“I’m not an actor, I’m a [Rebellious movie] star!”
Felicity Jones, star of a little movie called Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (ever heard of it?) got the expected Star Wars-ian monologue, complete with Kenan Thompson showing up as a wheezing Forest Whitaker and a holographic mentor. Yup, it’s Tina Fey, hooded and shimmering and being all wise, advising first-timer Jones on the finer points of hosting (and some of us on the finer points of reviewing—see this review’s tagline). Telling Jones that, should she find herself entering a sketch only to introduce her “friend Ray Ray,” she’s definitely not playing the funny one in that sketch. It’s good advice for Jones, a fine actress whose neophyte sketch status showed in her monologue, where she came off stiff and nervous. If that were part of the sketch, that’d be one thing, but Princess Fey’s (Fey-a’s?) advice doesn’t change things in the monologue appreciably, and, in the rest of the sketches, Jones was capable, and sort of forgettable. (Fey also advises that, if a sketch ends with Leslie Jones coming in “vaguely horny and angry at everyone, the writers couldn’t think of an ending,” which is also good advice, although it’s a shame the show didn’t end a sketch just that way to carry the joke along.)
As for the estimable Fey’s advice about reviewing SNL, well, I’ll try to keep it short this time. No promises.
As good as Michael Che and Colin Jost have gotten behind the desk, they have to be better than this. Leaving aside one’s personal political views, the current and coming Donald Trump era provides far too much material for political satirists to sit out a play, as it were. (See tonight’s cold open, below.) And while tonight’s Update devoted its usual two-thirds or so to Trump and his shenanigans, none of the jokes truly found that satisfying satirical click that signals an issue just snapping shut.
Jost’s riff on the Republicans’ plan to destroy the Affordable Care Act despite having absolutely no plan to provide necessary health coverage for the millions who depend on it came closest, Jost’s signature smart-alecky comparison to the end of the movie Rudy bringing home the idea that the GOP’s rush to repeal it has a lot more to do with undoing President Obama’s legacy than it does anything resembling public service. As he says, they’ve been trying to kill the ACA for six years. Che, too, got in his licks, ending his report on the fact that Trump has picked game show host and comedian Steve Harvey (Kenan says thank you, by the way) to serve in HUD by joking that all of Trump’s decisions start with the question, “Yo, do you know what would be hilarious?” (He also points out that someone in the building trade like Trump, crazily, should have some more qualified people in mind.)
But the rest of the Trump material stayed on the surface. Good enough, no doubt, to send avid SNL watcher and critic Donald Trump into another Twitter fit, but hardly the killer stuff they should produce with the bounty that is the truly remarkable (or “alarming, unprecedented, and despicable,” to put it another way) shooting gallery of political targets out there. Che making a Richard Gere/gerbil joke about the Buzzfeed leak (sorry) of the as-yet unverified information about possible golden showers-related leverage Russia may have on the president-elect is (like the cold open) about as obvious and cheap a laugh as you can pull out of that potentially explosive situation.
Pete Davidson’s new segment, “first impressions,” didn’t help up Update’s game either, utilizing Davidson’s famed lack of political knowledge to make a lot of cheap, moderately amusing appearance jokes about Trump’s cabinet picks. They were fine, and forgettable.
But Che’s best material came when discussing the recent Justice Department report on the civil rights violations and racism of the Chicago police. Che shines when he stakes out these little standup segments for himself—he’s looser, and yet more pointed. His comparisons between the police and black Chicagoans was innocuous, but he found his groove talking about how “black people don’t like being in crime-infested areas either,” calling out the ubiquitous and insidious phrase “black-on-black crime” as being one of the contributing factors to Chicago’s woes. As they do in good satire, words matter, and Che makes the case that bringing race into labeling of Chicago’s crime and police problem is an effective tool for those seeking to make it a lot easier for white America to ignore.
Oh, Beck Bennett came on to announce his new pop singing career. The joke was that he sings very short songs (he’s got about 600) on silly topics and does not sing them very well. Beck’s commitment works in favor of the bit, I’ll give it that.
Best/worst sketch of the night
“Shondra & Malik” was a low-key character piece that gave Kenan Thompson and Leslie Jones a chance to play off of each other well, as their rival criminals’ threats kept getting interrupted by Malik’s balky car. More of a playlet than a sketch, it coasted along on the slight but funny premise and came off improbably sort of sweet, at least until they blew up at the end. (Malik really needs a new car.)
