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James McAvoy
Screenshot: Saturday Night Live

“Let me guess. It was my non-threatening masculinity. I’m sort-of jacked but still in a little bit of a British way.”

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

James McAvoy came out in a kilt, joked about being not-Ewan-McGregor, lost his place on the cue cards, joked about losing his place on the cue cards, and sped through a pretty perfunctory monologue. In the show that followed, the Glass star showed off his verbal versatility by essaying a Philly guy, Colorado virgin, German guy, several bog-standard Americans, a very Scottish air traffic controller, a politely British goat-man, a stern Texan stepdad, and a guy who’d recently spent two days in New Orleans. Throughout, McAvoy exhibited an unfailing professionalism, coupled with the merest whiff of not really being into the gig. Not that the sketches tonight were themselves all-in as far as originality goes. Like McEvoy, there was a noted sense of perfunctory showmanship lent to mostly indifferent premises. It was . . . fine.

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Weekend Update update

Indicted Donald Trump advisor really likes playing dress-up, which is empirically funny, considering. But the “Batman villain” line is everyone’s go-to, Jost. I liked “business Babadook” better. Che’s outside perspective jokes are always at least designed to toss obstacles in the way of conventional wisdom, so him telling Americans excited about Stone’s arrest to calm down because Trump is “one tweet away from declaring a state of emergency and bringing back slavery” had punching power. Him noting how reports of “the White House” denying Trump’s involvement with the increasingly obvious conspiracy to conspire with Russia to gain said address is akin to Che claiming “I’m innocent, just ask my apartment” is a fine joke, too. Plus, seeding in the detail that Roger Stone once got fired from the Bob Dole presidential campaign for putting out swingers ads for black men to have sex with his wife into a setup about Roger Stone doing that was a crisp little reminder that the Trump administration remains beyond the reach of hyperbolical satire.

Cecily Strong’s gabbling Cathy Anne returned to regale us (and neighbor Che) with more takes on the hot-button issues of the day. Strong’s is a fine, deceptively nuanced characterization, Cathy Anne’s hard-living existence coupling outrageous tales of scabrous doings (like locking herself in an Arby’s bathroom for two days until the police smoke bomb set her pants on fire) with the brashly no-bullshit woman’s distaste for corrupt, Trump-ian bullshit. For all her raw experience, Cathy Anne’s contempt for things like Trump’s ban on transgender troops, his stupid wall, and his lies about how drugs (or “dopiods”) are actually smuggled into the country (or over-prescribed by doctors) are on-point, emerging from the unstintingly forthright toughie with surprising potency.

Chris Redd had a solidly funny bit as rapper and sketchy video game entrepreneur Soulja Boy, hawking his line of knock-off Nintendo games (Fork Knife, Super Manjino Brothers), while feigning outrage at Che’s objections. No ending to the bit, but Redd continues to show his chops, and his value.

Best/Worst sketch of the night

Speaking of Chris Redd, I’ll take the “Mr. H” filmed piece for the best of the night. Anchored by fine co-leads in Redd and McAvoy, the expertly crafted piece sees McAvoy’s caring teacher confronting truant student Redd in the alley where the youth is hanging with his friend and dealing drugs. The swerve that McEvoy is really only there to score some mushrooms is less the capper than both actors’ character work, with McAvoy at first making Mr. H’s do-gooder efforts ring with touching truth, and Redd’s tough guy pose equally fine, blustering while showing flashes of neediness and vulnerability. That’s not a joke, though, so the piece keeps subverting the clichéd encounter with Redd’s unearned boastfulness countered by McAvoy’s still well-meaning but more realistic advice about Redd’s future. It’s a nimble, smart little film, punctuated with a few big laughs.

If you’ve got a funny Scotsman on the show, the air traffic controller sketch is the sort of thing you tailor to him. No doubt drawing upon McAvoy’s innate familiarity with impenetrable Scottish slang and (slightly) exaggerated natural accent, the bit—with Mikey Day’s panicked passenger thoroughly not helped by McAvoy’s rapid-fire Scots piloting instructions—clips along amusingly. I don’t know that much was added by having the passengers of the pilot-less plane be part of Kendall Jenner’s PR team, but Day’s increasingly bewildered “What!?” is pretty funny, and Kenan comes in for a few brief but very funny moments, underplaying his own bafflement with an abrupt “Nope.”

