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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

A returning Steve Carell helms a sluggish Saturday Night Live

Steve Carell
Steve Carell
Screenshot: Saturday Night Live
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“Our lives are short and love is rare, now we do the turkey dance.”

“I’m not an actor, I’m a [comedy, drama, now comedy again?] star!”

The big news that all the kids will be buzzing about is that rumored reboot of The Office that some people apparently really want and tonight’s host Steve Carell says wouldn’t work anyway, for some reasons having to do with “today’s climate.” In his opening monologue, Carell got the old “unexpected questions from the audience” treatment, as former The Office-mates Ellie Kemper, Ed Helms, and Jenna Fischer all stood up to urge their former TV boss to sign on so they can get paid, already. (Kenan wants it, too, responding to Carell asking if he’s Kenan or a “fake audience member” by telling Carell, “If I was acting, you would know.”) That was pretty much the only laugh in the bit, as Carell played straight man to the same-y jokes about how he’s being a dick (Fischer’s words), and how his actual wife and kids don’t really need him around as much as he thinks. He did tease the audience by inviting his Office pals up on stage to guarantee . . . that it would be a great show. (It wasn’t.)

The other joke hammered all week has been how Steve Carell is a big drama guy now, something the show didn’t so much refute as remind viewers of how funny Steve Carell would have been if he were given any decent sketches to act in. Woof, this was a congested wheeze of an episode, packed with sketch after sketch of unimaginative premises, indifferently executed. And that goes for Carell, too, frankly, who seemed listless and uncommitted most of the time. A couple of musical sketches offered him the chance to really belt out some silly material with the confident abandon he’s justifiably renowned for, but, in each, he matched the dullness of the writing in performance. In his third time hosting, Carell and SNL both seemed to be just running out the clock in what was the most deeply disappointing episode of a very uneven season so far.


Weekend Update update

After last week’s news-grabbing, feel-good official apology for a nothing joke (to a newly elected congressman with some seriously questionable views himself), it’s like SNL decided to play defense this week. Or maybe play dead, hoping for the national, not-at-all-manufactured outrage cycle to die down through the upcoming off week. Che and Jost sped past some fairly innocuous political material (Che’s references to the brazen spree of criminal Republican voter suppression tactics aside) in favor of some lame Amazaon jokes. Jost mocking New Yorkers’ complaints about the new Queens Amazon HQ for bringing “25,000 jobs” takes the laziest laugh line from what is a complicated issue, something SNL has long been prone to, but that Jost and Che have occasionally risen above. This, coupled with the other big Amazon piece tonight (see below) smacks of the sort of corporate coziness that just makes SNL look bad, especially with the big news story of Amazon’s move taking place in the show’s backyard, and the attendant controversies.

Tossing to the big post-election satirical landscape, SNL scanned the trees and brought back—Bigfoot porn. The fact that newly elected Republican Congressman Denver Riggleman apparently is way into Bigfoot-themed erotica has predictably dominated media coverage of his campaign. And, sure, that’s some funny stuff right there. But he’s also been allegedly associated with some avowed white supremacists, which is both less funny and more relevant, satirically speaking. So trotting out Mikey Day to portray Riggleman nearly talking himself off to his own Sasquatch porn with some relatively graphic supposed excerpts and even more disturbing grunting noises is picking the lowest-hanging fruit of a satirical target and heavy-breathing on it. Again, if SNL is going to choose to do politics, then it’s going to be judged (by me, at least) on the choices it makes in how to approach the jokes. There are a myriad premises to be plucked from the recent midterm elections. That this was the best they got this week is embarrassing.

Kenan came on again as overbearing and hyperbolic NBA dad LaVar Ball, which is always pleasantly silly. Here, Kenan’s Ball maintained his self-promoting, reality-averse egomania, even as he slipped in the fact that Lakers star LeBron James supposedly has a restraining order against him (They have brunch, “always a respectable 500 feet away” from each other), and bragging about his younger sons’ dad-financed Latvian b-ball careers. (They feast on “the briniest cabbage this side of Bucharest!”) I love Kenan, and this is the sort of thing he’s wonderful at.

Best/worst sketch of the night

On a night like tonight, it’s a matter of picking out kernels (or “cornels”) of ideas or performances than whole decent sketches, of which none were in evidence. In what was a mostly disastrous ten-to-one (but one) sketch, astronauts having space Thanksgiving with their alien hosts ate screaming purple corn (or “kern”) on the cob. Complete with dropped props, a failed chroma key effect, Pete Davidson’s sped-up corn screams, flubbed lines, and either unwritten or abandoned ending, the debacle played like something infamously intransigent SNL legend Michael O’Donoghue might have written during his ill-fated 1981 head writing stint under Lorne Michaels’ replacement producer Dick Ebersol, when the show was alternately a vehicle for the notoriously uncompromising Mr. Mike’s bizarro visions or his legitimate attempt to turn the floundering post-Lorne enterprise into “a Viking death ship.”

