“The two confident white boys raise a point.”
“I’m not an actor, I’m a [straight-to-streaming star war] star!”
If nothing else, Timothée Chalamet got a new best friend out of his first Saturday Night Live hosting gig, as the Dune messiah and Pete Davidson amiably palled around all night. First seen swapping New York Christmas memories (Hell’s Kitchen vs. Staten Island) at a piano on home base, the duo paired up as a couple of incomprehensible white TikTok rappers and then a couple of identically mustachioed sportscasters/conspiracy theorists, each time clearly appearing as amused by each other as we were supposed to be by their bro-ing out. And it sort of worked, honestly, as the busy Chalamet’s goofy charms went down smoother when matching energy with Davidson’s signature everyman broadness.
Born the year Will Ferrell joined SNL, Chalamet was a gamer, appearing in every sketch apart from the cold open and Update, in everything from a Harry Styles accent to a full-head COVID virus mask. Featured player Chloe Fineman got to wheel out her Chalamet impression in the same Styles sketch (Ego Nwodim’s Dionne Warwick talk show), playing up the young actor’s aw-shucks, stammering side, but, in the episode, the kid was less mannered than a bit bland, especially when not ramping up the silliness alongside Pete. That said, anyone who can act the hell out of a scene heartbrokenly shooing his tiny claymation horse out into the world for its own good has earned him his Saturday Night Live hosting stripes.
Honestly, “The Farm,” (the second, very funny filmed sketch of the night where Beck Bennett, Heidi Gardner, and Chalamet played a three-person family in crisis) was Chalamet’s best showcase, as his teenaged farm boy sings a passionate anthem to his favorite, doomed farm animal, a tiny, tiny horse he keeps in a lunch pail. Played as straight and melodramatic as any save-the-farm movie worth its oats, the bit is carried along by escalating absurdity. Not content with the gag of a very, ridiculously small horse, Chalamet’s visions of the defiantly free horse marrying AOC and becoming a minor Biden administration figure lead to an admirably attenuated gag about him having to keep up his “It’s for your own good!” shooing for a long, long time. (It’s a small horse, you see, and it can’t run away very fast.)
The best: Since we’ve already covered “The Farm,” let’s slide over to the other Bennett/Gardner/Chalamet filmed piece, a bit of theoretical product integration that, yet, manages to call the automobile in question, “this ridiculous car,” so I’ll let it slide. Aping one of those Christmas commercials where someone puts a big bow on top of the new car they bought their unobservant spouse, the joke works well on a couple of levels. One is that SNL is so adept at making the introductory commercial bits look so authentic that the turn—in this case that wife Gardner is horrified that screw-up, unemployed husband Bennett doesn’t know what a down payment is—slams the brakes on with the right amount of comic force. The other is that all three actors, once more, act the living hell out of the piece. In his live sketches, Chalamet was more visibly hamming it up (usually to the delight of new chum Pete), but in these, the guy just went assiduously dramatic, here letting his teen’s disillusionment at his father’s shocking, year-long joblessness, day-drinking, and cluelessness (Bennett touts the car’s APR as “aper,” and has no idea what it means for his family’s dire finances) land with real impact. Gardner continues to prove she’s the best pure actor among the cast, able here to craft a comically layered character, even as her understandably unfaithful wife shifts emotional gears throughout her feckless husband’s fiasco. Mikey Day, too, makes his angry neighbor (who loaned Bennett money) a better version of his usual dead-end role of “guy who explains the joke in unnecessary expository annoyance.”
The Worst: There was no outright stinker tonight, which is nice, I guess. Still, the live sketches were mostly nondescript and pleasant, which are not adjectives applied to many memorable SNL episodes. But since the effort-to-laughs ratio was so heavily front-loaded, I’ll say the “’Rona Family Christmas” was the biggest disappointment. A cocktail of potential shock value (the cast in spiky COVID masks happily chattering on about all the people they’ve murdered) and groan-worthy, long-walk wordplay (Chalamet’s rebellious, Purell-swigging virus son plans to join the antibodies, who Bennett’s dad angrily refers to as “ANTIBO”), the sketch—like most of the live stuff tonight—suffered mainly from listlessness.
