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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Daniel Craig's enthusiasm makes for an energetic, enjoyable SNL

Kate McKinnon, Daniel Craig, Heidi Gardner
Kate McKinnon, Daniel Craig, Heidi Gardner
Photo: Will Heath/NBC
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“What’s with all this hot butts talk?”

“I’m not an actor, I’m a [retiring action franchise] star!”

Daniel Craig loves hosting Saturday Night Live. Sure, he’s only done it twice now, but enthusiasm counts for a lot when you’re anchoring a sketch show where the ebbs and flows of energy and tone are so abrupt and of variable quality, and Craig is clearly just into it in a way that covers up a lot of sins. It’d be surprising if Craig weren’t such a malleable actor for a guy who’s been sewn into James Bond’s couture action tuxes since 2006, and if he didn’t always look so relived onscreen whenever his Bond gets to shrug off some of the starchy accoutrements of the venerable (not to say passé and creaky) series.

On SNL, Craig doesn’t shrug off a thing—not a silly wig, a vomit rig, an over-the-top accent, a go-for-broke comic make out session, or even a mid-monologue sneak peek of his last Bond film, where a switch from his staid casino go-to of baccarat in favor of a tourist-packed craps table sees James Bond losing the thread of his hunt for SPECTRE in the throes of a vodka-Red Bull and the chanting adulation of the crowd riding his hot hand. (Kenan is invaluably on-point as his number one fan.) Craig shouting, “What my name is? Simba!!” while standing on a table is emblematic of how little the guy stands on traditional movie star gloss in favor of whooping it up when he gets the chance. It’s infectious, all the way down to his effusively physical introductions of the musical numbers from The Weeknd. Guy just likes the gig.

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It was that kind of night. Senator and now-former presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren was focused and funny, even upstaging her SNL doppelgänger Kate McKinnon who, to be fair, had to sprint in after a quick change from her “Fox News’ Joey Fatone,” Laura Ingraham. (Although getting owned by Warren backstage, too, is just all Warren.) Meanwhile, McKinnon herself made the game night sketch immeasurably better just by staying wordlessly present as hubby Craig and movie quote-obsessed guest Heidi Gardner got way too into their shared love of the game. Toss in another excellent Update from Michael Che (busting out the booze once more in apparent defeat), and the episode just felt awake in a way SNL hasn’t consistently this season. Again, such attitude goes a long way.

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Best/Worst Sketch Of The Night

That said, none of the actual sketches tonight were especially memorable in themselves—a lot of one-level premises got picked up by the performances. The one piece that worked on its own was “On The Couch,” a smooth music video groove where Chris Redd, Kenan, and The Weeknd crooned a traditional R&B lament about their women kicking them out of bed that keeps making left turns. For one of these SNL musical shorts to work, the music itself has to be solid, and it was, with all three putting everything into the lyrics as we gradually see their initial “my woman’s treating me wrong” verses get cut inexplicably short by said women seemingly getting more and more unreasonable about making the men sleep in the living room before the second twist reveals just how shitty the men actually are. The bit turns one last time as we find out that The Weeknd’s lavish attentions are getting rebuffed because he’s pestering his ex and her new husband. Great song, good jokes, fine execution.

That game night sketch, too, started out in one direction and kept swerving into unexpected lanes, as Gardner and Craig’s matching obsession with absurdly unrevealing movie quotes (“Hey, hi, I didn’t know you were here,” is from Failure To Launch, of course) is infused with the loopy energy of husband Craig’s asides to wife McKinnon (he’s so good at quotes because he got fired six months ago). And McKinnon makes the choice for her bemused spouse to be tickled by the weird spectacle of her husband’s unexpected bond with their houseguest rather than playing it with the expected shock and dudgeon. Craig and Gardner make a good match, their seeming flirting revealed to be more about mutual respect for the art than attraction, as even their non-verbal passionate kiss turns out to be part of the game. (Gardner knows it’s Ryan Gosling in The Notebook because of Craig’s scrupulous tongue work.) Sketch premises are, by nature, one-note, but a trio of engaged performers can bring a lot out of them, and the more the sketch switches tracks unexpectedly, the better. (I liked how the duelists tried to triple-bluff each other with equally nondescript quotes from Captain Phillips.)