McAvoy busted out a German accent for Leslie Jones’ rap ode to her new, Upper East Side lifestyle as the boutique neighborhood baker selling ridiculously expensive pastries. A nice little showcase for Leslie, the video defiantly asserts Jones’ prerogative to live wherever the hell she damn well pleases at this point, complete with a mid-song call to pal and West Side denizen Kate McKinnon to come hang out. (Kate raps about hanging on the couch with her kitty, which I get.) “Bitch, I live here because I remember where I came from,” coming from Jones, has a resonant ring to it.

The focus group commercial was another dialect showcase for McAvoy, as his outspoken member of a toilet paper commercial panel is very vocally from the Philadelphia area. It’s no Scottish brogue, but an exaggerated Philly accent is fun for an actor to goof around with, and McAvoy clearly relishes the challenge, even as his interviewee spins increasingly exotic and silly ideas for alternate bathroom tissue ads. Perhaps not the highest of comedy, but at least McAvoy’s Philly dude eventually goes down an impressively bananas, sewer-based fantasy scenario, culminating in the protagonist marrying a disguised “doo-doo creature.”

In the other filmed piece of the night, Redd and Pete Davidson re-teamed for another of their rap videos, this time as a couple of guys whose braggadocio about “bitches” and so forth turns out to be about ow much they love their actual doggies. Cute stuff (and Redd continues to excel at these), with nice little roles for Ego Nwodim and Kenan Thompson, and intermittent verses by McAvoy’s DJ, who escalates the dog-love into threatened violence toward anyone who doesn’t love dogs as much as they all do.

Getting McAvoy back into his Mr. Tumnus getup must have seemed like a great idea, but, apart from seeing McAvoy’s willingness to strap on the old goat legs again, there’s not much more to see. The joke about the gentlemanly pan-creature being “an unlikely sex symbol for certain types of women” (which he terms “lazy Hermiones”) sees Narnia visitors Cecily Strong, Aidy Bryant, and Kate McKinnon all nerdily lusting after the object of their fantasy obsession, only to find out he’s gay and in a relationship with Edmund. My only real laugh came when the horny (for the horned) Aidy quizzes Tumnus about goat penises, adding that she was going to Google it, but wisely chickened out.

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

Cathy Anne can come back anytime. On the other hand . . .

SNL historically gets dinged for bringing back characters and sketches, but that, in itself, isn’t the crime against comedy some people peg it as. Sometimes a character is simply too well-performed and electrically funny to let sit on the shelf. Sometimes, there’s some effort made to expand on the premise in interesting ways. But a lot of the time, a repeated sketch comes across as either a pet sketch that Lorne and the writers mistakenly think is gold, or a wheezy time-filler tossed out for recognition chuckles because nobody came up with anything better. I don’t know which explanation best fits the return of Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett’s hyperactive brothers, Jared and Spencer, but their reappearance tonight is unlikely to go down as the beginning of another SNL recurring character franchise. (Which doesn’t mean we won’t see Beck and Kyle running around in their tighty-whities again. Possibly again.) Recasting the duo’s understanding but discipline-minded father at least nods to a continuity (McAvoy , taking over from Liev Schreiber, is their new stepdad), but that level of attention only suggests that this loud, messy, and chaotic bit is going to become a thing. Maybe it’s the novelty of having a working hose onstage.

Continuity of premise marks the New Orleans sketch, as it redoes the Seth Meyers-led Cuba number with a swapped-out accent. The joke is that the central couple (Heidi Gardner having swapped Seth for James, apparently) are the sort of pretentiously privileged tourists who come home from a (two-day, in this case) vacation affecting their destination’s accent and culture, to the considerable irritation of their friends. I knew some people in college who came back from semester-abroad with gradually fading accents. That was less amusing than irritating and cringeworthy. Sort of like here, although, as ever, Gardner throws herself into her “Nawlins” obsessed ding-dong with admirable specificity, and McAvoy (while maintaining the sleepy proficiency that marked much of his performance tonight) chewed amusingly on yet another dialect.

