Pete Davidson, Alec Baldwin (Photo: Will Heath/NBC)
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“I’m not an actor, I’m a [current all-time SNL hosting] star!”

Alec Baldwin may not have intended to become a de facto cast member this season, but he did agree to play Donald Trump back when the idea of a Trump presidency was just a distasteful but obvious joke and not the country’s daily reality. Hosting for the record 17th time tonight, Baldwin is SNL royalty, but, one senses, he thought that playing Trump would be more of a temporary gig. Still, Baldwin’s bellicose Trump—here skipping his traditional cold open for a funny People’s Court sketch squaring off against the three judges who blocked his “Muslim ban”—is reliably, if superficially, amusing. That’s not a knock on Baldwin’s impression, really—as Baldwin said in a recent interview, it’s awfully hard for political satire to find an in on this particular figure that increasingly baffling reality doesn’t just lay out in the morning paper each day.

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Baldwin seemed happy and relieved to dive into the goofy, non-Trump material tonight, as he always has been. (He is the “Schweddy balls” guy, after all.) His monologue saw the famously prickly but game Baldwin let SNL baby Pete Davidson (who was, as he jokes, not born until three-and-a-half years after Baldwin first hosted in 1990) make lots of jokes about his changing appearance over the years. He let new featured player Mikey Day fake-fart in his face for a solid three minutes. He played straight man to Sasheer Zamata, Kenan Thompson, and returning alum and 30 Rock pal Tracy Morgan (as Beyoncé and her already-cool in vitro twins). Sure, he memorably fluffed “chili cook-off” as “cookie chill-off” in the soldier sketch, and gave the cue cards some hard stares at times, but Baldwin’s a pro, and a Saturday Night Live pro, and he held things down with predictable and enjoyable aplomb. (Plus, a cookie chill-out sounds like a lot of fun, whatever it is.)

Weekend Update update

SNL knows Donald Trump is watching, and clearly grinding his molars every time they make fun of him. It’s an irresistible opportunity for a show that deals in political comedy, and it shouldn’t be resisted. Especially when, as is naturally the case, the show’s writers and performers aren’t fans of Trump’s, either. As Baldwin stated in that interview—and a lot of people have echoed—it’s hard to make fun of a political situation that frequently leaps so far into the absurd/horrifying/horrifyingly absurd that, as Shakespeare put it in a completely different context, “If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction.” (Good luck this season, Veep!)

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Still, comedy must be made, and SNL has shown some admirable ambition in approaching the Donald and his cabinet. (See below for tonight’s largely successful swings.) On Update, bound as they are in their fake-newsreader roles, Michael Che and Colin Jost fight to make jokes about current events consist of more than just recitations of whatever awful or ludicrous thing Trump has said or done during the week followed by a smirk. Here, they had a good night. (Better than the flub-fest that was last week’s Update, for sure.)

For a lot of the jokes, the strategy is to just report on the horrible and ludicrous and then lay in a twist at the end. Jost notes that the administration’s list of supposedly underreported terrorist attacks was riddled with spelling errors (with, among other things, “attacker” spelled some 27 times as “attaker”), then ends with the possible explanation that it was actually a list of Icelandic attacks. Che referred to Trump’s all-caps riposte to the federal court that overturned his “travel ban” (“SEE YOU IN COURT”) with the deadpan, “I mean, who are they to judge?,” and a comparison to Trump getting beaten up in an alley and then yelling, “LET’S TAKE THIS OUTSIDE!” Che’s usual mini-standup riff was spot-on and pointed, introducing a note of sympathy for Trump having to see pictures of former President Obama “getting his groove back” on vacation while he picks daily fights with “three federal judges, a decorated war hero, and a department store.” When Che ends with the idea that he feels sorry for Trump, he does a quick heel-turn right to the nastily expert, “Donald, is this really the way you want to spend the last two years of your life?” With Baldwin hosting, SNL came out punching, with that one landing perhaps the hardest.

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Three correspondent pieces all worked tonight. Kate McKinnon debuted her Elizabeth Warren as a suitably no-nonsense ass-kicker whose businesslike demeanor gets results, dammit. (”This isn’t going to be fun, but it is necessary.”) Here, too, there’s not much you can do as a comedy writer to top the fact that Warren’s Republican colleagues voted to silence her opposition to new Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ storied history of questionable racial politics and actions, as Warren was reading from a letter Coretta Scott King wrote condemning Sessions at the time. (It’s also Black History Month, unless reality seemed too sane for a second.) So, after Jost announced that fact, the piece went off in the funny direction of having Warren’s uncompromising eye turn on SNL itself, as she grilled Jost about why he and Che get the credit and pay of full cast members when they “only perform a 10-minute segment.” She also calls out the show’s increased product placement strategy this season (“Let the record show that Michael Che is guzzling a Razzmatazz smoothie!”), and the show as a whole. (Yes, with a shout out to a particular A.V. Club Saturday Night Live review.) McKinnon’s a star, and she debuted two fine new, high-profile political impressions tonight.

