“I’m not an actor, I’m a [former YA, current indie film] star!”

In her monologue, Kristen Stewart makes fun of her “too cool for school” persona with the help of Aidy Bryant and Kate McKinnon, who come out in ripped clothes, smoking cigarettes and gliding in on an enormous motorcycle. In a case of “funny because it’s true,” Stewart then signs off by dropping an accidental “fuck,” causing some all-time gif-worthy reactions from her co-stars and, no doubt, a grim, forced smile from Lorne Michaels offstage. (Stewart joins Paul Schaeffer, Norm MacDonald, Jenny Slate, and the late Charles Rocket in the SNL “fuck” club, which isn’t as fun as it sounds.) Stewart’s slouchy, bashful nervousness seemed to spread through most of the cast tonight, as her episode was a parade of giggle-fits (Leslie), poor timing (Stewart), and all-around amiable catastrophe (Update), but the whole enterprise hung together pretty well, in spite of all the fuck-ups (and “fucks“).

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Stewart joked about being there to plug Twilight, but she’s become more and more of a respected indie lead since she hung up the sparkles (and co-star Robert Pattinson), and her appearance on SNL is one of those incongruous bookings that suggests the show can still make an unpredictable choice. (I don’t know how much Stewart’s new arthouse film, Personal Shopper will benefit from the name-drop here.) In the monologue, Stewart addressed the Republican elephant in the room directly, calling out Donald Trump for his strange obsession with the Stewart-Pattinson breakup of several years ago, and reading out some of Trump’s 11 tweets in the singsong teenage fanboy voice that is Trump’s online persona to a T. (She, knowing that Trump is an avid SNL hate-watcher, puts the needle to her improbable nemesis even further by suggesting Trump’s in love with Pattinson, before telling him, “And I’m like so gay, dude.”) For all her seeming diffidence onstage, Stewart (and SNL) took advantage of a guaranteed audience of one.

Still, Stewart was not a comfortable SNL host. She was most at ease as Gisele Bündchen in the “Patriots vs. Falcons fans” Family Feud, but most of the time, Stewart was awkward and uncertain, which killed the timing of her live sketches. (The college and Willy Wonka sketches, especially.)

Weekend Update update

Let’s go ahead and call this one a hot mess right off the bat. Che got lost in his signature standup riff, took two shots at one punchline, and was generally all over the place all segment. Jost awkwardly suggested he might repeat Stewart’s f-bomb after a joke died, and actually started to end the segment early, giving the sign-off right after Kenan Thompson’s return as David Ortiz. Yikes. Still, there’s some ragged grace in riding out a trainwreck, and Che repeating “Shut up, Colin” after messing up his lines, and Jost shrugging and throwing back to Che after his screwup were at least sort of endearing. (“You just saved my job,” deadpanned Che after Jost’s mistake.) I’ve been touting Jost and Che’s comfort level behind the desk for more than a year now, so I’ll just chalk this up to one of those nights.

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Picking out the jokes from the wreckage, it’s interesting that Che continues to play devil’s advocate for Donald Trump as much as he does. While no fan, Che will go out of his way to joke about the hypocrisy of partisanship (noting that Trump and Obama both signed a lot of executive orders), a tactic that lends credence to Che’s “tell it like it is” cred while leaving those looking for all-out Trump-bashing grinding their teeth. Which isn’t to say there wasn’t plenty of Trump-bashing on Update. Jost’s line about Trump’s Muslim ban telling us “which Muslim countries are threats and which have Trump hotels” is as well-constructed a joke as you could ask for. But Che—for all his trouble tonight in spitting it out—making a joke about Trump’s defense of buddy and benefactor Vladimir Putin’s murderous ways that hinged on the essential truth of America’s often whitewashed violence is bold mainly for the fact that it doesn’t give the audience what it wants. There’s a whole lot more to unpack in Trump’s baffling statement of solidarity with a murderous dictator and denigration of the country he’s supposed to be leading, but Che’s decision to focus on this one, more prickly aspect of it is testament to how he’s really not interested in playing to the cheap and easy seats. Now, if he could just get through the joke.

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I love Kenan Thompson’s David Ortiz, but he’s been less funny every time he’s appeared, simply because no one has thought to vary his lunch-obsessed routine even a little. I love me some Big Papi, but, like the real Ortiz, it’s time to hang up the oversized Red Sox Jersey.

