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Sterling K. Brown shines on an almost-great Saturday Night Live

Sterling K. Brown
Sterling K. Brown
Screenshot: Saturday Night Live
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“You challenged him so he’s shaming you now.”

“I’m not an actor, I’m a... nope, I’m a pretty great actor.”

Now that’s how you do an SNL monologue. Tight, anchored by the host’s strengths, and no musical numbers or audience questions. Sterling K. Brown came out and planted a flag. Leaping ahead to the goodnights after he spent an episode making good on the promise of his opener, a triumphant and grateful Brown exclaimed, “I’ll be back, y’all!” Here’s hoping.

The monologue is thankless. Standups have it best, but mainly because they can just do six minutes of their act in isolation from what has traditionally been the home of Saturday Night Live’s laziest ideas. (Which, okay, is saying something.) Doing jokes about his series This Is Us and its reputation for heavy-duty tearjerking might have been expected, but Brown’s commitment to replicating his character’s justifiably lauded penchant for emotionally devastating speeches made the whole monologue lift off and soar. Not content with simply working up some tears, Brown kept shifting gears, his exhortation to “Get it together, Sterling Kathleen!” (Kathleen being Brown’s actual middle name, apparently), segueing masterfully into a reverential Kenan Thompson impression, followed by gratefully awestruck tears again. (Plus, the Brown does a killer Kenan, and the idea that Thompson pitched him a sketch about “Siamese twins that are attached at the butts” made a delightful sort of sense.) When Leslie Jones came out for the requisite “cast member comes to the host’s aid” part of the monologue, Brown just swept her up in his whole deal, their tearful recognition that Leslie is both a queen and the funniest person on the show bursting out in a huge laugh at Leslie’s overcome, “That’s what I’ve been saying!” After a few years where Brown’s talent has shone (and been, finally, recognized), here’s another accolade: This was one of the most impressively realized monologues in years.

The rest of the episode saw Brown bringing the same game to every sketch he was in, a fully committed display of versaitility all the more impressive for how showy it wasn’t. A lot of fine actors flounder on SNL, whether because their particular gifts are ill-suited to live TV or because SNL has no idea how to harness them. (Also, some otherwise great actors are simply missing the comedy gene.) As it turns out, Brown is one of those actors whose dedication and talents (he’s an experienced theater actor) provide an irresistible focus for the show to build around. It makes this episode a little irritating, honestly, since the show was packed with promisingly weird premises that failed to come off by the smallest degree. Brown got to do a few impressions (Common, Ben Carson), which, as his Kenan revealed, represent an untapped Sterling Kathleen Brown comic arena. But he was shown to best advantage in sketches where his intensity and ability to imbue a character with a burst of inner life energized the whole enterprise. Not to knock non-actor/sports figure hosts or anything, but the contrast between this week and last week’s shows demonstrates the many benefits of casting for acting.


Weekend Update update

Gonna start off with a correspondent piece for a change, simply because—political affiliations aside—Alex Moffat’s Eric Trump is an all-time great SNL character. Moffat and co-hire and frequent comedy partney Mikey Day have turned themselves into reliable cast members in their year-and-a-half. (If anyone deserves to jump the line from featured player at this point, it’s them.) But while the joke that Donald Trump’s adult sons are an Of Mice And Men-esque duo isn’t the most nuanced political satire around (although...), Moffat’s guilelessly Lenny-like Eric is a guaranteed guffaw-machine every time. Day, playing the slick-talking, hair-slicked straight man as Donald Jr. is essential to the timing of the jokes, but Moffat’s Eric, here blurting out inconvenient truths about his terrible family and gawking in alternating terror and wonder at the glories of his new pop-up book, is, simply, super. And, as exaggerated as this two-man portrait of unearned “born on third” success is, the joke that Eric reveals that his father’s preferred insult for the media is “Goddamn Jews” is thoroughly, incisively nasty.

And, hey, Vanessa Bayer dropped by! I miss Bayer on SNL, and any time she wants to pop around as glassy-eyed, gabbling meteorologist Dawn Lazarus is a welcome little gift. Hep!

Jost and Che were good, as usual, their varying styles puncturing the Trump situation from different angles. Jost sums up the terrifying ludicrousness of a possible U.S.-North Korea nuclear summit between “the only two guys connected on Dennis Rodman’s LinkedIn page.” Che follows up with the short-stop deadpan that “it could be risky because—well, duh.” And Che, always a good bet to take a comic premise for an unexpected spin, jokes about “Twitter-crazy” Trump being scared straight by running up against a guy who “murdered his uncle with a cannon.”

