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Harry Styles conquers double-duty on a solid Saturday Night Live

Photo: Mary Ellen Matthews/NBC
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“One incredible night together and then we’ll never see each other again.”

“I’m not an actor, I’m a [singing, but wannabe acting] star!”

It was only a matter of time until Harry Styles hosted SNL. In previous sketch appearances alongside hosts like Paul Rudd, Amy Adams, or Jimmy Fallon, the always camera-ready Styles was down to clown in a way that all but guaranteed he’d get the coveted host/musical guest invite someday. As it turns out, Styles was the second-best such double-threat this season, but that’s only because Chance The Rapper was in his way. Styles was into it all night, clearly invested in furthering his fledgeling acting career, while, at the same time, getting to showcase some above-average sketch comedy chops. When playing a regular dude and not an oversized character (or undersized dog), Styles popped a bit less, but overall the former boy-band heartthrob (and current “man-band” heartthrob, according to his monologue) acquitted himself with confidence and the gameness every good host needs.

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The monologue was a fine way for Style to ease himself into the gig. Sitting behind a piano that he was shown definitely not playing, the bit was like an early Zach Galifianakis routine on low, a cheeky bit of louche self-parody with neat little touches of absurdist comedy nibbling around the edges. That Styles kept calling for the B-camera, which showed a pair of black guy’s hands (and then a third) doing his playing for him was an old school SNL gag, and Styles teased out a not-happening One Direction reunion with some impressively expert comic timing. (Only slightly ruined by some offscreen foot-scuffling that made it sound like a small army of boy-banders was approaching.)

And speaking of old school, the joke about the lack of backstage cocaine being the reason “the show’s not good anymore” had the sort of lived-in SNL feel of a line saved for someone the writers were confident would be sticking around for the future. And if—being honest—I’m not in any of the Styles demographics that were whooping up his every move and getting all riled up on Twitter (I seen you all), as an SNL enthusiast and historian, I wouldn’t mind seeing him back. Like noted two-timer (not like that) Justin Timberlake, Styles’ combination of star quality and musical comedy ebullience makes the case that he could have been on Saturday Night Live as a solid cast member, if that whole music superstar thing hadn’t worked out.

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Best/worst sketch of the night

It’s Joan, you guys. Of course it’s Joan. Aidy Bryant’s musical ode to her beloved chihuahua Doug was one of those pitch-perfect performer showcases that would have made Aidy a star if she weren’t unequivocally one already. With it’s tinkly toy piano simplicity (it sounds like a Garfunkel And Oates song) and genuine earnest sweetness, the film gave Bryant the opportunity to build a gemlike little character sketch of a lonely woman whose adoration of her unassuming dog is both silly and hearteningly genuine. Throwing in the gentle weirdness of Styles showing up as the magically (but temporarily) human-transformed Doug for a mutually loving duet threatened to turn the bit into something grosser and crueler about the piece’s mutt-love, but it never went that way, instead maintaining the bit’s simple yet heartfelt approval of how the cheated-upon Joan could use a little unconditional love in her life. Styles—called upon to sing in a few sketches tonight—gave the human-ized Doug a little warbly Bowie thing that made Doug’s revelation that his metamorphosis is due to “God . . . and his friends” sound suitably cosmic. Best in show, indeed.

But “That’s The Game” was a close runner-up, the closest thing SNL has come to approximating a Key & Peele sketch. The joke that Chris Redd’s wannabe kingpin’s takeover of his drug dealing partnership with Kenan Thompson unravels thanks to the increasingly obvious fact that Redd doesn’t have the tiniest scrap of an idea how to run a single aspect of the business is carried off by the two actors with such lived-in and nimble comic timing that I wanted to salute. (And, hey, if the two best sketches of the night aren’t live then Saturday Night Live needs to up it’s live game, is all I’m saying.) That SNL’s track record when it comes to race makes a drug dealer sketch a bit less comfortable to watch than if Key and Peele were doing one aside, Redd and Thompson’s performances find just the right note of goofy, perfectly underplayed humanity to keep things tight.

