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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Liev Schreiber lends some sneaky comic gravitas to Saturday Night Live

Liev Schreiber
Liev Schreiber
Screenshot: Saturday Night Live
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“If you end up laughing tonight, cool.”

“I’m not an actor, I’m a [cable, movie, sneaky comedy] star!”

I got excited when Liev Schreiber was announced as the host of this week’s Saturday Night Live. Sure, as Ray Donovan tough guy Schreiber himself admitted in his monologue, he’s not exactly known as Mr. Comedy, but he is a hell of an actor. Intense actors like Schreiber who do comedy can be a volatile and unpredictable host—or guest, as Lorne Michaels’ pal Robert DeNiro continues to demonstrate how far away he he should stay from SNL. (Dude, you messed up “Live From New York, It’s Saturday Night.” Again.)


But Schreiber has shown his sly comedy chops in tantalizing little snatches over the years. Apart from his very funny cameo earlier this SNL season, his segment alongside Joe Lo Truglio in The Ten was a weird little masterpiece of escalating, deadpan absurdity, and I’m told that his sketch, alongside former real-life partner Naomi Watts, in the widely eviscerated anthology film Movie 43 was the best of a sorry lot. (I did not watch Movie 43 in preparation for this review. I’m dedicated, but I’m only human, people.)

But great dramatic actors can bring a hum to SNL that enlivens and energizes the show. I’m thinking back to last year’s Sterling K. Brown-hosted episode for another example of the show’s writers playing to their host’s strengths, allowing, in that case, Brown’s electric presence to shine in a hilariously tailored mock-dramatic monologue. (And a guy who’s just really, really, into Shrek.) Schreiber got the same treatment, with a handful of sketches allowing him to do some nimbly deapan character work, and a monologue that—while not on Brown’s level—saw him being self-effacingly genuine, confessing that his motto for the audience should be “managing expectations.” If the sketches that followed weren’t killers, they at least gave Schreiber plenty of opportunities to shine in odd, compelling ways.

Weekend Update update

We only got one of two seemingly guaranteed Kate McKinnon returning characters tonight, as her opossum-spawn Jeff Sessions took the cold open, but, on Update, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was nowhere to be seen. On a week where RBG was in the news for some scary reasons (hang in there, Justice), it felt like a lock for some Ginsburns and jokes about her breaking ribs when falling off a thimble, taking krav maga in preparation for working with Brett Kavanaugh, or something. Huh. Next week, maybe.

The big news of the night, naturally, is going to be the appearance of newly elected Texas Congressman Dan Crenshaw, the former Navy SEAL whose combat-wounded, eyepatched appearance made an appearance in passing in Pete Davidson’s quick-hit Republican-bashing smack on last week’s show. Davidson apologized first, admitting that making fun of a guy’s war wound is exactly the sort of thing that brings everyone together in bipartisan agreement that he’s a “dick.” Crenshaw himself then came out, in what was certainly a much funnier act of very public SNL ass-kissing then anyone could have expected.

Getting interrupted by his phone playing an Ariana Grande song is outstanding, mean-spirited personal back-smack at Davidson, and—regardless of who wrote them—the Congressman’s lines about the blue-haired Davidson looking like the Breaking Bad meth in human form or a troll doll with a tapeworm are at least as funny as Davidson’s non-Crenshaw material from last week. (Davidson agreed when Crenshaw joked about him looking like Martin Short from The Santa Clause 3, and that, of the two, only one was good on SNL. Congressional burn.) Giving Crenshaw plenty of time after the jokes to urge respect for veterans, and to graciously forgive Davidson (while praising Davidson’s firefighter father, who died on 9/11) was exactly the sort of win-win damage control no doubt Lorne Michaels was looking for, too. Davidson, as the segment ended, could be heard telling Crenshaw, “You’re a good man,” which should certainly calm the overheated, not-at-all ginned-up Fox News outrage cycle. Almost certainly. Like, 50-55 percent sure of it.

