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

SNL stays strange, but Nick Jonas doesn't have the right, weird stuff

Nick Jonas
Nick Jonas
Photo: Mary Ellen Matthews/NBC

“I have heard that you are the most boring coach on The Voice . . . How is that possible?”

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“I’m not an actor, I’m a [former child, now all-grown-up] star!!”

Of all the 34(-ish: We’re gonna continue to pretend that Lily Tomlin blackface performance never happened) Saturday Night Live hosts who’ve pulled double-duty as host and musical guest, Nick Jonas—is one. Not Bieber-bad nor Donald Glover-great, the former child star and current NBC-synergized singing competition judge and recording star rests somewhere in the competent C-tier of hosts who’ve been given the honor. On the other end of the possible Kris-Kristofferson-showing-up-hammered spectrum, Jonas was pleasant, bland, and ready-made for the cameras, his lifetime in show business evident in every practiced line and gesture.

There’s ease in front of the cameras, and then there’s a studied eagerness to please that just doesn’t work on SNL. Jonas read out his lines (in the Cinderella sketch, most glaringly) with a rushed cadence that kept everything just a beat off, and the last sketch (which could have been something with someone else opposite Kate McKinnon) suffered from Jonas’ inability to be anything but stiffly agreeable. Even in his tailor-made musical monologue (a cast-aided anthem to pandemic drinking), Jonas’ timing was off. Weirdness just isn’t in Jonas’ toolbox.

Roger Ebert was fond of quoting a baked potato. It was actually a flag his friend found stuck in his restaurant-baked potato that read, “I’ve been tubbed, I’ve been rubbed. I’ve been scrubbed! I’m lovable, huggable and eatable!” Ebert used it over the years to criticize a performer so seemingly manufactured to please with inoffensive, energetic blandness (the appellation “try-hard” wasn’t in vogue yet) that professionalism cedes to offputting artificiality. Nick Jonas is a baked potato.

Best/Worst Sketch Of The Night

The Best: That’s easy. The workout mirror concept put Jonas front-and-center, showing off his camera-ready guns, and then let the funny people carry the real weight. With Mikey Day and Chris Redd’s workout buddies trying out a Peleton-like home gym mirror contraption (don’t think about it too hard), Jonas and Heidi Gardner’s regular trainers give way to Kate McKinnon as a terrified woman named Shannon Delgado, who has become inexplicably trapped in the mirror dimension of a demonic figure called Azuzel. For a change, Mikey isn’t stuck goggling at a comic premise while exclaiming, “Look at that confusingly comic premise!,” and Redd does a fine job at pointing out the bit with a little spin on it. (“My only question is, like, who is Shannon Delgado?”) Kate is remarkable, if an excellent, inhabited comic performance from Kate McKinnon is anything to remark upon at this point, her unfortunate Mrs. Delgado (who was “rude to a fortune teller”) intermittently appearing as she plots to make her escape from this baffling workout hell. (There’s no food, and Pete Davidson is the hilariously nefarious Azuzel, bellowing “Work, my Shannon!,” for his own, unknown purposes.) There’s even an ending, with Mrs. D’s long nightmare finally ending when she finally springs her long-gestating plan to get meathead Day to repeat the fateful phrase to switch their places.

I’d go with the delightfully nuts Cinderella sketch next, even considering the aforementioned fact of Jonas steamrolling through his Prince Charming’s lines. Bless him, it’s like watching a kid in a school play showing how good he is at memorizing. Other than that, you’ve got Kate, as ever, fully into her evil stepmother, Melissa and Cecily as a humorously gross pair of ugly stepsisters, Kenan doing his best Kenan as the prince’s knowingly cheeky footman, and, best of all, Aidy Bryant as the dopey mouse who was the one whose tiny foot was inside that suspiciously wee glass slipper the prince has been obliviously carrying around town. Aidy has a way with a funny voice (aided here by her nose being covered in a latex mouse-snout) that makes it seem improbably true to her silliest characters, and while the inexplicable bestiality aspect of the human-on-rodent coitus that definitely happened on ball night is what goes for the yuks, its Aidy’s cheerful gameness about the whole enterprise that makes this oddly adorable. Everyone else has fun mocking the prince’s cluelessness about the size of the slipper (“Do you think it’s a child’s shoe?” “No. But I don’t like how casually you asked that.”), and Cecily even makes a fart joke sort-of work, her Drizella blaming it on her diet of “berries and raw deer meat.” I liked that I didn’t really know where the sketch was going until that mouse showed up, and then Aidy’s characterization made it worthwhile.

