“The first time was 15 years ago, so you know I made a hell of an impression.”
In my relative youth, I used to go see the free weekly ASSSSCAT show at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in New York, where various comedians and writers (usually including some SNL cast members) would perform long-form improv comedy based on monologues from a guest. At some point early in the Arrested Development run, I saw Jason Bateman pull monologue duty for the evening; befitting the ephemeral nature of those performances, I don’t remember the exact content of his monologues, beyond that they involved his checkered child-star past, but his ease with delivering an extemporaneous story stuck with me. He was funny without losing the deadpan, reactive style that worked so well on Arrested.
Bateman brought that style into his second-ever monologue as Saturday Night Live. As he noted in tonight’s episode, it’s been over 15 years since he hosted. (The UCB appearance I saw was maybe a year and change before his first SNL, which was the 12th episode of Season 30, back in February of 2005.) He then delivered a short, funny, mostly-true story about a real chimp snapping at him during the goodnights, peppered with deadpan asides about primates’ obvious hatred “that humans have faces” and how nobody in the 2005 cast paid much mind to his near-miss (though in the clip he showed, Rachel Dratch looked a bit rattled). In a season that’s been heavy on ambitious stand-up monologues (usually on top of 37-minute debate sketches), Bateman delivered something short, punchy, and unfussy, setting the tone for the rest of this likable, fairly unmemorable episode that also felt closer than usual to the show’s at-home episodes from the spring. We’ll get to the how and why in a moment.
Oh, also: Hi, I’m Jesse, and I’m subbing for the intrepid Dennis Perkins, for one week only. You may know me from my movie reviews, or possibly my intense love of the Star Wars prequels (Attack of the Clones literally playing on TNT as I write this) or, if you read the site’s SNL coverage, my insistence that having guest stars play politicians isn’t that bad for the show. Now that we’re all on the same page with all of my opinions, let’s talk about the rest of the episode!
The Best: In so many other seasons, it would have registered immediately if Cecily Strong and Aidy Bryant were gone for the first six episodes. But with this season of SNL happening in a whirlwind of election insanity and the show’s biggest-ever cast, even some attentive viewers might be forgiven for not realizing that both Strong and Bryant weren’t in the building for that marathon season-opening stretch. Bryant video’d in one Weekend Update bit, and Strong did a few voiceovers and virtual cameos, just enough to make it feel like maybe they were just part of the usual ebb and flow of a large cast, but they were both off shooting other projects. Bryant appears to still be MIA working on Shrill, but Strong came back this week, and reminded everyone that what we’ve really been missing is a simulation of a low-rent Judy Garland.
That might sound sarcastic, but Strong has developed a singer’s sensibility as an SNL performer; she can cover familiar material, like the hapless-singers-trying-to-make-a-clunky-performance-work bit the show has reskinned so many times, and make it work with her particular voice. And in that outdoor-cabaret sketch with Strong and Bowen Yang as the actual singers and Bateman as their mildly disgruntled pianist, the performers worked their magic with some pretty decent writing that touches upon the ridiculous desperation of businesses forcing themselves to try business as usual during a pandemic.
The Worst: It’s easy to imagine that everyone was eager to write for Strong again after so many weeks without her, which is probably how we got the mall Santa sketch, with Strong and Bateman as recently separated actors playing Santa and Mrs. Claus within plastic bubbles for mall photo ops. For a worst sketch of the night, this is pretty mild stuff; it’s mostly that the slapstick doesn’t exactly, well, land. The sometimes shaky directing that seems to emerge at least once an episode this season doesn’t help a sketch that depends largely on the timing of pratfalls, which are already difficult to execute within giant plastic bubbles. It wasn’t completely laughless, but it was surprisingly lifeless, despite Bateman and Strong’s best efforts. (It doesn’t help that, admittedly, “Mikey Day reacts to absurd behavior by loudly pointing it out” is not a go-to comedic move that I’ve come to wildly anticipate.)
Besides Cecily’s welcome return, what struck me as notable about these two sketches, and the episode as a whole, was the focus on the pandemic. It popped in and out of various sketches over the initial run of episodes, sometimes as part of a premise and sometimes as a background element (extras wearing masks, etc.); tonight, it really felt like a focus again, maybe for the first time since those at-home shows last spring. That might account for my warm feelings toward the episode as a whole, despite the lack of an instant classic sketch, or even something for me to perversely enjoy more than 98% of more rational-minded viewers. Call it sketch-comedy normcore, helped along by not one but two different bits where Jason Bateman plays some form of Santa Claus. Doing a bunch of comedy sketches about a global pandemic that’s lasted nearly a year may not sound comforting, but after so much election-season anxiety, this episode felt like a breath of… different anxiety.
