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Chance The Rapper returns for a second round of excellent SNL double duty

Chance The Rapper
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Nothing second-best about that.

“I’m not an actor, I’m a [big damned] star!”

Of the host-musical guest double threats, Justin Timberlake gets most of the love, and it’s not undeserved, the lifetime stage kid being unsurprisingly funny and polished whenever he decides to show what his career could have been like if he’d gone into sketch comedy rather than the All-New Mickey Mouse Club and boy bands. But I’ll take Chance any day of the week (so, Saturday), the rapper-actor-philanthropist making his second turn in the SNL double-spotlight another joyously silly, start-to-finish exuberant showcase. And, sure, he’s not the polished live performer (as a sketch actor, anyway) that JT is, but, again, Justin was apparently bred to be a double-threat trouper. Chance The Rapper just is one by dint of boundless talent and effortless charisma. I genuinely had a big, dopey smile on my face through most of this Halloween episode, something all too rare for a recent Saturday night.

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Coming out on stage bursting with energy, doing a delightfully silly, ultimately heartwarming old school rap ode to his “Second City” home with Kyle Mooney, and sporting a sweatshirt in support of the ongoing Chicago teachers strike (something much of the cast emulated during the goodnights, in a show of solidarity), Chance joked that the million bucks he personally gave to the Chicago Public Schools has fixed everything, a clear-headed humility that marked what was easily his most delightfully go-for-broke sketch of the night.

Making a bid to be the next David S. Pumpkins, the “Ditty Of The Damned” sketch was a lavish musical number (complete with animatronic owl and skeleton, and animated cloud background) where Chance, as one of a quartet of spooky singing graveyard ghosts, carried the premise off with the confident timing and underplayed expertise of a sketch comedy pro, and then some. The joke itself—that Chance’s specter has a far less picturesquely old-timey death story than his three counterparts—plays out with exquisite patience, Chance’s suspiciously wire-haired revenant gradually and begrudgingly revealing that he died because his electricity fetish saw him frying from the inside out when he climbed up on his roof with a lightning rod up his ass.

It’s the sort of big, broad laugh that a lesser sketch would rush and then point and laugh at, but the musical conceit is maintained with rigor, both the other ghosts and would-be graveyard neckers Heidi Gardner and Kyle Mooney unwilling to let go of Chance’s evasive abandonment of his part of the song. (“Is he allowed to be vague like that?” “He is not!”) When a star is put in the position of playing a potentially humiliating role (like, say, getting zapped to death during dangerous anal play), the real test is how willing he or she is to commit to a character. There’s no winking, no giggling to Chance’s performance here—it’s pure acting, and, coupled with his facility with the sketch’s musical component, it’s all gold. The character he plays is embarrassed, sure (“My death was a real ‘you had to be there’ situation . . .”), but Chance the actor was all-in, and the whole thing just sang with the sort of silly glee that an SNL classic sketch makes.

Best/Worst sketch of the night

A good sign for further Chance hosting opportunities is his own returning character, with the episode seeing the return of Chance’s gamely out of his element MSG network sports reporter Lazlo Holmes. While last time his substitute hockey gig left him struggling to soldier on through a cold arena, unpronounceable Eastern European player names, and a sport he’s never watched, at least it was an established team sport. Thrown this time into the world of e-sports, Chance’s Holmes once more did his best to fill in for the usual League Of Legends correspondent (he’s taking the PSATs), while having even less of an earthly idea what’s going on around him. And if Chance wasn’t as smooth at keeping up with his lines in this one, his occasional muffs at least played to Holmes’ affectingly underplayed befuddlement. The joke, as before, could go sour with too much disdain in the mix, so Chance finds just the right note of beleaguered professionalism as he wonders at the exorbitant prize money, the gaggle of starstruck (and very young) girls worshipping Bowen Yang’s nerdy and diffident champion, and the sight of 20,ooo Madison Square Garden fans screaming “like it was the Beatles” at a game “that looks like how a seizure feels.” It’s not an e-sports joke (calm it, nerds), but a worlds-colliding joke, with a guy trying vainly to keep his act together while being plunked down into a world he just doesn’t get, and it wouldn’t work without Chance providing the fraying calm at the eye of the silliness. As a sign-off, “Coming to you live from the Upside-Down” is a killer, too.

