as herself, using her own experiences as an actress and woman conditioned not to start trouble to address the All The Money In The World/Mark Wahlberg/Michelle Williams unequal pay situation. Bryant’s explanation of the desperate pressure to “be accommodating” as a woman in entertainment is, in her self-deprecating openness, quite affectingly sweet—and infuriating, as she stresses that she’s not kidding when she reports that an actual movie role offer of “fat, ugly prison wife who brings inmate sex and cake” isn’t a joke. Turning to Wahlberg—who donated his extra cash from the Ridley Scott film to the #TimesUp legal defense fund after lots of bad press—Bryant looked past the “daily private shaming” that makes up her own inner monologue to say that, crazily, men in Hollywood might stand up for equal treatment of their female co-stars without needing “a week-long public shaming to do the right thing.” Go, Aidy.

While the whole LaVar Ball: Crazy NBA Dad saga is disproportionately represented on SNL (and in general), Kenan Thompson’s impression continues to make me laugh. Self-delusion and a lack of self-awareness is a potent comic combination, and Thompson’s depiction of the basketball patriarch’s unending self-aggrandizement is just a funny turn. His proud claim to own “16 Toyota Corollas” is such a weird logical loop.

Leslie Jones played Oprah twice tonight as SNL riffed on all the Oprah 2020 buzz after her stirring Golden Globes speech. Oprah’s an impression with plenty of idiosyncrasies to hang onto, and while Leslie’s not anyone’s impressionist as a rule, she does fine, though Chris Redd got all the laughs as partner and enthusiastic hype man Stedman.

Best/Worst sketch of the night

Rockwell swore in the Mr. Science sketch. For all the hand-wringing that’s engendering, it’s as overblown as all such things inevitably are. Clearly an accident, hardly unprecedented—see Kristen Stewart’s monologue last year—and just another piece of SNL trivia. The sketch itself was like most others tonight—abrupt, half-realized, and buoyed by performance, as Strong and Day made a fine pair of clueless science students, their eager-to-please complete wrongness trying the host’s practiced, patient persona. Smilingly attempting to get the kids to guess “gas” as the third type of matter, Rockwell’s hint “Sometimes you can’t see it,” brought a panicky, “It’s behind me?” from Strong that got a laugh.

That one had an abrupt ending common to a fair number of sketches tonight, but the family sketch late in the show at least used abruptness smartly. The laborious setup—Rockwell and Bryant’s parents prepare to meet their gay son’s boyfriend, while the son wants to hide the fact that said boyfriend (Chris Redd) does gay porn—is mercifully short-circuited. Not so much by the obvious joke that Rockwell’s straight dad clearly recognizes Redd’s work as he tries to place just where he knows him from, but from the perfectly executed segue Rockwell does from accidentally outing himself to putting on his coat and leaving forever. (“Anyhoo, I guess I’m getting a divorce. Goodbye, family.”) That Bryant’s long-suffering mom attempts some small talk with Redd before getting her own abrupt exit (“I know that it was a joke. My marriage just fell apart. Will you let me have one thing?”) is a fine button on the briskly effective sketch.

The E! talk show sketch’s take on the growing #MeToo/#TimesUp movement suffers from an unfocused comic logic that’s either lazy or misguided. Or, hey, both, as the vapid style show’s attempts to be “PC” about women’s appearances and plights mock both vapid talk shows and people who care about women’s issues, to lazy effect. Kate McKinnon gets to do a funny Frances McDormand, coming on in a sacklike frock she once wore in a production of The Crucible and finding herself unnecessarily bleeped because of how her signature vocal style makes everything sound like profanity. The joke is that these E! airheads are too superficial to do anything but go way overboard in their normally catty sniping about actresses’ appearances, but if that’s the whole tack SNL wants to take on the current upheaval in how women in Hollywood are treated and are speaking out, then it has to be a lot more clever and original about it. I did laugh at the name of Thompson’s fashion guru, “Angelo Dolphintuna.”

The Peter Pan sketch got some use out of the show’s expensive-looking pirate ship set, but the premise—that Rockwell’s Captain Hook is suddenly worried about the “optics” of a middle-aged sea captain constantly kidnapping prepubescent boys for high seas adventures—isn’t aging well “in the current climate.” Cue jokes about Michael Jackson and Bryan Singer, some unintentional sword-size innuendo from an airborne McKinnon (as Peter), and another abrupt ending, and this one just felt underpopulated and limp. Points again to Thompson for his crewman’s quick overboard exit once he realizes the problematic nature of things. (“Not gonna make a big deal about it,” he says, before hopping over the railing.)

