“Only one gets to be moon queen.”
After decades of dues paying, Sandra Oh is finally and deservedly cashing in. Not that she’ll brag about it, being Canadian and all. The Killing Eve star and awards show monologue delight didn’t have as much to work with in her own first-time SNL monologue (Canadians and Asians are both united in deflecting even much-deserved praise, goes the joke), but, man, does Oh shine on the SNL stage. In both the monologue and the goodnights, Oh’s enthusiasm and obvious happiness at hosting Saturday Night Live were simply irresistible objects, while, in between, her presence in a healthy number of sketches showed how game and excited she was to be there, and her steady professionalism helped carry off some so-so execution on the show’s part. That’s something, for better and worse, that this season has carried in common—interesting, unusual first-time host choices (Elba, Cheadle, Schreiber, Foy) whose charisma and straight-up talent added some welcome edges to some disappointingly homogenous material.
Look for the political comedy report below for most of that “disappointingly homogenous” material.
On the plus side, there was a strong and varied selection of weirdo character pieces that worked all through the show. As far as Oh goes, her showiest act of go-for-broke belly laugh work came in a sketch where high school nerd Mikey Day’s future selves show up in his bedroom mirror to assure them that he will one day be buff, successful, and hooked up with a late middle-aged party animal pyromaniac named Tishy. As said Tishy, Oh, sporting a cast on her arm and some midriff-bared lunatic bravado, indeed went for it, gyrating in sketchy abandon while Day’s 10- and 20-year-later selves smilingly extolled the virtues of a 47-year-old, Four Loko-swilling woman whose enthusiastic grossness called to mind none other than Amy Poehler in Poheler’s zeal for playing brashly unashamed nutjobs. For once, I’ll criticize SNL for actually bothering to write an ending to a sketch, as the eventual revelation that Tishy’s the billionaire owner of Samsung steals away Tishy’s comically mysterious appeal. It’s better to just wonder about Tishy, whose catchphrase concerning her having “the good goo-goo” leaves the young Day wide-eyed in horrified wonder at Tishy’s further description that it’s “Not what you think!” Same goes for the fact that Tishy’s 10-years later, 57-year-old self appears to still have the same cast on her broken arm. It’s best just to imagine.
Kate McKinnon, no slouch in the inexplicable weirdo department herself, scored one of my favorite new Kate characters of the season, as her 85-year-old office worker, Louise from Payroll, derailed a staff meeting by using her politely granted birthday wish to demand that everyone kiss each other. Sure, Kate continued to portray every other member of the Trump administration when her Nosferatu-like Rudy Giuliani popped up (literally, as from a coffin) in the cold open. But I’ll take more minutely detailed, manically contained original characters like Louise from Payroll any day. SNL can’t shake a joke construction that goes something like: strange person acts strange; everyone else makes faces and notes how strangely strange person is acting. But here it works. McKinnon’s tight little voice draws everyone—coworkers and audience alike—in closer as her desire to see her peers go to town on each other emerges in that one, single-minded request—“Kiss.” Like Tishy, there are depths to Louise from Payroll that are best and most rewardingly left unexplored, as she laser-locks on her one wish, only amplifying it with transparent manipulations like, “Everyone I know is dead, so mebbe—kiss.” And here’s to the person who came up with the idea of Louise pulling out her clipboard to elaborate further, culminating with her ultimate dream of witnessing her coworkers in “a six-way Spider-Man.” I don’t know, and don’t want to know. Except, in McKinnon’s performance, I really, really do.
