“I’m not an actor, I’m a [major movie, possible political] star!”
It’s two new members of the Five-Timers Club in two weeks, as Dwayne Johnson donned the (no doubt custom-tailored) smoking jacket alongside longtime Clubbers Alec Baldwin and Tom Hanks in the monologue of this season 42 finale. As Johnson notes in the goodnights on the opposite end of the episode, he first hosted SNL 17 years ago. In the meantime, the former The Rock has become, without exaggeration, one of the biggest box office draws in the world, and one of the most universally liked. A product of innate charisma and showmanship, and a whole lot of hard work, Johnson’s ascendance has seen him grow from the “pleasant surprise” brand of Saturday Night Live host he was once upon a time, to the assured, eminently entertaining “must-watch” category. Completely game, confidently silly, and dedicated to the gig, Johnson makes hosting simply another of the entertainment avenues he’s tried and mastered.
Tonight’s episode wasn’t as good as his last, but that was one of the best episodes in years. The show mined that stellar outing for some repeats, with Johnson reprising his turns as inadvertently cruel wrestler Coco Lookout and meathead boyfriend of Cecily Strong’s rudely oblivious Gemma, but, as is almost always the case, the animating magic was gone. Decent sketches both, but drawn from the same blueprints, with precious little inspiration spent finding anything new to do. That might be said of much of the finale, which came off as a bit tired and, in the case of the final sketch, disappointing ragged—especially as it was the final sketch for two integral cast members.
Weekend Update update
“Okay. I know I said this last week but…” That’s how Colin Jost, with a picture of Donald Trump scowling over his shoulder, started off this last Update of the season. It’s indicative of a lot of the TV political comedy these days—because what can you say at this point? There’s never a dearth of insane, mortifying political grotesquerie with Donald Trump in the White House. This week saw Trump repeatedly bragging about things that constitute obstruction of justice, a former FBI head appointed to investigate, among other things, Trump’s firing of the previous FBI head, noted anti-Muslim sloganeer Trump traveling to a Muslim country to give a speech on Islam, and more. Finding ways to avoid just repeating the insanity and shrugging like Jim Halpert is becoming tougher and tougher, and Michael Che and Colin Jost have been hacking away at the problem all season.
Here, Jost continued the strategy of just throwing punches, starting out with references to Mike Pence “warming up in the bullpen” and the aside “President-for-now Trump.” Who knows how this racist, incompetent shitshow is going to play out, but the idea that Donald Trump isn’t going to be around as long as he thought is still shocking enough comedically to wring uncomfortable laughter from the audience, as is straight-up calling Trump a liar, as Jost does when contemplating the choice between believing former FBI director James Comey or “the guy who’s definitely lying.” When Che chimes in with jokes about Trump’s increasingly obvious incompetence in, say, giving away classified secrets to the one country he’s under investigation for allegedly colluding with, it’s with the insouciance of someone who’s decided that there’s no need for those padded gloves any more. Mocking Trump’s recent complaint that “no politician in history has been treated more unfairly,” Che’s “Honey, it’s because you’re not a real politician” sums up just how little point there is in pretending Trump is worth debating. Update has struggled to find its tone with regard to Trump, especially after he hosted the show (and Update was neutered for the night). With SNL ending for the summer, the announced prime time Weekend Update series will continue the Saturday Night Live Trump beat in the interim, something that clearly Donald Trump isn’t going to be happy about, as Jost and Che have clearly announced their intention to come out still swinging.
