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

Saturday Night Live pulls everyone back together for a star-packed, uniformly funny home episode

Fred Armisen, Kenan Thompson, Jason Sudeikis
Fred Armisen, Kenan Thompson, Jason Sudeikis
Screenshot: Saturday Night Live

“I’m not gonna lie, this is weird.”

You said it, Charles Barkley. As we ponder the second outing of a Saturday Night Live transformed through necessity and civic caution into a patchwork playlist of YouTube clips, the temptation remains to grade this temporary mutation of the show on something of a curve. Except, this week, Saturday Night Live doesn’t really need it. Kicking off with a truly outstanding political cold open with Brad Pitt unexpectedly making his first-time sort-of hosting appearance as a bewigged and patiently fed up Dr. Anthony Fauci, the show mixed unusually pointed stabs at the Trump administration with assorted silliness stemming from the nationwide coronavirus lockdown that’s keeping everyone at SNL at phone’s length.

Hazy cell phone shorts they may be, but tonight’s sketches were genuinely good from top to bottom, testifying to the forced inventiveness of some very talented people going a little batty in isolation. (And SNL’s technical team.) There were some old favorites that—apart from being chicken soup for the soul of similarly self-quarantined SNL viewers everywhere—were as funny as they’ve ever been. There were some ringers, as is the Saturday Night Live formula increasingly, but they were all (but maybe one) both welcome and wonderful. And the cast and writers (and those tech folk) continue to adapt to this new not-fucking-normal, crafting a couple of group sketches around the current substitute for human interaction, the video chat. Then there were short films that let some of SNL’s stars (some woefully underused) shine their own spotlight on themselves. Unlike last week’s equally welcome but overlong-feeling return, this episode filled its time with an odd assortment of pieces that nonetheless formed just the right shape in the end.


On the old favorites front, I don’t know why I had the feeling that “What’s Up With That?” was going to make an appearance this week, but chalk it up to either a lifetime viewer’s ESP, or a seriously magical case of wish fulfillment. Busting out right out of the gate, the deliriously loopy old bit adapted itself with giggly aplomb to the change of venue(s), with Kenan Thompson, as ever, reigning over the whole misbegotten show biz talk show circus with ease as host DeAndre Cole. Joining him were phoned-in guests Barkley and DJ Khaled, sure, but nobody invited to “What’s Up With That?” ever has to do much, as the gag—that Cole and company’s funk-tastic enthusiasm cuts off every attempt to speak with the most elaborately overdone song-and-dance—is the true star. Especially since the night’s first alum Jason Sudeikis made his triumphant return as the show’s track-suited dance machine, performing those same, inimitable, giggle-induing dance moves. Throw in sax player Fred Armisen and a staticky Bill Hader as always never-interviewed third guest Lindsey Buckingham, and the whole enterprise is as random and funny as ever. The addition of non-stop, bananas onscreen graphics taking the place of the in-studio show’s traditional diversionary glitz only makes sense, too, and the sketch set an ebulliently silly tone that just kept rolling.

The Kate-and-Aidy pairing is almost always a guaranteed winner, none more so than when they show up as smilingly desperate business owners attempting to drum up customers for their ill-advised operations. Here it’s a corona-barren supermarket, where the two ladies (Kathy and Suzanna-Anne-Helen) make a doomed pitch for all the items hoarding shoppers have left behind on their shelves. From actual non-favorites (frozen Hawaiian pizza, Missouri wine, the exquisitely specific “bag of dry, hard beans”), to creatively unappealing fakes (Peep soup, mint Pringles, “impossible” lobster substance), McKinnon and Bryant kept landing the jokes, punctuating each movement with a swipe at actual noted non-favorite overpriced bottled tap water Dasani (probably not product placement in this case). “Dasani water—now vegetarian,” Kate intones finally. Just packed with great turns, my favorite was their website, which has turned to helpfully suggesting replacements for sold out items such as toilet paper being replaced by a used DVD copy of Van Helsing. I’m adding this to the very short list of recurring sketches I’ve never tired of—sure, they’re different businesses, but the same can-do (but probably shouldn’t) spirit is always a hoot coming from these two.

Speaking of recurring bits, Big Papi is back. And maybe I tired of Kenan’s turn as Red Sox slugger David Ortiz at one point after its still-classic first Update appearance, but Thompson has just worn me down and I’m back in. Here, robbed of the chance to smilingly tell Colin Jost to shut up, Papi’s in his kitchen, making—what else—a big Dominican lunch. Made up of everything left in his pantry (including monkey feet and dolphin tongues), the sketch is just another cavalcade of Kenan saying the names of Dominican delicacies in rapid succession (he reading of “wasakaka con queso frito” might just be how he scored of of his Emmy nods), peppered with pitchman Ortiz’s questionable endorsement choices. (Tonight, he hawks hand sanitizer Pure Hell, asking, “Why the hell is my skin just a bunch o’ dust?”) Toss in a pinch of guest Bad Bunny (as Big Bunny, selling Zoom sweatpants), and Papi’s breezy revelation that PETA has pronounced his all-meat concoction “a genocide,” and it’s all pretty delicious stuff.