The “ATM” short film was another where the joke wasn’t executed with enough vigor or cleverness to offset the iffy premise, as Rockwell, against date McKinnon’s wishes, pops into a rundown ATM vestibule, only to have an awkward confrontation with the black guy in the hoodie (Thompson) who rushes in after him. Rockwell and Thompson are both very good, actually, their tense interplay as Rockwell stalls, thinking Thompson’s there to rob him, finding a nicely lived-in authenticity. But when Thompson lectures the sheepish Rockwell that not all black guys are criminals, we wait for the comic turn, and when it comes, it sort of sucks. After Rockwell leaves, Chris Redd and a gang of black toughs enter the vestibule, and the whole drama is replayed, only with the terrified Thompson making the same judgments Rockwell did. And then Redd and his guys beat and rob Thompson, making the joke that Thompson’s lesson about prejudice only applies to the right kind of black guy? That Rockwell was right to be scared of black guys, but just couldn’t spot that Thompson was “one of the good ones?” Once again, it feels like there’s just mediocre writing at play here, where whatever satirical point was being made just drifted away, either through lack of conviction or simple hacky joke structure. Also, here, my one laugh came from the weird twist when Rockwell leans in for a kiss, only for McKinnon to remind him that, as a hooker, kissing isn’t part of the deal.

One of the consistently strongest genres of filmed pieces SNL has done in recent years is the music video. And here, just having Rockwell dancing in support of Pete Davidson’s rapper (Li’l Pump’s) musical ode to Rockwell’s fellow character actor Stanley Tucci is pretty delightful, even if the actual song isn’t anything special.

Same goes for the ad for the drunk boyfriend doll, for lonely single women who wish they had an unimpressive alcoholic in their lives. SNL’s commercial parodies are usually a high point, too, but there’s not enough done with the premise here.


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

LaVar Ball was back. So was Morning Joe. Look for Leslie’s Oprah in the months to come.


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

Like the E! sketch, the cold open tonight took such a superficial tack on its subject that its very inconsequence was infuriating. I’m as tired of Alec Baldwin’s intermittent Donald Trump as anyone, but if Saturday Night Live is going to do a political cold open, then it should, you know, do one. The decision that the flag-planting political sketch of the week would be mostly about how Morning Joe hosts and real-life marrieds Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski are self-obsessed and bad at their jobs, like the E! sketch, is a thin enough way to approach the current political shitshow. And while Alex Moffat and Kate McKinnon turn in amusing enough characterizations, there’s nothing insightful or revelatory about them (they’re not tight vocal impressions), with the only real hint of bite coming in how the pair never let Redd’s guest commentator actually comment—about how Trump’s racist remarks erase the voices of black people.

There are a pair of returning alums in the sketch, with Fred Armisen turning in a relatively restrained (for him) performance as Fire And Fury author Michael Wolff, offhandedly at peace with how slapped-together his tell-all book about the chaos in the Trump administration has been judged to be. And, in the bigger reveal and bigger get of the episode (sorry Fred, but you work in the building), Bill Murray is revealed to be the heretofore-cloaked and demonic Steve Bannon. Here, too, the whole comic conceit is sloppy and underdone (not even counting the hasty, botched reveal of Murray under the hood). I’m always happy to see Murray, on SNL or elsewhere, but his Bannon isn’t especially like the pugnaciously incendiary white supremacist former Breitbart head (and former everything else, it seems). Sure, Murray’s got the tousled hair, blotchy skin, and slovenly dress, but his laid-back, self-promoting Bannon is a lot more Murray than it is insightfully or pointedly Bannon. Overall, the whole sketch opens the episode as toothlessly and unmemorably as Baldwin’s flabby Trump continues to do.


I am hip to the musics of today

Halsey, everyone! All I’ve got. I’ve got nothing. She sang.

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

Kate McKinnon had the most high-profile roles (Mika, McDormand, Peter Pan), but I’m giving the top spot to Cecily Strong tonight, as she continues to imbue even small roles with surprising little flashes. Thompson was a close second.


Luke Null got his one line again tonight.

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

While the genetics lab sketch was technically the second-to-last of the night, its goofy weirdness made it fine 10-to-1 material, as a trio of inspectors discover that the company’s $35 million project involves Rockwell’s enthusiastic scientist making a “doghead guy.” For one thing, Rockwell’s repeated delivery of the specifically informal term “doghead guy” is just outstanding. For another, we see the doghead guy, in the form of a real and very patient dog in a jacket with a pair of human hands in the sleeves working a Rubik’s cube and feeding the doghead a ham sandwich. It’s the little things, people.

The actual last sketch was Strong’s commercial for anti-smoking drug Chantix, in which the narrator’s offhand assurance that she’s not an actor sends Strong on the defensive about her long-ago, abortive acting career. Strong’s such a fine actor herself, and this is a good solo vehicle for her, but it should have been tucked into the show earlier. If there were ever a perfect place for a doghead guy, it was here.

Stray observations

  • Considering Mark Wahlberg’s previous responses to SNL making fun of him, I’m sure he’ll take Aidy Bryant’s ribbing with good humor and self-reflection.
  • Jost, with a flag of Puerto Rico behind him, referring to the allegation that Trump paid hush money to adult actress Stormy Daniels: “At least there’s one storm Trump will pay for.”
  • “You’re watching E! It’s okay—you also read books!”
  • It really was impressive that Day and Strong maintain in the face of Rockwell’s F-bomb. Commitment, right there.

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Danny Peary's Cult Movies books are mostly to blame.