Larry David, not a hugger (NBC)

“I’m not an actor, I’m a [comedy legend/failed SNL writing] star!”

With Larry David returning to host SNL tonight, it’s tempting to view it as a victory lap. After all, back in the 1984-85 season, David, having already cut his teeth with some conceptually ambitious work on ABC’s SNL clone Fridays, no doubt thought he’d be able to ply his singular talents on the mothership. Instead, he infamously butted heads with producer Dick Ebersol, who had taken over the show from Lorne Michaels for five years in the ’80s and, notoriously, didn’t get David’s humor at all. (In a move that later became a classic Seinfeld episode, David reportedly quit the show and stormed off in frustration before returning a few days later as if nothing had ever happened.) Indeed, what David most likely took away from his time on the SNL—apart from an acquaintanceship with similarly unappreciated cast member Julia Louis-Dreyfus—was the idea that he was smarter than the suits at NBC.

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But, as evidenced by his performance tonight and his recent appearances on the show, David can afford to be gracious. Apart from the fact that Lorne wasn’t around to incur his legendary wrath back in the day, David, at this point in his career, hasn’t got anything to prove, and can do what he essentially did all night, which is to kick back and have fun, secure in his position as television comedy royalty. Indeed, his most impressive trick in an effortlessly amusing hosting stint throughout was being completely charming while simultaneously expressing an air of being above the gig in the first place.

Beginning with a confident monologue, the former standup was all knowing smiles and funny lines making fun of himself (citing his journey from “poor schmuck” to “rich prick” without having changed at all) and the show (“This is the part where I’m supposed to say, ‘We’ve got a great show tonight’—Eh”), all while keeping the audience eating out of his hand the whole time. It’s a vibe that carried from wire to wire, with David delivering consistently funny performances in seven sketches (plus some amiable screwing around with a certain Presidential candidate we’ll get to) while conveying how unimpressed he was by the moment. It’s not that David was being contemptuous—he seemed to be having a great time. It’s just that he’s Larry David—being amused and unimpressed is what he does.

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Weekend Update update

Jost and Che were loose and funny, and, if Update used its unique position as a live fake news program mostly to make fun of Ben Carson’s bafflingly hilarious meltdown at tonight’s GOP debate, at least Colin Jost’s obvious comic’s delight at seeing something so inexplicably weird was winning as hell. Yes, an Update that crafted incisive political material about a breaking political story like the debate would be more memorable, but this outing was plenty enjoyable. This anchor team is not going to go down as the most distinguished in SNL history, but anyone denying there’s been significant improvement since Jost and Che took over is just sticking to his guns in spite of the evidence.

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Che got most of the best lines—as he’s gained confidence on Update, there’s more of his sharp standup voice in his material. Tonight, he continued to go after Donald Trump with a hungry gleam suggesting the lingering resentment at having to share an episode with the guy, mockingly framing the Donald’s second-place finish in Iowa as “what he loves to be most—a loser surrounded by Hispanics.” And his takedown of those who object to Black History Month was solid, asking, “Who is so racist they watch 30 seconds of ‘I have a dream’ and go, ‘Play a white speech’?”

That carried over into the segment’s strongest element, as Che and Jost continued to develop their joshing chemistry. Che’s bit about Black History Month being “the beginning of a lot of white anchors saying, ‘It’s Black History Month!’” threw expertly to a beaming Jost announcing, “It’s Black History Month.” And his later punchline that Hellman’s new eggless vegan mayonnaise is called ‘Colin’ got as big a laugh as their followup ribbing. (“It’s his month.” “That’s not nice, dude.”) Sure, we should expect more and better political material from Update, considering that it’s an election season (especially this election season), but Jost and Che are more consistently amusing than they’re ever been. I’ll take it.

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I loved Kate McKinnon’s rejected model for the new “more realistic” Barbie dolls, Sturdy Barbie,” whose broad Baltimore accent and low but sustainable dreams, in McKinnon’s earthy delivery, is a role model little girls could do a lot worse than aspire to. She might have a ranch house, an old car, and a questionable tattoo, but she’s self-sufficient, has her head screwed on straight, and, again, in McKinnon’s performance, weirdly sexy. We could all do worse than, as she puts it, “Trying Her Best Barbie.”

Then there was the big celebrity cameo everyone was waiting for—Derek Zoolander and Hansel! Oh, wait, this was just a predictable plug for Zoolander 2 (opening soon!) from Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson, but it was cute if you liked Zoolander. I sort of did, so I sort of did, with the happily clueless duo talking presidential candidate fashions and saying dumb things like mistaking Ted Cruz for Tom Cruise and getting lost in their own putdowns. Plus, Stiller (an SNL cast member for about five minutes back in the ’90s) doesn’t appear to be aging, which is sort of fascinating to look at.