And here comes some tough love. This cast is not confident enough to make sketches pop the way they need to. With heavy-hitter Aidy Bryant still off shooting Shrill and fellow scene-stealers Kate McKinnon and Cecily Strong pulling back this season, there’s finally some room for the rest of the cast to assert themselves. But, while new kids Lauren Holt, Andrew Dismukes, and Punkie Johnson all had more airtime this week than in the rest of their shows combined (don’t check the math on that), they, along with vets like Ego Nwodim, Alex Moffatt, Mikey Day, and Melissa Villaseñor, just aren’t seizing the moment. In several sketches, laugh lines were delivered to silence. And, sure, the lines may not have been gold—but SNL sketches are sold on performance as much as writing. That’s a huge burden to put on sketch actors, but, well, this is the big leagues as far as sketch comedy goes, and this cast has largely settled into the role of bench players who seem just happy to be there. There are exceptions apart from the aforementioned McKinnon, Strong, and Bryant. Kenan, obviously, although he appeared to have the night off. Gardner and Bennett, as we see here, match up well, and can carry a sketch on their own. Kyle Mooney is in his singular, weird little world, which I generally appreciate. Bowen Yang, Chloe Fineman, and Chris Redd continue to shine when they’re given the opportunity. And Pete is Pete. But, man, this cast is huge, and, if, as tonight, some of the lesser-deployed cast members get to pick up a bat, they’ve got to make more use of their limited time at the plate.
Back to the sketch at hand, there were a few clever twists of comic logic that could have been funnier if the sketch committed to being as dark as it feinted toward at times. I liked Melissa’s Spanish Flu grandma, rocking in the corner and reminiscing about her good, old, murderous days. (“C’mon, gimme a kiss, I kill you.”) And there’s the germ (sorry) of some satirical edge to daughter Holt’s impressive new boyfriend Dismukes (who infected Tom Hanks) saying, “I’m going to Disney World!” when asked about his future plans. (Seriously, do not travel to Disney World.) But if you’re going to commit to making full-head COVID masks during the height of an out-of-control pandemic that’s enacting a 9/11 a day on America alone, then your sketch has to be as committed comically. Here, Bennett and Chalamet’s father-son showdown eclipses much of the bite with mere effortful cleverness, although I did like Chalamet’s tearful response to dad’s conciliatory appreciation for the boy having somehow infected those lions at the zoo. (“I snuck in their butts!”) But for a centerpiece sketch tackling a genuinely touchy topic, there just wasn’t enough substance to justify the premise.
The rest: I could have gone with the Dionne Warwick talk show for worst of the night, I suppose. I’m glad Ego continues to get bigger roles this season, but her impersonation of the elder singing legend and recent Twitter star isn’t anything special. Not to damn Nwodim with comparison to the best in the business, but Warwick’s alternately befuddled and diva-like stylings in, say, Maya Rudolph’s hands would have been a lot more detailed, energetic, and funny. I liked how Warwick’s attempts to fit into the traditional monologue/cooking segment/interview format just saw the singer taking every opportunity to do her hits. As an excuse for some cast celebrity impressions, one talk show sketch is as good as another—and only as good as the impressions. These were fine. Chalamet’s Harry Styles was British. Melissa’s Billie Eilish was sullen. Pete’s Machine Gun Kelly obligingly got off the stage, seeing his host’s alarm at his name and appearance. And Fineman got a brief run at her Chalamet impression, its self-conscious bashfulness making the actual Chalamet’s wan professionalism seem like a mediocre Timothée Chalamet impression. (Rather than the other way around.)
The hip hop talk show (yay, another talk show) at least had guest Questlove cathartically enacting audience will by slapping the shit out of Pete Davidson and Timothée Chalamet’s unjustifiably cocky and incomprehensible white rappers. They were only stage slaps, but they still felt good, and for the noted rap artist and scholar Questlove, the prospect was probably what lured him over from Jimmy Fallon’s studio. Having Quest, Punkie Johnson as Queen Latifah, and Ego as host Nunya Bizness play straight so Pete and Tim’s duo Guaplord and $mokecheddathaassgetta could act the ignorant fools might have been about mocking the white YouTube rap appropriators of today (their latest song has “three billion streams, yo”), but it left the three non-buffoons to be pretty dull. At least until those slaps. Hit, ’em again, Quest. (I did appreciate that Chalamet’s ding-dong only gives it up once he recognizes Questlove from that one episode of Yo Gabba Gabba he did.)