Even the Spin class trainee sketch (which probably is product placement) worked better than it ever has, just because the cast’s lines were so solid. Ego Nwodim’s “Korona with a K” lets slip in her inspirational patter, “That’s right, I’m hot and religious—it’s a trap!” Beck Bennett’s Robert (as in Julia) is a double threat, being in lockdown and on house arrest. Chris Redd’s trainer trainee isn’t about those antibodies, but he is going to watch every episode of Ozark. And Bowen Yang gets the prize for his Lee (as in Harvey Oswald) ranting about coronavirus cancellations, including Bill Cosby. (“We need doctors right now!”) The sketch, in the before-times, was always just a bunch of quick-hit lines like this, so it segues to the format nicely, especially as those lines are almost uniformly great.

While Heidi Gardner’s Mandy might not be beloved, her last time out, as the unimpressed country cousin of James Franco (as himself) allowed Gardner to show her ability to succinctly flesh out a character. Here. she’s revealed to, somehow, also be a long-estranged cousin of Paul Rudd, who video-phones to check in, only to for Rudd to fall victim as well to Mandy’s grubby overconfidence. Rudd is unsurprisingly outstanding as Paul Rudd, weathering another in his long career of uncomfortable encounters with straight-faced, increasingly sweaty decency as Mandy responds to a call from her superstar relative by bragging about her tic-tac-toe trophy while running down Rudd’s Golden Globes loss to Ramy Youssef. Rudd tries hard to find some common ground with the weirdo kin he hasn’t seen since they were seven (“No, not much coloring these days.”), until he finally cuts things short. Not before he rises to the bait and asks Mandy to stop saying Youssef’s name already. The increasing reliance on big time guest stars has shut out gifted performers like Gardner in the past couple of years, but, here, the combination unlocks her talents well.

And, in its traditional ten-to-one spot, Whiskers ‘r’ We overcame Kate McKinnon’s lack of a guest foil and a ready supply of adorable kitten costars thanks to her being Kate McKinnon, and her own, much-discussed cat Nino Positano. (Seriously, I want there to be a special cat Emmy, and I want Nino to win.) Kate and her very good boy ran through the usual Whiskers formula, as Kate’s cat-obsessed shelter worker Barbara DeDrew shares elaborately made up(?) backstories for every feline (all essayed brilliantly by the versatile Nino). Referring to the uptick in pet adoptions by lonely quarantines, Barbara confesses that all that are left are “the real bottom of the barrel nobodies,” like one into BDSM (“bitin’ dem silly mice”), and one who’s genuinely “a dominatrix into spit play and ding-dong punishment.” Noting that her shelter’s in trouble because her pandemic small business relief went instead to Shake Shack, Barbara just can’t help but tell the truth about, say, Marbles (Nino), whose claims of being furloughed are belied by the revelation that her only job was licking her own butt. (“What a jerk,” smiles Barbara, while I laugh my socially distanced ass off.)

Moving on to the guests, we’ve already hit on Pitt, Sudeikis, Armisen, Khaled, Barkley, Bad Bunny, and Rudd. But Adam Sandler made an appearance, too, taking a verse in Pete Davidson’s charmingly catchy music video about going nuts living with his mom on Staten Island. Davidson’s been great in these two shows—he’s much more relaxed and at home (so to speak) doing his laconic likable stoner stuff straight to his phone than under the celebrity spotlights at 8H. With Sandler helping out (“I’m so bored, I’m doing songs with Pete,” the pent-up Sandler sings, with an underpants mask on his face), the number, with its hummable tune and endearing use of housebound locations and confident editing (and mom Amy’s cell phone camerawork) is the grungy cabin fever anthem of amiably irritated shut-ins everywhere. Oh, Rob Schneider (as is his shtick) shows up in Sandler’s part of the film, if that’s your thing. It’s brief and he doesn’t get to talk apart from a catchphrase, at least.

For the second week in a row, SNL brought in a musical guest to play a somber cover song, this time with Miley Cyrus bringing her smoky warble to a creditable rendition of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here.” Like Chris Martin’s “Shelter From The Storm,” the pick seems to spark from some vaguely relatable lyric touching on loneliness and isolation (“Two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl,” etc), but, Cyrus’ perhaps overly self-serious presentation notwithstanding, I sort of liked it. Huh.

