(Photo: Mary Ellen Matthews/NBC)

“I’m not an actor, I’m a [shoo-in Oscar-nominated movie] star!”

Let’s all just agree up front that Casey Affleck is an odd choice for an SNL host. Unlike big brother Ben, a Five Timers Club member whose big lunk goofiness lends itself more to the task, Casey’s the mumbly character man, his long history of supporting roles and arthouse leads not outwardly conducive to jumping into the sketch comedy deep end that is hosting Saturday Night Live. In practice, however—yeah, he’s still an odd choice, although hardly a bad one. A helpful comparison is the “naughty elves” recurring sketch. When Ryan Gosling—similarly at home in arthouse fare—donned the jingle bells, he famously couldn’t contain his enthusiasm to get silly, what with the sketch’s reliance on jokes about spankings, and discipline, and unorthodox uses for holiday treats and whatnot, to the extent that (like in much of his episode) Gosling got a case of the giggles. Affleck never quite looked at home in the pointy shoes, and, in most sketches, there was—if not a sense that he felt above the gig—at least a strain of evident effort in getting into the silly swing of things.

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Still, the show made decent use of Affleck’s talents, letting him fill out his characters, either by playing to his Boston roots in the very funny Dunkin’ Donuts commercial, or, as in the Brooklyn bar sketch, writing an ensemble piece where he could do some low-key character work. His monologue, too, acknowledged that Affleck might not be the usual, go-for-broke comic performer, with him repeatedly cutting off the band when they kept trying to urge him into a musical number. Recent creepy allegations against him aside for the moment, Affleck is a much underrated and ambitious actor—who wisely doesn’t stray too far from the sort of closed-off, limited characters he’s so good at inhabiting. Wisely, the show didn’t ask him to step outside of his range too far. And when it did—as in the nativity sketch—his inability or unwillingness to swing for the big laughs hampered things. (Not that that sketch had much going for it.)

Weekend Update update

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Jost and Che continue to seem liberated by the ongoing daily realization that Donald Trump is going to provide them with an overabundance of material. That, coupled with the obvious, bordering on malicious joy they show as they take on Trump’s latest week’s worth of controversial, terrifying, or just plain baffling actions is energizing post-election Updates. Tonight, each got in some especially well-crafted jokes that turned already surefire material into bigger, smarter laughs. Che started things off with the simple but effective joke about Trump’s defensive, Russia-favoring response to the nigh-undeniable evidence of Russian interference in the election by saying it raises a lot of red flags—over a graphic of Soviet flags. It’s a zinger that lands harder thanks to the patience of Che’s delivery and the deployment of the visual. The same goes for Jost’s joke about Trump’s pick of Exxon head and Russian Order of Friendship recipient Rex Tillerson (subject of plenty of shots tonight) for State Department head, his delivery of the punchline (“The only higher honor Russia can give you is President of the United States”) whipping its tail just at the right moment. Both Jost and Che have improved dramatically behind the desk over the years, and tonight, they just kept scoring. Che’s comparison of Trump reportedly not revealing his knowledge of the Russian interference to Tom Brady and “deflategate” concludes with the admirable final twist that Trump was “just acting like a Patriot” is about as good a use of deflategate as you can make. (Trust me—I live in New England and listen to sports talk radio.) And Che’s joke about the upcoming Women’s March on Washington anti-Trump protest scored a smart and edgy laugh not from making a hacky woman joke, but rather an observation about the white women on the march’s logo being first in line. A joke about blind spots and racial divisions even among those on the left supposedly in solidarity? Not bad.

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As they’ve done in the past, Jost and Che also wheeled out some end of the year “rescued jokes” cut from past shows, an exercise in clever zingers that they, too, made into more than expected. These guys have gotten good, is what I’m saying.

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There were a handful of old faces around tonight. We’ll get to the rest, but Fred Armisen (who admittedly is in the building every day) wheeled out (alongside Vanessa Bayer) one of his singular recurring characters, a childhood friend of Vladimir Putin. The bit is always the same, the two pals express affection for their buddy, only to whisperingly confess all the ways in which he’s really not that great. (Here, Putin is stingy, manipulative, and kind of a passive-aggressive asshole.) Almost all Armisen’s characters are designed to be annoying, but the predictability of this one—despite his and Bayer’s fine performances—has never done much for me. It’s an original idea, well-performed. You mileage, as they say, varies.

Best/worst sketch of the night

That nativity pageant sketch—with Long Island parents Affleck, Cecily Strong, and Kate McKinnon thinking their hacky schtick is hilarious is, well, not that hilarious. Long on Long Island accents, it’s a send-up of parents who mistakenly think they’re funny that doesn’t go anywhere, or have an ending. Still, the three actors added some lived-in character touches, that along with son Mike Day’s interruption, “But I wanna talk to you about sex and drugs!” made it just odd enough.

