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

Saturday Night Live packs in a strange season with Tina Fey, Kristen Wiig, and Boyz II Men

Illustration for article titled Saturday Night Live packs in a strange season with Tina Fey, Kristen Wiig, and Boyz II Men

“I loved that one part.”

Watching these last three episodes of Saturday Night Live is, like so many things these days, an exercise in taking your pleasures where you can and waiting for the real thing to return. With Season 45 coming to a premature end with this 18th episode—assuming Colin Jost’s Update “we think” aside doesn’t result in a surprise “Let’s put on a show!” return in the next month—there’s a feeling of incompleteness about the whole enterprise. For one thing, this isn’t Saturday Night Live.


If you’ll all indulge. Back when Dick Ebersol took over from a departed Lorne Michaels as producer, his NBC executive sensibilities saw the whole “live” part of the show as a costly liability, and tried, essentially, to choke it out. Relying more and more on filmed pieces featuring whatever performers and characters were hottest at the time, Ebersol—while nominally a co-creator of Saturday Night Live—steered the show hard into the sort of pre-taped revue that his cost-conscious programming brain saw as more sustainable, easier to produce, and a whole lot tidier. And while those five season under Ebersol produced some fine comedy (a guy named Eddie didn’t hurt), his final year was hardly recognizable as SNL as it was and would be again. Ultimately, a Steinbrenner-esque team of free agent all-stars (Martin Short, Christopher Guest, the returning Harry Shearer, Billy Crystal) gobbled up almost all the airtime, largely through meticulously produced filmed showcases for themselves and their favorite characters. It’s tough to imagine these days, but SNL was nearly cancelled many times in its first decade (and occasionally thereafter), with the show’s unprecedented live budget the primary target of NBC bean counters right from the first episode.

Well, I don’t know how much an episode of SNL At Home (as the show has rebranded itself the last three installments) costs to produce, but it’s a whole lot less than usual. The ring lights reflecting in eyes, glasses, and background shiny things all testify to how this all-video, all-prerecorded SNL is allowed to coast on elements the infamously meticulous Michaels has long banished from his show. Sketches about Zoom calls are pieced together from grainy, sometimes blurry Zoom calls, the cast’s unadorned living rooms permitted to stand in for expensively mounted sets, and the luxury of retakes and post-production editing smoothing out the inevitable choppiness of the live version. High-profile A-lister guests teleconference in rather than spending the week in New York on NBC’s dime, their reluctance to submit themselves to the show’s grueling and risky weeklong trial by fire overcome by an experience consisting of a series of emailed jokes and maybe a scruffy wig. SNL At Home is basically Dick Ebersol’s dream of Saturday Night Live, updated for the YouTube generation. Cost effective comedy, easily controlled.

But it’s not Saturday Night Live, not really. So, again, you take your laughs and wait for the show—and, you know, the world—to return to its former shape. SNL has leaned into its own version of the Ebersol playbook over the years, with YouTube and NBC.com views no doubt figuring heavily into whatever algorithm Lorne’s head runs in order to choose the week’s sketches, so it’s tempting to say that this forced new iteration of the show is merely an amplification. But one thing that’s become clear from watching (and reviewing) these three all-clips shows is that there is a huge difference in watchability between a 90-minute live sketch show and 90 minutes of YouTube comedy sketches in isolation. It feels long, and more disposable, the loss of the show’s high-wire live element sapping the show’s entire reason to exist in the first place even as the individual sketches themselves are pretty funny. Basically, this is me telling NBC not to get any big ideas—Saturday Night Live without the live is dead.

Not helping this time out is the return of Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump for the cold open. After Brad Pitt’s Dr. Anthony Fauci played hilarious straight man to clips of the actual Trump’s murderous idiocy last week, the elbow-in-the-ribs clownery of Baldwin’s impression crashes back down, hard. These sketches could overcome a mediocre Trump with some sharp writing, but that’s never been the case, the sketches instead keying on Baldwin’s mugging, toothless Trump for a low-hanging round of spot-the-reference that in no way conveys any sense of the true, queasy horror of reality. Here, as the eighth choice commencement speaker of a high school’s online graduation ceremony, Baldwin’s Trump chugs some bleach, jokes about doing his own makeup thanks to a Liza Minnelli video tutorial, and states that his plan is to “let the virus run wild” with all the satirical punch of a Tonight Show skit. (Fallon, Leno, or Carson edition.) The cliché that real life under a Donald Trump presidency is ludicrous beyond satire is itself ridiculous. It just takes much more effort than this. What laughs there were came from the cast, with Kate McKinnon’s principal threatening to key Heidi Gardner’s lone MAGA Trump fan’s car (again), and Aidy Bryant’s University of Phoenix-bound student exclaiming confidently, “The future’s in wires!” Plus, I’m a sucker for off-camera heckling jokes. They just work.

