“I might Elizabeth Taylor this thing. You don’t know.”
Tiffany Haddish is the first black woman standup to ever host Saturday Night Live in its four-plus decades. So, yeah, that’s one of those disappointing SNL facts that you can’t unlearn, but Tiffany Haddish, riding the deserved popularity of her breakout supporting role in Girls Trip, strode past the past in her proudly recycled red carpet dress. In her standup, Haddish mines her hardscrabble background for laughs, and there’s a winning element of the unapologetic underdog to her persona that is irresistible, especially in her exuberant opening monologue. Haddish, busting out some fine dance moves in that $4,000 dress after commanding the band to hit it, enthused about her childhood love of SNL, even as she highlighted how the show’s well-documented whiteness put her in a difficult position trying to wrest a foster home TV away from other non-white kids, who preferred In Living Color and Damon Wayans over SNL and Dana Carvey. (“I got stabbed twice’ y’all. In a bunk bed,” she claims, spotlighting the lifelong dilemma of the black Saturday Night Live fan with unbowed clarity.)
Haddish had a strut all night, and she earned it. If there’s a new David S. Pumpkins-esque viral character coming out of this episode, it’s her Boo Boo Jeffries, an unlikely (and especially ineffective) new fighter in a Mortal Kombat-esque video game. The comedy first comes from her incongruity, and those of her flashy but useless “Rihanna” and “Beyonce” attack moves, all of which Haddish imbues with her smoothly funny physicality. But, as the sketch goes on, and we glean more details of Boo Boo’s backstory (while Mikey Day’s straightforward fighter Scorponox blankly takes care of business), Boo Boo, improbably, gains a certain loony dignity. There’s a huge laugh in her introductory tutorial, where the character cheerfully proclaims her biggest weakness is “fighting.” (Kenan Thompson, the show’s current master of baffled underplaying, really sells it as the poor sap who chose Boo Boo by mistake.) But there’s also an explosive laugh when, taking Scorponox’s first blow to her face, Boo Boo simply snaps, “No!,” and walks off. Haddish makes Boo Boo Jeffries hilariously formidable.
That description applies to Haddish, too, even if the sketches she’s given vary in quality. In her recent Showtime special, Haddish referred to herself as a black unicorn, so SNL naturally kits her out in an actual unicorn costume for a fairy tale sketch where she and Leslie Jones play the two such, future-telling, creatures in the land. Haddish livens things up with some very game horsey noises, and she and Leslie give each other the black unicorn version of a high-five at one point (so to speak), as her mythical soothsayer tells starry-eyed high schooler Aidy Bryant about the truly terrible life in store for her. Like more than a few sketches tonight, there was a lag in the pacing of the piece, but Haddish, along with Jones, were present in a way that enlivened the sketch. As Leslie’s unicorn attempted to put a gentler spin on Bryant’s bleak fate, her sympathetic advice, “Life is what you make it,” landed—like Boo Boo’s “Real talk, nothing good comes from violence”—with enough humanity to bump the piece up a bit when the premise started to sag.
When Haddish signed off her monologue, she greeted the rising applause by booming out “I’m Tiffany Haddish!” Haddish came a long way for this shot, and she’s wasn’t going to let America forget her name. She was delightful.
Another week, another round of the ludicrous and terrible, and Colin Jost and Michael Che went in with some strong jokes at the expense of the most recent suspects. Alabama Republican senate candidate, cartoonish bigot, and recently outed preyer upon young girls Roy Moore was adjudged by Jost as the kind of guy who goes to Westworld and asks “Can someone show me where the middle school is?” (Thanks to his occasional choice of a “naughty little cowboy outfit” on the campaign trail.) Che matched the heat of that burn when he reported on the election victory of Virginia’s first openly transgender woman lawmaker, Danica Roem, over self-described “chief homophobe” Republican Rob Marshall, saying Marshall is such a bigot “he refused to get within eight points of her.”