The correspondent pieces tonight were both returning characters, and both served as goodbyes to longtime cast stalwarts Bobby Moynihan and Vanessa Bayer. I’m sad to see them go, especially since both seem so suited to the gig. Neither Bayer nor Moynihan ever broke out as major stars on the show, but no one in this cast has, apart from Kate McKinnon. What they’ve brought, week after week, is a dedication to the craft of sketch performing that’s always been welcome and enjoyable. Both pop in character roles, and both have brought some reliably funny recurring characters to the table that never ran out of gas. Tonight, Bobby got to bring Drunk Uncle back one more time, and the boozy, resentful asshole was as entertaining as ever, his ugly and varied bigotry couched in a deep misery that made him oddly relatable. Moynihan can go big and small at the same time, imbuing broad caricatures with a watchfulness that brings them to improbable life. And Bayer, here bringing back her gabbling-in-stage-fright meteorologist Dawn Lazarus, showed how her gift for virtuosic eccentricity can enliven any sketch. In Dawn’s only other appearance, Bayer found a nonsense cadence for Dawn’s garbled patter that was like the true language of flop sweat, and she did it again here. (Her confidently glass-eyed “Hap!” in response to any question is as enduringly funny as that inimitable little noise she made as the voiceover artist alongside Kevin Hart.) Bayer and Moynihan, like much of the cast this season, got a bit lost in the lucrative parade of Trump sketches and celebrity cameos, but some people are just meant to be on SNL, and they are going to be missed.
Best/worst sketch of the night
That’s what makes the last sketch of the episode (and season) such a disappointment. The high school graduation conceit seemed poised to give Bayer and Moynihan the sort of affectionate, if less elaborate, sendoff that Kristen Wiig got, in a similar setting. Instead, the parade of suitably lame student pop culture parodies never built to anything, petering out so abruptly that it looks like it was aborted partway through. (A timing issue, maybe.) For the season—and the SNL careers of two veteran performers—to go out this gracelessly is a real shame.
Speaking of questionable goodbyes, who loves a good fart joke? Well, how about a fart joke, then? Bayer and Johnson paired for a trumpet-heavy old movie sketch, where Bayer’s legendary actress keeps ruining takes. By farting. A lot. A lot of people harp on fart jokes on general principle, but the hell with that—a good fart joke is funny as hell. Here, well, it was funny enough watching Bayer and Johnson try to keep a straight face, especially since the sound department kept throwing unexpectedly baroque effects at them. I dunno—there was something a little Carol Burnett Show about the designed breaking (phrasing!), but the two actors seems to be having fun, and it took some of the stink off the premise. I said it.
Beck Bennett really came into his own this year—he’s turned out to be a fine character actor who can also go wide and silly. And the “wingman” sketch was another example of Bennett playing a memorably weird dude with complete confidence, as his bartender kept trying to smooth the way for shy customer Johnson to talk to women, only to keep inserting himself into their sexual plans. Bennett’s funny, but it’s a one-joke idea that does a disservice to the three women in question (Cecily Strong, Sasheer Zamata, and Bayer), all of whom wordlessly grin and nod to Bennett’s whispered come-ons. It’s a thin joke, well-performed by Bennett, that uses the women as props.
There’s a similar vibe to the fidget spinner commercial, a diamond-encrusted version of which is presented as the perfect gift for distracting one’s high-maintenance girlfriend until it’s time to have the great sex that makes putting up with her worthwhile. Bayer is funny as the flighty, constantly complaining, self-centered woman, but the whole thing hinged on the idea that there’s enough widespread need for this shiny distraction, which came off a little sour.
In a season where splashy cameos and guaranteed buzzworthy Trump bits took over the show, SNL’s writers managed to stake out a little corner for some impressive conceptual comedy. And dark comedy, as in the mad scientist convention sketch, where all the cartoonish assembled supervillains are aghast when Johnson’s mild-mannered inventor presents his entry—a child molesting robot. Louis CK inspired some hand-wringing with last year’s monologue jokes about the same subject, but, as here, it’s all in the presentation. Here, the joke isn’t that child molestation is funny, but that Johnson’s meek scientist interpreted the “evil” part of the “evil invention” contest in a more “according to Webster’s” manner that upends the assembled baddies’ concept of just what their role is. (They’re mostly focused on doing bad stuff to national monuments.) Johnson underplays perfectly, his Roy putting the banal in “banality of evil” as he argues that, since Mussolini used to make people poop themselves to death, “That’s gotta be where the goalposts are, right?” SNL rarely goes this dark, but this one works, and that’s even before the ending, which turns into an inexplicable White Castle commercial so abruptly that it’s either a stroke of absurdist brilliance or the most ill-advised shoehorning of product placement ever.