Jumping the gun a bit into political comedy and Update review segments, Cecily Strong’s returning Fox News law buffoon Jeanine Pirro was another outstanding example of an SNL woman going in big and raking in all the laughs. Pirro herself, a particularly broad example of Fox News propaganda megaphone, is—well, the term “beyond parody” is tossed around a lot with regard to Trump administration grifters, enablers, and licksplttles. And yet Strong is, like McKinnon, such a vital and committed comic actor that she’s locked into something just exaggerated enough in unmodulated, nonsense-spewing ludicrousness to capture the actual Pirro’s recently suspended racist blowhard persona with hilarious verisimilitude. Here, making a token racial slur (in deference to the Islamophobic attack on Rep. Ilhan Omar that got her an unplanned vacation), and ranting about her devoted audience of “mean, horny men lying on home hospital beds,” and white prison gangs hogging the TV room remote, Strong’s Pirro summed up her return to the airwaves as the product of someone at Fox News essentially playing Bloody Mary and conjuring her back into our lives. But it was Strong’s physicality that stole the bit, as, mimicking the Fox News line of unbridled bad faith glee at the utterly false conclusion that Donald Trump isn’t guilty of any number of things, she hurled herself out of her Update chair with abandon, not once, but twice. Legs kicking up into the frame like the end of a particularly unsubtle Bazooka Joe comic, Strong made Pirro’s overheated premature schadenfreude the night—if not the season’s—biggest pair of belly-laughs, all without abandoning the comic integrity of the characterization.
And since we’re jumping rails to praise Update features featuring outstanding character work from funny-ass women, here’s to Aidy Bryant. Showing up as (real-life) frustrated astronaut Anne McClain to mock the recent all-too-on-the-nose NASA fuckup where the first all-female spacewalk was scuttled because of a lack of women’s spacesuits, Aidy plied her trade in tightly controlled mania, as McClain unsuccessfully hid her disappointment and anger at NASA killing her lifelong professional and personal dream because “the space shirt and pants were the wrong size.” As she’s showing currently on Shrill, there’s a bottomless well of repressed female rage that Aidy is uniquely adept at channeling, never more hilariously than when she’s putting a public display of good sportsmanship on it. (Aidy does stellar eye-work.) The capper of McClain telling all the little girls out there that they can do anything “just not at the same time” takes Aidy’s characterization out into orbit.
And, not to be left out, Kenan Thompson killed it with sheer, committed showmanship in the musical sketch where his showboating American singer, Jarvis Fillmore, hogs the entire running time of a 1960s British pop show with his never-ending hit, “Electric Shoes.” I’ve said it before, but we’re going to miss Kenan when he’s finally gone from his record-breaking tenured career at SNL. Like the retired, lamented “What’s Up With That?,” this piece just keeps steamrolling along on it’s single joke, Kenan’s powerhouse musical characterization carrying the thing on past where it should be funny, and then back around again.
Back to women, the “Cheques” short film lived in performance, with its noir-flavored appeal on behalf of the dramatic flourish of a well-written payoff check (to your daughter’s black boyfriend, your gigolo, that maid who saw what happened in the gazebo). Kate, Oh, Aidy, and Ego Nwodim all clearly relished getting to put a little Joan Crawford swank on their portrayals, making even the ad’s choice of cartoon or sports team check design options fairly screech with dramatic violins and easily traced poison purchases.
And, sticking with Ego, the underused featured player got a nice turn mimicking Lupita Nyong’o’s Us role(s) in a credit card call center commercial that excelled mostly in her very solid performance. For those who haven’t seen Jordan Peele’s new horror flick (and, seriously, what’s wrong with you?), the jokes are so specific as to make the uninitiated feel more than a little left out. Still, Nwodim is really good, as is Kenan, whose ineffectual husband gets pawned off on a doppelganger that, again, is funnier if you’ve seen the movie.
Oh lifted the lavish period short, “The Duel,” her tortured woman torn between two suitors whose jealous rivalry has resulted in what turns out to be some unfortunately inept gunplay. I’m not sold on the gore-to-laughs ratio here, as the joke that Pete Davidson and Beck Bennett’s duelists keep accidentally ricocheting musket balls graphically into their beloved’s bloodied flesh. But everyone deadpans their way through the carnage nicely, and the joe timing on the premature and errant gunshots is handled well.
