(Photo: Mary Ellen Matthews/NBC)

“I’m not an actor, I’m [movie, standup, nonfiction, TV] star!”

A recurring theme on tonight’s show—the first after Donald Trump’s inauguration—was that everything’s going to be all right. Like when it surfaced in Tom Hanks’ very funny monologue right before the election, the idea that Trump’s presidency is something that America needs reassurance about might recall a certain all-too-resonant-these-days R.E.M. lyric, but Aziz Ansari, indeed, offered some “solutions and alternatives,” in his own excellent monologue. While hardly conciliatory (understandable for a guy who penned a memorably scathing New York Times op-ed about Trump), Ansari’s jokes kept returning to our commonalities in a way that was deeply human without being soft. Like Dave Chappelle’s set kicking off his hosting gig (the first after the election), Ansari’s showed the real value in having a great standup comic host SNL.

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In digging into the reasons why so many people (although, you know, millions less than voted for Clinton) voted for this person, Ansari chided the easy “they’re all racists” blanket label in favor of some clever rationalizations. Comparing some Trump voters to Chris Brown fans (who like the music minus “the extracurriculars”), and musing about the role popular entertainment plays in making white America scared of Muslims (he suggests replacing the ominous Homeland music with “Yakety Sax”), Ansari continually found a thoughtful tone. Not to say he’s not pissed. The money phrases “casual white supremacy” and “lower case kkk” were deployed after those white Americans who view Trump’s election as their cue to give up the pretense that they’re not racist (“You gotta go back to pretending. We’re sorry we didn’t thank you for your service”), even while Ansari offered the examples of Hamilton, Empire, Obama, and “Star Wars movies where the only white people are stormtroopers” as possible reasons. Ansari, with his wide open, ever-boyish face and upbeat demeanor onstage, delivers deceptively sharp punches in his comedy, and when he talks about getting improbably misty listening to an old George W. Bush speech that differentiated between terrorists and Muslims, the point was as funny as it was insightful. Making note of the massive, unprecedented Women’s Marches all across the country (hell, the world) today (something SNL, to its credit, worked into the show repeatedly), Ansari’s statements that “change comes from large groups of angry people,” and “Today, an entire gender marched against [Trump],” came across with comic clarity. Outstanding set.

And don’t forget that Ansari is, himself, an accomplished and experienced sketch performer. In all his sketches tonight, he was confident, funny, and game even for donning a sculpted high-top plastic haircut and singing a deliberately annoying pizza jingle, over and over. No weak spots in Aziz Ansari’s game.

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Weekend Update update

It’s always bracing when Update does jokes that, from necessity, were written on the fly the day of broadcast. The Women’s March, Trump’s falsehood-riddled speech at the CIA, and spokesman Sean Spicer doubling down on Trump’s easily-debunked lie about the meager size of his inauguration crowd all had that extra charge of Saturday currency, giving Jost and Che’s jokes some added zip. Che made an “It’s not the size, right ladies?” joke about Spicer’s spurious claim that got funnier the longer he milked the response, while it played on Trump’s obsession with the size of things (his hands, his dick). It’s be a hacky joke if, you know, Trump himself hadn’t started bragging about the size of his penis during a presidential debate. Which is something that happened. Jost’s slam on Spicer’s attempt to brazen out his apparent-to-Earth lie (“This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period!”) underlined how that construction is what only desperate liars say. (“I’m a doctor, period!”) And Che’s usual mini-standup bit, here about feminism, saw him ply his signature style of objecting to easy definitions (“It’s a special name just for being a reasonable person”) while eventually coming down on the side of the actual sentiment. (Which he sums up as “Don’t be a dick.”) As has been the case for a while now, Jost and Che had an easy, loose rhythm that made the jokes flow and added to the segment a lot.

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Which makes the “friend zone” bit such a fucking bummer. Especially on a show that touted the issues of women’s rights and feminism (Vanessa Bayer, Aidy Bryant, and Sasheer Zamata all wore Women’s March T-shirts for the goodnights as well), and coming right after Che’s solid commentary, this was the hackiest bit imaginable. Mikey Day is the “nice guy” who’s in love with Cecily Strong’s pretty woman who only likes “bad boys,” etc. Look, anything can be funny. I’m sure there’s a great “friend zone” sketch to be made out there, but this is just an unimaginative retelling of the same damn joke about “women only liking not-nice guys” that relies on paper-thin stereotypes and perpetuates the idea that a woman owes a man sex and love she’s not feeling because he helps her move a damned couch. All three performers (Strong ends up going for Che when he starts playfully being mean to her) are fine—but there isn’t an original idea to be had here. Again, bummer—there’s nothing more offensive than a lazy, lazy joke.

