“We gotta find this guy if we wanna see what he looks like!”
“I’m not an actor, I’m a [damp superhero, sandy horselord] star!”
Hirsute man-mountain and walking riposte to all your oh-so-hilarious “Aquaman is lame” jokes Jason Momoa claimed in his monologue that he once dreamed of trying out for Saturday Night Live. It’s not such a farfetched idea—although SNL has never counted a hulking, pumped-up physical goofball among its ranks, the show relishes cast members who can be slotted easily into the broad types sketch comedy deals in. (Don’t give me Piscopo—he didn’t muscle up until later.) And Momoa is a gamer, his obvious enthusiasm all night adding some buoyancy to another very leaky outing.
There’s always been a likeability to Momoa’s glowering persona (some recent meathead tendencies notwithstanding), and if SNL obviously catered Momoa’s sketches to his physicality, the actor at least threw himself into the proceedings. Just to point out how smart I am and stuff, during Momoa’s monologue, I 100 percent had the thought, “You know, he’s like an in-shape Ogre from Revenge Of The Nerds.” Boom: Revenge Of The Nerds sketch, with Momoa’s burly Beef destroying the snooty jocks’ frat house in his hair-trigger berserker rage every time someone mentions the very existence of “dorks.” It’s sort of a no-brainer of an idea if you’ve got a hirsute man-mountain whose gravelly bellow sounds a lot like Donald Gibb’s, but sometimes a host just slots right into an obvious idea too well not to do it. In the first sketch of the night where Momoa smashes right through a wall, this one is the lesser by virtue of the fact that it’s so clumsily executed. Momoa’s got the energy right, but the writing and especially the direction keep missing what should be some slam dunk laughs. A window reveal with the brutish Beef drinking from a hose is good, but the followup reveal fizzles because he’s not given anything equally funny to do, and because of how sluggishly the bit is paced.
That’s not to say that Momoa should throw over his signature line in action heroic wiseassery for a new career in comedy. The show wheeled out Cecily Strong’s Gemma again, with Momoa’s turn as the very British, very terrible singer’s brawny new beau—taking over from Dwayne Johnson—an illustration of the comedy charisma gap between the two movie tough guys. Not every huge, game goofball is The Rock, is what I’m saying, as Momoa lacked the immediacy and confidence in the role to make his smitten musclehead’s chumminess as charming as Johnson’s in basically the same part. (I know Louis C.K. and Benedict Cumberbatch also vied for Gemma’s favors in the past, but they were even less suited for the part.)
The same goes for that Christmas Carol . . . sketch, I guess? There was simply no joke involved in the bit, as Scrooge is surprised, then confused, by Momoa’s tardy fourth spirit, who keeps promising “extra,” a concept that made no sense in practice. That’s part of the joke (I guess?), but the piece is so poorly executed as to be unintelligible, and Momoa—asked to carry the sketch by stripping and gyrating—again lacked the presence to elevate the bit beyond its indifferent concept.
Weekend Update update
There have been a lot of different takes on SNL’s weekly fake news segment over four decades. Sometimes it’s more of a personality piece, while other times it’s leaned harder into the satirical news of the day aspect. The best Update anchors (Tina Fey, Seth Meyers) blended performance and politics, balancing each element of the comedy to keep things moving, and relevant. For Jost and Che, there have been flashes—they’re certainly miles better than where they started—but they’re clearly following the template set by Meyers, both in his Update and subsequent late-night gigs. They’re just not as good.
It’s frustrating watching an Update joke stop short before realizing the comic premise of a joke. Here, Jost addresses the imminent departure of White House Chief of Staff John Kelly with jokes about him needing surgery to remove his palm from his head (cue picture of Kelly seemingly dismayed at Trump’s derided U.N. speech), and about how the former general’s experience service multiple tours in Iraq couldn’t see him through one term in the Trump administration. Fine as far as they go, both jokes settle. There are lots more jokes—smarter ones—left on the table. Regardless of one’s political positions, Kelly’s complicity in many of the administration’s most criticized policies is well documented, making jokes about Kelly being “the grownup in the room,” simply unable to stomach what goes on in this White House the sort of forgettable, easy laughs that won’t be remembered in a week, never mind Update retrospectives to come.
Che, having the stronger comic voice, fares better, as a rule. Here, he steps up to address the Kevin Hart Oscar controversy (in case you missed it, saying hateful shit about the LGBTQI community on Twitter still counts even if it was a long time ago) by pointing out that the Oscars is simultaneously opening its arms to Mel Gibson once again. As is usual with Che, there’s a prickly uncomfortableness to the joke—he’s less defending Hart than pointing out hypocrisy, but it’s close. Complexity of point of view isn’t a vice, though, and Che followed up with a solid turn about the only cleaner black comic being out of contention for hosting duties for 3-to-10 years. (Cue picture of Bill Cosby.) The same goes for Che’s jokes about Trump’s continued, escalatingly panicky attempts to derail the investigation as to whether he’s a Russian asset (he is), which he sums up by giving props—honestly, how dumb would Trump feel if he got to jail and only then realized he should have just tried destroying the rule of law? Che noting that it’s pretty chilling that Trump “tries all the things that I would try” melds the personal and the political nicely.