Not so the case with the Knives Out sketch, which, while still amusing, laid out its one joke, executed that joke repeatedly, and then whipped out the double vomit rig and called it an ending. Just as an aside—Where are we as an SNL audience on the vomit/blood rig as a concept at this point? I mean, its the sort of guarantor of cheap yucks/yuks that’s so beyond cliché that alt-SNL TGS With Tracy Jordan used it to show how potentially smarter, more challenging sketches are pitched aside in favor of a gross-out spectacle laugh, and while Craig and Beck Bennett made a meal out of it (sorry), I just wind up thinking about the commercial break mop-up. Anyway, the sketch proper was just an exercise in Bennett’s supposed dialect coach trotting out suspect Southern speech patterns for Craig’s Benoit Blanc, while the ever-game Craig contorted his face and dignity to ape his mentor’s cartoon-derived nonsense. It was cute—Beck’s fixation on Southern people complaining that their butts are always so hot is funny, and his transitions are aces—and Craig, again, went for it all the way. Right up to and including spouting torrents of leaky vomit from his sleeve.

That whole pandemic we’re all likely to get got its workout in the soap opera sketch, where Kate McKinnon, Craig, Kenan, Chloe Fineman, and Cecily Strong all knocked about the set as their over-emoting daytime thespians desperately tried to avoid any and all physical contact. It’s another one-joke sketch (complete with long, draggy intro explaining just exactly what we’re about to see), although there were enough weirdo, old school physical gags to make me laugh in spite of myself. Why does Craig’s white-maned suitor have a cockatoo named Charles? And why is he named Blaze Childress? Same reason Blaze is given the backstory about ditching his priesthood studies, explaining offhandedly, “Plus, have you ever read the bible? It’s weird.” And the fact that, prior to their passionate lovemaking, that end table by the sofa turns out to be an industrial plastic wrap dispenser with which Craig wraps up McKinnon. Or the Barbie doll fight, the indifferently matched insert shot of a hug, Kate and Chloe embracing goodbye via a foot-touching Irish step dance, and Craig stroking Kate’s hair with a very long, extendable arm. It’s goofy stuff, but, hey, I laughed at our impending doom, so that’s not nothing.

I wanted to like The Deirdre Show more than I would up doing, mainly because it gave Ego Nwodim another shot at anchoring a sketch. And the joke almost came off, as her diva daytime talk show guest gets hung up on celebrity chef Craig’s admonition not to eat the foil on his mini-quiche appetizers to the extent that things go south pretty quickly. I like a sketch that hinges on one character’s inability to let something go, and Nwodim keeps searching diligently for the right hook for her character’s anger without the sketch ever settling on a tone. There are some out of left field lines, like host Aidy Bryant confidently asserting that hors d’oeuvre means “horse doves,” but the bit never quite decides what it’s going to be about, as Nwodim’s Cookie LaFloof winds up actually not knowing you’re not supposed to eat foil when she pops an unwrapped stick of gum in her mouth. Plus, there’s a line where the indignant Cookie refers to Craig’s chef as a “queer” and explains that she can say it because she’s married to a gay guy, an out-there choice that needed a much better realized comic setting to not stick out so awkwardly.