The two filmed pieces were both musical, and both pretty great. I’d give the edge to the binge-watching lockdown super group of Ego Nwodim, Melissa Villaseñor, Chloe Fineman, and Kate, their shared obsession with watching every true crime murder show streaming has to offer emerging with appropriately unsettling relatability. Jonas shows up to try and inject a little cult docu-series variety, but it’s all about the body count for the four friends, as they sneer at series with less than a half-dozen corpses to find, and happily confess to watching while on the can, then listening to a podcast about the very same murders. As with the monologue and last sketch tonight, SNL continues to address the ways we’re all coping with this ongoing nightmare of isolation and sweatpants, and it’s oddly effective. Looking back years from now (there’s that pesky optimism, Perkins!), it’ll be evocative to see how comedy adapts to even the most unthought-of circumstance, and if we emerge with our heads stuffed with way too many grisly crime scene photos and drawn-out investigatory miniseries, well, at least we’ll have survived without killing anybody. (I’m with Melissa in fleeing to the powdered-sugary bliss and torpor of a good, non-confrontational baking show, myself. More cupcakes for us.)

The bachelor party song was a paean to that most unspoken bro-bonding ritual, the pre-wedding tradition of hiring strippers so you and your friends can all be surreptitiously aroused in the same airless room. Bachelor parties are a ripe (and how) subject for comedy, the multifarious undercurrents of misogyny, gay-panic, and atavistic communal drooling the source of endless skewed speculation (and sociological papers). Here, the arrival of two dutifully kitted-out dancers (Ego and Heidi) spurs the gathered men (bridegroom Beck Bennett, best man Jonas, Kyle Mooney, Bowen Yang, Alex Moffat, and Mikey Day) to break into a joyously revealing shanty about how not at all weird it is to gear up all weekend “to get hard with my friends.” Everybody’s got their reasons. Kyle’s childhood pal feels left out, Alex’s married friend really needs this, you guys. And everyone’s in fine voice, Bennett’s doe-eyed appreciation emerging in sweet balladry, while Kyle murders the bridge, the unifying chorus of “Oh, boner, boner, boner, boner next to my friends!” bringing all these frustrated, slightly confused dudes together for just one magical night they promise-sing they’ll never speak of again.

The worst: There’s a point where comically awkward becomes just awkward, and the amusement park sketch really nailed that distinction down for me. It wasn’t helped with Jonas in the mix—the dude’s just not funny—but, apart from allowing Kyle to play another put-upon little guy who can’t catch a social break, I’m not sure how well anyone could have done. The conceit that Kyle’s amusement park prize of an improbably life-sized plushie of Soul’s Joe Gardener has become his personal, ride-sharing cross to bear is more funny in concept than practice, as Kyle’s lovelorn fifth wheel finds himself having to cozy up to an inanimate, stuffed, middle-aged Black man rather than all the girls he’d rather be crammed into a log flume car with. But what’s with all the fucking “cuck”’s? As Mooney’s fate is sealed (while the other two giggly couples feign indifference at the prospect of flume-car canoodling), everyone starts slipping the word “cuck” into their addresses to Mooney, until the poor guy has to remind the amused ride operator that he has a name. Reappropriating dipshit right-wing insults has never worked as a comic idea, and even if that’s what’s going on here (and I’m genuinely wracking my brain), the whole thing ends in a cacophony of sneering assholery at Mooney’s expense that just leaves a sour aftertaste.

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Weekend Update Update

Jost and Che sped through the politics tonight in what has clearly become some sort of show-wide mission-correction post-Trump. (Hey, if the A.V. Club can do it . . .) Sure, like a berries-and-raw-deer fart, the former president and forever racist seditionist lingers, what with conservative COVID-tent and white supremacist gasbag landing spot CPAC going on at the moment. (He Who Shall Not Be Named will bring out the big, xenophobic, fascist guns tomorrow, kids, a spectacle Jost predicted to be the same as giving coke to your racist grandfather.) But apart from continuing the cold open’s ever-reliable tack of dunking on CPAC speaker and clueless stand-up Ted Cruz (“You are not in on the joke!,” Jost scolds), the pair were more invested in just going for the laughs where they found them. And that’s fine. Che, as is his way, had the most biting line of the night, addressing the fact that COVID’s disproportionately lethal targeting of Black people has earned it suspension, with pay. Not everything evil is Trump—still plenty of unjust horrors to joke about all around us.