Best/Worst sketch of the night

I like Kyle Mooney on Saturday Night Live, and his deliberately off-putting comic sensibilities are never more at home than when he’s given a camera for a remote segment. (Okay, Bruce Chandling is where Mooney’s most at home.) But his ongoing takedown of awkward, unimpressive white kids with access to affordable video equipment has been done better than here. His lightly racist Chris Fitzpatrick’s rock-loving dummy-on-the-street efforts to get passers-by to confirm his own anti-rap prejudices never quite took off, no matter how many amateurish computer graphics and massively oversized bowling shirts were deployed.


A Black Panther sketch was a gimme, considering Brown’s role therein and the cultural zeitgeist (even if SNL had to specially hire enough black extras to do it), and pinning the bit to the oddball concept that Kenan’s dead ancestor (by marriage) is annoying everyone in T’Challa’s afterlife vision quest is an end run around the expected. But this one, too, never found liftoff, although Kenan can make a cheerfully obnoxious loudmouth as improbably charming as ever. (He managed to break up Jones and Brown, briefly.)

As for the best sketch, I’m going with a slightly frustrated four-way tie, with the common threads being great Sterling K. Brown performances and writing that was just shy of matching them. (The Bigfoot sketch saw Brown making his nature channel-watching ape expert hilariously douchey as his half-smart advice on dealing with an intruding campsite sasquatch repeatedly gets pal Mikey Day egregiously abused. But that filmed sketch works more because of some expertly timed physical gags.)

The dinner sketch saw Brown’s seemingly normal suitor erupting in inexplicable sarcastic rage when his girlfriend’s parents profess a preference for Coco over Shrek, Brown’s hair-trigger, DreamWorks allegiance exploding into crazy-eyed pugnaciousness. “Keep his name out of your mouth, you dumb son of a bitch!,” coming from Brown’s Donkey fanatic when Beck Bennett’s dad attempts an impression is as intensely loopy a reading as the off-center sketch needs.

The doctor sketch saw Brown and Bennett squaring off again, as Brown’s doctor gradually steers his medical questions into similarly weirdo territory. There too, though, Brown grounds the sketch by creating a hilariously specific character, his obsession with Bennett’s love life transforming from the predictable bad-doctor boundary-crossing to something sillier, and funnier. The payoff (that Brown’s doc is Cupid? Maybe?) never quite lands, but, along the way, Brown fires off lines that transcend mere shock value (“I just want to know why it burns when I pee!” “’Cause pee’s hot, dude!”) to suggest comic depths the writing doesn’t quite bring out.

The movie sketch, too, feels cut off before it can truly establish itself, but Brown and Strong work exceptionally well to sell the fruitful premise, as Brown’s actor has to contend with off-screen script supervisor Strong’s unwillingness to read the cuss words in their movie’s profane script. Sure, the shock value thing is at play here, too, as Strong—doing a delightfully realized Southern accent—keeps rattling off abbreviated filth like “the best t’s you ever t-f-ed.” But Brown makes his irritated, not entirely sympathetic thespian’s bewildered doggedness very funny, especially when he has to mime his strangling scene to Strong’s chipperly affectless, “Ug, ug, I can’t breathe.”


Then there’s the ten-to-one sketch, where Brown almost manages to redeem Nickelback, if only for a moment.

“What do you call that act?” “The Californians!”—Recurring sketch report

Dawn Lazarus. Don Jr. and Eric. And Family Feud, which was built around some especially good impressions this time out, and did a little more with the quick-hit celebrity structure than usual. Plus, Kenan’s chuckling, amused Steve Harvey was funny as ever, while also allowing the longest-serving cast member in Saturday Night Live history to register a funny little self-burn. When Chris Redd as Oscar winner Jordan Peele says of his pre-Get Out glory as a sketch performer, “At some point you have to move on, you know,” Kenan’s Harvey breaks character for just a moment, asking, “How many years?”

Honestly, I say the 15-year SNL vet has earned the right to stay on the show for as long as he wants. I’d miss him. Plus, Beck Bennett’s Guillermo del Toro answering a “what you do first thing in the morning” question with the fact that he empties his nightmare traps was great, as was Brown’s turn as “Oscar loser” Common, whose inspirational rap flow is dubbed “a Ted talk set to music” by Harvey. Kate McKinnon’s Frances McDormand was a spot-on hoot, too, announcing that she curls her hair with her own anger, “because, I’ve, you know, had it.” Alex Moffat’s friendly but constitutionally creepy Willem Dafoe wasn’t up to his Eric Trump, but it was still pretty great, and Heidi Gardner’s perpetually “on” Allison Janney was, too. Huh, a Family Feud sketch that didn’t wear out its welcome. Weird.


