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

A relieved and breezy post-election SNL coasts after Dave Chappelle drops some wisdom

Dave Chappelle
Dave Chappelle
Photo: Mary Ellen Matthews/NBC
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“Pretty incredible day.”

“I’m not an actor, I’m a [town-saving stand-up and unremunerated streaming] star!!”

Booking Dave Chappelle for the first Saturday Night Live after a presidential election involving Donald Trump will never be a thing again, but still that was some serious optimism, Lorne. We remember last time. Chappelle’s first time hosting wound up as go-to television not just for the fact that Dave Chappelle—comedy legend, sketch comedy legend, and arguably most influential stand-up since Richard Pryor—was actually doing Saturday Night Live. A lot of people (an even higher percentage among SNL’s traditional audience) were in pieces that night. The plummeting fear and shock that America would choose that man for the presidency left viewers who’d expected a fête for one of the most original comic minds of his generation instead looking to Dave Chappelle for some sort of clarity.

Defiantly smoking onstage (indoors, in New York City, of all places), then and now, Chappelle held court. That’s what he does at this point in his career. Then, people focused on his closing message that he was willing to give Donald Trump—then merely the laughingstock reality show host, lifelong racist, and self-described pussy-grabber—a chance. Tonight, after Donald Trump was finally declared a one-termer (informed on the golf course, because of course he was), Chappelle made another statement seemingly destined to be wrenched from context: “I would implore everybody who’s celebrating today to remember it’s good to be a humble winner.”

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That might sound facile, but it’s not. I’m not able to find it in myself to be a humble winner today, despite all my deeply held, interminably repeated sentiments that we are better than they are. That Joe Biden and Kamala Harris beat America’s worst president and his conversion-therapy, AIDS-abetting fundamentalist sidekick makes me feel like gloating over all those sneering, meme-sharing, braying assholes who’ve greeted every new Trump administration outrage with the whooping, inhumane bloodlust of an Elizabethan bear-baiting. Just check my Twitter—I am filled with righteous mockery and gleeful schadenfreude (and chuckle to myself about Trump supporters not knowing that word), and taking solace in the idea that at least—though my behavior is the same—my ideas are better.

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So when Chappelle, after drawing the SNL audience through a typically neck-twisting roller-coaster of insight and button-pushing, settled into a somber tone for what was clearly his closer, and talked about his empathy for that half of the country who—this time—feel terrible, it was breathtaking. In that, I found myself holding my breath in anticipation of where he was going. A Dave Chappelle set will do that to you. When Chappelle reached out to the police with the same rueful understanding, I waited for the snap, the kicker. But when it came, it was this, Chappelle’s smoker’s voice gravelly and measured with the cadence of the best storytellers:

I know how that feels. Everyone knows how that feels. But here’s the difference between me and you. You guys hate each other for that. And I—don’t hate anybody. I just hate that feeling. That’s what I fight through. That’s what I suggest you fight through. You gotta find a way to live your life. You gotta find a way—to forgive each other. You gotta find a way to find joy in your existence in spite of that feeling. And if you can’t do that [pause, as a smile creeps over Dave’s face], come get these nigger lessons!

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So there’s the snap. There’s the kicker. A callback to his own term for his comic wisdom (and I’m pretty sure the N-word got more airtime than on any SNL ever tonight). The sentiment is not facile, even if the cynical and election-battered, Trump- and GOP-abused among us automatically try to spin it into something greeting-card simple and rosy. Chappelle is astoundingly deft at this point at drawing you in, in making you listen for what is going to come next. Sure, he did an early joke about Trump enabler/hostage, epidemiologist Deborah Birx that ended with the sort of deliberately mean-spirited sexist swerve that no doubt got the stunned reaction Chappelle was going for. (“I’m sorry, Lorne, I thought we were havin’ a comedy show,” Chappelle faux-apologized after half-ironically appropriating the title of Donald Trump Jr.’s book.) But while it’s easy for a comic to simply lower his voice, speak softly and seemingly from the heart, and expect audience acceptance (see Aziz Ansari’s first post-scandal special), this wasn’t that. This was an original thinker and master storyteller speaking his way through to the heart of the public discourse—and diagnosing our shared disease. The cure’s there, motherfuckers. Our move.

