Seth Meyers
Screenshot: Saturday Night Live

“You seem genuinely happy and it’s terrifying.”

“I’m not an actor, I’m a [late-night, former late Saturday night] star!”

It’s not damning with faint praise to say that Seth Meyers routinely and nightly boat-races Jimmy Fallon in the “former Weekend Update anchor gets his own NBC late-night show” political comedy sweepstakes. Meyers, since leaving Saturday Night Live for his own show in 2014, has become a potently funny force in the late-night topical comedy race, expanding the Update role into which he segued most comfortably starting in 2006 into a reliably sophisticated extended version thereof.

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Meanwhile, SNL and Update have chugged along in Meyers’ absence, his head writer and co-anchor spot taken up this year by Update anchors Michael Che and Colin Jost (and co-head-writer Kent Sublette). And if Jost especially comes across like Meyers’ smarmy little brother at times, Update has followed Meyers’ template since he left, attacking news stories with an unblinking smirk that at least betokens a willingness to go for a brainy joke over an easy one. More on that later.

Indeed, Meyers, while still under Lorne Michaels’ executive producer umbrella at his new office (within shouting distance of his old one), has escaped some of his old boss’ infamously watery satirical instincts. Meyers’ monologues and “A Closer Look” segments on Late Night function as extended Update pieces every weeknight, with Meyers free to inject more of his unfiltered advocacy and insight. It’s a formula that can be extremely potent, and it made Meyers’ return to his old, down-the-hall stomping ground uniquely intriguing. Which is why his appearance here was so deflating.

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In his monologue, Meyers was charming and disarming, assuring everyone that, yes, he’s painfully aware that sketch comedy was never where he truly belonged. (Apologies to the the Zinger.) Admitting that his delight in coming back to host was matched only by the returning “terror” that stalked him every season before he got Update, Meyers, indeed, showed that he’s better suited for a desk job. Having taken the week off from his regular gig to prepare for SNL, Meyers was game, but his inability or unwillingness to dive into his roster of characters tonight was evident. When playing characters, Meyers was usually cast as the outsider voice of reason to the shenanigans going on around him, playing the bemused straight man. The one character Meyers did have to enliven wasn’t anything memorable, especially since his half of a vapid couple cooing cluelessly over their recent trip to “Cooba” (Cuba) was blown off the stage by partner Heidi Gardner, who had a heck of a show continuing her run of exceptionally realized characters.

Weekend Update update

With Meyers coming back to host, I’d imagined Jost and Che getting a little more ambitious on Update, frankly. “Really?!” came back, the reliable cavalcade of punch lines landing its blows with characteristic, snarky regularity as Meyers, Jost, and Che pulled the rare Update anchor triple-team on the day’s events. From the cold open on through, there were Kanye West jokes aplenty tonight, none better than Che’s speculation on just why the hell West is stanning so hard for Donald Trump. Introducing his joke by claiming that his renegotiated contract allows for four n-words per season, Che, referring to West’s much-discussed Oval Office meeting with Trump, asked, “How much money does this nigga owe in taxes?” Huge laugh, compounded by an on-screen, Family Feud-style ticker with one of his four n-word boxes X-ed out. It’s a long season, Che. Pace yourself.

But, in a week where the Late Night Meyers would have seized upon a brimming weekly trash can of Trump administration nonsense, Jost and Che, in their desk work, were surprisingly scattershot. The recent climate change report—the one strongly suggesting not making plans beyond 2030—found home in a few decent jokes. Jost, calling the report “an obituary for the Earth,” joked about the disproportionate coverage of the sideshow of an Oval Office summit between two delusional megalomaniacs. And Che followed up by speculating that it’s the overwhelming nature of the coming catastrophe that’s causing such widespread shoulder-shrugging over the prospect of worldwide environmental disaster with a few decent suggestions for demographically targeting the doomsday message. But things breezed by pretty quickly to Taylor Swift and Melania jokes.

Heidi Gardner—now officially vying with Kate McKinnon for the most compelling presence on the show—brought out another of her minutely observed characters in the person of one Baskin Johns, camera-struck new spokesperson for Gwyneth Paltrow’s boutique silliness company, Goop. The joke wasn’t really about Goop (there wasn’t even a “magical vagina egg-rocks” reference), so much as it was a character piece allowing Gardner to show off her remarkable ability to inhabit a new, indelible weirdo at the drop of a hat. With singsong uptalk that pitched into dolphin-squeaking panic noises at the thought that her boss might be watching, Gardner’s gabbling pitch-person just got funnier and funnier, her frozen smile more like that of someone forced to make a hostage tape.

Best/worst sketch of the night

Well, Ego Nwodim finally got the third-episode showcase every featured player dreams of. And she, alongside Leslie Jones and broad-accented police-broad Kate McKinnon, did throw herself capably into character as one of the “Thirsty Cops.” Pulling over Seth Meyers’ “zaddy” drunk driver, Nwodim and Jones’ deeply inappropriate cops pulled the old gender switcheroo in sexually harassing, propositioning, and otherwise demeaning their captive for their own pleasure. Meyers—straight-manning like nobody’s business—endured their come-ons with the toothy grimace he employed a lot tonight, while I was left wondering at what a featured player’s gotta do to get a decent part in her first season. Play a broad stereotype in a pointlessly tone-deaf sketch about wacky abuse of police power, I guess.

