Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Heidi Gardner, Cecily Strong, J.J. Watt
Heidi Gardner, Cecily Strong, J.J. Watt
Photo: Will Heath/NBC
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“That is too dumb, even for this.”

“I’m not an actor, I’m a [football] star! Also, I’m not an actor.”

My wife asked me this week if Saturday Night Live has ever had a real winner with an athlete host, and, fair-minded as I am, I brushed past my first reaction (to paraphrase, “Oh, god, no.”), and did some research.

The answer is no. Oh, god, no. Big, burly, trying-real-hard-but-this-just-isn’t-my-jam, no. (Looking over the list, Olympic athletes are the absolute worst by a huge margin.) You’ve got a few isolated sketches laboriously and gingerly built around a sports star’s persona, but, from the first time someone said, “You know what’d be funny—let’s get Fran Tarkenton to host a 90-minute live comedy show, what could go wrong?,” all such outings have been exercises in grabbing what chuckles you can. (Also, we’re not counting pro wrestlers, whose skillsets already incorporate an essential baseline of acting talent.)

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Which brings us to Houston Texans defensive end, amiable big goof, onetime New Girl guest star, and predictably game but overmatched SNL host, J.J. Watt. Hulking, clean-cut, and energetic, the big guy did the usual fish out of water monologue (with an unfortunate gay joke at the expense of NFL kickers thrown in), and then anchored a respectable number of live sketches with the dogged, cue card-scanning diligence of someone used to drilling hard all week for the big game. (I note the cue card thing, but better actors than Watt have been exposed by the whole live experience, and he’s a lot better than Robert De Niro at it, so props.) Throwing Watt (and countrified musical guest Luke Combs) out there as red meat to the pre-Super Bowl weekend audience, SNL did its usual number on a non-actor host, playing to Watt’s strengths (he’s really big, up for plenty, and really, really big), with the return of the Bachelor-style reality dating show sketch finding the best use for Watt: Park him on a bench, give him an intentionally deadpan catchphrase to repeat, and let the women do all the heavy comedy lifting.

Best/Worst Sketch Of The Night

That said, I laughed hardest at the most Watt-centric sketch, with the host playing himself, recording suspect in-game voice work for the upcoming Madden video game. As with the John Cena episode a few years ago, SNL seemed intent on un-ironically leaning into the “big jock is awesome, please don’t hurt us” humor all night, but, here, the joke was on the big guy, as he dutifully blind-read lines like “Dammit, I couldn’t catch that guy,” and “Dang it! He outsmarted me!,” before the writing escalated the gag into some nicely absurdist and mean-spirited Watt-baiting, seeming to indicate that someone at EA Sports isn’t a huge Texans fan.

Sure, Watt literally had a script he could read off of, but that at least fit with the logic of the bit, and hearing him put his all into lines like, “Oops!,” “Whoopsies!,” and “Intercept—aw, never mind, I dropped it” just made me laugh. Upping the ante with voiceovers like “God, I suck today!,” and “Y’all see that sack? I hope our QB is okay—this team is good,” only made things better, even before Watt’s avatar engaged in a vendetta against an opposing young fan in a wheelchair. The ending fizzled, but that was more of a directing thing, leaving Watt out there with a few dire seconds of unscripted time to fill.

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On the same tack, the dating show sketch—while the go-to for non-actor dudes who won’t have to try to memorize blocking and lines at the same time—built up a little momentum, as usual, by the silly, weird touches the woman cast members bring to their assembly line of scheming-but-dim contestants. The running joke about how Watt’s Pilot Hunk will “deep kiss the white girls and high-five the black girls” continues to have some bite, and Aidy Bryant, Kate McKinnon, Ego Nwodim, Chloe Fineman, Heidi Gardner, Melissa Villaseñor, and Cecily Strong all got to be funny in the same sketch for a change. As ever the joke is that reality dating shows are filled with obvious manufactured drama, exploitative titillation, and people who aren’t all that bright, but it’s always a home to some laughs, as the female suitors try to one-up each other for their stolid dreamboat’s favor with questionable selling points like McKinnon’s pitch for a romantic getaway to Thailand so she can “scream about how the food is gross in front of the woman who made it,” and Fineman’s vestigial conjoined back-twin. (“Cool, a threesome!,” is Watts’ happy response.) Melissa is head-bagged and dragged off once she reveals she’s 30, Aidy complains tearfully that the producers took her vitamins and gave her a knife (Watts is into it), and Nwodim is greeted by the hunk’s puzzlement since she died last episode. (“They said I could come back if I got alive again.”)

Let’s see, good sketches . . . what else . . .

