“I’m not an actor, I’m a [comedy royalty, United States President, formerly neglected SNL] star!”

After being hobbled by noted not-funnyman Russell Crowe last week, SNL hailed to the chief this week, building a solidly old-school show around returning alum and comedy president Julia Louis-Dreyfus. We got a little Elaine Benes, popping up in the typically pleasant and lukewarm political cold open to ask old Seinfeld boss Larry David (as Bernie Sanders) about how his tax hikes for the super rich will cost people like Dreyfus and David lots and lots of money. Tony Hale popped up in the monologue as himself/his lickspittle Gary from Veep, messing up his boss’ cue cards. (Humorously, Dreyfus calls him Gary, and Hale, after objecting that his name’s Tony, acquiesces to the name change.) The monologue saw Dreyfus, as is her wont, taking swipes at how underused she was on SNL (“the Julia Louis-Dreyfus years”), giving us a clip of her delivering her one line as a secretary in an Ed Grimley sketch. (Bonus points for reminding us she, and husband Brad Hall, were in Troll, and for smacking down Soul Man once more, excusing the film’s use of blackface with, “it was the ’80s, it had only been considered racist for about 40 years.”)

But more than all that, there was a decided throwback air to a lot of the sketches tonight, with the focus on Julia as comedy queen. The welcome return of Cinema Classics was downright Carol Burnett-ian in its knockabout broadness, with Julia’s nearsighted femme fatale having her lines written not at all unobtrusively all around the set. It’s the sort of showcase that suggests an alternate universe where her sketch comedy skills had been recognized from the outset and she, in fact, became the next Carol Burnett. Appearing in nine sketches (including the monologue and three filmed pieces), the fact that the show was all about Julia was evident in the “Who Works Here” game show sketch—hosts don’t often drive the bus by playing the game show host as well. None of this is a complaint, by the way—Louis-Dreyfus is comedy royalty at this point, and putting on the Julia show (although, sadly, not “The Julia Show”) was a most welcome parade of mostly successful professionalism in what’s been a rough season, host-wise, overall.

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Weekend Update update

Not to steal the host’s former co-star’s bit, but what was the deal with the audience tonight? Another in what’s been a season-long string of solid Updates played out to unwarranted silence most of the time, so much so that Michael Che did a taken-aback double take after a decent joke about John Kasich’s (most) recent clueless comment (this time about how it’s women’s responsibility not to get raped by not going anywhere where men are doing their manly drinking thing).

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It was especially strange—to the point where it got sort of eerie—during Cecily Strong’s even stronger return appearance as the One-Dimensional Female Character From A Male-Driven Comedy. Last time she was on, the satirical point was softer, with the obliging Heather running through the expected story beats of falling in love with Colin Jost over the course of her three minutes. But here, the bit goes for the throat of formulaic dude comedies everywhere to the extent that it, in Strong’s dead-eyed performance, became genuinely, satisfyingly unsettling. There’s a lot of resentment from some very funny SNL women behind the bit, I imagine (I’m not sure if this is a Strong original, but I think it is), with Heather’s Stepford Wives-like acquiescence to her film fate of sneezing into a Kleenex full of semen (“but I don’t notice”), disappearing from the movie for 40 minutes at a stretch, being cut out of scenes because focus groups don’t remember who she is, and being completely forgotten about in the sequel. When the sketch reaches its apotheosis she, asked by Jost what happens when she’s offscreen, replies, “I just turn off. Everything kind of goes black for me, then I come back to watch you do karaoke.” After confessing that she can’t speak any more “or they have to pay me like a man,” Heather simply shuts off, Strong going slack like a switched off replicant and remaining that way even as the sketch cuts to commercial. Easily the character’s best, most cutting appearance—the audience’s lack of reaction, whether out of indifference or discomfort, just made it all the more effective.

Aidy Bryant’s animal expert Animal Annie was a successful exercise in dark character comedy, with the outwardly chipper Annie quickly revealing her desperate unhappiness with her landlord, ex-boyfriend, and seemingly every other man that’s ever been in her life. Explaining that baby koalas are the size of a jelly bean, she smilingly segues to “When I was born I was the size of an Easter ham and then my dad left.” At least she’s got a terrifying new boyfriend in the scaly person of a huge, live iguana in a fedora.