Alex Moffat made a moderate splash with a funny Valentine’s Day piece from “a guy who just bought a boat,” a predictably douchey player whose love of obnoxious abbreviations (“She’ll want to put some sush in her bouche!”) can’t prevent him from letting slip confessions about his inadequate genitalia. The whole “aggressively self-promoting men have small dicks” cliché might not be original, but Moffat brings an admirable commitment to the part that makes this one work.

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The other piece sees lovers Leslie Jones and Mikey Day come on as a demure couple whose recent Fifty Shades Darker viewing saw them disastrously introduce some S&M into their sex life. Here, too, the joke is that the much-larger Leslie got way too into beating the crap out of the meek Day, but, again, both committed, and it worked. Jones’ swapping between shy giggles and flashes of dominance suggested that the couple’s new game has let loose something very real inside her, while Day’s strangled little voice and attempts to keep his cool came out with a touch of Kids In The Hall’s Bruce McCulloch. The details got more explicit (the beaten-up Day’s pet name is now “Toilet Dog”), but it’s the duo’s character work that sold it.

Best/worst sketch of the night

Look, no one loves a good fart joke more than I do. But the ten-to-one sketch that saw gym teacher Baldwin catching a faceful of flatulence while holding the legs of student Mikey Day didn’t add much to the genre. (Plus, it had no ending at all.) Still, Baldwin’s undeterred encouragement (”Good pace!”) was a smart choice, as far as fart-joke comic instincts go.

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The boot camp sketch was innocuously funny, as Baldwin’s bellowing colonel can’t help but show affection for his soldier son (Day). It’s a one-joke idea, but both Baldwin and Day found the right tone for their characters. (Even if Baldwin really needed those cue cards here—in the pre-sketch bumper, he could be seen studying the cards intently, to no avail, it seems). Day had just the right note of desperate rigidity, while Baldwin’s colonel escalated his fawning nicely. Berating Alex Moffat’s fellow soldier for laughing, he responds to Moffat confessing that he’s Day’s friend by snapping, “So he’s makin’ friends? He’s fitting in okay?” without missing a beat. (Cooling off his boy with an ornamental hand-fan was a nicely absurd touch, too.)

The overt politicization (and Trump-baiting) of this year’s Super Bowl ads saw ad execs Baldwin and Aidy Bryant pitching a series of Cheetos commercials that addressed diversity, Trump’s border wall, and transgender issues with comic solemnity. (Rivals Kyle Bennett and Melissa Villaseñor’s more traditional, fun-loving ads are shut down for being frivolous.) Here, the joke is on the public perception of advertisers making “inappropriate” political statements during the big game, which, fine. But the second joke is more fruitful, as the Cheetos executives reveal that their political posturing is more mercenary than principled, as the two Cheetos execs defend their love for an ad about mascot Chester Cheetah’s sex-reassignment with the self-righteous claim that one of their coworkers kids is transgender… or adopted. One of those. A standard corporate strategy is to court controversy, reap the publicity, and then backtrack, something a number of advertisers did on Super Sunday, and the sketch—while not a classic or anything—made its bones there.

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

See below. Like, right below.

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

Melissa McCarthy returned as White House Press Secretary (for now) Sean Spicer. Not a surprise, as McCarthy’s appearance as Spicer last week became a runaway sensation and, sources say, a major, possibly administration-altering pain in Donald Trump’s side. Apparently, among other things, Trump is not thrilled with Spicer being played by a woman (I’ll leave others to unpack why the fuck that’s a thing), so, naturally, SNL trotted out another Trump appointee in drag, as Kate McKinnon joined Spicer as newly conformed Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Playing up Sessions oft-imitated Southern drawl, McKinnon mush-mouthed her way through a mostly unintelligible statement before outlining Sessions grinning distinction between the two types of crime, “regular and black.” Again, the fact of Sessions’ troubling record on race and civil rights was the main topic of his razor-thin confirmation, and SNL went there, as they say, McKinnon’s full-bore performance helping the needle slip in that much deeper.

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As for McCarthy’s Spicer, it’s always a case of “the second time, go louder,” but it’s still a fine and funny impression that also sees SNL taking the ridiculous reality of a Press Secretary blatantly lying to and bullying the press to odd extremity. McCarthy’s still doing the gum jokes (cue the oversized piece of chewing gum) and the bluster, but the impression is still hard-hitting in how it calls things what they are. Pulling out his “dollies” to break things down to the media, Spicer makes explicit that blonde dollies trying to enter the country can waltz on through, while brown-skinned ones (I think it was a Moana) get the full pat-down and loyalty test. That’s what’s happening, and that’s what SNL wants to highlight, with McCarthy’s stellar, manic but controlled character work nailing the chilling facts home. She also takes a leaf blower to a very game Cecily Strong’s journalist, makes up spurious statistics to prop up his boss’ agenda (“80 per cent of the people in Chicago have been murdered and are now dead!”), and does the expected jokes about plugging Trump-family merchandise. But the conceit still holds together both in McCarty’s indispensable performance and in how eerily accurate (if exaggerated) it stays to Spicer’s tack of simply asserting untruths in a louder and louder voice. When this Spicer defends the real Spicer’s citing a non-existent Atlanta terrorist attack by accusing, “I said that wrong and then you wrote it, which makes you wrong!” and moves on to the next lie, it mirrors the administration’s ongoing mission to undermine facts all too accurately. (Plus, I laughed out loud at the reveal that Spicer’s podium is now a motorized press-attacking vehicle.)