Short film “Robbie” was a good-looking Rudy parody that (like the Cena Karate Kid parody) took its behemoth host and bashed a feel-good underdog story to death with him. Or at least until it pooped its pants, as did Chris Redd’s undersized would-be college footballer, whose teammate-aided pitch to play in the big game is squashed (literally and repeatedly) by Watts pointing out, in profanely abusive terms, that Robbie just sucks. Watts is fine, Redd is good, and Kenan Thompson is money as usual as the sketch’s version of Charles S. Dutton’s magical black janitor character, whose inspirational praise of Robbie is shown to have been taken wildly out of context. I like how the defiant Redd, demanding an on-the-spot tryout against Watt, keeps shaking off the many plays he doesn’t know, but the payoff—Watt slams him across the room until he craps his pants—turns on the joke that little guys like Robbie, Rudy, et all, should just stay in their lane. Watt—who recalls Donald Gibb’s Ogre in the pizza delivery sketch later in the night—can practically be heard bellowing “NERDS!” all through the sketch.

The father-son sketch saw Watt trying out the role of a human-sized dad, here apologizing to son Kyle Mooney for the fact that Mooney saw him giving it to Aidy Bryant’s mom. Again, cue cards are our friends, but some people rely on their pals too much, and the whole sketch was Watt’s buff father consoling the grossed-out lad with entirely inappropriate boasts about “clapping cheeks,” and “stroking down.” Rescued (as most things are) by Bryant’s arrival as the equally down-to-traumatize mother, the sketch also allowed for Watts’ gung-ho horniness to accept his son’s expressed bisexuality, which is sort of nice, I guess. And I will never not laugh when Aidy says things about her stuff being “good enough to make the best man kill himself, and the worst man kill everybody.”

The eye-black/facial moisturizer commercial . . . was. That’s pretty much it, as Watt hawked a product intended to keep big, strong guys like him from getting eye-bags. Gay jokes and big, strong male athletes go together on SNL like stereotypes and things everyone’s tired of, but the gag that Watt’s signature eye blend (redolent of Jack Daniels, gasoline, and matcha) is “just gay enough” is delivered with just enough gusto to make Beck Bennett’s (absurdly undersized) tough guy teammate comfortable, if not the rest of us.

Speaking of, the Frozen II outtakes sketch, which pivots mainly around the studiously unconfirmed-by-Disney speculation about a certain character’s sexuality. It’s fun with the openly gay McKinnon as Elsa musically complaining about “the lack of any romantic interest in two movies,” and Cecily Strong’s Anna sticking up for her in defiance of controversy-averse corporate PR. Watt comes on as the oafish prince, whose own love-interest takes stabs at Dinsey’s legacy of such characters stealing non-consensual kisses from unconscious women and the like, while Kenan’s incongruously black soldier keeps pointing out his unlikelihood in “rural Norway, in 1840.” The sketch—in true SNL fashion—plays both sides of the street here, mocking Disney’s bottom-line-watching, problematic legacy on the one side and the “woke culture” that, you know, gives a shit about stuff like inclusivity, tolerance, and diversity, with Beck Bennett’s voiceover guy first mocking himself (worrying about a gay Elsa infecting his son with gayness), and ending with a “Tell your kids we’re sorry,” presumably for injecting all that darn real-world complexity into their mega-budgeted sequel about talking snowmen. (Oh, and Mikey Day’s Olaf winds things down with one long, hacky dick joke, for which someone should genuinely apologize.)

The Food Dudes ad, for pot-bellied mannequins you can use to assuage your drunk-ordering shame in front of judgmental delivery people, is fine. Kenan kills as the drive-thru customer freaked out by his own talking car decoys, and the mannequins are pretty creepy when their animatronic mouths flap open and closed, but, meh.

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Weekend Update update

Kicking off immediately with tonight’s cold open crawl pronouncing the ongoing impeachment trial of Donald Trump “dry,” SNL continues to abrogate its long self-identified role as satirical hotspot. Update saw Che and Jost do their part, with Jost’s opening joke’s punchline being, literally, “Why bother?” Yes, Senate Republicans had the votes to all but assure that the Russian Puppet In Chief would be—as it appears will be the dispiriting case—acquitted. But the ensuing trial has been, as anyone who’s watched it with an eye toward more than rushing past to get to the Krispy Kreme jokes, decidedly not dry, in that it’s been a stark and bracing reminder that there is one political party making a full-throated defense of the rule of law and the principles this country claims to stand for, and one whose slavish quisling hypocrisy is desperate attempting to shore up white supremacy’s shrinking influence on American policy and the comically corrupt whim of a failed steak salesman and game show host. You know, stuff that any “edgy, satirical” live TV show that said president has been openly and publicly attacking for even its watery swipes at his bullshit has not only an opportunity but a self-professed duty to pick up and run with.

