“To me, one man’s over-the-top is another man’s engaged performance.”
Willem Dafoe jokes several times in his monologue about people thinking he’d make a great Joker. He’s not wrong, although here I’ll just say—enough with the Jokers. We’ve had enough Jokers. Heath Ledger was the best, Mark Hamill is a strong second, Jared Leto remains in last place, forever. That bafflingly misbegotten and overrated Joaquin Phoenix thing was not a Joker movie, I don’t care what anyone says.
Ahem. Still, Dafoe’s Joker-obsessed fans have a point. As Dafoe himself noted, he’s not an unexpressive actor. As I’d add, Willem Dafoe has a crazy devil face whose alternately bulging and slitted ice-blue eyes, tombstone teeth, and deeply etched lines are the craziest toolbox a major star has had to work with since probably forever. Dafoe pretended to be hurt by the idea that he’s only thought of on the street as the physical embodiment of outsized, gleefully performative evil, but, hey, it’s worked for the guy so far.
Leading up to Dafoe’s hosting gig tonight, I cast my mind back over Dafoe’s roles to imagine what a sketch comedy Willem Dafoe might be like. His comedies are few and stranded amidst a vast sea of unsettling kooks, killers, and the occasional supervillain. He deadpans exquisitely for Wes Anderson, was game (and, yes, unsettling) in his two Simpsons guest roles, and I’m never going to watch American Dreamz, so there’s not a lot to go on.
As it played out, Dafoe was game for Saturday Night Live, too, his up-for-anything enthusiasm the best thing about what were a handful of genuinely indifferent sketches. And if Dafoe isn’t going to springboard into a late-career comic swerve out of the gig, here’s to watching him lighten up and have fun. That said, Willem Dafoe is not really built for comedy, with his performances a combination of stilted and exaggerated that was—I’ll say it—kind of unsettling.
Onscreen, there’s precious little Dafoe hasn’t done, or won’t do, a fearlessness that carried over tonight into spanking himself with a riding crop, doing a couple of weird dances, and a whole lot of boner and blowjob jokes. The writing tonight was almost uniformly corny in its broadness, which can’t be laid at Dafoe’s feet. Still, there was a fair amount of host-protecting going on (most of his monologue was Aidy Bryant and Mikey Day doing Wisconsin accents), with Dafoe wheeling out for a short ensemble piece or plunked down as framing device. The whole show tonight had a sprung rhythm, with lots of dead spots in the pacing and clunky direction and blocking. (Punkie Johnson crosses right in front of camera on one exit.) That’d be a lot for even a comic powerhouse of a host to overcome, and Dafoe was left stranded much of the night, not that he seemed anything but delighted to be there.
The Best: Woof. And, no, I’m not putting the dog show sketch here. That’s just the sound I made when casting over my notes and trying to think of a sketch that didn’t make me feel blank and sort of logy. The music video sketch, “Now I’m Up” gets the top spot tonight, simply by being the most professional and polished, if not the funniest such pre-tape the show’s ever done. Also, Chris Redd is always outstanding in these musical numbers, here bringing a truly fine voice to what was an otherwise standard musical list of the sort of thoughts that keep you up at night. He and Kenan made an unremarkable piece of observational comedy into a serious bop—I would listen to this anytime, honestly. Dafoe was used well, too, his late-night commercial pitchman intruding into the bleary-eyed mix for a nifty song and dance riff. Honestly, if those intrusive insomniac thoughts that keep you awake and edgy had a spokesperson, it’d be Willem Dafoe, telling you that you have to die someday.
The Worst: While no sketches tonight were outright dire, so many of the live pieces jerked along to the same busted comic rhythm. Speaking of jerking, the returning joke about a news report gone wrong thanks to some accidentally ribald chyrons was all about the blowjobs, as anchor Bowen Yang calling self-help guru Dafoe’s book Blowing Yourself (instead of Knowing Yourself) sees things play out in exhausting, one-joke hackiness. There are lots of lines like, “That’s a lot to swallow,” and “Hopefully I don’t suck here,” if that’s your bag, is what I’m saying. It’s like a Carol Burnett Show sketch if Harvey Korman were allowed to make self-fellatio jokes. (Just as an aside, for no reason: Willem Dafoe is exceptionally limber.)
