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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Bill Burr injects Saturday Night Live with some badly needed boldness

Bill Burr
Bill Burr
Photo: Mary Ellen Matthews/NBC
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“I have a lot of wigs and mustaches at my disposal.”

“I’m not an actor, I’m a [stand-up, voice acting, henchman] star!!”

I grew up in Massachusetts at around the same time as Bill Burr. His Canton and my hometown of Saugus were within high school rival egg-chucking distance (if you had a car), but, while we never had the pleasure, I still have a sense that he would have at least made fun of me. (I was—and remain—one of “the people we all cheated off in high school,” as Burr describes COVID experts and other eggheads in his monologue.) I fled Massachusetts to go to college out of state and never went back, while Burr headed to Emerson without, like I did, ever suppressing his bluff, confrontational, very imitable accent the world has come to dub, “the Masshole.” (I guiltily retrained my “r”s once I left, although that old bullying Masshole voice still tags in when I’m really angry.) Burr left Boston, too, becoming a headlining stand-up comic before making forays into character roles in TV and movies. His Irish, working class gruffness makes his turn as the patriarch of F Is For Family’s working class clan the quintessential Burr role—a Masshole (although the Burr-co-created animated show takes place in Pennsylvania) whose vulgar disregard for decorum and other people’s feelings comes yoked to an unexpectedly deep well of self-loathing and bad influences.

Burr is such a strong personality (both in his stand-up and his popular, homemade podcast) that it’s a little odd to hear him in tonight’s monologue explaining that hosting Saturday Night Live is “a lifelong dream.” Like everything else Burr shows up in, tonight’s show tingled with an undercurrent of comic tension, in this case from the incongruity that Burr was hosting SNL at all. On one hand, the gig seems like the sort of thing Burr would make fun of. It’s not that Bill Burr is too big for Saturday Night Live—it’s more that the comic ground he’s staked out for himself feels like it’s off the Saturday Night Live map. Sure, he has the Pete Davidson connection, but, as his monologue showed in its typically uncompromising willingness to piss people off, Bill Burr on Saturday Night Live is a constitutional mismatch. As it turns out, that’s just what SNL needed.

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Burr has a way of making you think he’s going to say something truly awful, then swerving to say a completely different awful thing, without ever letting the first awful thing dissipate completely. It’s a Masshole thing—there’s something ingrained in that accent and attitude that prepares the hearer for inexplicably hostile confrontation. (And here comes the autobiographical element once more—ride it straight to hell, Perkins.) When fellow professional Bay Stater Casey Affleck hosted, it was only right that he appeared in a Dunkin’ Donuts ad whose premise was that the regular denizens of that ubiquitous (Canton-based) coffee chain greeted commuters utilizing Dunkin’s new order-ahead app by hostilely demanding, “You think you’re better than me?!” Burr’s comic style hews closely to that hair-trigger, defensive offensiveness, only for Burr to veer into a more—dare I say?—liberal lane, without ever losing the tone that suggests he’s prepared to punch you in the mouth if you agree with him the wrong way. Boston-area Massachusetts is a tough place to navigate.

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Even though SNL’s pared-down pandemic audience (no jokes about the pay-for-laughs revelation last week) made reading reaction harder than usual, Burr wound up wrapping his set with a “Well, that’s my time” of the type usually reserved for a comic who just bombed. Burr didn’t bomb, except in the sense that a comedy hand-grenade can be said to bomb. Comedy flash-bangs hurled into the clearly wary audience included wishing death on the families of those still not wearing a COVID mask, cheering on the recent New York sucker-punching of beloved, long-absent Rick Moranis, and a run about “cancel culture” that began with Burr announcing, “I don’t want to speak ill of my bitches” when talking about white women.

Those sound like setups for truly shitty jokes, and, depending on your tolerance for sneering Bostonian disdain, they might stay that way for you. But, in each case, Burr’s swerve comes in turning that “You think you’re better than me?!” contempt on a slightly different target that you anticipated. Of course, he’s not saying that it’s great that some yahoo took a poke at the recently reemerged Moranis—he’s just laying it out there that his Masshole-adjacent native New Yorkers are getting back to their old, sucker-punching ways, pandemic or no. Hearing Burr spit out the term “woke culture” prepares you for some hacky bigotry, but instead pivots to a run of unlikely allyship—that turns its comic derision instead on privileged white women inserting themselves into the cause of racial justice. Burr’s is a boldly unlikeable act, one that teases those prepared to burst out in whooping agreement-laughs before clanging both those he’s suckered in and some nearby unsuspecting targets over the head. Burr plays the ugly “I’m just saying what everybody’s thinking” white male cis comic card, but flips it over (and over again) to usually reveal a better joke than you’re expecting. If there’s a beneficent Masshole, Bill Burr is, begrudgingly and rewardingly, it.