And I love Rachel Dratch, I really do. It’s been nice to see her back in 8H recently as another now-former female presidential candidate in Amy Klobuchar, but did we need another Debbie Downer sketch? (Rhetorical question—we did not.) In the third coronavirus sketch of the night (not counting Update), Dratch’s Debbie returned to bum out a wedding party with her long-ago, not-that-missed litany of bad news (and a gas mask). I laughed once, when Kenan’s wedding guest snaps at his inquisitive table mate, “Why would you delve?” It’s nigh impossible to be truly annoyed at having Dratch in the house, but this is a cast starving for opportunities to establish themselves, and all these superfluously crowd-pleasing ringer sketches aren’t helping.

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Weekend Update update

As mentioned, Che carried over his over-it world-weary depression drinking bit from last week, and it’s still a funny adjunct to his Update persona. Once more kicking back in seeming surrender at the latest coronavirus news, he takes a swig and asks Jost, “Can you believe we both almost got to marry Scarlett Johansson?” and I laughed my own beverage out my nose, which is a win for Che. As usual, Che’s personality trumps his more conventional (white) co-anchor’s, lending bite to lines like him comparing Democrats to condoms in that, “I’ll use them ’cause it’s safer, I guess, but it doesn’t feel good.” Same goes for his take on a story about NASA’s new diversity Mars astronaut program, noting that it’s going to be a tough sell to get “black people on a ship to a new world.” Che’s disdain for things and people he doesn’t agree with can get distressingly ugly online, but, on Update, it’s a potent tool to keep the fake news game interesting.

Jost was fine. He let Trump bury himself again with a clip of Trump’s penchant for flag-humping, and made some mildly amusing old white guy jokes about the remaining septuagenarian presidential hopefuls, noting that the inevitable debates will be moderated by a Jamaican nurse, and consist of questions like, “Who’s your favorite white boxer?”

Bowen Yang may not have hit on the next Trade Daddy with Bottle Boi, honestly. Adopting a plummy accent as Jost’s neighborhood bottle-collecting homeless guy protesting New York’s new plastic bag ban, Yang seemed to be treading on Cecily’s Cathy Anne turf, what with the malapropisms (“Governor Rivers Cuomo”), and the scroungy New York street character vibe, but it wasn’t as well-realized, and the whole plastic bag-plastic bottle conceit never found a reason to exist. Swing again, Yang—I like your whole thing on SNL this season.

Not that Strong had anything to complain about, as her much longer spotlight on Update gave her Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started A Conversation With At A Party a chance to chime in atonally on coronavirus with her signature mismatch of misinformation and unearned confidence. Constantly checking her phone, Strong’s forcefully vapid internet-skimmer is still a funny take on the adage about a little knowledge being a dangerously infuriating thing, as she overwhelmed Che with her own sea of half-heard malapropisms (the primaries are “ribbed for no one’s pleasure,” the Trump administration’s coronavirus response is “inexcusamel,” and the Don Jr./Hunter Biden hypocrisy is “necrophiliism”). The joke’s always with the performance rather than the content, though, and while the Girl is never going to recapture her initial comic powers, her position as avatar for everyone you’ve ever interacted with on Twitter remains, in Strong’s peerlessly contemptuous ding-dong, potently funny.

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

Hi, Debbie. Bye, Debbie. The Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started A Conversation With At A Party can come back whenever Cecily wants. I kept thinking soap The Sands Of Modesto was a repeater, but that might just be the reused Californians set.

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

First things first—no Baldwin, no Trump. So that’s a plus. Look, there’s a sociopathic racist in charge whose narcissism is actively getting people killed in real time, so SNL’s gotta do Trump, but the character is more effective as a talked-about absence, so tonight’s cold open benefitted from that. As Fox News’s Girl You Wish You’d Never Heard From And Wish You’d Never Hear From Again, Laura Ingraham, Kate McKinnon was tightly focused and funny throughout. It’s hard to parody the already Robocop-worthy self-owns that are the Fox on-air personalities, but going in with a great sketch actor and a “fuck it” attitude works wonders. Here, McKinnon’s terminally derisive Ingraham takes on the ongoing global pandemic that Fox is hyperventilating to downplay on behalf of its bloviating, criminally irresponsible number one fan. When attempting to out-Fox Fox News, the only strategy is to just keep throwing haymakers of bigotry, hypocrisy, outright lunacy, and lies, and McKinnon did just that. Mocking those Democrats (and medical professionals, and the World Health Organization, and anyone with a human brain) who think that taking adequate and responsible precautions against a disease that’s already killing people and crippling economies all over the world is a good idea, Ingraham called it a “frankly gay smear campaign” aimed at undermining a president who recently bragged on live TV about holding back help for infected cruise ship passengers because it would make him look bad, and further claimed that doctors everywhere stand in awe of his unprecedented understanding of the virus. As Jost put it after one coronavirus joke/not-joke on tonight’s Update, “Oh my God, we’re all gonna die.”

