Future, Jonah Hill (NBC)

“I’m not an actor, I’m a [multiple Oscar-nominated movie] star!”

During the goodnights tonight, Jonah Hill rather touchingly enthused, “This is the best staff I’ve ever worked with. Every time I’m here, they make me feel like family,” a sweet and heartfelt sentiment that flew in the face of the fact that Hill was given some of the worst material of the season to work with, much of it targeted at making Hill look as bad as possible. There’s courage and virtue in Hill’s willingness to be the butt of jokes, I suppose, but it’s not like there was any thematic goal in, for example, having two separate sketches tonight that involve Hill’s character shitting himself and having to hide his underwear—it just sort of worked out that way. (It’s nice that four-time host Hill loves SNL so much, but this episode makes you wonder if he ever asked the writers why he was all of a sudden the “shit your pants guy.”) Starting out with a funny feud with Kyle Mooney (“Hey, Jonah, medium fan… I was wondering what it’s like to be a big movie star. Could you ask one of your friends?”) Hill set himself up to take some ribbing—and that he did. It just wasn’t particularly funny.

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It was equally ballsy to not bring back Adam Grossman, the little kid returning character he’s done every other time he hosted, but what took its place was almost uniformly disastrous. Apart from being an enthusiastic host, committing to a lot of substandard material, Hill didn’t do much to stand above what he was given. He got the giggles in a few sketches for no apparent reason, and came off as stiff in the rest, stranded by the writing. Hill’s a funny guy and a good actor, but for all his talents and can-do spirit, this was easily his worst outing as host.

Weekend Update update

It’s become the case that Update is the one reliable element of SNL this season, as difficult as that might have been to predict when the Colin Jost-Michael Che era began. I like the chemistry they’ve developed—loose and playful with each other, and able to crank out a few solid shots in every episode. (Che’s new thing of putting his sneakers up on the desk at the end signals how much more comfortable the duo has become.) Still, they’re hit-or-miss on the material itself, and tonight wasn’t anything special. Especially considering what they and the writers have had to work with recently. (“Wow, where do we even start this week?, begins Jost.) Che’s joke about Ted Cruz being the GOP’s “fat Dracula” (compared to Trump’s Frankenstein’s monster) was cheap but funny, as was Jost’s foray into sick comedy, cracking about Jared Fogle’s prison weight gain and “child-sized portions.” Responding to the audience’s groans with “Oh, I’m the bad guy,” Jost laughed at Che’s off-camera “Yes you are” with the sort of easy timing the two have settled into. It’s endearing.

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On the correspondent front, Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started A Conversation With At A Party needs to go. Cecily Strong’s performance is good, but it’s in service of a one-joke character on her tenth or so go-round, and my goodwill has run out. She was very funny in her first appearance, but more as a character bit than a piece of satire—the point that some self-righteous millennials just parrot catchphrases and stuff they’ve half read online has nowhere to go, and the Girl’s every appearance now is mostly just malapropisms. Che plays the exasperated straight man well, and it’s still fairly amusing when Strong asks to show off with some random and inappropriate show of her own enlightenment (“Real quick, I’m gonna sing you all of Hamilton”), but Stefon, she isn’t. Please stop.

The old lady bit, with a desperately smiling Vanessa Bayer (as herself) interviewing Kate McKinnon’s 110-year-old woman was all about McKinnon’s physicality in stillness as she refused to play along with Bayer’s puff piece questions. (Great eye work, and a funny move where she manages to sink even lower into her wheelchair.) But, it’s just one long “old people are old” joke—although Bayer’s growing anger at Che and Jost for not ending the bit was amusing. (Bayer, smiling through gritted teeth: “If you cut back to me, I swear I’m going to say the N-word.”)

And Jay Pharoah got to run through his uniformly excellent impressions of comics like Katt Williams, Kevin Hart, Hannibal Buress, Eddie Murphy, Bernie Mac, Tracy Morgan, Chris Tucker, and Dave Chappelle in a bit that had no point but to let Jay do that. SNL has never found a way to make Pharoah’s talents as central to the show as it has with other impressionists—unlike Will Ferrell’s W. or Darrel Hammond’s array of political figures, Pharoah’s world-class Obama is left on the bench more often than not. But if the solution is to just give Jay a few minutes to do his thing on Update, then at least it gives him a showcase.

