Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Idris Elba's charisma can't rescue another disappointing Saturday Night Live

Idris Elba
Idris Elba
Photo: Mary Ellen Matthews/SNL
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“I’m not an actor, I’m a [movie, TV, DJ, all-around big bright shining] star!”

When Idris Elba was cast as new Dunder Mifflin boss Charles Miner back in season five of The Office, it clicked because he’s Idris-goddamned-Elba. Imposing, no-nonsense, and aware of the effect he has on women, Elba’s Miner strode into the all-nonsense world of a comedy and acted—unsettlingly—as its opposite. Tapping Idris Elba to host Saturday Night Live was one of those tantalizing choices that didn’t quite pay off in practice, although the game Elba certainly seemed to enjoy his time there. In his monologue, Elba was endearing, charismatic, engaging, and not all that effortlessly funny, relating offhand anecdotes about his pre-The Wire jobs (bouncer, deejay, occasional weed dealer) with the gruff, bloke-ish bonhomie of the eager jock attempting to fit in with the theater kids. In the goodnights, he was effusive—as he was all night—while the SNL cast stood in a row at the back, happily dwarfed. (Elba’s presence only reminds that this is an almost uniformly short cast.)


It made sense that Elba’s most natural outing was in the soccer football sketch, where his burly injured player adapts to his unsuited role (and suit) as the broadcast’s monosyllabic color commentator. That not a dig at Elba who—I think we’re all on the same page here—is a magnificent, uniquely riveting actor. Instead, it’s the one sketch of the night that utilized his singular presence to its best effect, his unimpressed David “The Bruiser” Koosman (aka “Dumb David”) responding to his fellow announcers’ questions with literal-minded bluntness. There’s an old Python sketch with the same premise, sure, but the joke here is less about The Bruiser being a dumb jock and more about him simply being unwisely asked to suit up for a different game. Elba’s confident and relaxed in the role the way he’s really not in the rest of the show. Asked how his injured leg is, David asks, “Which one?,” and then responds “Oh, it’s injured, innit?” to the follow-up. He delights himself by doodling a dick on the telestrator, and there’s a blissfully brilliant circular logic to The Bruiser’s inability to grasp his flailing colleagues’ attempt at strategic coach’s role-playing that Elba just nails—he’s got hold of a fully realized comic character, and drives the scene with ease.

Best/Worst sketch of the night

Donning the comic mask might not be Elba’s A-game, but the magician sketch was sunk even before Leslie Jones was made to gracelessly plunge into that too-small tank of water. I keep looking for ways in which this sketch wasn’t just a sour little joke at Leslie’s expense, as her Leslie Jones’-sized stand-in magician’s assistant is crammed into a tiny spandex costume, a cramped sword-box, and that water-escape tank. Jones gives it her all—on SNL, if you’ve got the chance to do a big, physical bit, you throw yourself into it. And Kenan—the night’s all-star—did some funny work as the club owner/Leslie’s husband, whose supportive shout-outs are eventually revealed to be a clumsy onstage murder plot with the help of Elba’s The Great Rudolpho. But overall, the sketch was forced and awkwardly staged, Elba never found a showman’s groove as the hammy magician, and the borderline distasteful use of Jones’ physicality as the running joke left a bitter aftertaste. Leslie Jones has made her oversized persona and “warrior princess” body (as she termed it on Update) into a potent part of her comic arsenal. But here the joke was mostly on her, and it felt lousy.

Getting back to Kenan and Leslie, they got the coveted cold open tonight, reenacting the Gayle King interview with embattled singer/sex monster R. Kelly. We’re used to SNL giving Alec Baldwin the alternate week off in star’s prerogative/“there is no fucking way I thought I’d be doing Trump drop-ins for four fucking years” mini-hiatuses. But this is the first time in recent memory the show’s ditched Trumpworld altogether for the kickoff bit (and most of the show, for that matter). Which is fine—busting up what’s become a decidedly hit-or-miss take on the political with a different soul-crushing current events farce is sure to grab at least as much publicity as another go-round of Baldwin’s lazy Trump perfunctorily regurgitating the week’s outrages.