But I kid the former reality show huckster whose vain attempts to change a hurricane with a Sharpie endangered not only lives but confidence in national emergency preparedness for, say, a worldwide pandemic. McKinnon just kept going, berating Dems for whipping up the public with “a fear-frenzy of lies” (“That’s our thing!”), and throwing to Cecily Strong’s equally pitch-perfect Fox legal spin queen Jeanine Pirro, who reassured all Fox viewers that they’re completely safe, what with the Fox demographics consisting of those who “skew elderly, are in bad health, live cloistered together in homes specifically for sick people, and have smoked their entire lives.” Unfair to Fox’s no-doubt 100 percent, guaranteed diverse, open-minded, and varied viewership? Not when the network’s entire response to this crisis has been 24-hour propaganda written specifically to prop up the conspiracy theories of a nattering old loony whose constitutional inability to admit even the slightest fault or human weakness is literally killing people, no. It’s harsh, and funny, and if SNL’s cold opens were more like this than the farmed-out, warmed-over impression parades they’ve been for so long now, the show would benefit greatly.

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Contradicting myself, I was thrilled to see all-time all-star impressionist Darrell Hammond step out from the announcer’s booth to bring his barely exaggerated Chis Matthews out for some sympathetic #MeToo griping from Ingraham. With the recently canned/retired Matthews having gone down for, among other things, making inappropriate comments to women, naturally the cushiest landing spot is on Laura Ingraham, who has proven herself all too eager to stroke the wounded egos of men who complain that women just can’t take a joke/compliment/unwanted workplace sexual advance anymore. In his illustrious career on SNL, Hammond’s Matthews was always one of his best, his 1.5 speed approximation of the Hardball host’s rat-a-tat gabbling cadence and boisterously digressive style so spot-on that those unfamiliar with Matthews would think Hammond’s was an original farcical creation. Here, as all the wrong people come to his defense in the wake of his downfall, Hammond’s Matthews happily accepts Ingraham’s invitation to be as old-school sleazy and insane as possible, up to and including calling her “girl Hitler.” Again, it’s a pile-on, but a pointedly funny one.

Same goes for the Trump boys, Alex Moffat and Mikey Day doing their still-amusing doubles act, with Moffat’s obsequiously clueless Eric interrupting to out his father at the most inopportune times during brother Don Jr.’s slicky-boy patter. (“It’s like our dad always says . . .” “The N-word?”) But the real coup was the appearance as herself of Elizabeth Warren, appearing (as she pointedly doesn’t) on Fox to deliver a knowingly funny post-mortem about her abandoned presidential campaign. That Warren would ever be on Ingrham’s show is explained by McKinnon’s admiration for how badly Warren beat up fellow Democratic not-contender Mike Bloomberg, something Warren herself still seemed to relish. Joking about avoiding Twitter, Warren yet addressed the predictably self-serving and abusive dialogue between Biden and Sanders supporters both begging for and hectoring over a possible Warren endorsement, joking that she might just pull a New York Times and endorse both. (Not that the ever-forthright Warren would be that wishy-washy.) Taking a well-calibrated swipe at herself for her coalition of “teachers, preschool teachers, middle school teachers, and teachers’ pets,” Warren wasn’t conceding much else, a stance that mirrors the “damned if you do/if you don’t” position she finds herself in going forward. Look, a garbage disposal jammed with ten forks and an entire pineapple would make a better president than what we have now, but Warren’s camera-ready forthrightness here makes her election exit all the more dispiriting. (As Che put it on Update, for a lot of people it’s time to vote against the Republican, rather than getting to vote for the person you thought would actually make the best president.) But, with McKinnon hustling out in her Warren gear to announce a breathless start to the show, it’s hard to imagine that Elizabeth Warren is going anywhere, on SNL or off.