Like essentially every show doing political comedy these past, oh, 450 years or so of the Trump administration, Saturday Night Live has made plenty of hay (and ratings) out of the looming specter of the Muller report into whether, you know, the president of the United States is in league with a hostile foreign power and engaged in a massive coverup of same. And, like those shows, SNL now has to shift comic gears after the still-unreleased report apparently promises to be less of a comic (and karmic) slam dunk than previous jokes thereabout were predicated upon. And, look, as Tracy Jordan once said, “I don’t want to go off on a rant here . . .,” so leaving out the facts of Donald Trump’s every public and verifiable word and deed indicating crimes from conspiracy to election tampering to obstruction, and that the current Attorney General (chosen by the person under investigation thanks to a job application in the form of a memo indicating exactly what that person wanted to hear), I’ll just put it out there that making comedy out of the Mueller report is a lot more challenging now than it seemed in the past.
So it’s perhaps not surprising, although familiarly disappointing, that SNL’s first show after the not-release of the as-yet-unseen report goes immediately middle-of-the-road mushy on the subject. In the cold open, there’s a passing reference to Donald Trump’s (actual) threats to retaliate against “TV shows that have been mean to me,” that suggests the rich vein of provocative satirical riches to be mined from a sitting president attempting to bully the public discourse of his still very probable criminality with would-be strongman tactics. But the show’s take on this ongoing theme in our national nightmare is unfocused, wishy-washy, and largely toothless. For Michael Che and Colin Jost (Update anchors and two-thirds of the show’s head writers), Update was an exercise in glancing blows and heard-it-before.
Che came out better, which is pretty much how things go, since he has the benefit of outsider skepticism on his side. His joke about getting sucked into his white coworkers’ “toxic optimism” that America was a functioning, just entity resonated, as he concluded, “just because he’s guilty” concerning Trump. That’s a stinger, as was his anecdote about him parroting faith in checks and balances causing a black woman’s eyes to roll back in her head so far he thought she’d fallen asleep. In a media wasteland where mealy-mouthed mainstream acquiescence vies with bad-faith gloating from the state news that is Fox, sharply observed cynicism is potent, and something Saturday Night Live could use more of.
Jost settled for mocking Trump saying stupid shit (those Great Lakes have record deepness, apparently) to his braying minions, and “Richie Rich” Donald Jr. warming up dad’s crowd by “read[ing] his bad tweets for 20 minutes” before moving along with a satisfied smirk to comfortably apolitical material. It’s was amusing enough—and the aforementioned correspondent pieces were killer—but when your show is directly mentioned as a potential political and legal target by a president seeking to silence your legitimate right to satirize him, you should be a whole lot more focused and fired up than was in evidence tonight.
With the best work done in the non-political sketches, the fact that only the political figures (Trump, Putin, Giuliani, Pirro, Aidy’s debuting AG William Barr) were repeaters suggests that there’s life without the same old Alec Baldwin Trump sucking up all the oxygen.
And here we go. The cold open was a Trump, this time as SNL (and returning Mueller Robert DeNiro) tentatively pointed out the discrepancy among what we can only guess is in the special counsel’s 300-plus page report, the summary from Trump loyalist and guy who knows all about covering up presidential complicity Barr, and Alec Baldwin’s gleefully gloating Twitter Trump. The ensuing game of coverup telephone was blandly on the nose—Mueller is cautious, Barr slanted, Trump simple-mindedly and boorishly reductive. Kate’s vampiric Giuliani continued the crowd-pleasingly fangless jokes about the blathering Trump mouthpiece’s ghoulishness (as it did with Jeff Sessions’ rodential squirminess), and then we’re out. It was shorter than usual with these things, which is fine, considering.