Another low-key favorite was “The Princess And The Curse,” where Jones’, yes, cursed princess must reveal to her adoring suitor (Beck Bennett, giving it his all, as he did all night) that she… gains about 15 pounds once the sun goes down every night. It’s a funny reveal that makes its point about impossible standards of female beauty deftly in Bennett’s desperate attempts to be cool about such a minor thing. (“Is it, like, in the butt, or your boobs?”) Plus, the shallow prince gets his comeuppance with a small weiner joke (“I don’t think we can spare it.”), so all is well. Kate McKinnon, unsurprisingly, makes for an outstanding evil witch, by the way.
Mikey Day had his biggest shot yet in the theater sketch as the 106-year-old patron whose attempt to watch the first play at the theater he’s founded is complicated by the loudly elaborate ministrations of his nurse (Felicity Jones). It’s the sort of huge swing that a featured played needs if he’s to make the big leap, and it works to Day’s advantage moderately well. He interrupts actors McKinnon and Bennett (both maintaining intensity in a way that helps sell things) because he can’t hear, moans loudly about having to messily eat his yogurt, has his medicinal socks changed, and has his wheelchair explosively disinfected before rolling offstage for the abrupt finish. Good, not great, but a big enough part and effort to vault Day ahead a bit. (Kenan has made a sideline of playing sarcastically sensible audience members, something he does well here.)
The Susan B. Anthony sketch gave Kate McKinnon a shot to don a white wig and enthusiastic demeanor as the legendary suffragette, summoned by a gaggle of modern women on a tour of her ancestral home. The joke is that the women pay lip service to all Anthony and her fellow women’s rights pioneers did for them while ignoring Anthony (after a perfunctory “thanks”) to chatter about taxis and lunch plans, which I suppose makes the point, “women today, huh?” There’s some funny stuff about Anthony desperately trying to re-interest the women in her meager belongings (“Yes, bitch, we saw your crap!”), and a bold little twist when Anthony bids farewell with a hearty “Just remember, a woman is just as good as a man! Also, abortion is murder!,” suggesting that being too busy to dwell on a historical figure is helpful when wallpapering over other aspects of them that might not be so cozily acceptable.
“What do you call that act?” “The Californians!”—Recurring sketch report
“Beard Hunk” joins “Farm Hunk” and at least one other “Hunk” as I recall, parodying dating shows while allowing most of the female cast to come on, say some bizarrely gross stuff, and split. Bennett, again, does fine work as the hirsute suitor, and, as the potential love-matches, Aidy Bryant, Vanessa Bayer, Cecily Strong, Kate McKinnon, and Felicity Jones got to woo him with alluring lines like “My name is whatever,” and “I pee and poop out of the same hole.” Like a lot of tonight’s episode, there was a certain slackness to the pacing here, but points for McKinnon and Bennett’s delightfully absurd exchange: “I was married last year.” “Oh really?” “Yes, to you.” “Oh, hi!” And, on the “skewering reality TV” side, the fact that only Sasheer Zamata and Leslie Jones didn’t appear fits in with the introductory joke about the lack of diversity on such things, “And, as always, minimal Asians.”
“It was my understanding there would be no math”—Political comedy report
The cold open took that whole pee thing and let it fly. (There’s a lot of that sort of thing in the sketch, so I apologize for nothing.) Alec Baldwin came in to do his ten minutes at the top, replaying Trump’s recent (rare) press conference, where Trump (in the sketch, anyway) fielded mostly questions about the rumored tape of… well, we all know what it’s rumored to be at this point. As with Update, there’s a lot of deliberately missed opportunity here, as Baldwin’s Trump keeps saying “pee” and “piss” when he doesn’t want to, and spilling (okay, sorry for that one) statements about streams of things, and being a whiz, and so on. It’s really easy shit (if I may change things up), considering the substance (didn’t mean that one) of the actual assertions of essentially every U.S. intelligence agency that the guy who’ll be president next week was aided by—and may be compromised by—a foreign power. The sketch does go into Trump’s unprecedented (some would say childish and Putin-like) actions at the same press conference where he shouted down CNN’s Jim Acosta’s attempt to ask him a substantive question about those allegations (not the pee ones) and dismissed CNN in toto as “fake news.” Again, political positions aside, there’s more going on than just pee, and more insightful satire than Bennett’s ever-shirtless Putin showing up with a VHS tape marked “Pee Pee Tape.”