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I am hip to the musics of today

The Weeknd appears to be channeling some pent-up 1980s fond musical memories with his synth-heavy grooves and light-stepping dance moves (and new trademark bloody face bandages and red blazer) for a couple of songs from his upcoming album, After Hours. (Coming out March 20.) The Weeknd’s always had the voice, and this smooth criminal new direction is intriguingly theatrical as well as, as ever, silky. Plus, Daniel Craig’s clearly a big fan.

Most/Least Valuable Not Ready For Prime Time Player

With only one of Lorne Michaels’ former employees returning to steal a role tonight, the cast got a nice, even workout. (All except for Kyle Mooney and Pete Davidson who didn’t appear to be in the house at all.) It’s between Kate and Cecily, not to be too predictable, although Kenan always pops, even in smaller roles, as when his talk show guest immediately turns on Craig’s chef, shouting for Aidy’s host to straight-up murder her guest. (He also makes the greatest gambling companion James Bond could ever hope for.) Still, tie goes to the two most talented vets on the show, so here’s to Kate and Cecily. 

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

It’s been a while since Aidy Bryant got another musical solo number, and “Overnight Salad” started out June Cleaver chipper and chirpy, and got weirder and darker. Which is just how I like my Aidy, frankly, as her (presumably Midwestern) housewife’s idea of “salad” is gradually revealed to be one of those mile-high, multi-layered trifle dishes where enough unlikely and unhealthy ingredients are heaped to make the word “salad” a sick joke. The assembly song is funny enough (“Look who’s back! It’s mayo!”), and the woman’s reaction to husband Craig’s immediate disgust and horror at his first bite sees her picture-perfect housewife revealing untold depths of denial and manic Americana. A perfect, poisoned topper to a decent episode.

Stray observations

  • Speaking of the better-even-than-you’ve-heard Knives Out, I’m not the only one more excited at the prospect of a continuing Benoit Blanc cinematic universe than the Italian loafers-clad trudge of the Bond franchise, right?
  • The Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started A Conversation With At A Party on socialism: “How’d that work for Vuvuzela? Loud.”
  • Ingraham, after echoing her Dear Leader by calling the coronavirus concerns an urban legend, says the quiet part loud in admitting, “And yes, I said ‘urban’ as a dogwhistle.”
  • Also echoing her “I wasn’t making a Hitler salute to Trump, it’s all in your liberal heads” trolling, Ingraham hawks racial slur word search books, telling her viewers, “You didn’t say it, you just circled it!”
  • Craig continues to extol the talents of No Time To Die co-writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge, promising in his monologue that his Bond will follow his “Bond, James Bond” catchphrase with a to-camera, “Is it bad that I fancy the Pope?”
  • The Sands Of Modesto, in one exchange: “You were killed in that plane crash!” “That’s what I was told, but I’m alive!”
  • Che, on one of those news stories about an elderly woman wishing she could get arrested just once for the experience: “And no need to look it up, she’s white.”
  • The Weeknd gives a Weekend Update Weeknd update: He’s fine. A little cough.
  • Coronavirus be damned, everyone in the goodnights’ wanted to hug Elizabeth Warren.
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Contributor, The A.V. Club. Danny Peary's Cult Movies books are mostly to blame.

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