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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Issa Rae hosts an improbably forgettable Saturday Night Live

Issa Rae
Issa Rae
Photo: Mary Ellen Matthews/NBC
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“I’m the first Black woman to host SNL, y’all!”

“I’m not an actor, I’m a [pay cable and movie] star [with nothing going on right now]!!”

Issa Rae joked in her monologue about having nothing but time on her hands these days. (“Puzzles, bitch,” is her go-to response to people asking what she’s been working on). That may or may not be true for the multitalented Insecure creator and star, but it is true that she had a lot more to promote when she was originally scheduled to host Saturday Night Live in the before-times. Still, perhaps it’s indicative of COVID-era Hollywood hiatuses that big stars are freed up to do more character-based pieces when they host SNL in this new season. Apart from the de rigueur cold opens giving the Sunday talk shows and Twitterverse something to get pontificating about before going to bed early, these first three episodes have seen the writers largely stepping back from the overtly topical to do some premise-based sketches.

Which is a fine choice, honestly, considering the current SNL’s faltering facility with politics. It’s a shame Rae—an excellent actress and game performer—didn’t have some better material in her meager handful of live sketches tonight. (Three, if anyone’s counting.) Shaky distinctions aside, having an actor host the show and having a comedian host shifts expectations, and opportunities. Rae wasn’t provided with many chances to go big, apart from trotting out a decent comical French accent at one point, but grounded her sketches with aplomb. (Sure, she gave the occasional host’s cue card glance, but she’s better at that than Chris Rock was, and Rock was a cast member.) With Rae in the house, however, I couldn’t help but come away thinking about those missed opportunities.

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The dinner date sketch with Chris Redd could have used an ending. And it was a lot funnier before it started explaining some of its weirder elements halfway through. But it was still Issa’s best showcase of the night—the sort of almost-there actorly piece that, on a show that gave her more to do, would have been in a decent third place on the sketch scorecard. As it was, she and Redd made a solid pair as two first-daters whose outside-dining assignation is repeatedly interrupted by a parade of increasingly disreputable exes of Rae’s. Kenan is hawking flowers to vulnerable outside diners when, spotting Rae, he praises her “titty meat,” and smoothly swipes their vin de table as he departs, ordering Redd to be good to his former lover. Thus, the setup, one that repeats promisingly with Pete Davidson, in full martial arts gi, doing the same. There’s the repeat, but the escalation that Davidson is only referred to—by Rae and himself—as “Karate Man” seems poised to make this pop right off to absurdist heaven. (Redd interjecting incredulously that Karate Man’s “one regret” was dumping Rae is funny stuff.) And then comes Bowen Yang slathered in silver body paint as a living statue, also praising his ex’s “titty meat,” before sloppily robot-ing away, to Redd’s confusion. Rae, put in the position of playing a seemingly together woman whose choice in men is absurdly inexplicable, is good at acting like having three shifty loons in her past is just date-awkward and not “Taxi!” disqualifying for her straitlaced date, but explaining the weirdness away sucks the air out of the studio. (Rae’s an Elsa in Time’s Square, so her coworker dating pool is a little limited.) Just let weird be weird. And the ending—Redd’s boisterously embarrassing ex also shows up—is a wheeze.

And that’s really Rae’s highlight. These first episodes have breezed by, a mixed blessing after the extra-long COVID break and three at-home episodes whose quick-hit denseness meant evaluating dozens of often half-realized home movies. I’m all for SNL choosing some writers’ sketches over effortful topicality if that’s the way the show wants to go. But, for that to produce a memorable show, the writing has to be that much better without a lazy-but-recognizable hook to hang on. This episode sailed past without much to think about afterward, a fate that, with the estimable and effortlessly charismatic Rae on hand, feels especially disappointing.

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Best/Worst Sketch Of The Night

I mean, the date night sketch at least feinted toward originality, so, I guess?