The “Cooba” sketch lived in Gardner’s performance, but SNL—as much as talk show and game shows are go-to crutches—can’t get enough of having tables full of people react sensibly to wacky outsiders. And, if you’re going to have two a-holes as the focus of a sketch, at least make them as well-realized as the two a-holes.

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On the plus side, Meyers did his best acting of the night in the campfire story sketch. Prodded to tell his own Halloween tale, the haunted Meyers recounts the horrifying day when he was forced to have an interminable two-hour coffee date with . . . Kyle Mooney’s recent film school graduate! It’s the sort of pent-up joke that can only come from the personal experience of someone on the SNL staff, and both Mooney’s self-important aspiring filmmaker and Meyers’ tormented professional find just the right notes. Plus, the It Follows ending is the perfect capper.

He only had to don a too-tight tee an a bad goatee, but Meyers was funny in the commercial parody for a testosterone-booster, and it’s counteracting “Beta Force” antidote. The joke of all that artificially prolonged testosterone-aided “porno-railing” wreaking havoc on wife Aidy Bryant’s osteoporosis is a nice turn, as the bit calls out the hyper-macho hucksterism of such ads promising to turn naturally aging men into “aggressive alpha nightmare[s].”

And the IFC “Movie Talkback” sketch had its laughs, as Meyers’ beleaguered visiting filmmaker fielded a series of increasingly bananas questions from the audience. Nothing special, but reliably funny throughout. I like Kate McKinnon’s accented questioner asking somberly and inexplicably, “Excuse me, why did you do the names?” And hey, how about that straight man work, from Seth Meyers, huh? And Kenan and Leslie had a funny runner as the moderator and his rightly suspicious wife.

And then there’s the Bill Cosby sketch, perhaps handed to Kenan Thompson as a gift for all his years of service, and the fact that his ace Cos impression has had to sit on the shelf for as long as the once-beloved comedian was outed as a serial rapist. Hard to work that into a wacky Cosby sketch, although this was a creditable try, with Meyers’ new prisoner finding out to his horror that the imprisoned but still mugging Cosby is his cellmate. I still remember Kenan bowing out of the Cosby game back when Tina and Amy were hosting Update and he was Fat Albert (“Kenan likes to work.”), so seeing him portray Cosby as a still self-impressed if addled jailbird is a strange sight in 2018. And there’s not much more to the sketch than seeing Kenan’s Cosby running through his face-pulling greatest hits (Jell-o, pull your pants up, geeble-bobble with the thing and the stuff, etc.). I did like the absurdist touch that Cosby’s pet turtle (who he thinks is Quincy Jones) is actually Quincy Jones.

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

I’m always a sucker for the Treece Henderson Trio. It gives Kenan a chance to strut his stuff, scat-singing nonsense and inexplicably drawing out the pronunciation of random words, and Kyle Mooney the opportunity to chime in with some underplayed reactions to the band’s inevitable interpersonal problems. Here it’s Meyers (on the electric piccolo) as the newest member causing all the drama, as he and Kenan work to air out their roommate issues surrounding a certain medical diagnosis (“panty crickets”) that’s got them both a little edgy. The real show is Kenan’s singing (it’s easy to rhyme anything with anything, as long as you can work “tweedle-doo twee” in there), and the jazz-inflected dismay he affects when confronted with the news he will have to burn all his clothing. Yes, including his “Gucci-shoes.” (“Ask the doctor if shoes are clothes!,” he demands.)

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

Alec Baldwin returns as Donald Trump. So that happened, in another cold open were Saturday Night Live either chooses a flabby point of view or just slumps into its existing one. It’s the Trump-Kanye Oval Office meeting that Update later joked about people spending too much of their attention on. Chris Redd has always done a fine Kanye West, and he does one here, with Kenan along as co-attendee and other inexplicable famous African American Trump booster Jim Brown. There’s a joke early on where Baldwin makes reference to his recent Alec Baldwin-ism about how much black people just love him that exemplifies much of what’s so infuriating about these sketches. A reference counts as a joke, and an exonerating one at that, with Baldwin’s much-derided bit of tone-deaf egomania getting the old “See, I can make fun of myself, now let’s move on” treatment. Similarly, SNL can’t find a way to satirize Donald Trump in anything more than a disposably passing way in these sketches.

