“I fight her the whole way, but she does it.”
For Emma Thompson enthusiasts out there, the British acting legend’s first Saturday Night Live hosting gig could have just ended after the monologue. Sharing the stage on the traditional SNL Mother’s Day show with fellow formidably funny women Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, the trio sailed through a tutorial in mom speak like the famous mothers with nothing left to prove that they assuredly are. (Amy did slip in a plug for Wine Country, her likeably shaky directorial debut.) The Mother’s Day show can traffic in preciousness (see below), but this was pretty much the finest type of adorable, with Emma, Tina, and Amy all chiming in with some, one intuits, well-earned comic wisdom about hearing your mom’s actual meaning come your Sunday visit this year. Tina and Amy got to bust out their Philly and Boston mom accents, respectively, while Thompson (after thanking “husband of 16 years” Kenan Thompson), revealed that, for British moms, an all-encompassing “splendid” is their version of “aloha.” If your thought in watching these three do their thing was to wish you could just hang out and listen to them shooting the bull over glasses of wine, then who could blame you.
For Thompson, a career as British thespian standard-bearer (and Oscar nomination shoo-in) has always walked hand-in-hand with her roots as a giant, knockabout comedian/goofball. Apart from starting out at the Cambridge Footlights, doing revue sketches alongside a pair of guys named Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry, Thompson also had her very own (short-lived) sketch series back in the 80s, and has peppered her Shakespeare-and-corsets filmography with intermittent forays into invariably delightful silliness. (Do yourself a favor and seek out 1989's The Tall Guy, where she and Jeff Goldblum make a startlingly silly and sexy couple.) So hosting SNL proved to be something of a doddle, with the game and effortlessly professional Thompson showing that she could do this sort of thing anytime she wants, should she want.
Coming out for the monologue in pinstriped trousers and sporty trainers (no word if they’re the same sneakers she wore to her recent Damehood ceremony), Thompson was clearly ready for the rush and bustle of the quick change. A singing teapot, a blowsy 1950s Hollywood dame, a prim-and-proper (and violent) royal etiquette expert, a TV judge, A TV cooking judge, a TV therapist, Maggie Smith—Thompson ably donned each role in turn with aplomb, even if the sketches themselves often paled in comparison to her trouper’s commitment. Again, Emma Thompson can do most anything, so standing out amongst a raft of medium-decent sketches wasn’t anything she’d break a sweat over.
Staying with sweat, while no sketch tonight suffered from obvious flop-sweats, none were especially great, either. As a dark horse pick, I’ll take more idea-driven sketches like the Kate McKinnon’s talk show Tracy any time. Nobody’s more critical on SNL use of the talk show/game show crutch than I am, but this one successfully subverted the tired-looking “my daughter is out of control” premise more cleverly than most. Ego Nwodim got one of her best roles of the season as the rebellious teen daughter whose “You don’t know me!” catchphrase is repeatedly rebutted by audience members (and Emma Thompson’s therapist) nailing pretty much every insight into her thought processes and teen travails. Better than that alone is the way the sketch avoids simply twanging on the “millennials, am I right?” string by making each successive good audience guess affectingly sympathetic to the brash girl’s plight. She’s in search of good teachers to inspire her. She, too, has a hard time sticking to a cardio regimen (an thinks CrossFit is a little cultish). Plus, there’s a gently escalating absurdity to the bit, as Thompson reveals that her “Doctor” title comes from fronting a funk band, and that her locket-sharing BFF relationship with the girl came after Nwodim’s Rae Rae hit Thompson’s car in a parking lot, and that she’s still looking for insurance information.
