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

Saturday Night Live squanders sketch legend Keegan-Michael Key by being itself

Keegan-Michael Key
Keegan-Michael Key
Photo: Mary Ellen Matthews/NBC

“You’re gonna have to be 50 times louder honey.”

“I’m not an actor, I’m a [much better than this sketch] star!!”

For a guy whose own sketch comedy cred is unimpeachable regardless of Saturday Night Live, Keegan-Michael Key rather endearingly gave the impression of being honored to be in Studio 8H. Bookending his energetically confident hosting of a disappointing episode, Key was effusive about SNL being the dream for a kid with sketch comedy aspirations, saying during the goodnights, “This was better than the dream.”

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There’s something particularly intimate about that. Key has noted in the past that taking a guaranteed job offer on the L.A.-based SNL challenger MadTV represented a pragmatic choice for a young Second City sketch performer, and he certainly made the most of the opportunity offered, especially in his friendship and partnership with Jordan Peele. Their subsequent series, Key & Peele, was a revelation and a liberation, allowing two of the most fertilely original comic minds in sketch history free rein to express things neither MadTV nor SNL would have known what to do with. Not just because of race—although, yeah—but simply because Key and Peele’s sensibilities were uniquely their own. As accomplished as each is in various fields (Key pretended to be offended when an audience plant asked about his Oscar for Get Out in the monologue), Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele were masterful at servicing a comic premise in just the right way. The best sketch comedy doesn’t fit a premise into an existing template, but fashions the form to the idea’s singular needs, and Key and Peele were great at it.

Saturday Night Live, on the other hand, is all about templates. For better or worse, the show’s rigidity when it comes to sketch variety (as opposed to variety show sketches) is what props this near half-century institution up. We didn’t get a game show or talk show sketch tonight, but the graduation and commencement sketches had plenty of tonal and structural antecedents, while the Broadway sketch once more planted Mikey Day in the wings to comment on the wacky and forgetful antics of old troupers Kate McKinnon, Cecily Strong, and Key while shaking his head and protesting like the world’s dullest substitute teacher. (Seriously, is Day writing himself these parts, or is this some sort of extended hazing?) Even Key’s monologue, framed around the longtime fan’s desire to “do every single SNL thing tonight,” felt threadbare. The tune (because doing a musical monologue is another dusty Saturday Night Live standard) limply recalled Steve Martin’s legendary song-and-dance opener, the mid-song Q&A was another self-referentially hacky SNL cliché that couldn’t escape being a cliché, and the cast cameos at least gave us Cecily Strong, Kenan (not Keegan), and Keegan belting out a number, which was nice.

Other than that, we got a recurring sketch (Gemma), and a long bit parodying a year-old ESPN documentary, and that was a wrap on Keegan-Michael Key as host, as egregious a case of squandered opportunity as SNL’s fumbled away in a while. Not to be idea-pitch reviewer guy, but, watching this pleasantly forgettable episode play out, I kept thinking about Key’s role in Mike Birbiglia’s insightful sketch/improv world dramedy Don’t Think Twice, where Key’s talented and ambitious improv performer recycles one of his broadest stage characters on a very familiar-looking late-night TV comedy institution called Weekend Live. There, Key’s Jack is clearly held up as a sell-out, shoehorning his expansive talents into Weekend Live’s restrictive, competitive, talent- and joke-vacuuming confines, a portrayal that must have come up during show week. (Not to mention the film’s depiction of Weekend Live’s remote and manipulative executive producer/self-impressed TV legend.) I guess it was optimistic to imagine that that comic tension might creep into the show proper. But stylistically experimentation has never really been Weekend Live Saturday Night Live’s jam.