The first sketch of the night began, rather shockingly, with Chappelle still onstage. He addressed the audience to explain the mood and premise of the next sketch in old Chappelle Show style (Dave mentioned his seminal sketch show’s recent Netflix acquisition twice tonight, despite his assertion in the monologue that he “didn’t get paid for any of it”). He spoke with seeming gravitas about the hardships many Black workers have felt through this pandemic, and threw to the sketch as if he were introducing a Clifford Odets play, Chappelle intoning somberly about “two Black people who lost their jobs.” And it turned out to be Maya Rudolph as Aunt Jemima and Kenan Thompson as Uncle Ben (with Dave as insurance baritone Dennis Haysbert and Pete Davidson made up as Count Chocula, for good measure). That was the biggest laugh of the night for me—an exquisite puncturing of mood and expectation only enhanced by the expert and committed silliness of Maya’s and Kenan’s performances as the sensitivity-shit-canned corporate mascots.

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Here is where I speed-complain that, hey, why are Alec Baldwin and Maya Rudolph taking major spots in silly roles anyone could have done. Now that that’s over, man, are both of them perfect in their parts. Maya is a marvel, her ability to imbue her impression of a fictional pancake shill with a loopy, understandable humanity beyond criticism as her Aunt protests about losing her job just because, as Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy-esque executive patiently explains that it’s not her, “It’s how you make us feel about what we did.” Kenan, too, finds the right absurdly human tone for his fellow subservient purveyor of food products, his outraged, “I’m Uncle Ben!” vying with his pronunciation of “basmati” for funniest moment.

There’s a nimble sensibility behind the sketch’s take on the human cost (well, cost to fictional humans) of corporate adoption of growing cultural sensitivity—all Aunt Jemima ever did was nourish your kids with her own breast milk-enriched pancakes, dammit—that, mixed with Kenan’s and Maya’s characterizations, lifts the sketch like a balloon. And then there’s Dave, who—seemingly (?) with the aid of some mic sweetening—makes the real-life Haysbert’s sonorously white people-soothing Allstate pitchman’s anger at being lumped in with these racist caricatures potently funny. Davidson, kitted out hard for his only appearance of the night as an elaborately cartoonish Count, bore the brunt of Chappelle/Haysbert’s booming anger, Dave’s line (in response to the job-insecure Count’s assertion that he’s not Black but chocolate), “The streets are gonna eat you alive, you chocolatey nigga!” being the most cathartically bizarro line on SNL in years. Yeah, there’s some point being made here—about fake corporate wokeness and representation—but, dear god, that was just hilarious. And welcome.

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Best/Worst Sketch Of The Night

The Best: Dave only showed up a few more times in sketches, perhaps in deference to the fact that his 16-minute monologue set was one of the longest in the show’s history. (SNL Stats, you on that?) And there was nothing even close to matching the Chris Rock-Chappelle post-monologue sketch from Dave’s first hosting gig. Which is a shame, really, as Chappelle’s Show’s sketch legacy (albeit a mostly on-film one) is still potently alive. (Even if, again, Dave’s not getting paid.) For its combination of much-needed belly laughs and glancing satire, I’ll stick with the Aunt Jemima sketch for the top spot. Chappelle breaking character to address Pete directly (“America, look at Pete Davidson’s lips!”) was the sort of live TV moment that SNL retrospectives are made of, the energy bubbling up all around the performers enough to light 8H for the night.

But for a sentimental favorite—also involving tonight’s all-star, Kenan—here’s to the hailstorm sketch, where a local news report turns into an improbably touching, late-life love story between two co-workers who took fortuitous refuge under a porch in a storm. SNL went twice to the news show well tonight, which is not encouraging. Another speed-complain: As a creative exercise, how about a blanket rule of “no game shows/no news shows/no talk shows” in the writers room for a season. See what crops up. (My yearly pitch to the networks for a “no cop/lawyer/doctor shows” for an entire TV season has also never found purchase.) Anyway, while Ego Nwodim and Alex Moffat did what they could with the thankless anchor roles, Kate McKinnon and Kenan made the romantic awakening of their longtime workmates so specific and endearing that I felt myself anxious that the sketch was going to yank the rug out. It did, sort of—Kenan’s previously unmentioned wife is among the missing after the small town’s disaster—but Kate and Kenan found such a sweet and goofy chemistry that you can’t help but root for those two crazy kids, anyway.

The Worst: There’s an actual worst sketch, and you know where to find it. Other than that, not so much bad as obvious and unrealized, the Trump-O.J. news report sketch benefitted from Dave being on-set (alongside the stalwart Ego, in her second newscaster of the evening), lending a little old-school energy to what was otherwise a one-joke bit. That Trump—facing no immunity once he leaves office amid mounting tax fraud, defamation (related to a rape accusation), and other investigations—would attempt to flee to some presumably no-extradition landing spot (I hear Moscow’s nice) isn’t, you know, the craziest comic idea, simply popping him into a white Bronco and having Don Jr. recite Al Cowlings’ police radio catchphrases isn’t doing much with the joke. The sketch feels short, too—the telltale band vamping in the last commercial break suggests timing issues—although I’m not sure “What if O.J., but Trump?” was going to bring forth much more anyway. Still, Chappelle’s aside that trailing police are treading gently since, as he says, Trump’s superpower is, “Like Aquaman, but instead of fish, he can summon the entire parking lot of a Cracker Barrel” made me laugh.

