Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Scarlett Johansson's sixth Saturday Night Live succumbs to smirking centrism

Michael Che, Scarlett Johansson, Colin Jost
Michael Che, Scarlett Johansson, Colin Jost
Screenshot: Saturday Night Live
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“It’s like saving the world, too, just on a smaller level.”

“I’m not an actress, I’m a [much bigger] star [than my SNL-writer fiancé]!!”

Scarlett Johansson’s sixth hosting gig came with the added baggage of her now being engaged to the show’s co-head writer, something the show (apart from a center stage smooch during the goodnights) refreshingly didn’t address all that much. Johansson’s monologue played around with the public’s curiosity about the match by having her embrace Jost’s Update partner Michael Che warmly during a moment of crisis, while barely noticing Jost standing nearby, and joking about how the pair will ever make ends meet should she do so bad a job hosting that Jost gets fired. On a show all too often willing to let its backstage news spill out into self-aware cuteness on-air, it honestly could have gone a lot worse.

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The monologue itself was the half-funny sort of meta-joke that makes one wish for an actual funny premise, as half the SNL cast (plus the backstage llama) get Thanos-snapped out of existence while Johansson explains that all the special effects dusting going on is from that Marvel movie she did. Not the last one, but the one before that. Beck Bennett, before himself winking into nothingness (while complaining, “Who’s gonna play the dumb idiot . . ?”) winks at the lameness of the bit, asking the host if this was a leftover idea from a few years ago, which, again, is the sort of “we’re so lame” joke that gets its chuckles at the idea that nobody at SNL seems very good at writing monologues these days. (The relief that must sweep the writers room whenever a capable standup hosts the show.) Still, there were a few better pieces of backstage in-joking, as Chris Redd bemoans the loss of Mikey Day (it’s actually Alex Moffat), and Pete Davidson (absent from the show again, except for this bit) turned out to be the possessor of the Infinity Gauntlet, and clearly grossed out Johansson when he went in for a hug. And Kenan—who had a big show all around—capped it off best by getting resentful at Davidson’s blithe explanation that, when you’ve been on SNL as long as he has, you can take a few shows off.

Johansson remains an enthusiastically game Saturday Night Live host. Clearly into playing broad comic characters with big, working class accents, like the rapping Santa’s elf alongside Kenan here, she’s yet the sort of big star whose considerable talents slot comfortably into whatever roles come her way. She’s professional and confident without ever being especially endearing, but—Jost factor aside—it’s no secret why SNL continues to have her back. As to how the show—now considering the Jost factor—would address some of the actresses’ various recent, very public controversies? Yeah, don’t hold your breath, as the sliver of an opening Aidy’s elf on the shelf gave before being dusted, asking if Johansson’s been good this year, went nowhere before the cutesy gimmick washed it all away.

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For more on why the Colin Jost-ScarJo match might be a better match than people seem to think, stay tuned.

Best/Worst sketch of the night

With the news breaking Saturday that the Hallmark Channel had bowed to pressure from vastly-inflating-its-membership hate group One Million Moms and pulled an ad depicting—gasp—two women getting married, the fact that SNL had another “ladies network” game show sketch in the pipeline was just a happy coincidence. And while it’s no Lifetime’s What’s Wrong With Tanya?, that’s no crime, since that remains one of the funniest damned things the show’s ever done. Dissecting Hallmark’s signature brand of movies about bland white C-listers exchanging “dry kisses” in snowy gazebos might not be groundbreaking stuff (although occasionally it is), but the Christmas-themed dating show A Winter Boyfriend For Holiday Christmas had enough off-center gags to make the Hallmark-bashing consistently funny. It’s all in the bafflingly ubiquitous details, like Johansson’s big city reporter being assigned a story about how Santa Claus isn’t real from her home in a New York made up of “stock footage that still has the Twin Towers in it.” Or how each of her three prospective (white) suitors click snugly into one of the network’s cosily acceptable holiday stereotypes (secret prince, hunky ghost, secretly Santa). Alex Moffatt’s prince hails from the “vaguely Europe” kingdom of Caucasia, while his one black friend (Redd) urges Scarlett’s contestant to marry him in “hip, urban” style, but breaks down immediately upon being asked anything about himself. (“I don’t have a backstory!,” he cries, fleeing.) Aidy’s host drops the cryptic detail in passing that, if Johansson doesn’t pick a suitor in time, “Christmas is cancelled and the killer goes free,” and reminds everyone, “the true meaning of Christmas is husband.” As for the newsworthy corporate caving to right-wing bigotry, she also tossed in a “Stay straight out there” as a breezy goodbye. (Always points for writing Saturday’s news into the show on the fly.)