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Best/worst sketch of the night

On a uniformly solid show, I suppose the FBI training sketch was weakest, although the conceit that cadet Kenan Thompson simply cannot decide if Larry David’s animatronic mannequin character is a genuine threat or just infuriatingly weird and horrible was still a funny conceit. And David throwing himself into his leisure-suited, catchphrase-spewing automaton (“I’m Kevin Roberts and I’m the coolest bitch in town! Where’s the party?”) was consistently funny, as was Kenan’s underplayed confusion (“If being a field agent means dealing with human puzzles like Kevin Roberts, maybe I belong behind a desk”).

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The actual big celebrity cameo tonight was, of course, Bernie Sanders. The secret of his appearance was spoiled, naturally, but the crowd still ate him up when he came out in the shipwreck sketch as an impoverished and principled passenger objecting to David’s wealthy prick’s assertion that his life is worth more than the women and children being loaded into the lifeboats. As in Hillary Clinton’s appearance earlier in the season, it was a smart move to stick Bernie in as a character rather than as himself, easing the requisite drop-in into the flow of the show better than such things are usually handled. And if Hillary got more into Val the bartender as a character, Bernie played to the crowd like a good sport while at the same time delivering his core message succinctly as part of an actual sketch (“I am so sick of the one per cent getting this preferential treatment”). It also helped to have David there—dodgy Irish accent he seemed to forget about notwithstanding—his selfish rich guy retaining just enough of the signature Larry David common sense assholery to make him funny. (Questioning whether the “child” on the lifeboat is young enough to qualify, he demands, “Check his pants, check for pubes!” “We are absolutely not doing that,” responds the captain.) Points to SNL for not simply sticking the two Bernies side-by-side in a political debate sketch and calling it a night. Plus, Sanders flipped the script later on, doing his best (if brief) David to introduce the musical act.

Speaking of script-flipping, the best sketch was the filmed Curb Your Enthusiasm bit, with David playing Sanders less like Sanders and more like Curb’s David plunked down in place of Sanders. Naturally, David’s Bernie screws up his considerable campaign momentum when his refusal to shake supporter Leslie Jones’ coughed-upon hand is interpreted as racism and his unwillingness to pop accident victim supporter Aidy Bryant’s shoulder is perceived as just being a prick. (It’s the sort of perfect detail—Larry being expected to do something helpful but unreasonable and being shamed for it—that suggests David was in on the writing of this one.) Again, points to SNL for not just having David trot out his undeniably funny and crowd-pleasing Sanders, but, instead, giving just enough of a spin to satisfy expectations without being predictable. After all, it does only take a tiny shift for Bernie’s plain-spoken rhetoric to shift into Larry David-ian irascibility (and vice-versa). The performances were great—Cecily Strong’s Susie , Taran Killam’s Marty, and Jay Pharoah’s always-eating Leon were spot-on—and the twist that the razor-thin Clinton victory in Iowa resulted from the people Bernie pissed off switching sides is the second great twist ending to a sketch in the episode. This was right up there with Louis C.K.’s Lincoln.

As a dark horse pick, I thought the songwriting class sketch was a weirdly effective little number—honestly, it could’ve filled the final sketch spot nicely. With Pete Davidson (in a straight man role for a change) attempting to get his novice students to pay along with his too-facile rhyming game, David’s Russ simply won’t play along, instead crafting his own epic musical narrative about the unfortunate denizens of “Froghattan,” whose kingdom, it turns out, is usurped by toad armies and iguanas. It starts off as simply a chance to make fun of the weird burnout Russ, but the way the guy’s unruly flight of fancy gradually wins over his fellow students turns into something oddly heartwarming. (Jay Pharoah’s student, asked to play along with the teacher’s game, responds, “Okay, I know it’s ‘sun,’ but I wanna say ‘shadow of the toad’s warships.’”) In its unassuming way a little fable about creativity trumping formula, it’s pretty winning.

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And the “Ebony And Ivory” two-hander, with Kenan’s Cam Newton and Killam’s Peyton Manning singing a song about their Super Bowl week experiences was unexpectedly solid, too. The two worked (and sang) well with each other (Killam’s shift into Manning’s final earnest but meat-headed harmony was great), and the sketch kept on taking shots at the NFL and the coded racism surrounding the differing reactions to the two quarterbacks that landed with satisfying resonance. (Newton, responding to Manning’s complaints about his hard week, asks if people called him a thug for dancing.) And the shot at soon-to-be-cut, boozing, irresponsible, alleged woman-beater QB Johnny Manziel was as harsh as it gets about the NFL’s hypocritical stances on player conduct. (“He couldn’t do the one thing that’d save him—win.”) And the fact that cops come in to threaten Newton once he starts to dance was pretty shocking—so, bravo, SNL.

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

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In what’s now officially a Super Bowl week tradition, Vanessa Bayer returned as the dutiful wife making endless snacks for her husband and his game-watching friends. While the last installment—on the J.K. Simmons show—was a funny swipe at the idea of women being relegated to game-day snack machines (complete with little activity toys to keep her occupied) this one went in a whole other direction, and was simply terrific. The escalating oddness, with David and his cronies exclaiming in identically jubilant or dismayed chants (there appear to be alternating fumbles and touchdowns every ten seconds) gives way to true horror when Bayer realizes they’re staring at a blank screen and, backing away while grabbing a pair of scissors, that their eyes are solid black in their heads. Cue the punchline that it’s a promo for the resurrected X-Files, and that’s a genuinely outstanding short film that manages to be both funny and really creepy. Outstanding.