You know, like the sight of a horrible, laughably cretinous human being stalking the halls of Congress and hanging up bigoted signs to torment her coworkers. Yes, Cecily’s Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) returned, raising once more the question of how effective a satirical strategy it is to keep giving notoriety to truly reprehensible lunatics who feed off controversy. I mean, one could argue that so-clever political comedy has done precisely nothing tangible to curb the worst excesses of the worst people in history, but then, what are we fucking doing here. Best to soldier on, I suppose. Regardless, Cecily continues to make a meal out of her portrayals of such creeps, here her Greene pausing at the outset of her appearance thanks to an uncomfortably misplaced gun. The jokes come fast after that, Greene noting that her status as congressional “It girl” refers to her similarities to Pennywise, and rattling off all the ways that science (her excuse for mocking trans people) is always right—except when it comes to things she doesn’t like or understand. It’s funny because Cecily is funny, and if blowing air onto a smoldering garbage fire gets a few laughs while it rekindles the media spectacle that Greene so desperately wants to be, then win-win? I guess?

Kenan returned as overbearing, under-factual NBA dad LaVar Ball, preening in son LaMelo’s undeniable recent success as a member of the Charlotte Hornets. (“The most storied franchise in all of basketball!,” insists Kenan’s boastful Ball.) Kenan’s confidence and ease on SNL is, by now, taken for granted, but watch him puff up a one-joke character into a thoroughly contagious laugh riot. Ball’s hucksterism never changes (although his new Ball-family product, the all-chocolate Caramello basketball sneaker is some decent prop work)—it’s Kenan’s unwavering commitment to the idea of the joke that makes it score so effectively. Here, the grandiose Ball’s vision for his lucratively talented sons includes LaMelo uniting both Carolinas into one Super-Carolina named Carolossus, the natural outgrowth of a comic creation whose only limits are those of his own, starry-eyed imagination.

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“What do you call that act?” “Mr. Peepers!”—Recurring Sketch Report

Ego Nwodim gets her own recurring bit, as the buzz of her first go-around as newly minted, slightly clueless music legend and internet doyenne Dionne Warwick earns her another spotlight. I don’t know what sort of legs the esteemed Ms. Warwick’s apparently continuing and refreshing run of unplugged pop culture takes will have, but Nwodim makes the impression sort of cozy in its fun-poking of an 80-year-old icon who’s dared wade into this whole Twitter thing. If nothing else, the sketch is another in the long, long line of sketch-excuses for some cast impressions, as Melissa does her Dua Lipa (agreeing to egg Warwick nemesis Wendy Williams’ house), Kenan’s The Weeknd explains that he hasn’t really been heavily into plastic surgery, and, once more, Pete Davidson’s Machine Gun Kelly proves just too scary to have onstage. Ego finds a smooth comic groove for her affectionate Warwick, the nothing-to-prove singer belting out her hits not so much out of desperation as divine right, and her questions emerging as less confrontational as airily detached from anything out of her ken. “Okay, now here is the question: Why are you from Canada?,” is, in Nwodim’s delivery to Kenan’s Weeknd, delightfully on its own, Warwick-ian wavelength. It’s not going to bring the house down, but SNL has built returning characters on far less.

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

The cold open tonight was about COVID policy, which, thanks to the anti-science, anti-logic vibe of the last administration, counts very much as politics these days. With the fresh announcement of a third government approved COVID vaccine announced this weekend, a sketch about the patchwork, rudderless hellscape of bad information and irregular implementation Trump’s short attention span left us, a Dr. Fauci-hosted game show where three state governors attempt to tell contestants if they qualify for some life-saving injections is in the right, ludicrously apocalyptic vein. (Yes, pun intended. It’s my review.) And Kate’s Fauci—recognizing the absurdity but out to save some lives no matter what—remains a funny creation. (Fauci shrugs off his status as “America’s voice of reason and celebrity hall pass for some reason.”)

Still, there a frustrating lack of focus to the piece. (I thought at least Aidy would be out as Meghan McCain to reprise McCain’s “Don’t you know who I am?!” on-air complaint about not being first in line to get the vaccine, but we did get her tone-deaf Ted Cruz.) The governors were there to display how the Trump-botched rollout of any sort of comprehensive national response to the disease that’s now killed over a half-million Americans has left confusion and unnecessary suffering in its wake, but the characterizations aren’t pointed enough to warrant their being there. (Pete, once more, makes a humorously brutish NY Governor Cuomo, the crumbling of his pandemic momentum under various scandals leaving him even more surly.) Instead, the jokes are more about devious would-be vaxxers pretending to be old, pretending to be smokers, admitting to embarrassing ailments in the hopes that will help them jump the line (that’s two herpes jokes tonight), and, finally, Mikey Day’s old man who ticks all the right boxes—except that his state requires a degree of online acumen he doesn’t have. (“Now, does he have three straight days to help you hit refresh?,” Cuomo asks of the old guy’s mailman.) It’s fine. As Saturday Night Live casts around to decide a new direction for what is now the mandatory political cold open, I’m here for this season’s attempts to do something new, so a passable sketch reliant less on celebrity ringers and one-note Trump impressions is at least evidence of some effort.

