“It’s so great to be back here, especially now that I’m rich.”
Unsurprisingly, Donald Glover is really good on Saturday Night Live. I wasn’t aware—as Glover revealed in his monologue—that the Atlanta/Solo: A Star Wars Story/music (as Childish Gambino)/everything else star tried out for SNL, twice. (And was rejected twice—smooth move, Lorne.) Also in the monologue, Glover, goofing on his polymath status, asks SNL long(est)-timer Kenan Thompson about his audition, to which Kenan replies, “Do you know how long ago that was?” As great and indispensable as Kenan’s become on the show, one wonders how a Donald Glover on Saturday Night Live career would have gone. On the evidence of both Glover’s career track and tonight’s good-but-not-great Saturday Night Live, it’s easy to see either Glover becoming the next Eddie Murphy and taking over the show (before splitting for greener pastures), or splitting for greener pastures a lot sooner after getting frustrated by the show’s historical blindspot when it comes to talented black actors.
Crooning “I really can do anything,” as he cockily screws up all over the backstage area, Glover does the requisite self-deprecating thing just fine in the monologue. (That fall out of camera off of Kyle Mooney’s skateboard is some stellar physical comedy.) But Glover really can do anything. Not to bring in his former bosses to back up what’s readily apparent, but Tina Fey hired him to write for one of the best sitcoms ever when he was still living in the NYU dorms, while Dan Harmon spent the first few seasons’ worth of Community commentaries extolling the found gold that was Glover on that other superlative sitcom while accurately bemoaning the fact that it was inevitable Glover would fly the coop once his talent kicked down door after door. Pulling the rare and coveted double-duty as host and musical guest here, Glover wasn’t out to prove he belonged on a show that twice said he didn’t. And he neither came off as feeling himself above the gig nor awed by it. Donald Glover, simply, was Donald Glover, imbuing his characters with hilariously specific inner life and holding the screen by virtue of being, well, Donald Glover. He was outstanding.
And the sketches weren’t bad. They could have been tighter—the Barbie and Lando sketches had endings that sort of dribbled out after some solid laughs. And even his winning monologue needed some more snap to the writing and the presentation. Still, Glover is, for all his many talents, an innately funny performer. He would have been a star on Saturday Night Live, but it’s probably for the best that he didn’t get pulled into the weekly task of elevating good-but-not-great material.
Jost and Che got roasted on their own showcase tonight, as Pete Davidson—under the guise of doing a “Spring in New York” piece—goofed on the Update duo about their recently announced Emmy-hosting gig. Calling Jost and Che “the less entertaining version of Riggs and Murtaugh,” and complaining that awards shows are now handed over to “just cute friends,” Davidson did his kid brother, “kidding on the square” routine perfectly, mixing professional jealously in with a handful of the critiques habitually hurled at Jost and Che’s rise from awkward unwatchability to their hard-won, chummy chemistry.
But Jost and Che do have chemistry now (and it did take a long time to get here), with the Update anchors and co-head writers (along with Kent Sublette and Bryan Tucker) so easy in their odd couple riffing that it’s easy to forget how painful their mismatched sensibilities once were. Here, Che got his usual, thoroughly earned gasp-groans, joking that, if there weren’t two FBI approaches to investigating white and black powerful people, Martin Luther King would have died of old age on top of his mistress. He got another when referring to Donald Trump accuser and tonight’s most surprising guest star, Stormy Daniels. (More on that in a bit.) His joke about her not coming on Update because her price goes down if “she’s seen on camera with a black guy” isn’t a knock on the adult film actress so much as on the racism of the adult film industry and its consumers, but, with Daniels in the house, it got another well-deserved intake of breath from the audience.
Jost, too, has honed his delivery, snapping off his uniformly cutting Trump jokes with a confident hand. The political situation is so off-the-charts ludicrous and self-parodying that finding comic angles on it is nearly futile. Still, Jost came at the Trump-ian shitshow with apt comparisons (leaking Robert Mueller’s supposed interview questions as crowdsourcing legal strategy like Lay’s crowdsources its new flavors), and with appeals for sanity in the form of to-camera broadsides about the insanity. Referring to newest and least-competently duplicitous Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, Jost called Trump’s ill-concealed payouts to Daniels “the loudest hush money in history.”
Leslie Jones came out with a song in her heart. A sweetly soulful, yet deeply disappointed and bitter song, that is, as she ran down her supposedly real list of deeply subpar former boyfriends. Jones’ search for love has taken on a deceptively potent edge in these pieces—her position as a successful, 50-ish black woman lends her comically painful misadventures an immediacy that transcends mere gag-lines. Here, punctuating tales of accidentally dating a homeless guy, a guy still living with his mom, and a part-time rapper with four kids who works at Panera Bread with the genuinely lovely chorus “In the arms of an angel, fly away from here,” Jones’ lament is one of the best things she’s done on the show.
