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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

A winning Daniel Kaluuya almost manages to make an agreeable Saturday Night Live take flight

Daniel Kaluuya
Daniel Kaluuya
Screenshot: Mary Ellen Matthews/NBC
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“It was cool and it was funny, but it was wrong.”

“I’m not an actor, I’m a [Golden Globe-silenced movie] star!!”

There’s been some unexpectedly adventurous/cool booking in this year’s hosts, with Golden Globe-winning Judas And The Black Messiah’s Daniel Kaluuya once more making ears prick up in appreciative curiosity. Sure, the British actor recalled how his first performed playwriting was based on a Kenan And Kel sketch (he cheekily thanked his mom, God, and Kel to close his monologue), but I’m always excited to see what a noted actor not known for sketch comedy is going to do. And, sure, sometimes that makes for a “good game, nice try” pat on the back sort of review, with the thespian’s game but off-rhythm outing showing the inherent risks of booking out of left field, but sometimes having a great actor’s toolkit to work with produces something uniquely rewarding.

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Kaluuya’s outing almost got there, maddeningly, the Get Out star’s undeniable charisma and acting prowess enlivening sketches that uniformly and similarly get points more for outside-the-box thinking and ambition than actual execution. Another aspect of Season 46 that’s been especially refreshing has been Saturday Night Live’s preponderance of writers’ sketches, where odd premises take precedence over impressions or catchphrase-happy histrionics. That those pieces have also been a a little underwhelming at times comes down to the fact that this overstuffed cast isn’t similarly packed with breakout stars. It’s an ensemble, which is good, with recognized, scene-stealing pros (Kate McKinnon, Aidy Bryant, Kenan Thompson, Cecily Strong) routinely laying back (but for a parceled-out star turn) to give the sprawling cast some airtime. Here, Kaluuya’s acting chops really shone, as he created some inhabited character sketches in the midst of a lot of multi-performer party scenes, and one requisite game show sketch. (The episode’s concentration of homey get-together sketches a clear nod to everyone’s post-vaccination hunger for some good old, pleasantly ordinary same-room hanging out.)

Still, the fact that Kaluuya’s first hosting gig didn’t quite take off comes down to the fact that the sketches, like the ensemble, lack immediacy of ambition. Sometimes an offbeat, premise-driven bit needs someone to take charge of driving the mini-narrative home, and, too often, this cast recedes. Sort of the sketch comedy equivalent of letting the ball play them. Look at the frat house sketch, the upright bass sketch, the game night sketch, and the sons-home-from-college sketch—all seeded with promising central ideas, and all fading into the sets rather than popping like proper standout pieces. Again, I am all for the show riding its obvious, post-Trump freedom to write the show as if the world could go back to thinking about weird, goofy stuff again. I just wish there were more exuberance in the enterprise.

Best/Worst Sketch Of The Night

Best: Of the four sketches just mentioned, the college visit piece got closest to the sort of lived-in, performer-enlivened whole I’m talking about. Mainly that’s down to Kaluuya and Ego Nwodim, who both brought it with vigor as pre-med turned crrative writing major Chris Redd’s disapproving parents. Nwodim has been sneaking up into the top echelon of the cast this season, and her mom here might be her best characterization yet. Without overdoing things, the piece pivots on the African immigrant parents’ first-generation expectations for their son’s future, a cannily loaded little engine for the duo’s increasingly less-polite interactions with both their son and their politely encouraging neighbors. If a sketch is going to be powered by some people violating the social contract to humorous effect, having those characters’ behavior emerge from a more complex place makes the ensuing comedy richer, and Kaluuya and Nwodim’s veneer of suburban politesse turns on a dime once their laser-focused dream of a doctor son is diverted by Redd’s minimalist (if award-winning) mini-poem. “Creative who?,” Kaluuya’s dad spits at Redd’s announcement, while Nwodim quickly turns on Redd’s college chum Andrew Dismukes and his equally effortful post-modernist sculpture major. “We were lying!,” she scolds Dismukes proud mom over her previous cooing over Dismukes’ squatly goofy (also college award-winning) artistic effort, Nwodim’s tone a knowing plea for everyone to stop with the pleasant chit-chat and acknowledge the truth as she sees it that her preordained doctor son is wasting his (and his parents’) precious time and money.