That said, the 5-Hour Empathy commercial was genuinely pointed and, thanks to Beck Bennett, Heidi Gardner, and Kenan Thompson’s unseen pitchman narrator, consistently smart and funny. The idea of a product that can temporarily tamp down people’s most inconvenient societal anxieties has been a pretty reliable well over the years, and this one—about a chuggable shot of “complete understanding” of “years of systemic oppression and ever-present racism”—becomes, in white liberal Bennett’s increasingly sweaty hands, a potent symbol of unwillingness to literally internalize his performative allyship. Bennett pretending to somberly, finally “get it,” is punctured by Kenan’s knowing observation that the cap’s still on the bottle, while wife Gardner’s similar fear sees her hastily also demurring before proclaiming, “Because I’m a woman, so it’s the same!” before high-tailing it out of the room. A quick shot of insightful laughs.

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As for the bottom, it’s “Your Voice Chicago,” one of Issa’s other trio of live sketches, unfortunately. Saturday Night Live isn’t what it used to be, thankfully, when it comes to presenting the impression of a roomful of straight, white, Harvard boys tackling racial or sexual politics from the perspective of above-it-all placid liberalism. Dragged kicking into the real world of diverse cultural and comedic points of view as SNL was (and still is), there’s yet the occasional sketch that seems to have been conceived and written by someone(s) speaking from actual experience rather than theoretical comedic remove and cultural stereotype. I think of the line in David Wain’s SNL-adjacent, Will Forte-starring Doug Kenney sort-of biopic A Futile And Stupid Gesture, where Martin Mull (as the aged, present-day version of the dead-at-33 Kenney), blithely reassures a passing Black couple (including a cameoing Chris Redd), that he’s sure there were, indeed, funny Black writers the all-white National Lampoon could have hired, but, “We just didn’t look for them.”

This is a long way to go for a white guy to say that this sketch, relying as it does on one lazy premise and peopled by a handful of lazier stereotypes, feels like it was written by some white guys. The idea is that Rae’s NAACP activist blindly equates Black political empowerment with voting for any Black candidate for office, no matter how unqualified or ridiculous. Which, apart from being a talking point for both Fox News and white people who would have voted for Obama three times if they could, is a choice. I’m happy to see an SNL sketch with three Black characters talking politics (or, you know, just sharing the screen), but someone in the writer’s room looked at the political landscape, with its mix of ever-present cultural complexity and never-starker good-versus-evil Black Lives Matter activism and white supremacist pandering, and thought, “Yup, Black people are a monolithic, unreflecting voting bloc—that’s hilarious.” That Rae’s character is presented as an otherwise sober-minded representative of the NAACP only amplifies the queasy hackiness of the material, while Ego Nwodim’s writer for The Root (G/O Media, represent) at least attempts to put on the brakes at times, as when Rae finds ways to endorse candidate Redd’s self-ordained reverend and former strip club owner. (Still, Nwodim still mainly disqualifies Redd because he was gross when they went to grade school together.)

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If Saturday Night Live wants to lay low on the politics, as it’s seemed, that’s more than fine. (Sure, America’s in the fight of the century over the fate of democracy and human rights while SNL continues to position itself as a risk-taking cultural-comedic voice, but you do you.) But, once more, if this is the one post-opening stab at political relevance the SNL production pipeline gave the thumbs-up to out of what one only hopes were some more sophisticated ideas, that’s a choice that says a lot about where the organization’s head’s at.

Onto the merely forgettable. Rae’s other live sketch saw her, alongside Kate McKinnon and Bowen Yang, trotting out over-the-top Frenchness for the Montreal-based morning show, “Bonjoir Hi!” Hyping their home city as “the best parts of Canada and the worst parts of France” set the tone, as the sketch became a panoply of enthusiastic ethnic comedy at the expense of our French-Canadian neighbors, a staple of SNL’s comedy right from the jump. (Check out Tim Robbins’ still-unsettling broadside Bob Roberts for onetime host Robbins’ dig at fictional late-night show Cutting Edge Live’s penchant for building gut-busters out of the concept that people from different places talk funny.) Yang stole the sketch from McKinnon, which is not easy to do, his fast-talking co-anchor keeping up a patter of just-exaggerated-enough English and mumbled fake French, and finally exploding in near-violence whenever American guest journalist Mikey Day disses Drake. (Rae, as the chipper Drake correspondent, pops in periodically to update everyone that, no, that guy she saw earlier was not, in fact, Drake.) And while it’s dispiriting to see SNL (after taking a few weeks mostly off) slip back into the comfy comedy slippers of news and talk show sketches, Yang and McKinnon’s committed silliness is at least entertaining.