Since we’re on the topic of SNL legends finding themselves a whole lot more amusing than I did, Martin Short phoned in his half of an obnoxious couple (Heidi Gardner being his other half), crashing a catchup video call with friends horrified to learn that they’ve just returned from a pandemic-tourist trip to coronavirus epicenter Italy. Of course, Martin Short never phones anything in so much as megaphones it in, with his obliviously showy character taking huge, Jerry Lewis-style bites of faux-Italian words like “quarantina” as he and Gardner relate how they boorishly violated an old man’s personal social distancing space in search of local color and wound up on a Somali pirate barge filled with smuggled medical gear. Now, I don’t object to Martin Short in principle—SCTV alone earns him a lifetime comedy pass. But so often his schtick cannonballs obtrusively into the flow of good shows (off the top of my head: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Big Mouth, Arrested Development), and, here, the prevailing wisdom of just turning Short loose and letting him do his thing is once again shown to be almost immediately tiring. The only laugh was, unsurprisingly, from Kenan’s underplaying, cutting off the couple’s pretentious bragging with a curt, “You will not call it ‘quarantina.’ Not while my ears can hear.”

Some of SNL’s other go-to sketch templates work better than others in this sort-of bland new world. Celebrity impression comedy is a staple, and the whole Masterclass conceit continues to let Chloe Fineman, finally, get a turn to show the skills she was theoretically hired for. This time, we got her very solid Phoebe Waller-Bridge, shooting the lens and cocking her eyebrow to make cheeky asides about her saucy at-home journal-writing exercises. (PWB’s two diaries alternate between “violent female rage” and “naughty little secrets.”) Doing Britney Spears at this point would seem like piling on if the former(?) pop star weren’t making current internet buzz by, among other things, burning down her home gym and so forth. (The chyron, “We paid her too much for this” vies with anything in Fineman’s able impression for what laughs there are.) And while she’s down five-to-one in these sketches, at least Melissa Villaseñor got to do her amusingly emphatic John Mulaney, too.

These shows have relied almost exclusively on the cast and writers’ current cabin fever and the reasons behind it for inspiration, which is understandable. And the old “nobody knows how to work Zoom” premise is going to be a thing as long as this virus is, so the church sketch did just that. Once more (and not for the last time), it’s Kenan who makes this work as well as it does, with his patient preacher vainly trying to get his enthusiastic online congregation to mute their side of the video gathering. That’s the only real joke involved, but Kenan sells the hell out of it for the mercifully short running time.

Oh, there was a host of sorts again this week, with Kristen Wiig pretending to be caught in bed unawares for duty before getting to do the bare minimum required of a host in this format. (To be fair, she did get one actual sketch, unlike Tom Hanks and Brad Pitt, although the hair vlogging sketch relied almost entirely on her self-promoting YouTube personality wobbling her long, unruly locks into the computer camera, again and again.)

In her monologue (as I guess its positioning forces me to call it), Wiig goofed around amiably enough. The cheesy, splashy credits/silly dancing bit seemed stolen wholesale from Lady Dynamite, but nothing counts these days. Belting out a big, brassy lullaby (supposedly her mother’s bedtime favorite) after building the song up to be her getting-sincere moment was the best touch (“I got down on the floor because I wanted to get serious.”)

The show’s first nod to the fact that tomorrow is Mother’s Day, SNL then really went for the heartstrings with the musical guest, Boyz II Men (with an unannounced Babyface on acoustic guitar), singing the almost too-heartfelt paean to moms everywhere, “A Song For Mama.” Unlike the previous two rough-and-ready at-home musical performances, this was produced to within an inch of its life, but dammit if it didn’t get to me (and everyone else, by the look of the comments). Maybe it was Michael Che’s uncharacteristically sincere introduction, in which he obliquely referenced his grandmother Martha who died a few weeks back from this fucking virus. Maybe it was the montage of SNL performers with their own moms, ending with a snapshot of Martha and her grandbaby. Or that the show made the choice not to label each performer’s picture for maximum “Aww”s, leaving the impression that each mother-and-child picture was just for the moms. It was just lovely. Call your mom.