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There were two egregious product integration ads tonight. (Sure, we all want fewer actual commercials in the show, but at what cost, people?) Yet, both were actually pretty decent, although, as is my puny act of rebellion each week, I shall omit the names of the corporate beneficiaries of Lorne’s pandering. Fight the power, etc.

The [department store chain] commercial threw [department store chain]’s name all over the screen, and had a would-be heartwarming button at the end that could serve as straight-up [department store chain] advertising slogan. That being said, the sketch itself was another of the show’s perversely warm holiday ads, where chipper commercialism and clichéd sentiment are shown to necessarily wallpaper over the more down-to-earth tribulations of the season, especially when it comes to parenting. The fact that all holiday clothes are itchy, nut-pinching, too-hot, overly elaborate frippery that all kids hate and all parents revile is carried across pretty delightfully by the cast, all playing beleaguered parents just trying to get through the damned day without completely losing it over red-faced, miserable kids and the occasional, clothing-caused bathroom mishap. Still, there are enough blatant product placements and branding going on that [department store chain] isn’t likely to complain.

The [hotel chain] sketch not only opened on a shot of one of the chain’s hotels, but saw Ego Nwodim conspicuously naming [hotel chain] at the outset, in case [discount hotel chain] felt it wasn’t getting its money’s worth in the ensuing sketch about after-hours hot tubbing and happy singing stripper ghosts. SNL’s really leaning into the holiday spirit this year (Eddie Murphy and Lizzo are in-house for the actual Christmas show next week), with Chris Redd and Nwodim’s late-night soak interrupted by Cecily Strong and Johansson’s deceased 1970s pole dancers who sing an untroubled holiday song about how they died in that very hot tub. (Quaaludes, a game of chicken, and an ill-advised underwater staring contest with their boss all contributed.) The song itself is a low-key affair, with Strong—this cast’s polymath and stealth star—carrying most of the tuneful load. Here, too, the cosy predictability of the sentiment is undercut by some loopy weirdness, as the strippers—again, without fuss—tell their new friends that they’re headed back to hell after their once-a-year musical reprieve.

Strong soloed in her other standout musical number tonight, a filmed music video sure to pop up on the annual SNL Christmas specials for a while to come. The inherent cloying creepiness of “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” is transformed, in Strong’s little girl voice, into an even more unsettling tale of childhood voyeurism, as she witnesses her mom’s smooching play out into her parents’ fetish for Craig’s List Santa cuckold-murder roleplaying. Strong’s great, as ever, and the whole thing concludes with about as inclusive a message as such a scenario can achieve, with the little girl resigning herself to the knowledge that “We all each have a thing.”

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Weekend Update update

The best bit of tonight’s Update came from Che, who, halting a joke about 37 percent of Republicans supposedly thinking that Donald Trump is a better president than George Washington, veered away from any expected punchlines, in two separate directions. Che noting that, since—despite being a ridiculous and terrible person—Trump doesn’t actually own slaves is the sort of outside-in comic thinking that Che does so well. And putting Jost on the spot by asking him who’s a better comedian—Colin Limbaugh Jost” or Bill Cosby—carries the logic of the joke to the end zone, Che’s offscreen, “The answer’s Cosby, by the way,” just spiking the ball triumphantly. That’s a good joke.

As for the rest of the Trump material, I’ll quote Tracy Jordan in saying, “I don’t want to go off on a rant here . . .” Still, here I go. Jost’s smirky centrism, as given its unfiltered expression on Update, marks SNL’s current political comedy more and more as this criminal shitshow of an administration slouches on toward authoritarianism. So many sketches of late (and virtually all of them tonight) regard dismissive sneering as hip both-sides virtue. It’s a stance, I suppose, although for a show that revels in its own largely overrated legacy as an irreverent truth-to-power comedic force on American TV, it’s not so much dispiriting as calculatedly glib. I’m put in mind of Jost smirkily hammering progressive Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez last year for suggesting that, just maybe, mega-corporation Amazon’s exorbitant demands in exchange for opening a New York headquarters constituted unethical extortion of the city from one of the most lucrative companies on Earth. You know, since, just last week, Amazon announced a new New York expansion (with no such superfluous kickbacks). Back then, Jost’s glibness about AOC hating jobs for New Yorkers ignored deeper analysis in favor of lazy punchlines. Tonight, SNL had such Jost-ian fingerprints all over it.