On the other side of the comedy coin, the romantic sketch with Cecily Strong left Chance smack in the middle of one of those big, physical, knockabout sketches that’s as much about logistics as it is writing or performance. As his dashing and mysterious suitor sweeps Strong’s lovelorn night-outer literally off her feet (thanks to some semi-nimble SNL wire work), the pair’s instant chemistry sees them hurtling around the stage and smashing everything in sight. Unwary watchers might have missed the wires at first (and Chance and Cecily’s suspiciously bulky evening wear), leaving the big reveal to be patiently (once more) lingered over while the sketch plays out at first as seemingly just a character piece about two oddballs falling in love. Once the gaff is blown and the two are crashing into a nest of champagne flutes and a seafood tower, it’s belly-laugh time, with just enough weird little touches around the edges to paper over the clunkiness of the harness work. (Chance does do an effortful little flip.) The idea that the duo’s magic romance can only lift them, awkwardly, three feet off the ground effectively undercuts the swoony mood, while Cecily’s friends can’t help but question whether it’s all worth it, no matter how lonely Strong’s been. And if it’s not easy to swap out flying rigs in the middle of a sketch, the time it takes for Beck Bennett’s smitten bartender rebound guy to get hooked up leaves Cecily scrabbling in the air at her overturned purse for a few beats too long—sort of how the sketch as a whole never quite achieves liftoff.

A necessity with Chance prepping for six sketches and two musical numbers, the two filmed pieces were both low-key winners. The cheery commercial where Chance and his friends raid Chance’s cupboards for after-school snacks turns from a litany of funny junk food names to a gradually revealed horror movie where it’s very strongly implied that Chance’s bountiful supply of goodies stems from him having murdered his too-strict parents and stuffed their bodies in the refrigerator. (“What’s in the fridge, Jason?” “Nobody is.”) Happy Halloween, everybody.

And that it was closely followed by an almost identical looking promo for Ronald Moore’s upcoming alternate reality space race drama For All Mankind only made the trailer for Space Mistakes that much funnier. A heartily silly goof on the inevitable sameness of premise among astronaut disaster movies (Apollo 13, The Martian, Gravity, Ad Astra, ad nauseam), the sketch breaks the story’s beats down to its most goofily expressed baseline. Ego Nwodim, as astronaut Chance’s requisite worried wife, frets about things going “kaboom,” and him “push[ing] the wrong thing and the top pops off.” Alex Moffat’s no-nonsense mission control officer demands, “no oopsies,” but darn it if Mooney’s careless astronaut doesn’t forget his seatbelt, only to splatter against the back of the capsule in a shower of shock-funny gore. Pairing the straight-laced seriousness of all such movies with Chance noting solemnly, “I done boofed it” as he opens the rocket’s poorly designed “moon roof” is the sort of comic premise that’s just silly enough to be sort of brilliant.

I wasn’t as sold on the courtroom sketch, a TV show parody where Chance’s Chicago judge only gives civil litigants ten seconds before he issues summary justice. Chance never quite finds the much older character, but the real weakness is in how the whole thing seems to back up the judge’s knee-jerk judicial malfeasance by suggesting that somehow disreputable-looking people are, by default, guilty. (That the first two losing litigants are both down-low black stereotypes adds a queasy, hacky element to the premise as well, especially for a city whose horrific record of injustice toward its black citizens is well-known.) Without a strong central performance or established comic conceit, the various character bits throughout flounder, although the judge automatically ruling against Mooney’s ventriloquist (who’s the complainant) sees Chance shutting down Mooney’s promise of a surprise witness with a humorously unsurprised, “Let me guess, it’s the puppet.” And, if last year’s host Jason Momoa wants to come on as elderly Kate McKinnon’s gigolo-nurse, complete with nipple-chandeliers, I’m not going to tell him no.

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Weekend Update update

Hey, the country’s in the hands of a lunatic! So that’s fun, something that Che and Jost continue to bat around with above-average success this season. Leading off with the breaking-as-of-airtime news that the president of the United States keeps using his Twitter account like a, well, dimwitted and desperate former reality show host to tweet out first a context-less four-dot ellipsis and then the equally out-of-nowhere but somehow chilling teaser “Something very big has just happened!,” Jost took the lead in another round of Update trying to make grotesque reality into serviceable comedy.