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Best/Worst Sketch Of The Night

The best: Burr’s a character actor (when he’s an actor), something that informed much of the cast’s performances and the sketches tonight. Apart from the showboating turns in the obligatory cold open (more later), the best sketches tonight were more about characterization than premise. And it worked, none better than in the opening cookout scene, with Burr and Kate McKinnon (much more later) finding an angle on pandemic lockdown madness that hit over and over. The premise, such as it was, is that the married couple keeps misusing or mispronouncing words. (“Unpresidented” for “unprecedented,” “the noon normal” for “the new normal.”) Steeled for that to be the one and only joke, the laughs came, instead, from Burr and McKinnon’s layered, escalating, crazy-eyed fury at being corrected, their day-drinking quarantine brains emerging as so buffeted and bruised by their nine-months of packed-together isolation (and 20 COVID scares) that their neighbors’ innocuous corrections cause repeated eruptions of faux-sincere, glass-throwing repentance. Again, “You think you’re better than me?!” coupled with a side order of shut-in shutdown cabin fever makes for a feast for Burr and McKinnon. Kenan Thompson does stellar underplaying as ever as the host who sees just what a hornets’ nest everyone has just stepped into, but it’s Burr and McKinnon’s all-too-relatable, Frankenstein’s monster social ineptitude that makes the sketch run.

The worst: I really don’t have a clunker to pick out this week, but the low-key Mafia sketch perhaps could have used an ending, so I’ll go with that. Burr’s godfather, just released after 20 years in prison, finds his welcome home dinner repeatedly interrupted by his capos correcting his outdated (as in 2000s) Sopranos-style offhand bigotry. Even here, though, Burr anchors the proceedings with a nimble subversion of expectations. Yes, the boss rails variously against “Mexicans” and “queers,” but his outbursts are gingerly condemned by his underlings because he hasn’t internalized the superficial wokeness of language that they have—while they continue to kill, steal, and do all other traditional mob things. Burr’s persona is all over this sketch, with his don espousing a retrograde sensibility that’s as objectionable as it’s rightly confused about the moral gymnastics his associates are engaged in as they attempt to conform to the new normal. (Or noon normal.) Like Burr’s monologue joke about oblivious co-opting, the target here is less about “those P.C. types” and more about how (mostly white) people latch onto something they think absolves them while still engaging in the systemic behaviors actual activists are protesting. That Punkie Johnson’s Black woman has infiltrated the murderous gang for her own benefit by playing on its own, hypocritical systemic blind spots is a clever twist, especially as she just appears in a vacated seat midway through the sketch. (Think of her as the mafia’s Candace Owens.) But apart from all that, it’s the character turns that are so watchable here. Everyone’s into their characters as completely as their characters are into their own assumed self-righteousness, with Kyle Mooney correcting the don’s pronouns about a newly-out LGBTQI thug (“Hey, they’re a friggin’ murderer”), and Beck Bennett’s Nicky (formerly Nicky The Nose) choking up while explaining that nicknames based on physical appearance are just hurtful. (Pete Davidson and Alex Moffatt, too—just some nice, lived-in acting.)

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The rest: It’s odd looking back. While no episode towered over them all (with one exception—Kate, it’s coming), I caught myself smiling through most of the episode tonight. Maybe it was the lack of talk show sketches, game shows, or recurring bits in favor of some original, moderately ambitious conceptual stuff. Maybe it’s that—apart from the cold open and Update—the show mostly ditched politics, a move that, considering SNL’s wobbly track record in that area of late, freed everyone up to just be funny performers. (Hey, the country is potentially crumbling under the sag of white supremacist, anti-democratic thuggery and unimaginable stupidity regarding an unprecedented health disaster, but if SNL sucks at tackling politics head-on—and it has for most of the Trump era—then just go for the laughs.)