Jost and Che were fine. There’s no passion in their political material, substituting as they do that hipper-than-thou “Why bother?” attitude to the jokes they do make at Trump and the GOP’s expense, but the jokes are there. Jost, making passing reference to the fact that Republican lawmakers voted to ban all witnesses and evidence from the trial of a head of state who they largely now concede did the exact thing he was impeached for, flashed pictures of potential witnesses John Bolton and Lev Parnas, noting that the duo “look like two character in a video game who give you the best information.” He also mocked notorious war-enthusiast Bolton for putting all his damaging info into an upcoming book rather than telling the world when he was in a position to do something about it, noting that it’s about as useful as penning a novel entitled The Killer Behind You when you see a guy with an axe ready to murder your best friend. Che has a more potent delivery than Jost, and he got off a good opener about the trial, saying, “What better way to kick off Black History Month than to be failed by the justice system?,” before mocking Trump defender and legal laughingstock Alan Dershowitz’s nonsensical defense of Trump (Basically, “Trump can cheat, lie, and steal all he wants if he thinks it’ll get him reelected”) by comparing it to a guy telling his wife he only cheated to be good at sex for her.

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Still, it’s lukewarm stuff somehow pulled from a boiling cauldron of eminently mockable and relevant current affairs, which is sort of impressive, in its own, SNL-standard way. Again—don’t want to do politics? Fine. Just make a really good sketch comedy show. But don’t waste our time.

And what the hell was the Black History Month correspondent piece all about? I like Ego Nwodim, and god knows she needs the airtime, but if you’re Saturday Night Live with your weak-ass history on race and comedy, and your one big idea for this sketch is that a black African American Studies professor only uses her time to call out other black people in her life she hates, you’re, well, Saturday Night Live. Toss in some “bitches be crazy” sexism, and you are still Saturday Night Live.

Better (although it’d have to be) was Bowen Yang’s return as Chinese government official Chen Biao, here promoted from economics minister to Coronavirus-czar. Yang’s emerged from the featured player pack big time this season, largely on the strength of his unapologetically gay character work, as Chen Biao and elsewhere. Coming from the writer’s room had to have helped, too, as Yang just knows the language of the show, and can put his own spin into it. Here, Biao is just as bitchy about his own repressive government’s policies in underreporting the severity of the outbreak, and Americans’ response to it. “Oh no, I can’t fly American Airlines anymore? Who would I pay to throw my luggage in the garbage?,” he mocks Che’s report on quarantines. As ever, the joke is more about Biao’s self-serving glee at finally having some power to wield, and the free rein it gives him to unleash his all-purpose catty disdain. Responding to Che bringing up China’s poor record on reporting on the SARS outbreak, Yang deflects, moaning in mock outrage, “That was one time! And 2002 was a different world—Tobey Maguire was Spider-Man!”

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

The dating show sketch, Chen Baio.

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

Bewildering inaccuracy of the opening crawl nonsense aside, the impeachment sketch also aimed low. The conceit that Judge Mathis (Kenan, unsurprisingly solid) jumps in to preside over “the trial you wish had happened” doubled down on the lazy misconception that the impassioned pleas of Democrats to their GOP colleagues to show even the merest scrap of patriotism or at least baseline human dignity was a big snooze in need of a daytime TV makeover. Alec Baldwin was back, his Trump pulling a Weinstein by coming out with a sympathy walker, a joke that might have been funnier if Kenan and Baldwin didn’t take turns explaining it. The current tradition of having female cast members play villainous male GOP figures marches on, with Kate’s jowly, sycophantic Lindsey Graham (R-SC) amping up his Confederate leanings, and new impression John Bolton essayed by an enthusiastically inaccurate Cecily. Along with Beck Bennett’s (again, jowly) Mitch McConnell (R-KY, “played America like a fiddle”), the show allowed the Republicans farcical actions to do most of the self-mockery.

