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In its Season 45 premiere, Saturday Night Live plays things too comfy with host Woody Harrelson

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“If you choose to stick around, we’ll be right back.”

“I’m not an actor, I’m a [movie/fashion] star!”

Woody Harrelson came out in a tux to start his fourth time hosting Saturday Night Live, boasting about his unlikely new role as “fashionista” before awkwardly doffing his tearaway suit to reveal the loud, silky pajamas underneath. Woody, claiming he’s always playing “murderers or the people they murder” these days, is the sort of relaxed-fit host who brings an easygoing gameness to the gig, perhaps not the most exciting pick to kick off SNL’s 45th season, but a reassuring one. Not that he had much to work with but his charm in the season’s limp first monologue. A potentially edgy exercise in Harrelson putting his foot in his mouth once he goes off-script was, in practice, as comfy and shapeless as the host’s baggy jim-jams. Tossing off intentionally offensive generalizations about immigrants and the Chinese on the one hand, and Trump and Melania on the other, the bit saw Woody offering up a litany of apologies (including to Fox News) for being such a big ol’, loose-lipped goof, which is about as pointed as the thing got.

Harrelson was nothing but solid throughout the following episode, evincing a happy professionalism that, if the writing were better, could have elevated this first show nicely. As it was, Harrelson was front-and-center plenty, with the most high-profile role being his blinding-toothed, obliviously folksy, Obama name-dropping Joe Biden in what turned out to be an infuriatingly shallow Democratic debate sketch. Woody didn’t sound particularly like Biden, but his was a committed and consistent characterization more than an impression, and he anchored the piece ably.

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Best/worst sketch of the night

Let’s hop all the way to the end and steal the 10-to-1 segment of this review with Aidy and Kate’s Chickham Apple Farm sketch. Sort of a transplanted “Whiskers R We” concept (or last season’s Regal Promenade Pavillion commercial) the ad for a sister-run orchard in “the part of New York state that has Confederate flags” clearly stems from someone’s experience in the questionably fun, undeniably time-passing pastime of apple picking. “I’d never picked apples before and now I have,” beams new guy Bowen Yang as one customer, “I had fun, I think.” “It was cute. Far but cute. There were lots of bees,” chimes in Melissa Villaseñor’s equally sort-of-satisfied picker. With Aidy and Kate (and Woody as lone orchard employee Hank, “a troubled man who came with the property”) intermittently returning to hype up the tourist trap’s many varieties of apples (“tiny-hard,” “green,” and “apple” among them), theoretical other fruits to pick, and the joys of spending $45 to “bring home $10 worth of apples,” the sketch is a solid winner all around, building with skillful absurdity. Woody’s Hank gradually reveals that the scares in the orchard’s haunted hayride come largely from the masked local boys who “take things way too far,” and that the joint’s one sad burro is so depressed that it’s taught itself to utter the single word “Stop.” (“He’s like Eeyore with a plan” is currently in the lead for this season’s most brilliant line.) And then there’s sister Aidy’s glassy-eyed boast that the farm’s phallic gourds “came out extra penis this year.” Aidy started to break for the second time tonight—without a wardrobe (person) malfunction we’ll get to—which was forgivable, considering how very giggle-worthy the whole sketch was.

The strategy of just giving Kyle Mooney five minutes every week to be Kyle on film paid off again in “Dad,” a ’90s sitcom parody in which Mooney’s math-flunking son vainly attempts to get his businessman dad to put down his oversized cellphone and talk to him. Another product of Mooney’s dual obsessions with cringe comedy and bad TV, the scene transforms into one of those day-glo white teen raps, complete with Chris Redd’s actual rapper slowing his game down so Mooney can keep up, that marked networks lame attempts to tap into that hip-hop music that all those darn kids were listening to. Like the best of Mooney’s (and Beck Bennett’s, although he’s not in evidence onscreen here), the joke lives in foot-shuffling awkwardness and specificity, with Woody’s preoccupied dad constantly restating exposition into that huge phone (“Charlie, we sell computers! You’re my business partner in our computer company!”), and Mooney’s fronting teen star hyping up his killer dance moves alongside Redd, only to show off with the most heavily rehearsed but stiffly low-stakes steps imaginable.