In what was probably the pair’s most confidently funny outing of the young season, the hits kept on coming, admirably keeping the audience off balance. Che defended recently-paroled O.J. Simpson’s altercation at a hotel bar by deadpanning that you’d drink too “if your wife was murdered.” And Jost introduced the topic of the recent deluge of scandals surrounding a truly shocking number of powerful men by warning New Yorkers that it’s cold outside “and everyone you’ve ever heard of is a sex monster.” The graphic there included former SNL hosts Kevin Spacey and Louis C.K., and while neither was called out by name, Jost did another joke about the hypocrisy of Roy Moore (who also once got fired for erecting a big statue of the ten commandments on state property), by cutting to another picture of C.K. and adding that maybe someone who “always jokes about masturbating wasn’t joking about masturbating.” Like a lot of shows that have extolled C.K.’s comic genius over the years (not without reason), SNL has now to address the fact that a favorite guest has done some truly shitty things, and this was a good start.
Following up on that, Cecily Strong was great as Claire, the frazzled NBC HR rep who came out to give Jost the now deeply mandatory workplace sexual harassment quiz. Again, there’s a massive, one hopes permanent, shift in public response to famous, undeniably talented people being outed as sleazy predators, and Strong’s Claire—disheveled, doing shots of alcoholic and soul-cleansing Purel, and clearly not having this shit any more—depicted how women in the corporate world are, yeah, not having this shit any more. Again without naming either by name, Claire did a combined takedown of Moore and Spacey with a question about when it’s okay to date a 14-year-old, ending with the bedraggled rep reading option C: “14, but you’re gay now so hooray, how brave.” Strong nailed the sketch’s point home when she ended another multiple choice question about what a professional woman’s clothes say about her by reading off the final option “She’s living her G-D life and it has nothing to do with you!” with a rising fury belying a lifetime of pent-up injustices. Great bit.
Kenan came back as overbearing, braggadocious NBA dad LaVar Ball, once again making loony self-aggrandizing claims about himself and his hoopster sons (“I have twelve fingers!”) and pitching some ridiculously expensive sneakers, complete with stereo system and a rotisserie chicken cooker. The way Kenan Thompson rides right over Ball’s mispronunciation of “rotisserie” gets repeated laughs, and highlights again just how effortlessly, confidently funny Kenan has become in his record-breaking tenure on the show.
I really wanted to like “Get Woke With Tamika.” Apart from giving Leslie Jones a possible recurring character other than that ninja that, apart from not being very funny, injured her at one point, it seemed that the idea was for Jones to have her own Brian Fellow. In the guise of an inspirational political chat show centered on an outspoken black woman, the sketch gradually let slip weirder and weirder details about just what’s going on. Sponsored by both Russia and right-wing conspiracy hate site Breitbart, and hosted by someone who’s at least deeply eccentric, the show hints at being some manner of conservative-Russian co-production intended to undermine actual black and feminist activism, but the sketch never quite commits to that. And while Jones makes Tamika’s oddball cluelessness pile up in a heap of ineptitude and headstrong cluelessness (she really liked how Moonlight was about black people in tuxes taking Oscars away from white people), neither the writing nor Jones’ performance are as inspired in their specific loopiness as was Tracy Morgan’s Fellow.
A similar near-miss quality undermined the BBC documentary about two scientists (Aidy Bryant and Kate McKinnon) whose 1960s-set experiments in teaching a randy dolphin to talk saw them engaging in some ethically questionable positive reinforcement. (I’m told Radiolab did a similar, albeit factual, portrait of the sketch’s real-life inspiration.) The joke—that the women are jacking off a dolphin—depends on both women playing their well-intentioned characters completely straight, which they do well. (Even when describing how they had to escalate their rewards in line with their subject’s kinks.) And Haddish’s disapproving coworker matches them, the juxtaposition of her comically skeptical diary entries and her aged researcher’s even-mannered narration carrying on the sketch’s comic underpinning nicely. Bryant and McKinnon always pair well together, but the piece never quite gets where it’s going.
