“I’m not an actor, I’m a [former SNL and my own weird version of SNL] star!”

SNL invited an alum back to host the season finale, with Fred Armisen (and a few surprise others) helping close out season 41. It’s probably partly a practical consideration—I get worn out after 21 episodes just staying up to write these reviews. These people must be burnt, and having someone in the house who knows how things work and who’s presumably easy to work with must be a blessing. (The same was said about why SNL pal Buck Henry used to get called on to host the last shows of the original cast’s seasons—Henry was a pro, plus he reportedly had no compunctions about doing sketches that previous hosts wouldn’t come anywhere near.) At any rate, having Armisen close out the season here paid off beautifully. Perhaps surprisingly so.

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Armisen’s a taste that I’d call “acquired,” although, for some people, his deliberately offputting schtick isn’t worth the effort. In his monologue, Armisen plied his signature trade, his one-man show about his initial SNL audition (Love From New York, I Did Saturdays Right) mocking self-important one-man shows while itself being a self-important one man show. (Armisen truly understands the rhythms of such things, segueing from broad character work to confessional heart-tugging with smug ease.) Plus, he worked in some awkward crowd work, repeatedly demanding, in-character, that a mortified woman answer a question, then berating her for ruining the show by answering. It went long, but that was part of the joke—if you book Fred Armisen, you should expect Fred Armisen.

Weekend Update update

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Jost and Che closed out strong, tag-teaming some especially spiky political jokes and generally cementing their place as most-improved Update anchors ever. Jost on Trump being like a gun: “We think he’s going to make us feel safe and strong but he will probably end up killing us.” Che, taking up the anti-NRA thread (the group just endorsed Trump), went especially hard after gun nuts’ paranoia about the government taking away their weaponry, sneering, “Nobody’s trying to take your guns, except maybe a curious toddler.” (And finishing up a story about the anonymous person who bought the gun George Zimmerman used to murder Trayvon Martin by attempting to lure said person to Harlem in the middle of the night.) Finishing up with a series of jokes they claim were deemed too harsh during the season, the anchors’ banter game was solid, with Che musing, “What are they going to do, fire Colin?” and responding to audience discomfort over a Jared Fogle prison joke by asking who it is they’re feeling sorry for. Great season from these guys—especially considering how far they’ve come as a team.

Willie came back, Kenan Thompson’s incessantly, inappropriately optimistic old guy doing his usual thing of relating the horrific details of his life as if they were daily affirmations. It’s a predictable bit, but Thompson make it work. There’s something endearingly tragic about poor Willie’s rosy recollection of how his father once took him to see Little Richard, beaming, “That’s the architect of rock and roll—It’s the devil’s music, and I’m gonna kill him!” Stay out of the candy van this summer, Willie.

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And always-welcome alum Maya Rudolph was a riot as newly-impeached Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff, seemingly delighted at her enforced vacation, and the fact that she no longer has to oversee the apparently doomed upcoming Summer Olympics there. Not being familiar with the Brazilian political situation or Rousseff, I’m content with just enjoying Rudolph jabbering away contentedly in exaggerated sort-of Portuguese, hitting on Jost, swilling her umbrella drink, and hilariously mangling the english word for mosquito. (It comes out at one point as something like “qui-quinia.”) Sure, her upcoming variety show with Martin Short looks a bit much (perhaps redundant when discussing “variety show” and “Martin Short”) but I’m always happy to see Rudolph really throwing herself into a broad character like this.

Best/worst sketch of the night

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I’m assuming no one who’s reading this hasn’t watched the show already, but since it gave me the biggest, most thoroughly earned laugh I’ve gotten from SNL in years, here’s final warning to bail before we talk about “Farewell Mr. Bunting.” [Whistling, checking watch.] Okay. The beat-for-beat recreation of the last scene of Dead Poets Society was heading for something, some payoff that would, no doubt, take the wind out of the “Oh Captain, my Captain” denouement. Then… that happened. The patience in setting up the premise, and the attention to detail. The commitment to performance from everyone involved. All leading to… that thing. Nope, I don’t even feel like describing it in case anyone gets spoiled. It’s gross, it’s shocking, and it made me laugh in that grateful way you laugh when you respect just everything about a joke. All time SNL classic sketch.