I wanted to like the football sketch more than I did. For one thing, it’s Heidi Gardner’s first showcase of the season. Gardner is just one of those SNL performers who pop in characterization, a quality/skill most sketch performers would kill for. Here, as the inappropriately young, dim-bulb wife of a late-middle-aged football coach (Woody), Gardner was great as usual, although her former cheerleader turned second wife isn’t as vivid a creation as some of her best Update characters. Still, I like a sketch that seems headed one way (Coach Taylor-esque inspirational halftime speech), and then veers off into a completely unexpected direction (Gardner spills that Woody’s coach apparently has some very alarming genital problems). It’s always funnier in these kind of sketches when the show puts all of the resources behind, say, outfitting a full football team in pads and helmets, and then reveals that the joke is something entirely beside that point. The details (coach’s penis makes duck noises, and only his grandmother really knows how to put that vein back in place) are okay, but it’s some of the asides (from Woody and players Kenan and Kyle) that get the biggest laughs. (Finding out that Gardner’s former student was class of ’18, leaves Woody blurting “Don’t do the math!,” while Kenan—with the deadshot deadpan we’ll thankfully be getting for at least another season—responds too one last revelation with an underplayed, “And with that, I quit.”)

The first filmed piece of the season was a commercial parody making fun of the Downton Abbey movie which was as lovingly assembled and performed as it was placidly amusing. Sort of in line with the theme of the joke—that the stakes of the film seemed appropriately pitched to what the sketch pronounced the low-stakes nature of the conflicts therein. Which is maybe a little reductive of everyone’s favorite class conflict period melodrama porn, but the review line “It feel like watching the sun set on white people as a whole” is far, far better. That it all turned out to be stealth marketing for the new Joker movie (“It’s not perfect, but at least stuff happens”) is more effort than traditional when it comes to putting a bow on a sketch, so I’ll allow it.

The truly bad sketches tonight can be found in the political comedy report below (shocker there), but the long, long setup to that giant Cheeto getting pulverized in a fan was straight-up Dean Martin Show clumsy. Everyone involved was fine (Cecily Strong’s reporter abandoned all pretense of finding her field piece on the world’s largest Cheeto museum newsworthy once the dust hit the fan), but if we know where the slapstick joke is going right from the start, then the payoff had better be a lot more smooth and shocking. I did appreciate how committed the show was to showering the cast and stage with what looked like a wheelbarrow-full of orange cheese powder (and here’s to the stage crew who no doubt worked miracles during the ad break), but, meh.

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Weekend Update update

While SNL’s topical comedy was a mixed, if largely bland, bag tonight, at least Jost and Che came out throwing jabs—for a little while. This was the shortest Update I can remember in ages, and while some of that seemingly comes down to one or more correspondent pieces not making the cut (welcome back, Big Papi!), the anchors zipped past an overflowing news cycle with a speed suggesting something like a structural plan. Jost was unsparing, as far as Jost goes, in labeling the most recent (as of midnight anyway) Trump administration scandal “a shady, Mafia-style shakedown of the Ukraine,” and correcting Trump’s D-minus in English Twitter attack on Democratic Representative Adam Schiff by apologizing to Trump for being “a grammar Nazi.” (“I know you hate one of those things.”) Che’s first news riff of the year (on impeachment) pivoted on the idea that he, and a lot of people, don’t really know how impeachment works, which is likely very true (although not for Che, c’mon), but hardly the sharpest take on the fact that the country’s in for a Stupid Watergate of heretofore unimagined scope.

After that, it was all jokes about licking camel-balls, vegan Disney, and the CEO of vape-maker Juul (Jost calling him “a can of Four Loko with a sex addiction” made me laugh), then big Papi, and a quick exit. I will say that Che’s joke about the new catalog of white power symbols including a thumbs-up photo of Colin Jost was his edgiest dig at his desk partner’s prep school persona ever, doubled down when Jost capped his next joke with a smirking thumbs-up.