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The naughty Christmas elves may have run their course, again, especially without an adorably breaking Ryan Gosling to make up for the fact that the one joke is now several sketches long. Kenan Thompson and Bayer are funny as the tauntingly masochistic elves (and Affleck gave his a shot), but perhaps it’s not necessary to leave this one in the holiday rotation going forward.

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The Dunkin’ Donuts parody was perhaps Affleck’s best showcase, allowing as it did the actor’s native Masshole to come out in all its unfettered, ‘r’-less glory. I usually elide the names of obvious product-placement (companies get enough free pub from the show itself), but, as a native Masshole, the Dunkin’s thing is so specifically rooted that it makes the spectacle of Affleck’s number one fan that much funnier. Defiantly asserting that he’s not smoking inside (he has his hand out the open door), nut-punching his best bud until they wind up wrecking the joint, and throwing his coffee at the rich guy who dared agree with his suspicion that a daily trip to Dunkin’s being the highlight of his day is, indeed, sad, Affleck makes his prototypical Bostonian jerk a surprisingly inhabited and layered one.

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And Affleck’s gift for underplaying served him well in the robot sketch (or “gay robot” sketch, if you prefer). With chipper presenters Kate McKinnon and the visiting Armisen trotting out their new office helper robot (Beck Bennett) who keeps dropping increasingly specific details about wanting to have sex with men, the target of the joke keeps shifting. It’s not mocking the gay robot (or his more flamboyant counterpart, played by Kyle Mooney)—they’re just as they were made. Nor is it really Affleck’s confused customer, who isn’t necessarily homophobic, but just can’t help but wonder why the creators felt the need to 1) Make a gay robot in the first place and 2) Make said robot announce it all the time when its primary function is to do some light filing. I suppose it’s more about the programmers constant deflection of Affleck’s questions (other customers Aidy Bryant and Kenan Thompson know better than to ask), which they turn into accusations of homophobia. And while there are no doubt many philosophical questions inherent in the setup, it’s mostly about performance, with Affleck’s innate bluntness lending some credence to the programmers’ suspicions, even as there’s validity in his befuddlement. Weird sketch. I liked it. (And Bennett plays a fine robot.)

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

The dictator’s friends, the naughty elves. And, for the third time, Kate McKinnon returned as perennial unlucky victim of paranormal sexual shenanigans, the indomitable Colleen Rafferty. As with all recurring sketches, variety is all merely decorative, as this time her two friends (Strong and Affleck) are whisked away to a gingerbread-scented magical adventure by none other than Santa himself, while the unfortunate Colleen got strapped into a dogsled by the far less accommodating mythological German figure of Krinklemaus. As ever, McKinnon makes the sketch her plaything, whether whipping out even more euphemisms for her privates than you imagined, describing the humiliatingly second-rate nature of her supernatural encounter, or—as always—demonstrating her captors’ eccentric sexual proclivities on Strong’s boobs. (Here, it’s the enraged/horny head-butts of Mrs. Krinklemaus.) McKinnon always makes tough, downtrodden broads admirably alive, and Colleen’s cigarette ash-flicking, seen-it-all world-weariness is funny in the specifics and McKinnon’s delivery. But from the giddy delight of that first alien abduction sketch, which had everyone—onstage and off—in giggle-fits as it climbed higher and higher in absurdity, this outing has settled into the rut into which all but the rarest recurring bits invariably settle.

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

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Alec Baldwin taunted noted SNL not-fan Trump all week on Twitter that he’d be returning, and, as usual, the cold open saw Baldwin’s bellicose and dim Donald blustering his way through a briefing with McKinnon’s Kellyanne Conway. As the world is treated to more and more evidence of Trump’s take on governance and presidential behavior, SNL’s take on Trump continues to shift. Baldwin’s Trump remains a self-involved, glibly self-aggrandizing dilettante, here asking Conway who they’re going to appoint as president, and then asking if he can just do it three days a week like Howard Stern.

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It’s a funny but pretty limited take on Trump, although the question of just how much of Trump’s divisive pandering (to special interests, to racists, to homophobes, to conspiracy theorists, to science-deniers, and we could go on all night) is part of a power play is open to debate. Here, the show leans into the “Donald is a dupe” idea pretty heavily, as Beck Bennett’s ever-shirtless, comically sinister Putin comes down the chimney to deliver a transparently bugged Elf on the Shelf and assure his buddy that he needn’t worry about that thank-you email he forgot to send (since, you know, it’s been hacked and all). When other welcome guest John Goodman shows up as Rex Tillerson, the show continues with the interpretation of Trump as over-his-head dummy, continually interrupting the pair’s in-depth plans to end U.S. oil sanctions and loot Russia’s natural resources to brag about palling around with Kanye West and carry on his Twitter beef with Vanity Fair over their bad review of his steakhouse and oh shit, we’re all going to die. Ahem. Anyway, as all Trump’s done is shmooze, make vainglorious stops at “victory rallies,” and pick fights with Alec Baldwin since being elected, it’s not an out-of-left-field choice. But, like the continuing depiction of the ever-spinning and accusatory Conway as regretful hostage to the Trump phenomenon, there’s certainly room for the Trump of the next four years(!) to go deeper.