“Take Me Back” was a funny showcase for Beck Bennett, as Keith, the repentant boyfriend from hell whose late-night appeal for ex Ego Nwodim to take him back stumbles over the gradually revealed details. The filmed sketch never quite takes off (poor Ego stuck playing straight-woman for the third time) but Bennett kept juking nicely, each heartfelt plea for forgiveness inadvertently coughing up an additional incriminating transgression. He’s given up drinking, but she didn’t know about the pills, or coke (or “nose-baloney” as Keith breezes past it). He was secretly addicted to porn, yes, but he’s totally past that now. Besides, he tells the relived Nwodim, he was only shooting a few scenes a day—and never with women. It’s a funny turn for Beck—he has a long-established gift for clueless sincerity—centered on a co-dependence kicker at the end that could have been built up for Ego a bit more. But the comic twists just kept on working. (“I always used protection when we were together.” “You never wore a condom!” “But I always had a gun.”)

The only other sketch was a suspiciously brand-happy video game retrospective, but since Kenan kept swatting jokes out of the park, I’ll let the product placement slide. Plus, if [certain massive electronics concern] did pony up, it’s uncertain how thrilled they are that what starts out looking like a nerd-happy roster of retro gamer clichés turns into a running joke about inadvertent and violent castration. Yup, it’s Kyle Mooney’s turn to do what he does best, as he and best pal, Mikey Day, reminisce about how they were so excited to get the first [iconic game from unnamed electronics concern] that Mooney landed on the crossbar of his bike so horrifically that his testicles audibly “popped.” The accident keeps getting embroidered (after complications around the time of the release of a sequel to that iconic game, Mooney now pees while “planking” over his toilet through a hole just below his navel), which leaves unsuspecting fellow talking head Kenan gawking in horror. “Please change the order!” his game journalist pleads after the first anecdote, before a return sees him exploding, “It was a simple request,” before fleeing. If Bennett’s good at guys who lack self-awareness, pal Mooney’s wheelhouse is guys desperate to gloss over their faults (or, in this case, Barbie-esque “down there”). Day does a good job at maintaining plausible deniability that he knows his enthusiastic retellings are painful for Mooney, making what could have been just mean instead a nicely modulated comic turn for Kyle to do his thing.

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Weekend Update Update

With just a day to process Trump’s finally called defeat, Jost and Che were loose, which is always a nice look for them. Che took off his tie at one point, taunting his co-host with one hand (“Hey, Colin, did you know my tie is a clip on?”) while bringing his under-desk glass of something brown up for all to see. Che’s gift for finding the right allusion summed up the nation’s (well, slightly less than half the nation’s) mood as being like the prisoners in The Shawshank Redemption when Andy got the guards to let them drink those few precious beers on the roof. “They were still in prison, but for one day everything just felt okay,” is about as close to nailing my mood the day after a truly reprehensible man got the most thoroughly-deserved public ass-kicking of his heartless and privileged life. You know, considering the court battles, the armies of armed and wound-up white people, the looming fear that Democrats will assume that, with Trump out of the way, they can just settle back into a comfy, moderate groove and think everything’s fine. Ugh—I’m with Che. Tie off, have a beer. Take some breaths. Fight tomorrow.

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Jost actually got most of the best lines, with Che offering up a deserved finger point in recognition of Jost unpacking the not-logic of Trump’s repeated, baseless claim about illegal ballots costing him the popular vote. Jost noted that if, as Trump has whined with no evidence because there is none, that Hillary Clinton was only 3 million votes ahead of him because, somehow, 3 million undocumented immigrants all managed to vote illegally, Joe Biden’s 5-million-vote margin this time means Mr. Build-The-Wall allowed 2 million more undocumented voters in—and they all voted for Joe Biden. That’s some solid jokesmanship. Jost also expressed genuine amazement at all the caught-on-camera ebullient celebrations after the Biden announcement, first joking that those crowds are only New York being New York, before showing people around the world celebrating like a fascist government had just been overthrown. (Imagine such a thing.) Showing churches clanging their bells in the middle of the night in France, Jost goggled, “Do you know how bad you have to be for Paris to ring church bells?” Again—it’s a good night and we’re going to enjoy it. Tomorrow is worry and work and a long and painful struggle to cobble America back together, but at least, as Che hilariously told Jost, he and his friends won’t have to carry through on their plans to kidnap Jost for leverage during the coming race war.