Pete Davidson’s housemate/mom got her own time in the spotlight in Davidson’s contribution, his latest homemade music video, this time a rap collaboration with Chris Redd extolling the IMDb-swelling greatness of character actor and all-around swell human Danny Trejo. (Trejo showed up to remind everybody that he’s also a restauranteur and—although he doesn’t mention it—kickass coronavirus philanthropist.) Not as killer fun as some of Davidson’s previous lockdown jams, but, as he and Redd note, Danny Trejo makes everything just a little bit better.

Better all around, though was what’s likely to be the episode’s breakout clip, an all-cast music video about coping with quarantine stress that leads to the inevitable and reasonable conclusion that it’s time to let your kids knock a few back before bedtime. “Song For The Kids” finds just the right note of jokey outrageousness in watching a roster of cast children drinking all manner of alcoholic beverages while their parents belt out in unison that getting your kids sloshed before bedtime is going to solve a whole lot of issues around the house. The kicker is the inclusion of Frozen star Josh Gad, roped into singing a supposedly Disney-approved verse while his animated snowman Olaf obediently lip-synchs along. Beck Bennett steers things right into his own garden shed with his plea for dads to be similarly allowed to drink while locked away pretending to take a phone call, but it’s mainly about the kids. Won’t somebody think of the kids?

Continuing the themes of inappropriate quarantine childcare and getting your kids some screen time, Mikey Day’s short about son Brandon making his life hell with fave-courting YouTube pranks kept getting me to laugh in spite of myself. There’s just the one joke—little Brandon’s a monster—but it’s presented so confidently that I kept laughing every time the just-pranked Day’s face flashes on screen along with the legend “BITCH.” Day is always willing to take a fall for a laugh and does some fine jump-scare and head-smash acting while little Brandon proves unnervingly comfortable embodying the next generation of braying internet influencers.

Then there’s Kate McKinnon in a huge, horrible beard as an insane lighthouse keeper giving self-isolation tips. What part of that sentence makes you think I didn’t laugh? No part is the answer, although, as yet one more of the episode’s disconnected jumble of comic setpieces, I was left pretty punch-drunk by that point. Remember, don’t give your money to a clam. They don’t need it. (Also, who’s up for a remake of The Lighthouse starring Kate and Aidy? Just me? Fine.)

Update picked up a little of the slack left over from the limp cold open, although Jost and Che have been sharper. Che’s takes are usually the more pointed of the two, and his current bit of gradually revealing the tumbler of booze he’s swilling to get through this cavalcade of bullshit continues to be a funny, suitably potent idea. Overtly mentioning his grandmother’s death in addressing just how terrible everything is, Che characteristically turned things back on his co-anchor, noting how Jost has also suffered a huge loss in not being able to go to J. Crew. (“I’m not ready to joke about J. Crew yet,” Jost stated, somberly.)

Going on to talk about the non-virus, non-Trump horrible news of the week, Che brought up the caught-on-camera murder of black man Ahmaud Arbery by a couple of white Georgians (plus those goddamn murder hornets), and speculated about the not-insignificant odds of him not surviving SNL’s summer hiatus. Still—and this is an old and tired complaint, I realize—Update should be SNL’s standard-bearer when it comes to political comedy, and each week it’s seeming more and more like Jost and Che can’t wait to hurry on to the more frivolous stuff. (That said, their hyped charity joke swap paid off nicely. Che’s would-be uncomfortable joke from a viewer was just a bad joke, but Che’s for Jost was another in the pair’s long line of jokes at the expense of Jost’s terminal whiteness, and it worked. Again.)

Anytime Cecily Strong wants to bring back Fox News propaganda bullhorn and cautionary tale about substance abuse jeanine Pirro is okay with me, although Strong’s is one characterization really harmed by the loss of a live audience. Looking appropriately rough, Strong’s Pirro claimed she did her own makeup while looking into a spoon, chugged hastily mocked-up box wine, and inexplicably managed to toss one of her cocktails in the far-distant Jost’s face at the end of the bit. Funny as ever, even if the show’s mockery of Fox News and its coterie of racist, authoritarian-enabling blowhards should, again, be a lot more substantive than mere personality attacks.

The other Update guest (and guest star highlight) was former Update anchor Tina Fey, who delivered an unsurprisingly well-written and naturalistic report on how she’s coping (not well) with 24/7 family lock-in, and how it’s okay to lose it in front of your kids every once in a while. With advice like, “If you’re baking cookies and you don’t have any flour, you can just go to bed,” Fey’s gift for a carefully constructed turn-of-joke was intact, even as she told Che how she’s just making up gibberish and telling her involuntarily homeschooled kids it’s Latin. She and Che had a nice back-and-forth, in a pairing I could stand to see more of. (Upon Fey urging a motherhood positivity call-and-response, Che notes, “My children have, hopefully, all been prevented.”) Anyone who’s seen Fey’s previous Update work (or read Bossypants) recognizes Fey as the ideal advice columnist, whose utterly sincere advice to everyone to do a little self-care comes right before she finds the perfect little twist at the end.