Best/Worst Sketch Of The Night

The Best: If you’re going to have Keegan-Michael Key in the house, you can at least have him beat up some beloved children’s characters. Such was the mildly naughty fun of watching Keegan and Kenan play a pair of no-nonsense bouncers dealing with the signature heckling of Muppets Statler and Waldorf when The Muppet Show makes a stop at their theater. Key has a way of snapping off a line that imbues a character with an evocatively funny inner tension, and his security guy packs in a little lisp to his tough guy talk as he tells the unruly felt senior citizens, “What happens next is up to you.” Making it clear that they don’t care how used Kermit and company are to having two crotchety old coots spew zingers from the opera boxes (“We work for the venue!”), Kenan and Keegan are a doubles’ act for the ages, their unimpressed professionalism ultimately spilling over into human-on-puppet violence. Now, doing inappropriate things to the Muppets is always a guilty laugh—we all love the Muppets, so taking the mickey out of them should, as here, come from a place of love and respect. (Everyone’s a comedy peer, after all.) And if the shaky puppetry (Muppetry?) on display only shows how puppeteering isn’t as easy as it looks, the stunned reaction of Statler and Waldorf to Statler’s vicious beat-down by an enraged Key comes complete with some genuinely funny/disturbing terror-tremors.

But it’s all K&K here, as the two create a dual sketch of two working stiffs whose workers’ proximity to visiting stardom leaves no room for shenanigans. Key’s bouncer offhandedly calls the show’s long-suffering emcee “Kramer,” and angrily tells the hecklers to “hear this little dragon and his friends do their thing,” while he and Kenan are suitably aghast when their attempt to eject their targets (“Aaand, ya bounced,” pronounces Key) sees the puppets’ nonexistent lower halves waggling around in the air. (“We didn’t know that y’all was veterans.”) It’s big and broad stuff, sure, but watching Keegan and Kenan together beating up puppets—it worked for me.

The Worst: It’s deceptively damning to say that none of the sketches tonight were interesting enough to be truly bad.

The Rest: Heidi Gardner made the The Last Dance filmed piece work as well as it did, which wasn’t all that great, to be honest. Partly, as noted, this is based on something that came out more than a year ago, and all the clowning on that one security guard who famously pitched quarters with uber-competitor Michael Jordan has been done. (And, you know, done better.) Key makes for an indifferent Jordan (I liked Chris Redd’s still-wary-of-Jordan Dennis Rodman better). And while Gardner typically puts her all into portraying the deleted-scenes misery of Jordan hanger-on Larry John Wisniewski (he of the floppy blond perm and exaggerated victory shrug) who had the effrontery to beat Jordan in a meaningless child’s game, there’s a real “Really? Now?” staleness to the whole enterprise. The escalation of Jordan’s vindictive winning streak never takes a turn you don’t expect, although I did like Jordan snapping, “You owe me a gun,” after one fateful toss. It was pleasant, forgettable (but for Gardner), and bewilderingly unnecessary.

The prom red carpet sketch was similarly cozy, as gussied-up students Bowen Yang and Gardner gushed over all their peers’ arrivals at the in-person event. (Like the ten-to-one graduation sketch, this high school event pretended that Covid wasn’t a thing, which I’m fine with, conceptually.) The comedy is equal parts high school observational and an examination of how celebrity culture and daily life have become intertwined, which makes for, again, a warmly unmemorable ensemble piece. There’s Pete Davidson as “the hot substitute teacher who’s 23,” dropping pop culture references and inspiring worrisome attention from the smitten Gardner. Keegan plays one Jacob Shneeb, BMOC for the third straight senior year, although I liked that his grade-repeating wasn’t due to jock delinquency but his enthusiasm for extracurricular activities. The observational bit about Kyle Mooney and “a mystery date who is out of his league” goes nicely offbeat, as date Chloe Fineman is revealed to be not just homeschooled, but crazy-religious homeschooled. (“Our bible is only eight pages and my uncle drew it.”) And Key’s sponsorship announcements include one for “Water bottles—put alcohol in the water bottles and say it’s water!”

