John Cena (Photo: Mary Ellen Matthews/NBC)

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

It’s not at all fair that John Cena is going to get compared to that other former wrestler turned movie star, SNL host, and human charisma generator Dwayne Johnson. But, sure, John Cena is no Dwayne Johnson when it comes to hosting SNL, or to out-of-ring star power. Still, I like John Cena. Apart from his tireless humanitarian work (he has done more Make A Wish visits than any person ever), the big lug has shown some unexpectedly good comedy chops in both Trainwreck and Sisters (even some nimble improv skills in the outtakes), and I thought he was super doing deadpan self-parody on Psych. In tonight’s episode, Cena suited up to play, donning a Fabio wig, getting copiously showered with owl crap (and vomit), saying “bro!” a lot as Patriots party-doofus Rob Gronkowski, and generally being the gamer you’d expect him to be.

Advertisement

Still, there’s a reason why we’re not all rushing out to see the new John Cena blockbuster, as Cena’s roughneck babyface charms have their limits. There’s also a reason why Cena’s stuck with the same good guy persona his whole career. (And thanks to A.V. Club wrestling geniuses LaToya Ferguson and Kyle Fowle for the confirmation on that.) For all his oft-revealed bulk here tonight, Cena’s got a literal baby face that doesn’t stray effectively outside his genial or “I’m mad you made me stop being genial” registers. Even when called upon to play the bad guy (as in a Karate Kid parody), there’s not a lot of malice to the guy. Which is good, as the show kept sticking him in the winner/overdog role, a theme that could have been off-putting if not for Cena’s dutiful dedication to amiable goofiness.

I suppose it was inevitable that the show would build the monologue around a wrestling gimmick, but at least it gave Bobby Moynihan (as the Roddy Piper-styled “The Waddler”), Kenan Thompson (immediately regretting that chair shot), and Leslie Jones (no character necessary) some fun bits to bounce off of Cena’s ludicrously meaty torso. (Jones abandons her antagonism immediately upon contact, although her “I’m Leslie Jones, bitch!” will live on as her wrestling war cry for seasons to come, no doubt.) Throughout the episode, Cena went through his paces with the enthusiastic confidence of someone used to following a pressure-filled live game plan.

Advertisement

Weekend Update update

After a few weeks’ worth of attention-grabbing controversy from Donald Trump, this episode (apart from one pretty great piece we’ll get to below) was largely content to tell the same old Trump jokes. This being Donald Trump, there’s a lot of fresh material to plug into those jokes, at least, with Jost and Che taking turns taking middle-strength swipes at their target. On yesterday’s Russian election interference scandal (and props to Update for staying current), the anchors did their smirky number on aspects of the affair without ever going very deep into any or delivering compensatory huge laughs. For the second week in a row, Che builds a joke on a false premise, calling Trump’s “burn” on the CIA (basically, “Oh yeah, well who said Saddam had WMDs?”) a solid one when there are a lot of reasons (false equivalency; historical complexity; the fact that Trump’s own State Department pick, John Bolton, was a major proponent of the idea) that are shaved off for the sake of the joke. Sure, cramming all that into a pithy Update joke is a lot to ask, but that’s what really good satire does, rather than picking a limited point of view because it’s easier.

Still, Update was reliably amusing, with the hardest joke coming at the expense of SNL’s parent network itself, as Jost concluded an item about the return of Donald Trump as executive producer of the new Celebrity Apprentice, calling the decision “an absurd, unethical, and possibly illegal conflict of interest… only on NBC!” Jost encapsulates the issue and nails home a good old “bite the hand that feeds you” joke, always a good Update look. Sure, the show continues to ignore its own complicity in Trump’s rise to power, and NBC’s silence on getting back into business with a person they cut ties with for violating NBC’s stated policy of “respect and dignity for all people” back in 2015, but, baby steps.

Advertisement

Both Kate McKinnon’s Angela Merkel and Cecily Strong’s Cathy Anne returned for correspondent pieces. McKinnon, as ever, makes the sensible but silly Merkel immensely endearing, as she pines for her “Barash,” bemoans the girls nights she and Hillary could have had, and makes the expected jokes about bowl cuts and stifling German-ness. Still, her Merkel always lands some harder jabs, this time, calling out the white supremacists of the so-called “alt-right” identical to what Germans call “Why Grand-papa lives in Argentina now,” and failing in her attempt at a sarcastic “What could go wrong?” when asked about the rise of European nationalism. Cathy Anne is a big, broad character, someone Strong loves to do a little more than I to watch. But, still, Strong’s developed a more complex take on the loudmouthed burnout than might be expected, her mush-mouthed gabbling dropping the occasional solid observation. She, too, mocks the “alt-right” for their transparent attempt at rebranding, mocking the idea that people so invested in “white pride” feel the need to hide who they really are. And while tonight’s cold open threw in the towel on the subject, at least Cathy Anne took the time to address Trump directly, since she knows he’s watching.