Kate’s Rudy Giuliani slunk his way onto a brief Update for the only correspondent piece tonight, her twist-armed presidential lawyer and former New York mayor assuring Jost that everything is going great. I love pretty much everything Kate McKinnon does, and her Giuliani, while sounding nothing like the blustering Trump fixer in anything but volume, continues to be another way for her to channel some of the outgoing administration’s most grotesque characters. Here, the main problem is that real life just made comedy so irrelevant, as the Trump campaign not only scheduled a supposed bombshell election fraud press conference (note: not a bombshell) in the parking lot of particularly unpromising-looking landscaping company, but Rudy was told, mid-speech, that every network had just that second called the race for Biden.

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Did the Trump campaign mean to schedule their presser at Philly’s luxurious Four Seasons hotel and, due to Veep-like incompetence, quickly paste Trump banners onto the brick facing of one Four Seasons Total Landscaping, also in Philadelphia, as the camera trucks pulled up? Only time, exposés, and the inevitable award-winning HBO film will tell. But that the Trump era ended in an inexplicable place right between a dildo shop and a crematorium while the actual Rudy Giuliani stammered his way through the realization that they were well and truly fucked is a comic conceit too broad and on-the-nose for McKinnon to do much more with than be funny and goofy and effortlessly charming. Which she was, as her Rudy took the real Rudy’s jest about fraudulent ballots maybe coming “from Mars” to the inevitable extreme of noting that, should they find any ballots marked “Meep-thorp Xandar,” then they know they’ve got one. Even funnier is McKinnon/Giuliani’s gleefully desperate, piecemeal, state-by-state strategy to invalidate every result not good for his master, citing the legal precedents of recounts, de-counts, backsies, safeties, and opposite day, in blue-flipping Georgia. Again, Kate is joy, but I’m with Jost’s prayerful thought that, once Trump is out of office in January (perhaps literally dragged by his heels), we never, ever have to hear from or about any of these eminently mockable people again.

“What do you call that act?” “The Californians!”—Recurring Sketch Report

Just Rudy. And, you know…

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

this thing. Is it possible that Jim Carrey got the coveted Joe Biden cold open recurring spot because of the envisioned moment where his indifferently impersonated Biden would get to call Donald Trump a loser. Sorry, “Looooser.” (For you kids out there, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective was a 1994 film in which Jim Carrey’s character exaggerates words to humorous effect.) But I kid the comedy superstar who’s clearly thrilled at the prospect of popping by 8H every couple of weeks to get made up as president-elect Joe Biden, taking over for the clearly even more thrilled-to-be-leaving Alec Baldwin. Again, quick comedy turnaround time to be sure of having a Biden victory press conference sketch ready to go. I get that, I truly do. But even if this grinding shitshow of vote-tabulating process had been called promptly on Election Eve, what, exactly would have been different? Carrey’s Biden and Maya Rudolph’s Kamala Harris rightly only got big reactions when simply stating crowd-pleasing facts. (Fun fact: While the Black and Indian American Harris is the first woman of color to serve as vice president, one Charles Curtis—who was partly Native American, of the Kaw Nation—served as veep under Herbert Hoover. Now you know.) But these cold opens are already—and I don’t know how to say this—worse than Baldwin’s Trump ones.

Joe Biden is old. (“I’ve never felt so alive,” Carrey’s victorious Biden enthuses before conceding, “Which is ironic because I’m not that alive.”) Kamala Harris is competent and confident, even if she’s going to peacock a little bit, as when she and Biden dance to her phone playing “You About To Lose Your Job.” (She forthrightly explains to the “little Black and brown girls” watching that mom is laugh-crying and intermittently dancing because she’s drunk.) I get that finding a hook on two comparatively smooth people is tougher than just latching onto the first jagged snag offered by the lumberingly buffoonish thing that is Donald Trump, but if this bloodless dynamic is all we’re going to get, then these cold opens are in even bigger trouble than before.

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And then there’s Baldwin’s final (?) turn as Donald John Trump, the high-profile gig that never ended. Baldwin’s Trump sucks, equally for Baldwin’s one-note conception of Trump as merely a self-obsessed, malaprop-happy idiot (which, fair enough, as far as it goes), but for the writers’ consistent inability or unwillingness to deepen the portrayal.