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

Alec Baldwin took the week off, which is okay with me, as SNL has produced its best Trump related material without Baldwin’s boorishly boring Trump as a crutch. So that the cold open this week centered instead on Kate McKinnon and Cecily Strong (the two best pure actors in the cast) playing out a reality show version of The Bachelor’s melodramatically contrived, endlessly buzzed-about twist-a-roo finale should have filled me with optimism. On the other hand, read that sentence again. Look, the fact that the host of another reality show is now in the White House in defiance of all human dignity and sense means that setting Trump comedy in a reality show milieu should be fair game. And McKinnon, revealed as a Robert Mueller version of that passive-aggressively manipulative bachelor fellow everyone’s mad at, gives a funny performance opposite Strong’s disbelieving, jilted bachelorette, as Mueller haltingly reveals that his investigation might not give Strong/the country the fairy tale impeachment ending she’s been holding out for. “The more time that goes by, the more I keep thinking about obstruction,” offers up McKinnon’s sheepish Mueller, a cleverly overlain metaphorical bummer for the anti-Trump crowd clinging desperately to Mueller’s investigation as a panacea for all the internal rot that’s brought America to this pass.

And Strong and McKinnon are excellent here, even if the beat-for-beat recreation of all the reality show drama supersedes the comic logic of the piece. That the admirably tight-lipped Mueller is the polar opposite of Trump’s Twitter-blabbing, sweat-soaked public badgering leaves a lot of room to guess at just what the Special Counsel is planning. And taking on the impeachment fever of some is a slyly bold tack for the staunchly Trump-bashing SNL to take, especially when Mueller admits the possibility of Trump not only finishing this term, but a second one as well. It’s clever, and I get it. But the bit never escapes the carefully crafted Bachelor parallel to become its own comic statement. Still, I’ll take a moderately ambitious disappointment anchored by two fine performances over another gassy Baldwin Trump any week.


The “This Is U.S.” short was, honestly, a little short, considering how well executed the This Is Us-White House mashup was. Brown’s whiny Ben Carson wondering where it all went wrong, Aidy Bryant’s Sarah Huckabee Sanders leaving herself self-excoriating Post-Its about her incessant mendacity, Pete Davidson’s shirtless, desperate Jared Kushner making sweaty phone calls to save his hide—all funny stuff, and all exceptionally performed. The idea that administration figures whose daily actions seem those of bumbling, two-dimensional villains actually have human—if stunted—inner lives is a comic conceit that could have played out more fully. Still, an SNL sketch that leaves me wanting more is not the most common of things.

I am hip to the musics of today

British singer-songwriter James Bay came out in a sequence of sequins-ed vests playing a pair of nondescript, performatively posturing songs, looking and sounding like nothing so much as someone who opened for Kenny Loggins in the early 80s. Enjoy!


Most/Least Valuable (Not Ready For Prime Time) Player

Tough one, so I will chicken out and split the MV(NRFPT)P award between Kate and Cecily, both of whom acted up a storm tonight.


Luke! One line, but you got to say “ass!”

“What the hell is that thing?”—The Ten-To-Oneland Report

The hospital sketch saw Melissa Villaseñor’s aged lady summoning Brown to her deathbed to sputter out... the lyrics to Nickelback’s “How You Remind Me,” to everyone’s eventual, rocking delight. Again, Brown is great at throwing himself into an improbably convincing human being at the center of something deeply silly and weird. As for Nickelback, well, if anyone can make the reviled Canadian rockers palatable, it’s a very funny, thoroughly game Sterling K. Brown. In a disappointing, dare I say Nickelback-esque season, Brown does the same thing for Saturday Night Live.


Stray observations

  • “So Stormy Daniels, that’s nothing?” “No that’s definitely fun, that’s just not what I’m doing.”
  • “McDonalds celebrated International Women’s Day by turning its golden arches upside down. Not to be outdone, In-N-Out Burger changed its name to Adequate Foreplay.”
  • “I have syphilis?” “I don’t know, man!”
  • “This is baby lion meat with cheese on it.”
  • I can’t figure out who’s in the sasquatch suit. Beck? Is that you?
  • Next week: All-star alum, Bill Hader, who was unsurprisingly great last time, too.

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

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