He and Che mostly manage once again. It’s still tough to compete with all the other TV comics doing Trump stuff, and having to play catchup on the weekend can leave Update’s zingers looking a little stale at times, but the Update partners have found a decent rhythm by this point. Jost’s asides when introducing targets like pointlessly showboating, Nazi-cuddling GOP Congressman Matt Gaetz (“live-action Quagmire”), and far-too-many-crimes-against-democracy-to-name Mitch McConnell (“Senator and ghost pointing to where the murder happened”) is an overused trope at this point, but that’s not his fault. And there remains enough bite in the quick hits to land on occasion. Jost noting that accused sex monster Brett Kavanaugh is now the best known Supreme Court justice is like convicted sex monster Jared Fogle being the best known sandwich mascot went there, to the delight/collective groan of the audience. Meanwhile, Che continued his habit of going for the joke wherever it lives by pronouncing sadly that Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s recent endorsement of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is a case of “another young woman turning to an older man promising to pay for college.” Not the most substantive joke to make there, sure, but it turns on just enough real-world context to make the gag work.

Once more, Update went short, with only one correspondent piece. But since it brought back the Trump brothers, we’ll let it slide, as Alex Moffat and Mikey Day’s doubles act as two of the three most odious presidential children in history, like Che’s joke, is funny without getting all too deep into the issues. It’s Moffat’s show, with Day’s Don Jr. acting as his manchild brother’s sounding board/keeper/straight man, here desperately trying to keep the addled Eric from heedlessly spilling the family truth. As effectively mean-spirited a piece of character assassination as SNL’s got going at the moment, Eric’s position as the ultimate product of unearned success and nepotism (or “nippleteasing,” in Eric’s parlance) is a classic “upper class twit”/“dregs of the aristocratic gene pool” caricature made impossibly endearing by Moffat’s decision to make this Trump son also-ran a guileless ride-along on the Trump train. Playing with distracting props provided to him by his solicitous brother (this time one of those pin-frame toys), Moffat’s Eric clearly would like nothing better than to enjoy a life of childlike, harmless luxury, if not for the high-wattage spotlight of his father’s inexplicable notoriety, and, it’s implied, a yawning need for his father’s approval. And if that sounds too simplistic and mean a take of a guy who helped his dad defraud a kids’ cancer charity, well, the fact that the two Trumps this week both mocked—utterly without irony—political rival Joe Biden’s son for riding to success on his father’s coattails offers a rebuttal.

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

Just Chance’s Lazlo Holmes. Once more, a good sign for another round of Chance.

The “Dazzle Designs” sketch isn’t a recurring one, really, but since it once more involves pairing Kate and Aidy as eccentrically spaced-out entrepreneurs, I’m tossing it in the apple pile with the similar standout sketch from the season premiere. The two just have the long-honed knack of making these sorts of premises work, the business’ weirdo details (their student choir robes website is only reached through a nest of faxes, emails, and phone calls) vying with the proprietress’ all-too-elaborately-feverish specifics about their products (one choir outfit makes a girl look like “the fiancé of an important Nazi”) to make us wonder at just what is going on inside the characters’ heads. As with the apple-picking, there are dome details so specifically funny (their outfits are perfect for choirs performing either Handel’s “Messiah” or “an ill-advised African tune”) that you just know someone on the writing staff has some painful experiences to draw on.

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

Maybe I’ve got some Stockholm Syndrome going, but I didn’t really mind this week’s Trump cold open, complete with the on-again Alec Baldwin. It’s still a lazy impression, but at least this time the stuff going on around his Trump had some creative snap to it. The MAGA rally crowd mindlessly parroting Trump’s sweaty catchphrase defenses on cue is an old gag (Life Of Brian does it best) but the show did a good job recruiting a crowd of (white) people who could collectively stay in character throughout, nodding along with the necessary reality-free conviction of any Trump crowd clip. Maybe it was that Baldwin mostly stepped aside for a series of glassy-eyed Trump supporters (Mikey Day, Cecily, Aidy) to step up and be weird and unsettlingly plausible. Baldwin’s schtick is still all malapropisms (“quid bro code,” “Albacore, New Mexico”) and funny faces, and it’s tone deaf for him here to be taken aback by how fanatically willing to do crazy shit for him his supporters are, when that dictators-fawning blind allegiance is all he’s got going for him. Still, Pete Davidson coming on as a freed American ISIS member, pledging thanks and loyalty to the guy whose ongoing human rights disaster in Syria has allowed that particular bunch to run free again, at least roughs Trump up a little on national TV. And Cecily’s gabbling Trumpie, complete with a defiantly misspelled T-shirt she made from Trump’s own misspelled tweets allows Strong to do her thing. (Aidy’s gun-toting New Mexican is ushered off, bellowing, “The Earth is flat and Beyoncé is white!” for added color.)