Higher concept sketches brought varied results. I’m all for letting Emma Thompson smack someone around for the yucks, and the royal etiquette sketch saw her basically (and realistically) beating the shit out of Leslie Jones. The unlikely duo played well off of each other, as Jones’ American Markle relative (in England for the royal christening) is disabused of any notion that a Mary Poppins-esque prim Englishwoman can’t segue seamlessly from a little instructional ditty about stirring tea into a (genuinely shocking) full-hand slap of the offending teacup right out of Jones’ hand and across the room. The incorporation of an—eek!—commoner (who’s also American, and black, to boot) into the royal clan has highlighted all manner of uneasy racial undercurrents (an straight-up royal bigots), but the sketch is mainly a study in contrasting comic and acting styles as much as cultural ones. Leslie puts her comic broadness to fine use, as she discovers that her American brashness is no match for the steely, stately brutality of Thompson’s quick-handed stickler. And Thompson faces down her uncouth charge with an outwardly proper decorum that hides a short fuse and a gangster’s intimidation tactics. (“What, what, what—you’ll do what?,” Thompson asks the affronted Jones, leaning in just close enough to be bloody terrifying.) It’s a one-joke sketch, but Thompson and Jones tell it well.
On the other hand, this week’s big musical number is no “Diner Lobster,” but a Beauty And The Beast parody that suffers from some slack pacing and a muddled central premise. Thompson is a gamer, dressing up as Mrs. Potts and singing along to Belle and the Beast’s seemingly idyllic ballroom dance. But the interruption of the Beast’s anthropomorphized gym equipment is a turn that doesn’t pay off (the film is said to be partly funded by Disney and a gay hookup app?), even if Kenan and Melissa Villaseñor find their way through their lyric in fine form. And here’s to Emma Thompson for crooning about her affair with Beck Bennett’s Beast with her dignity unruffled, even if the line “Dong goes in the spout, baby cup comes out” isn’t exactly Ashman-Menken. My biggest laugh was Cecily Strong’s disillusioned Belle storming out with the line, “I can’t believe I fell for my kidnapper, again!”
The Chopped filmed sketch (see: game show crutch) wasn’t especially promising, although that the contest between harried would-be chefs Jones and Villaseñor kept dropping ever more absurd details was a nice surprise. Jokes about the mandated ingredients including a satchel-full of loose sugar and a five-pound horse penis were matched by the chefs’ resulting loony dishes (a kitten on a hamburger bun, a talking “raw” steak that uses the c-word, a salad dressed in a tuxedo), and the wordplay gag about Alex Moffat’s judge about being served with divorce papers rather than a meal. Like the Don Cheadle baking show sketch, it’s the oddball weirdness that elevates the joke. Nothing side-splitting, but anytime that SNL indulges a writer’s penchant for inventive silliness, it’s a welcome ingredient in the traditional recipe.
Thompson, Kate McKinnon, and Aidy Bryant threw some absurdity at the wall in the Judge Court sketch, too, to mildly amusing result. The joke that the three TV judges are all iced coffee-swilling best pals who graduated last in their class at law school allows the three very funny women a chance to go big, brassy, and buffoonish. The three dispense hasty justice according to rules only they know (“That is too young, you’re going to jail,” one pronounces on a 30-year-old landlord in a rent dispute), and overshare strange details of their codependent lives (Thompson saved Aidy’s life once through some uncomfortably intimate mouth-to-not-mouth), and nonsensical catchphrases. (“Ding-dong, bitch.”) It’s fine, but, with those three being teed up with such over-the-top characters to play, the sketch should have really taken off more than it did.
Che and Jost snapped off a handful of good lines each, which is a solid showing, as far as Update goes these days. For Jost, the harshest was a joke about Georgia’s draconian, soon-to-be-ruled-nonsense abortion restrictions, where he claimed that Georgia was celebrating Mother’s Day by making motherhood mandatory. Second place (in laughs and harshness) goes to his line about the creepy new Facebook “secret crush” feature, which, he claims, will be the basis for a future Dateline episode called “The Facebook Murders.”
Che, referring to revelations about Donald Trump’s calamitous business practices over the years, noted that Trump’s failed airline lasted “33 years less than Spirit,” for Christ’s sake. He also found a sharp angle on a seemingly innocuous item about the most popular American baby names (Emma and Liam) by illustrating with the sentence, “As in ‘No, we will not be vaccinating Emma and Liam this year.’” Decent jokes, crisply delivered. If there’s a criticism to be leveled, it’s my longstanding one that Update’s potential potency as SNL’s satirical showpiece deflates rather than builds as the piece goes on. With a social and political landscape so fraught and frankly ludicrous, there’s a superfluity of material out there that Jost and Che generally only skim.