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Much more pointed was the filmed piece later in the show where McKinnon’s Hillary Clinton showed up to reenact Andrew Lincoln’s wordless cue card pitch from Love Actually, this time to Cecily Strong’s conflicted electoral voter. When McKinnon (who here does stellar Clinton work without saying a word) and Baldwin made a pre-election pitch for people to vote, it came off like network-mandated even-handedness. But, with Monday’s electoral vote coming up—and some momentum building for just 37 electors to abandon Trump—this is a no-shit enticement for those voters on the fence to, as Clinton puts it here, save us from this. (“He will kill us all” says the last card, in bold block letters.) As with Baldwin’s last outing as Trump, pointing out the bananas real facts about Trump serves as SNL’s way of confronting the idea that Trump’s actual behavior since the election is almost too ludicrous for satire. Holding up cards about Trump skipping security briefings and antagonizing China (and a fold-out third card too comprehensive to catch all of—freeze framers, assemble), McKinnon’s immediacy as Clinton comes through loud and clear. It’s a great bit, from McKinnon’s performance, to the little Clinton-centric jabs about her having never actually seen Love Actually (she slips in dialogue from The Help at one point), it’s about as blatantly outrageous and funny a direct appeal to electoral voters (who have, naturally, been threatened with reprisals by the Trump campaign and death threats from supposed Trump supporters), and something that’s equally guaranteed to send one particular SNL viewer/hater on another Twitter rampage.

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The lovingly-recreated “Christmas In Hollis” parody (with cameos from surviving Run-DMC members Rev Run and DMC) said a tunefully chilling goodbye to President Obama, as musical guest Chance the Rapper and Kenan Thompson, Leslie Jones, and Casey Affleck as a breakdancing Jesus performed a paean to Obama’s last days in office. Singing the praises of birth control on demand, gay marriage, welcomed, happy immigrants, legal weed, and health care, the song maintained its scrupulous tribute to the original while continually dropping references to worst-case scenarios like Iranian bombs, stocking up on canned goods, and this being perhaps the last Christmas ever. (Next year, they speculate that the new holiday will be called “regular winter.”) Meticulously produced, and clever enough to be unsettling in the face of reality.

I am hip to the musics of today

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Chance the Rapper returned, and, while he didn’t seem at his best physically (scratchy voice, plus he endearingly seemed to forget a lyric in his second song), he was yet as bright and magnetic as ever. Conducting his backup musicians with deft authority, and mixing styles and speeds masterfully, this was pure entertainment from a guy who’s just magnetic to watch and listen to. Calling out his drummer and guest rapper Noname just felt exuberant, coming from Chance. Clearly at home on SNL at this point (this is his third appearance in 8H in a year, counting a Kanye backup stint), he even showed up in some sketches—doing a funny M.C. Hammer puppet-dancers bit in the nativity sketch, and rapping alongside Kenan in the “Christmas In Hollis” parody. If you think Chance is on the verge of a Justin Timberlake-style host/musical guest gig, you’re not alone.

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

I’ll go Beck Bennett tonight, as his bits in the robot and Brooklyn sketches were solid all around. But, since Putin is apparently going to be a major figure on SNL going forward, he made his finest mark yet as Trump’s dead-eyed buddy. I genuinely felt a shiver when Bennett pronounced the uncomprehending Trump his “Manchurian Candidate,” so that’s worth the top spot.

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It seems like Pete Davidson missed school this week, unless anyone else spotted him during the goodnights.

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

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The Brooklyn sketch worked beautifully in fully realized performances. The verisimilitude of the premise—that everyone in a Brooklyn bar has the same shy, apologetic introductory patter—I leave to the judgement of my NYC readers. But Kyle Mooney and Affleck (dueling suitors who get into the most diffident knife fight ever), Kenan (the bouncer), McKinnon (EMT), and Bennett (guy calling 911) were all outstandingly contained as their characters all begged everyone in earshot for forgiveness before doing what they are doing. And the kicker—God whisks the dying Affleck to paradise, but not before stammering, “Do you wanna join me in eternity or something?”—is pure ten-to-one bliss.

Stray observations

  • Goodman and Baldwin kept popping up unseen behind Affleck during his monologue, only to slink off every time he mentioned how sad it would be if they did. When they finally announce themselves, Goodman brags that, among them, they’ve now hosted the show 31 times.
  • Affleck does a funny run trying to hype up the reportedly outstanding Manchester By The Sea while repeatedly acknowledging that it is “a testament to how very sad movies can be.”
  • Conway, after startling Trump (who thinks he’s being “Scrooged”): “I’m not a ghost. This is just my face and hair.”
  • “Let me tell you something, if you think you can’t run as fast as a dog… you’re right.”

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