Saturday Night Live (Screenshot: NBC)

“I have dreamt of standing on this stage my whole life!”

“I’m not an actor, I’m a [freakin’ legendary SNL-and-don’t-you-forget-it] star!”

Will Ferrell’s only come back to host Saturday Night Live four times now since he left the show back in 2002. Still, despite (or perhaps because of) his many drop-ins over the intervening years, Ferrell’s first hosting stint since 2012 was less an event than a standard, unadventurous affair, its chief charms derived from mega-star alum Ferrell’s unpretentious, always welcome hard work. Unlike, say, the red carpet traditionally rolled out for, say, fellow SNL all-star Kristen Wiig’s parade of characters, Ferrell’s presence on tonight’s show was more like a middling episode from a down season during Ferrell’s seven-year tenure. He was dead center in every single sketch (including Update, where the semi-beloved Jacob Silj represented one of Ferrell’s only two returning characters), an unusually heavy workload for any host. And while, being Will Ferrell, he raised all the boats here, the episode itself was pretty shallow much of the time.

His monologue partook of the same sort of restless dedication to disruption that Ferrell brings to his movie-hyping talk show appearances. Even when pumping up a turkey of a project, Ferrell is simply unwilling or unable to let a perfunctory comic task pass by without pulling out some weirdo bit, and, here, the conceit that a quick-change-incurred head-clonk (complete with bloody, skillfully deployed wounds) has left him wobbly and amnesiac sends Ferrell’s take on the usual monologue glad-handing off into enjoyable loopiness. Introducing a woman in the audience as “Lorne Michaels... the rudest man in show business!” spins things into an absurdist orbit. Same thing with him upbraiding rescuing cast members Cecily Strong and Kenan Thompson for SNL using the whole musical monologue crutch way, way too often. Ferrell has proven himself a more nuanced performer over the years than he’s given credit for, but even when showing off his softer side, there’s always a touch of maniacal sadness in those beady eyes, and he taps into it to fine effect to start things off. (Well, his main returning favorite really started things off, but check that out in the recurring sketch report.)

Unfortunately, the show that followed never found a writing groove for Ferrell to exploit. A few sketches relied on “Will Ferrell yells” for their impact, a reliably safe strategy that, nonetheless, requires a lot more care in order to avoid being merely loud and off-putting. A few others went for a more writerly tone, but tailed off in limp endings without ever gaining much altitude.

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Weekend Update update

Decent work from Colin Jost and Michael Che tonight in lobbing jokes at the week in Trump-led nonsense, although not their best. Comedic strategies in the age of Trump must compensate for the evaporating reality-absurdity barrier, and Update’s analogy game is usually solid. But the anchors’ material just wasn’t there tonight. Jost’s comparison of senate Democrats trusting historically shameless Mitch McConnell’s word to “trusting Stevie Wonder to perform a bris” lacks only the ironic rimshot of a Friar’s Club sketch. Che was better, railing against White House advisor and sneering white supremacist Stephen Miller with a riffing list of burns that played best in rapid fire. (Comparing Miller’s wanly hateful visage to Vincent Schiavelli’s Ghost character seems unfair—At least that guy offered Patrick Swayze a little helpful advice.) Che and Jost’s banter game was stronger—the two have developed their chemistry where Jost can get laughs with a slow burn after Che ends a joke about trying to dodge someone at an elevator by revealing it’s about him having to listen to Jost talk about “white golfers” on the ride up to the office. But if Update’s going to anchor an episode’s political humor as it’s done ably all season, it needs to be stronger than this.

Heidi Gardner continues to use Update as a mini-showcase for her facility with character work, here introducing teen YouTube movie reviewing star, Bailey Gismert. As she did with her “Every Boxer’s Girlfriend From Every Movie About Boxing Ever” (a.k.a. Angel), Gardner made this realistically inarticulate teenage girl come to life with just a few strokes, playing up the girl’s uptalking, painfully self-conscious inability to stake out any coherent position into a comically specific character. While there’s some satire of the YouTube star phenomenon here (this reviewer would like to invite these unschooled, perspective-free youngsters with their glib overconfidence to get off his lawn), the sketch really only lived in Gardner’s tightly controlled performance, as Bailey continually feinted toward airing an actual opinion (about anything) before retreating into hair-twisting disaffection. (“Weird” and “random” do all of Bailey’s critical heavy lifting, serving to inoculate her against any criticism herself.)

Jacob Silj, laboring as he still does under the curse of the dreaded, possibly mythical condition, voice immodulation syndrome, is an odd choice for a return. The joke wore itself out in his first appearance back when Ferrell was a cast member, and while the bit isn’t terrible, it isn’t funny enough to warrant a return, especially as his schtick—in the grand tradition characters SNL has run into the ground—never wavers. I liked the weird tangent about Silj’s affliction somehow leading him to a partly unintentional homosexual affair at one point in the past, though.