It was a big night for Kenan and Leslie, which I’m all for, even if Leslie, bless her heart, continues to not be the most relaxed and natural sketch performer in the world. (She and Elba had a blown-lines contest going tonight.) Kenan, however, was almost literally born doing this, and his take on Kelly’s interview performance was a little masterpiece of alternating self-pity, bombast, and unhinged silliness. (Kenan thinking he was talking to the “Jail King” was funny stuff.) As to the prominence of a sketch parodying the sordid public spectacle of a mentally shaky, credibly accused serial sexual predator, well, since SNL gave Trump the week off, R. Kelly makes a suitable substitute. (Switcheroo.) Crafting a comic take on a person accused of genuinely terrible things isn’t easy, so it’s at least a funny (if relatively toothless) choice to have Kenan play up the singer’s self-aggrandizing craziness to power the sketch. If Kenan’s inherent likeability polishes off the more alarming and ugly parts of Kelly’s character, Jones’ King keeps bringing those elements back up to ground the sketch. Plus, points for subverting the “Live from New York!,” which is always a funny idea.

Kenan shone in the WNBA sketch, too, as would-be gigolos Kenan, Elba, and Chris Redd attempted to latch onto the economy-plus lifestyle of professional women’s basketball players. The joke here really isn’t at the expense of the WNBA, whose five-figure endorsement deals and $60-90,000/year salaries are presented as a simple fact of economic sports inequity. It’s more a simple switch-’em-up, as the garishly suited gold-diggers sub in for the more lucratively compensated reality show types pursuing NBA stars’ longer green. And Kenan is outstanding as ever, his smooth operator counseling neophyte leech Redd on the glories of your very own Nintendo Switch, a late-model Camry, Nordstrom Rack, and in-building (if not in-unit) washer-dryer. And if there’s a 90 percent chance that their chosen target will leave with a woman instead, the joke, again, is on the men rather than Leslie Jones’ sensibly uninterested WNBA star. (Eldra blows a joke along the way, but he got the biggest laugh with his last-ditch plan to ensnare Jones, shouting, “You’re pregnant, and it’s mine!”)

The chicken mascot sketch was worth it just because incorporating Kate McKinnon into your nightmare fuel is bound to make sleep interesting. There’s this internet panic? About a photoshopped chicken-lady, apparently. So the concept that a chain restaurant’s mascot looks improbably similar to the terrifying poultry-demon-lady is sort of putting the premise before the sketch, although I laughed out loud when Heidi Gardner’s freaked out drive-thru mom straight-up flees in terror, immediately abandoning her kids to the unholy avatar of all things deep-fried in her back seat.

SNL is a better place when Kate McKinnon and Aidy Bryant are allowed to just go for it. The PowerPoint tutorial saw them going for it indeed as a pair of receptionists whose attempts to learn new computer skills quickly evolved into a competition for which one of them could get the most huge, cheap laughs at their characters’ expense. (It was a tie.) That the sketch started out as a straightforward “older people can’t use computers” sketch (they didn’t want that picture of Wayne Brady in the corner, it just appeared), before the pair started blurting out factoids about how genuinely and generally not-competent they are. Aidy and Kate are always work so well together, and the pair’s mounting tearful panic at being so far over their heads keeps splashing down in big, broad self-owns. It could’ve escalated things further to truly realize the premise (although Kate’s bathroom confession might be a wise stopping point), but here’s letting Bryant and McKinnon cut loose.