But the worst sketch of the night was the Lion King auditions, another exercise in quick-hit celebrity impressions that only serves to showcase how few really good impressionists are in this particular cast. (See last week’s star-studded The Price Is Right for another.) Here, all reading for the upcoming live-action film, we get only the briefest snatches of an impression, were more attention is seemingly paid to the costuming and makeup that the writing or the performances. Which is fine, as, again, there’s not a Bill Hader to fall back on these days, and the one-line snippets of people like Lin-Manuel Miranda (Cecily Strong), Kit Harrington (Alex Moffat), Oprah (Leslie), Eminem (Pete Davidson) and others, were forgettable blanks. Beck Bennett does a serviceable Nick Offerman, and Chris Redd pulls off a decent Sterling K. Brown, but the only truly great impression here was Heidi Gardner’s spot-on Kristen Schaal, which was pretty damned delightful. Still, there’s no joke here but in seeing the cast play different celebrities, and that’s simply not this cast’s strength.
The ongoing film-piece saga of the unlikely (sadly fictional) love story between Leslie Jones and Kyle Mooney continued tonight in typically sweet and silly fashion. In the persistent illogic of these sketches the pair now have a college-age son, but the dramedy here hinges on Bennett’s heartbroken jealously over his best friend choosing Leslie over him. Culminating in an absurd Shakespearean masquerade ball full of masked shenanigans thanks to a devious, pining-for-Leslie Colin Jost (leaning with delicious creepiness into his 80s prep school d-bag persona), the sketch combines the genuinely touching affection of Bennett, Mooney, and Jones for each other with the gag of all three (plus Haddish and even Lorne) beating the crap out of Jost once the ruse is revealed.
“Whiskers R We,” as it usually does when it appears, took the ten-to-one spot. Kate McKinnon (here with new pet shelter and life partner Haddish) always makes the combination of absurd cat biography, knowingly tentative lesbian flirtation, and unpredictable cat actor antics a gently funny treat. It’s sort of the best-case scenario for a recurring sketch, the inescapable formula enlivened by how the writers riff on the theme of improbable feline backstory (one is pronounced a Persian because of his facial features and “because he’s a doctor in his country”), and how McKinnon makes the lisping, bespectacled Barbara DeDrew’s ongoing quest for both love and responsible cat adoptions doggedly (sorry) endearing. Plus, kitties are cute. Sue me.
Alec Baldwin’s off this week, possibly preparing for his own PR firestorm, so the cold open saw SNL going after Roy Moore for the first time of several this evening. Mikey Day—in full “naughty little cowboy outfit”—had only to express Moore’s actual words, thoughts, and rumored statutory rape details to allow the show to grant the prime opening slot to lambasting this creep. But props to the writers for highlighting how, even before his half-denied sexual misdeeds came to light, Moore’s proudly atavistic homophobia, contempt for the rule of law, and occasional claim that 9/11 was God’s punishment for tolerating LGBTQ people (yes really) exemplify just how deep in the scum-pond the GOP is prepared to go to remain in power. But the sketch really belonged to Kate McKinnon’s ever-more deliciously creepy Jeff Sessions, here emerging unnervingly from inside a White House credenza. With his beady little eyes, snaggle teeth, and singsong accent, McKinnon’s Sessions (the former holder of the Alabama senate seat Moore is gunning for) remains another indelible Trump-era figure in SNL’s arsenal, the premise here being that the proudly ignorant and increasingly loathsome Moore is too distasteful, even for the Gollum-esque Sessions.
“You check a lot of boxes for me,” Sessions admits admiringly, but stresses that Moore’s predilections are “too Alabama.” Pulling out a stuffed opossum that Sessions explains to be his father, the current Attorney General strokes its fur while pleading for guidance, asking if indeed, he has “benefitted from systematic oppression.” Not as crowd-pleasing as the resolutely average Baldwin-Trump cold opens, but this one had a harder edge and took on a more specific current target that addressed more issues (Republican gerrymandering, Sessions’ disrespect toward Senator Kamala Harris, that whole “the GOP is backing a gun-toting bigot and probable child molester” thing) than that Donald Trump talks funny, wears a wig and is not too bright.
