“What happened?” “I think just a total lack of imagination and ability.”
In his monologue kicking off tonight’s pleasantly workmanlike Saturday Night Live, Shang-Chi star Simu Lui joked about his uniquely Canadian manner of nudging Marvel toward having its first big screen Asian superhero. (He tweeted a polite request in 2014 and then responded with a succinct, “Thanks for getting back to me” when he was ultimately cast in this year’s Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings.)
As SNL host, the former Kim’s Convenience star stayed pretty Canadian all night, honestly. In the run-up to this week’s gig, Liu made the case that he was willing to get weird with it, but, in the end, he would up playing straight man to a dog and a vomiting cake. Liu was fine in what he wound up with, but, like the episode itself, his hosting stint is likely to be forgotten pretty quickly.
The one sketch he was in that had any juice to it was the pre-tape where he and Bowen Yang try to outdo each other for the most “First Asian Who...” awards they’re received. Apart from making sport of all the hoopla surrounding their positions as “first fully Asian cast member” and (as Liu joked in his monologue) “the first Chinese host on SNL—to be the fourth Chinese host on SNL,” Yang and Liu found a very funny groove in trying to out-nonchalant the other.
Liu, asked to do little more than stand aside while other people got the laughs all night, finally was given a little license to be funny on his own. Representation matters, but so does mocking corporations, publications, and late-night comedy shows who hype their ridiculously belated achievements in actually hiring people who aren’t straight white guys. The best part of the premise here is how Yang and Liu are individually very invested in besting the other in the “first Asian” sweepstakes, their competitiveness adding another layer to the increasingly absurd joke.
Yang’s award for “First Asian cast member to mispronounce ‘boutique’” (“Is it not ‘boo-tee-qua’?,” Yang asks) vies with Liu’s award for being the first Asian person to play it cool in his Splash Mountain photo. And Liu, shown excited accepting a lavish award for first Asian person to finish Starcraft II sees him noting happily, “There’s no way this is true, but thank you!” In an exchange funnier and far less Canadian than he got otherwise tonight, Liu responds to Yang’s inclusion on the People Sexiest Man Alive list thusly:
Weren’t you the first openly bottom guy on that list?
I’m not open about that. Who told you that?
I’m sorry, I just guessed.
It’s the most personality Liu got to exhibit all night, and the show could have used a lot more of that. As befits a show where the biggest laughs came from goofing around with a (very good) dog, this sketch stood out simply by virtue of letting Liu be the center of things.
The Best: The Bowen & Simu sketch was the best by a wide margin. There was going to be a sketch about how two accomplished performers deal with being used for diversity cred, most likely, and Yang and Liu outdid expectations by playing heightened and very funny versions of themselves. There’s a crisp absurdity that builds throughout, and Yang’s topper that his gay+Asian (+Canadian) brand is always going to score more points than Liu’s mere Asian+Canadian brand caps things off with a final little snap.
The Worst: There’ve been very few outright stinkers all season, and tonight’s affably mediocre episode didn’t really have a terrible sketch. Several sketches were hobbled right out of the gate by overly long and deadeningly laugh-less setups, with the very first sketch suffering worst. That’s never a good sign. The karaoke report from a North Carolina bar was—cute? I guess?
Kenan Thompson and Chloe Fineman were tasked with laying out the premise, and neither managed to drum up much enthusiasm for a parade of lukewarm observational numbers about the sort of people you see at karaoke night. (The guy who panics at the high notes of “Take On Me”; the father-daughter duo making everyone uncomfortable with their duet on “Pony.”)
The sketch gave everyone a chance to be silly and croon. Props to James Austin Johnson and Melissa Villaseñor’s couple who thought it’d be sustainable to sing “Islands In The Stream” as Homer and Marge Simpson, and Aristotle Athari and Sarah Sherman’s ebullient gibberish as German tourists singing “Call Me Maybe.” And any time Cecily gets to belt out a little “I Will Always Love You” is a nice treat. It was—cute? I guess?