Che did well by breaking the form later on Update, as he popped over to Jost’s other side to do his own correspondent piece, about rejected bidet ads on the New York subway. With Jost breaking in repeatedly to object to the unprecedented double-duty, Che had fun essentially just doing a four minute standup set on his love for his new bidet, all while rebuffing his co-anchor’s asides. “Shut up, you . . . white guy,” Che trails off at one point, admitting, “It’s better when Leslie does it.” Sure, but this was solid, and switched things up, which is always worth extra credit.
She’s no Stefon, but Aidy Bryant was adorable and funny as 7th grade travel expert Carrie Krum in the other correspondent piece. Tying all her advice to her own limited experience is a cute idea, made more endearing by Aidy’s performance as a believably boy crazy but shy young teen. Recommending travelers stay at her aunt’s house because she once saw her aunt’s bra on the couch comes out in fascinated tween horror, and the twist that she doesn’t recommend Montana because she once fell on some rocks on her back is just funny. “It really hurt, so please don’t go there!”
Best/worst sketch of the night
Could that Christmas Carol sketch worked as written if Momoa found a way to juice up his wanly exhibitionist ghost with some lunatic energy? I mean, maybe. But that would just mean rescuing a shitty bit. It can be done, but it takes someone with a lot more presence.
Not to keep the Dwayne Johnson-Jason Momoa comparison going, but Momoa, unlike the former The Rock, didn’t offer a lot of surprises, suggesting that the writers realized they had to tailor their material to what Momoa could bring to the table. So we got a Khal Drogo sketch. Interviewing killed-off Game Of Thrones characters alongside much more personable Dothraki co-host Kenan Thompson allowed Momoa’s physical presence and well-trod fictional persona to play straight man for the most part, all while giving Momoa enthusiasts a crowd-pleasing greatest hit to latch onto. It was fine—I liked how Pete Davidson’s High Sparrow laments incredulously that both he and the lusty, life-seizing horselord wound up in the same afterlife, despite the celibate holy man’s decades of self-denial. And Momoa—who missed a cue at one point and had to be prompted by old pro Kenan—did toss out the show’s second Kevin Hart jab of the night, responding to Heidi Gardner’s Brienne objecting to being gender misidentified by admitting, “What a teachable moment—I never host Oscar.” And stabbing Kyle Mooney’s aftershow host is the sort of public service death-dealing we can all get behind.
Pretty sure all the jokes about deconstructing the problematic thematic elements of the Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer story have been made, this week’s annual, rock-stupid “War On Christmas” ammo from the professional ginned-up outrage merchants at Fox News notwithstanding. Still, Pete Davidson managed to create something of a character as his Rudolph shifted with alarming menace from aw-shucks bullied to manipulatively sadistic bully once Momoa’s Santa chooses him for lead sleigh-puller. (His “Well, well, well . . . turn is outstanding.) There’s not much else to the sketch, although the twist that Rudolph frames Beck Bennet’s Comet for being rabid got some genuine gasps from the audience once Santa busted out his shotgun. If you’re gonna go dark, go dark.
Since GE doesn’t technically own NBC any more, I suppose the “GE products—but for dudes” is a less egregious piece of product placement than it might otherwise have been. Still, the premise—Momoa’s stay-at-home hubby relishes his riding vacuum and heavy-door dishwasher—isn’t funny as much as it’s . . . there.
The only piece that truly worked tonight at fusing Momoa’s gifts to a strong premise was the filmed “First Impression.” A Christmas classic if there’s any justice, the consistently funny and surprising bit took a stock idea (nervous boyfriend meets girlfriend’s parents) and ran all over the house with it, as Beck Bennett’s boyfriend is revealed to have set up an elaborate game of hide-and-seek in order to impress the folks, complete with hidden tape recorder, ineptly constructed pie trap, and even more unsuccessful, greased-up, half-naked final hiding spot. Momoa, sporting a dad-bod potbelly and greyed hair, goes in unexpected directions, too. Sure, he hurls a bed right over and punches through his second wall of the episode, but his dad’s sudden enthusiasm for the bizarre game itself flips our expectations of the “fearsome father” role, and the sketch keeps wheeling out absurdist little laughs along the way.
“What do you call that act?” “The Californians!”—Recurring sketch report
Gemma has never worked nearly as well she did the first time with Johnson as her besotted suitor. Even her song was just terrible this time, instead of funny-terrible.