The later movie sketch was another of the show’s more interesting (although not exactly super-successful) whacks at coming at Trump from a weird angle. Kyle Mooney, whose wheelhouse is playing people whose sense of self-importance far exceeds their abilities, was great as the self-serious director of Hot Robot 3: Journey To Boob Mountain, whose solemn pronouncement that “Now more than ever, artists must speak truth to power” belies the fact he’s made “American Pie, but with robots.” Bennett (everywhere tonight) and Felicity Jones matched him as the film’s earnest stars, choking up while talking about their commitment to making a teen sex comedy where Bennett’s Skidmark having robo-sex with Jones’ sex-bot carries deep significance about the precarious state of our democracy. Bennett and Mooney often play people whose pretensions can’t match up with their talents, and everyone here (including Strong as the equally serious interviewer) made their characters’ desire to express just how important Skidmark and the sex-’bot’s love is in these troubled times all the funnier. (Strong’s final reveal that their film is premiering “exclusively on Samsung Gear VR” is the perfect topper.)
I am hip to the musics of today
Sturgill Simpson sings country music for people who say, “I like real country music” a lot. (Which means me, annoying as that sounds.) Simpson ripped through his pair of songs with an old-school, tight-jawed twang that felt authentic without seeming imitative. The second number, especially, showed off both Simpson’s dangerous-seeming intensity (he slammed his guitar to the stage at the end) and the welcome rawness of his horn-heavy backup band. Rousing.
Most/Least Valuable (Not Ready For Prime Time) Player
No contest tonight, as Beck Bennett was all over the place, and nailed it each time. (If for nothing else, Skidmark’s shocked “Ska-buh!?” would put him ahead.)
Alex Moffat is still looking for his big Mikey Day moment. Maybe next week. Oh, and Pete Davidson is alive, after a couple of weeks where he didn’t even appear in the goodnights as far as I saw. But, come to think of it, where the hell was Bobby Moynihan?! We found Pete but lost Bobby. Dammit.
“What the hell is that thing?”—The Ten-To-Oneland Report
If you like the twist of seeing three shy, chirpy-voiced women unexpectedly telling dirty jokes in public, then the corporate retreat sketch was for you. I actually liked its ten-to-one weirdness, as all of the ladies’ (Strong, Felicity Jones, and Melissa Villaseñor) jokes hinged, inexplicably, on the “looseness” of various body orifices. Anyone can have an improbable person say filthy stuff, it’s the unifying theme of anal and vaginal looseness that made this one work for me. Comedy is mysterious.
- Mocking the fact that essentially all A- (or B-, or C-) list celebrities are staying as far away from his inauguration as humanly possible, Baldwin’s Trump cites “the Rockette with the least money in her savings” as his big get.
- “20 million people will lose their health coverage. People are going to die.” “Sweetheart, I’m about to be president, we’re all gonna die.”
- Since she’s a hologram, Jones asks Fey if that means she’s like Tupac. “In so many ways, yes.”
- Keeping with the Rogue One shtick, Fey claims she programmed 8H back in season 35 so that “if you take out Kenan Thompson, the studio will explode.” I’m fine with Kenan staying as long as he wants, regardless.
- Fey reassures Jones about her hosting chances with a Steven Seagal burn. If you’re never read the cast anecdotes about Seagal’s one (and only, ever) hosting stint in the SNL oral history, they’re worth the price alone.
- Jost, on Trump’s (sigh) comparison to his treatment by the press to Nazi Germany: “Nazi Germany at least had the guts to take on Russia.”
- “Some people say I look better with the 15 pounds.” “Who? Your friends?”
- The SNL Vintage tonight was the 1978 Carrie Fisher-hosted episode, where the Blues Brothers played, Fisher, Belushi, and Gilda were alive, and Fisher did a Beach Party sketch alongside shirtless current U.S. Senator Al Franken. That is what you call feeling old.
- A title card before the goodnights paid tribute to one-time cast member Tony Rosato, who died this week after a truly harrowing post-SNL life. The guy deserves some peace, so RIP.