(Photo: Mary Ellen Matthews/NBC)

“I’m not an actor, I’m an [SNL alum and sometimes 1st-place late night] star!”

An SNL alum returning as host needn’t be a drag. Sure, it means we’re in for a lot of returning favorites who were a lot more favorite when they hadn’t yet had all the juice sucked out of them. But that can work if, as in one of the best returning alums’ episode ever, sheer immediacy of talent (and the fact that Bill Hader never wore out Herb Welch or Stefon during his tenure on the show) wins out. Of course, that episode had some of the worst ratings in Saturday Night Live history, so what do I know.

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No doubt the ratings for tonight’s Jimmy Fallon-hosted episode will be a lot better. For one thing, SNL has been on a ratings tear this season, the combination of big time celebrity guests/Lorne Michaels’ pals and Donald Trump’s very public antagonism sending the show on a hot streak as far as buzz goes. And Fallon, while currently fighting off a surge from perennial runner-up Stephen Colbert in the late night wars, is still a big draw, especially when he does the sorts of things he did all-too-happily tonight.

Jimmy Fallon took a lot of heat when he was on Saturday Night Live, and he deserved most of it. He made a better foil for Tina Fey than anyone expected as Weekend Update co-anchor and showed more versatility than he’s given credit for (especially early on), but Fallon was always the calculatedly adorable giggle-puss whose breaking and mugging derailed a truly dismaying number of sketches. That “look at me” cute stuff has served him well in the talk show/goof-around Tonight Show format since leaving SNL, mainly because joshing and palling around with celebrities is what he’s best at. (Even if he can’t seem to differentiate between famous and infamous.) So a Fallon hosting gig (his third) looked pretty predictable.

And it was, in practice. Fallon’s monologue, presented as a celebration of Saturday Night Live’s first ever live broadcast to all time zones turned into an extension of Fallon’s Tonight Show rock musical apery, as he led a very choreographed troupe of faux audience members through the backstage area while he did a joke-free Bowie impression to “Let’s Dance.” Fallon’s good at that sort of thing, but there was an element of manufactured enthusiasm to the move that belied his introductory “It’s a party!” trumpeting. That the cast were glanced only briefly as Fallon crooned past before joining the host and his energetic dance crew on stage at the number’s end typified this season’s worrisome trend toward treating the show’s ensemble like an afterthought, something Fallon’s innate showmanship (and an even larger complement of guests) made all the more glaring.

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(Photo: Will Heath/NBC)

Sure, without buddy Justin Timberlake to play with, there was no Barry Gibb Talk Show or dueling mascots, and Fallon kept the corpsing to a minimum (only cracking himself up playing young and old versions of John Travolta), but Fallon and friends sucked up a lot of air tonight. While it’s always nice to see Rachel Dratch back in Studio 8H, the fact that Denise and Sully got a full-length return sketch deep in the show pointed up how committed SNL was to letting the host set the tune for the evening. Fallon wasn’t bad, or even objectionably showy tonight, but the me-first professionalism he’s acquired in his late night gig came off as more workmanlike than exuberant, and left precious little room for the rest of the cast to do much more than back Fallon up. Literally, in the case of Kyle Mooney and Mikey Day, whose second- and third-fiddling as Fallon’s backup singers in one (pretty funny) sketch exemplified the role this cast is increasingly expected to play.

Weekend Update update

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There was an uneasy undercurrent sneaking in around the edges of a number of sketches tonight. The requisite Donald Trump cold open—seeing Alec Baldwin’s Trump settling the raging Steve Bannon-Jared Kushner feud in reality show format—saw Bannon (as ever, the hooded specter of death) being sent “back to Hell” by Trump after losing out. Melissa McCarthy came back as embattled, belligerent, and shockingly bad at communicating White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, signing off Spicer’s Easter presser by blowing off any questions with the warning that “this is probably our last Easter on Earth.” With both those moments lingering, Jost and Che kept stabbing at dark comedy as well. Jost’s jokes about the increasingly unstable conflict between fellow weird-haired megalomaniacs Trump and Kim Jong-un evoked queasy titters in the wake of North Korea’s disastrous and ominous missile test today, and Che’s joke about Trump’s expensive security for his family did the same, once Che landed the joke about candles on the basketball court in his old neighborhood.