Best/worst sketch of the night

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Stewart was understandably better in the filmed segments tonight (she really isn’t a live performer), and the return of the Totino’s Pizza Rolls commercial was another triumph. While last year’s Larry David/X-Files twist ending was outstanding, this one was even better, with Vanessa Bayer’s eternally forbearing, snack-making housewife gobsmacked by the arrival of Stewart’s sultry lesbian guest. As her husband and his friends boorishly enjoy the Super Bowl (“Touchdown! Fumble!”), Stewart and Bayer both commit completely to their steamy love scene, acting out a lifetime’s passion in just a few lines (eventually in French), smoky glances, and some creative use of the sink-sprayer. (Knowing they had a winner, the show had the pizza rolls and sprayer return for a later commercial bumper.) The joke works so beautifully because the women’s story is played straight all the way through, the gauzy cinematography and lush score never tipping over into parody, even as the guys cluelessly keep calling for garbage food. (Plus, following up on Stewart’s comment about her lesbianism in the monologue, having Bayer and Stewart full-on making out just makes the Trump-baiting that much more awesome.)

Same goes for ”Meet Cute,” a sweetly funny short where Pete Davidson’s suitor keeps getting so smitten and starry-eyed that he forgets to ask for even the smallest scrap of identifying information from Stewart’s dream girl, Claire. (Him Googling “Claire with brown hair” made me laugh.) Sweet, well-crafted, and silly.

On the down side, the campus drinking sketch was the most unfortunate victim of Stewart’s lack of sketch chops, as her epic binge-drinker’s exploits were undermined by Stewart’s discomfort. (She really killed the momentum by fiddling with the reveal of her reverse-mohawk before taking off that hat.) Still, the details were funny enough—like Aidy’s fellow student, I really want more details about that time she missed the submarine from Mr. Shinto’s island. And Mikey Day did a good job as the endlessly chipper R.A. trying to keep the counseling session on track. (His repeated, too-casual “Feel free to pop that beanie right back on,” was delivered with perfect, unblinking need to see Stewart’s hair covered back up.)

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And, as much as I have come to appreciate Kenan’s Steve Harvey, Family Feud never works as a cast celebrity impression showcase. The impressions are too quick, and the format under-serves everyone involved. Still, Alex Moffat wheeled out a pretty outstanding Casey Affleck.

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

In order of descending necessity: Totino’s, Trump/Bannon, Family Feud, Big Papi.

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

Sure, Trump opened things up again, as Alec Baldwin (prepping for next week’s hosting gig) returned to the Oval Office to make insulting phone calls to world leaders. Which Donald Trump did this week. To several allies. Hung up on one. “Jokingly” threatened to invade another. So that’s going on. Anyway, with the increasing heat on Trump aide/right hand/white supremacist puppet master Steve Bannon in the news this week, the question of who was going to come on to play Bannon was on SNL-watchers’ minds. The decision to double down on the joke that Bannon is a truly dangerous and unsavory individual by having him come back in his once-before guise as the literal Death is a ballsy one.

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Yes, the show has to figure out the audio better—whoever is under that skull mask remained pretty muffled throughout. But wheeling out a Death-Bannon rather than just stuffing Bobby Moynihan into an ill-fitting suit and gin blossoms is a lot more potent. Still, Baldwin’s Trump doesn’t have many shades to him. SNL is sticking with the idea that Trump’s more clueless and buffoonish, and shunting the outright, bigoted evil onto Death-Bannon, which is limiting. But any time Kate McKinnon comes back as her eminently sensible (if Obama-smitten) Angela Merkel is a good night. (Alex Moffat does a nice little turn as the no-nonsense Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, foiling Trump’s juvenile “Guy who’s gonna pay for the wall says ‘what’?” phone prank with a knowing “¿Que?”)