The comic concept of parents just not getting what those college kids are up to is hardly new stuff, but the sketch is wonderfully enlivened by Nwodim and Kaluuya’s performances, and their characters’ singular point of view. “If you don’t want to be a doctor, well, you have to,” might be an old gag, but Nwodim sells the hell out of the line. And her response to neighbor Aidy’s daring to stick up for Redd (“Okay, Linda Pine, David is yours now!”) is even better. There’s even an ending, a little bit of extra SNL effort that I feel duty bound to point out.

The Worst: I suppose a benefit of this overall good-but-never-great season is that there have rarely been true stinkers to single out. In that spirit, I’ll give a lightly condescending pat on the head to the dog park sketch, a brief little doo-dad that never finds a tone or decides what the hell it wants to be. (Plus, that tiny dog that Andrew Dismukes is holding kept shivering in obvious anxiety as he and Kaluuya escalated their one-upmanship over Ego Nwodim’s fellow dog lover into a barking shouting match, and that made me anxious. Poor little guy.) Anyway, there are funny touches, such as Nwodim’s intrigued pug owner turning immediately against the on-the-make Kaluuya because she doesn’t like his silly dog voice. (“You made her sound like a damn fool,” she admonishes.) I kept wondering where the comic turn was going to come, got two turns that didn’t go anywhere in particular, and then the sketch ended. Plus, I know that complaining about cue cards is dull criticism, but Andrew, buddy, you didn’t have that many lines to remember.

The Rest: Kaluuya, along with Heidi Gardner and Mikey Day, had to play straight man in the game night sketch, but, of you’re going to play it straight, doing it opposite Kate McKinnon isn’t a bad gig. This week’s product placement (for that unassumingly named wine brand aggressively marketing itself on your streaming services) was just a vehicle for McKinnon’s suburban mom (again, lots of neighborhood get-togethers this hopeful week) to passive-aggressively throw a hissy fit because nobody wants to play her chosen board game. (Sorry Rummikub, but I don’t get you, either.) Kate is Kate, banging pots and pans, intentionally forgetting her music going through the speakers rather than her headphones, and, most amusingly, repeatedly slamming the dishwasher in the background of her family’s Scattergories. (“It’s not latching!,” she shouts, ineffectually and repeatedly crashing the door inches from her face.) There’s a shade more to mom’s self-centeredness, clearly, spilling out when she brings up how they all watched Deadpool on her birthday, and Kate, again, is delightfully Kate about it all.

Kyle Mooney’s movie got a slot up front rather than in the final moments tonight, which is nice, even if the prank show YouTube apology sketch wasn’t his tip-top. As an inevitably milkshake-ducked, prank-happy internet bro, Kyle continued his assault on the culture of entitled self-made media types, as his video trickster goes too far by dropping a flatscreen on co-prankster Kaluuya’s sleeping head from a great height. Mooney’s idiom is deconstructing his generation’s penchant for ill-advised (if occasionally lucrative) online self-aggrandizement, here embodied by his personality’s not just dangerous inability to judge prank safety, but a resurfaced legacy of being a social media dick. “They are all true and they are really bad,” he admits of his past transgressions in a performative apology video, slightly undermined by his fake tears and the fact that he links to his other apology videos. Mooney’s brand of cringe has always been divisive, but I’m here for it, even if the funniest thing about this one is how his character keeps pronouncing “sorry” as “sorr.”

