“I don’t feel, like, completely, totally comfy right now.”
“I’m not an actor, I’m [actually a better actor than a live TV] star!”
Maybe Kristen Stewart is just sort of a great hang? Or perhaps it’s just because she’s got a movie coming out (she feigned being uncomfortable pimping Charlie’s Angels) and Saturday Night Live is all about that pimp life? Whatever the reason Kristen Stewart came back to host SNL for a second time, it was pretty clear from the outset that nobody was all that jazzed up about the whole thing. In her monologue, Stewart’s noted diffidence was actually used to its best effect, as the actress played around with her reputation by first asking desultorily, “One of those audience question monologues sound good?,” and then flipping the gag by expecting puzzled audience plants to answer her searching questions about themselves. (“What do you want from me, Kristen Stewart,” one shy young fan blurted resentfully.) After a much livelier monologue last time out (thanks to some very personalized Trump-bashing and an accidental “fuck”), though, Stewart’s initial appearance here set the tone for her sparse, listless presence in the show to come, unfortunately.
The other sketch that made decent use of Stewart’s gift for convincing shuffle-footed discomfort was the ad for a translation app that teaches the terminally kid-awkward to make passable chitchat with children. (Yes, I’m maintaining my policy of not doubling down on SNL’s brand integration comedy—fight the power, etc.) Needless to say, letting Stewart do her thing pre-taped let her inhabit her tongue-tied child interlocutor with a bit more comfort (for her and us), and her halting attempts to communicate with colleagues’ offspring are pretty amusing. (“You go to school, huh? That sucks. Do you wear your clothes to school?”) There’s no real snap to the piece otherwise, though, with its polished quality really the only thing differentiating it from Stewart’s genuinely stilted and hesitant presence in the live sketches. This just isn’t her jam, and, overall, SNL once more didn’t find a way to adapt to her not inconsiderable gifts.
Best/worst sketch of the night
Best of the night was the Elizabeth Warren cold open (see below), but the house paint sketch gave Aidy Bryant an opportunity to get weird as only she can. Plus, I love a sketch that takes an unexpected turn off-road and then floors it into the brush, and Aidy is as good a driver of such premises as SNL’s got these days. When her hostess-sister greets her brother and his wife (Beck Bennett and Stewart) with a grinning testimonial for a certain brand of high-end paint, the gleam in Bryant’s eyes suggested that something was cooking, and the gradual reveal not just of how ludicrously expensive said paint is, but how her profligate lifestyle extends to running through her inheritance and hooking up with Kyle Mooney’s loser (she met on Facebook Marketplace), the sketch kept doubling the ante. By the time Aidy wheeled on Stewart to reveal that the couple’s new baby isn’t Bennett’s (“That baby has your traitor’s eyes!”), it’s all Aidy, as she completes a perfect little oddball characterization by calling back once more on how she insists on pronouncing “colour” with the British “u” punched hard. (One downside, the climactic fistfight between Aidy and Stewart fizzles under the flabby fake punches from Stewart.) Oh, and since it’s unlikely that the very real brand of paint paid to have its name used in the sketch, so hi there, Farrow & Ball.
Woof, after that, though.
The doggy sketch (labored segue!) coasted on the always-reliable “awww” factor of having a live animal onstage, as Cecily Strong translated for Conan, the military dog involved in the recent raid on an ISIS leader (and whose photoshopped medal ceremony was tweeted out by Donald Trump, because nothing matters any more) in a White House press ceremony. Kate McKinnon brought her Kellyanne Conway out of whatever coffin for the truth the formerly ubiquitous White House spokes-demon was stowed in, stealing a few chuckles with jokes about how the administration has given up on human pressers, their previous designated liars having fled to reality dance competitions with their dignities dragging. Plus, the offhand reference, “If you are watching this you are going to die in seven days,” at least named the particular evil entity Conway is associated with, which is helpful. As for the German Shepherd star of the sketch, I just have to echo Heidi Gardner’s reporter in asking, “Who’s a good boy?!” He is a good boy (or, like the actual Conan, perhaps a girl), even though the frisson of wondering how a live animal and live TV are going to mesh is always more of an exercise in nervous empathy than crackerjack writing. There were no—sorry, puppy—teeth to the bit, which was technically political comedy, I guess? Strong (in her second live dog sketch of the young season) gamely kept it together through a few adorable face-licks, and the gnawing uncertainty if her costar’s mostly silent performance was because of stage fright or by design. (Plus he/she drank from a water glass mid-sketch, like a good boy/girl.) It was cute, let’s say. Good puppy.