As engaging as Styles was tonight, he wasn’t especially adept at slipping on and off the comic mask, except for in the childbirth sketch. He and Heidi Gardner (no surprise on that front) made a delicious meal of their Icelandic professional lip-syncher parents-to-be, their chipper perfection in every aspect of the pregnancy experience bewildering and irritating their classmates. Styles really got into the accent and unintentionally infuriating vibe, his blonde baby daddy chomping with giggle-inducing enthusiasm over his wife’s “basketball butt” in an accent that might or might not be Icelandic. Gardner was completely immersed as always, and Ego Nwodim (who did some solid character work all episode) matched her as the mom most immune to the couple’s impossibly athletic charms. Not a knockout, but it was Styles’ best piece of comic acting.

Contrast that with the pilot sketch, an old joke about the airline two pilots forgetting the intercom is on that showed up Styles (and Mikey Day) for not being able to bring enough (and we’ll hear this word again later) pizzazz to an oversized comic construction. (It’s not fair to compare, but I kept thinking how much better this would have been with Bill Hader in one of the pilot’s chairs.) As it was, the sketch had some juice to it, as the pilot’s on-mic gaffes went from the standard sex talk to an escalating series of catastrophes (drinking at Applebee’s, rickety planes, the “lesbian stuff” in in-fight movie Booksmart), until Day’s accident slip of “sit black” trails off in a stream of making-things-worse apologies. But without a pair of strong central performances, the sketch started and stayed limp, with only passenger Kenan’s Xanax-aided “hakuna matata” mantra really landing with any gracefulness. (Just as an aside—someone at SNL has decided this season that every episode needs at least one live dog in a sketch, which, fair enough.)

Speaking of Jordan Peele, the chicken sandwich sketch (topical!) lamely tried to put a “White Get Out” capper on a joke that didn’t need it. That Styles’ foolhardy intern volunteers to clean out the local [national chicken franchise that’s not getting double product placement here]’s menu item is looked upon with concerned horror by black coworkers in the know Kenan and Ego Nwodim (and grandfatherly janitor Chris Redd) is a funny enough premise, considering that people are getting ridiculously intense over fast food chicken. But SNL’s (slowly) shifting perfomer-writer makeup has seen the show occasionally telling jokes from outside the white “look at that!” perspective, and Redd, Nwodim, and Kenan all make their characters’ anxiety feel less critical than knowing. (Redd’s “Son, I don’t even know you but I don’t think I can let you do this” takes ownership of the sketch with a big laugh.) And Nwodim and Kenan having to explain the situation to their white coworkers carries just enough comic weight to not need the Get Out stinger, Kenan’s solemn claim that “There’s not many places in this country where our people get first dibs,” already closing the bit out just fine.

Writer-turned-performer Bowen Yang (along with sketch co-writer Julio Torres) continues to put his stamp on sketches with confidence in his first year on-screen. The Sara Lee sketch (product name used because it’s unlikely they paid for this), like the aforementioned (chicken restaurant that probably did pony up) sketch was, for lack of a better term, unapologetically and matter-of-factly gay, with Styles’ depressed social media person forgetting to change accounts while relating very personal laments about how his penchant for graphic three-way sex is leaving him lonelier than before. As Yang, on hand as supervisor and former similarly careless tweeter, expresses sympathetic dismay over Styles having publicly lusted after Nick Jonas on Instagram, the joke is never about Styles being gay, or even being into kink, but a comically mixed concern for both Styles’ well being and the company’s reputation. (For one thing, he’s making the bread-and-pastry concern come off as far too thirsty.) With Yang and Cecily Strong’s bosses bemoaning Styles’ unrequited, corporate-sponsored crush on “some random fashion twink” (Torres), and Yang revealing his own faux pas in posting a pic of him at the company’s “harness day,” the sketch—while hardly revelatory, especially in Styles so-so performance—gets marks for, once more, coming at the joke from the inside for a change.