Kenan can do Big Papi any time. I surrender. As is always the case, the now-retired Red Sox legend’s first Update gig was the best, but Kenan channeling David Ortiz’s outsize enthusiasm and questionable food portion choices and marketing opportunities is just funny. Does it help that I may be the biggest Ortiz worshipper on the planet? It might, which is to say that I genuinely started counting kidneys when some jerk shot Ortiz in the gut earlier this year, something Thompson summed up with a one-word response to Jost asking how his summer went. (“Bad!”) If there’s one complaint I’ve got here, it’s that the humor about Ortiz getting shot in the Dominican Republic turned on making fun of how backward the DR is, when Ortiz himself is fiercely proud of his home country. (He did get flown to Mass General for treatment, thanks to Red Sox ownership, but that’s likely more a fact of John Henry’s love and gratitude for Ortiz, and I’m boring everyone already.) Anyway, keep getting well, big man.

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

As noted, Big Papi is always welcome. Others, not so much. Observe . . .


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

So much for hope. Look, nobody (especially Lorne’s number one on the speed dial, Alec Baldwin) thought that a Baldwin Trump would be anything but a short term lark. But whatever heat Baldwin brought in getting under the leathery skin of someone the vocally liberal Baldwin genuinely despises dissipated almost immediately after its debut, despite ratings, Emmy, and Trump’s Twitter account heat. It’s confessedly lazy lampooning in practice from Baldwin (who can do a stellar impression or two), relying on exaggerated mannerisms and makeup, and precious little character insight. (As to how you get inside the head of someone so cosmically dim and narcissistically self-deluded, ask Anthony Atamanuik, who Baldwin himself suggested as his replacement for one shining moment, seemingly getting over his professional jealously over someone doing the exact same job approximately twice as well.) I’ve said before that SNL’s best Trump work has been done with Trump/Baldwin himself largely in absentia, allowing the writers a chance to come at the subject from angles other than a fish-mouth, bronzer, and whatever male Trump henchman Kate McKinnon’s playing that week.

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Well, Kate played the farcically imploding Rudy Giuliani in this season’s first cold open, with Aidy as a running-for-cover William Barr, Alex Moffat gleefully spilling treasonous secrets as his still-funny Eric Trump alongside Mikey Day’s Don Jr., Cecily’s always-welcome hype-propagandist Jeanine Pirro, and Chris Redd’s Kanye and Kenan’s Don King, jumping the Trump train on behalf of the “black whackadoo” contingent. And there was Baldwin, whose biggest joke hinged on Donald Trump not knowing that pay cable fixer Ray Donovan is fictional, calling the the visiting Liev Schreiber for help. So, that’s the joke. Trump dumb. Dumb old Trump. Kicking off a season 45 airing in the midst of Donald Trump’s steamrolling of every norm and balance in the Constitution, outright trumpeting white supremacist language at the U.N., (still) caging babies, blatantly plundering public coffers for personal gain, waging a campaign designed to preserve America as a white ethno-state, and literally bragging about that whole Michael Palin-esque “Nice Ukraine you got ’ere—shame if anyfin’ happened to it” effort to undermine an American presidential election with “Trump dumb” is exactly as dispiritingly toothless and spent as my worst predictions. At least new featured player Bowen Yang got to play his very solid Kim Jong-un again. (Oh, and praising murderous authoritarians over America’s democratic allies. Forgot that one.)