Best/worst sketch of the night

The Karate Kid bit hinged on the simple switcheroo, “What if, instead of the spindly underdog beating the Aryan bully—he didn’t?” Kenan Thompson (who was the glue in every sketch he was in) finds a funny take on his Mr. Miyagi character, and Cena, as the Johnny Lawrence, exclaims things like “What the butt?” humorously. But there’s nothing to the joke except the basic inversion, and watching Mikey Day’s Daniel-san get cartoonishly kicked through many, many walls.

Advertisement

The whole show kept returning to the comic idea of kicking nerds, as the dating game show sketch saw Cena’s hunky host winning the attention of Cecily Strong’s immediately smitten female contestant while she ignores the nerdy “hunks” gathered for her perusal. Here, at least, Cena and Strong have a fun, absurdist chemistry as, every time we return to them, their on-camera flirtation has taken a more dramatic and passionate turn. (“That was so forward of me.” “No it’s not. You’re family now.”) And the twist that rejected hunks Beck Bennett and Kyle Mooney discover their own attraction and end up making out is a funny, sweet way out of the bit.

Similarly, the jock sketch saw Cena’s dedicated but rock-stupid college football player getting a science fair A+ since the professor-judges don’t want him to miss the big game. The “nerds” this time are the students who put in the actual work (Mikey Day’s physicist built a particle accelerator), who get screwed while Cena’s project about bananas (he nailed a bunch of bananas—and one orange—to a piece of plywood) earns him the perfect score. Again, Cena’s essential earnestness keeps him relatable (he thinks he’s actually applying himself, even as his final test is to laugh at a GIF of a dancing banana), and Bobby Moynihan’s sleazy coach is a funny performance, but it’s like, having a jock in the studio, SNL went out of its way to set up paper nerds for him to wedgie all night.

The worst of the bunch was the office party sketch, which was more a victim of dead pacing than anything else, although watching poor Aidy Bryant’s clumsy office drone dangling from the window while her coworkers find every reason not to help her needed to be a lot more absurdist to undercut the unpleasantness. (Even Santa only saves the fallen Christmas tree she’s holding, leaving Bryant to plummet to her death.) Mostly, though, this was just slackly paced and dull.

Advertisement

As far as absurd premises redeemed by performance go, “The Scorched Corset” gave Bryant a much better showcase. Again, Cena’s not the most natural sketch performer, but put the guy in an open puffy shirt and a long, flowing blonde wig and you’re in good shape, especially since the premise gets rolled out so gradually. Bryant’s romance bookshop employee has Cena’s Dan (she calls him Jean-George) on retainer so they can act out little romance novel playlets when she’s supposed to be finding a book for owner Kenan Thompson. (Who, again, does some great “one sane man” underplaying tonight.) Bryant and Cena are funny as hell, as their wind-machined encounters see Cena bragging of his “ten pound hands” as “the guy who puts the horse food in the horse bucket,” and Bryant keeps rapturously extolling her “nips.” That Kenan’s revealed to be in on the game takes the sketch in for a nice landing.

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

Angela, Cathy Anne.

Advertisement

And, while it wasn’t as fresh as the first go-’round, any time “Dyke & Fats” comes back is a good night for me, as Kate McKinnon and Aidy Bryant (listed as the writers) return as the most defiantly stereotypical buddy-cops the world has ever seen. As in their first outing, the joke is about McKinnon and Bryant embracing, mocking, and transcending the shitty labels they get stuck with, and it’s just damned delightful. And, as ever, their well-meaning male boss doesn’t get it, with here Cena’s captain dodging the landmine of calling the partners by their (only they can use them) nicknames, only to praise them for being great woman cops. The duo’s outraged, “We’re back to this?!” “No! We’re past it!” ends their latest adventure with one last triumph. Don’t mess with Dyke & Fats.