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Then there were the ringers. I get that both SNL alums Darrell Hammond and Fred Armisen both work right in the building, but it’s always disheartening to see outsiders brought in to do parts that could be going to the overstuffed and underused repertory cast. Hammond, who got passed over despite doing a better Trump, came out as Bill Clinton, which is always fine, although there doesn’t seem to be any logical reason for his rare on-camera appearance in the sketch. And Fred Armisen continues his run of variously ethic characters with non-specific accents as Turkish authoritarian, Trump pal and probable creditor, and current author of Trump-aided ethic cleansing, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. See the previous roster of targets to explain why the wateriness of the Erdogan satire here is such a letdown. (Even if his offer to make Biden “disappear” is sort of chilling, considering.) Oh, and Kate McKinnon strapped on some more jowls to play another male Trump administration figure in South Carolina Republican and avowed lickspittle Lindsey Graham. I know that there’s a long-simmering rumor that it pisses Trump off to see his best buds impersonated by women, by Kate’s impressions rarely go much beyond the impressive makeup. That said, the idea that the notoriously melodramatic Graham would lapse into an overheated monologue from The Glass Menagerie is at least a weird (yet inexplicably fitting) enough choice to make something of it.

I am hip to the musics of today

Chance’s occasional sketch stumbles evaporated in his two stellar musical numbers. The first, with Chance introducing himself (aided in transition by an adorable song of her own by his daughter), was the rousing, angry, yet defiantly triumphant, “Zanies And Fools.” Complete with glitter-drummers, besuited dancers, and ankle-swirling stage fog, Chance (although his earpiece seems to have gone out at one point) held the stage, rattling off the song’s celebration of love in despite of it all with rapid-fire authority.

Then, introduced by Momoa (sticking around in his gigolo costume, nipple rings included), Chance brought out guest vocalist Megan Thee Stallion for the exuberantly body-positive and flirtatious love song “Handsome.” Playful and sexy, and, like Chance’s whole night, filled with effortless charm.

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Most/Least valuable Not Ready For Prime Time Player

Well, Pete’s sticking around for awhile, it seems, so that’s nice.

Bowen Yang continues to get good roles and pop in them, which is more than can be said for Chloe Fineman, who hasn’t had a chance to do many impressions this season, despite that being one of her main assets. Ego Nwodim is in that second-year featured player hinterland where she’s got to break out or resign herself to not making the varsity. She’s a confident performer when given a chance, so here’s to her getting one soon.

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As for the varsity, Kenan, Kate, Aidy, and Cecily all took their customary central turns and all, just as expected, nailed them. But since it was Cecily putting her body on the line (and in a certainly uncomfortable harness), she gets the top spot.

Most/Least valuable Not Ready For Prime Time Player

Ending on just the right sort of silly note to cap off a very entertaining night, Kenan made a pretty delicious meal out of his role as dance instructor Tony Shalice, a flamboyant taskmaster for a class of Earth, Wind, And Fire wannabe backup dancers who is, unfortunately and absurdly, also a werewolf. Why a werewolf dance instructor, apart from it being Halloween and Kenan being unfailingly hilarious hamming it up while trying to block out the full moon with a succession of overly complicated window treatments? Because we’ve been good, that’s why. The dancers, led by Chance, never quite gelled as either a dance troupe or a comedy force, but at least the completely wolf-enized Kenan got to throw one of his students unexpectedly right through the wall. Again, Happy Haloween, y’all.

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Stray observations

  • The U.S. map distorted into a grotesque representation of Trump’s perceptions includes the regions “New Mexico,” “Bad Mexico,” “Lakes?,” and the Northeastern “Bad America (Where I’m from).”
  • Things Chance loves in solidarity with his “second-best” Chicago hometown: Percy Jackson over Harry Potter; Adam Carolla over Jimmy Kimmel; Luigi over Mario; Angel over Buffy; Pippin over Jordan; and the Clippers, Nets, and White Sox.
  • Chance’s sports reporter speculates that e-sports are what “white and Asian kids were doing while black kids invented hip-hop.”
  • Che’s biggest chance might have been going all-in on making fun of Chance’s friend Kanye West for “just turning into an old white lady,” considering the rapper, Trump fan, and SNL hijacker’s sudden swerve into all G-rated entertaining and sententious moralizing.
  • Che notes his lack of enthusiasm over someone’s plan to commemorate the Mayflower’s voyage, saying he’s not going to get too excited over “any ship that crossed the Atlantic 400 years ago.”
  • Next week is Kristen Stewart and Coldplay. Watch for F-bombs.
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About the author

Dennis Perkins

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