One example of glancing off of current events without diving in over your head was the TikTok filmed piece, with Beck Bennett’s marginal actor (he’s on something called The Buddies on Nintendo TV) going for some of that viral “Imagine” internet heat. The joke, once again, is on privileged white folks (in this case, celebrity variety) trying—and failing, to often eye-rolling degree—to insert themselves into a struggle they’re far too removed from to truly understand. And while it’d be easy to mock celebrities in politics as a concept (my local senate race sees Republican Susan Collins demonizing opponent Sarah Gideon for having support from Hollywood types like—gasp—Zach Braff!)—Bennett’s take is much more targeted, and inhabited. Bennett does a lot of things well, but it’s in his undersold immediate recognition of his friends’ unheard-by-us disapproval of his spotlight-grabbing, shirtless anti-Trump rap that’s so funny and, well, so human. Yeah, there are plenty of topics in this utterly preposterous election cycle that SNL could be digging into–but, honestly, do we really want that from this show as presently constituted? Here, the premise is micro-targeted at this one guy, nodding as he repeats his roommate’s reasonable objections. (“Could actually mobilize his base? Right...”) Having tagged Jason Momoa among other “peers,” Bennett’s near-nobody shows he’s learned about as much as you’d expect when the real Momoa video-calls to tell him to cut the shit.

The Blitz saw Burr’s persona getting a fine workout once more, as his professionally boisterous sports commentator’s traditional mockery of Black colleague Kenan’s failed football pick explodes in the face of Kenan and co-host Ego Nwodim’s public sorrow over a racially-motivated police shooting. Again, I don’t have all the faith in the world for this show to do a hard-hitting comic dissection of systemic racism in law enforcement. But I am here for a performance-driven piece about social awkwardness in the workplace stemming from same, and Burr does fine work backpedalling sweatily as his trash-talk deflates into a desperate series of lies concerning his awareness of the killing that his Black colleagues have been so affected by. If anyone’s listened to any sports talk radio in the months when COVID had essentially shut down all sports, then Burr’s inept attempts to come to grips with something other than the daily scores will sound awfully familiar. (Not to cast aspersions, but tossing some middle-aged white jocks into the deep end of having to fill four hours talking about Black Lives Matter protests reveals some personal and institutional blind spots.) Here, Burr, having forgotten the name of the (this time) fictional Black man killed by white cops, tries to save his bacon by exclaiming in a moment of inspiration, “There are so many guys to name—that’s the problem!” Sadly, his elaborate setup to humiliate Kenan over picking the Buccaneers includes on-set delivery of their wagered steak dinner and an inappropriate camera filter dutifully played by the boys in the booth over Kenan’s sincere plea for justice.

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Weekend Update Update

With just the right combination of subject selectivity and “fuck it” attack posture, Jost and Che delivered a much better Update this week. Again—smaller than usual audience, but I think any time the Update crowd goes still (instead of staying still), it’s at least going to be interesting. Jost got his gasps, appropriately enough, by describing the learned-absolutely-nothing spectacle of a COVID-stricken Trump speaking to a live, equally unmasked White House crowd being like watching someone smoking through a hole in their neck. Meanwhile Che heard the uneasy responses and just plowed ahead, into the Twitter-banned territory of wishing the president dead. To Trump’s steroid-fueled brag about him catching the disease he’s done exactly nothing to prevent (calling it “a blessing from God”) Che quoted God as saying, “Hey, we tried guys.” And speaking of Trump’s gasoline-on-the-fire “leadership” on COVID, Che got his biggest groans (and my highest scores) for claiming that, while he’s not glad Trump died from the disease that’s killed over 210 thousand Americans on his watch, seeing Trump up and about is like “a car crash where the only survivor is the drunk driver.” One more. Che, looking at the bright side, explains, “Either Trump’s telling the truth and we finally have a cure for COVID, or Trump is lying and he’s still gonna die.” Pausing to bask in some nervous titters and his own chuckles, Che concluded, beaming, “I’m not gonna say that’s a win-win, but it’s definitely not a lose-lose.”

Riding on their transgressive momentum, Jost and Che just kept nailing jokes, which is a rhythm that, when they find it, is as confident and funny as any team of Update anchors ever. Che, doing back-to-back animal stories after the political stretch, nailed’ em both with the flair of a guy who knows he’s killing. As was the vibe in most of the material all night, there wasn’t the feeling that SNL was lowering its standards as much as leaning into what they know they can do well. Jost and Che did this well.