There weren’t any truly bad sketches in the bunch tonight. The weakest was the pillow talk rehash (see below), with the courtroom sketch a tight second. Glover is very funny in the piece, donning a salt-and-pepper wig as the futilely strutting attorney attempting to derail the lawsuit by a guy whose entire family was devoured at Jurassic Park. There’s funny stuff all through the piece—Glover tries to undo the damage of a bloody film of the plaintiff’s friends being devoured by a T-Rex by appealing to the franchise’s recurring plot twists. (“The T-Rex is a good guy now! It is consistently saving the day!”) But for the first post-monologue sketch, it needed to be stronger.
The Barbie sketch, too, saw Glover taking hold of a weirdly specific character and getting big laughs. As one of a trio of unimpressive Mattel interns tasked with providing captions for Barbie’s inexplicably popular Instagram account, Glover’s rigid-postured applicant spins each innocuous promo photo’s backstory into a twisted narrative of existential ennui and PTSD that, in Glover’s haunted delivery, is very funny, indeed. Pete Davidson and Heidi Gardner get their laughs, too, as a pair of disparate dum-dums who keep picking up on each others’ incorrect answers, and Kenan has a blast as the Matte exec who takes his Barbie job very seriously, indeed.
The music video sketch was another fine showcase for Glover, even if you didn’t have the frame of reference for the joke in your memory bank. Glover’s 80s-era R&B character Raz P. Berry’s song of stalking, betrayal, and increasingly gross and petty revenge takes its inspiration from the song and video “The Rain” from one-hit wonder Oran “Juice” Jones, which is only slightly less bananas than this. I like that the sketch takes its time, only revealing that Glover’s Berry has showered in his own pee and stuffed his cheating girlfriend’s jewelry up his butt because he was following the wrong woman around town. The misogynistic, lunatic abusiveness of Berry’s song might only be a marginally heightened version of Jones’ paternalistic finger-wagging assholery, but the sketch plays on the inherent creepiness of the genre while allowing Glover to show off both his pipes and his comic chops. The sketch is funny enough if you’ve never seen the original video—but watch the original video.
The Lando sketch, calling out the lack of diversity in the Star Wars universe should have been stronger—this is one of the sketches with pacing problems—but any chance to get a sneak peek at the pitch-perfect casting of Glover as Lando Calrissian/Billy Dee Williams is okay with me. Kenan does a funny Forest Whitaker/Saw Gerrera, reading off a list of the late black characters who couldn’t be at the under-attended conference. (“Mace Windu—thank you.”) And Lando smoothly calls out the fact that the SWU is teeming with “lizard men wearing vests—just three black people though.”
The two filmed pieces were the highlight, though. “Friendos” saw the members of Migos segueing from their signature rap braggadocio into their weekly therapy session with Cecily Strong’s Dr. Angel Adelson. Glover, Kenan, and Chris Redd are all great, their cocksure superstars gradually letting loose with their inner insecurities over, for example, just whose idea it was to get that sweet-ass Lambo. I’m a sucker for a piece that takes a high-concept premise (complete with elaborate wigs and facial tattoos) and veers into an unexpected, decidedly low-key and eccentric direction. And the three actors (and Strong’s therapist) are so specific and so strong that the conceit manages to wring some genuine emotion out of the bandmates’ generosity toward each other.
“A Kanye Place” takes the movie parody of A Quiet Place as inspiration to let Glover and the cast give a clever “What the fuck?” to Kanye West’s recent Trump-praising, TMZ-ranting, slave-shaming public meltdown. Lovingly detailed, the parody keeps finding ways for the terrified survivors to inadvertently out themselves to the sound-sensitive monsters lurking in the cornfield. “I need to know if he said ‘poopity-scoop!,’” blurts Aidy Bryant’s formerly sensible survivor, dooming her. As far as non-musical diss tracks go, Glover’s turn here calls out his fellow rapper’s most recent episode with hilarious eloquence.
Melissa Villaseñor is a talented impressionist and a funny performer whose search for recurring characters who will stick continues. Here, she brings back her one-joke character of the lady who is really, uniquely bad at dirty talk. Opposite Glover, her strength is in just how specifically terrible her pillow talk role-playing is. (Asked to be mean to him, she smilingly purrs “Your dad’s dead.”) It’s not a bad premise, but the sketch, like a number of them tonight, was slack where it should have crackled. Like the couple’s tentative shoulder-pawing throughout, there was a lack of commitment that left the whole thing sort of—flaccid.