Kyle and Issa’s dance battle to see who could become Justin Bieber’s backup dancer tested the limits of my “just give Kyle Mooney five minutes and let him do what he wants” advice. The mid-film breakout visualizing the way that Rae and Mooney really see their hallway dancing (“Funk Jam in the future”) energized proceedings a bit (and here’s to guest Chance coming back to host again), but Kyle’s made himself the butt of the joke a lot more inventively elsewhere.

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Weekend Update Update

Drive-by asides are what Colin Jost has settled into as his most reliable laugh-getters, and he’s not wrong. Doing jokes about the COVID-positive Donald Trump resuming live campaigning in front of crowds of mask-averse, red-capped fans is a lot to take in and process. (I’d say “rabid fans,” but that’s not medically accurate.) There’s the fear-mongering, base-pandering white supremacy and constant, egregious lying, of course, but that’s both a lot of work, and clearly fruitless if one’s looking to change any MAGA minds that have already decided that packing together to get breathed on by a white supremacist disease vector is a smart night out. So references to Trump’s “coronavirus giveaways” tour, and a Trump-loving representative crowd-surfing “on the second wave of COVID” get knowing laughs and move on.

Che’s got the stronger comic voice (and stand-up chops), and the odd couple dynamic the two have built up allows him to land reliably funny jokes at Jost’s expense. After Jost adopted a deep voice for a punchline tonight, Che’s aside, “Was that voice blackface?” summed up their work personae perfectly. Che’s also best at putting it on the audience when a joke doesn’t go over, one of many strategies Update anchors have employed to cover dead spots during the years. (Blaming the writers can work, but not when you’re writing much of your own stuff.) And while Che and Jost did a bit more covering than usual, their jokes themselves were—fine. I’ll keep saying it and people will still say I’m repeating myself, but Update could be a lot more ambitious, considering the material this four-year sideshow of horrors provides with sickening regularity. But Update’s largely ceded the substantive-but-scathing fake news (as opposed to Donald Trump’s “FAKE NEWS”) position to late-night hosts, settling for smirky cleverness. It’s fine.

Aidy’s alive! And in a field somewhere! That Aidy’s mission to interview the elusive undecided heartland voter left her lost and alone but for some cows might be a followup to Che’s joke about there being no actually undecided voters at this point. (Sit down, Bone.) But it was just more of a chance for Aidy to hilariously complain about what looks to be a remote assignment gone terribly wrong. There was some talk about staggering in-person appearances on the show this cold-and-coronavirus season, so here’s to Aidy for making the most of some time in the open air. Somewhere.

Heidi Gardner is one of those character performers just built for Update. The four-minute correspondent piece is the perfect place for such a talented comic actress to unravel a creation’s comic seams. Speaking of unraveling, I loved Famous 80s Cocaine Wife Carla, Gardner’s newest addition to her Update guest resume. Gardner is a miniaturist who gets huge laughs, her Carla channeling that doomed movie stereotype of old, the coked-out aging party girl who’s constantly hitting her compact when not faux-nonchalantly trying to get invited to whatever back room will feed her indulgences that night. At the news that the vaunted SNL afterparties are a COVID casualty, Carla blurts, desperately, “C’mon, Michael—you, me, Lorne, and a fat lasagna at 3 A.M.!” Filled with sparkling little details (her jealous husband works in “scaffolding garbage construction”), it’s another fleshed-out comic creation from Gardner.