Uneasy times are fruitful times for political comedians, which makes Update that much more important on SNL. Jost and Che have come a long way, and they’re landing more jokes than not. Che has settled into a groove of letting his comic voice come through the jokes that’s routinely arresting. Here, commenting on Trump’s (most recent) baffling bullshit (forgetting the name of the country he bombed, getting schooled on yet another issue by yet another foreign leader, plugging the dessert menu at his golf resort while detailing military strikes), Che stares down the camera and finds solid analogies for the madness. Using Homer Simpson as a stand-in for Trump’s laziness and dimness seems an easy joke, but Che ties it in with a snap at the end that works. Jost hasn’t got Che’s personality, but his blandness can work stealthily in his favor. The leap from talking about Trump’s cost-ineffective use of the so-called “mother of all bombs” to kill a limited number of supposed ISIS members segues so deftly into a joke about how “Fox News spent 13 million just to get rid of five women” that it lands with a lot of force. (Cue picture of alleged serial sexual harasser Bill O’Reilly.)

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The correspondents tonight were both retreads, although not unwelcome ones. I think I like watching Jacob the Bar Mitzvah Boy almost as much as Vanessa Bayer likes playing him. The jittery little shy guy’s schtick never varies, but it’s a funny schtick, and Che’s by now found a nice rhythm in replacing Seth Meyers as Jacob’s object of admiration/fear. It’s cute, what are you gonna do?

Bruce Chandling, too, is an unvarying bit that still works because his performer is so damned good at embodying him. The hackiest, most secretly desperate standup comic in New York (and thus the world), Chandling is always laughing at his own lame setups, until he invariably collapses once the jokes lead him to the very edge of the yawning abyss of self-doubt and need that lurks inside his soul. Kyle Mooney makes this one-joke character, with his endless number of bad jokes, an improbably tragic figure every time he appears. For all the sweaty effort Chandling puts into trying to be funny, Mooney makes playing him look easy.

Best/worst sketch of the night

The sketch with Fallon’s ex-boyfriend interrupting the first date of Cecily Strong and Beck Bennett did not fill me with hope, especially when it seemed like just an excuse for Fallon to sing Savage Garden’s “Truly Madly Deeply” in a silly voice. But there were a pair of unexpected twists that sent the bit off in another direction entirely. Fallon’s sin in the breakup is that he was one of the cops who beat the shit out of that United passenger, while Strong can only cry out in dismay when she finds out that nice guy Bennett is the one who came up with that tone-deaf Kendall Jenner Pepsi commercial. The broadsides on current events are more effective in their incongruity than for how nuanced they are, but the callback to Bennett’s character from last week was a great touch. Like the time Kate McKinnon kept silently popping up as a shoes-off Kellyanne Conway a few weeks ago, this sort of format-breaking inventiveness is something SNL doesn’t do nearly enough.

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The Civil War sketch pulled itself out of a seemingly inescapable trap, too, as Fallon’s exuberant Union soldier’s silly additions to a somber battle hymn took in everyone in earshot, until all the soldiers were happily echoing the “nation’s first big, fat hook.” (“Party at my parents’ house!”) What looked like another excuse for Fallon to just sing in a funny voice actually turned out to have a clever idea behind it.

The middle school version of Legally Blonde: The Musical was slight and not especially original (did you know tweens really aren’t very good actors?), but the cast’s performances carried the film along with a forgiving sweetness. Sure, the gap between the kids’ self-evaluations and predictions and the predictable, under-projected mess they actually produce onstage is the joke, but everyone involved finds the heart in watching the kids’ take their love of what they’re doing so seriously. Even Aidy Bryant’s bloodied thespian comes out of the debacle convinced things went quite well. And they sort of did.

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Oh, and then there was the commercial for Turtle Shirts, button-down oxfords that let you scrunch down inside them when you’ve, for example, accidentally shown your boss a dick pic. It’s a silly idea redeemed partly by the inexplicable gun-cocking noise and music sting of “Turn Down For What” that accompanied each turtling. It’s the little things. The weird little things.

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

Jacob, Bruce, Sully, Denise, Bannon, Trump, Spicer, Steve Harvey. Kenan’s Harvey has grown on me, although the idea that a Family Feud sketch led off the show tonight was not a good sign as far as originality goes. As funny as Thompson makes Harvey’s amused bafflement at his contestants’ shenanigans, these sketches are crippled by the short-form impressions the cast are forced to do. Even when they’re good—Kate McKinnon’s mumbly, bashful Kristen Stewart will be back, no doubt—the impressions are barely there. Cecily Strong does a funny Liza Minnelli, but the labored “time warp” Family Feud concept here was just an excuse for Fallon to trot out his dueling John Travolta impressions (and his off-camera quick-change skills). Like all these sketches, Family Feud was breezy and ultimately forgettable. And the fact that Fallon only cracked himself up by talking to another Jimmy Fallon was pretty insufferable.