Another sketch that looked straight into the face of a potentially provocative issue and then made funny noises at it, the jury sketch groaned on like its characters rumbling tummies—interminably and to so little purpose as to become actually infuriating. Why have the sketch appear to turn on the diverse jurors becoming heated about the potential racial elements of the case they’re deliberating if the whole thing then turns into one long rude noises joke? Everyone’s hungry, so their bellies start moaning loudly in a rhythm several jurors peg unconvincingly as sounding just like Ginuwine’s “Pony,” and that’s the joke. Why frame it like the sketch is going to be about something and then almost literally fart on it? Yup, I got nothin’, either.
I’ll give it up to SNL for staying mostly off-road all night. No game shows, no talk shows, no news shows. Minimal recurring bits. Alec Baldwin is off scowling at someone, somewhere. And while the nightclub sketch wasn’t exactly a gut-buster, it did give Ego Nwodim and Kenan an opportunity to do some nice, light character comedy. As a married couple cheerfully oblivious to pansexual hipster Stewart (once more proving the line between faux-awkward and painfully awkward is razor-thin) attempting to initiate some three-person fun, Nwodim and Thompson managed to create a pair of likably real character sketches, alternately missing Stewart’s randy point (“You like having sex around pans?”) and non-judgementally saying no thanks. (“Well, good luck to you.”) There’s a twisteroo punchline (Bowen Yang is the couple’s subservient sexual “pig boy”) that’s supposed to be edgy, but I liked better the happy obliviousness of the couple as they reveal they’ve brought their own crab cakes and Filet-O-Fish to the club for their anniversary, even though, as Kenan’s cheery hubby explains to Stewart, “I can only have crab once a quarter because of the swelling.”
Stewart got one other filmed piece to relax in, with the music video for “fuck the man” rebel punk band Kickflip’s anthem “Corporate Nightmare.” The joke is that the quartet wind up totally being seduced by their white collar day job’s competitive salary and bennies, with Stewart, Pete Davidson, Mikey Day, and finally Kyle Mooney’s Sum 41-looking outfit eventually succumbing to the lure of comfort and a pat on the back from a stern but appreciative boss/father figure. The song is some energetically aped power-pop, with the four actors throwing themselves into the wavering revolution of the enterprise with verisimilitude and commitment and all, but, again, there’s a reactionary stodginess to the underlying joke that sucks some of the juice out. If it’s a joke about the pose of anti-establishment bands putting out shallow defiance-music on corporate labels, okay, I get it. But the whole thing comes off more like some aging writers’ (apparently Streeter Seidell and Mikey Day here) grumpily catchy musical ode to staying off their lawn.
Speaking of reactionary, as much as I love me some Aidy and Kate goofing around (and Kristen Stewart? I guess?), the “We Can Do It!” sketch trafficked in some yahoo humor. And while Kate, Aidy, (and Stewart’s) broad broad WWII factory workers were standard amusing as the war plant’s roughneck “slug thumpers” crew, pitching rude, crude, and anatomically improbable poster ideas to help the war effort, what was the deal with mocking the hell out of boss Mikey Day’s draft rejection for having disqualifying asthma. Braying “Coward!” every time the guy opened his mouth, the women’s brash, no-bullshit comic ideas (Kate wants to shove Hitler’s head up her bottom until he dies) aren’t differentiated from their mean-spirited mockery of a guy who, according to the sketch, tried to enlist, was rejected on legitimate medical grounds, and then went to work at an armaments factory. Meh, with Stewart’s signature reliance on cue cards and barely overcome disinterest, the piece wasn’t taking off anyway.
