Jay Pharoah, Sasheer Zamata, Drake (NBC)

“I’m not an actor, I’m a [rap/former Degrassi] star!”

Doing double duty for the second time, Drake, much like last time, proved an eager, agreeable host. If he’s no Timberlake in the host-musical guest pantheon, he clearly worked his ass off, appearing in every sketch but the cold open and doing two songs off of Views (he even popped up on Update). But sometimes performing effort is an enemy on SNL, and, as personable and game as Drake was, his wire-to-wire feat was more pleasant than electrifying. His inevitable musical monologue (humorously objecting to his constant meme-ification) was flat and off-key, and he relied too obviously on the cue cards. Still, not a bad outing—just a workmanlike one.

Weekend Update update

Colin Jost started off unable to conceal his comedian’s delight at the latest Donald Trump punchline-in-waiting (this time the revelation that he liked to pretend to be his own fawning PR person on the phone). Grinning ear to ear, he and Michal Che batted the newest Trump ridiculousness back and forth with obvious glee, Jost’s speculation that the presumptive Republican candidate for President has a Fight Club situation going volleyed back with Che’s observation that everything the Donald says ”sounds like he’s on the speed round of Family Feud.” Speed round indeed, as the Che-Jost partnership remains in fine form. Look, the fact that SNL invited the guy to host this season has, understandably, cast suspicion on the show’s political humor for a lot of people, and it remains to be seen how long it takes for the lingering stench of that decision to fade. But sometimes something is just so irresistible comedically that the simple performer’s joy in making jokes about it is deeply infectious.

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Kate McKinnon’s Olya Povlatsky is always fun, her perpetually beleaguered Russian peasant woman letting Kate sink her teeth into the broad silliness. Here too, though, Trump provided funny fodder, his oft-expressed admiration for the similarly self-aggrandizing Russian president Putin leading Olya to mock America for welcoming the Donald into the political mainstream (“Welcome to the suck!”), and coming back for more by claiming that her infamously unlucky village is where Trump turns up every ten years to pick a new wife.

Leslie Jones did her thing, here talking about how she takes solace as a woman in her late 40s in the fact that failure is a good and necessary thing on your journey to who you eventually become. Leslie’s at her best as herself—she managed to make it through her one appearance in a live sketch without blowing a line, but that’s still a rare occurrence—and when, as here, she seizes on something about which she has strong convictions, she’s excellent. Noting that Oprah got fired at 23 because “she was just some 23-year-old punk who had to get fired to become Oprah,” this 48-year-old comedian who’s vaulted up the ladder on Saturday Night Live and who’s about to become a damned Ghostbuster speaks with authority, saving a little shade to throw at boss Lorne Michaels, too. (Suggesting that, if Lorne had gotten fired from the show way back when, “maybe he still wouldn’t be working the same damn job.”)

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And Jay Pharoah did his thing, too, his report on a supposed ”rap summit” allowing him to bust out his across-the-board stellar impressions of the likes of Jay Z, 50 Cent, T.I., Lil Wayne, Nicki Minaj, and Drake. (Jost sets him up for one of his best-known impressions by asking if there were any rappers he’d know—cue Will Smith.) Jay had maybe his best show ever tonight, and, if SNL often seems lost as to what to do with him, little showcases like this are a welcome opportunity for him to show off his chops with ease and confidence. The “sneaker-upper” wth Drake coming out to object to Jay’s impression of him saw Pharoah not only doing a great Drake but luring the host into the trap of repeating the catchphrase that’s the linchpin of the impersonation. Jost, Che, Drake, and Pharoah all broke up in infectious, affectionate laughs—so did I.

Best/worst sketch of the night

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“Black Jeopardy,” like “How’s He Doing?” is a recurring sketch that’s both consistently funny and thoroughly welcome as an indicator of how SNL—for all its well-publicized attempts to “diversify”—has indeed broadened its comic voice. At this point in its history, SNL’s an ocean liner, and it steers like one. But sketches like these are written from a perspective that’s from inside the experience of black America and not from the outside. If that’s a pretty low comic bar for a satirical comedy show to clear, it’s also one that SNL has banged its head on more often than not. As ever, the game show presents its two black contestants (Jay and Sasheer tonight) and Kenan Thompson’s genially mocking host as they ask and answer questions written from a shared experience, and deal incredulously with an outsider who gets pissed off that they feel excluded. In the past, the interloper’s been white, while here Drake plays the very chipper black Canadian, Jared. Sure, it’s an excuse for a lot of hockey and Rick Moranis references, but the sketch takes a few resonant turns, as Jared’s sunny optimism begins to chafe. Objecting to the incessant Canadian stereotyping, he protests, “You can’t just put us all into one category,” and Kenan’s host responds, “I’m just gonna go ahead and let you tell that to our police.” And, finally snapping, Jared angrily asks, “Why do you have to judge me before you even know me?” He wins the game immediately, because that’s the day’s secret “Black Jeopardy” phrase.

The last sketch was the worst (see the Ten-To-Oneland report), but “A Sexy Kind Of Evening With Dennis Walls” never took off, despite Drake, Kate McKinnon, and Cecily Strong putting in some game physical comedy. Having pissed off the director of his special, the smooth soul crooner Walls found himself sabotaged with a toy saxophone, too-rapidly spinning love-bed, and a gimmicked microphone that makes his sultry song stylings more Alvin than Barry White. Drake just isn’t at home enough in sketches to make his characterization pop, although McKinnon and Strong’s passive-aggressive relationship as his backup singers did.