“Can I Play That?” was—wait for it—a game show sketch. I know, weird, right? But I kid the fact that SNL can apparently only process the world through the lens of game shows, reality shows, and talk shows. Here, Elba, Cecily Strong, and Beck Bennett’s “working actors” are all asked by host Kenan whether they can play various roles. (Blind person, Caitlin Jenner, half-Asian person.) The sketch wades into the issue of onscreen representation without really picking a side, thanks to the revelation that the show is produced by Twitter, the locus of all half-formed, dogpiling snap judgements about complex and serious issues. (“One mistake and we’ll kill you,” is Twitter’s motto, according to Kenan’s host.) Throughout, Elba’s actor is made the sane but befuddled one, while Bennett and Strong’s contestants pander their way to success. Bennett’s white male gets points for answering the only roles he allowed to play are “white guy” and “slave owner,” while Strong rings in with “mom,” “horny mom,” “white teacher who learns from—not teaches—minority students,” and “President of the United States (comedy only).” The fact that pop culture is finally talking about representation (like, at all) isn’t necessarily the sketch’s target, although the fact that we’re clearly meant to nod along with Elba’s protest that acting is all about pretending to be something you’re not, which smacks of some middlebrow “hasn’t this gone far enough” sensibility. (“Now it’s about becoming yourself but in a different haircut,” beams Kenan.) Still, the fact that everyone in the game is left to navigate these new waters makes for some cleverly roundabout logic, as when everyone debates who gets to voice all the African animals in the live-action The Lion King. (John Oliver’s presence as Zazu is a holdover from British colonization, suggests one.) And if the sketch turns out to be one long setup for an Idris Elba as James Bond joke, it’s a pretty good one.

Weekend Update update

I’ve said it before, but Weekend Update’s thunder has largely been stolen by shows that took SNL’s fake news segment format and expanded it. That leaves Colin Jost and Michael Che to, in a sense, try to reclaim the desk-based political satire genre from The Daily Show, Last Week Tonight, Full Frontal, and others, plus the monologue and desk piece segments of Stephen Colbert and former Update honcho Seth Meyers in just a few minutes, once a week. So, tough gig there. Still, it does leave Update usually feeling like a more disposable, fleeting version of the things it itself spawned, even on a great night. This was a decent night, with Jost’s smirky wiseassery and Che’s offspeed observational asides addressing the Trump administration bullshit of the recent past with cheeky aplomb.

There’s a damnably difficult art to writing jokes about an already farcical news cycle, which often leaves Jost reaching for a moderately amusing simile and moving along. On the topic of former Trump campaign manager, lifelong pal, and guy who “looks like he was born divorced” Paul Manafort’s sub-four-year sentence for financial crimes and foreign intrigues, Jost compared the likely Club Fed-style incarceration accommodations Manafort is likely to receive to “being sentenced to college.” Che picked up the story, focusing on the unequal justice of it all, noting how Manafort’s treatment for “[stealing] the presidency” pales next to that that poorer (and blacker) defendants get. Ever playing the prickly contrarian, Che did concede that, as a rich black man, he’s a little encouraged, however. Che also went on a mini-rant about how evolving sensibilities will mean he’s likely to eventually go down for saying something today that will be considered jailable in the future, a continuation of Che’s political correctness jabs that suggests he was also in on that “Can I Play That?” sketch.

Three correspondent pieces tonight, with Pete Davidson and Leslie Jones as themselves, and a returning Heidi Gardner bit turned over—to deadening effect—to high-profile drop-in guest Gwyneth Paltrow. One more time—if there’s a model of Saturday Night Live that cranks the political comedy way, way down but is bursting with comic originality, then I’m all ears. But the Update overload here didn’t exactly spark with memorable turns. Pete did another R. Kelly riff, talking about the whole “separate the art from the artist” debate becoming more and more pressing since actually talented people are increasingly revealed to be complete human nightmares. Davidson’s been honing his stand-up persona over the years, eschewing his adorable stoner patter for something with more bite to it. He got groans when he compared blindly supportive devotees of Kelly to those of the Catholic Church, but groans are currency for comedians who are going out on the high wire, and Davidson’s followup that at least one of those examples has better music than the other was genuinely great. The line “You don’t know how good someone’s music really is until you find out they’re a pedophile,” is as good a comic encapsulation of just who gets a pass as I’ve heard, and if Davidson’s solution to donate a buck to an appropriate charitable organization every time you choose to listen to some repellent human being’s jams comes out like a cop out, at least Davidson’s working in some more challenging territory.