Say what you want about an openly racist authoritarian nutjob glomming onto the one black nutjob willing to rant incoherently about how much he loves Donald Trump. You know, how Trump and his cheering section propagandists at Fox News hype up the Trump-Kanye bromance to prove that Trump is not a bigot (he is), even though conservatives pounced on President Obama for soiling the dignity of the Oval by allowing filthy rappers to visit. Or how right-wing hypocrites tout the rare famous black supporter like West as proof of how cool famous black people’s praise of Donald Trump is proof that Donald Trump’s not so bad (he is), while the exact same pundits scream at other famous black people to shut up and dribble when they call out Trump’s bullshit or in any way chime in about politics. Just spitballing, but the idea that an inexplicably huge media event like this meeting has more fertile ground for satire than “Kanye is nuts” and “Donald Trump is the black Kanye” means that nailing your big political cold open to those two points is deeply lame.

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And, hey, how about settling on a point of view for the character of Donald Trump? Here, he’s cluelessly racist (calling West and Brown, “real Chicago types, if you know what I mean”), openly racist (unsuccessfully fighting the need to check for his wallet after Kanye’s hug), and bafflingly self-aware at the same time. Musing in voice-over, Baldwin’s Trump knows that Kanye is even more nuts than Dennis Rodman and Kim Jong-un, even as he blithely calls out their kinship in that “both have definitely been recorded using the n-word.” Like the show’s now-gleeful mockery of recent musical guest and post-show ranter West, its treatment of coddled host Trump smacks of an opportunistic cheap-shottery that’d be less objectionable if it weren’t so toothless. See also the sketch’s depiction of Brown, presented here as appalled spectator to West’s allyship with West, when Brown’s own participation in praise of Trump has been deeply problematic. Kenan’s funny as usual, but the foundation of his character here is just completely wrong. It’s infuriatingly lazy stuff.

“Bayou Benny’s Bayou Lagniappe” was technically a political sketch, mainly for how talk show guest Meyers (as himself, as straight man) got to introduce actual issues like the way that Donald Trump’s continued praise of hyper-partisan and sex creep Brett Kavanaugh undermines the sovereignty of the Supreme Court. But the sketch was basically an excuse for Beck Bennett to wheel out a new character, as his gumbo-flavored host spouted an endless (and pretty funny) stream of Cajun-esque gibberish. With roundtable pundits Taylor Swift (“People decided they like me again!”), a talking gator, and a talking chili pepper in sunglasses, Meyers attempted to make out the questions flowing musically from under Bennett’s bobbing mustache, and respectfully refused to wrestle Alex Moffat’s MAGA-hatted biscuit. It’s the sort of running-sketch-to-be that fills me with mildly amused anticipation.

Pete Davidson and Chris Redd did a funny filmed bit about a pair of rappers whose environmental activism in the face of that whole “2030 climate change apocalypse” thing is wholly and militantly focused on their love of trees. With doctor Alex Moffat admonishing them that reducing one’s carbon footprint through recycling and mass transit are more effective (“Oh, word?”), the pair still just love trees. It’s brief, but cute, and Redd and Davidson underplay beautifully.

I am hip to the musics of today

Paul Simon brought along a jazz-classical ensemble to back a pair of what I’m going to call hepcat spoken-word/swinging-scat numbers, including a version of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” that got a smattering of recognition applause once people recognized it. The 77-year-old Simon (it was his birthday, in fact) doesn’t have anything to prove, and his lifelong experimentation having taken him into smooth, hand-conducting freeform singing isn’t objectionable or anything. Plus, time seems to have raised “Bridge” up and out of Simon’s once sweetly-stunning vocal range, so here’s to trying new stuff. (What is objectionable is that Lorne Michaels pal Simon’s been let into the Five Timers Club even though he’s technically only hosted four times. It’s who you know.)

Most/Least Valuable (Not Ready For Prime Time) Player
Your first big showpiece sketch gets a featured player at least an honorary mention, so come on down, Ego Nwodim. Here’s to better roles in the future.

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Other than Nwodim, Kenan was the man, celebrating his Emmy not-win by getting a handful of juicy turns. And Redd’s Kanye is just the sort of high-profile impression he’s been waiting for. But, by sheer virtuosity, Heidi Gardner nips them both right at the wire.

Melissa Villaseñor, Cecily Strong, and Mikey Day—tough week.

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

The Treece Henderson Trio is formulaic, but weird and charmingly silly enough to work for a ten-to-one sketch. Barely.

Stray observations

  • Che, describing the photo of Trump and Kanye embracing, describes it as the moment when black people and white supremacists were betrayed at the exact same moment.
  • In his monologue, Meyers tells the story of how Kanye’s infamous interruption of Taylor’s Swift’s VMA win took place a full two years after SNL had Kanye do a sketch about interrupting awards speeches. After. Two years. Damn.
  • Timing continues to be an issue on this young season (and there wasn’t even Kanye to blame this week), as the ten-to-one sketch was preceded by another extended commercial bumper/musical vamp, followed by ten solid seconds of silence. “Vamping for bumpers.” Band name. All yours.
  • And we’re off to regroup for a few weeks, SNL gang. See you on November 3 for fifth-time host Jonah Hill and musical guest Maggie Rogers. No disrespect, Paul Simon, but that is a legit entry into the Five Timers Club. [Drops mic.]

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