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Best/worst sketch of the night

The whole “wealthy Arabs buying up high school kids” thing—I honestly just kept coming up empty trying to find an angle on the sketch that didn’t end up on “sort of racist,” so I’m going to go ahead and call it racist. Hill (again with the unprovoked giggles) and Taran Killam played two lackeys of Qatari and Kuwaiti royalty bidding on kids whose YouTube videos have caught the fancy of their employers’ children may have tried to soften the racism a bit (Hill’s character assures the parents gathered at the fundraiser auction that their daughters’ virtue will be unharmed) but this is the sort of hacky bullshit that has aged about as well as Jerry Lewis’ “hilarious” buck-toothed Japanese guy character. Sort of shocking anyone thought this was a good idea.

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There was an equally shocking amount of competition for the bottom spot tonight, though. The filmed piece “The Champ” was basically one long exercise in meanness, the extended joke that Hill’s high school wrestler only beat his formidable opponent as part of some backhanded goodwill gesture piling on the humiliations (this was one of the “Jonah shits himself” sketches) to lesser and lesser effect as it went on. The piece, as most current SNL short films are, was exceptionally well filmed—the beginning, with Hill triumphant and his classmates on his side—poignantly sets up for the reveal, and the fact that the prank is the local news’ top story (even though Will And Grace star Eric McCormack committed a double murder right next door, for some reason) is a decent setup. But there’s no snap, just a parade of embarrassing revelations for Hill to feel bad about.

The “Fond du Lac Action News” sketch was just an excuse for everyone involved to do what I can only assume are wildly exaggerated and/or indifferent Wisconsin accents (Wisconsinites, chime in on that in the comments) and make jokes about how everyone in that region is politely sort of dim and chatty. I liked how Aidy Bryant’s field reporter never got to do her story thanks to the anchors’ (Hill and Strong) mundane jabbering, and Hill’s offhand racism (“Never been a fan of Kia and it’s not entirely a Korean thing”) was mildly satirical in passing, but it was another example of the show plinking one stereotypical string for a what seemed like a long time.

Even Beck Bennett and Kyle Mooney’s “Inside SoCal” film fell flat this time. I usually find the pair’s stoner specificity funny enough in these sketches (which we haven’t seen for a while), but their disaffected slacker bit played out to dead air for most of the running time as they threw to Jonah Hill’s correspondent asking Strong’s local hot girl why she’s getting breast reduction surgery. Again, this is the sort of thing that Mooney and Bennett were seemingly hired to do, and they do it fine—I enjoyed how Mooney matter-of-factly asked the baby their friend left behind if he was going to that party later—but they’ve done better.

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If an episode has a baseline for its comedy, this one’s was right down the middle of mediocre, with a lot more dipping lower than popping its head up above.

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

Again—no more Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started A Conversation With At A Party, please, SNL. Honestly, it’s odd, with Sudeikis in the house, that they didn’t just bust out “What’s Up With That?” Even though that’s been done a million times, too, it’s an example of a recurring bit whose formula hasn’t gone stale.