The Rest: The Badminster Dog Show continues to suggest that, if a show is flagging during rehearsals, a pack of adorable doggies are kept behind some emergency glass. I love dogs. Dogs are cute. And dogs can be freaking hilarious. That said, this one seems to have been turned over to guaranteed audience “awwww”s to make up for the fact that nobody wrote much of anything after coming up with the whole “Badminster” instead of “Westminster” title gag.
I laughed at Aidy being Aidy, her co-host (along with Dafoe) noting that the contest’s crappy dogs are “just like us—some of them bite kids.” And Redd was great as the owner of the eventual winner, a little critter whose enormous penis necessitates vet visits every time it gets aroused. “I hate saying that, and I say it a lot,” Redd states upon explaining the elaborate penile de-escalation procedure. But even though I joined in on the “awww” train when the supposed meanest dog in the pageant turned out to be a cuddlebug, tenderly licking Kate McKinnon’s judge and Andre Dismukes’ owner while everybody tried to keep a straight face, I felt manipulated and dirty. But I ”awwww”-ed all the same. Dafoe’s into-it but stiff presence didn’t help, I have to say, as a list of one dog’s increasingly absurd list of fears (pineapples, the Netflix startup sound) got trampled by Dafoe’s comically tone-deaf delivery. Cute pooches, though.
The other pre-tape, a commercial parody of those ubiquitously targeted Frank Thomas testosterone-booster ads, was as full of boner jokes as the news report sketch, but at least they were better, weirder boner jokes. With Kenan’s Big Hurt, Kyle Mooney’s Doug Flutie, and Dafoe (as himself) all coming out to cheerfully embarrass middle-aged Mikey Day for supposedly not being able to “get hard” anymore, the gag is that the three celebrity spokespeople are both really into the product, and unashamedly enthusiastic about the fact that they once couldn’t get hard, but now can get very hard, indeed. Making these dad-focused commercials’ subtext text, the sketch playfully skewers the euphemistic pitch behind all these suspiciously unregulated man-potions, stripping Day’s manly insecurities down to the bone. (You get it.) And there are enough weirdo touches to give the initial joke some legs, as its eventually revealed that the product in question is less a pill than some sort of whirring, hiccuping motorized gizmo that sees all three enthusiasts doubled over in artificially induced pain-pleasure. Dafoe, triggered into exquisite torture by the innocent attentions of Day’s wife, Melissa Villaseñor, is used to his best advantage, pounding his chest and screaming in startlingly intense orgasmic delight. (And no, nobody’s making a “Dafoe face” joke.)
The Please Don’t Destroy guys miss with this one, a one-joke premise (Martin Herlihy has a 10-year-old best bud) that escalates in noisy chaos more than cleverness. I like these guys, even if the show’s naked pitch to make them the next viral superstars keeps pointing out that The Lonely Island only made this specific type of absurdist backstage stuff look easy.
In the SNL oral history, many tales are told about Lorne Michaels’ expensive insistence on realistic and often elaborate sets in comedy. “Gilda will know,” he’s quoted as stating in response to an NBC exec asking why a wardrobe sweater had to be real cashmere. So I don’t get bent out of shape watching the show invest so much time, energy, and money in creating, say, a quartet of meticulously movie-accurate costumes for the minor characters in the Beauty And The Beast sketch. I’m a little more irritated that SNL keeps thinking that we’re all as convinced a lavishly mounted Disney setting propping up a middling premise is comedy gold.
Here, Pete Davidson’s Beast (no complaints about his costuming, since he’s a main character, and those lower-jaw fangs are ingeniously crafted) whips out his magic mirror to show Chloe Fineman’s Belle just what her elderly father is getting up to in her (kidnapped) absence. Dafoe’s gameness is on display as his home alone papa gets down to some dirty, if indifferently realized and staged, behavior. (Here’s where that riding crop figures in.) With Kenan (Cogsworth), Mikey Day (Lumiere), Punkie Johnson (Mrs. Potts), and Kyle (Chip) all getting into the voyeuristic fun to varying degrees, the sketch is awfully thin. Partly that’s down to Dafoe, who, I’m just calling it, isn’t a naturally funny presence. While his lonely old man lamenting how much he misses all the things his late wife used to do to his ass exhibits an admirable degree of commitment on Dafoe’s part, the guy just doesn’t really speak the comic language. Mostly, though, it’s that these Disney-fied sketches all seem to have the same joke. (Stuff isn’t as rosy and innocent as these animated kids films would have you believe.) And while we all have our own rosy memories of these movies, it’s really time to move on from seeing them as go-to sketch fodder.