Pete Davidson looks good. His acting in live sketches was more confident than it’s been, and, since he joked about Mental Illness Awareness Week (“We out here and we crazy—go Giants!”), I’ll just say it’s nice to see. His Update appearances as himself have always been his best showcase, and this one was one of his best, Davidson wading into the transphobic ruins of what was J.K Rowlings’ reputation. Like Burr, Pete’s spotty progressivism comes couched in townie matter-of-factness. (Pete’s Long Island vs. Burr’s Boston.) And while it’s a false comfort taken from unlikely white males actually being on the right side of something, it’s still all the funnier when Davidson’s stoner little brother comes right out and slams the formerly beloved children’s author for “go[ing] all Mel Gibson on us.” He also delves into some shady stereotyping in the Harry Potter-verse concerning the “little giant-nose Jew-goblins” she made the wizarding world’s banker class. (“I can say that, because I’m half-goblin,” Davidson reassured everyone.)

But it was Kate’s Update. It didn’t look that way, to be honest. The character of the told-you-so COVID expert “Dr. Wenowdis” (it’s Greek) smacked of a true loser of a one-joke premise, even if Kate looks striking in a wiry wig and late-period Groucho mustache. Her name/catchphrase bit was going over about as well as could be expected—there were generous laughs, because it’s Kate. But it’s when her gabbling, softly accented doctor started manhandling Jost under the pretense of giving the co-anchor a blood pressure test with her squeak-toy sphygmomanometer that the real joke burst out from inside the dopey setup. (Some online have praised this as McKinnon breaking character but, bless your hearts.) Jost, lost in the face of the good doctor’s machinations, finally asks, “Kate, are you okay?,” to which she, responding as herself, laughs, “I’m obviously not.” That it’s a pre-planned on-air mini-freakout doesn’t make it any less of a liberatingly funny on-air freakout, and McKinnon connects with the audience so endearingly as to bring tears (of laughter and otherwise) to the eye. Running down a list of harrowing things hovering over our heads (election, pandemic, whether the criminal reality show host elected on a wave of white grievance will take American democracy down with him), McKinnon—interrupted only by an expert accidental squeak of her elbow on the blood pressure bulb—tries to land on a positive note. “The one thing that we do know is,” she begins forcefully before holding for an exquisitely prolonged pause, “that—no we don’t know dis.” All-star stuff, born of all-star performer confidence.

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

Just Pete, blessedly. Keep it up.

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

Yeah, no. Nope. No thanks. I love having Maya back in the house, I truly do. And here’s to giving Alec Baldwin as much time off as he clearly wants until his comic nemesis hopefully evaporates like a bad fucking dream. Beck Bennett’s Mike Pence is an interesting enough creation (thankfully the tired “noted homophobe Pence is in the closet” gag took the night off), his soporifically sonorous Vice President showing off a little more active, Trump-ian evil in his biggest spotlight to date. And Jim Carrey’s Biden—exists. I don’t think I’m going to count tonight’s late-sketch appearance as a full Biden outing for overall evaluation’s sake, what since Carrey spent a third of his time as the fly on Mike Pence’s head, and another third as Jeff Goldblum. Because The Fly. A fly landed on Mike Pence’s head during the debate. So that’s the joke.

SNL is bad at these. What substantive political comedy there is sneaks in around the edges of these creaking, laboring, applause-bait celebrity showcases, as when Kenan pops up as a fly-reincarnated Herman Cain to remind everyone that Donald Trump effectively killed his one Black friend. (“Don’t trust this white devil ’bout that ’rona!,” made me laugh. What can I say—Kenan makes a funny fly.) And, sure, the veep debate didn’t have the bottom-of-the-barrel sludge of the farcical presidential one to fashion into something, but there was certainly more of substance to be done than having Biden hop into a Cronenbergian telepod and fly-barf onto Pence’s snowy hair-landscape. I guess this is what they wanted Carrey for? To lend some manic weirdness to what’s turning out to be a blandly unfinished political impression? Carrey spent more time on his good-but-not-great Goldblum than he did on the Democratic candidate tonight, and it’s probably just as well. Whatever nuance and ambition there were in his premiere Biden goes out the window here, as Carrey (when not fidgeting unsettlingly in his fly suit) edged more into Fire Marshall Bill caricature that anything resembling the actual Biden.