On the whole, I’ve been ready for Colin Jost and Michael Che to vacate the Weekend Update desk for a while, not out of particular animosity toward Twitter’s least favorite comedy news anchors, but because they’re both approaching a record tenure in this job and after a long, steady improvement, the wear and tear has started to sometimes show on screen. (Jost’s memoir, which I have read as part of my solemn vow to read any memoir written by an SNL cast member, strong suggests he’d like to leave the show following the 2020 election, but Lorne Michaels seems to have a way of coaxing people into overlong runs.) As Dennis has noted in the past, part of the fun of their pairing has been the give and take between Jost’s half-smarmy, half-aw-shucks Update-anchor-created-in-a-lab vibe and Che’s give-no-fucks sensibility. But tonight, the routine felt lopsided in favor of Che, who got in a few genuinely sharp barbs, like his reference to vaccinations handed out at “Colin and Scarlett’s holiday yacht party” and Trump charging Kushner for one night with his wife for a pardon.
Low-hanging fruit, for sure, but Che plucked those jokes with mischievous energy, while Jost more or less went through the motions in the post-election hellscape—altered from the pre-election and during-election hellscape, for sure, but still pretty hellish for Update’s business as usual. But expecting cutting-edge satire from SNL has long struck me as a fool’s game, and the show rewarded my low-ish expectations with two of my favorite Update bits: teen movie critic Bailey Gismert, and Pete Davidson talking shit about Staten Island.
This week’s Davidson riffing felt particularly frayed, ostensibly covering anti-masking protests in Staten (displacing Pete himself, he claims, for the answer to the question “What’s the worst thing about Staten Island?”) but leading to sidebars about a Pete Davidson vibrator on Etsy and Twitter’s reaction to Davidson playing It’s a Wonderful Life’s George Bailey in one of those charity table-reads. Davidson’s self-deprecation still works for me (he notes that he’s a natural for Bailey, as someone who is “famously depressed,” with the “the complexion of someone in a black-and-white movie”), but he’s funnier when he really pushes and prods at an absurd or sensitive topic. Basically, yes, I was wishing he’d really lay into Staten Island some more.
Heidi Gardner’s Bailey Gismert, though, is a treasure, one of Gardner’s perfectly observed Update characters. Absent a steady stream of new releases, Bailey has been checking out Best Picture winners of the ‘90s, and is appalled by what she finds, like Tom Hanks playing, uh, slow (“doing the voice and everything” is a choice euphemism) in Forrest Gump and plastic bags allowed to float through the air willy-nilly in American Beauty.
Besides Bailey Gismert, the show kinda-sorta revived another Update character, without quite saying as much: Cecily Strong’s first order of business was to impersonate the insane idiot rambling about voter fraud in Michigan.
In doing so, she was fulfilling the destiny set in place when folks on the internet pointed out that this woman sounded an awful lot like the Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With At A Party assayed by Strong for years. (She also helped rebuke folks on the internet who described the woman as like a Victoria Jackson character, or insisted that Kate McKinnon should play her on SNL. Maybe the latter people were just taking their cues from the not-so-bygone days when SNL’s response to anything was “maybe it would be funny if Kate McKinnon did this.”) Strong didn’t ID the character as such, but she performed it with the exact same righteous inflection of non sequiturs and malapropisms, so I think it counts. That cold open sketch also featured the unofficial return of Kyle Mooney’s beloved character, Wannabe Kidnapper Of Governor Gretchen Whitmer. (Beloved by me, anyway.)
The only actual recurring sketch of the night was the sleepover where Jason Bateman steps in for Adam Driver (for the first and presumably final time) as a dad calmly interrogating his daughter’s friends about an embarrassing off-screen mishap very obviously committed by Kate McKinnon’s Megan. Bateman does this kind of thing well, but it’s a straight retread of the previous sketch, exactly the kind of bit that requires no repeating.
There’s also a recurring format, of sorts, in the “Christmas Conversation” filmed piece, following three adult children breaking the news to their parents that they won’t be traveling home for the holidays. As with semi-recent sketches about childrens’ holiday clothing and the pains of childbirth, the over-the-top misery is buttoned up with a sincere expression of love, gratitude, and understanding. It was a sweet trick once; this many times, it starts to resemble a “hip” ad campaign, no matter how nice the message. I would love to know who in the SNL offices started this cloying greeting-card trend.