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SNL’s approach to relentless Trump apologist Kellyanne Conway reached its most disturbing heights tonight, as McKinnon’s Conway played out a Fatal Attraction scenario with noted Trump administration critic Jake Tapper. (Beck Bennett, excellent.) Returning home after having rejected an appearance from Conway on his show (because of all the constant lying), he finds the White House counselor in his apartment, where the two play out the Michael Douglas-Glenn Close “I will not be ignored” scene to unsettling effect. The show started out painting Conway as a “what have I done?!” reluctant Trump-abettor, which, thankfully, has morphed into a more accurate depiction of Conway as a full-throated and fact-averse ally. Sexualizing her here is a risky move, comedically, but, in trying to understand someone both so slavishly beholden to Trump and so willing to say literally anything to be on camera, portraying Conway’s ideological lust as actual lust makes a certain sense. And McKinnon and Bennett act the hell out of this filmed piece, the stalwart Tapper eventually succumbing to Conway’s knife-wielding demands for more air time before things take a detour into outright horror when Conway pulls a Jason Vorhees. Plunging out the window, the shattered Conway blinks back to life before graphically reassembling her mangled limbs, revealing that she only has “three lives left.” As with the show’s ongoing choice to portray Steve Bannon as Death, SNL continues to transform very real fears about ideological monstrousness into actual monsters. It’s effective.

Baldwin’s Trump returned, taking that whole “SEE YOU IN COURT” thing to The People’s Court. It’s a funny idea—as Che put it on Update, “Honey, you can’t threaten federal judges with more court.” Here, too, the strategy is to take the absurdity of real life (the judges are charged with “I guess, knowing the Constitution…”) and let the performances carry the premise along. Baldwin’s Trump remains more of a buffoon than anything else, with Baldwin playing up the idea that Trump knows he’s over his head while, at the same time, petulantly demanding everything be done his way, right now. Again, sometimes it’s hard to see where to go comedically when Donald Trump is the leader of the free world, but Baldwin’s game goofiness as Trump enhances the fact that SNL had the judges citing that a religious test for immigrants is, well, fucking absurd.

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I am hip to the musics of today

Do you like that Ed Sheeran? Sort of!

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

For all the jokes (I hear them) about people not being able to tell Mikey Day and Alex Moffat apart, well, sure, they’re pretty similar. Still, while they’re both (along with fellow first-year Melissa Villaseñor) paying their dues, Day found himself a niche tonight as a physical comedian, at least. Or at least as “the cast member in the best shape,” as Day did both comedy push-ups and sit-ups in a pair of sketches. Add in his funny underplaying in the Update piece with Leslie, and it’s clear that Day—already a writer on the show—is getting the big push.

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Sasheer did a funny Beyoncé, a character she’ll hopefully get to do more of. Also, the Russell Stover Black History Month candy ad saw her doing some excellent dismayed underplaying. Her weak “O-kay…” when her well-meaning white boyfriend brings the box of head-shaped chocolates home is her funniest little acting moment in a while.

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

The fart one.

Stray observations

  • For all the scuttlebutt that Trump nemesis Rosie O’Donnell would follow McCarthy’s guest-starring footsteps as Steve Bannon, Bannon remained the Angel of Death, silently cheering on Trump from the gallery in the People’s Court sketch. Still, the fact that McKinnon showed up as Sessions suggests SNL knows that having his associates played by women really gets under Trump’s skin.
  • Same goes for the short film about Leslie Jones auditioning to replace Alec Baldwin as Trump. The combination of backstage comedy (Lorne says a quick no, Leslie complains that she’s typecast as someone who yells while she yells and destroys Lorne’s office), and the impeccable filmmaking and score make the premise work. It’s also nice that the show calls back to joke about Kyle Mooney and Leslie dating. They’re still going strong, which is nice.
  • After Baldwin comes back at Davidson’s age cracks by calling him “Steve Buscemi’s lesbian sister,” Pete responds, “Laugh it up, everybody, I don’t even know who Steve Buscemi is!”
  • Jost, after citing the fact that Jeff Sessions was rejected for a 1986 judgeship for being too racist: “But don’t worry, if there’s one thing that usually makes racists better, it’s age.”
  • For damages, People’s Court Trump is seeking “broad, unchecked power.”
  • Baldwin’s celebrity obstetrician: “I haven’t had a hit baby since Suri Cruise.”
  • Tracy Jordan’s unborn Beyoncé twin, on why people always scream when they see her: “She’s either a beautiful queen or a goblin.”

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