Leslie was Leslie, here working the other side of the Update desk to see if playing off Che’s laconic persona will spark a different energy than her longtime lusting after Jost shtick. (It’s fine.)

Heidi Gardner owns the Update correspondent spot, which made it such a bummer when her uptalking, under-prepared Goop sales rep was interrupted by actual Goop maven Gwyneth Paltrow. Paltrow’s a friend of the show and all, but her attempt to take over jokes at the expense of her high-end, oft-debunked luxury product line smacks more of PR than huge yucks. (Stephen Colbert’s allowed her to do the same thing, which I find dispiriting.) Here, playing Gardner’s equally unqualified and nervous supervisor, Paltrow just wasn’t as funny as Gardner at exactly the same task. Tina Fey popularized the term “sneaker-upper” for these sorts of recognition-applause generators, and confessed in Bossypants that nobody on SNL really likes them. They’re not the only ones.


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

Heidi Gardner’s Baskin Johns.

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

With no Trump in sight, Update was left to do the week’s middleweight political jokes, but the filmed Impossible Hulk sketch made some sly satirical points. Without ever leaning too obviously into the racial undertones of the premise about Elba’s unassuming (and black) Dr. Bruce Banner turning into Cecily Strong’s entitled, phone-brandishing white woman when enraged, the sketch derives its own poisonously irradiated comic power from the mounting number of “white people policing black behavior” stories the cell phone era has brought to light (or the internet). When Elba’s shopper is stonewalled by a clothing store’s deceptive and predatory policies, his justifiable anger gets a quick call to security and the queasy potential for violence. Then his rage-transformation into the performatively offended Strong turns things completely around as she immediately calls the police because she’s not getting her way and is feeling “aggressed.” As far as superpowers go, it’s a clever one.


I am hip to the musics of today

Khalid has a rolling, smooth, warbly R&B slow jam thing going. I like the second one, “Better,” better.

Most/Least valuable Not Ready For Prime Time Player

Kenan all night. Leslie had more screen time than any show I can recall, but Kenan was just stone-solid.


Leaving aside the season-long Ego Nwodim drought, there was no Kyle Mooney to be seen. (Here’s a cut for time sketch showcase, though, if you’re missing you some Mooney. RIP Adam Zekeman.)

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

The ten-to-one sketch has repeatedly borne the brunt of this season’s timing issues. If the non-ending of this sketch—about Beck Bennett’s actor being loudly unable to process the success of Elba’s thespian pal—wasn’t cut off for time, I apologize. That just means it had no ending at all by design. The joke throughout the brief bit is that Bennett’s cool guy aspiring actor is hyper-verbally jealous, either ranting non-stop in insincere congratulation for Elba getting the second lead in CSI: Memphis, or running outside to scream in inadequately muffled rage at the gods who let this happen. (“Somebody love me!”) I like Bennett, but this is one of those premises where “let Beck yell” is pretty much the whole gag, and it gets trying even before the sketch ends. In the sense that it ceases to be. There is no ending.


Stray observations

  • Beck Bennett’s actor contestant, explaining why he guessed that he couldn’t play an astronaut: “I sensed it was a trap.”
  • Davidson, after claiming that all really talented people are sick, tells Jost that the two of them will be fine. Che, however, is in for it.
  • Davidson’s other advice is for fans of problematic performers to own up every time they support their idols financially. “Mark Wahlberg beat up an old Asian dude, and I would like one ticket to Daddy’s Home 3!”
  • SNL’s off next week, but another great actor comes in for a first-time hosting gig, as Sandra Oh will be in the house, alongside musical guest Tame Impala.

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