Leslie Jones fared a lot better, her supposed report on the movie Hidden Figures digressing nicely into a rant about the pre-packaged nature of Black History Month and a shout-out to various overlooked black inventors. (Let’s hear it for Dr. Shirley Jackson.) As ever, Jones combines broad brashness with heartfelt sentiment, jousting with Jost (this time, a “creamy slice of provolone cheese”) and concluding with a plea for year-round celebration of black history. (“You never know what’s going to spark something in a person.”)

Best/worst sketch of the night

Apart from the friend zone bit, all the sketches played tonight, without a dead spot in the bunch. If none were exceptional, either, there were still consistent laughs that made this one sail along most enjoyably.

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The Uber mini-movie “Five Stars” was such a well-constructed piece of work, with Ansari and Bobby Moynihan as a pair of rating-obsessed guys (passenger and driver, respectively) whose desperate attempts to bump up their scores on the app see them only making things worse. Gross mints, cultural stereotyping, some ill-advised physical contact—all is an awkward mess until they both recognize the similarity of their conundrum to a certain Black Mirror episode (but both confide their favorite is actually “San Junipero,” natch’.) Great work from both, with a low-key touching ending expertly undermined by Moynihan accidentally running his new five-star buddy over.

The pizza joint sketch (the one where Aziz is the plastic leader of a Chuck E. Cheese-esque robot band) never quite pays off (the animatronic band never comes to life, “Merryville Brothers”-style, for one), but the band (Ansari, Bryant, Day, and Moynihan) all do some very precise robot work. That cop Kenan Thompson can’t help but find the antics hilarious is underplayed nicely, too.

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Ansari’s signature popeyed goofy schtick was used to fine effect in the game show, “Beat The Bookworm,” where his smug genius’ taunts to Vanessa Bayer’s contestant evaporated once she chose ’90s pop culture over Shakespeare’s comedies for their showdown. As good and intelligent a comic as Ansari is, sometimes it’s most enjoyable to watch him let out an anguished and extended Tom Haverford “NOOOOOOO!”

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Same goes for his work as the unfortunate testimonial-giver in the lawyer commercial, where he gradually discovers that he got the dud from the law firm “Broderick And Ganz.” While McKinnon’s Broderick changed her clients’ lives with million-dollar settlements, Ansari got Bobby Moynihan’s Ganz, a charity case ding-dong who only got him 8 grand for that time a cement truck encased him in cement in his living room. Moynihan’s great (he never seems to know what to do with his hands on camera), and Ansari makes his poor client’s growing exasperation funnier each time. Ganz, on being excited that there’s a real cop in court: “You can’t touch his gun, but you can see it.” Ansari: “He definitely touched his gun!”

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If I have to pick one favorite (and it’s sort of my job), I’ll take the interrogation sketch, where cops Beck Bennett and Cecily Strong grill suspect Ansari about surveillance footage of him saying he only sort-of liked La La Land. It may be that being privy to the very heated and specific arguments about the movie online is what makes this so funny, but Bennett and Strong’s furious defenses of the film just kept getting funnier the more specific they became. (“That’s the effing point!,” Bennett’s copper yells in response to Ansari’s objection that the stars weren’t great singers.) Strong, hurling a chair right though the interrogation room window for effect, is a hoot, her tough cop demanding to know how a bad movie could win seven Golden Globes, and defending the film’s questionable racial makeup before sheepishly admitting that she still hasn’t seen Ansari’s favorite, Moonlight. (“It’s just gonna be a whole thing.“) The three saw their argument reach a hilarious fever pitch when Ansari dared ask about the whole “dancing in the sky” scene. (“Was that a huge plot point?” “No, it was just lovely!” “Not everything has to be plot!”) And don’t get other suspect Thompson started on Westworld (another work I’ve spent so much time arguing about online).

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

Although she’s out of her usual element in the cold open, that’s a return of Kate McKinnon’s eternally beleaguered Olya Povlatsky.

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

Alec Baldwin took the night off, but Beck Bennett whipped off his shirt to step into the cold open as Vladimir Putin, addressing a worried nation (the US) that he’s got everything well in hand. Some might criticize Baldwin’s movie star schedule as Trump, but these Baldwin-less political sketches have forced the writers to stretch themselves in the absence of his reliable, predictable clowning of the Donald. And Bennett has really developed a rounded character as the Russian leader/dictator/underminer of democracies everywhere, his insinuating purr of an accent and his hooded eyes shading everything he says with a genuinely sinister undertone.