Sure, it’s a shameless bit o’ plugging on behalf of the new Lonely Island movie Popstar, but it was a rush to see “An SNL Digital Short” pop up unexpectedly, and Andy Samberg’s song about a woman with a “killing Bin Laden” fetish is so out of left field and funny that I’m not complaining.

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The escape pod sketch, with Armisen’s lucky-draw spaceman working through the elaborate escape pod in-flight menu and entertainment selections before fleeing his doomed comrades, was exactly the sort of Armisen sketch that tries people’s patience. I’m more or less a fan, though, so seeing his Dean scrolling though his meal snd beverage choices made me laugh (and his pick of City Slickers 2 for his movie was oddly perfect).

For the first sketch after the monologue, the Lewis & Clark sketch (they pronounce the ampersand) was the weakest. Armisen, Cecily Strong, and Kyle Mooney acting out an educational play that quickly turns into a threesome rape fantasy in front of a classroom of high schoolers had its own specific energy, though, with victimized Mooney/Clark’s “Lewis, I told you how this had to go down for me to be okay with everything,” and Sasheer Zamata and Pete Davidson’s reactions as the students (and teacher Aidy Bryant’s spellbound enthusiasm) keeping the sketch afloat.

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

Weirdly, we did not get “The Californians.” Huh—I thought for sure that Armisen’s presence meant Stuart would be back. Am I disappointed? Oh, no—the sheer, bloody-minded repetition of that sketch became so baffling that it almost, but never quite, circled back to funny again. Similarly, with Rudolph in the house, I was certain we’d get Nuni and Nuni again. Small favors, I guess, although we were treated to the return of the polymorphously perverse, thoroughly insufferable new girlfriend from hell, Regine. Weirdly, though—it worked on me. The surprise appearance of Jason Sudeikis as Regine’s blissfully smitten boyfriend slapped a smile on my face that never left, an infectious giddiness clearly felt by the cast of the sketch, who all caught some endearing giggles once Regine’s parade of grotesque “O” faces and contortions started scattering food and sprawling obscenely all over everyone. Vanessa Bayer could barely get through her quite funny request for something to eat (“I need to get something down my throat to fight what’s coming up”) and Sudeikis earned MVP status by happily dipping his chip in the guacamole smeared on the bottom of Regine’s pump. There’s something to be said for a big, broad sketch where everyone is having a damned ball.

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Willie came back, as did the ”Student Theater Showcase,” a never-changing sketch that’s nevertheless worn me down over the last few seasons. As ever, the joke’s that self-involved theater kids lack the ability to express well-meaning sentiments onstage without being smugly self-congratulatory and obvious. And, like always, the best laughs come from the poor parents dutifully watching in the audience, with Vanessa Bayer and Kenan here commiserating over blackout sketches about what rich people buy at the “rich people’s grocery store” (“One general election please… wow!”) Bayer’s beleaguered mom bemoaning the fact that she’s volunteered to host the afterparty (“Last year they stayed up ‘til 6 a.m. congratulating each other”) also got off the best burn, complaining that daughter Aidy Bryant’s monologue about her disabled brother obscures not only that she’s an only child, but that she calls her mother the “r-word” several times a day.

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

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The cold open saw Kate McKinnon’s Hillary Clinton and returning guest-Bernie Larry David sharing a closing-time beer and making veiled allusions to Clinton’s seeming delegate lock (“To math!”) and Sanders’ unwillingness to bow out. By now, there aren’t many new points being scored in the pairing, although McKinnon and David worked great together as always. Clinton ordering “whatever beer no one likes but gets the job done,” and Sanders confessing his secret desire to be rich and eating “a tuna sandwich… on a croissant!” were still cozily funny. And the payoff, with the two sharing a dance that spilled across the stage and through a corridor where the rest of the cast in formal wear greeted them with open arms was pretty darned delightful—as was the punchline, with Clinton’s final flourish expertly sending Sanders into the elevator.