The Putin sketch was a little bit better, especially since Beck Bennett’s menacingly preening Putin is a more interesting characterization than Baldwin’s blandly buffoonish Trump. And the joke—that Putin is embarrassed since he’s been bragging on having a Russian asset in the White House—at least allows for a different perspective on the whole, still entirely unsettled mess. Shuffling and stammering like a guy caught lying about that girlfriend he totally has in Canada, Bennett’s Putin tries to save face, but eventually just settles for some chillingly specific dictator threats in order to reestablish his street cred. The show, again, is depressingly willing to wilt on the whole collusion thing. (Which, one more time, is decidedly not settled, as much as MAGA world would like to claim it is.) Still, Bennett is solid, and Cecily Strong gets another big laugh as her disgruntled aide claims that Putin’s bragging has made her look “like the hole in the ass—the worst part of the ass.” And Oh nailed her part, her North Korean interpreter relaying visiting Kim Jong-un’s mockery of Putin’s bluff with deadpan aplomb.
Switching hot-button, bad-faith right-wing talking points for a moment, I suppose we have to file the Jussie Smollett sketch here at this point, as conservative outrage and bloodlust at a rich, famous, gay black man seemingly getting off after shady behavior continues to contrast tellingly with the trumpeting joy of the same for the not-remotely-factual exoneration of Donald Trump. Race-baiting transparent hypocrisy aside, the joke of the sketch flunks on at least two counts. For one, here’s that “strange person gets called strange and that’s the joke” joke construction. Complete with someone on the Empire staff signaling the premise right out of the gate by saying of the tardy Smollett, “Well, I just hope it’s not some crazy excuse.” (The one joke of the sketch is that, indeed, Chris Redd’s Smollett comes armed with a number of crazy excuses.) I’m officially tapping out on this whole Smollett mess for the time being—there are only so many dispriting twists in the story of a mid-range celebrity’s possibly faked hate crime saga being used to stoke ginned-up right-wing outrage I can take before I move on and wait for the actual facts to come out. But as a joke, the sketch is thuddingly obvious and uninspired. I did laugh at Kenan’s Lee Daniels response to Redd’s Smollett claiming he’s “the gay Lee Daniels,” “I’m the gay Lee Daniels!”
I cop to being in the minority, but Tame Impala’s pair of songs combined swirly ironic disco, swirlier light shows, and processed vocals into an eye-glazing mush. (I now know that someone who sounds like both Elliott Smith and Kenny Loggins is not for me, somehow.) It was late—let’s blame how late it was.
Good team effort tonight, but it’s got to be Cecily, right? I’m tempted to give it to Nwodim, who finally got to show her stuff in the Us sketch, but it’s Strong by a hilariously flailing pair of legs.
Conversely, if you’ve got a Hedi Gardner, you don’t keep her on the bench.
Everyone in the classroom sketch was great. Oh’s substitute teacher played it straight while enduring her charges’ teen-angsty oversharing in response to some simple SAT multiple choice questions, before getting into the act herself with a blurted tale of an open marriage gone very wrong. Kate McKinnon’s dyslexic bad boy, Aidy Bryant’s self-obsessed would-be writer, and Kyle Mooney’s overdramatic failing footballer all found their own groove, powered by off-kilter lines (“by the football house where you showed me what stars were”) that tucked this one nicely into the ten-to-one spot.
- Exemplary fake jowls aside, we’re all on the same page that DeNiro has no place on live TV, right? Yikes.
- Apologies to the actor who played Kim Jong-un, as I can’t find his name by press time. Dude was funny, and, hey, if SNL remains lacking in the Asian representation department, at least someone figured out that having a white cast member do the North Korean leader is a bad look.
- I laughed at the North Korean delegation bringing a gift of a Michael Jordan rookie card—signed by Dennis Rodman.
- “I’m Judge Jeanine Pirro and it’s up to you to decide just what my whole deal is.”
- Pirro pitches a show called The Barrs, featuring Roseanne and William Barr, free-flowing Ambien, “and the dirtiest couch you’ve ever seen.”
- “The thing I learned the most was each other.”
- Next week: Kit Harington, who is on some sort of dragon show, and musical guest Sara Bareilles.