Weekend Update update
Sometimes it feels like Jost and Che can’t really get up for the political comedy unless some shiny, unavoidable new Trump scandal hits during the week. I mean, we got plenty of scandals, formal impeachment votes, and the scattered but growing number of White House staffers and presidential hangers-on cooperating with said impeachment process, but, you know, he didn’t retweet a doctored picture of himself giving the Medal of Honor to a dog or anything. Oh, wait, he did that. Still, though, Che and Jost went through the motions without many highs or lows this week, although it was some especially irritating smirking Jost did while making a joke about recently resigned Congresswoman Katie Hill “help[ing] two parties come together.” See, a grown adult woman had a threesome with two other consenting adults and revenge porn was leaked by her vengeful asshole soon-to-be-ex-husband and a right-wing blog looking to replace Democrat Hill in Congress, but she’s a woman who has unconventional sex, so let’s make a middle school double entendre. Ugh. Look, I’m a pinko lefty who believes in sexual equality and all, but this is a craftsmanship criticism, not a political one. There are other complicating factors to Hill’s downfall (the woman in question worked for Hill) that could make for a more insightful joke, but Jost decided to pile on with the fratboy crowd for some lame wordplay.
Ugh. I dunno—they rest of the political stuff was . . . fine. Jost’s turn-of-phrase game was stronger when, in a joke about former “cybersecurity czar” Rudy Giuliani having to go to an Apple store to unlock his phone after failing to log in ten times (no, reality really is that hacky), Jost’s line about even the phone being unable to “recognize the person rudy has become” is some fine jokesmanship. (Even if Giuliani’s former reputation is vastly overvalued.) Che did get in the late-breaking news that Trump was just booed at a Saturday night MSG UFC fight of all places, so tat was timely, at least. I don’t know how much truth there was behind Che’s showboating series of supposedly forbidden punchlines to a joke about a 67-year-old woman’s recent successful delivery of a baby, but if you’re not going to try to outdo Patton Oswalt on the premise, then don’t bother.
One winner, one not so much on the correspondent front tonight. It’s nice that Melissa Villaseñor finally got a piece all to herself this season, but her “child genius” was just okay. The joke that her precocious child is merely “polite,” as she admits, and that she’s memorized a narrow sliver of facts at the orders of her hectoring stage mom (Heidi Gardner, who usually owns these sort of characters) comes across, with Che and the child eventually bonding over their shared realization of what a debacle the appearance is. And Melissa’s got a fine gift for low-key characterization she doesn’t get to trot out much lately, so points for that.
Better was the return of Kate and Aidy as the meat-slinging Starkie sisters, who counter the sudden popularity of a particular fast food franchise’s meatless “computer beef that bleeds like the real thing,” by offering up a pair of smelly gift baskets of meat treats from nasty animals. Like Kate’s “Whiskers ‘R’ We” sketches, the joke turns on the elaborately cuckoo backstories the sisters give to each killed and processed critter, including a duck that “ran around with his thing hanging out,” and an Alaskan king crab who wouldn’t wear condoms because “it messes with his flow.” There’s a flat-earther flounder, an eel who won’t reciprocate oral sex, and, with Aidy beaming right to camera, a pig whose eating habits included “eatin’ turds, looking us right in the eye like, ‘You like what you see?’” Kate plus Aidy plus eccentric business pitch remains as close to a guaranteed winner as this cast has got.
“What do you call that act?” “‘The Californians!’”—Recurring sketch report
Just the Starkie sisters, although it’s pretty clear that Kate’s Elizabeth Warren is in it for the long haul.
“It was my understanding there would be no math”—Political comedy report
Speaking of the Massachusetts senator and woman clearly not slowing down for anyone to catch up, Kate McKinnon thankfully took over the cold open, as her Warren addressed an Iowa rally with her signature brand of indefatigable energy and unapologetically bold policy proposals. This is where SNL can, and often does, fumble its election stuff—unless Donald Trump is out there being buffoonishly awful (or George W. Bush dumb, his dad gabbling and vague, or Clinton horny), SNL can usually does grab onto the most convenient handles. A Democratic candidate whose world view is—it’s not a secret—more in line with Saturday Night Live’s more left-leaning sensibilities can often blur to forgettable indistinctness as the show’s traditional broad takes on more nuanced political issues flounders in shtick and low-hanging targets.