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Best/Worst sketch of the night

Some episodes send me scurrying back to my notes more than others in the effort to refresh my memory of sketches I’d watched not a half-hour before. It’s strange that that would happen on a Will Ferrell-hosted SNL, but here we are.

Roaring out of the post-monologue gate, I’m still chuckling at the fighter pilot sketch. Or the “Clown Penis” sketch, as it’s sure to be known, as three Top Gun types and one nonplussed radar operator attempt to cope with that being the inexplicable call sign of Ferrell’s deadpan pilot. This is not heady comedy, but it builds on the escalating absurdity and Ferrell’s stone-faced seriousness about his mission and his chosen nickname, at least before bailing out in an abrupt ending. (Something too common tonight.) Sure, just saying “clown penis” a lot is a cheap laugh, but it gets its laugh every time, especially in Ferrell and company’s clipped military patter. Ferrel explaining that his call sign is chosen to intimidate—since seeing a clown’s penis makes one “confused, unsettled, and, most of all, very, very scared”—works as well as it does because of Ferrell’s absolute disdain at having to explain that. And while the escalation that, um, Clown Penis keeps screwing up in very unexpected ways (“I am unintentionally upside-down!”) might not be a disciplined piece of sketch-craft, Ferrell makes it work.

The commercial for male sexual harasser/assaulter-specific deodorant, NEXT, is a crisp little piece of angry satire, as Ferrell and other dudes never drop their pitchman’s pace even as the detail that they’re all just waiting to be the next powerful man outed as a sex creep is revealed. Alex Moffat’s red carpet movie star proclaiming to an interviewer, “Lots of women are brave, but this one is a liar” is about as concisely angry a line about the issue as it gets, encapsulating as it does women’s collective disgust over “woke” male celebrities attempting to maintain their #TimesUp cred while pawning off their own alleged misdeeds as the work of duplicitous women out to get them. SNL’s ad parodies are so routinely good these days that we tend to take them for granted at this point, but this one was especially tight and pointed.

The diner commercial live sketch was an example of a performance showcase that worked for no other reason than who was involved. Any chance to pair up Ferrell and Kate McKinnon is to be taken, and the two elderly marrieds they play here make an enjoyably silly meal out of their inability to deliver the fiendishly, deceptively tricky testimonial, “baked in a crispy pastry crust.” There’s no real layering to the joke, with the laughs simply coming from watching two SNL all-timers play two befuddled old-timers. (Pretty sure Ferrell’s old guy spits out the phrase “Christ-y crusty turd” at one point.) And the joke that old people are sometimes confused is some low-hanging comedy fruit. But both actors underplay the characters’ essential ordinariness in the face of their predicament nicely, and Ferrell, frustrated, exclaims the delightfully specific laugh line, “We raised five boys and some girls! Why can’t we say the line?”

Calling back to the NEXT commercial, the restaurant sketch returns to the theme of the current high-profile conversation around sexual harassment and assault by basically abdicating its own premise. Centering the sketch—with three couples’ innocuous dinner conversation being frozen in wide-eyed panic as soon as the topic is raised—on recent SNL host and even more recently accused of sexual inappropriateness Aziz Ansari is a bold step, I suppose. Certainly the details of the allegations made against the comic have raised some thornier issues about the issues of consent and power imbalance than, say, the president of the United States bragging about his fondness for sexual assault as an ice-breaker. But the sketch sidesteps the meat of the issue. Amusingly, to be fair—there’s, again, an escalating absurdity in the lengths to which the friends go in order to avoid the conversational minefield they find themselves in. (I especially liked Heidi Gardner using a grimoire to make herself disappear, and the reveal of a tiny theater curtain that Kate McKinnon closes over her face.) The joke is that Ansari’s case and the current discourse is too fraught for these six people to dare voice their actual opinions, which seems like an interesting place to start a sketch about trying to navigate a difficult issue around which some very broad trenches have been dug. But this sketch—despite everyone involved applying themselves in performance—simply stops there, leaving the sketch to collapse, half-formed.

Let’s see [checking notes], oh, right, the airline sketch. Aidy Bryant, Chris Redd, and Ferrell as flight attendants try out their new safety rap for their passengers, only for Ferrell to insert his own beliefs that “God’s not real, and when you die you’re dead,” to everyone’s horror. (Except for Leslie Jones’ passenger, who thinks he’s onto something.) It’s a promising enough setup for some prime Ferrell lunacy, but the sketch never builds any momentum, and just fizzles out.

Same goes for the break room sketch, where Ferrell’s boss mixes up “Cracker Barrel” with “Crate and Barrel,” and then spends the rest of the sketch making increasingly inappropriate accusations of his coworkers in order to save face. Again, the premise sets up Ferrell to build in sweaty comic desperation, but there’s little snap or imagination to the proceedings. And when the writing isn’t in place, Ferrell’s signature manic energy just gets abrasive and trying pretty quickly. The one odd successful beat is how Ferrell—having quit and messily taken the water cooler jug with him—is seen crumpling against the glass door, gazing wistfully back at the life he’s just left.