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

Advertisement

With a guaranteed, Twitter-happy audience of one Donald Trump, the episode really tanked that cold open. Look, it’s maddeningly unclear to what degree Alec Baldwin is planning on committing to playing Trump, and there’s no reason why a biting, insightful political sketch about Trump and his actions can’t be built around his absence, but this was just the pits. Scoring Bryan Cranston and getting him into a bald cap to play Walter White (as Trump’s pick for DEA head) is all well and good, but the sketch just became a string of not-funny Breaking Bad jokes and watery satire. There are chuckles—Walt confides that he faked his death (“only the third person in the Trump cabinet to have done that”), and McKinnon’s Kellyanne Conway defends Trump’s inflammatory picks for various cabinet positions as not bad but “alt-good.” But mainly it was Cranston making half-clever references to blue meth, being the one who knocks, etc. With its prime target ready to unleash his wonted tweet-storm at the slightest provocation, this brief, toothless piece of fan service felt cautious and deliberately bland.

Tucked later in the show, “Through Donald’s Eyes” was, in comparison, original, strange, and, in its off-center way, much more biting. Depicting a typical day through Donald’s Trump’s eyes, the filmed piece sees Trump swooning through his day in barely focused self-absorption, with more than a hint of madness. At first, everything’s coming up delusionally Donald, as The Failing New York Times proclaims itself irrelevant, Fox News trumpets his “landslide” in soothing tones, and his reflection is of a be-wigged and -suited John Cena, with enormous, oversized hands. Reluctantly sitting at his desk, Trump’s attention bobs in hazy half-notice of Beck Bennett’s Mike Pence, pleading with him to think of “other people,” if only for a moment, and Bobby Moynihan’s “typical” Trump supporter, pleading for his candidate to do what he promised. When the world turns scary and distorted (baby hands), only McKinnon’s Conway can soothe him, her mis-dubbed words promising “Mommy fix you” in an unnerving lullaby. Coming back to himself, he ends his day by dancing with the Cena-Trump, and when he sees them both in the mirror of his lavish apartment, it’s two idealized Cena-Trumps, gazing longingly at themselves. As far as takes on Donald Trump go, experimental sketches like this are a lot more ambitious than just popping a wig on Baldwin. (To be clear, I think Baldwin’s doing a funny character, but it’s going to be a long four years, and the more original angles SNL has on Trump the better.)

Advertisement

I am hip to the musics of today

Apart from the triumphant return of A Tribe Called Quest, this has largely been a season of nondescript young musical guests whose proficiency at their chosen styles has made them somehow even duller. Maren Morris plays competently generic country songs. I could not recall a single lyric or note with a gun to my head.

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

I’ll go Kenan, as he found the calm but funny center in a lot of sketches tonight. In the “Where’s Your Money Go?” sketch (one of three game show bits), he brought back his Charles Barkley to fine effect, presiding over a trio of similarly spendthrift athlete contestants with an offhand good humor that kept everything rolling. Cena’s Gronk, Alex Moffat’s Conor McGregor, and Moynihan’s John Daly were essentially just playing athlete “Celebrity Jeopardy” (the right answer to every money-wasting scenario is always “no”), but Kenan’s Barkley corrects their invariably wrong responses with the affable demeanor of someone just in it for the paycheck. Thompson’s been on the show for a long time now, and I’m fine if he never wants to leave. He’s become quietly indispensable.

Advertisement

Not much action for Melissa, Sasheer, Moffat, or Vanessa Bayer.

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

“The Mighty Owl” was another SNL shot at gross-out liquid laughs, as Mikey Day and Cena saw their big talent show dreams buried in a river of white-green owl effluvia, liberally sprayed from the mangy puppet perched on Day’s arm. There’s not much shock value can deliver at this point, especially since the show’s long history of such gags is, well, long. The gulf between Julia Child bleeding hilariously to death and John Cena smiling gamely while owl poop runs down his face is a fickle and mysterious one.

Advertisement

Stray observations

  • Che, after Cathy Anne relates a prison horror story she witnessed: “Wait, did they put you in a men’s prison?” “They put you where they put you, Michael Che.”
  • In his monologue, Cena jokes that only Trump fans would know anything about wrestling. I think LaToya and Kyle would have some words with you about that, John.
  • In the reality of the cold open, why would Walt and Steve Bannon be friends? I kept waiting for a season-five “Walt and Uncle Jack” joke, but it never came.
  • One positive step is that the cold open suggests the show has dropped the idea that McKinnon’s Conway is secretly horrified at what she’s helped create. There’s really no evidence of that whatsoever.
  • There’s a lot more to the Trump-Boeing feud than Jost’s joke about Trump not wanting to pay for Air Force One upgrades. (“Usually he waits until the work is done before he refuses to pay.”)
  • Merkel, on Trump being named Time’s Person of the Year after her: “It’s like winning the Nobel for physics and the next year they give it to Hoobastank.”
  • Barkley, on Gronk: “You’re like if Dave & Busters was a person.”
  • “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, my wife senses a pattern.”

Advertisement