Che had one joke tonight so good the lack of audience reaction was like a badge of honor. On the effort of (indicted and pardon-pandering) Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to get the Supreme Court to invalidate the votes of millions of (majority minority) voters in four battleground states: “A plan so crazy, only Texas would try to execute it.” Che chuckled at the lack of response, but he knows what he did. That said, the continued and escalating dangerous nonsense seeping from the Trump White House (and some 126 Republican House offices) across the land to try and literally destroy American democracy this week elicited the traditional Jost-Che treatment of a quick handful of smirky putdowns.
Jost mocked Trump for turning down a stockpile of the now-approved COVID vaccine, his ongoing nickel-and-dime grifting of his MAGA faithful, and the deeply unnecessary farce that is SPACE FORCE!!, all without expending much effort. Che, apart from that one, too-smart-for-the-room bit, didn’t bring much more on the political comedy front, unless comparing recently thrown-under-the-bus AG William Barr to Cartman counts. They had some more fun with the non-political material, seemingly. Although Che couldn’t help himself in making fun of the last name of Biden HUD appointee Rep. Marcia Fudge (c’mon, Che), his joke about Jay-Z’s new cannabis business was solid. “God ain’t done with me yet,” he said, referring to Beyoncé now being married to “a 50-year-old weed guy.”
Bringing back a character whose initial charms stemmed mainly from the appearance of spontaneity seemed like an eye-roller for sure, but dammit if Kate McKinnon didn’t manage to make her abortive COVID expert Dr. Wenowdis sort-of work for a second time. Even though her mid-appearance character break was likely something of a worked shoot the first time around, the idea that McKinnon would get tired of a silly bit about the disease partway through and just share her terrified bemusement about this whole fucking nightmare was deeply funny, and thoroughly relatable. Here, she stuck to the same formula of dispensing some silly-voiced actual COVID information (the vaccine is very promising but we don’t know—thanks to Trump—just how long it will be before it gets to enough people to mean anything) before getting the helpless giggles. After squirting Jost with several oversized syringes filled with supposed (long-distance) doses of the vaccine, her Dr. Wenowdis was shed once more so Kate could tell us how she’s taken to ghosting her therapist, and how the seeming light at the end of the tunnel that is COVID and 2020 just reminds us “how stinky and dark the tunnel is.” Yes, I am the requisite amount of critic-grumpy and pissed that what looked an awful lot like a real moment of comic connection turned out to be just a template for another returning bit. But Kate McKinnon is just the performer for this, her effortless confidence and charisma cracking open to show us it’s okay to be freaked out a surprisingly potent tonic—even in a second dose.
I’ve been talking about how little SNL keeps finding form Melissa Villaseñor to do, and Jost nodded at that fact when he saw her come out for her correspondent piece decked out like Dolly Parton. “You’ve been trying to get your Dolly Parton impression on the show for a while now,” Jost noted, in the sort of on-air acknowledgement of backstage business that often serves to air out some genuine tension. Here, though, Melissa was basically delighted and pretty delightful, as she, after denying any Parton-esque plans, happily turned her trio of Christmas ditties into a Melissa-as-Dolly showcase. And it is great, Villaseñor nailing the singing and the talking Dolly with affectionate precision. As happened earlier this season, SNL seemingly just said “Screw it” and gave Melissa a few minutes to do her thing. As one of SNL’s two premiere voice people (alongside the ascendant Fineman), Villaseñor has found herself sidelined because, as Jost makes plain, apparently nobody knows how to write for her considerable but specific talents. It’s a tough hole to get out of (ask Jay Pharoah), but just letting Melissa work her stuff is appreciated.