Mother’s Day saw Pete Davidson bring out his actual mom, Amy, for a sweet, short visit. Davidson’s position as SNL’s own in-house tabloid target has been questionably exploited by the show, but this was about as innocuously endearing as it’s been, as the oft-reported fact of the troubled Davidson living with his mother (he bought them a house) saw Davidson making jokes about getting caught masturbating, and the fact that his mom’s appearance on national TV counts as his Mother’s Day gift. Plus, it was genuinely funny when Jon Hamm—referred to by Pete as his mom’s fantasy—showed up later in the goodnights, an uncommented-upon little extension of the joke that made me smile, anyway.
And Heidi Gardner brought back her teen movie reviewer Bailey Gismert for another round of uptalk and expertly adolescent awkwardness. As with all Update characters, Bailey’s schtick doesn’t change with the movies she (barely) judges, so it’s all about Gardner, who continues to demonstrate that she’s the best character actress on the show at this point. Like with her beleaguered Goop representative character, Gardner makes Bailey’s privileged yet unworldly angst surprisingly layered, finding a real—if silly—person inside the details of her life. Her tearful protests to Che about her tough life (spirit club, brushing her horse) culminates in the exquisitely detailed, breathless anecdote of a classmate whose bleacher mishap (she “fell through a crack!”) means that, while the unfortunate girl didn’t die, “she’s, like, not going to college.”
Reusing the template from a Matt Damon-Cecily Strong Christmas parenting sketch, “The Perfect Mother” shows the discrepancy between well-meaning holiday platitudes and the messy reality of actual child-rearing. Thompson and Heidi Gardner have a nice chemistry as daughter (and new mom) and mother, whose Hallmark commercial-grade whitewashing sentimentality about their mutual motherly admiration is interspersed with quick flashback flashes of crayon-eating, TV-wrecking, projectile-vomiting, impossibly horrific diaper changes, and other real-life joys of motherhood. Like the Christmas version, the joke’s a simple one, carried along by a pair of fine, lived-in performances, and ending with a pleasant little snap of an ending. If there’s room for absurdity on SNL, there’s room for some well-executed sentimentality as well.
Cinema Classics gave Thompson and McKinnon an opportunity to ham it up, something I’ll sign on for every time. Still, speaking of crutches, SNL can’t get enough of explaining a sketch’s premise, huh? With Kenan’s ever-amusing and digressive host Reese De’What explaining that the night’s throwback feature, Always Be Sisters, suffered its ignominious failure thanks to both lead actresses demanding that they be given the last word in any scene, the sketch sees McKinnon’s high-strung actress saying at one point, “If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you’re trying to get the last word in.” Yes, that’s the joke. We got that the first time. And from how McKinnon and Thompson’s actresses keep doing exactly that all through their scene. Seeing two very funny actresses goof around within such a premise is undeniably fun stuff that would spark a little brighter if someone hadn’t decided to slow things down for the slowest and least perceptive viewer possible. Still, McKinnon and Thompson find inventively silly ways to keep prolonging the scene, culminating, at various time, with them trying to call cut on the movie, and spouting random strings of nonsense (“Fart, foreskin, tarantulasaurus rex”) to keep the other one from stealing the show.
Hey, the politics cold open is back, after a head-fake and a week off. And while it’s nice to see that SNL—again, a show that prides itself on its political satire—can find something to joke about in this ongoing constitutional crisis of a ludcrous shitshow, the Meet The Press sketch pointed up the show’s shortcomings, even when it deigns to dig into the political world. For one thing, there’s a serious dearth of impressionists on SNL these days. It’s funny (and apparently infuriating to Donald Trump) to see Kate McKinnon don the combovers and fat suits as every other male member of the current Republican Party and White House staff, but, here, she’s not doing loudmouthed lickspittle Lindsey Graham (R-SC), so much as doing a nondescript southern accent in a man’s suit. Same goes for Beck Bennett’s jowly, predictably turtle-esque Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Kyle Mooney’s host Chuck Todd (unaffiliated, with bangs). That’s not itself a crippling fact—Will Ferrell sounded precisely unlike George W. Bush—but the writing would have to fill the comic gap, and it doesn’t.