The Rest: What critic is going to hate on a sketch starring a very good dog? Not this guy, that’s for sure. It’s a welcome if cheap tension-breaker when SNL builds a sketch around an unpredictably live animal. Sure, we look to Saturday Night Live (often in great disappointment) to trenchantly spin the week’s drama into incisive satire, but, hey, sometimes we just want to watch a dog stubbornly eat every scrap of a ham sandwich while everyone onstage attempts to stifle their giggles.
The sketch itself, about the US military attempting to create an unstoppable fighting force of half-human dog people isn’t entirely about the spectacle of a real dog with two human hands sticking out of its oversized fatigues, but it’s pretty close. (Liu gets stuck with the thankless intro this time as the no-nonsense officer in charge of the unholy experiment.) James Austin Johnson gets a few laughs on his own as a Southern senator obsessed with just how and where the soldier (christened Dog Head Man) will go to the bathroom. Otherwise, it’s all about the dog staring around happily while its human hands defuse bombs, assemble weapons, and, in the guaranteed sketch-stopper, wolf down that sandwich, to the exclusion of all other business.
There’s a long tradition of SNL going to the animal well. Kate’s continued absence has robbed us of the reliably weird and wonderful “Whiskers R We” sketches, but this animal actor appears to be having a good time along with the cast members onstage. (See Tim Kazurinsky’s anecdote about the “I Married A Monkey” sketches in the SNL oral history to cringe at how other animal performers weren’t always employed quite so responsibly.) And, hey, free sandwich.
Pete Davidson (alongside new Season 47 pre-tape pal, Big Wet) debuted a musical ode to his semi-beloved Staten Island that was elaborately well-produced and mildly amusing. Roping in Method Man and “Walking In Memphis” singer Marc Cohn for the “Walking In Staten” music video, Davidson continued his career path of mining his home borough’s eccentricities. Apparently, pizza/bagel shops are big there, along with a superfluity of cops and prescription pills. The funniest part is the most out there, as Davidson, touring the dump you can apparently see from space, meets the ghost of Robert Loggia, who reminds Davidson that he was the guy on the piano with Tom Hanks in Big.
And I get that Lorne’s wholehearted adoption of product integration has kept the show from having to break for so many commercials at the top of each episode. I’m not ungrateful—it makes the show feel more energized up front, and allows for it to pick up some steam before the first ad break. But I’ll be damned if that Thanksgiving pre-tape in the service of a ubiquitous retail chain is getting anything but the worst spot this week.
The bit itself had some funny performances. (Liu was a fine boring new boyfriend, demanding tofurkey and boring everyone about cryptocurrency.) But putting in specific prices and product names for what I can only assume are actual retail deals at said department chain is a bridge too freaking far, Michaels. Take that bottom spot—take it.
SNL addressed the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict multiple times tonight, with Che’s joke the only one to land anything close to a body shot. “On Friday, Kyle Rittenhouse was found not guilty in the murder of two men during a Black Lives Matter protest,” set up Che, before musing, “So hopefully he got all that shooting out of his system before he becomes a cop.”
The crowd “ooohh”ed for a moment, and then the show moved on. Jost brought up the fact that Republicans like Rep. Matt Gaetz (who invited a Holocaust denier as his plus one to the State of the Union, I never tire of reminding people) have rushed to offer the newly freed Rittenhouse a job. “’Cause Gaetz has always loved teenagers who are willing to do terrible things,” Jost joked, bringing up the fact that Geatz (who invited that Nazi to the SOTU, if you recall) is also under investigation for child sex trafficking.
Are snarky jokes on TV going to do much? Nope. But there’s added value in the jokes being good, and these were. And putting into the public consciousness Gaetz’s white supremacist sliminess or Rittenhouse’s white supremacist murderousness will at least make the right, predictably outraged people out themselves as figures the rest of us need to keep a close eye on as the GOP openly courts violent authoritarianism and bigotry going into the 2022 Midterms.