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Maya was fine as usual, although, like the fly, Kamala Harris’ slideshow of already meme-happy facial expressions to Pence’s interruptions and obfuscations represented the easiest-to-pick fruit from the debate. (I did like Harris’, “I’m at TJ Maxx and a white woman asked if I worked here” face.) And there were a few funny throwaway lines, as when Pence refers to the “Macho Man Randy Savage amount of steroids” Trump is taking. McKinnon is money as ever as the second ineffectual moderator of this ongoing shitshow, Susan Page. But her broadcaster-smooth extended aside about Trump’s health (“Oh, I wasn’t asking out of sympathy, Mike, I was asking with a simmering rage for his incompetence and a sadistic hope that he is not well”) comes from her and nothing in the debate itself. (To be fair to Page, nobody short of character actress Margo Martindale in [pick a role] could be expected to get this bad-faith political theater into shape.) Plodding and obvious, for 12 minutes. And it’s only just begun.

I am hip to the musics of today

I don’t know what dummy who blew his big TV break for mask-free Bud Light Lime Morgan Wallen was going to bring to the table, but all-freaking-hail Jack White for blowing doors tonight. White, with his stripped-down three-piece band and signature lyrical and guitar virtuosity, was, no pun ever intended, electric. (Daru Jones, with his forward-leaning stand-up drum kit, is a spectacular, on-point sideman.) Raw, live, and visceral just feels really right right now, you know? One of the best musical guests in recent memory, with added degree of difficulty in filling in on short notice.

Most/Least Valuable Not Ready For Prime Time Player

Okay, somebody tell me that Melissa Villaseñor is okay. For the second week in this new, admittedly screwed-up season, no Melissa—not even in the goodnights that I saw. Are people working from home? Performing in shifts? Send up a flare.

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In theory, having an absurd 20 cast members on hand gives SNL more to choose from, but holy cats, this is ridiculous. Of the three new kids, Andrew Dismukes was likewise invisible, I saw Lauren Holt with a line in the Sam Adams commercial, and Punkie Johnson won the day with a not-insignificant role in the mafia sketch. For featured players, it’s a matter of biding your time and counting your screen appearances, but I can’t imagine anybody’s happy come the final sketch lineup at this point. With nobody leaving the show after last year and Lorne packing in the new faces, there just isn’t enough room on this lifeboat.

Oh, Kate gets the top spot, obviously.

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

I would have flipped the mafia sketch and the beer commercial, but I’m not Lorne. (A live sketch is always a better ten-to-one conceptual showcase.) Still, Burr could not have been more at home as the one authentic testimonial-giver in the ad for Boston-based Samuel Adams’ new pumpkin-flavored brew. The company’s latest actual advertising campaign attempts to paint this pricey, suitably complex beer’s charms as the go-to choice of your workaday Masshole, but Burr’s working class connoisseur does an immediate, to-camera spit take at this bandwagon-jumping seasonal varietal (a real product, so watch your labels this Halloween), coughing out the eventual concession that it’s something you might catch a buzz off of if you’re desperate and somebody left it at your house. That he and adult son Mikey Day ultimately get into a fistfight over cereal choices and some clearly unresolved issues just cements the Massachusetts spirit of it all. After all, does the kid think he’s better than his old man? Answer me!

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Stray observations

  • After the exhaustingly packed run of short taped sketches in the at-home episodes that ended last season, is anyone else feeling like these live shows are just flying by?
  • Also, with his shaved head and deep-set eyes, anyone else getting a Bill Burr/Billy Corgan thing? Just me?
  • Che, on conservative hypocrisy about Trump being treated with stem cell therapy derived from aborted fetuses: “They do a complete 180 as soon as stem cells can save their lives, or when I get their daughter pregnant.”
  • Burr’s monologue steered hard into audience unease as his jokes about white women pretending they weren’t complicit in their men’s “crimes against humanity” while occasionally “hooking up with a Black dude” and, “if you got caught, you said it wasn’t consensual.” Like a downhill slalom, that joke.
  • Same goes for Burr using Gay Pride Month to stick up for Black History Month (“A little long for a group of people who were never enslaved!”), which he ends with the idea of a summer-ling Black History two months for “equator people.” That one may have crashed out at the end there.
  • Davidson, incredulous, on Rowling: “She creates a seven-book fantasy series about all types of mythical creatures living in harmony with wizards and elves, and the one thing she can’t wrap her head around is Laverne Cox? She’s a national treasure!”
  • Next week: Issa Rae. That’s good. Justin Bieber. That’s bad.
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Contributor, The A.V. Club. Danny Peary's Cult Movies books are mostly to blame.

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