I am hip to the musics of today

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Australian rocker Courtney Barnett was just outstanding. A pair of her stripped down, no-nonsense 90s-sounding indie rock songs sent me online to check if my local record store has her debut album in stock. They do. I’m buying it. (Side note: It’s always a good sign when the singer sets the microphone stand high enough so she has to stand on her toes to sing. It just is.)

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

In honor of it being the last show of the season, and of the two big group numbers, everyone gets a trophy this week. (See the season 41 scorecard below for my usual, cold-hearted analysis.)

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

The finale, like the opening, was a warm-hearted goodbye to what’s been a no-doubt trying season of Saturday Night Live. In the cold open, everyone was in white tie and evening wear, and here they were all duded out in “70s country rock” regalia, singing along together to a goofily accurate number about taking naps in burnt out pickup trucks and having fireflies fly into your mouth. Guests Armisen, Sudeikis, Rudolph, David, and Armisen’s comedy partner and pal Carrie Brownstein joined everyone in the cast as they sang and played and seemingly had a lovely time wishing us all a good, silly summertime. It was fun, and sweet, and I wish them all the same.

Stray observations

  • “It’s always so just fine to see you.”
  • “I do not like humor, but that was funny.”
  • “What were you talking about before we got here, the economic meltdown in Venezuela?” “Not exactly.” “Why not?”
  • According to Rudolph’s Rousseff, Brazil is totally ready for the Olympics, except that they have to “take one mill poo-poos out of the river and build all the buildings.”

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Season 41 scorecard

  • The Most/Least Valuable (Not Ready For Prime Time) Player final tally is as follows, determined by the following, deeply scientific and irrefutable formula: (Being named most valuable, alone or shared, in an episode reviewed this season gets one point. Least valuable loses one point. Add ‘em together.) Kate (+6, in a runaway), Vanessa (+3), Jost, Che, Kenan, Cecily, Bobby (+2), Aidy and Leslie (+1), Jay and Taran (baseline zero), Beck and Pete (-2), Kyle (-3), Sasheer (-4), Jon Rudnitsky (-6, tough year for the new guy).
  • So what does all this mean? Well, nothing, naturally. SNL, especially in a year with such a large cast, makes it hard for any one performer to take over. People get lost. And while Kate McKinnon came closest, I think the biggest weakness of this season is that there weren’t one or two standouts, as there are in the best years, who have the unique SNL “it” and took the ball and ran with it. Each of these performers had their moments, and most had episodes where they more or less disappeared for a show. SNL is the harshest of TV mistresses, and some incredibly talented comic actors just haven’t clicked. (See: Jerry Minor, Michaela Watkins, Casey Wilson, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Damon Wayans, Ben Stiller, Janeane Garofalo, Joan Cusack, Michael McKean, Randy Quaid, Robert Downey Jr., Mark McKinney, Chris Elliott, Jay Mohr, Sarah Silverman, Laura Kightlinger, Nancy Walls, David Koechner, Rob Riggle, Paul Brittain.) If I had to guess, I’d say Sasheer and Jon R. won’t be coming back. Because of the science.
  • Best sketches: “Meet Your Second Wife,” “Should You Chime In On This?,” “Alien Abduction,” “Space Pants,” “Black Jeopardy” (Drake edition), “The One Dimensional Female Character In A Male-Driven Comedy,” “Sturdy Barbie.” And, of course, tonight’s “Farewell Mr. Bunting.” Because, wow.
  • Best filmed sketches: “Golden Globes,” “Totinos,” “The Day Beyoncé Turned Black,” “This Is Not A Feminist Song,” “Oprah,” “God Is A Boob Man,” “Bern Your Enthusiasm,” “A Thanksgiving Miracle.”
  • Worst sketches: “School Auction,” and I suppose “Laser Harp,” from the episode that I’m really not going into again.
  • Season grade: C+. Although the episode that shall not be named dragged the grade down a bit, this was as nondescript and disappointing an SNL season as we’ve had for a while. As ever, there were some great things, and some truly dreadful ones, but in general this season aimed right for the middle—and found it.
  • Thanks for reading along with me, everyone. It is, as ever, an honor.

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