Comedy in the face of fascism is a potent thing, at least culturally. After all, when a 17-year-old law enforcement fetishist with an AR-15 decides to join his neo-Nazi pals to incite bloody gun violence at the next civil rights march, try telling them a joke. Those guys have no sense of humor. But SNL has always wanted in on the political satire game, and that game is becoming more vital as the Republican war on democracy goose-steps onward. A few decent Update zingers are fine, but a mounting a concerted affront to the heavily armed and seditious powers that are setting themselves up (through thuggish violence and widespread voting fuckery) would go a long way toward earning the outlaw rebel comedy image Saturday Night Live has always cultivated for itself. Just saying.
The correspondent pieces say Kyle Mooney bring back his Baby Yoda again, while Aidy Bryant debuted her not angry but disappointed Mother Earth. Kyle’s Grogu is an amusingly offbeat idea that’s run its course. It turns out everybody’s favorite Mandalorian puppet-creature is still a Bieber-buddy bro, boasting here about his recent hang alongside Post Malone, Millie Bobby Brown, the Geico gecko, Lou Bega, and Clifford (the big red dog). Grogu now sports swole arms and tats, and has recorded a pop-punk album, and if Mooney’s enthusiastic air-drumming with his puppet arms made me chuckle, the bit’s recurrence here is the definition of played out.
Aidy does better, as her Mother Earth starts out trilling in fairy tale wonderment before reverting to her regular voice, assuring Colin Jost, “No, I’m just kidding, I’m normal.” Noting that she’s been a cool single mom for a long time (letting everything slide, including that whole Sea World and putting cosmetics on animals stage), Mother Earth warns Jost, “I think I’m, like, sick?,” before warning us sternly that time is running out on our little fossil fuels and ocean dumping habits. “I’m gonna miss humans after you burn,” Mother smiles ruefully to Jost as she warns, finally, “You help me, or I’m gonna kill you.”
As with that whole encroaching fascism thing, there’s a coziness to the jokes about our corporate-throttled rush toward the environmental red zone that turns this bit into a bit of a shrug, comedically. At least we get Aidy, marveling at our obsession with coal. “Coal is from my ass. You know that right?,” is the sort of line Aidy clearly enjoys, and I’ve never seen her whiff on Update, not once. Still, shrug.
Grogu did his thing. I did appreciate the title of his upcoming, stick it to the man, pop-punk album, Confessions Of The Diary Of A Loser.
The baking sketch again, huh? The first time was—I cannot lie—belly-laugh hilarious. But the joke was all in the reveal, and each subsequent revival has just repeated the same reveal. Which is no longer a reveal—it’s a rehash. Here, it’s Liu’s turn to get upstaged by a prop, as his Thanksgiving turkey and pilgrim cakes, it’s revealed, are so grotesquely made that they have attained grotesque, frosting-spewing sentience. Which was the joke was back when, except, in that case, the concept of a cake so agonizingly terrible that it comes to tortured, pleading-for-death life went over like an absurdist bomb. (Or bombe.)
Here, it’s expected, and therefore defused. The props are fine—having the pilgrim cake vomit all over Heidi Gardner’s perpetually overshadowed competent baker was a nice escalation. But, to be honest, the funniest thing in the whole sketch was watching judge Pete Davidson just go to town on his piece of real cake, happily stuffing his face and being a giggle-puss while trying not to do a spit take. You take your little joys where you can find them some nights.
Cecily Strong’s Janine Pirro is one of the most lustily inhabited and funny political creations in SNL’s history. So that’s a good thing out of the way. The cold open saw Fox News’ tipsiest race-baiting propagandist tackling the Rittenhouse verdict, and if you can gently prod a historically ugly travesty of American justice, this sketch manages it.
Mikey Day came out as Rittenhouse trial judge and human thumb on the scales of systemically racist jurisprudence, Bruce Schroeder. And if the sketch does the public service of sending viewers on a Google hunt through that Wisconsin judge’s long and checkered history of bench malfeasance and recent cartoonishly villainous trial-fixing on behalf of Rittenhouse, I suppose that’s worth something. (In addition to forbidding prosecutors from referring to Rittenhouse’s victims as anything but “rioters,” Day’s Schroeder notes how those dead protesters weren’t “shot” so much as “ga-doinked.”)