The most successful of the trio of repeaters tonight saw McAvoy’s Virgin Hunk reality show bachelor running through the traditional roster of passive-aggressively aggressive female suitors. these sketches are always a good showcase for the female cast members, with some inventively absurdist details escalating throughout. (A skydiving date with Post Malone, dry-humping at Medieval Times.) Since reality competition shows aren’t going anywhere, mocking them is fair enough game, and the stabs at such series’ manufactured drama and implicit biases are solid. Ego Nwodim’s lone black suitor knows she has absolutely no chance, while Heidi Gardner’s Miss Virginia Vagina, squeaks out, “I don’t know what to say because I’ve never been myself, even once.” Plus, the heavily promoted virginity of McAvoy’s bachelor is shown to only be tolerated one way, as he ushers the one female virgin contestant summarily off the show, asking, “Ugh, what’s wrong with you.” I mean, we don’t need this sketch to come back, but its parade of funny women is always at least amusing.

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For the record, the recurring characters who never wore themselves out: Stefon, Herb Welch. End of list.

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

Alec Baldwin took the night off, but pal Steve Martin turned up in a Tucker Carlson Tonight cold open as the recently arrested Trump associate and professional “ratfucker” Roger Stone. Martin was really good, turning the showily pugnacious Stone’s self-promoting bluster into something like an evil, ranting, live-action Muppet, loudly proclaiming his innocence even as he boasts about how awesome he is at doing dirty political deeds. (People are speculating that Martin broke the SNL f-bomb barrier, but he clearly says the name of his new crowdfunding legal defense fund is “Go fug yourself.”) Alex Moffat tries his darndest, but he doesn’t sound or look much like the Fox News white supremacist agitator here. That said, the joke about Carlson’s performative listening face as “a dog looking in the mirror face” was nicely specific. And Cecily Strong’s blaring Trump apologist Jeanine Pirro remains an exquisitely (if barely) exaggerated piece of comic character work.” (Carlson: “How are you?” Pirro: “A lot!”) But the sketch (and the episode such as it was) belonged to Kate McKinnon, continuing her quest to portray every male member of the Trump administration. Under impressively Mr. Potter-esque makeup, McKinnon’s Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross expanded upon the actual Ross’ tone-deaf incredulity that involuntarily furloughed federal workers have had to resort to food banks and other charitable organizations to make it through the government shutdown. Wondering why the workers (who missed two paychecks in a row) didn’t just sell off some of their art collection, billionaire Ross advised, “Even a lesser Picasso—that’s gonna get you through a few weeks of yacht maintenance.” (Also advised by the creatively corrupt Ross: opening your own restaurant, pulling your horses out of private school.)

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I am hip to the musics of today

Meek Mill’s conversational rap doesn’t flow enough for me. The dude got screwed by the man, though.

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Most/Least Valuable (Not Ready For Prime Time) Player

It’s Kate back on top, where she’s belonged for years now. Wilbur Ross, her very Scottish air traffic controller, as herself (musically cuddling her cat), plus stealing scenes in the toilet focus group and Virgin Hunk sketches. Once more, it’s Kate’s show, we’re just watching it.

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Chris Redd and Cecily Strong both had a solid show, too, though.

I’d like to give an encouraging new kid top slot to Ego Nwodim, who had a few lines and a funny part in the dogs vs. bunnies music video. Hang in there.

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SNL continues to have no idea what to do with Melissa Villaseñor. She’s a more-than-capable impressionist, and it’s odd she’s not getting more work in that arena.

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

“Nawlins.” SNL relies heavily on sketches where someone acts weird and everyone else tells them how weird they are. Look for the pattern, and you’ll never stop seeing it.

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Stray observations

  • “Your accent is very thick. Is it possible to not have that?”
  • Martin ends his Roger Stone impression with the claim that Stone is “a normal and straightforward guy.” Martin undersells the line so much that it wasn’t until the credits were rolling that I got that he was doing a “wild and crazy guy” riff.
  • According to McAvoy, he wore a kilt to the monologue because he’s proud of his heritage, and “because my calves are shredded.”
  • “A 26-year-old virgin whose job is exercises has to choose between 30 women who didn’t vote.”
  • Jost, after a story about an orangutan who ripped off a keeper’s thumb: “Who loves bananas and has three thumbs? This guy!”
  • SNL’s off next week, returning on February 9, when Halsey will attempt to pull off the difficult and risky host/musical guest trick.

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