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

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We got Olya, Leslie, “Black Jeopardy,” and the return of Baby Boss (aka Beck Bennett’s Dick Patterson), who meets with Taran Killam’s Paul Ryan in order to be vetted as the GOP’s alternative to Trump. Baby Boss is always a great showcase for Bennett—I’ve always assumed it was part of his audition for the show. It’s an easy laugh, but his physicality as the grown guy in a baby body is outstanding. And if there’s no room for a recurring goofball character like this on SNL, then that’s not the SNL I know and love. And, like with Olya, the specter of Donald Trump creeps into an existing bit, lending the piece a touch more reason to exist. It’s a big, broad character that makes me laugh. Sue me.

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

That Donald Trump creep—you know what I’m saying—saw the candidate and seemingly inexhaustible material fountain seeping into a lot of sketches tonight. (And the fact that next week’s the season finale must be a bummer for the writers room looking for daily Trump gaffes, blatant untruths, and just plain horrifying bullshit to build sketches around.) The cold open remains the de rigueur home for politics, but Update, Olya, Baby Boss, and even a line in Drake’s monologue were all infected by the Donald, to variable effect. The open was—fine. Hinging on how slavishly former blustery critic Chris Christie has curried the nominee’s favor, Darrell Hammond and Bobby Moynihan trotted out the expected beats. Trump’s bizarre impersonation of his own press person a got a laugh from the chosen alias “Joey Pepperoni.” Moynihan’s delivery of one of the prospective Vice President’s brush-offs did the same. (“He said not right now, but he will see you in hell.”) And Jay Pharoah’s eerily eccentric Ben Carson is such a weirdly hilarious creature that it makes the prospect of a Trump-Carson ticket oddly desirable, from a comic perspective at least. If there was bite to the sketch, it was in Moynihan’s Christie’s panicked “NO!” when Trump assumed Christie’s tough Floridian potential Veep is George Zimmerman.

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I am hip to the musics of today

Drake performed two numbers from the recently dropped and apparently somewhat underwhelming Views. Like his appearances in sketches tonight, the numbers—complete with signature awkward dancing inside a big box—showed Drake’s low-key charisma. And weren’t especially memorable. He did better, oddly, in the filmed comic musical number where he transformed backstage slights from the SNL cast and Lorne into a furious, finger-guns-firing diss track.

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

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Jay Pharoah was everywhere tonight, and did exceptional work all around. We’ve covered the rest, but his performance in the otherwise nondescript rental car sketch had me rolling. Not going to guess at a region for that accent (the sketch says they’re in Portland, Oregon, but I leave it to fellow A.V. Clubber Les Chappell to advise), but his manager—whose name may have been “Derwan”?—was such a contained, lived-in weirdo that it had me transfixed in the way a truly original and committed sketch character can do. Half-trying to placate a couple irate that their convertible Mustang isn’t in stock (and that the rental car agency actually has no cars at all), Pharoah added inexplicable extra ‘r’s to every word, proposed they take his less impressive car instead (“All right that’s fair, that doesn’t make any sense”), and generally found ways to imbue a five-minute caricature with such unique energy that he became strangely indelible. Just a great show for Jay.

Bobby Moynihan had some great moments as well, none better than the American Ninja Warrior sketch. With the recent announcement that SNL was going to cut out a significant number of commercials and substitute “original branded content” to make up the revenue, one might suspect that this bit of corporate synergy with another NBC series is the sort of thing we’re in for. That all being wearily acknowledged, Moynihan stuck the landing—even if his unfortunate ninja hopeful most assuredly did not—throwing his body painfully into his character’s disastrous attempts to navigate the show’s obstacle course. Doing two harsh-looking face-plants and then attempting to sprint across the show’s water pit (in a laugh-out-loud visual, especially in slow-mo), Moynihan’s commitment to the bit was most appreciated.

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

Drake’s underwhelming attempt to Timberlake himself saw him closing out the show with a big swing at an original character in the form of the Hollywood Hogan-look professional chaperone Shane at a school dance. Like the rest of his characterizations tonight, he was into it, but not necessarily up to it, with Shane’s pep talks to the puzzled and disdainful kids going for absurdity (he ended up drinking buddies with Osama Bin Laden, kidnapper Ariel Castro, and O.J.) but playing out mostly to indifference.

Stray observations

  • There was someone in the audience yelling during “Black Jeopardy,” the school dance sketch, and the goodnights, which was unnerving, right? Drake and Kenan especially seemed a little rattled during “Black Jeopardy.” It’s always strange to think how easy it would be for someone to really disrupt SNL—it makes me wonder about the audience vetting process.
  • “You don’t love me for me, you just love me for memes.”
  • In his musical monologue, Drake promises that Rihanna’s in the house—only to hurriedly slap on a wig for a Rihanna impression. Don’t tease us, Drake.
  • Hey, Chris Rock showed up to introduce Drake’s first musical number.
  • Jost, after a story about how a local Domino’s franchise sent an ambulance to the home of a delivery customer who hadn’t called in a few days, says the company’s new slogan is, “You die when we say you die.”
  • Che, after reporting on Trump’s denial that he made up PR man John Miller. “How about you show us John Miller’s birth certificate?”
  • Jost, on the growing number of conservative “bathroom bills” around the country: “Bathroom Bill sounds like the perfect name for a restaurant pervert.”
  • “This is like candy in my mouth to me, I’m assuming.”
  • Leslie Jones revealed that she tore her ACL doing the ninja sketch a few weeks ago. Not worth it.
  • “Maybe naming yourself after the thing that destroyed your town wasn’t the best choice.”
  • “So, how’ve you been?” “I’m depressed. No reason really.”
  • “How come is it nasty?” “Oh, Cookie. She’s the dumb one.”
  • “Is this a Jakob Dylan convention? Because all I see are a bunch of Wallflowers!”

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