Ten-To-Oneland got the barflies again.

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

As go the polls, so swings the cold open, with Taran Killam’s if anything not-unctuous-enough Ted Cruz getting the first position, and a few minutes of moderately funny personal attacks, with just a sprinkle of relevant political humor. Sure, Killam’s smirking Cruz admitted to his campaign’s chicanery in last week’s Iowa caucus (and reenacted the clip showing how even Cruz’s daughter didn’t want to get near him) but the real laughs came at the expense of the candidate’s widely derided lack of charisma. “I’m not likable, or even fine,” Killam’s Cruz admits smugly, before making his pitch that what America really needs is “a sneaky little stinker,” “a nasty little weasel,” and a candidate destined to be played by Paul Giamatti. With the shifting political fortunes of the Republican field, the show’s take on the candidates will be aired out thoroughly in the next—eleven months? (oh, God)—and this outing presages the sort of slightly above-average political comedy we’ve come to expect. The impression’s serviceable, and so’s the craftsmanship on the jokes, but it breezes past without leaving much of an impression. That’s a great creepy Cruz laugh by Killam, though.

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I am hip to the musics of today

Catchy pop, with a solid solos from lead guitarist Adam Hann, especially in the first number. The band was similarly solid, although I admit to getting something of a Corey Feldman (and his band Truth Movement!) vibe from front man Matthew Healy’s self-impressed, shirtless mugging. He even tousled his own already-artfully shaggy hair at one point during the band’s second song, “Love Me,” which sounds like, let’s call it a homage, to David Bowie’s “Fame.” Also, the title of their upcoming album, I Like It When You Sleep, For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of It, is the wettest thing I’ve heard in a long, long time.

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

McKinnon had a good night, with Sturdy Barbie and a return visit from barfly Sheila Sauvage in the Ten-To-Oneland sketch alongside David. As with most recurring bits, the last call sketches have never topped the first one with Sheila squaring off ill-advisedly with Louis C.K., but she and David played out the dance of the two least-promising rummies in New York with aplomb. The joke’s always in seeing how the two out-gross (or-gross out) each other, but McKinnon always manages to bring just enough desperation to Sheila’s grotesque need for companionship to keep her vital, and David looked to be having fun, suppressing the giggles when Kate peeled up his hairpiece to plant a greasy lipstick kiss.

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Still, let’s hear it for the new guy, as often-invisible Jon Rudnitsky busted out a guaranteed highlight reel number, making his pitch to replace the rumored Channing Tatum in a live TV Dirty Dancing. After getting a big laugh responding to Jost’s assertion, “You’re not exactly a regular guy, Jon—you’re on SNL” with a beaming, “Literally nobody knows that, Colin,” Rudnitsky launched into a Swayze-bewigged dance number that had the audience rolling. Wordlessly dancing the story of Johnny Castle’s famous seductive routine which gradually turns into a desperate flight from justice after accidentally killing, dismembering, then immolating Baby, the bit kept threatening to outstay its welcome before Rudnitsky’s commitment and specificity rescued it, time and again. By the time Johnny lay riddled with police bullets, the crowd was applauding. In the goodnights, Aidy Bryant jumped up and down behind Rudnitsky, excitedly pointing him out to the audience—Aidy’s right, that was the sort of thing that gets a guy noticed.

On the other hand, for the second week in a row, I played “Where’s Sasheer,” and lost. After being bumped up to the regular cast this season, Sasheer Zamata seems to be losing ground, which isn’t a good sign.

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

We’ve already talked about good ol’ Sheila Sauvage, which really doesn’t deserve the Ten-To-Oneland spot, as repetition blunts its necessary weirdness. (Something it had in spades in that first appearance.) Still, McKinnon’s great, and I laughed pretty hard at Kenan Thompson’s bartender unexpectedly surrounding the disastrous couple with crime scene tape at the end.

However, in honor of David’s return to 8H tonight, here’s arguably the only complete sketch he got on the air back in 1984. Appropriately, considering David’s unappreciated tenure (by Dick Ebersol anyway), it aired in the Ten-To-Oneland spot in the wee hours of December 2, 1984. It’s the sort of playlet-style sketch—no hard laughs, conceptual, lots of subtle character weirdness—that the last ten minutes is meant for. You might recognize it from a later incarnation.

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Stray observations

  • “In my defense I’m pretty confident a man like that does not exist in society.”
  • “Sounds like socialism.” “Democratic socialism.” “What’s the difference?” “A huge difference.”
  • “You ready for the big game?” “Well, not physically, but…”
  • “Hey, I had like nine TDs.” “And how many interceptions?” “I don’t think they have stats on that any more.”

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