Oddly, the sharpest take of the night came from the returning Pete Davidson, whose turn as GOP favorite conspiracy fall guy Hunter Biden wheeled expertly in on a hoverboard before ripping into Republican hypocrisy concerning political nepotism. While admitting that his own career might be due to his father’s influence (he works for a company called “Nepotismo”), Davidson’s Biden tells the judge, “The president is just kind of pointing at me to distract from his own crimes,” before mock-admitting his complicity in profiting from “Biden steaks,” “Biden Tower,” and “Biden-a-lago.” But—and here I’m gonna vent a little—just what the fuck is it with the writers thinking that having the subjects of these political sketches cap things off with a good ol’ singalong is a killer way to really drive things home? For one thing, Mitch McConnell has never once—despite his shame-faced crooning of a “Send In The Clowns” anthem of sacrificing one’s dignity here—shown any hint that he’s anything but fully complicit in this whole Constitution-trampling shitshow. (SNL continues to paint Trump figures as possessed of a secret self-loathing about their actions that not a single one has ever given voice to.) For another, just, what the fuck? Did nobody take any lessons (aside from entire sketches) away from Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip regarding the satirical potency of big, would-be show-stopping musical numbers?

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I am hip to the musics of today

C’mon, Dennis, don’t link to that clip. You’ve done it before, and Luke Combs is a popular country artist, and his big boy energy was pretty infectious, all things considered. And yes, if you ran off a checklist of every lyrical country cliché in the book, you’d tick off “whiskey,” “cowboy boots,” “duck blind,” “Miller Lite,” “Marlboro,” and “two-door old Ford,” but show me a good country song that doesn’t at least make some reference to at least one of those. And, okay, Combs second song, with its runner about how “long-neck ice-cold beer” never broke his heart like some darn woman sounds strategically penned to be bought up for a beer commercial. But Combs seems like a nice enough guy.

Just. Don’t. Do. It.

Most/Least Valuable Not Ready For Prime Time Player

Kenan Thompson is so low-key great in everything he does on SNL that he tends to get taken for granted at this point. Kate Cecily, and Aidy all tie for second.

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And nice to see Pete.

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

I’m putting the last two sketches in here, even though I’d swap the order to put the Bigfoot sketch last. Sticking Watt in a tuxedo and eyebrow ridges as the Young Frankenstein/The Elephant Man-esque cultured curiosity at a 1918 London house party paid off pretty nicely, as he seemed oddly most comfortable in a scene requiring the most character work. The gag (the “civilized” Sasquatch has been taught everything but bathroom etiquette by his supercilious benefactor) is the sort of throwaway literal toilet humor that—tossed in amongst the lavish costuming and expensive sets—becomes part of the joke. Plus, it’s got Kenan as the householder, a stuffy gent whose composure, rattled into baffled outrage by the enormity of Bigfoot’s leavings in his impeccable powder room, explodes into overly elaborate descriptions. (“Who has deposited feculent on the bathroom floor?,” is a line Kenan Thompson was destined to deliver at some point.)

The actual ten-to-one sketch never quite gets going, despite some more prime Kenan as the pizza joint owner who can’t figure out why the receipts from his hunky new delivery boy just never add up—and why he keeps getting hung up on by female customers once he tells them that he’s going to fire the dude. Watt makes for a decent big dumb guy who keeps guilelessly accepting sex for pizza, but there’s not much comic rhythm Kenan can get going with him. Plus, the old “hole in the pizza box” gag is prematurely blown (I said it) by some egregiously clumsy production, as we see the prop box behind Kenan for a full minute before it’s brought out as a punchline. Still, the punchline to the bit proper is good, with Kenan’s proprietor revealing that he’s not trying to get in on the hot pizza-boy action, exclaiming to Watts’ relief, “I just wanted you to shoot my father in law for me!”

Stray observations

  • Watt, mocking his NFL colleagues for asking of Saturday Night Live, “What day do they tape that?,” nimbly twists the dumb jock joke, responding indignantly, “How the hell am I supposed to know, I don’t work there.”
  • Trump-ified Lindsey Graham claims “we have our own history books,” and proclaims his Southern heritage in his revealed full name, “Lindsey Valerie Beauregard Matlock Graham.”
  • Noting that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said “a thousand times no” to Trump’s insultingly one-sided “peace plan,” Che added that that’s how Trump defines consent.
  • Jost chimed in, mocking presidential son-in-law and dubiously qualified Middle East “expert” Jared Kushner’s insulting description of the Palestinian people, saying, “Sounds like someone’s dad is about to bulldoze the community center.”
  • Jost also marveled, “That clip is so gross. I have never seen a more self-entitled, over-confident white guy, and I’m me.”
  • Che, speaking of presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar’s vaunted “tater tot hot dish” campaign treat, said that that’s “also the name of a guy Joe Biden wrestled at a public pool in 1962.”
  • Next week: RuPaul and Justin Bieber are in the house. Given how Bieber’s been roundly roasted for his on-set behavior when he hosted, don’t look for him to do much more than sing.
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Contributor, The A.V. Club. Danny Peary's Cult Movies books are mostly to blame.

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