In fact, the only real bright spot in the sketch came from Cecily Strong, who does do an exceptionally well-realized impression of her target, in this case, Maine Republican Susan Collins. Perhaps it’s thanks to the fact that I’ve had to listen to Collins’ on the evening news ever since she was elected to office in my home state, but Strong’s Collins is uncanny in both her quavering delivery and her even less stable stances on the issues the supposed “moderate Republican” has abandoned repeatedly in deferring to the worst and cruelest actions of Donald Trump and her party. Graham and McConnell have made their complete lack of principles so nakedly apparent is a joke so clear by this point as to be beyond parody, but Strong’s Collins, in her to-camera singsong, makes the Maine Senator’s complete capitulation to political expediency come across as especially and acutely dishonorable. The sketch wheezes along with Todd posing silly hypothetical worst-case scenarios to see just how far Trump’s sycophantic minions will go to cover for him (everything up to marrying Fox News boogeywoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, as it turns out), but Strong’s makes Collins’ performative show of spine (she promises to send “a strongly worded email straight to my drafts folder”) land with some real bite to it.
According to their bio, the Disney-bred Jonas Brothers have reunited (as a singing concern) after a six-year breakup over creative differences. Gotta be tough, being brothers and all, but one wonders what startling voyages of discovery had to be completed to return to a lucrative career of catchily forgettable boy band pop. Festooned with enough balloons to fill a theme park parade, the brothers’ stage show was the sort of packaged performance whose peppy hooks might or might not have all been performed live, should anyone care enough to check. That the brothers played “Sucker” directly after NBC ran a commercial for a reality show featuring the Jonas Brothers and the guy who co-wrote “Sucker” was an eye-roller, too. The boys also popped up in the Judge Court sketch, being professionally adorable, and here’s to Emma Thompson for pretending to be bowled over with squealing glee each time she introduced the band.
Well, Pete’s mom isn’t actually in the cast, so let’s give the Mother’s Day show honor to Ego Nwodim, Heidi Gardner, and Cecily Strong, both of whom took their showcase pieces and ran with them.
Chris Redd is too interesting a performer to be languishing like he’s been of late.
In the second dose of old movie-parody of the night, the TCM continuity bloopers show Wait A Second, That Shouldn’t Be There! got exhausting pretty quick. For one thing, the Game Of Thrones coffee cup thing has rolled along. I know it’s only a once a week chance for SNL to chime in on the hot, already irrelevant Twitter hashtag of the moment, but the jokes have been made. Especially since this sketch is both one-joke, and loaded with enough product placement to satisfy Lorne Michaels stated product integration goals. (It doesn’t help things that most of the onscreen anachronisms play more like intentional placement than accidental goofs.) There’s a [national fast food chain’s] meal deal box in the background of the Roots remake. And, wait, Shakespeare in Love didn’t have an errant [prominently displayed brand of snack chip] bag in it! At least Thompson got to trot out a passable Maggie Smith (drinking out a beer helmet and ordering from [national pizza chain]) on Downton Abbey. (And, in the one solid line, Kyle Mooney’s host claims that no one on the Shakespeare set noticed the gaffes because now-pariah producer Harvey Weinstein was masturbating into a potted plant just offscreen.) It’s marginally cute, but the sketch plays like a last-ditch strategy to clear the promised ad buys before next week’s finale than anything resembling a ten-to-one sketch.
- Strong’s Susan Collins, speculating on her response should Trump divorce his wife and marry Stormy Daniels: “ I would show up to the wedding but not before I mumbled a strong rebuke into my Lean Cuisine.”
- Thompson, Fey, and Poehler’s mom translations: “Can we not talk about politics” equals “Don’t ruin Joe Biden for me, he’s what I picture.” And “Son, you know I love you just the way you are,” translates to “I am bored of waiting for you to tell me you’re gay. Just do it, so I can buy rainbow stuff!”
- Jost claims that Mitch McConnell always has the look of “always watching a man slowly drown.” Which is a better shot than the whole turtle thing.
- Che, after reporting that most of the World Champion Red Sox’ black players(and Puerto Rican manager Alex Cora) refused to come to the White House, joked that Trump’s response was a terse “Perfect.”
- Next week: Season finale, with four-timer Paul Rudd, and musical guest DJ Khaled.