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For having Kate, Cecily, and Key all together as three forgetful old Broadway troupers, the theater sketch relied so heavily on Mikey Day’s harried stage manager that I got angrier than the amiably so-so sketch warranted. The joke that the three veteran hoofers can’t remember the lyrics to “I’ve Got Rhythm” while paying tribute to Gershwin makes for some predictable old person gags enlivened immeasurably by the three actors’ impeccable timing. “Who could ask for anything—line!,” is, coming out of these three, a genuinely delightful piece of performing professionalism, the kind of effortless laugh you only get when the people involved have been working their asses off for decades. And then there’s Day, once more the personification of Saturday Night Live’s commitment to not letting a premise go over even the emptiest head. I keep saying it because they keep doing it, but there are other joke constructions than having one character (so, so often Day) calling attention to the comically strange behavior of another character and indicating that he neither understands nor appreciates it. It is deadening.

Weekend Update Update

Let’s give it up to Andrew Dismukes. Sometimes a featured player has to seize an Update spot out of airtime desperation, but Dismukes here just did a few minutes of sit-down stand-up and charmed the heck out of everyone. Out of this year’s new hires, Dismukes has gotten the most time onstage, so that has to help, but his mini-set—a technically topical story about his great-grandmother—was unhurried and pretty charming. Dismukes was unapologetically discursive throughout, with bemused Colin Jost interrupting occasionally to point out that none of this is supposedly what they’d arranged to talk about beforehand. Starting out by doing jokes about his Texas birthplace (known to all who’ve read his “photo-less Wikipedia page”), before reminiscing about watching the 1998 tween Disney Channel rollerblading movie Brink! The lack of point was the point of the joke, as Dismukes confidently wasted Jost’s time while making a strong case for himself as the sort of guy we wouldn’t mind watching goof around on Update every once in a while. (Call it the Pete Davidson path.) Well done all around.

Kate McKinnon was excellent as GOP doghouse-sitter Liz Cheney, but that’s spotlighted below. For the third and least correspondent piece, we got another too-late sports impression, as Beck Bennet pursed his lips into a creepy smirk as repeatedly disgraced but still smugly confident horse trainer Bob Baffert. I personally have learned more about Bob Baffert in the past week of comedy than I needed to know, and while Beck makes the inveterate horse-doper (allegedly) a funny-enough caricature of louche condescension and “cancel culture” scapegoating (I thought Che was going to smack away the hand Bennett’s Baffert kept laying on his arm), the jokes have all been done. Still, there was some juice left in Beck’s impression of how Baffert greeted his just-born cash cow/horse Medina Spirit, as he told Che, “He fell out of his mother’s hole and I got right in his face and said, ‘Run you little bitch!’” After that, it was a lot of ’roid jokes comparing the poor creature to Mark McGuire (with his “baseball-bat shaft and pea-sized balls”).

As for Update itself, Che and Jost cruised as usual, the good jokes outweighing the less-good without cutting particularly deep. Jost runner making fun of Republican countenances with funny asides is a thoroughly reappropriated bit by this point, but, hey, Mitch McConnell’s rictus grin does, in fact, look like he’s “watching a poor family get evicted on Christmas Eve,” so I’ll allow it. Speaking of GOP evil, soon-to-be-flipped-on Matt Gaetz (R-FL, of course) continued to serve as lowest-hanging political punching bag. Jost, noting the utter, bile-inducing use of the phrase “free at last” from McConnell (at being allowed to take off a life-saving little strip of cloth in deference to human life), said the only thing less appropriate would be the pedophilia- and sex trafficking-accused Gaetz saying, “I feel like a kid again.” Low blow? Sure. But fuck that guy.

Che went for the audience unease that is is food, capping off a story about the Coast Guard seizing a massive haul of guns by assuring everyone that said weapons are now being “safely sold to the mentally disturbed.” “I don’t know why I thought that’d make you laugh,” deadpanned Che, but, yes he does.