But what we’re all here to talk about is the unexpected and unimpeachable (see what I did there?) turn from Melissa McCarthy as White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer. The Trump administration continues to provide an overabundance of mockable/horrifying statements, gaffes, and actions each week, none more jaw-dropping to fans of truth, facts, and anything resembling reality that Spicer’s press conferences. Some press professionals have expressed sympathy for their colleague’s plight, having to walk back, deny, or outright lie about the nonsense spewing from the White House on a daily basis. But more are more and more pissed that Spicer’s tack is to belligerently claim the veracity of those “alternate facts” touted by fellow Trump abettor Kellyanne Conway, and McCarthy takes that particular ball and plows all through the White House press corps with it. McCarthy’s initial appearance brought confusion—and then raucous cheers once the audience figured out who was under the stellar Spicer makeup. (One senses that Trump is going to make it all that much easier for SNL to attract big name drop-ins like this going forward.) McCarthy excels at playing this type of character, whose hair-trigger menace will brook no opposition, and the actress makes mincemeat of the assembled reporters asking, quite reasonably, about all the assorted Trump bullshit of the day. (You know, like that Holocaust statement that didn’t mention Jews, Trump repeatedly referring to his Muslim “ban” even though the party line is that it’s not a ban, Conway’s citing of the nonexistent, immigrant-led “Bowling Green Massacre,” and Trump’s obsessive need to inflate the size of any crowd that comes to see him.) Throw in the Spicer-specific jabs (he swallows his gum, he keeps tweeting his email passwords), and McCarthy’s burly, beady-eyed, maniacal performance, and this is a sketch that’s going to be in every SNL political special from now on. McCarthy makes an especially funny meal out of Spicer’s signature combination of bullying and obfuscation, asserting that his first act will be “apologizing on behalf of you, to me!,” before unobtrusively slipping in the announcement, “Then at 6pm he’s gonna abolish the National Park system.”

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The immigration instructional film was another strong swipe at Trump and his totally not a religion or ethnic based travel ban, as some quick and sloppy edits in the official video reveal just how slapdash and bigoted the order is. With Beck Bennett’s Homeland Security functionary dubbing himself over the smoothly professional original (and ‘X’-ing out everyone with a brown face in the line), it’s harsh and mean, and aimed right at Saturday Night Live’s number one not-fan. For all the Spicer denials and Republican waffling, Trump called for an immigration ban on one particular religion during his campaign, and then he made one happen as soon as he took office—at least until the courts got involved. As Bennett’s official unveils the “extensive questionnaire” that simply asks, “Are you a Muslim?,” the truth still exists, and this sketch pins it to the screen. There are lots of questions about Saturday Night Live’s comedic courage and judgement still lingering from Trump’s infamous hosting appearance (and the suspension of writer Katie Rich for tweeting anti-Trump-family jokes). And there should be. But tonight saw the show come out swinging. I’ll take it.

I am hip to the musics of today

Alessia Cara has a nice voice and is very young. Other than the fact that I’m a sucker for a song with a cello break, I leave further judgement up to you, the readers.

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

Melissa McCarthy doesn’t work there, and while featured guys Alex Moffat and Mikey Day pepped up some smaller roles, I’m giving the top spot to Vanessa Bayer for the Totino’s sketch. That was some outstanding acting in another all-timer of a sketch sure to show up wherever the best of SNL commercial parodies are shown.

Sasheer and Melissa (Villaseñor), on the other hand, were largely invisible.

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

The observation that it’s mighty messed up that Charlie Bucket’s grandparents (or at least Grandpa Joe) can walk if they feel like it is not a new one. So making a sketch out of that premise alone would require more originality than this one. Sure, that Stewart’s Charlie works setting up dogfights and got stabbed recently is pretty dark, as is Charlie’s exchange with his other grandfather. (“I sponge-bathed you, I washed your balls!” “I didn’t ask you to.”) But mining a nearly 50-year-old movie for one rather obvious joke is lazy stuff.

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Stray observations

  • McKinnon’s Merkel has some great expressions of silent disbelief on the phone, none better than when Baldwin’s Trump refers to his Holocaust statement by referencing the “six million… people who came to my inauguration.”
  • “What’s your name?” “I’ve never had one.” “That’s a shame.”
  • “Before we begin, I need you to know that myself and the press have gotten off to a rocky start. When I say ‘rocky start,’ I mean it in the sense of the movie Rocky because I came out here to punch you. And also I don’t talk so good.”
  • McCarthy’s Spicer on the audience for a recent Trump appearance: “The men all had erections, and every single one of the women was ovulating left and right, and no one was sad.”
  • McKinnon appeared at Spicer’s press conference as Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos, whose now well-documented unpreparedness and unsuitability for the job comes out as, “I don’t know anything about… school. I do think there should be a school, probably a Jesus school.”
  • DeVos’ harshest and most damning critic has been SNL alum-turned-Senator Al Franken (D-MN).
  • Jost, on Trump’s decision to appeal a federal judge’s stay order of the Muslim ban: “For him, getting temporarily blocked is just foreplay.”
  • After extolling the virtues of watching the Super Bowl as an escape from politics, Che confesses he’s hoping to “watch the blackest city in America beat the most racist city I’ve ever been to.” So that’s a “Go, Falcons” from Michael Che and some predictable outrage fodder for Boston sports talk radio.

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