There was a similarly dark, throwback vibe to the space station sketch, too, with Carell’s mission commander attempting to tell stilted astronaut jokes and fun facts to Skyped-in school kids, only for a malfunction to flood the camera feed with dead, frozen monkeys, a cat with its face sucked inside out, and, finally, Kate McKinnon’s very deceased cosmonaut floating rigidly outside the ISS’ bubble window. It didn’t all work—again, Carell never seemed filly into his third hosting gig. But there was some real effort in the physical acting of the bit—apart from the dead McKinnon, Carell, Leslie Jones, and Mikey Day did some fine fake floating, and SNL has room for some darkness in it. After we hear about the unfortunate fate of the poor station kitty, there’s a moment where the beast floats into view with its back to us before it—very slowly—rotates to show just what the vacuum of space can do to a cat-face. That, plus some rictus-frozen, space-suited monkey puppets felt energizingly transgressive, in a way that SNL could stand to risk more often.

The “Beauty School Drop Out” parody musical number had a scrap of a funny idea in that Carell’s apparently heavenly, permed guardian angel is actually teenager Aidy Bryant’s dad, interrupting her 1950s sleepover to croon to her high school dropout friend. The concept that Carell’s dad has been touring the country for six weeks with a carful of sexy backup singer-dancers busting into teenage girls bedrooms has a nice, loony energy to it, and Aidy’s horrified reactions are good. (“God, what a small man you are.”) Throughout the episode, there was a refreshing attempt at doing some self-contained, conceptual sketches, but this one just didn’t ever lift off.

The Thanksgiving song sketch should have worked better. It, too, took an odd little idea—dinner guests Carell and Cecily Strong maintain there’s a famous Thanksgiving rock song which they proceed to sing in all its specifically inappropriate, boner-shrinking glory—that has the potential to soar along with the musical conceit. But then it, too, just didn’t, as Carell’s seeming diffidence sapped the momentum. It’s not a total loss—the turn that no one actually knows Strong’s character goes from Carell’s conviction that she was some sort of spirit to the revelation that she’s stolen everyone’s car keys and stabbed Beck Bennett’s host is more ambitiously weird than expected. But this one should have been a show-stopper, with everyone eventually remembering the song’s lyrics about a pair of lovers, a shy penis, and a cameo-ing squirrel and joining in the song, so its just-okay aftertaste is a bummer.

Chris Redd and Pete Davidson’s pro-Ruth Bader Ginsburg rap is the sort of thing they (especially Redd) have done better before, with the paean to the ailing but hopefully indestructible Supreme Court justice never expanding appreciably past its premise. It gave Kate McKinnon a chance to wheel out her RBG for some of her signature gyrating as “the one lady holding the whole damn thing together,” but it’s unlikely to garner another musical SNL Emmy for Redd and company.

The RV sketch, in which Heidi Gardner’s wife unsuccessfully hides how miserable she is since husband Carell cashed out to make her live out his cross-country camper fantasy worked to the extent that it did because Gardner, once more, showed what a fine actress she is on SNL. The sketch had slack pacing, no ending, another blah turn by Carell as the clueless husband, and a very nervous-looking great dane. But it also had Gardner’s peerless squeaking, eyes-averted denial to power it, with her secretly stewing wife not complaining about having to ride in the back (the dog gets carsick), sleep sitting up at the camper’s cramped table, and being in charge of emptying the vehicle’s septic tank before she finally explodes.

By dint of it being the first sketch after the monologue, I’m disinclined to cut the clueless dad sketch much slack. Of all its worst instincts, Saturday Night Live’s need to over-explain a premise is more damaging than musical monologues, game- and talk show sketches, and recurring characters combined. Here, dad Carell’s 5 a.m. announcement that he’s taking his four kids to Disney World sees his progeny immediately asking “Oh my god, does he not know?,” “Oh no, is our dad dumb?,” and “How can we know all this and our dad has no idea?” to let us know that Carell’s dad character is dumb and doesn’t know stuff. (Namely that their mom/his wife is sleeping with his boss, has left and moved to Arizona, and two of the kids aren’t his.) Carell, coming out for his first character work of the night, tentatively sets up the sketch-deadening explanatory lines, which leave viewers asking exactly how slow SNL thinks we are.

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

LaVar Ball, Ingraham Angle. Speaking of . . .