A pair of duped liberal commentators (Chloe Fineman and Chris Redd) come on next to be mocked by Pirro. There’s the germ of a relevant joke here, in that Fineman’s pundit proclaims shock at this happening in America, while Redd’s repeatedly chimes in with his utter lack of surprise that a white guy got away with a racially motivated double-murder. (“This is not who we are!” “I think it kind of is.”) And while I love Chriss Redd on SNL, Kenan would have sold his role with a bit more knowing authority.
And then it was Trump time, as Pirro worshipfully put 60 seconds on the clock for James Austin Johnson’s version of the former president and current blathering poster boy for sedition to run through whatever topics swim through his head. It’s Johnson’s second outing as Trump after being hired partly on the back of his viral Trump videos, and, while his is still approximately 17 times better than Alec Baldwin’s buffoonish caricature, this bit’s already getting defanged.
I like the concept of the now deposed golf club greeter Trump popping up on SNL’s Fox News broadcasts like some sort of addled political weatherman or celebrity chef. And Johnson’s conception of Trump as track-skipping broken record of adderall-sped (allegedly) non sequiturs and gibberish finds the right, off-center tack to encompass Trump without merely repeating his verbatim babblings while making funny faces.
Still, while the out-of-power Trump’s position as GOP figurehead and fetish object isn’t as central to either the news or SNL’s cold opens as he once was, the guy’s not going anywhere. Polls show that the twice-impeached Trump’s as likely to be the Republican nominee in 2024 as anyone, and Saturday Night Live, with Johnson’s world class impression always at the ready, needs to determine what to do with the Trump character going forward.
Better was the game show sketch, “Republican Or Not,” hingeing as it did on the increasing overlap of right- and left-wing types when it comes to certain issues. Kenan hosted, thank god, since, if SNL is going to go back to the game show well, at least having Kenan grin happily as the contestants fumble the premise is never not endearing. In the game, Liu and Ego Nwodim vie to ID the GOP-ers as they come out to complain about everything from cops, to schools banning books, to government overreach when it comes to bodily autonomy.
It’s not so much about the horseshoe theory of far-left and far-right proximity as about how recent wild card issues like the January 6 insurrection and vaccine mandates have found various people with otherwise nothing in common waking up startled in bed together. Liu and Nwodim are repeatedly flummoxed by panelists’ love of Caitlyn Jenner and Dave Chappelle, their knee-jerk assumptions halted by the realization that recent events offer up a host of uncomfortable possibilities. (“Starting when?,” Nwodim asks Sarah Sherman’s panelist about her love of Chappelle.)
The target of the sketch isn’t easy to zero in on, as befitting the point that the whole “enemy of my enemy is my friend” dictum falls apart the further America steams into cuckoo town. Throughout it all, though, there’s Kenan, revealed munching popcorn in delighted anticipation at how wrong he just knows the two contestants are going to get this. The sketch lacks the clarity of the Tom Hanks Black Jeopardy sketch, for example, but any joke premised on the need for a more nuanced discussion of issues is okay with me. Plus—Kenan.
Saweetie bumped, rapped, and grinded (ground?) for all she was worth, her lavishly and provocatively choreographed pair of songs surely generating their share of “Won’t somebody think of the children!” complaints to NBC. If I’m being honest, I think it’s kind of deflating how, as edgy as musicians want to be on SNL, they happily provide their own live radio edits of their raunchiest material in accordance with Standards and Practices. As Saweetie dutifully elided each naughty word on “Tap In/Best Friend” and “Icy Chain” with the rapper’s best self-censored obscuring breaths, I lost interest.
Between Cecily and Kenan, I have to give the edge to Cecily. She had Pirro in the cold open, got to sing, and kept a mostly straight face in front of that dog. Pete gets third place for the music video, and for really eating the hell out of that cake.