Look, props to props—if you make a butthole cake that good, it’s going to make it to air. Even if the sketch it’s spurting suspicious-looking chocolate goo in is an indifferently mounted retread of a sketch that is a lot less beloved than SNL seems to think it is. Recurring sketches are both an SNL institution and systemic crutch (hence their own category), and the Holiday Baking Championship was very funny, once. It was pretty funny a second time, mainly because it had Eddie. Here—it exists? The premise thrived on outrageous physical comedy surprise long ago, with Don Cheadle whipping off his display case to reveal a cake of such abominable quality that the wretched thing came to life, only to plead for death. Here, Chalamet made the bad bake, with his intended Santas of the world confection looking like, well, a big, puckered chocolatey butthole. (“Well, it looks like one of two things,” says Beck Bennett’s nonplussed judge, and I concede the point—at least until the liquid fudge center starts oozing out through the embarrassed Chalamet’s hands.) It’s in the grand tradition of SNL gross-out sketches, sure (plus, there was Kyle Mooney’s “penis and balls, of course!,” not-a-turkey cake for good measure), but, as with all but the rarest examples, the perfunctory nature of the gag sucks a lot of energy out.
Hey, no ringers this week! (Apart from Questlove, but that was more of a cameo.) With no-doubt busy and doubtfully necessary big names Jim Carrey and Maya Rudolph nowhere in sight this week, the political cold open went to Kate and Heidi as, respectively, Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx, two Trump administration officials on the opposite ends of the public trust spectrum. Kate is just going to keep on playing every male member of the current administration up to and after they all wind up working at Fox, OAN, or Newsmax in (checks calendar) 38 days. Fauci’s a new one, and while Kate’s not an impressionist per se, her garrulously no-bullshit Fauci is a fine little doodle of the man, dispensing inconveniently factual COVID information while dodging bras thrown by those under his spell of trustworthy competence. (“Can you be my facemask?,” is pretty forward, really.) Gardner’s Birx, by contrast, has to navigate the lulls greeting her appearance by timorously pointing people to that time when Donald Trump advised everyone to ingest cleaning products and she, as Gardner puts it, “made a stanky little face and almost whispered, ‘No!’”
Freed up from catering to star schedules and whims, and the necessity of replicating worn-out speech patterns (McKinnon’s Fauci is just a grade of gravel up from her Giuliani), at least this one was short, and looser than usual. While Dr. Fauci (not you, Birx) has become the lone voice of principled reason when it comes to governmental response to COVID, he doesn’t come with the impressionistic or political baggage that makes every Trump (and now Biden) cold open such an airless, show-crippling opener. And if the jokes about the coming vaccines were nothing special (Chicago gets deep-dish vaccinations, get it?), points for laying out more accurate information on national TV than the federal government has bothered to. (The vaccine has to be stored in below-freezing temperatures, it takes two doses, “woos” spread droplets, don’t—for the love of all that is holy—gather for Christmas, and take the fucking vaccine when it’s available.) And if we have to accept this Fauci’s mumbled admission that things won’t get back to whatever normal is until “July, 20-badda-badda-badda-badda,” well, um. Yeah, I got nothing. Fuck.
I don’t even have to pretend to be hip to have dug Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s two numbers tonight, ha haaa! (I’ll be prepared for Dua Lipa next week, I promise.) Springsteen’s getting some of his best reviews in years for his newest album, and the two songs he and his shrunken but intrepid bandmates did here were the sort of simultaneously rip-roaring and sentimental stuff classic Bruce Springsteen is made of. Our own Alex McLevy praised, among other things, the stripped-down, no-frills power on display on the record, and if the aging rock legends were a little off-key in performance at times, I liked it all the more, frankly. Plus, having Bruce call over sax player Jake Clemons (who’s taken his late uncle Clarence’s spot in the E Street Band) is the sort of rock and roll joyousness that makes an old man’s heart go all gooey. No, you shut up.
I did not see Redd or Kenan at all tonight, unless they were lost in the goodnights mask-scrum. Aidy’s still out. Otherwise, there was a welcome (if not especially impactful) concentration on the new kids tonight. Andrew Dismukes was in at least two sketches, as were Punkie Johnson and Lauren Holt. That none of them got much funny stuff to say is not really their problem, although none of them making something out of the little they were given is cause for concern. Make hay, people. No doubt Carrey and Maya are coming back next week, and with Kristen Wiig in the building, there will be literally no air for the likes of you.