Oh, and then there’s Baby Faye And Her Newsboys, a one-joke joke that never finds a second. Vaudevillians too old to still be doing Our Gang/Shirley Temple-style shtick in their mid-40s? Cue Cecily gamely failing to do a split, Beck Bennett popping a hernia trying to hoist Strong into the rafters, and so on. The only laugh was from Aidy—as Baby Faye’s still-domineering stage matron—exclaiming that their meager audience is made up of four men “jack-a-bating with girlie mags.”

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Weekend Update update

It cant be an insult to point out that Kyle Mooney is amazing at playing desperately self-deluding losers, right? (If it is, sorry, man.) As the spokesperson for a dying milk company, Mooney brought out two steins of the white stuff for him and the uninterested Michael Che to quaff while he explained why things weren’t going too great. Like flop-sweating comic Bruce Chandling and the cut-for-time Adam Zekeman before him, exec Scooter Rineholdt’s confident patter quickly revealed the fast-sinking soul within, what with his wife “porking the mayor,” nut-milks stealing his market share, and sharing deeply suspect conspiracy theories about dairy-lack killing people in their sleep. Mooney’s manic panic over his professional demise, punctuated with increasingly sloppy chugs and explosive plosives all over Che’s suit builds to a pretty irresistible pitch (“Ask me somethin’ useful before I blow my brains out over your pretty little desk!”), proving once more that no one embodies the squirmy heart of a man realizing his life is a lie better than Kyle. (Again, apologies.)

Sticking with correspondents, Kate McKinnon, having shed her Giuliani suit from the open, pulled her Jeff Sessions garb out of mothballs, now that the shit-canned Attorney General and noted wee bigot has announced his bid to run for his old Alabama Senate seat. The joke of Kate popping up as nearly every male Trump-adjacent figure has lost some steam as the lack of surprise recognition has let us see that the impressions themselves aren’t particularly great. Still, Kate’s Kate, and if the jokes about the diminutive Sessions eating an oversized prop sesame seed aren’t especially trenchant, at least the bit brought to national prominence how slavishly one-time Trump sort-of adversary Sessions has gone all-in on the Trump ass-smooching once it’s time to run for office again. (Live news updates during Update that Trump’s desperate and repeated attempts to prop up Louisiana GOP governor hopeful Eddie Rispone crashed and burned makes Sessions’ lickspittle act that much funnier.) Still, the joke remains more about the Sessions = rodent jokes more than going particularly deep. (“Why would I sleep at night? That’s when everybody throws out their apple cores!” is still pretty funny, coming from McKinnon.)

Che and Colin Jost batted the rest of the news jokes around lightly as usual, landing a few modest hard shots here and there. One of the most slyly biting decisions SNL’s made since this whole Trump nightmare began was to eschew having, say, Kate McKinnon get into makeup as Steve Bannon or Stephen Miller in favor of presenting these most (overtly) white supremacist members of team Trump as spectral figures of evil. (Death, in Bannon’s case, an unintelligibly whisper-hissing cobra in Miller’s.) Still, Che’s extended bit here about asking which supposedly “superior” white boy better exemplifies white supremacists’ eugenics fantasies—pal Jost or Miller (“who looks like he dresses up as his mother to commit knife murders”)—was solid. Especially when, over Jost’s offscreen objections, Che got the director to put their faces side-by-side for comparison, asking, “Who do you think Hitler would want to be friends with?” Che dunking on Jost while mocking the literal white nationalist in charge of setting immigration policy is always a welcome two-fer. (Note, Jost’s middle name is not, in fact, “Nixon,” although that just feels right, doesn’t it?)

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

Apart from the various political figures, here’s to this space staying blessedly empty for a while longer. Oh wait, Will Ferrell’s hosting next week. Forget I said anything.

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

As Alec Baldwin continues to edge out the door like a senior counting the days after his college acceptance letters have all come in fat, SNL’s de rigueur political cold opens continue to trend marginally upward. That the “Days Of Our Impeachment” premise never quite took off is at least partly counterbalanced by how all-in the show was in mocking the media’s inability to stop treating the current Constitutional crisis (of about 426) like entertainment, instead of, you know, the future of democracy and all. Especially in singling out in-house NBC reporter Jonathan Allen’s widely-derided conclusion that the televised impeachment hearings about a U.S. president blackmailing a foreign power to help sway his reelection lacked “pizzazz.” (Seriously, with this shit, pundits—you’re going to doom us all. Again.)