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“What do you call that act?” “Coffee Talk!”—Recurring Sketch Report

At least Cecily Strong’s Gemma got something slightly new to do. As one half of the chain restaurant band DJ Balls and Gemma, Strong was funny as always as the self-styled British (sorry, “Bri-ish”) songstress and serial dater. She and Key serenaded recently dumped husband Kenan with some doubly inappropriate sexy jams (Kenan’s friends booked them before they knew his wife has ditched him as soon as pandemic restrictions allowed). It’s testament to Strong’s attachment to her creation that Gemma survived the welcome shift in premises, as, this time, she’s not on a double date with that week’s host boyfriend, hamming it up with a yet well-observed accent. Cecily’s been so good for so long on this show that I can’t begrudge her a recurring character she obviously loves doing. Here, Gemma’s finally achieved the (franchised eatery) success she’s always known was hers, and if songs like her enthusiastically blunt Covid/intercourse anthem “Stick It In Me” aren’t going to take her to the top, she and Key make fine partners in self-delusion.

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

The cold open, once more, was political only in that a significant portion of the American population has decided that taking precautions to protect their fellow citizens against agonizing death is just another liberal PC plot against the real ’Murica. With Kate bringing out her avuncular Dr. Anthony Fauci to introduce some deeply suspect CDC staff mini-plays outlining the recently loosened Covid guidelines for the fully vaccinated, the sketch turned out to be more about crappy sketch comedy than anything relating to political satire. Acknowledging that some people are confused about when and where they can unmask post-vaccination (while others only pretend to be in order to mock those of us who give a shit about anyone but ourselves), McKinnon’s Fauci threw to a series of skits where some fellow scientists “who minored in drama” miss the point entirely in service of their thwarted improv dreams. There’s no bite to this, and even less point. Kate’s commitment to playing government officials was much more effective elsewhere tonight, and there wasn’t even the traditional anger at assholes who won’t wear a goddamned mask to power what turned out to be more about how the CDC is filled with frustrated performers/dum-dums.

Moving onto that other impression, McKinnon was great as ousted GOP third-in-command Liz Cheney (R-WY), bemoaning her removal by her Trump-loyal Republican colleagues while maintaining her position as an otherwise terrible person. It was especially bracing to watch gay actress McKinnon channel a woman who complains to her GOP chums that she’s still steadfast in her opposition to LGBTQ rights, and—in reference to her own gay sibling—assures fellow Republicans that she, too, once loved Trump “like a straight sister.” Kate’s got Cheney’s mannerism of swallowing the latter part of her sentences down, as her Cheney futilely lists all those brave Republicans who’ve pledged to join her in standing up to the GOP’s inexorable slide into truth-averse, Trump-fluffing fascism. She’s got fellow crappy-but-useful Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill), suspiciously still-wed George Conway, “Ann Romney, her horses,” Colin Jost (not really, but she took a shot), Omarosa, “Lisa Murkowski’s mom,” and “five white women, maybe six.” (Plus maybe Melania, but you didn’t hear it from Liz.) It’s a smartly funny takedown of the woman who currently embodies the queasy old saw, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” with McKinnon noting Cheney’s undeniably principled stand against the sniveling opportunism the vast majority of elected Republicans while simultaneously throwing a spotlight on all the ways that Cheney herself is trash. It’s an uncharacteristically nuanced (and funny) bit of political comedy that manages to make several points simultaneously rather than finding the easiest hook to hang a bit on. And, again, Kate makes it really, really funny.

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I Am Hip To The Musics Of Today

The 18-year-old Olivia Rodrigo got the bump of a burgeoning career when SNL built an entire, memorably funny sketch around her heartbreak anthem, “driver’s license,” earlier this year. That a bar full of tough guys would get all choked up with emotion by the song’s melodramatic teen angst was deliciously on-point, the story-song’s tale of betrayal laid out in the singer’s plaintively earnest vocal. Here, Rodrigo gets to sing “driver’s license” on her own, and, if anything, seeing the singer emote through her performance only cements the song’s permanent place in lonely jukeboxes everywhere. It’s not a knock to say that Rodrigo’s time as a Disney product is what makes her stage presence so endearing. How could that little bastard ditch her for that slightly older blonde girl—and on the day she got her license, no less? The second song, “Good 4 U,” plumbed the same depths of teenaged relationship drama, but gave Rodrigo a chance to enjoyably playact at being more punky-spunky about the whole thing.