It’s a vote of confidence when the host is tapped to anchor an inevitable game show sketch rather than just take part in the panel, so here’s to Kaluuya there, as his doctor/host of the COVID vaccine-related game, Will You Take It? vainly tries to get his extended family to just get the damned shot, already. About as current events-related as tonight’s episode got (apart from some gleeful Matt Gaetz-bashing), the sketch circled around the cultural reasons why Black Americans have suspicions about the COVID vaccine rollout, finally zooming past all the valid and time-proven societal imbalances and outright crimes against humanity in that area to land on the sketch’s portrayal of Kaluuya’s relatives being sort of goofy. An entertaining sort of goofy, certainly—Kenan’s beaming uncle (the one with two heart attacks under his ample belt) won’t take the vaccine, even for five grand cash, while Punkie Johnson’s aunt cites both Facebook and Christianity equally as her reasons for taking a pass. Ego Nwodim’s relative keeps bringing up the Tuskegee travesty, but, while Kaluuya’s frontline medical pro concedes the point, Nwodim’s reluctance is portrayed less as an understandable cynicism regarding racism in government-sponsored medical practices than sheer obstinance. Chris Redd’s cousin (diabetic and once shot in the lung) waves off his own at-risk status, citing his sock-wearing sleep habits as protection. Everybody’s very funny here (and the capper that Kaluuya’s also-doctor white girlfriend is not going to tip his family’s reticence is a solid ending). And there are finally enough Black writers and performers on SNL that the sketch comes off as more inside and lived-in than it would have in the past, so raising a touchy subject only to dodge its implications comes off more innocuous than anything else.

The frat house sketch directly addressed the yearning need for this light at the end of the tunnel COVID era to spill over into full-on heedless irresponsibility again, as a gaggle of college bros plan their first post-quarantine lake house rental blowout. Bowen Yang has some funny bits as the one house dude whose enthusiasm for any sort of new experience has him primed for literally anything, but the gradually emerging theme is another of those funny ideas that never quite takes flight, as Kaluuya’s obsession with inviting everyone’s moms to their guy weekend creeps into every aspect of the planning, much to the chagrin of Mikey Day’s ringleader. Day is once more cursed with being the one character who has to point and complain about [wacky comic premise], but the sketch still chugs along pleasantly as the whole moms thing inexorably becomes a bedrock feature of the big event. “I don’t know how the mom thing is gaining traction,” is about as funny a way for Day to do his inexplicably routine schtick here, and everybody else finds ways to make their acceptance for a mother-fratboy experience as silly as it is sort of sweet. It’s not spoken, but there’s a comically heartwarming undertone of need to the goofy idea that the guys plan a fridge-full of Activia along with their brewskis—it’s been a long, lonely, scary fucking year. Sometimes, even the prospect of seeing your mom partying in a two-piece alongside your best buds is just what a bro needs.

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Weekend Update Update

Absent [former president we’re ably ignoring into the ether], Saturday Night Live has been subbing in a rotating roster of Republican punching bags, but this week brought a particularly irresistible target in the form of conservative congressman (R-FL), noted Nazi-chum, seriously alleged sex (and other) criminal, and “caricature drawing of me” (according to Colin Jost), Matt Gaetz. Pete Davidson took some serious whacks in the cold open, and it was similarly smirky simulacrum Jost who delighted in jabbing the about-to-be-indicted asshole throughout Update. Good on you, Jost—it’s always freeing to have an unrepentant unmasked villain to bat around, and you did it with some gusto, essentially steering almost every joke back onto the rightfully beleaguered GOP lawmaker. Most bitingly (if, being Jost, smirkily), was Jost’s appeal to those wacky and seditious QAnon believers out there, whose internet-happy conspiracies about Democratic lawmakers cooking and/or molesting children in the basements of local pizza parlors somehow don’t incorporate law enforcement-investigated allegations of literal child sex trafficking when it involves a smugly conservative twerp they like. “That was your whole thing!,” chided Jost, before turning a story about the COVID vaccine being approved for teen use into another joke about the (allegedly) statutory proclivities of Florida Republican Matt Gaetz. Just in case anyone forgot the name of the guy also alleged to have creepily shared nude pics of his questionably legal partners/alleged victims with GOP colleagues on the House Floor.

Che took a backseat to his co-host for the night, getting a few looked-for groans in joking about President Biden’s stutter and pay imbalance between male and female athletes. Such is Che’s way. I did like the no-bullshit forthrightness of his plea with Biden to just go ahead and forgive student debt, already, citing “four years of President Kool-aid Man” as precedent. Look, if you’re going to do something rash and questionably legal and wait for the courts to settle it out, at least do something that helps people.