Not to harp on the issue, but while Crenshaw’s appearance (on the show) was as satisfying (and surprisingly funny) rebuttal to Davidson’s flippant appearance smack, the decision of Michaels and NBC to give over a significant chunk of airtime is worth examining. Davidson and Crenshaw both came off as refreshingly human in squashing the issue, which is undoubtedly welcome. Still, genuine political discourse about civility is often and increasingly used as a cudgel by those seeking to deflect actual criticism of substantive issues. Is it uncivil to make (in this case, shitty) personal jokes about someone whose political actions are, themselves, decidedly and lastingly uncivil to others? If someone—like Crenshaw—is going to Congress to pursue policies designed to hurt women, immigrants, the LGBTQI community, civil rights, and the sick and needy, who employs overheated attacks on “leftist agitators” and “political correctness,” and who has been linked to some very troubling people, then turning over five minutes of the show to him needs to come with that context as well. If getting angry over a bad joke is fair game, then criticizing bad policy is as well, and shouldn’t be excluded from the conversation in the ensuing social media and soundbite noise.

Jost and Che were fine. The best bit of the segment, though, was Cecily Strong’s appearance as the White House aide that Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and others are ludicrously claiming was assaulted by CNN’s Jim Acosta, complete with doctored video and the most egregious case of “who are you gonna believe, us or your lying eyes?” in recent American gaslighting history. With Strong mimicking the aide’s clearly pre-planned grabs at Acosta’s microphone, complete with some fine, floor-crawling, legs-in-the-air subterfuge, the bit was potently funny. Especially when Strong mumbled in response to Jost’s objections, “This is what it is now because my boss tweeted it so it’s real.”

Best/worst sketch of the night

Schreiber’s best outing tonight was the House Hunters filmed piece alongside Leslie Jones, which partook of the same sort of deadpan, actorly comedy of his piece in The Ten or that time he offered to make a pair of nonplussed little ids some shirtless eggs . As marrieds Schreiber and Jones run down the pros and cons (windows just drawn on, vertical floors, a magician in the bathtub, Australian vampires, toilets on the ceiling) of their prospective homes, the absurdity just keeps building with each building, while offhand little details like Schreiber’s desire for a “man cave” keep cropping up to greater and greater effect. (Culminating in a punchline sold to creepy perfection by the simple act of Schreiber very slowly closing a cellar door with an unnerving smile on his face.)

There’s such a thing as going too low-key, I suppose, and “The Poddys” may have taken its podcast host verisimilitude a bit too far. With Schreiber as The Daily host Michael Barbaro and Cecily Strong as Serial’s Sarah Koenig co-hosting the event in their inimitable (well, clearly imitable) self-contained, sonorous styles, the piece didn’t drag so much as commit to the event’s haltingly self-serious air. Still there were some funny digs at elements any podcast enthusiast will recognize, such as awards for uncomfortable shifting from grisly true crime talk to advertiser copy from Blue Apron, and “Best Nervous White Girl In A Place Where She Doesn’t Belong.” (Aidy Bryant’s cartel-investigating host is represented by her memorial photo and a rose.) And I laughed at “Most Unnecessary Podcast” award winner Ving Rhames (of The Rhamescast, played by Kenan) just observing stuff outside his window. (“That’s a fluffy dog!”) Alex Moffat doesn’t do the best Mark Maron, something that Maron will no doubt talk about at length on his next episode of WTF?, completing the humor-circle. And, sure, Maron is the grandad of all podcasting and all, but surely someone at SNL has a decent Paul F. Tompkins in his back pocket. (Or, hey, just get Paul F. Tompkins to host. Seriously, Lorne. Do that.)

The rambunctious sons (Kyle and Beck) of serenely oblivious new neighbors Schreiber and Cecily Strong wrestle in tighty-whities, break plates over each others’ heads, and smash right through walls, while guests Kenan and Aidy gradually lose the ability to politely ignore the chaos. Here again, it’s all character work that sells the loud jokes, as Schreiber’s stern dad whips out a handy indoor hose to repeatedly cool the wrestling brats out, while Bennett and Mooney manage to make their warring, hyperactive siblings specific enough in their destructive squabbling to lend the sketch a loopy humanity. That Cecily and Aidy both come close to losing it works in the bit’s favor, their obvious affection for the joke serving to buoy rather than undermine it.