I’m calling Elf on the Shelf a recurring bit, even if the squeaky-voiced elves here might better be called cousins of the randy magical pervs of the past. Here, it’s Momoa’s turn to be scandalized by someone else’s sexual hijinx, as his onesie-clad elf Scrabby reveals that his growing young charge has just discovered masturbation. I’m never a fan of sketches that depend on voice modulation for the joke (instead of relying on the actors’ voice talents), so the sped up lines for the elves here hurt the bit. But Momoa, his modulated voice barely out of the range of human, does make Scrabby’s eyes-averted reports of the puberty-spawned acts he’s forced to witness pretty funny, underplaying things wisely. Plus, the idea that Scrabby’s lifelong charge has incorporated his elf pal’s all-seeing presence into his self-abuse is a clever way to underline just what a creepy phenomenon the whole “narc on a shelf” elf tradition is.
Then there’s . . .
“It was my understanding there would be no math . . .”—Political comedy report
Alec Baldwin’s barely adequate Donald Trump only appeared glaring from a photograph on the wall in the cold open, but the blank-stare-inducing obviousness of these Trump starters lived on as Robert DeNiro’s Robert Mueller returned, this time popping out boogeyman-style from Eric Trump’s closet. Okay, we need to talk about DeNiro on SNL—don’t have DeNiro on SNL. Whether because he thinks the gig is beneath him, he hasn’t got a funny bone left in his body, he’s only there as favor to pal and neighbor Lorne Michaels, or he’s simply and constitutionally unsuited for live TV, Robert DeNiro is, invariably, an embarrassment on the show. Here, he blew a line, was reading his cue cards like he forgot his cheaters, and made Alex Moffat look like the acting legend in the sketch. Not that Moffat’s childlike Eric Trump doesn’t remain a well-conceived piece of character assassination, but the sheer gap in live performance ability on display here made it woefully apparent that only one of the actors involved has any business being on Saturday Night Live, ever. If nothing else, DeNiro’s unreliable presence—the recognition applause aside—undermines whatever sketch he’s in simply because we’re uneasy wondering if he’ll derail the whole enterprise. Just stop, Lorne.
As for the sketch itself, it was of a piece with the no-stepladder-necessary low-hanging humor of these openers. For satire, they provide a more-or-less factual public service in listing off whatever Trump administration scandals, outrages, and unconstitutional shenanigans happened in the intervening week (you know, like how prison-bound Michael Cohen just named Trump in a couple of felonies) without having anything more insightful to say about them. And while Moffat’s buffoonery is always amusing (dare I say endearingly so) as the dumbest(?) Trump, his jammies-clad innocence here is its own comic thing, divorced from much in the way of actual political comedy or edge. SNL, by virtue of its position as must-see hatewatch of the most powerful figure in the country, has unprecedented satirical opportunities (not to say responsibilities), and it keeps on punting.
Cleverer was the Empire-style show Them Trumps. With Kenan playing Darius Trump, the identically coiffed and corrupt black version of Donald Trump, the joke is always that, being black, he actually goes to jail for everything he does. It’s a quick hit commercial parody, doesn’t overstay its premise, and Kenan is, as always, really good at underplaying, even in a nasal Terrence Howard voice. (They can’t lock me up! And even though I may be black—” “Freeze Trump, you’re under arrest.” “Yeah, that sounds about right.”)
I am hip to the musics of today
Mumford & Sons has a formula: start slow and earnestly acoustic, gradually build, then bust out the band with the banjo and the mandolins and whatnot. But it’s a formula that keeps working on me. Plus, I always find it amusing when lead singer Marcus Mumford’s sibilant singing makes a line like “sit upon your floor” sound like “shit upon your floor.” I’m not proud.
Most/Least Valuable (Not Ready For Prime Time) Player
Not that she had all that much to do in them, but Melissa Villaseñor at least got more lines this week than she has all season, so here’s to you, full cast member who’s inexplicably getting less screen time since getting promoted. And here’s to Che for shaking Update up.
Honestly, nobody really stood out this week. Sure, I could pick out poor Ego Nwodim, mired still in the new kid doldrums, but it’s not like anyone else took the episode and ran with it.
“What the hell is that thing?”—Ten-To-Oneland report
The sight of much of the cast dolled up in reindeer costumes looks appropriately silly for the final sketch of the night, but the Rudolph sketch was awfully ordinary stuff. Get weirder.
- “If I cry, it’ll rain in Hawaii.”
- Aidy stole the monologue, asking sweetly if Momoa would open a pickle jar while looking her directly in the eyes.
- “Aqua Boogie” is alway welcome, too, however.
- Another difference between Donald and Darius Trump: the sex performer mistress Darius illegally paid off has the (slightly) cooler name, “Cinnamon Mercedes.”
- Jost, noting that Trump’s pick for Attorney General, William Barr, held the same job under George H.W. Bush, joked about the wisdom of rebooting someone with the last name Barr who was big in the 90s.
- Jost, on the rise of sword-less bullfighting in China: “That’s how many extra people they have.”
- Che, with a quick-hitter on Kevin Hart’s tenure as Oscar host: “Well, that was short.”
- Next week: Matt Damon hosts, delighting Squees and Tobins everywhere, with musical guests Mark Ronson and Miley Cyrus.