Positing that those in charge of the hearings have taken that criticism to heart so far as to turn the proceedings into a literal soap opera is a good enough place to start, I suppose. And Cecily Strong did play it mostly straight as former Ambassador and newest very credible witness against Trump, Marie Yovanivitch. Mocking Mikey Day’s Jim Jordan (R-OH) for claming that she’s just looking for attention, the longtime diplomat pointed to her time serving in traditional world attention hotspots like Ukraine and Somalia. And anytime Jon Hamm wants to stop by and slap on a wig (here as other really damning Ukraine diplomat of the week, Bill Taylor) is fine with me. Here, wind perpetually ruffling his salt-and-pepper dad hair, Hamm hammed it up with aplomb, dropping last-minute revelations (there was, in fact, a second Trump phone call), and romancing Melissa Villaseñor’s guest-starring “telenovela” heroine Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. (Also, getting Jon Hamm to say “koo-koo, doo-doo, nutsack bananas” on TV is just good booking.) But there wasn’t much bite to the piece beyond the initial joke, with plenty of Rudy Giuliani mugging from Kate McKinnon, and an appearance by suspended Cleveland Browns helmet-basher Myles Garrett, because, current events? (That Kenan’s Garrett claims he was just pardoned for war crimes by Trump did at least bring up the fact that Trump is, in fact, pardoning a lot of war criminals convicted of murdering not-white people.) Not a success, really, but SNL’s Trump stuff remains better the more they have to do it without Trump himself.

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I am hip to the musics of today

Playing up his cheeky, hunky thing with some success all night (he never took his cool-guy rings off, even when playing regular Joes), Harry Styles nonetheless is Harry Styles, so his musical performances were the crooning pop balladeer stuff that so many people really, really get into. I didn’t, but that’s fine—he’s a good singer, and I did like how his first, slightly less-nondescript number employed some unexpected and welcome minor key. Enjoy! Don’t yell at me!

Most/Least Valuable Not Ready For Prime Time Player

Chris Redd had just an all-around good night, and it’s about time. Same goes for Ego Nwodim, who continues to stake her claim despite the second-year featured player curse. I wanted to give it to Aidy, I really did, but she’ll be back. Same for Cecily, who had the quantity, but not enough quality writing.

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Chloe Fineman was in the goodnights, I think? Hang in there.

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

The funeral DJs sketch was, if anything, too normal for this slot, if you can call the spectacle of two EDM dudes making a noisy spectacle over an old woman’s casket that. Styles and Chris Redd were exuberantly into it, although Redd was the funnier by far (watch his wordless reaction shots). But the joke construction “weird people do weird things while regular people point out how weird all those weird things those weirdos are doing are” always grounds would-be outrageous sketches in the worst possible way. Still, it was enough to put Redd over the top, so I’ll allow it, and whoever came up with the “Everybody Hurts”-“Everybody Dance Now” segue needs a raise.

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Stray observations

  • Despite some wonky camera blocking, Heidi Gardner’s swooning in the congressional soap opera was just right.
  • Jost, reporting on GOP sycophant and nutcase Devin Nunes (R-CA) claiming that the impeachment hearings are the Democrats way of seeing nude pictures of Donald Trump, explained when he tried to Google that phrase, it told him, “You take your nasty ass to Bing.”
  • According to the Sara Lee sketch, the emoji-speak “three eggplants + water drops +train +ghost” equals “getting railed to death.”
  • Since Jordan Peele is getting shouted out all over the place, remember when he was passed over to play Barack Obama and SNL gave it over to Fred Armisen? Yeah, that’s gonna sting for a long while.
  • Harry Styles: Rob Corddry plus Stephen Dorff, right? Is it just me? 
  • Next week: Will Ferrell is back, y’all, alongside musical guest King Princess.
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About the author

Dennis Perkins

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Danny Peary's Cult Movies books are mostly to blame.