Most/Least Valuable Not Ready For Prime Time Player

Kate got the most high-profile pieces, and Cecily was close behind with three brassy songs, but here’s to Dismukes once more. Finding your place on SNL is one of the toughest journeys in show biz, and this was a fine and promising expansion of his presence on the show.

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And, hey, here’s to Melissa Villaseñor, too, for actually getting tapped to do an impression, something she’s great at that SNL infuriatingly refuses to take advantage of. That was a good Lily Tomlin, an impression with a high degree of difficulty.

If Punkie Johnson and Lauren Holt are planning on a Dismukes-style coming-out party on Update, they’ve got one more week to make it happen.

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“What the hell is that thing?”—Dispatches From Ten-To-Oneland

Couched as it was in that old “Black people act like this, while white people act like that” comedy cliché, the commencement sketch had a few things to like in performance, at least. Alex Moffat managed to make his beleaguered principal’s exasperation at the constant interruptions from over-exuberant families low-key funnier than it could have been. And watching Kenan, Ego Nwodim, Punkie, Kenan, and Redd all get to bust out some boisterous nonsense as the proud relatives in attendance is going to be funny just because they’re funny people. After Nwodim’s mom complains that her cap-and-gowned son is hiding the new outfit she bought, Key’s dad assures his seat-mates about the boy’s Gucci belt with a defensive, “It don’t say it, but it is,” which made me laugh. And, for some added stereotyping, Aidy, Beck, and Dismukes all showed up as the token yokel family, bragging on their graduate daughter’s acceptance into an internship at P.F. Changs. Again, there’s nothing inherently wrong with a good “people are different” joke, but, especially coming at the ten-to-one spot as this does, it’s all something of a disappointment. This is where weird lives, and this sketch could have settled anywhere.

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Stray observations

  • Key seemed to be wishing everyone a nice hiatus during the goodnights, but there is still one more episode. (Anya Taylor-Joy and Lil Nas X close out Season 46 next week.)
  • “Ooh, so close,” Key tells the audience questioner who mistakes him for Peele.
  • Yang and Gardner, addressing prom arrival Melissa’s overdone spray tan: “Are you worried this is a hate crime?”
  • Gemma, on Kenan’s absent wife: “You’ll see her again in ’Eaven.” “She’s not dead.” “Aww, that’s great news, girl power!”
  • No Update digs at last week’s host, unless you count Jost’s joke about Elon Musk plotting to sink fellow plutocrat Jeff Bezos’ new mega-yacht. (Musk is 100 percent plotting that.)
  • Che on the rumor that there has been post-Covid penis-shrinkage in some male patients: “Now that is how you sell some masks.”
  • Dismukes sums up the whole Disney Channel movie vibe as, “Middle school’s tough, but also I’m a mummy.”
  • Dismukes’ Wiki page indeed does not contain a photo. Brink!’s, however ...
  • Cecily’s trouper: “George Gershwin was the Cole Porter of men.”
  • Sorry that sketch isn’t linked, by the way. Not online by publishing time—did the “I’ve Got Rhythm” rights holders put the hammer down? I need answers.
  • Since nobody asked, here are my rankings of sketch series by originality of form and substance (yes, in order): Python; Upright Citizens Brigade (Comedy Central series); Mr. Show; Key & Peele; Kids In The Hall; The State; SCTV; Chappelle’s Show; I Think You Should Leave; Kroll Show; Saturday Night Live; Exit 57; Aunty Donna’s Big Ol’ House Of Fun; Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!; Portlandia; A Bit Of Fry And Laurie; Human Giant; Snuff Box. Fight me.
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Contributor, The A.V. Club. Danny Peary's Cult Movies books are mostly to blame.