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Eric and Don Jr. are back too. More below. They brought a guest.

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

Just Don Jr. and Eric. For all my griping, that’s a good sign.

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

At least Jim Carrey wasn’t puking in a fly suit. (You can use that for a pull quote, NBC.) What Carrey did do was his on-safety-rails Joe Biden as the cold open mimicked the experience of flipping channels between both presidential candidates’ network talk-a-thons. It was a huge get for Lorne to convince Carrey to sign on for a who-knows-how-long guest-starring role, and there’s the suggestion, in his quieter moments, of the work Carrey’s put in to craft an actual vocal impression of the Democratic nominee. But, as its history shows, SNL’s approach to political takes is settled on up front, with the jokes varying from the predetermined pattern only in response to drastic, unavoidable real-world necessity. Joe Biden’s old. He wears sunglasses. He tells long, old-timey stories. Nailed it—let’s have Jim do Biden doing a funny little dance “for the TikTok kids.”

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Alec Baldwin, clearly continuing to curse that damned monkey’s paw, did his thing on the other channel, which at least had McKinnon’s “surprise badass” moderator Savannah Guthrie on hand to relive the usual schtick. “Now, I’d like to start by tearing you a new one,” McKinnon’s Guthrie segued smoothly into a question about Trump’s coddling of white supremacists. There’s plenty to analyze, criticize and satirize in the Biden campaign, but simply painting these wildly contrasting events as “a Hallmark movie and an alien autopsy” leaves pretty much everything of substance on the table.

As much criticism has been heaped (by me—I did that) on Baldwin’s blandly boorish Trump, his brag about supposedly beating COVID went merrily afield with Trump boasting, “I never died. I never saw hell, or the devil.” It takes some crisp and/or mean writing for me not to just hear white noise whenever Baldwin’s Trump is desultorily hamming it up, so here’s to Trump’s actual non-answer/lie about nutjob conspiracy cult Qanon morphing, in his ever-shifting lack of moral center to a heartfelt, “rest in power,” to documented party pal, the late pedophile Jeffrey Epstein. Meanwhile, Carrey embodied the show’s take on Biden (remember: old), by donning Mr. Rogers’ sweater and Bob Ross painting-afro as the slow-hardening cement of the SNL’s apparent one-note impression solidified. Like Che’s (and Aidy’s) Update pieces suggested, it might be true that the choice between these two candidates has already been made by literally everyone conceivably watching, but it’s still a disappointment that so little effort appears to be going into doing anything but grabbing top-of-the-show ratings with saggy, low-hanging fruit.

Alex Moffat and Mikey Day’s doubles act as manchild Eric and desperately spinning protector Donald Trump Jr., respectively, remains a reliable laugh. Moffat’s the star, his childlike Eric’s fascination with shiny things (hand sanitizer here) and inability to toe the family line in dirty secrets the sort of inaccurate but essence-stealing creation that SNL fan favorites are made from. And there remains something improbably endearing about Don Jr.’s solicitous care for his helpless siblingt (here seen wearing a Paw Patrol mask)—hey, he’s a trust-fund ding-dong, but he’s my brother. Bringing in Chloe Fineman’s maskless-partying, little seen Tiffany Trump to finally meet brother Eric (“Hi, Not-vanka”) and guilelessly spill some more Trump family secrets allowed Chloe some work, but this is really a two-person job.

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I Am Hip To The Musics Of Today