Ego anchored two big sketches tonight, which is great. But apart from a funny name, she had to play straight-person in one talk show sketch, while her Warwick didn’t turn out to be the breakout it should have been. The race is between Pete and Beck, with Bennett getting the edge in quality over quantity.
Finally, a live ten-to-one sketch that actually gets some time to breathe. (Although not enough, considering Chalamet’s iffy effort to fill during the goodnights.) Honestly, this was in contention for best sketch of the night, with the current exodus of Trump-worshipping viewers from begrudgingly resigned Fox News to conspiracy fantasyland even-faker news outlets like Newsmax illustrated by the low-rent propaganda network’s new sports show. Dedicated solely to an alternate reality where New York-based sports teams like the Jets and Knicks are world-beaters, the sketch ably parallels the right wing nut-o-sphere’s further and further-afield searches for lunatic non-facts to fit their labyrinthine theories about why Donald Trump actually won the election he lost. Badly.
Like the cold open, it’s freeing here for the writers to talk about a thing without really talking about the thing. Newsmax and its ilk (and a truly shocking number of Republican lawmakers) keep pitching increasingly wobbly Hail Marys to reconcile their Glorious Leader’s ignominious defeat and their unflappable faith that said cult figure can do no wrong. Well, how come the Jets were ahead by three in the first quarter against the Bills and then—what’s this?!—the Bills suddenly won the game thanks to all these points that kept on dribbling in before the end of the game. Funny idea. (Compounded by Kyle Mooney’s Newsmax weather reporter, standing in a blizzard while assuring Jets fans that they should definitely come out and enjoy a beautiful day watching the 0-12 Jets.)
It’s easy enough to come out and just call “sad, pathetic bullshit” on Trump voters choosing to seek out literally any internet outlet willing to reinforce their obstinate rejection of the real world (which, to be fair, is why Update is tough to pull off these days), but finding an in like this is some solid jokesmanship. Plus, everyone in the sketch is very funny, which helps immeasurably. Beck kills it as the brash-talking, unidentifiably accented pundit who debunks that whole Bills won fiasco, while Chalamet and Pete did an admirable job following him up with some spurious extrapolation and the signed affidavits of 500 Jets fans that swear they watched the Jets beat the Dolphins. (Actual score, Dolphins—20, Jets—3.) Dismukes and Johnson added their basketball take by proclaiming that former Knicks guard Jeremy Lin is the greatest player in the NBA—if you look at a sampling of four isolated games from 2012. (Meanwhile, in this universe, Trump is 1-58 in court, lost the election by 7 million votes and 74 electoral votes, Joe Biden is your 46th President, and the Jets deeply, thoroughly suck.)
- Thanks to Jesse Hassenger for taking over at the last minute here on the SNL desk last week. I live in Maine (like, up in it), and there was this blizzard, and the short version is I got some unexpected sleep in the pitch dark last Saturday while Jesse stayed up and did a stellar job on short notice. Outstanding, that guy.
- Honestly, the most charming part of the monologue was Chalamet revealing that his former Broadway dancer mom used to do extra work on SNL back before he was born, complete with a clip showing her looking appropriately aghast at “Massive Head Wound Harry.”
- Fast-forwarding to the goodnights, poor Chalamet was left with 30 seconds to fill, which he did in what seemed like five minutes of flop-sweaty babbling. Maybe there’s something to Chloe Fineman’s impression after all.
- Beck Bennett’s Wolf Blitzer: “An indoor man with an outdoor name.”
- Blitzer on the vaccine: “It’s just like the PS5. Everybody wants it, nobody can get it, and, if you’re rich, you already had it a month ago.”
- Bowen Yang and Chloe Fineman’s eventual books about their SNL careers will each mention that sometimes paying featured player dues means playing human-sized herpes.
- Apart from leaving confused guest chef Andrew Dismukes hanging in favor of finishing her song, Ego’s funniest moment as Dionne Warwick was greeting Melissa’s Billie Eilish with a peremptory, “You’re spooky. Can you put a hex on Wendy Williams for me?”
- Next week: I’m back (barring a light dusting that Central Maine Power somehow can’t cope with) to cover the return of Kristen Wiig, with musical guest Dua Lipa.