The original sketches weren’t bad either, with the top of the heap being Kyle Mooney’s music video, a flight of fancy within a niftily edited all-Kyle sketch about that one casual acquaintance at a party who demands that you remember his name. Like Pete’s, Kyle’s song is a song first, here a dreamy, soulful singer-songwriter ballad with Mooney’s trim falsetto aping a woe-is-me lament as he sensitively croons over some vintage 1980s VHS distortion and effects. Embarrassed, caught-on-camera self-delusion is Mooney’s métier, but here his singer is the wronged party for a change—even if it’s also Kyle doing the wronging. Regardless, it’s another fine, singular showcase.

Along those lines, “Melissa’s Big Date” gave Melissa Villaseñor the kind of vehicle she’s been missing. Neither she nor Heidi Gardner have gotten the sort of bump after their promotion to the main cast that they were no doubt hoping for, and this low-key, charmingly silly piece about Melissa’s imagined (or is it?) date with an unseen, possibly imaginary suitor should help out as much as Gardner’s remotely produced pieces will. (At least here’s hoping.) With Villaseñor’s side of the date night chit-chat sparkling with enough weird little red flags to make the morning-after bust-up inevitable (Flubber fans and American History X aficionados just don’t mesh), this was as relaxed as Melissa’s had the chance to be on the show.

Speaking of, Aidy Bryant’s show-ending film about her going back through her childhood diaries had me charmed right from the jump. I couldn’t quite figure out why (apart from Aidy being Aidy) until it struck me how much it reminded me of the long-ago bit where an under-represented Gilda Radner just came out at the top of one show to tell everyone what she ate that day. Here, Aidy’ reminiscences about her lonely defiance in loving turtles and Rosie O’Donnell come hitched to Bryant’s beaming, bashful self-mockery. And the turn, where a quick montage of distorted effects underscores Aidy’s erupting near-madness at being trapped inside with only her scrawled memories to entertain her is nice and unexpected. “I can’t keep looking back at the past, and I have nothing inside of here that is the future” wraps things up with a chill that takes the cuteness of the preceding bit right off into very relatable stir-crazy territory.

Chris Redd might share some of Gardner and Villaseñor’s airtime complaints, but he got his own funny turn as a coronavirus-released convict vainly trying to drum up an actual, in-person hookup. The need to release non-violent offenders from the simmering health disaster of New York’s jails is pressing enough that, at first, it seems like Redd’s smooth-talking hustler is going to be held up as an unfortunate cautionary tale. But, as it turns out, he was only in for the whopping 600 year sentence because of pirated Sopranos DVDs (“Who knew they meant two-to-ten per DVD, though?”), and the sketch holds him up just as another horny oddball who’s willing to break quarantine. (The exception being second call Aidy Bryant, a shocked and harried mom who reveals she was only writing dirty stuff to Redd because she knew he’d never get out.) Ego Nwodim made the most of her few minutes, too, as Redd’s first choice of hookup who won’t go out, “After the government shut down outside because that 5G stuff messed up and made a pandemic.” Luckily (or, you know, not) for Redd, a very sick Cecily Strong’s still game, although even Redd ultimately offers up some very specific alternatives to actually touching each other. Look, SNL comedy in the ’rona is going to make some perhaps well-trod jokes about social distancing, but this was a decent stab at letting the performers do their thing in the new setting we’re all far too familiar with. Not bad.

Chloe Fineman followed up her acclaimed one-woman impression show last time with a two-character Airbnb ad where her well-intentioned host finds herself playing indefinite roommate with her supposed one-night renter, Oolie. She of the indefinable European accent and penchant for nude front yard yoga and every bad habit, it’s, again, the sort of inspiration that comes when all of your synapses are firing about the different ways this terrible situation could be so much worse.

Kenan brought us an O.J. sketch, with the disgraced but alarmingly at-large former footballer (and SNL host) jumping to much more charitable conclusions about just why people keep getting freaked out when they see him walking around in the world. I don’t know that the world needed yet another O.J. Simpsons SNL sketch at this point, but damn if Kenan didn’t kill. (Sorry.) The line comparing SNL having to do another of these at home episodes with thinking “you’re only gonna do the one, then your realized you had to do another one” is coupled with Thompson’s Simpson drifting off into one of several creepily funny thousand-yard stares. Again, necessary? Eh. Still, funny is funny, and Kenan made it his own.

Ego Nwodim set up an easy but pleasantly disposable gag where quarantined reporter Mikey Day’s cell phone feed is hijacked by any number of goofy filters, courtesy of his unseen but clearly resentful teenage daughter, who’s cooped up in coronavirus lockdown with him. The weakest sketch of the night, it’s still not bad for what it is.