Luckily, what tonight’s premiere lacked in quality impeachment material, it made up in quantity, as three sketches (plus Update) were built around the fact that, one way or another, things are coming to a head. But if the cold open was glib and lukewarm on the subject, the Democratic town hall was an outright embarrassment of pandering guest spots and deadeningly tone-deaf mischaracterization. There were laughs—bringing in the glorious Maya Rudolph to play Kamala Harris at least promises a Baldwin upgrade going forward, should she decide to moonlight from peerlessly ushering in America’s puberty and judging humanity’s fitness to exist. But for all the things about Harris’ campaign to focus on (her dismantling Trump lackeys in Senate hearings, her record on crime, her thunder being routinely shunted to white candidates in media stories), portraying her as a catchphrase-spewing attenion-seeker isn’t just lazy, it’s irresponsible comedy. (Maya, however, nails the running joke of Harris pitching herself as the next TNT or USA badass lady lawyer. Funny’s funny.) SNL is still all-in on exporting cast jobs to high-profile guests, though, as Larry David swung by as Bernie Sanders again. David’s Sanders, too, is a funny, funny caricature, and his Bernie is David’s crotchety ranter aged up a few decades. But again, this is supposed to be a sketch about the Democratic candidates’ positions on impeachment, so having David’s major turn be about Bernie not being able to work his TV remote is satirical malpractice once more.

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And I get that the joke of the sketch is laid out by moderator Cecily Strong as the Democrats choosing their wonted “muddled, 10-person debate” strategy for dealing with their political opposites’ more, let’s call it, wantonly ruthless power-grabs. But for the SNL machine to gaze over the smoldering news landscape concerning the gathering impeachment shitstorm and decide that “watery, irrelevantly inoffensive celebrity impression” was the direction to go in suggests that it’s Saturday Night Live, rather than the Democrats, who can’t focus up and do the damned job.

Better—like, significantly better—was Kenan’s turn on a fictional news roundtable show as the one pundit skeptical that, this time, Trump’s out-in-the-open, caught-red-handed criminality and straight-up sliminess will finally do him in. It’s never spoken aloud in the sketch, but the subtext that Kenan’s catchphrase, “Ain’t nothing gonna happen,” stems from him being the one black person on the panel, whose lifelong experience with how American institutions operate to protect themselves at the expense of the common good leaves him immune to his white colleagues’ “We got him this time!” optimism. Kenan’s tremendous here, finding just the right note of forbearance in his subtle mockery of his co-panelists once more thinking that simple, empirical evidence of oath-breaking wrongdoing will sway enough GOP lawmakers and white Americans to actually take a stand. The flashback gags in which his colleagues have the exact same reaction to an assiduously if incompletely compiled roster of past scandals (calling Mexicans rapists and Nazis very fine people; the Mueller Report’s findings on obstruction of justice; welcoming election interference by a hostile foreign power; mocking journalist Serge Kovaleski’s physical disabilities; that whole porn star payoff thing; that whole bragging about sexual assault thing) offers Kenan the chance to extend his character’s shtick with marvelous delicacy, never quite tipping over into outright contempt, but maintaining a knowing sympathy. (“Ohh, snap! Not Adam ‘The Hammer’ Schiff?!,” is as close to that as he gets.) It was the smartest of the three sketches by a long shot, and worth two Baldwin cold opens at least.

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And, since we’re live, we got our first live TV cock-up of the season, and it was a doozy. Not just because some poor wardrobe person blew her cue to do a quick change on Aidy during one flashback gag, but because it gave Aidy a chance to be delightful. Breaking is a long SNL tradition, but one best enjoyed as a rare, wall-busting accident than, say, Jimmy Fallon and Horatio Sanz consistently giggling like they just discovered where the pot brownies are kept. I recognize I was harsh about the klutzy physicality in the Cheeto sketch, but Aidy and company here made the occasionally raggedy live television experience pretty irresistibly delightful before pulling it together like the pros they are.

I am hip to the musics of today

Seventeen-year-old phenom Billie Eilish brought along a high-concept for her first number, “Bad Guy,” starting out seemingly content to sing her hit on a Willy Wonka-style forced perspective room set before grabbing everyone’s attention by climbing up the walls and over the ceiling. It’s a grabby gimmick, pulled off with aplomb by the SNL technical team, and if Eilish’s rotating-set choreography left her vocals sounding especially beholden to the guide track, well, it was still neat. (And cite Fred Astaire all you want, but we all know that nobody pulled off this gag better than Boogaloo Shrimp.) Her second number, the very pretty “I Love You,” alongside brother Finneas, was as stripped down heartfelt as the first one was splashy. Eilish might suggest April Ludgate as pop star, but she wasn’t bad.