No sign of Punkie Johnson anywhere, Melissa got to do her Marge Simpson voice, but that’s it, and Andre Dismukes delivered a trophy to Bowen Yang. That there are too many damn cast members this season isn’t new insight or anything, but there are too many damn cast members for anyone to build much momentum among the second-tier cast. Even with Kate McKinnon still on extended hiatus.
“What the hell is that thing?”—Dispatches From Ten-To-Oneland
On a mildly pleasant show, it’s only fitting that we got a kinder, gentler ten-to-one sketch. With Ego Nwodim’s 911 operator fielding calls from a “friendsgiving” gathering of stoned professors, the sketch allowed Liu, Cecily, Aidy, Mikey, and Kenan to play both stuffy and stoned, which, in their capable hands, is a fun combo.
Watching squares deal with drugs is a sure chuckle, at least for a little while, and the sketch doesn’t wear out its welcome as, for example, Day’s professor tells Nwodim matter-of-factly, “I think I might be dead,” before requesting she “send the hospital to here, please.” Liu’s equally anxious academic warns Nwodim’s patient dispatcher that he’s “not where time is,” and thus will be hard to locate. And Kenan—again, bless you, sir—grinningly calls from under the dining table to tell Nwodim, “Send every ambulance in the world to me, please.” Have a happy and mellow Thanksgiving, everybody.
- A title card announced the death of former writer and cast member (and brother of Dan), Peter Aykroyd, which is the first news of the actor’s passing anywhere, from what I can tell. Apart from co-writing his brother’s infamously grotesque big screen catastrophe Nothing But Trouble, Aykroyd is probably best remembered by SNL fans for his turn in the classic 1979 short, “Java Junkie,” which the SNL Twitter account put up in tribute. RIP.
- I know it’s late in the show and all, but that was a big time directing gaffe in the stoner sketch, as the shot cut to a confused-looking Liu instead of the speaking Cecily.
- Strong’s Pirro refers to President Biden’s recent colonoscopy as “socialized butt-play,” which sounds tremendous, actually.
- Liu’s finance bro karaoke singer is also heavily into crypto. This means something.
- Even for small roles, James Austin Johnson hops into a whole lot of prosthetics. I admire the commitment, but I have a feeling most people have no idea what he actually looks like.
- Cecily also plays Liz Cheney, the final stumper on “Republican Or Not?,” since, while the Wyoming lawmaker is a lifelong conservative Republican, her state’s GOP has ritually excommunicated her from the cult for daring to at least remain loyal to this reality when it comes to stuff like Joe Biden being president, and that people trying to violently overthrow democracy at the whims of a corrupt sexual predator game show host is a bad thing.
- According to Pete’s song, wild turkeys routinely mass around the Staten Island hospital in “like, an alarming amount.” Happy Thanksgiving!
- Showing a clip of Republican Congressman and guy no longer invited to family Thanksgiving Paul Gosar looking on disapprovingly, Jost introduces his joke by suggesting the censured anime death threat enthusiast just saw “an interracial couple walk by.”
- Che, noting how conservatives’ go-to societal demon “cancel culture” has apparently been unable to truly topple noted woman-beater and multipurpose bigot, Mel Gibson (set to possibly direct a fifth Lethal Weapon movie) suggest people hungry to watch “a broken-down Black guy team up with a handsome racist” can just watch Weekend Update. Hiyo!
- As part of the baking sketches, it’s Kyle’s lot to produce an unintentionally(?) suggestive cake. Still, his line (about his penis-shaped rocket), “And the spunk is icing!,” is about as on-the-nose as it gets. (And, yes, I know how that sounds.)
- Speaking of dick-shaped rockets, former SNL host Elon Musk gets a shout-out as being one of the “divorced nerds trying to colonize Mars” from the disapproving Mother Earth. Also, apparently Mars is a “hot, dry, windy whore.”
- Both times Liu introduced Saweetie were punctuated by what sounded like very powerful fans, presumably circulating air. Way to stay safe, SNL. Fifth wave incoming.
- We’re off for the holidays, people. See you on December 11, when Billie Eilish attempts to pull off the perilous host/musical guest double-whammy.