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I Am Hip To The Musics Of Today

Look, I’m not the audience for Nick Jonas, his brothers, or, indeed, most former Disney child stars, no matter how they calculatedly sexy up their image, so I’m tapping out. Jonas has a good, well-practiced voice, and his romantic jams are profitably pleasant and unthreatening. Still, the most enjoyment I got was from mishearing an auto-tuned line from “Spaceman” as “I’m suckin’ CO,” rather than “I’m talkin’ to you.” Look, my mind was wandering, and I thought it’d be cool if he were talking about being an astronaut complaining about air filtration, okay?

Most/Least Valuable Not Ready For Prime Time Player

There are such rocks on this show. Kate, Kenan, Cecily, Aidy. Tonight, Kate had Fauci, Mrs. Delgado, and her ten-to-one barfly, which could have been so, so much more of a showcase if she’d had anyone at all to work against. But the other three all were just as good, if less ubiquitous. I can’t give ties, ties are wishy-washy. So it’s Kate.

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Ego continues to root herself as a main player, and the resurgence of a recurring character is a good sign for the future. Melissa got some more airtime, finally. Punkie and Lauren continue to nibble around the edges, and Andrew Dismukes, despite having the clear edge among the new kids this season, learned the hard way tonight that being a featured player sometimes means you stand around looking embarrassed while a disobedient parrot steals your thunder.

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

I’ve mentioned it twice now, but, man, am I pissed that this ten-to-one sketch didn’t get saved for a host who could deliver deadpan absurdity with some authority. (Seriously, how good would someone like Donald Glover have been here? Maddening.) Anyway, the sketch about two smitten bar patrons being weird even had a solid hook—its their first time talking to other humans since the pandemic began—and Kate was in there killing, even if she was playing opposite a smiling dressmaker’s dummy in Jonas. “There are mites in your pillows,” is just the sort of opener I can imagine coming up with the first time I’m called upon to make in-person small talk after more than a year of cabin fever. And there are so many tightly insane little details throughout the couple’s banter that I just kept getting irritated it wasn’t working as well as it should.

Kate’s “LOVE” and “HAT” knuckle tats. Lounge musician Dismukes objection to being called “piano guy.” (“My name is Guy Piano.”) Kate signaling the sketch’s vibe by first complimenting Dismukes’ playing, then obliviously taking a tip out of his jar. Kate asking for a bowl of milk after Jonas produces a kitten from his pocket, only to drink it herself. That painting. And the deliriously dippy, brain-broke singalong to half-forgotten gathering-in-large-groups anthem “Take Me Out To The Ballgame.” (“One, two, three-four-five-six, and that’s how numbers work!”) This is the perfect template for a ten-to-one sketch, and it still works well enough, but it could have been—Bahhh, grumpy old man noise.

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Stray observations

  • With the offscreen cries of Dismukes’ parrot and Lauren Holt’s kitten, it was a big night for animal actors either desperately wanting or desperately not wanting to be on the show.
  • Mikey Day does a good comical old man voice. Got sort of a Tim Kazurinsky thing going on.
  • Another Jonas shows up, joshing his brother about the apparent Jonas Brothers will they-won’t they career trajectory. Still, Kevin got bigger laughs than Nick, asking, “MMMBop’—was that us?”
  • “Okay, well that’s a crime.”—Kenan’s footman, upon learning of Cinderella’s housing arrangement.
  • Did Fraiser make Friends look Black, or vice-versa. There’s no way to tell.
  • Che applauds the Biden administration’s church-based Black outreach vaccination sites, but notes, “That is such an old white guy idea. You know that started with the words, ‘Hey, you know what those people love?’”
  • Next week: We rest. SNL comes back on March 27 after another long straight stretch of live episodes with—wait for it—Maya. Thank the lord. Oh, musical guest, Jack Harlow.
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Contributor, The A.V. Club. Danny Peary's Cult Movies books are mostly to blame.