Sticking with the comic book world, the Scorpio sketch worked in another, equally successful, minor key, as the expected origin story of how Johnson’s Steve got scorpion powers got sidetracked into a discussion of the impressive self-tailoring of his superhero costume. Cecily Strong, Aidy Bryant, and Sasheer Zamata all joined in with Johnson, ignoring a supervillain’s plan to blow up some local monuments in favor of debating superhero aesthetics. Johnson explaining that he didn’t want his Scorpio suit to be “too matchy-matchy,” and that the suit’s themes tell a ”very earthy color story” subtly undercut the whole idea of elaborate superhero couture (he has a gal-pleasing open back to his costume), while letting all the actors ride the concept unblinkingly to the end.
Johnson was also great playing it straight in the erectile dysfunction commercial parody, where his construction worker confidently narrates his journey to the peer-recommended wonder drug Xentrex, only for his doctor to discover that he’s basically taking an illegal, meth-adjacent boner-enhancer. The fact that Johnson keeps narrating the escalating absurdity in the same understated tone makes the joke, along with the long list of side effects, including constant nosebleeds, cold bones, waving up behind the wheel of a stolen car, and the more. Signing off in the same reasonable tone with a smiling “Hail Satan” caps things off horrifyingly/beautifully.
The rap video filmed piece was funny enough, as Kenan Thompson’s front man became increasingly annoyed by the number of outrageously named guest vocalists who kept popping in. None of the funny rapper names were that hilarious (Kate McKinnon’s Pregnasty made me laugh), but the return of David S. Pumpkins made it worthwhile. Oh, Tom Hanks was in the house because he and Johnson might be running for the 2020 White House. Stay tuned.
“What do you call that act?” “The Californians!”—Recurring sketch report
Drunk Uncle and Dawn Lazarus said goodbye on Update. And Johnson brought back two characters from last time, to the amusing but diminished returns retreads almost always produce. Bumping into Thompson and Bayer’s couple on a Jurassic Park water park ride, Johnson’s meathead is still a funny character, his blithely blunt obliviousness steamrolling over all concepts of polite interaction, while Strong’s vapid Gemma croons yet another catchily terrible pop composition. Gemma has come back a few other times with different hosts, and the sketch has never worked without Johnson. And Strong is really good in the role—it’s just that that first outing was powered by Johnson’s boorishly chummy energy. Few recurring sketches survive intact, and here, despite Johnson’s performance and the novelty of Bayer taking repeated buckets of water to the face, the whole thing was more muted.
Same goes for the wrestling sketch, with Johnson’s Coco returning Bobby Moynihan’s pre-match taunting boilerplate with increasingly personal and specific attacks. Again, the novelty of the concept energized the premise originally, but Johnson and Moynihan both made the most of the bit here. That Coco doesn’t recognize how intricately hurtful his revelations about Moynihan’s impotence and birth history (they are both the product of a Twins-style experiment) makes the joke work—Coco just doesn’t get that, say, telling Moynihan’s Trashyard Mutt once caused a mid-flight emergency with an unfortunate trip to the can would be out of bounds in the trash talk arena.
“It was my understanding there would be no math”—Political comedy report
So, about that cold open. Having Alec Baldwin’s Trump and his assorted flunkies and family members sing a more or less sincere version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” to open the last show of a season that has made a mission of savaging Trump is, let’s call it “strange”? I’d say “bold” if I could figure out just what target the show was aiming at. It could be SNL itself, as Kate McKinnon’s rendition of the same song as Hillary Clinton on the first show after election day was mocked in some quarters for being maudlin. (For the record, it wasn’t, but the later goodbye to President Obama, with Sasheer Zamata and Cecily Strong singing “To Sir, With Love” definitely was.) There were precious few jokes to the bit, which made the joke the fact that the thing was happening at all. Sure, Kate crossed her fingers as Kellyanne Conway after the lyric “I told the truth, I didn’t try to fool you,” and Baldwin’s Trump echoed the real Trump’s recent hints that he’s preparing to throw some of his people under the bus. But mostly, it was about watching this whole satirical Trump train (including Steve Bannon, still the angel of death) gathered around the ol’ piano. As a final act to a season spent pummeling Trump, this was… I’m gonna go with “strange” one more time.