Most/Least valuable Not Ready For Prime Time Player

Aidy, even without the giggle-fits, was just delightful all night, with Kenan a tight second, and Kate and Cecily right there. With all the speculation in the off season, it’s nice to see them all back (sniff, I miss you, Leslie), as everyone else looks to make their mark. On that front, Bowen Yang made a particularly strong debut, the leap from the writers room to featured player showing him more than capable onscreen. Other (surviving) new hire Chloe Fineman didn’t get as much to do, although the fact that the noted impressionist’s Marianne Williamson got the nod over resident old pro Kate McKinnon’s (auditioned elsewhere over the summer), is a bracing vote of confidence. Ego Nwodim started out the season getting shunted off to the side once more. I think she had one line tonight, a sweat-inducing position in one’s second year. Hang in there. It doesn’t always happen at first. Or second. Just hang in there, okay?

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

We never need another apple-picking sketch, but that’s because it was a fine concept, exquisitely carried off. Kate and Aidy teaming up to promote some other overrated leisure businesses, however? Work that franchise. (Some suggestions: Snowmobiling, whale watching, dude ranch. You’re welcome.)

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Stray observations

  • McKinnon’s Elizabeth Warren touts her energy level as being that of “a mother of five boys who all play different sports.”
  • Harrelson’s Biden, on his shaky lead in the polls: “I’m like plastic straws. I’ve been around forever, I’ve always worked, and now you’re mad at me.”
  • “Oh oh, here come the transcripts! Because if there’s anything Americans like, it’s reading.”
  • “They’re good boys, but if they pull you off the hayride, fight like hell,” Harrelson’s Hank advises apple pickers concerning the venue’s haunted hayride teens.
  • Activist Woody wears a Greta Thunberg t-shirt in the goodnights and decries environmental crimes in his monologue. Thankfully, he did not feel the need to apologize to Fox News in either case.
  • Also during the goodnights, Aidy Bryant made a point to direct the audience’s attention to new kids Fineman and Yang, because Aidy is, as noted, delightful.
  • Sigh. And speaking of this off season’s new hires, here’s all I’ve got about Shane Gillis. He didn’t get un-hired from a great gig for an “edgy” joke—he got shit-canned for racial slurs that were in no way framed as jokes. (His Twitter response to getting fired threw in a defiantly unfunny further bit of racial trolling, just to show the rightness of the decision.) Being a bigot increasingly has consequences, even for mediocre white guys.
  • That said, the idea that Gillis’ hiring, as has been reported, was intended to placate conservative viewers went about as terribly as such a move inevitably would. The problem with SNL’s hit-or-miss political content has never been that the show is a bastion of liberalism—it’s that Lorne Michaels has long seemed to view political neutrality as some sort of recipe for not pissing anyone off enough to hurt his show. If there’s a smart joke to be made, regardless of the political issue or figure involved, I guarantee there are writers with smarter takes than the ones that traditionally get on the air. Saturday Night Live might be an institution, but someone needs to convince Lorne it doesn’t have to be run like a public utility.
  • Once last thing before never talking about Shane Gillis again—I’ve heard some people engaging in the internet’s number one pastime of turning grievances into farfetched victimhood fantasies. Gillis wasn’t brought on just so he could be fired—SNL just remains woefully out of touch and sloppy when it comes to vetting and judging talent. Gillis was a lousy hire whose unsuitability was uncovered by the public in a matter of hours after he was announced, and it’s legit embarrassing how terrible Saturday Night Live remains at this.
  • And we’re back with The A.V. Club’s coverage of the 45th season of Saturday Night Live. I’m Dennis, and, as ever, it’s fun to be back. No, seriously.
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About the author

Dennis Perkins

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