Oh, and Kenan Thompson’s Charles Barkley and Jay Pharoah’s Shaquille O’Neal were back, a goofy, predictable pairing that always works just fine. The duo’s Of Mice And Men dynamic tickles me, with the childlike Shaq brushing off Chuck’s putdowns (“Blood tries to get all the way up to your brain but gets too tired”) with winning, gentle-giant good humor. (“I’ve got a joke. A horse walks into a bar.” “That’s it?” “It’s funny. A horse shouldn’t be in a bar.”) And Barkley’s usual gambling joke was especially funny, as he realizes he’s always losing at roulette because he puts all his chips on the number “twive.” Not groundbreaking, but always welcome.

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Best/worst sketch of the night

Overall, the One-Dimensional Female Character In A Male-Driven Comedy was my pick for strongest bit of the night, but, buried right at the end of the show, the equally potent faith-based movie ad for God Is a Boob Man hit a lot of the same satirical buttons, and just as hard. Like ODFCIAMDC, it’s on the nose, but it’s a solid punch to the nose, with real-world “faith-based” film companies 10 West Studios and Pure Flix bringing us their newest drama, this time about a Christian baker (Vanessa Bayer, using her chipper powers to play up the purity) forced to defend herself in court against the sinister gay couple who demand she make them a wedding cake. Lines like “You’ll be hearing from our Jewish lawyer!” might seem too obvious if the world weren’t up to its non-bending kneecaps right now in “Christians are the most persecuted people in America” movies like the God’s Not Dead duology, Heaven Is For Real, and 10 West’s even lower-rent offerings like the What If… (also starring faith film giant Kevin Sorbo). SNL’s fake film trailers are consistently good, and this one’s spot-on, right down to the use of Rachel Platten’s generic inspirational movie anthem “Fight Song” to underscore Bayer’s triumphantly defiant courtroom declaration, “I want to deny basic goods and services to gay people!” It’s the sort of spot-on, mean-spiritedly accurate parody that I’d expect the show to slot in earlier in the show. Slipping it in so late here suggests someone somewhere in the chain of production wanted to avoid pissing some people off.

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Sticking with the filmed pieces, I loved “The Pool Boy,” with Pete Davidson’s dim-bulb pool cleaner smilingly acceding to lady of the house Louis-Dreyfus’ desire to break off their affair without a thought to her overwrought, overthought confessions of guilt and shame. Davidson kills it, his guileless himbo happily willing to accept whatever comes out of his mistress’ mouth with puppyish agreeability. (“We have to end this.” “Okay.” “You deserve an explanation.” “Oh, okay. Cool.” “If this got out it’d ruin our lives.” “Aw, my bad.”) And Julia’s final thought upon seeing her new hunky, young gardener (“I’m gonna fuck that kid”) is a fine capper.

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“Who Works Here?” is the sort of specifically targeted sketch that suggests there’s an especially awful CVS right around the corner from 30 Rock (kiss that potential sponsorship goodbye). Dreyfus was in charge of the game show and the sketch, dispensing with the usual chitchat since the guests were so boring and delighting in the impossible task set for them of picking out which of the non-responsive weirdos seen milling about in the store actually work there. I like that Kate McKinnon’s fishbowl-carrying old lady appears to be a ghost, and that Bobby Moynihan’s workout-happy guy chanting “I work here” repeatedly does in fact work there, but only in the sense that he’s a prostitute inexplicably operating out of a CVS. Not the strongest of the myriad SNL game show sketches we’ve had over the years, but, again, the obvious score-settling being undertaken against the drug store chain kept the engine purring along.

The Mercedes AA Class sketch was pleasantly reminiscent of SNL cars like the Adobe and the Royal Deluxe II—make up a weird car and have the pitch-person pay it straight-faced (Julia here). Not the funniest, but I have to admit, the sight of huge piles of batteries all over the place was weirdly satisfying, and the dashboard sensor whose only job is to constantly announce which of the 9,648 batteries is running out was worth a chuckle.

Similarly, the “Heroin A.M.” ad parody didn’t do much beyond establish the premise, although I laughed at the voice over, “Side effects include… it’s heroin.”