With a serious personal “go fuck yourselves” to all those who’ve mocked people for being “hysterical” or “alarmist” about Trump’s myriad nods toward authoritarianism (as well as racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, environmental profiteering, foreign entanglements, and general evil), the country just came within a few dozen electoral votes of a full-on, GOP-led fascist takeover of this, as it turns out, ridiculously fragile experiment in representative democracy. Putting a vapid knucklehead (talking Trump here, not Baldwin) at the center of your years-long political satire centerpiece sketch isn’t as bad as putting a legitimately soulless monster in the highest seat of power in your land, but it certainly turns every episode in which he appears into an exercise in damage control.

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These sketches—and I know they are popular—damaged Saturday Night Live. Not just because they sucked, though they almost unfailingly did. But because it showed SNL’s whole ass when it comes to how willing it is to settle for popular and newsworthy instead of having anything to say. During the goodnights, a disheveled Baldwin appeared holding up a cue card that read, “You’re welcome.” Epic trolling to his many critics aside (message received, Mr. Baldwin), the gesture is emblematic of SNL’s whole attitude toward these sketches. There, we gave you what you want. You’re welcome.

I Am Hip To The Musics Of Today

Speaking of things that were huge in 1994. Dave Grohl and his Foo Fighters were a suitably big name match for Chappelle’s host. On a night that was largely about release (Carrey’s Biden made the inevitable “edging/sex with Sting” joke about the interminable tabulation process), would a more overtly aggressive, politically and musically raw band have been better? Maybe. Although there’s a weathered rock god gravitas to Grohl by now that suited the collective mindset rather fittingly, and their second number, “Times Like These,” mirrored our delayed gratification with surprising power. Most of the song was a mostly (but for a synth drone) a cappella Grohl belting plaintive lines like, “At times like these you learn to live again,” before the band finally kicked in to roar through some excellent musical catharsis. Good things, worth waiting for. You get it.

Most/Least Valuable Not Ready For Prime Time Player

No Cecily nor Aidy once again (they’re off filming other projects is the word). That leaves the field as open as it gets for a 20-member cast, but it was traditional workhorses Kate and Kenan vying for MVP, with the edge going to Kenan. Kate and Kenan teamed up to such charming effect in their sketch together that is seems wrong to separate them, but sometimes it’s the little things that make the difference. For me, it was the way that Kenan emphasized the second word on “golf balls.” That’s it. He’s just so comfortable in sketches that it’s like he’s a Globetrotter sometimes—sure, he could just dunk the ball, but he’s gonna play around with it for a while first.

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I’d love to give some love to Ego Nwodim, who’s clearly marking her spot as go-to journeyman cast member these days, but, although she had three meaty roles tonight, she was asked to do very little in them but react.

Of the three new kids, there was no sign.

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

I guess this would be the Trump chase sketch, although, as mentioned, it looked like the timing cut something off that should have been here. I’m sure it was delightful.

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Stray observations

  • Thanks to unpaid college athletes being forced into double overtime and then being swarmed by unmasked fellow students by the thousands—and my local affiliate’s decision to tell me about the weather for next week rather than airing SNL—I watched this episode on tape delay. Thanks, everyone. Not like this is my fourth all-nighter of the week.
  • The one ballsy touch about the cold open was self-referential rather than political, as during Trump’s concession speech (which the real Trump will likely never give), Baldwin’s Trump strolls off-set to a waiting grand piano, cringeworthy memories of “Hallelujah” exploding in our heads. Instead, he plays a soulful “Macho Man,” the gay anthem bewilderingly appropriated by the Trump campaign in its waning days. Well-trolled once more.
  • Chappelle’s monologue is all quotable lines, but here’s to him getting sought-after gasps when, talking about the mass shooting-a-day pre-lockdown pace, he utters a sincere, “Thank god for COVID,” before noting, “Something had to lock these murderous whites up and keep em in the house.”
  • Also, noting his Ohio neighbor’s town meeting complaints about his income-generating cornfield comedy shows, Chappelle relates how one white mom complained that she’d never heard the N-word so much in her life. “Was I sayin’ it, or were you?,” asked Chappelle.
  • Okay, one more. Sometimes a joke is too much of a thinker for the room, as Chappelle relished in bombing with the jokes about Trump at least being an optimist, “I look at it like, there’s bad people on both sides.” “All right, I’m just tryin’ ’em out,” Chappelle muttered after a long, long lull.
  • Dave Grohl in full rock-belter mode sounds exactly like Jack Black in the same mood, and I never noticed it before, and now it’s all I’ll hear.
  • Asked by Jost just what he and the Trump campaign will be suing the Biden-choosing states over, McKinnon’s Giulinai suggests, “Child support? Manslaughter?”
  • And that’s six straight Saturday Night Lives to open the season. Let’s never do that again.
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