McKinnon’s a fine Warren, though, her portrayal of the rising candidate a lot more specific and inhabited than was her Hillary. And here’s to SNL for digging a little deeper into Warren’s platform than perhaps we’re accustomed to, with much of the humor centered on Warren’s just-released Medicare For All plan, and the reportedly astronomical price tag attached to it. Here, the joke isn’t the easy “impractical, socialist ideas” take but a relatively double-sided examination of public perception, and political policy peek-a-boo, with McKinnon’s Warren noting in passing that her plan to cut military spending to pay for it means her plan is “dead in the water,” but also decrying pundits’ taxing her for down-to-the-penny specifics when Joe Biden’s healthcare plan gets a pass since “no one asks how we’re gonna pay for ‘remember Obama?’” Stating with Warren-like crap-cutting that her plan, while complicated and potentially expensive, compares favorably to Biden’s “in that it exists,” she addresses one skeptical audience member’s questions by spinning her white board to show the impossibly complex mess confronting anyone attempting to uproot the current for-profit health insurance system in order to cover everybody, explaining forthrightly, “I would explain it to you but you’d die.” And the joke about Chloe Fineman’s questioner conflating her fears about leaving her imperfect, expensive, but understood current insurance plan with a bad boyfriend (“I’m just scared to leave, but what if it’s the best I can get?”), lands in Warren’s gung-ho exhortation, “Girl, you need to leave him! He is draining you! You deserve better!” And the capper, that Fineman’s grateful undecided voter still finds Pete Buttigieg more likable, elicits the sort of deep, cleansing sigh that Warren’s learned how to power through so well.
No single six-minute sketch can sum up healthcare in America, or the entirety of a political figure’s worth and character, but a six-minute sketch can be smart about the choices it makes about what’s the real joke and what’s just showy, superficial applause-bait. This cold open wasn’t perfect, but it was encouraging, and a lot better than any given Baldwin-Trump sketch.
I am hip to the musics of today
Where are we landing on Coldplay these days? Pretty good? Predictable but tuneful? Pleasantly exuberant? They played two songs.
Most/Least valuable Not Ready For Prime Time Player
Aidy all the way. Kate teamed with Aidy for a few sketches, which is always a footrace, but Aidy had the paint sketch, which I don’t see working nearly as well with anyone else.
Ego Nwodim continues to have a sketch built around her from time to time, which is encouraging—for her and the show. Of the other featured players, Fineman finally got a nice showcase in the cold open, so that’s got to be a relief.
Pete continues to slowly work his way back in, but this season hasn’t been using Heidi Gardner nearly enough.
“What the hell is that thing?”—Ten-To-Oneland report
Aiming for a “lovahs” vibe, the stargazing sketch was scuttled by Stewart’s reticence to hurl herself into a character, although the premise itself (Stewart and Beck’s horny old couple keeps seeing oral sex positions in the constellations) would have needed a hell of a Ferrell-Dratch boost to take off.
- Cecily Strong’s cold open voter introduces herself as a volunteer for Kamala Harris’ perpetually overlooked campiagn, but she’s still undecided.
- It’s promising, too, that the cold open made room for some off-topic eccentric comedy, as when Melissa’s questioner introduces her question with, “I’m terrified by the doctor and my husband is one. But that’s a separate problem.”
- Che, showing the new skunk, oyster, and drop of blood emoji, claims that that’s the secret formula for Mountain Dew. Also probably not a paid placement.
- Kate’s Wylene Starkie, on the cow from which her burgers were made: “This here cow chased an old lady into a pond. She later passed away. Not from that, but it didn’t help.”
- Kyle Mooney’s juror, trying to identify “Pony”: “It’s by Magic Mike!”
- We’re off next week, with SNL coming back with it’s second host-musical guest two-timer of the season in Harry Styles on November 16.