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And SNL loves a good “silly business run by people with accents” sketch, as in the “Huge Jewelry” bit. At least the performers all had some fun, with McKinnon and Louis-Dreyfus’ Long Island mothers/entrepreneurs constantly parading their bored adult children for the cameras decked out in their garishly huge creations. I like that Aidy Bryant’s earrings need a shoulder brace to support them, and the exchange, “And the necklaces are only $12, how do we do that?” “They’re filled with dirt!”

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

We got Shaq and Charles, the One-Dimensional Female Character From A Male-Driven Comedy, and the Hillary and Bernie show. Out of the three, I’m tempted to say bring back Heather any time, but this outing was so rock solid, I don’t know how Strong could top it.

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

If it’s the cold open, it must be the one election sketch of the night. This time, it was David’s always-welcome Bernie versus Kate McKinnon’s equally solid Hillary in a debate sketch. As ever, SNL is not going deep with these pieces—Bernie’s crotchety, old, and has little idea how to practically achieve his idealistic goals, while Hillary’s maniacally driven and happy to change herself completely if the electorate demands it. It’s mostly about the performances, but the sketch does call out in passing the increasing nastiness of the two remaining Democratic candidates lately (which, to be fair, is a lot less cartoonishly awful than that of their Republican counterparts). And it did bring up Clinton’s controversial support of the crime bill that led to mass incarcerations of untold black men (one of her strongest current voting blocs), with McKinnon doing a great bit of evasion. (“I was laughing to give myself time to think about how I was gonna answer this question.”) Since the debate was in Brooklyn, we got two fictional New Yorkers asking questions from the audience, and the Elaine appearance was a crowd-pleaser (even incorporating a “yadda, yadda, yadda” for the folks at home), as was Vanessa Bayer’s always amazing Rachel Green, as ever so darn perky and adorable that she can’t even complete her question.

I am hip to the musics of today

Nick Jonas is out on his own and he loves you, girl. He just wants you to know that. He will play to the camera as he croons his pop-soul love to you and make pleading eyes that are just for you, girl. In his practiced, carefully packaged moves and phrasing, he’s like your musical Taylor Lautner. Even though Taylor Lautner is a whole year older and you’re so over Twilight. Nick’s here for you, girl.

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

While Cecily Strong killed it on Update, by sheer consistency and volume tonight, the top spot has to go to Kate McKinnon again. On the other end, I caught a few glimpses of Kyle Mooney and Jon Rudnitsky here and there. (They both did subtly excellent character work in small roles in the God Is A Boob Man piece, though.)

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

The God Is A Boob Man trailer ran last, but the real spirit of Ten-To-Oneland lived in the sketch right before it, with McKinnon and Louis-Dreyfus as a pair of creepy-as-hell aliens out to find sperm donors to repopulate their dying planet. Everything from the all-black eyes, to the specificity of the terminology of their mission, to those deep, unearthly voices, to the fact that they reduce their intended mates to skeletons, all recalled no one so much as Mr. Mike (aka Michael O’Donoghue), SNL’s late and infamous dark prince of comedy. (Although he requested people refer to him as “Reich Marshall” or “godhead” at various times during his brief tenure as head writer in the ’80s.) Fired by then-producer Dick Ebersol the year before Louis-Dreyfus was hired, Mr. Mike loved this sort of elaborately strange and offputting humor, and I imagine him taking great delight in the alien “women” using their mental powers to mind-wipe mating rival Vanessa Bayer (her graphic nosebleed would have delighted O’Donoghue to no end).

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Stray observations

  • There does seem to be a CVS on 14th and 1st in NYC, so maybe don’t ask the people who work there any questions about this episode.
  • She’s actually the assistant manager, but she’s on break and she chooses to spend her break standing motionless in the middle of CVS.”
  • “Anthony, when did you get so hot?” “Last May.”
  • “I mean, what is this?” “Your kitchen!”
  • Cinema Classics host Reese De’What: “That other actor looked right in the camera and gave a little mouth blow!”
  • In the same sketch Louis-Dreyfus seems sincerely daunted at having to chug whatever’s in that full tumbler in order to land the joke.
  • God’s A Boob Man’s proof of the gay agenda sweeping the nation: A church sermon is entitled “Yasss Kween.”
  • “I’m somewhere between 18 and 27, but date 40 and up, the fatter the better.”

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