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

At this point in the presidential campaign, it must be tempting for political satirists to simply use verbatim transcripts of things like the most recent GOP debate and call it a day. Seriously, when a the Republican frontrunner openly brags about the size of his penis on national television, attempting to top reality is going to seem like you’re trying too hard. The cold open saw the SNL writers doing their best, with a mix of simple references to actual events (Ted Cruz’s debate spittle, Chris Christie’s at-gunpoint Trump endorsement, and, yes, Darrell Hammond’s Trump bragging about his ”great, big, huge dick”) and some funnier weird embroidery. Beck Bennett’s Jake Tapper prefaces Taran Killam’s Ted Cruz with a warning, but it still aghast when the beaming Cruz shows up on screen. Killam’s Cruz is an average impression, but he presents Cruz’s storied lack of likability with gusto—I liked how proud Cruz was that he wears his big class ring to a fight (“That right, I’m one of those guys”). Plus, Killam’s got a solid insane creepy laugh. Kate McKinnon’s Hillary Clinton is good as ever, here noting how the supporters behind her (“10 black people and one Muslim”) were carefully chosen from those who’ve been punched in the face at a Trump rally, and barely able to conceal her glee at how Trump’s continuing success has guaranteed a lot of new supporters horrified at the idea of a Donald Trump presidency. (Quoting Stealers Wheel was a funny touch.) And then there’s the happy return of Jason Sudeikis as Mitt Romney. Sudeikis is always welcome (my wife and I yell out “Leather Pumpkin!” whenever he shows up) and his perpetually smiling Romney’s a fine comic creation, here outlining Romney’s recent statement condemning Trump with an unflagging upbeat energy even in the face of its probable irrelevance. (To Tapper’s question about whether his speech will hurt Trump, Romney, without missing a beat, states, “Honestly, I would assume it probably helped him.”) In a night of incessant Trump-bashing, the Romney bit took on the attendant crisis the Donald’s ascendency has caused in the Republican party, with the line, “We do not say racist and sexist things. We imply them… subtly over decades and decades of policy” cutting particularly deep. (Along with Romney’s strong attack on everything Trump stands for followed with a hint that he’d still be willing to serve as Vice President if asked.)

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Overall, the idea that people on the show are still holding onto a lot of resentment at being taken over by Trump earlier this season appears to be an accurate one. Of course, with that guy providing so much fodder on a daily basis, it may just be inescapable. Still, SNL took its broadest swipes yet at the (still) Republican front-runner tonight, the “Racists For Trump” commercial being the harshest, wheeling out the Nazi and Klan symbols in a well-executed if blunt as hell series of reveals. Again, reality is making it tough for political satirists—this ad might soften the smack just a little by having it be from self-proclaimed racists for Trump rather than just “real Americans for Trump,” but it’s still straight-up associating a candidate for President with Nazis and their ilk. Sure to piss off exactly the right people, this is SNL just saying “fuck it—Donald Trump’s a racist” (see Hammond’s boast about Germany in the 1930s), and it’s about as bold as the show gets at this point.

I am hip to the musics of today

Future was all over the place tonight, invading Hill’s monologue and Update (briefly) as well as bringing The Weeknd for his second musical number. He was fine, although the show seemingly had a timing problem and came back for that second performance right as he was starting to sing.

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

This was not much of a showcase for anyone. Bennett had plenty of screen time. Pharoah had his standout Update impression-a-thon. McKinnon did a fun British accent in the drawing room murder sketch (the other “Hill shits himself” bit of the evening) as well as her mostly non-verbal old lady and her Hillary. Trump keeps luring Hammond out of the booth, which is always welcome. I dunno—can I give the top spot to Sudeikis? Why not? It’s my review.

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

While the office caterer sketch was the sort of high-concept weirdness this spot’s home to, it pretty much stank, with Hill’s super-intense caterer loudly describing how much the workers are enjoying the food to his friend on the phone. Again, Hill was a gamer, putting a lot of strange energy into overemphasizing words like “munched” before graduating to more graphic descriptions of people “raping” and “gang-banging” the cuisine, but uninspired sketches like this are what gives the final spot a reputation as dumping ground rather than home to the conceptually ambitious. (That food looked good, though. Here’s hoping it was still edible for the crew after a long night.)

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Stray observations

  • SNL Vintage report: The Louis CK episode from season 38. Best remembered for the Lincoln/Louie mashup (which is still one of the best sketches in recent memory) but I’ve always had a soft spot for the weird little hotel sketch, with CK‘s concierge running down the increasingly ludicrous charges on a customer’s bill. (Bobby Moynihan, doing outstanding straight man duties.) Louie’s reading of “Argon, sir, it’s a noble gas,” makes me laugh every time.
  • “The Sanders campaign is now so rich, it’s voting for Hillary Clinton.”
  • Che, reporting on a story of a lost cat’s miraculous cross-country journey to find its owner: “But hear me out, sometimes cats look like other cats.”
  • “Just slap me really hard. It’s about Wall Street.”

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