Game shows make sense in this context, and Kenan Thompson can anchor a quiz panel full of ding-dongs like nobody since Bill Hader. Bringing back What’s Wrong With This Picture? is, like every single game show sketch ever, one joke, repeated until the end, but Kenan makes it work. So do Aidy Bryant, Ego Nwodim, and Melissa Villaseñor as the all-moms Mother’s Day contestants, who nail the delivery on some truly inspired weirdness. Aidy urging haste because her unsupervised son is “Twelve, but he’s a bad kind of twelve,” vies with Melissa’s correction that she’s a grandmother but not a mother, leaving Kenan’s Elliott Pants (eh, we could all use a funny name around now) to deadpan his way through the dumbness with perfectly pitched exhaustion. A picture of a mom, two kids, and the wrong number of cartoned eggs elicits Ego’s protest that, “The husbands are too short—they should stack to make one big guy,” and Aidy’s that “Everyone in the photo is white, that just doesn’t fly these days. One of them needs to be weird.” Weird is good when it comes to hauling from the old game show well.

Sticking with weird, my two favorite late-show sketches had Kyle Mooney’s fingerprints all over them. His continuing experiment with split screening himself and doing funny voices as everyone in a shared-quarantine situation saw the most normal of the Kyles being consoled over his breakup (with an undisguised other Kyle named Sara) by his two housemates, in the form of cornhole, beer-drinking, and a little light bank robbery. Punctuated with quick-hit jokes around the margins (another intruding Kyle who keeps crashing through windows when discovered, offscreen footsteps, a makeover montage), it’s another testament to how handing a few minutes over to Mooney every episode provides some much needed tonal variety. Especially since he’s only going to get stranger the more he’s left to his own devices.

Then there’s Aidy Bryant’s kids show showcase Eleanor’s House, where lonely birthday girl Aidy’s attempt to conjure up a perfect imaginary birthday with her anthropomorphic animal pals goes awry with the unwanted intrusion of Mooney’s Richard Carson and his wife Colleen (Heidi Gardner). Portrayed in Eleanor’s mind in the sort of Taiwanese animation style that really puts the “uncanny” in the Uncanny Valley, the Carsons (and their Michigan ATV friends) crash the wholesome event with the white trash seediness that apparently lurks somewhere within Eleanor’s nightmares, leading one of the cops sent in to taser Richard, “Ma’am, you need to get your life together.” While the actual last sketch of the season went for the sentimental, this and Mooney’s were just made for the ten-to-one spot.

That said, the actual ten-to-one sketch at least tucked some surreal touches in its all-cast goodbye. As Cecily Strong drifts off to sleep wishing for a return to life in New York’s teeming out-of-doors, each performer gets a turn to show the similarly singular fantasies their lockdown loneliness have morphed into. Melissa has a happy, laughing dinner out in a restaurant—with herself. Aidy steals a puppy from the dog park. Bowen Yang weeps while gratefully watching a drag show, while Chris Redd smiles blissfully as he’s booed offstage doing standup. My favorite was Kenan giving an approving head nod to the passing Dorothy Michaels, and Ego shuddering in her sleep that she’s somehow slipped into a Woody Allen movie. In the end, it’s a lushly silly farewell to a season that wasn’t, and a complexly, uniquely bizarre city—and life—we’re all itching to have back.


Stray observations

  • Fey advises letting your kids see you “open-mouth chew cold spaghetti while you scream words like “Moron!” and “Dunning-Kruger Syndrome, look it up! He definitely has it!,” whenever someone specific appears on the TV.
  • Fey also wistfully remembers when we all cared about Harry and Meghan, noting that now she can’t remember what they look like. “I think they both had eyes?,” she ventures.
  • Jost calls his summation of the current Axl Rose-Steve Mnuchin Twitter feud “the dumbest sentence to ever count as news.” Let’s see what tomorrow brings, big guy.
  • Che, noting that baseball-starved Americans will soon be treated to televised South Korean baseball games, gave a shout-out to America’s new hero, expat slugger Preston Tucker. Go, Kia Tigers!
  • “All of our guests today are moms, because being a mom is the most important hobby in the world!”
  • “Oh no, you don’t want this. This is dream pizza.”
  • And that’s it for this shortened oddball of an SNL season, and the A.V. Club’s reviews thereof. Stay safe and play it smart, everybody, so we can do this all again come September.

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