The DNC commercial parody went after its target with a bit more insight than we’re used to as well. The Democrats overwhelming electoral success in several statewide elections last week might be encouraging as a referendum on the plug-ugly ignorance and bigotry of the Trump era, but, the sketch contends, these are the Democrats—they’re going to find ways to screw things up. The joke that the fresh new voices set to inspire the nation’s young voters are all late-middle-aged career politicians is harshly funny. (Alex Moffat’s Chuck Schumer remains solid, Cecily Strong’s Dianne Feinstein is great, and Mikey Day’s Tim Kaine showily speaking Spanish is a good touch.) And guest clips from Larry David’s Bernie Sanders (age 76) and Jason Sudeikis’ Joe Biden (74) as the energetic future of the party only helps make the case. Saturday Night Live’s history with political humor has played the “both sides” card to wishy-washy effect over the years, and while it’s undeniably true that the show’s political bent is more in line with the Democrats as a rule, this is the sort of smartly critical sketch that gives one hope. (And yes, I get that putting your hopes on a creaking, venerable liberal-leaning institution to do something bold and visionary despite its long history of mediocre decision-making is the whole point of the sketch.)
I’m led to understand that Taylor Swift has some sort of celebrity feud going that informs her second song (“Call It What You Want”) tonight? Huh. Well, enjoy that. As for Swift’s songs here, fans got both the formation-dancing, Lady Gaga Taylor and the guitar-strumming, sensitively shit-talking Taylor, so something for everyone. (And the demographic crossover of Tiffany Haddish fans and Taylor Swift fans should make for some thoroughly dispiriting online comment fights I’m not going to read.)
Dude, Luke Null, I don’t know what the grace period for new people to make their mark is these days, but step your game up, son. We’re worried about you.
It was something of a team effort otherwise, which is another way to say that no one really picked up the ball and ran away with the show tonight. Leslie Jones had her most screen time in a long while, but her sketches didn’t work as well as intended. Kate McKinnon always wins (and always deserves it, frankly), but since she was doing mostly recurring characters, I’ll say it’s Kenan’s turn at the top. His underplaying in the video game sketch showed off what a surprisingly subtle performer he’s become. (One who can also go big, as his LaVar Ball showed, amusingly.) Think back to some of the big-hitter sketches like David S. Pumpkins, Kevin Roberts, and, tonight, Boo Boo Jeffries—Kenan’s always there, selling the absurdity with expert everyman skepticism and bewilderment. That’s an all-star.
As far as formula sketches go, “Whiskers R We” is always such a warmly silly way to end a show that it’s hard to get too pissed that SNL is playing it safe here. And Haddish—proudly keeping up the tradition of hosts sneakily groping McKinnon’s Barbara—really goes for it. For all our sakes.
- Day’s Moore, trying to assure McKinnon’s Sessions that he was just kidding about having sex with a child, reveals that “kidding” is actually “the term I use for dating young ladies.”
- After hinting in her monologue that she’s going to get as much use out of her designer dress during the show, Haddish, indeed, does appear wearing it again, dancing proudly through Update.
- “I’m sorry, what’s your name?” “Amy.” “Shut up, Amy!”
- “We haven’t felt this confident since the day before Trump won!”
- After laughing at Trump’s catty insults in response to Kim Jong-un’s insult (yes, this is real fucking life), Che refers fleetingly to Trump as “President Miss Thing,” which made me laugh.
- Strong’s Claire offers Jost the multiple choice question about an office relationship: Report it to HR, “Lock her in a room and make her look at it,” or “Bully her out of the entire industry.”
- “My next guest needs no introduction. Please welcome her.”
- “There’s no wrong answers here, just super-wrong answers.”