Lots of correspondent pieces, two repeaters and a so-so newbie. Starting with the latter, I guess it’s not the most sensitive joke to suggest that old people are old, but at least the bit about a May/late, late, late December romance gave Heidi Gardner another overdue Update spotlight. With Day as the gold-digging 26-year-old husband to Gardner’s 106-years-young, suspiciously wealthy bride, the sketch was pretty by-the-numbers. (Day’s an opportunistic little creep, Gardner’s deaf and barely registering her surroundings.) Ageism is comedy. But dammit if Gardner didn’t bring her all to making her lovestruck senior something despite everything, the old lady clearly enjoying the parts of her late-life arrangement (and Day’s youthful anatomy) she can comprehend.

For the recurring, we got Alex Moffat’s intentionally insufferable and self-incriminating Guy Who Just Bought A Boat, and Kate and Aidy’s meat-pushing businesspeople, once more making up tales of misdeeds to sway the reluctant into eating some dead flesh. Moffat is very good at his character, which means that I want to take a swing at him as his sleazy, jargon-dropping douche rattles off queasy sexist braggadocio before slipping in some unsavory facts about his own shortcomings, seemingly against his slimy will. (“I have an awful penis,” he smilingly conveys.) Eh, it’s a funny bit, done well, and there’s really no reason to keep doing it. Kate and Aidy and big wicker basket brimming with sweaty raw meat is also a one-note bit, but the pair bring their wonted happy silliness to the partners’ assurances that that ham came from a pig who “shoved kids hard and far,” and that veal haunch was cut from an adorable baby cow who “yanks off on the subway.” Happy easter dinner, everyone. Touch some wet meat while Kate and Aidy try to keep it together.

“What do you call that act?” “Sally O’Malley!”—Recurring Sketch Report

The Boat guy, the Meat ladies. Not saying I’m enjoying the scarcity of entries in this section, but, yeah, I am.

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

Ha, ha, haaa—screw you, Gaetz. The guy, like so many Trump-adjacent types, thrives on playing victim, so here’s to him sweatily crafting some too-late comebacks tonight. Of course, he may be busy, with all the looming legal unpleasantness and all. Anyway, I’m not entirely sure that we need a Britney Spears sketch resurgence on SNL, regardless of how well Chloe Fineman impersonates the singer, or how the show has shifted into a more sympathetic take on the oft-mocked, recently reevaluated former teen idol. But, as with Update, it’s hard to imagine missing the lockstep plod of the weekly Trump cold open, so why not.

Framing the singer as the experienced authority on whether a currently in the doghouse celebrity deserves scorn or not, the sketch first trots out a few targets of performative Fox News panic in Chris Redd’s Lil Nas X and Kate McKinnon’s costumed and smoking Pepé Le Pew come out to make their cases. Redd’s rapper has to compete with Kate in a skunk costume, but he’s solid, his X both relishing in the carefully courted controversy over his devil-grinding video and sneaky blood sneakers and mocking those Helen Lovejoy types pleading for the poor children by noting, “You know that wasn’t the real Satan, right?” As for Le Pew—held up as a martyr to “cancel culture” by conservative pundits just because bleeding hearts out there somehow think that antiquated notions of comedic cat-rape are problematic all of a sudden—McKinnon makes a smoky meal out of her character’s begrudging acknowledgement that she’s a member of the family Mephitidae with some self-reflecting to do. (Apparently Le Pew won’t be in the Space Jam sequel, as his improvisational 15 minutes of basketball-humping wasn’t to LeBron’s taste.)

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But this is all just prologue to an episode’s worth of Gaetz bashing, as the similarly creepy “sex pest” (according to Spears), in the person of a nicely underplayed Pete Davidson, emerges to universal scorn. Again, Gaetz’s whole schtick is to portray himself as the true victim in any circumstance, especially when his trolling assholery is called out. Still, it’s relatively potent stink he’s gotten on himself at this point (even Le Pew is grossed out, dousing Gaetz with disapproving musk), with the show simply sticking to the (alleged) facts and roasting him alive right at the top of the show. I’m not sure how much is gained by Davidson’s aping some Family Guy mannerisms as part of the already slimy Gaetz’s whole thing, but Pete’s otherwise restrained performance makes the sketch’s point well enough. And, sure, it’s unlikely the actual Gaetz will show any remorse (performative or otherwise) for apparently objectifying (possibly underage) women and girls to his colleagues. (Look for the Sunday shows’ roster of Republicans who shame-swarmed revenge porn victim Representative Katie Hill into retirement urging understanding and throwing around victimhood conspiracy theories regarding Gaetz. Just a guess.) I dunno—it’s all pretty lukewarm stuff as far as ripped-from-the-headlines cold opens go. Still, I have to say that I don’t dread the first ten minutes of the show like I’ve done for a few years.