Is it a good sign when Peyton Manning gives the best comedy performance of your sketch comedy show? No, no it is not, even if, yeah, the former NFL QB (and former SNL host who did slightly better than most athletes) was genuinely pretty great as he revealed that his newly discovered love for binge-watching Emily In Paris trumped watching any of last weekend’s mail-biting football highlights. It’s the specificity of Manning’s ably rat-a-tat catalogue of the Netflix series that makes the joke, as Manning can barely be coaxed into talking NFL highlights (“All the touchdowns were in the end zone”) amidst his in-depth analysis of what makes Emily’s adventures in love and work so darned thrilling. His reading of “a fresh take on feminism—finally!,” was easily the best delivery of the night. (Even if, you know, that’s sort of questionable, coming from him.) Throw in a surprise beret reveal shot, and you have one of the most unexpected highlights of this season. I know, I’m as baffled as you are.
Jost and Che were, once more, fine. With tonight’s co-hosting gig, apparently they are now the longest-tenured Update hosts ever, and as long as SNL wants Weekend Update to stay a cheeky, largely disposable showcase for personality rather than biting fake news, then they should have a few more years to really put their records out of reach.
Aidy Bryant and Bowen Yang had some fun as a pair of effortfully outré trend predictors. There’s not much to the bit than watching Aidy and Bowen almost crack up as they go unaccountably harsh on their fashion and lifestyle pet peeves. For guys who use posters as decor, Aidy’s hissing, “Pulp Fiction poster—grow up and be a damn painting!” made me laugh in her and Yang’s tag-team hostility. Aidy is so outstanding at what she does that she’s in danger of being taken for granted sometimes. Here, there’s a level of knowing absurdity yoked to ultimate, wild-eyed sincerity of purpose that’s just irresistible.
The wacky news blooper sketch can go gather dust as a concept. Way, way back in the filing cabinet graveyard.
While the tenant’s association meeting sketch wasn’t exactly a recurring bit, the change of setting (from school committee, town meeting, etc) roll call nature of these pieces as a template sure is. Here, it’s Alex Moffatt and Chloe Fineman riding herd on the assorted weirdos and cranks taking the mic, allowing us to see who, of this overstuffed and underused cast, is actually in the building this week.
As a conceit, these sorts of sketches serve the purpose of letting nearly everybody get some airtime, while usually zipping by without making much of an impact. Here, the high notes are muted by brevity, and the fact that most don’t really bring an especially well-realized characterization to the party. Kate kills, naturally, as her diminutive final speaker pokes her head barely over the podium to, once more, suggest raising the allowable cat limit from three to seventy-five. Kate McKinnon can land a character with a look, a pause, and a shuffle of prepared notes. Redd does fine, too, as the building’s doorman, smilingly but beseechingly trying to nip in the bud the fact that the building’s mostly white tenants think his name is “Jamarcus.” (It’s Robert.)
Aristotle Athari scores big, too, his Google translate-dependent tenant securing his phone’s help to ask, “I need to milk faucet so make destruction.” (Apparently, he’s planning to tear down a wall. Again.) Athari has slyly asserted himself as someone who can make a small role pop memorably, as has James Austin Johnson, whose barely contained rage about Verizon emerges in a strangled, funny voice. Dafoe is funny enough, channeling his own past living rough in NYC to portray the self-proclaimed “pain in the ass” who bought the top three floors of the building in 1971 for eleven dollars. His “What the hell happened to this city?” reminiscences about hellhole 70s New York include the joys of Iggy Pop puking into your face at CBGB’s, something Dafoe makes especially vivid by suggesting that that is precisely what happened to him at one point. Heidi Gardner, too, excels in these ensemble parades, here inhabiting her irately clueless (about her son’s jackoff habits) mom explode with impeccable Karen energy. These sketches are much of a muchness, but they have their uses, I suppose.
Just stop. Sorry, that’s not helpful. Just stop it. Dammit. Deep breath...