And if Ferrell’s right about SNL falling back on the musical monologue too often (he is), the same might be said of the show’s reliance on reality show parodies, of which we get two tonight. Yes, there sure are lots of reality shows. And, you betcha, the overheated narrative conventions of reality TV are transparently, ridiculously artificial. We get that. That is well-covered comic territory. Stop. Please, SNL, just move on. There are other things—only, like, an infinite number of things in this world—to base sketches on. Ferrell, Kyle Mooney, and Beck Bennett as three reality show housemates making a simple misunderstanding about movie plans into an excuse for confessional-heavy, dramatically scored melodramatic conflict adds nothing new whatsoever to the sketch genre. The sketch wraps up with the joke that this is season 750,000 of this particular show. I do not know how many reality show sketches SNL has done. It can’t be that many, right? Right?

Well, number 750,001 or so sees Ferrell and Cecily Strong’s returning reality star couple wreaking havoc on the cookout of their old neighbors, their grotesque plastic surgery and even more plastic forced friendliness ramping up to ratings-grabbing shrieking once the cameras show up. There’s one funny line about the couple having chosen “the most expensive procedure from the cheapest doctor,” and the first time Ferrell threatens to hit someone with his (real and very well-behaved) little dog made me laugh. But this was another case of the writers just assuming that “Will Ferrell yelling” would be enough of a crowd-pleaser, and, Kate McKinnon’s stellar silent reaction work aside, the sketch points up another overdone SNL trope. A sketch that’s built around a strange or outlandish character (hi, Clown Penis) doesn’t need to always be immediately called out as strange or outlandish by someone in the sketch. Here, the four normal people wonder if reality show success has changed their friends. Their friends arrive, acting outlandishly. The others remark upon how they were correct in their suspicions that their old friends would act strangely. Will Ferrell throws barbecued chicken at everyone. And scene.

Look at the ten-to-one sketch below. Seriously, for the sake of flow and in deference to these silly categories I picked out years ago, skip down... now.

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

Jacob Silj and W.

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

W’s back, taking Donald Trump (and Alec Baldwin’s) cold open spot for a (former) presidential address from Ferrell’s justly touted 43rd president. (It’s the impression, not the actual president that’s touted.) Said address coming from Bush’s basement replica Oval Office where he still hangs out with Condi Rice (Leslie Jones), and plays with his super soaker is a fine vehicle for W’s return. Also fine is the sketch’s mockery of the former president’s shockingly high post-retirement poll number rebound, a head-slapping act of public forgetfulness/Trump comparison that, as Ferrell’s Bush puts it, ignores that he “was, like, historically not good.” “We’re still in two different wars that I started,” admonishes the reliably affable, malaprop-spouting Bush, who follows up with, “Who has two thumbs and created ISIS? This guy!” for emphasis.

What with Ferrell in the house and Alec Baldwin’s Trump spinning his wheels comedically whenever Baldwin feels like coming in, a Bush cold open was a gimme. But pinning his appearance to some pointedly funny current issues was a smart move, supplying Ferrell’s always-endearingly dopey former POTUS with more of a reason to exist than just the fact that he’s expected.

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I am hip to the musics of today

Chris Stapleton brought in fellow Kentucky native and country superstar Sturgill Simpson to play a pair of Stapleton’s country rock stompers. As that’s not my scene as a rule, I leave you to read fellow A.V. Clubber and music smarty Gwen Ihnat, who likes Stapleton a great deal, indeed.

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

Luke Null is getting the top spot this week. That was not only some solid beatboxing in the airline sketch, but Null showed a nice comic poise as his passenger kept underselling his abilities right before launching proudly into them. Luke Null—heading into the second half of the season strong! Luke Null!

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Pete Davidson simply didn’t appear until the goodnights, right?

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

So the Chucky Lee Byrd sketch wants to make the point about how the sexualization of very young girls in popular culture is something we as a culture are perhaps prepared to call out at this point. The commercial for a greatest hits collection of 1950s-style rockers by Ferrell’s Jerry Lee Lewis-esque piano-pounder Chucky Lee Byrd gradually reveals that all his songs are about the solidly late-middle-aged singer lusting after increasingly young girls. Funny enough idea, and certainly a timely theme to build a sketch around, but the ripcord on the joke is pulled almost immediately as McKinnon’s co-pitch-person (alongside Bennett) twigs to the creepiness right away, leaving her to comment on it repeatedly through the rest of the sketch. Structurally, it introduces the joke, then grabs it and holds it aloft and makes sure we get it for the rest of the running time, and it’s deadening.

Stray observations

  • Tracy Morgan pops up for one line in the (first) reality show sketch. Nice to see him, I guess.
  • “One: Are you saying ‘clown penis?’ And two: Why?”
  • “We are alone in the cosmos and Gareth will rap as he pleases!”
  • Moving on from Ansari, the diners try to move on to a safer topic, settling unwisely on, “The Shape Of Water had problems, right?”

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