I Am Hip To The Musics Of Today

St. Vincent brought some old school art-rock theatrical glamor to her two songs, playing up the striking visuals as much as her pair of elaborately offbeat songs. I got some Bowie, some Talking Heads, maybe a touch of Gaga and (dare say) Madonna—a potently bracing combination.

Most/Least Valuable Not Ready For Prime Time Player

Ego Nwodim’s asserting herself this season in a way that suggests writers are tailoring pieces to her considerable strengths, and it’s about time. Kate, Kenan, Aidy, and Cecily were all strongly in the mix as ever, and Chloe getting the opening high profile spot is a giant vote of confidence. But here’s to Ego.

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I’ll say again that the COVID nightmare has played unpredictable havoc evaluating airtime, as I simply don’t want to speculate whenever someone’s absent for a show. But Melissa Villaseñor keeps all but disappearing from SNL for episodes at a time. Masks and all, I didn’t spot her in the goodnights, which seems to be her most prominent place some weeks. Regardless, it’s becoming pretty clear that SNL isn’t making the talented performer and impressionist a priority in her fifth season.

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

Another cozy living room get-together earned its residency in Ten-To-Oneland once Kaluuya and Strong’s visiting Canadian couple’s scheme to show off their standup bass and scatting skills emerged through the birthday party chatter. Once more, there are other (dare say better) joke constructions than everyone pointing out how weird that weird person in the sketch is being, but Strong and Kaluuya’s hep cats were, indeed, impressively weird, having moved the hosts’ entire media center into the bathroom to clear themselves a stage. The unexplained half-brotherhood of Kaluuya and Kenan’s birthday boy, the fact that the couple’s spoken-word jazz always ends in cat sounds, the oversharing about their impending divorce, and the deliciously wrong, penis-centric rhyme “like a worm refusing to per-ferm”—all sprinkled throughout to turn the exercise in cringe comedy into a little showcase for some writer’s eccentric little brainstorm. That’s what this spot is for, daddy-o.

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Stray observations

  • Redd’s X gets out in front of any new wave of finger-wagging faux outrage after giving an equal opportunity lap dance to “God.” “That was just my friend Gary,” he assured viewers.
  • “I am a cartoon skunk, and you are a United States congressman. Be better.”
  • I liked Kaluuya’s relaxed and confident monologue quite a bit, with the actor showing off his muted (as in there was no sound) Golden Globes victory speech, and assuring the audience that you can be both Black and British at the same time. (“Basically, I’m what the Royal Family was worried the baby would look like.”)
  • I know were all finally coming around to legalized weed and all, but it’s still jarring to see both a straight-up bong and hookah onstage.
  • Heidi Gardner played Kaluuya’s girlfriend twice in sketches, suggesting she may have won some sort of backstage lottery.
  • As to funny animal voices, my cat, Cooper, speaks in a vaguely irritated, Eastern European accent, and everyone knows that.
  • I kid SNL’s product integration, but, hey, if it helps the show ditch an entire commercial break at the top of the show, then I’m good, especially when the show turns the synergy into something slightly weirder than it needs to be. Still, I’m not on the payroll, so I’ll continue not to repeat the product names in question. Take that, Lorne.
  • Kate and Aidy’s meat-merchants tattle that that particular dead lamb was really into plantation weddings.
  • There were three cut-for-time sketches posted immediately after the show proper aired. Redd got screwed the worst, honestly.
  • Next week: More casting I’m genuinely intrigued by, as that promising young Carey Mulligan makes her hosting debut, alongside musical guest, Kid Cudi.
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Contributor, The A.V. Club. Danny Peary's Cult Movies books are mostly to blame.