The Dick Wolf setup for the crime show murder investigation sketch quickly went by the wayside in favor of the sort of offbeat noodling on a theme that Beck Bennett can do so well. Here, as the detective trying to solve the whodunnit over a group chat, he and suspects become entranced by Cecily Strong’s absently hummed song-in-progress, giving Bennett’s cop the sliver of daylight he needs to trot out his own lockdown inspiration, the “masculine rock” anthem, “Rare Steak.” With nobody sharing the enthusiasm for his composition they had for Strong’s, the cop can barely be bothered to tell everyone who did do it. (Heidi Gardner’s murderer seems as quarantine spacey as everyone else, not bothering to deny it). Again, video chat comedy may not be the future, but SNL’s taking some able stabs at addressing the present we’re stuck with.

The commercial parody of those omnipresent corporate ads where earnest spokespeople intone their parent company’s deep and abiding concern for customers “in challenging times like these” etc, gets to the heart (and elsewhere) of what at-home adults are really concerned with. I don’t know if NBC is down for product placement for an adult streaming site, but the people at Pornhub owe Lorne Michaels and company, um, something for all the publicity. Fake commercials have been part of the Saturday Night Live toolkit from day one, and by now the formula is so precise and expertly replicated that this ad could run alongside those for the banks, car companies, and other massive businesses whose love for consumers without anyone batting an eye. Just another essential service.

Since all formats are in shambles at this point in the SNL (and SNL review) process, Update was another sharp outing for Che and Jost. The separation and casualness of the living room settings really give the duo a more relaxed and confident feel, and the jokes—as was the case for most of the night—soared well above the average. Maybe it’s the stress of being locked inside for so long (Pete Davidson’s jibe about Jost having to quarantine with fiancée Scarlett Johansson aside) while necessarily watching Donald Trump spout incoherent, bullying lunacy rather than anything resembling the steady leadership necessary to spring them that provides focus when making the inevitable current event jokes. (You know, about Trump musing publicly as to whether injecting cleaning products could kill the virus. Inside the human body.) Jost joking about Trump’s “bring the light inside the body” UV treatment suggestion being a little too close to something you’d hear at Jonestown encapsulates the MAGA cult’s likely receptiveness.

Che took his own uniquely angled route to the news, musing, after reporting on Trump’s laughable/Orwellian excuses for his universally mocked treatment options as to whether there’s some sort of international child protective service that could turn America over to another country until this all gets sorted out. “I’m being sarcastic, obviously,” Che deadpanned after floating the idea that Iraq should step up since we “killed their abusive dad for them.” Both anchors scored throughout, but Che was straight knocking down targets. The Land O’Lakes decision to ditch its longtime, increasingly problematic Native American mascot prodded Che to propose the company replace her with a pipeline. He slammed Blue Lives Matter, support-the-troops “rednecks” (“Excuse me, ‘red states,’” he apologized) for whipping out their guns to threaten medical workers and politicians as soon as things don’t go their way. And, taking on the suddenly not so anti-vaxxers, Che whipped one high and inside, suggesting that such people are now worried that “if they get the virus, they won’t get a chance to breast feed their teenagers.” Even Jost couldn’t derail him with an interminably set up pitch for viewers to write a joke form Che to read on-air, whether he likes it or not. It’s for charity, so Che’s apparently down with the guaranteed disaster of an idea, although he followed his read of Jost’s sexist sample joke with an abashed, “That just undoes everything I’ve ever done.” (Other things aside, Che actually did something really cool recently, so that legacy’s safe, at least.)

Then there was the aforementioned Pete, who had one of his most self-assured Update outings in ages, mixing signature self-deprecation (you lose, people betting on Davidson getting a quarantine face tattoo) and a funny run on the New York Health Department’s eye-openingly explicit COVID-19 guidelines. “I can’t believe I have to sanitize the language of the Health Department to make it suitable for the show that brought you ‘Dick In A Box,’” he concluded. As with the rest of this fine and refreshingly funny oddball of an episode, the laughs all felt familiarly and bracingly cathartic.

Stray observations

  • While mint Pringles apparently remain merely the product of a fevered comic imagination, the reconstituted potato flake concern has put out a chocolate mint variety in the past. May god have mercy on our souls.
  • Lindsey Buckingham’s video feed kept shorting out, but I fully believe that Bill Hader was in on the bit.
  • Another unwanted supermarket product according to McKinnon’s proprietor: “Boy Scout cookies—they’re damp!”
  • When asked how he’s kept in shape since retirement, Big Papi snaps back cheerfully, “I got shot!”
  • Bennett’s detective, brushing aside his chief suspect’s no-show in favor of singing his song, tells everyone brusquely, “I emailed the warrant. She clicked ‘attending.’”
  • Remember, a cat is a friend who has babies in your hamper.
  • No new SNL next week, so we’ll see when everyone pulls things together for another one. In the meantime, listen to Dr. Fauci. The real one. Stay frosty.

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