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

Alec Baldwin popped by to deliver the same Trump impression and Trump jokes. It’s a mediocre impression, and the “fill in the blanks with Trump’s latest gaffes, lies, and nonsense” approach to satirizing the Donald isn’t getting any fresher. A fat joke, an unwitting comparison of himself to Kim Jong-un, a reference to little-seen former mouthpiece Kellyanne Conway being hidden in the White House basement—all boilerplate by this point. The Bannon-Kushner rivalry plays out predictably with the whole Bachelor gimmick, and, while Beck Bennett suits up as a sturdy Mike Pence, the only real joke that hits is, again, couched in actual darkness, as the beleaguered Trump muses that “This could all be over by Monday” when talking about North Korea. Donald Trump hates being mocked, and especially by Saturday Night Live and Alec Baldwin. It’s becoming more and more disappointing to watch this volatile comic opportunity get squandered each week with lazy jokes that merely skim the surface.

Same goes for Melissa McCarthy’s Sean Spicer. It’s a much better performance than Baldwin’s Trump, but, as committed as McCarthy is, these press conferences have settled into a predictable pattern that no escalation of Spicer’s violent exits can rescue. (He leaves the White House Easter egg hunt in a motorized Easter egg this time.) Spicer’s recent calamitous Hitler analogy finds McCarthy’s Spicer ineptly overcompensating by trotting out his doll boxes to angrily and inaccurately explain Passover, which touches on the troubling undertones of white supremacy in the Trump administration. And the sight of Spicer crashing offstage while hastily dropping horrifying news and even more frightening portents works to deepen the impression beyond mere drop-in buffoonery from the game McCarthy. But, like Baldwin’s Trump, there’s not enough new in the bit to justify it hijacking the show so often.

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I am hip to the musics of today

Harry Styles has a big enough voice, but he looks like David Johansen’s illegitimate son who wants to follow in his father’s footsteps but thinks the New York Dolls stuff was just too weird. And, since I’m harping on this topic this week, Styles isn’t a good enough sketch actor or presence to have sucked up two roles. His Mick Jagger was energetic but empty (and the One Direction “going solo” joke was a groaner), and his singing Civil War soldier could have been done ably by a real cast member as well. In the goodnights, Fallon and Styles stood center-stage, laughing and hugging it out, while the rest of the cast waved from the sides, a tableau that summed up my objections to the episode—and this season’s main weakness—perfectly.

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

Kate McKinnon managed to find the spotlight with her wonted aplomb tonight, her KStew and her brainy daughter to Denise and Sully both memorable among the shadows cast by the guest host and his guests.

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

Having a short film take the final spot suggests that something might have gone wrong, or run long. At any rate, the basketball movie, with Pete Davidson and Kenan Thompson’s attempts at emoting continually upstaged by the background buffoonery of Fallon and Mikey Day had some decent physical comedy and timing to it. Even if, once again, the sight of Fallon’s showy antics upstaging the regular cast was right on the nose.

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Stray observations

  • I’m sure it’d get even worse ratings than Hader’s, but a Rachel Dratch hosting gig would work for me. If Fallon was always about himself, Dratch was a committed sketch performer, and a good teammate.
  • The “live for all” development removes the luxury the show’s always retained of subbing in a dress rehearsal sketch for the west coast broadcast in case of disaster, or of bleeping out the occasional f-bomb. Having always lived in SNL’s time zone, it’s hard for me to truly get the effect for the rest of the country. West-coasters, what’s your take?
  • Kenan’s Harvey, on McKinnon’s Stewart: “It’s like a witch cursed you not to smile, but you’re gonna try anyway.”
  • Unless I’m wrong, Spicer was using fundamentalist foodstuff Veggie Tales toys to illustrate Jewish history, which make the joke even funnier for not being mentioned.
  • Spicer’s joke about it being “smooth sailing for the Jews” after fleeing Egypt is a direct quote of a particular Simpsons retelling of Exodus.
  • Che, on Trump’s boast that his resort makes the best chocolate cake: “First of all, you don’t know what cakes I’ve seen.”

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