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

Kate McKinnon didn’t get RBG on the air, but she did return as her indefatigable Miss Rafferty, frequent alien abduction victim, unwilling exhibitionist, and now subject of a typically undignified ghost visitation. Interviewed alongside her far more fortunate co-haunteds Strong and Schreiber, McKinnon once more shared the humiliating details of her latest otherworldly encounter. No gentle white light or heartwarming “Patrick Swayze in Ghost” last business to take care of on behalf of benevolent spirits she, Rafferty’s encounter involved a Ringu-style TV crawl from a squashed Danny DeVito-looking specter with petty plans for her to perform an upper-decker on his ex-girlfriend’s toilet. As ever, the template here is inviolable, as Rafferty uncorks a few more gross euphemisms for her undercarriage (“baby tunnel and gravy funnel,” “please hump it and cheese trumpet”), and describes her inevitably pantsless ordeal through a seen-it-all smile and a cloud of cigarette smoke. This sketch will never top the hilarious shock value of its initial appearance, although this one benefitted from both McKinnon’s wonted commitment, some fine, low-key character work from Strong and Schreiber, and Schreiber’s barely-contained corpsing as McKinnon fearlessly demonstrated her legs-akimbo upper-decker technique with her butt wiggling squarely in his kisser.

Good Day Denver came back, too, for some more kneeslapper chyron double entendres, if that’s your thing. This time, it’s twin brother financial advisors Alex Moffat and Mikey Day whose mistaken introduction as “incest twins” rather than “invest twins” turns every onscreen graphic (“I’d rather put it in family,” “Our sister joins us sometimes,” etc) into another cue for morning hosts Strong and Kyle Mooney to look horrified. I laughed at interviewer Schreiber’s cluelessly smiling reading of viewer tweets, concluding with the Denver PD’s, “We’re on route to your location,” but if you’re not all-in on tortured groan-worthy wordplay, then you’re out of luck. (Perhaps I can direct you to the cork-soakers?)


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

Kate McKinnon trotted out her weaselly, rascally, racist Jeff Sessions, for presumably the last time, in the cold open. Packing up his office, complete with secret Confederate flag coffee mug and the framed letter Coretta Scott King wrote about how he’s a “sumbitch,” McKinnon’s departing Attorney General greeted a parade of visitors. Aidy Bryant’s Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Beck Bennett’s Mike Pence, the Trump boys (Moffat and Day), and finally Robert DeNiro’s returning Robert Mueller all came by to drop off some “don’t let the door hit you” jokes and current event references about Sessions being fired by Trump over his decision to recuse himself from Mueller’s investigation. At first baffled at being replaced by one Matthew Whittaker, a Trump loyalist with no political experience and a shady history with fraudulent business ventures, Sessions admitted, “Hearing it out loud makes sense.” As the Sessions firing (or forced resignation) puts people still vainly invested in the integrity of law, government institutions, and reality in the queasy position of lamenting the shitcanning of an unsuitable AG with a long, documented record of bigotry, the sketch could do with more complexity than the usual opossum jokes and McKinnon singing Adele’s breakup anthem “I Wish Nothing But The Best For You.” (Kate sound great, though.) And closing the sketch with comedy dead zone DeNiro (who, again, blew the most famous line in SNL history) didn’t do the piece any favors.

“Unity Song” was sort of political? Kind of? A musical list of Seinfeldian observations about the stuff that everyone hates (wet jeans, the words “moist” and “crotch,” child actors who speak like adults) finding at least the merest scrap of common ground in America isn’t exactly groundbreaking stuff. But the cast sings the hell out of the filmed music video, and the extended bit about airline pilot Schreiber interrupting in-flight movies to report interminably about wind speed gave the host a funny little bit of drawn-out comic business. Innocuously catchy.