Okay, so what happens when SNL decides to combine its traditionally unfocused and watery political cold open with its penchant for name-checking what those darned kids are up to these days? You get this—thing—where James Austin Johnson’s Joe Biden brings in a youth consultant to counter Russian misinformation tactics with (another deep breath) memes and TikTok videos. I saw the warning signs with that TikTok-centered sketch earlier this season, the mini-movie app’s virality proving a shiny allure for SNL to prove just how old and creaky its sensibilities can look when it tries to get down with the youth of today.
And here, as with the Biden Spider-Man cold open, Johnson’s still canny and well-observed Biden is saddled with a non-premise and asked to react. The “Biden, ain’t he old?” jokes are proving as tiresome a writers’ crutch as Alec Baldwin’s Trumpy fish-face already, and we’re only a year in. Here, confronted with the bewildering array of Russian meme warfare on display, Johnson’s Biden is called on to blurt “Malarkey!,” and otherwise look benignly puzzled at all this newfangled disinformation and GIFs and whatnot, and it’s all too irrelevant to be truly annoying. A draggy exercise in doing the least possible with seven minutes of valuable and potentially fruitful network airtime is an ill-advised way to kick off your 90-minute comedy show.
In contrast to my gripes about those Disney costumes, I say, give Katy Perry all the giant mushrooms she wants. Any initial conception of SNL’s musical element being co-equal with the comedy/variety portion of the show went out even before it began, really, so I’m here for any time the show allows a performer to go full performance art. Is Katy Perry in a vacuum-sealed dress, flanked by identically kitted-out mushroom dancers art? Well, it’s certainly more interesting than the usual rushed and perfunctory musical slots, and Perry’s perfectly pleasant pop meshes just fine with a swirling, Alice In Wonderland backdrop of psychedelic imagery and “Eat Me” fans. Honestly, I have to admit that sometimes I check out a little during the musical guests, but I didn’t do that tonight.
I keep stumping for you, Melissa, and god knows you deserve more than the two nothing roles you got tonight. But fluffing lines in both ain’t helping, even as I acknowledge that the stress of only getting a line or so every two episodes only ups the pressure.
I’ve been helpfully informed by you kind commenters and Twitter types that Cecily’s absence can be attributed to her tagging out to star off-Broadway. Break legs, Strong.
Aidy gets the top slot tonight, and, no, it’s not damning with faint praise. The episode wasn’t anything special, but Aidy Bryant is.
“What the hell is that thing?”—Dispatches From Ten-To-Oneland
Too abrupt and yet too drawn-out is a comic mix that’s tough to pull off, so, kudos, I guess? Here, though, the office sketch was all setup, a feint toward a whole new direction, and then a clumsily truncated payoff. Dafoe’s office temp is reentering the workforce, has bought a whole lot of pizzas for the law firm’s all-nighter, and then disastrously joins in on the lawyers’ bored finger-tapping and glass-pinging impromptu musical screw-around by hurling an office chair out a 15th-story window. “I thought it would bounce off the window and make a cool sound!,” Dafoe’s abashed Jeremiah exclaims. I like a sketch not beholden to a pat formula, but this really could have used a stronger center than Dafoe, as hard as he tries to imbue the sketch with a live-wire energy. Blame that expressive face, I guess, but watching an actor not known for comedy furiously mugging to sell a joke is more squirmy than funny. (He really does nail Hedi Gardner with that stapler, though, with a solid, blind, over-the-shoulder hurl.) That does sort of describe Willem Dafoe’s traditional effect on me. So, well done?
- Telltale pandemic detail: The decelerating whirring of fans or air purifiers each time Dafoe introduced Katy Perry.
- Poor Ego Nwodim had two exposition-heavy, explaining-the-joke roles tonight. Yup, she got double Mikey Day-ed.
- Fineman’s consultant, introducing herself to the President: “I’m Mikayla, spelled the worst way.” (I guessed on the worst way to spell Michaela.)
- Aidy’s irate tenant wants to ban all teens from her building, since they “huff White Claws and do 69-ers” right outside her door.
- Aidy’s dog show co-host banters, “Now, Judas, it says here that you and I are married!”
- One of the dogs is said to be allergic to “anything that is or isn’t duck.”
- We’re off for a while, but return strong with John Mulaney joining the Five Timers Club (alongside musical guest LCD Soundsystem) on February 26. See you then.