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In a week where the House has officially set up Donald Trump to be just the fourth U.S. president to face a formal impeachment, Jost’s top-of-Update jokes all took the same smirky tack. Democrats will “lose twice in one year.” Congressman and Chair of the House Judiciary Committee Jerry Nadler (D-NY) is dumb for thinking that the legacies of those who continue to countenance the many things Trump’s done will ever matter. (Oh, Nadler’s also ugly.) Che threw in his own too-cool-so-give-a-shit jokes, too, although his dig at Democrats for still playing by the rules when “literally nothing matters any more” at least carried a little conviction behind it. And him urging broke former candidate Kamala Harris to rob a bank (“Do you want this or no?”), again, carried the bit with some originality. As for Trump—the 73-year-old world leader who, among other things, mocked 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg for getting the Time cover he’s photoshopped himself into in the past—we got a fat joke.

Here’s the part where—prepare to be shocked—I admit once more that I genuinely despise Donald Trump, just so those accusing me of that can move onto something else. Yup, hate the guy, in all his baby-caging, tax-cheating, treason-courting, sex-criminal bigotry. But that isn’t what this is about. I’m sure there are plenty more writers and performers on Saturday Night Live who can’t stand the guy, for a variety of reasons. For all its milquetoast political posturing over the years, SNL is hardly some secret haven for subversive right-wingers. I’ve gone into it before, but, for someone who’s now watched literally every episode of Saturday Night Live ever made, the real enemy of good, consistently insightful political comedy on Saturday Night Live is a flawed understanding of what it means to “satirize both sides.” Adopting the pose that nothing really matters and it’s too square to give a shit is, itself, a political stance—and a facile and harmful one. Marketing yourself as a cutting edge satirical force (which SNL has done from the start) carries far more responsibility to the craft of comedy—and courage—than SNL has traditionally shown.

Jumping ahead to tonight’s cold open (which should be in the political comedy section below, but I’m rolling), the joke that there are different political opinions among American families isn’t the problem. It’s that the sketch equates the offputting stridency of both Trump supporters and Trump opponents as equally invalid, as if the things that each are responding to in this administration’s actions were irrelevant. I’m going to go ahead and say that that’s bullshit—when one family (which includes an interracial gay couple) is railing against Trump, their objections aren’t as worthy of mockery as the all-white Republican clan whose imperious dad calls Nancy Pelosi a “libtard commie.” The San Francisco liberals insisting on gender neutral pronouns are just as ridiculous, in the sketch’s metric, for caring about something as are the South Carolina conservatives for equating the Constitutionally provided mechanisms for attempting to remove a corrupt would-be dictator with “a coup.” That the black Atlanta family has a more battle-hardened and pessimistic view of the current situation is some more interesting shading, but Kenan’s dad pronouncing his certainty that impeachment is only going to guarantee Trump reelection comes off—echoing in Jost’s later Update material—as reinforcement of the “nothing matters” vibe. As for the sketch as a whole, I don’t know that Aidy as the Burl Ives snowman from the Rankin-Bass specials conceit ever finds a reason to exist, although at least things end up by pointing out the ridiculousness of the Electoral College ensuring that the politically engaged, if divided, people in more populous states’ votes won’t matter as much as “1,000 people in Wisconsin who won’t think about the election until the day of.” But even there, the joke’s on those rubes whose own brand of not giving a shit just isn’t as cool as SNL’s.

Oh, Kyle Mooney goofed around as an Entourage-douchey Baby Yoda, and Bowen Yang brought back his enthusiastically bitchy Chinese trade official Chen Biao. Yang is not messing around in his first season as featured performer, and bringing back his first big splash character for another enjoyable go-round is a good sign. Dunking on Trump and his own repressive government in turn, Yang’s Biao’s still reveling in his newfound power in the ongoing trade war, even as his flamboyant personality chafes at China’s rigidity. Not as surprising as the first time, but that’s how that goes, and Yang’s asides attacking Americans’ for resenting China’s lax views of intellectual property were pure Yang. Nobody needs your CBD lip gloss, Ainsley.

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

Chen Biao, the dog-mindreader machine (see below). Also, Kenan Thompson’s Charlie, who once more giveth as he taketh away the laughs. On the plus side, Kenan. Playing the garrulous old drunk doorman of an office building, Thompson is in his wheelhouse, grinning and charming his way though as the sort of old school nightmare that the uptight white people (and Yang) of his workplace choose to find endearing. On the major debit side, this sketch once more uses Kenan’s charisma to disguise a particularly ugly little takedown of those pesky, oversensitive types, what with their demands for a harassment-free workplace, and human dignity and all. Again, the scales are balanced in the wrong place, making the point that fired executive Johansson’s drunken holiday party sins (slut-shaming, badgering her one non-white colleague about “where he’s really from”) are just small potatoes next to Charlie’s more open philandering, catchphrase come-ons, and openly swigging from a flask while he downloads porn on the company computer. Neither are acceptable, but the sketch posits that PC types are too permissive of charmingly exotic old black men’s inappropriateness while stridently overreacting to their boss’ piddling transgressions. Kenan can’t help but get laughs, but the sketch is garbage.