Well, quantity won out in this week’s political cold open. I’ve make my thoughts on Alec Baldwin’s hammily indifferent Donald Trump clear enough by this point, but at least SNL went all-out in addressing this week’s top-of-the-shitheap Trump scandal. (Oh, he totally did pay off adult film star Stormy Daniels, according to new lawyer Rudy Giuliani’s loose, Nosferatu lips.) So we got a return of Ben Stiller’s panicky Michael Cohen, ineptly conferencing in a parade of gust stars and a new Kate McKinnon impression. (She can add a ghoulishly addled Giuliani to her roster of every other member of this misbegotten administration.) Martin Short popped in as former Trump doctor Harold Bornstein, screaming about feeling “raped” by Trump’s goons raiding his office to confiscate Trump’s health records. (Oh, that happened this week, too.)
Scarlett Johansson and Jimmy Fallon played Ivanka and Jared, allowing Fallon to screech in a high-pitched voice. Leslie Jones was Omarosa, Aidy Bryant was Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Cecily Strong rose warily into frame as Melania to ask about wives testifying against husbands, Beck Bennett’s Mike Pence was interrupted surreptitiously calling a gay chat line—all SNL’s standbys. The revelation that Trump’s wires-crossed conversation with Stormy Daniels wouldn’t be played by Kate McKinnon, but by the actual Daniels (aka Stephanie Clifford) herself counts as the biggest coup, though. Sure to send Trump into a Twitter-tizzy (nothing yet as of publish-time), Daniels’ appearance is notable for a number of reasons. For one, it’s a porn star/presidential mistress at the center of a legal battle that could unseat Donald Trump calling for said president’s resignation live on national TV. So, sort of a biggie. For another, it’s part of SNL’s long and storied tradition of allowing a high profile drop-in to dictate the joke, something that always comes off as impressive in booking prestige as it is invariably sort-of lame in execution. Still—eyes on Trump’s Twitter feed should you wish to keep up with the daily, self-regurgitating debasement of American democracy and public discourse in 2018.
Childish Gambino has evolved along with Glover, changing from the effortfully clever Camp to Awaken, My Love!’s confidently funk-adelic theatricality. (Although I still listen to Camp on the reg, Pitchfork be damned.) Tonight, playing new songs “Saturday” and “This Is America” (whose startling, disturbing video dropped during the show), Glover/Gambino created synthesis. “Saturday” was a block party carved out in the corner of Studio 8H, Glover’s monologue jokes about not being hired layering his Solo cups, dominoes, and shirt-open groove with added frisson.
And “This Is America” out-Kanye-d Kanye, Gambino again bringing a theatrical flair (laser-lighting, uniformed school-age dancers) to the stage for a mesmerizing few minutes. Each performance unobtrusively introduced by fellow young black entertainment royalty (Zoe Kravitz, Daniel Kaluuya), Gambino simply took over SNL. Gambino may be on the cusp of retirement, but Glover’s musical alter ego has transcended stunt. Childish Gambino has become a formidable outlet for Glover’s artistic expression, and someone whose music is worth waiting for.
Luke, buddy. I saw your unaired sketch from the Mulaney show, which wasn’t bad at all. Getting on-air, though, is still not working out. Hang in there? I guess?
I’m going to go with Chris Redd for the top spot. He had smaller roles, but he popped in them. And he and Alex Moffat did some fine silent work as a pair of incredulous FBI wiretappers in the cold open.
With Chris Redd, Kenan, and Glover playing three hardened cons manning the customer service lines for what sounds like a home shopping company in order to earn “30 cents an hour,” there was the merest hint of edginess to the premise here. (You know, about how for-profit prisons keeping overwhelmingly black prisoners on their pennies-per-day payroll is sort of a, let’s call it, problematic situation.) But the sketch was really about the three actors switching between their tough-talking prison personas and their performatively sunny phone voices, and all three are terrific at it. And the capper that their supervisor is Beck Bennett’s cannibalistic (but white) fellow prisoner brings the edge back on the way out.
- In addition to all the other cameos, A$AP Rocky shows up in Dr. Adelson’s waiting room when Migos come out.
- Glover notes his work in Community and Solo, “and, if you’re black, I made Atlanta and ‘Redbone.’”
- Raz P. Berry has some serious cleaning up to do at home: “I did a lot of things I didn’t get to in the song.”
- Che’s guess on the first of Muller’s “trap” questions for Trump: “Colluder says what?”
- Pete, on Che and Jost having it all: head writers, Update, Emmy hosts, Harvard, black.
- Pete, on his failed “How do [long-ago NBC head] Warren Littlefield’s nuts taste?” burn: “Southwest needs to get some new magazines.”
- Lando, on his reaction to seeing naked alien ladies: “Oh, that’s your that. We’ll figure it out.”