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

We got another Ingraham Angle cold open tonight, with Kate McKinnon mugging it up as Fox News’ smirking white supremacist and, as she translates from Telemundo’s nickname for her, “La madre del diablo,” Laura Ingraham. McKinnon’s impression is more about pitch-perfect sneering contempt than vocal verisimilitude, but it’s still a decent vehicle to mock Ingraham’s ongoing campaign against facts, actual reporting, and anything darker than eggshell. Still, this showed the writing already letting the air out of the Alec Baldwin-replacing opening bit, as Ingraham’s breathless report on nonexistent Democratic voter fraud made eye-rolling jabs at Tyler Perry and Eddie Murphy showing up as Madea and the entire Klump family, respectively, to vote multiple times. The joke about Ingraham still scrambling for advertisers willing to sponsor someone who mocked school shooting survivors and, well, lots of other stuff is the sharpest weapon SNL wielded here, with Ingraham happily shilling for the likes of a bejeweled catheter (“Ouch.”), teeny, tiny turkeys (because you’ve alienated your entire family in time for Thanksgiving), and Volkswagen (“You know why.”) Cecily Strong made a welcome reappearance as Fox News legal shouter Jeanine Pirro. (“I hate them Laura!” “Who?” “Sorry, that’s my vocal warmup.”) And Alex Moffat continued the show’s questionable choice to portray Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg as being somewhere on the autism spectrum as the whole joke, although him finally blurting, “When I do bad things, I get money” at least addressed the most(?) recent Facebook disinformation scandal obliquely. It wasn’t outstanding, but if it keeps Baldwin’s dull and obvious Trump offscreen for another week, I’ll allow it.

Carell’s biggest showcase was in the filmed Amazon piece, where his bald-capped Jeff Bezos smugly outlined all the ways the online behemoth’s new ventures are in no way intended to merely troll Donald Trump. You know, even with drones topped with bad wigs (instead of shaving their heads “like a real man would”), new headquarters in Trump’s home town and Washington-area residence (and Florida resort vicinity), and the Bezos-owned Washington Post featuring stories like “Immigration Lawyers Suing for Apprentice tapes of Trump using the N-Word.” Carell digs in to the part more than anywhere else on the episode, serenely jabbing at Trump being approximately 100 times less wealthy than he is, or how Trump’s book is so heavy to ship because “it has four Chapter 11s.” (As the commercial chirpily concludes, “This has been a sick burn by Jeff Bezos.”) Fair enough stuff. But, as with Jost’s Update material, there’s a simplistic sameness to the joke here as—while Carell’s Bezos glides over the fact that his new HQs are pleasing everyone “except for the people who live there, and the people who live in all the places we didn’t choose”—the pandering Trump-burning here ignores the parallel dynamic of two rich assholes screwing with people’s lives for petty reasons. If people are going to clap at the idea of Bezos using the Post to attack Trump, it undermines the Post’s actual journalism as just the grimy sniping of one said asshole at another. The crowd erupted in groans at the joke that Amazon’s Arlington National Cemetery-adjacent HQ will allow the company to pay tribute to the nation’s war dead “even when it’s raining,” but, well, Trump made such jokes fair game recently. It’s just that satire works better (or at all) if it isn’t deliberately or through laziness ignoring the whole picture.


I am hip to the musics of today

Ella Mai has a pretty vibrato and some serviceable slow jams. Plus, she got to use the stage fog left over from Carell’s sleepover sketch for her second number.


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

Seemingly not content to continue keeping Ego Nwodim on the bench, the episode actually reduced her in size, as she was one of the students in the ISS sketch, asking her question from a tiny box in the corner of the screen.


Nobody rose above this listless episode enough to warrant the top spot. Tough, but fair.

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

After the space corn fiasco (which, for or because of its faults, should have been the last sketch), the “GP Yass” commercial that actually ended the show fizzled out badly. The joke that you can set your default GPS voice to “drag entertainer” sort-of enchants car passengers Steve Carell and Heidi Gardner, who express enjoyment of the “sassy” directions and traffic warnings with a square deadpan that aims for . . . something? Honestly, it feels like a cut-for-time piece that was only plugged in because the actual ten-to-one sketch crapped out so badly. Directionless is as good a place to get off of this review as any.


Stray observations

  • In addition to being Mrs. Steve Carell/monologue prop (along with their kids), Nancy Carell (née Walls) was a cast member on SNL from 1995-1996. (Something her husband was not.) Kind of strange the show wouldn’t make mention/comedic use of that.
  • “You can’t dismiss that idea simply because it isn’t true and sounds insane.”
  • Gardner’s dog-hating mom, feigning love for the huge new pet crowding her out of the RV: “Did you know that a dog can punch you?”
  • Che, suspiciously eyeing the picture of a handful of smiling black men standing with Trump as he announces some suspiciously not-racist-seeming prison reform legislation, states that, whenever he sees such a gathering, he thinks, “Oh lord, how much they sell us for?”
  • We’re off next week, gang. See you back on December 1 for host Claire Foy, with musical guest and copy editor’s nightmare Anderson .Paak.

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

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