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

The Netflix show about the publicly unlikely marriage of Kate McKinnon’s zealously shameless Trump apologist Kellyanne Conway and incessant Trump Twitter critic George Conway (Beck Bennett) at least confirms in comic form what I’ve always suspected—for these two publicity hungry loudmouths, it’s all a sex thing. Here, the sketch is balanced correctly, in that it doesn’t ignore the charge that both of these GOP operatives clearly get from their seemingly incompatible online battling, while noting that the fact that one could remain married to someone so supposedly diametrically opposed to everything you believe in means that there’s a whole lot of grandstanding going on. (Both of them scream at a homeless person to get a job, an accurate representation of how, despite their equally lucrative and camera-hogging roles in their public squabble, they’re both terrible people.)

And then there’s the return of Johansson’s inventor and her unexpectedly right-wing pug. (Again, someone read some market research that said every SNL just has to have at least one dog in a sketch. Not a complaint, just an observation.) Once more, the joke is on those hysterical liberals, whose facile hatred of Donald Trump needs to be set straight by a Beck Bennett-voiced canine who spouts Fox News talking points with a disdainful authority the stammering Trump-haters just can’t respond to. And once more it’s sneering disdain masquerading as both-sides-ism, with the dog telling everyone, via translating helmet, that Trump’s just too canny for those silly Dems running around caring about the rule of law and such. The shittiness of the sketch isn’t that it’s pro-Trump (again, I imagine very few SNL-ers on the creative team would describe themselves as such), but its contention that all this impeachment stuff is just the futile protestations of those too unhip to know that nothing they do will make any difference. Remember—caring and trying are for suckers.

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I am hip to the musics of today

Niall Horan, having broken away form the other televised talent show runners-up he was packaged with as One Direction, got the requisite swoony cheers from his fans in the audience (and a heart symbol hand gesture from Johansson) for his two songs. Inoffensive pop, inoffensive balladry, although the line in “Nice To Meet Ya” (“I want your number tattooed on my arm in ink, I swear”) always made me giggle thinking about prettyboy dummy Kyle’s unintentional Nazi anthem, “My Struggle,” on Party Down.

Most/Least Valuable Not Ready For Prime Time Player

With no scene-gobbling guests stars for a change, almost everyone got some decent screen time. (Save for Pete, who I can only hope is doing okay.) But this was a horserace between Kenan and Cecily, with Strong’s musical showcase just edging Kenan’s duet as hip-hopping Santa’s elves alongside Johansson. (The sketch itself played the people doing inappropriate things in front of kids card without enough laughs to bring it home, although the detail of husband Bennett’s surprising familiarity with gender-fluid musical performers at least got viewers Googling Todrick Hall, which is nice.)

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What the hell is that thing?”—Ten-To-Oneland report

The MAGA dog thing was the actual ten-to-one, but, apart from the lousiness of it, recurring sketches don’t belong here. The sketch about Bowen Yang and Johansson’s Heimlich poster models being swamped with kitchen pro admirers was next-to-last, and, if it didn’t completely come together, the premise made it the rightful heir to the final’s spot’s conceptual comedy legacy.

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Stray observations

  • The Hallmark bridegrooms, asked to identify a menorah, try “Christmas fork,” and “Santa’s trident,” before Beck Bennett’s hunky ghost gets credit for “a dreidel.”
  • Kenan’s Atlanta dad, after Bennett’s Republican thanks God that NFL players aren’t kneeling to protest police violence any more, thanks his Lord for the three black quarterbacks who’ve beaten Tom Brady this year.
  • Yang, disappearing in the monologue, blasts SNL for killing off its first Asian cast member, predicting, “Twitter’s gonna eat you alive.”
  • Che, in the second timely Hallmark swipe of the night, mocks those “One Million” Moms, saying that, they really don’t need to worry about their sons who voluntarily watch the Hallmark Channel turning gay.
  • The Hallmark bachelors hail from the films Home For The Home-A-Days, Royal By Christmas Kiss, and Secret Santa: The Nice List.
  • Next week: It’s finally happening. Eddie comes back to SNL. Plus Lizzo.
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Contributor, The A.V. Club. Danny Peary's Cult Movies books are mostly to blame.

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