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Whatever the actual extent of Russian involvement in swaying our election, Trump’s open admiration for the leadership style of a foreign leader who, as Bennett purrs, makes his critics disappear is deeply questionable, something Bennett uses to power his impression. Wheeling out McKinnon’s Olya, Bennett’s Putin glares placidly while the poor woman reads her mandated statement of support (“I sleep in bed, not in carcass of dog”), before—to great applause—she appears in a Woman’s March “pussyhat” in the window behind him. Resist, Olya. As Ansari notes in his monologue tonight (“Kinda cool he’s home right now watching a brown guy make fun of him, right?”), SNL is guaranteed an audience of one particular, Twitter-happy world leader every week, which is a unique, unprecedented opportunity. If you’re doing political satire and the powerful person you’re satirizing is definitely watching, there’s also a responsibility to up your game. This one worked, both in Bennett’s performance, and in the specificity and, again, currency of the jokes. Calling out his buddy Trump for overreaching in essentially sextupling the audience for his inauguration this afternoon, Putin chides, “Say you’re friends with Lebron James, not that you are Lebron James.” Good advice, that Trump appears constitutionally unable to take, thankfully for SNL.

McKinnon starred (boy, did she) in the other major political sketch tonight, a nearly shot-for-shot recreation of the song “Roxie (The Name On Everyone’s Lips)” from the film version of Chicago, with her Kellyanne Conway singing breathlessly about her lust for fame and recognition. McKinnon’s great, and it’s good that the show seems to have finally abandoned its take on Conway that she’s a guilt-ridden shell of herself for aiding Trump. Still, the aping here is so slavish that I’m not sure how well the joke plays to anyone not versed in the original. (Luckily, I have an in-house musical theater expert who advised me what to look up.) Still, portraying the defiantly pro-Trump Conway as the political opportunist she appears to be (the song references her switch from Ted Cruz to Trump acolyte last year) paves the way for SNL to at least go after her for the right things.

I am hip to the musics of today

Big Sean everybody! (I had very little reaction to Big Sean’s flat rap stylings. Apologies.)

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

I’ll throw most valuable at Melissa Villaseñor, even though she really doesn’t deserve it. Still, it’s no small thing when a featured player finally gets a decent role, and the bedroom sketch saw her responding to husband Ansari’s request for some bedtime dirty talk with cluelessly inappropriate lines (“What’s up bitch? I make more money that you!”) that got the audience on her side. (She also wheeled out her Owen Wilson and Wanda Sykes impressions.) Not a killer sketch, but certainly her most successful so far.

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

This… did not work. While the idea of Cecily Strong and Sasheer Zamata singing a heartfelt duet of “To Sir, With Love” in front of a picture of President Obama sounds treacly, well, it was. I’m a fan of those rare times when SNL goes earnest, but this was too earnest (and, to be honest, their singing was a little shaky). It’s the sort of moment where you keep waiting for an inventive turn of some kind. When it became clear they were just going to sing an emotional farewell to Obama, it suddenly felt a little like what Aaron Sorkin thought was a good idea for a sketch comedy show to do on Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip. That’s not ideal.

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Stray observations

  • Russia’s main exports, according to Putin, are “oil, track suits, and scary pornography.”
  • Ansari, on racists’ hazy insult for him to “go back… where you came from”: “They’re not usually geography buffs.”
  • Che did a joke about Michelle Obama’s singularly unimpressed look in a photo from the inaugural and kept returning to it to punctuate jokes, and it always worked.
  • Kenan’s perp, on Westworld: “I thought the finale could have been the premiere.” Discuss.
  • Kellyanne Conway, on her dreams of media ubiquity: “When they Google just a ‘k,’ my name’s gonna come up before Kanye!”
  • I’ve heard the joke all week that Trump’s underwhelming inaugural concert was “the second worst live performance Lincoln has ever attended,” but Jost delivers it well.
  • Jost’s joke about President Obama’s recent assurance that we’re gonna be fine is that that’s what George says to Lenny at the end of Of Mice And Men.
  • Che speculates that the low inaugural turnout could be because people afraid about their impending loss of health care under Trump can’t afford to stand out in the cold rain all day.
  • He also tries, and amusingly fails, to keep a newsman’s demeanor upon playing that video of neo-Nazi Richard Spencer being punched in the face “just for livin’.”

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