The whole “Dwayne Johnson for president” thing was cute, but, considering the way a little news item on this site about Johnson’s half-joking political aspirations drew a surprising amount of vitriol this week, potential running mates Johnson and Hanks’ plea for “more poise and less noise” seems more relevant than ever. Hey, if America’s going to go all in on electing unqualified celebrities to office, it could do a lot worse. As Hanks puts it, “I’ve been in two movies with airplane crashes, and people are still excited to see me on their flight.” And Johnson adds that he appeals to a wide spectrum of minority voters because “everyone just assumes that I’m what they are.” Hey, remember when the thought of the idea of the host of The Apprentice having the nuclear codes was something that didn’t wake you up in a cold sweat? Hold onto that banner, is what I’m saying.
I am hip to the musics of today
Katy Perry put on a pair of visually provocative performances in service of some unmemorable dance music. One might be a diss track aimed at Taylor Swift, if that’s of interest to you, although she couldn’t get Nicki Minaj to reprise her duet on “Swish Swish,” so my interest was less that it might be. Perry does manage to sing part of the second song while doing some impressive contortions atop a dinner table, though.
Most/Least Valuable (Not Ready For Prime Time) Player/“What the hell is that thing?”—The Ten-To-Oneland Report
Again, you will be missed, Bobby and Vanessa. A shame you didn’t get the send off you deserved.
- Season 42’s other Five-Timers Club entrant, Scarlett Johansson popped up to reprise her role as Ivanka Trump in the Trump family singalong.
- A title card paid respects to producer Brad Grey, who, while not directly involved with Saturday Night Live, was longtime partners with the late Bernie Brillstein, legendary agent and producer who represented Lorne Michaels, John Belushi, and many other SNL talents.
Season 42 Report Card
Season grade: B-
Best sketches: Lin-Manuel Miranda monologue, Tom Hanks’ “Black Jeopardy,” “David S. Pumpkins,” Dave Chappelle’s monologue, Chappelle and Rock’s “Election Night,” Bayer’s Jennifer Aniston sneaker-upper, Aziz Ansari’s monologue, “La La Land Interrogation,” Melissa McCarthy’s first appearance as Sean Spicer, “A Sketch For The Women,” Bruce Chandling (always), “SWAT Recon.”
Best filmed pieces: “Diego Calls His Mom,” “Wells For Boys,” the return of “Dyke & Fats,” “Through Donald’s Eyes,” “Totinos With Kristen Stewart,” “Youngblood,” “Republican Movie Trailer,” “Girl At A Bar,” “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
Best Ten-To-Oneland sketch: “Couples Game Night.”
Most/Least Valuable (Not Ready For Prime Time) Player: Remember, this is a highly scientific process. Anyone named “most valuable” for a particular week gets a point. “Least valuable” costs you a point. Add ‘em together. Like rocket science. Melissa (-4), Sasheer (-2), Kyle, Pete (-1), Leslie, Vanessa (even), Mikey, Che, Jost (1), Cecily, Bobby, Kenan (2), and Beck and Kate top the list at (4).
SNL’s a singular and cruel gig—some very talented people have bombed there, and the notoriously capricious way favor is bestowed or withheld by Lorne Michaels and company remains one of the show’s most baffling, and intriguing, aspects. No one’s ever satisfied or secure (cast or viewers), which is one of the things that keeps Saturday Night Live, well, alive. This cast has been largely intact for a few years, and while the ensemble aspect of the show got sidelined quite a bit by Michaels’ successful heat-seeking stunt casting this season, it’s a solid, if low-wattage, group. (With the exception of McKinnon, who simply glows onstage.) With Bayer and Moynihan definitely leaving, and the likelihood that Baldwin will hang up his Trump wig, there’s likely going to be larger than average turnover before season 43 begins. (Predictions: Sasheer, Melissa, and Pete go. Mikey Day is promoted to regular cast, Alex Moffat takes another year on the J.V, and improv troupes brace for a hiring spree.) It’s not predictable, and sometimes unfair, but change is built in to SNL’s makeup, and what keeps it alive.
As ever, it’s been a pleasure and an honor to review the show and interact with (most of) you in the comments. I’m going to take the summer and get some sleep. See you in the fall, everyone.