I am hip to the musics of today

Lil Wayne had Swizz Beatz and Halsey on hand for his pair of musical numbers from the long-awaited, mostly worth-it Tha Carter V. Weezy was Weezy. Expletives were helpfully elided.


He, along with Future, guested in Chris Redd and Kenan Thompson’s “Booty Kings” music video, too. A pretty funny deconstruction of how the titular rappers are adjusting their flow to #MeToo, the gag lives in Kenan and Redd’s characters’ genuine willingness to recognize that all their “bitches and hos” misogyny might have been a little problematic. Redd, as seen back in the still-underrated Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, is great at this sort of thing, and he and Kenan get consistent laughs by portraying their braggadocious duo as authentically surprised to learn the errors of their ways. “They got names?,” one asks (of women), before the other responds with a grateful, “We need that pushback.” And the cluelessly well-intentioned lyric “We allies in this bitch” sums up the joke nicely.

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

Kate didn’t get to RBG, but she was all over the place tonight. Cecily was a close second.


By my estimation, Ego Nwodim tripled her line total from last week, but where’s Melissa Villaseñor been?

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

“Dave’s Outside The Women’s Bathroom” is just the sort of thing the ten-to-one slot is designed for, as Schreiber’s fast-talking would-be TV star and “class clown” posts up outside a swank restaurant’s ladies room and accosts women coming out. As with some of the best final sketches (which this isn’t quite), this one lives less in the premise (a satire of ding-dongs vying for celebrity) and more about the unexpected character beats. Schreiber’s accented Dave seems less like a creepy stalker perv in his ambushes, and more of a, well, ding-dong, grasping onto what he’s certain is his key to television stardom. All the women are appropriately aghast and pissed rather than being the butt of the joke (Leslie Jones’ patron derails Dave’s plan with a single look), while Schreiber’s questions (“The House With The Clock In Its Walls, that’s made up, right?”) suggest a certain naivete to Dave’s behavior that works.

And Heidi Gardner—already established as SNL’s character actress standout—elevates the bit when she appears as Dave’s irritated girlfriend, whose distress is revealed not to be about Dave lurking outside the women’s can, but about the concept being so can’t-miss that he’ll get famous and leave her. (She’s intimidated that he’s meeting all these “fresh, straight-out-of-the-bathroom women.”) Like Schreiber’s other character parts tonight, the piece works as well as it does because he (along with Gardner here) is right in there, making the case that a great dramatic actor is sometimes just what comedy needs.


Stray observations

  • It’s pretty clear by now that I’m all for Schreiber returning to host (and I may be in the minority), and Schreiber seems genuinely thrilled to be there, although he jokes it would have been a little cooler “10 or 15 years ago.”
  • Keeping up the nods to bipartisanship that marked much of the episode, Schreiber spent the last half of his monologue calling attention to the recent midterm election’s record-breaking voter turnout, concluding with the statement, “We showed up because we care we care about our children and we care about our country.” Fair enough—and, coming from Schreiber, authoritative enough to deflect any criticism. Seriously, I’m not trying to start anything with Liev Schreiber.
  • Moffat’s Eric Trump confuses the brothers’ likely coming “subpoenas” with the “some penis” they’ll receive in jail, which isn’t the most necessary of jokes. Still, him confusing his dad’s jerkoff motion while discussing Jeff Sessions with “rolling dice” is pretty good.
  • Strong’s morning host, attempting to mitigate the damage: “For those of you who just tuned in and are horrified . . .”
  • We find out tonight that Miss Rafferty’s first name is Colleen, and she’s only 27.
  • “Like a scorned wife after a bitter divorce, the Democrats took the House.”
  • Jost, on election results that saw Floridians banning indoor vaping and dog racing: “They basically banned Florida.”
  • Self-indulgent sleeper Liev Schreiber recommendation: His early comic supporting roles in The Daytrippers and Walking And Talking.
  • Next week: Newly minted dramatic leading man Steve Carell tries to prove comedians can still do comedy, too, alongside musical guest Ella Mai.

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Danny Peary's Cult Movies books are mostly to blame.