The aforementioned cold open was by no means great: Cecily did the thing everyone thought she’d do, McKinnon mugged and fake-farted as Rudy Giuliani (it’s one of her best impressions, but this wasn’t its best outing), and the whole thing was pretty predictable without much of a punchline besides the fact that Trump’s attempt to overthrow the election results are, in practice, a circus of morons. Yet the mere fact that this was kind of a regular sketch, entirely featuring cast members, and not relying on anyone reciting verbatim stuff that Donald Trump (or anyone else) said in the past week, made it one of the best cold opens of the season so far. There’s a mild but blessed relief in a sketch that brings on Heid Gardner as a ballot-eater, Beck Bennett as the MyPillow guy, and Chloe Fineman doing a spot-on Nicole Kidman. It’s just silly and dumb, and it’s remarkable how often SNL hasn’t been able to even pull off “silly and dumb” in their last four years of politcal sketches.
Say this for Morgan Wallen, the country singer I admit I had never heard of until he got kicked off his previous SNL booking for partying like a rockstar (which is to say, like a dumbass): His songs are short. One clocked in at about three minutes on the dot. The other wasn’t much longer. Normally I’d say they aren’t my thing, but you know, at six minutes and change, it doesn’t really matter if it’s not my thing. It’s cool; we get Springsteen next week.
Wallen also tried to play self-effacing good sport by doing a sketch about his previous sorta-firing, wherein he is approached by two different time-traveling selves (and one Pete Davidson character), warning him about the consequences of partying unmasked in Alabama, before convincing themselves that maybe they oughta stick around and check this party out. Kind of a long way to go for an inside joke, but sure, why not.
Speaking of the musics of today: How about that song “Stan,” am I right?! I actually find it really charming when SNL does a very specific homage to something that’s very old (in this case, even older than Bateman’s previous hosting gig), and having Pete Davidson parody Eminem with a Santa-themed stalker rap over his lack of a PlayStation 5 hit that spot for me, even though it had the unfortunate quality of both continuing on for a long time and ending with kind of a splat, with an Eminem cameo contributing very little in the way of laughs. But, yes, I am saying that I’d rather listen to Pete Davidson rap than Morgan Wallen sing.
Maybe it’s just the sentiment talking, but I have to give it to Cecily Strong. The fact that she was front and center for the night’s first, best, and worst sketches weirdly strengthens her case. Imagine any of those sketches without her and you might just picture them evaporating into thin air.
As far as least valuable, that poor Andrew Dismukes kid continues to barely appear, but that’s not really on him. I’d actually maybe give this to beloved SNL institution Kenan Thompson (whose multi-volume memoir I eagerly await), if only because he typically adds a lot even when he’s in a little, and this week he had uncharacteristically little to do.
Oh, sweet Kyle Mooney, owning the ten-to-one slot again. Bookending an episode that featured an easygoing Jason Bateman monologue, we have another filmed piece, where Mooney’s character demonstrates and then sings about his tendency to “kill the bit” when hanging out with his friends. Mooney’s material can sometimes feel solipsistic or self-conscious compared to video pieces from, say, the Lonely Island’s heyday, but I have to admire a performer who can put so much genuine pathos into singing “when I riff with my friends, I just slow things down,” after failing to master the low art of the “cut to” joke. Maybe it resonates more with me, thinking about standing in line with comedy-nerd friends at UCB in my twenties and trying desperately to keep up with their riffs. I love that Mooney just made this situation part of a casual dude hang, rather than a showbiz commentary. It’s a perfectly judged bit of awkwardness, and one of my favorite bits of the night.
- One of my pet peeves as a reader of SNL recaps, and something Dennis blessedly doesn’t do much, is talk about how the host “disappeared” for a lot of the show. First of all, a lot of the show is a cold open, news segment, and musical guest bits that often involve the host tangentially at best. Second, the idea that the host appears in most or all live sketches is something from the second half of the show’s run; there are plenty of ’80s and ’90s episodes where the host simply doesn’t appear in many sketches. Third: Isn’t it kind of cool when the host sort of blends into the cast rather than demanding a variety of showcase sketches? That’s more or less what Bateman did tonight, and it worked just fine. There are a lot of splashie comedians who have been described as alternate SNL cast members that never were; Bateman’s background is more comic acting than sketch or stand-up, but I do think he shows facility with this weird, tricky format.
- It’s officially the holiday season, which means so many chances to see SNL cast members playing elves! Chloe Fineman is, in the tradition of Dratch and Poehler, weirdly (yet not really unexpectedly) good at it.
- Loved the bits of Bailey Gismert’s Extremely Online SNL criticism: Che can’t be working that hard because he’s “never in sketches”; she knows Tom Hanks only as David S. Pumpkins; and it’s bad that the show isn’t on Netflix.
- Kyle Mooney is the first person in years to make me actively enjoy a reference to a joke as “the bit.”
- I watch SNL every week and often write about it, but damn, these recaps are a lot of work. It really underscores what a great job Dennis does week after week. He’ll be back next week; thanks for hanging out with his placeholder and I’ll see you in the comments section!