I’m trying to think of a nice way to say this. For former child-music star Justin Bieber, it can’t have been fun to have the media report every stupid thing you’ve done since you became a millionaire superstar as soon as you hit puberty. And everyone’s feelings are valid, to them at least. I would still question—in a world where Popstar: Never Stop Stopping exists—a still-wealthy and famous former teen idol taking to a national TV stage to sing an utterly self-serious ballad (called “Lonely,” no less) about how hard it is being Justin Bieber. (“I’ve had everything but no one’s listening.”) The fact that Bieber’s second, heavily guide-tracked performance tonight started out with a somber Bieber in his SNL dressing room crooning into the mirror before the camera reverently preceded him to the stage did not do him any favors, either. (Keyboardist Benny Blanco was there to give him a hug, at least.) Bieber’s first song (the muddled “girl, your love is, like, holy, girl” anthem) “Holy” at least had the good sense to bring out Chance The Rapper for some leavening flow (silencing some of the giggles from when the neon green cross blinked to life before the hangdog Bieber began singing), but it’s that second trip down Maudlin Self-Pity Lane that’s going to find its own Popstar-style verbatim skewering one day. (I know I’m on reference overload tonight, but there was a definite “Boo Boo’s going solo energy here.)

Most/Least Valuable Not Ready For Prime Time Player

Melissa Villaseñor has been found. Repeat, call off the search for Melissa Villaseñor. She didn’t get to do much, but here’s hoping.

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The three new kids all got their biggest roles to date. Not huge roles—Andrew Dismukes was fourth man in the “Hey, let’s kidnap the governor” sketch, but it was by far his most screen time to date. And both Punkie Johnson and Lauren Holt took some minor roles. (No mean feat with 20—20—people in the cast at present.) Johnson probably got the newbie edge, what with getting to ham it up alongside Maya as one half of the Diamond and Silk-esque Trump fans, Crystal and Caviar. Not bad company to be in.

Bowen Yang made his move this week, with juicy roles in two sketches that allowed him to break out of the “trade daddy mold.

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

Once again, we got a fake commercial for the actual last sketch, and it was low-key pretty great, an Ebay ad targeted at all those expensive hobby supplies you bought at the beginning of quarantine but never used. Ego Nwodim’s $400 chef’s knife has only been used to open Amazon packages, while Chris Redd’s would-be guitarist complains, “Guitars hurt. Nobody tells you that.”

The real, live, ten-to-one sketch is the penultimate piece about the irate fast food fans whose thwarted passion for their favorite midwestern chain’s greasy mix of burgers and sassy wait staff has transitioned, with terrifying ease, into a plot to kidnap and murder their state’s governor. Since that actually happened last week in Michigan when a gang of white supremacist terrorists were arrested before enacting their own, very real plan to assassinate Democratic Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, we’re officially in beyond-satire territory. Still, Beck Bennett, Kyle Mooney, Andrew Dismukes, and lone non-white would-be killer Kenan (his creepy weirdo is in it for the murder more than the politics) go for broke as their broadcast-interrupting buffoons show just how small a leap it is for even mildly-thwarted white male impulses to turn into full-blown, heavily armed violence. That the plotters’ voices all drop to a tight, guilty whisper as they avert their eyes at necessary mention of the actual bloody endgame of their shutdown burger-rage adds a creepily amusing tint to all the camo and flop sweat.

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Stray observations

  • CBC’s post Schitt’s Creek programming hole has been filled by something called Shart’s Cavern.
  • Rae’s reporter on the person she thought was Drake: “He was crying on a basketball court.”
  • I’ll admit it—the celebrity(?) photo used as the punchline for Che’s “21-year-old lemur” joke? No idea.
  • SNL took a few playfully harmless swipes at parent NBC’s decision to give Trump his own competing “town hall” primetime special, with Kate’s Savannah Guthrie pretending that allowing Trump to look stupid was the plan all along. Che’s happily groan-inducing Update joke about NBC having a type (over pics of noted convicted and/or thoroughly accused network-affiliated sexual assaulters/harassers Trump, Bill Cosby, and Matt Lauer) would carry more of a punch if it included SNL itself in the NBC enablers list.
  • Maya can come back as Kamala any time, but the cold open settled for joking about the purported cluelessness of Ego Nwodim’s ever on-camera enthusiastic Black Trump supporter, without bothering to incorporate just who that head-nodding plant really was. Ambition and comedy can co-exist.
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Contributor, The A.V. Club. Danny Peary's Cult Movies books are mostly to blame.

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