(Photo: Mary Ellen Matthews/NBC)

“I’m not an actor, I’m a [comedy auteur and standup] star!”

Louis CK got plenty of time for his monologue, as all standups do on SNL, especially when they’re four-time hosts with a new comedy special and pretty much universal acclaim. The monologue was more playful than usual, with CK breaking out some unexpected animal impressions and physical comedy between the signature uncomfortable but brilliant bits. Actually, the opening bit about a racist chicken combined the two quite nicely, as CK started out by knocking his audience back on their heels before unpacking what seemed like an unsalvageable premise. That’s Louis CK’s métier, and no one’s better at taking a joke to the edge and tiptoeing nimbly along it. Speaking of his undeserved but now-routine sense of celebrity entitlement when staying in five-star hotels these days, his bit about copping an attitude with housekeeping sees him combining character work, commentary, and grin-faced button-pushing so deftly that the bit doesn’t really even need the twist punchline he gives it. CK makes jokes about white privilege that, like his best stuff, push into the uncomfortable areas everyday human rationalization and politeness refuse to acknowledge. The line, “It’s wrong that white people get preferential treatment, but as long as they do, what’s going on at this hotel?” shows again that a great Louis CK bit lets no one off the hook. If he’s the butt of the joke, he also refuses to deny that there are plenty of other butts to go around, too. Great monologue.

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Being back for his fourth stint on SNL, there’s a comfort to CK’s performances in the sketches tonight that comes partly from working in sketch comedy for so long (apart from the often sketch sensibility of a lot of Louie episodes, he’s written for the sketch shows of SNL alums Dana Carvey and Chris Rock), partly from the fact that he’s turned into a fine actor over the years, and partly from the teasing sense that he’s just a little bit above it all. It’s clear CK likes doing SNL, and he tosses himself into his characters with commitment, but he also isn’t shy about reading those cue cards. He flashed some confident physical comedy chops along with some long, flowing lashes in the courtroom sketch, flapping his peepers and making everyone at the trial get all hot and bothered. Product placement thought it was, the silly sketch worked because CK pitched his prosecutor’s actions just right. (Aidy Bryant’s overheated juror helped out, too.) And, in the final Polish immigrant sketch with Kate McKinnon, he was thrown by McKinnon’s intermittent breaking. But, holding her hand and giving it an encouraging shake while he stifled his own giggles, CK conveyed a reassuring and endearing sense that he knows a potentially busted sketch isn’t the end of the world. Plus, he does a fine job in another sketch of convincing us that he’s genuinely, passionately into sectional sofas.

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Weekend Update update

Jost and Che had some three weeks worth of Donald Trump news to work with since we last saw them, leaving tonight’s Update feeling a little thin, considering. In a world with a Donald Trump in it, there’s no shortage of satirical ammo, and while the jokes tonight weren’t bad, they also weren’t especially cutting or memorably funny. The hardest laugh came from Jost, whose line about noted bigot and Trump right hand man Steve Bannon’s apparently precarious job situation ([Over a picture of Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump] “This time, he probably can blame the Jews”) eliciting multi-layered, uncomfortable laughs. Che and Jost kept raising potential bullseyes like Bill O’Reilly’s most recent sexual harassment scandal, Trump’s questionable (on several levels) attack on Syria, and Attorney General (and other noted bigot) Jeff Sessions’ moves against police reform,but being content with merely winging them. Jost and Che are in a comfortable groove, but, with so much time and material to work with, they squandered a lot.

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Kate McKinnon was the only correspondent, returning as Cecilia Giménez, the perhaps well-meaning but definitely incompetent artist who “restored” that Jesus painting, something that gave the ever-elcome McKinnon a chance to strut her stuff. Brought on ostensibly to critique that recently unveiled and decidedly horrifying statue of soccer hunk Ronaldo, the bit just kept effortlessly rolling along on the strength of McKinnon’s gleefully funny performance, as Cecilia analyzed the misguided artwork from every angle. Her best line about the statue looking like “the face of a man who pet a bunny so much that it died” is only funnier in McKinnon’s loopy but contained accent, but there were a lot more to choose from. Not exactly essential Update commentary, but relentlessly funny, nonetheless.

Best/worst sketch of the night

Apart from a pair of showy impressions we’ll get to, tonight’s show was refreshingly writer-driven, even if not all the conceptual sketches were winners. The malt shop sketch seemed an odd choice to go on so early, as it started out uncomfortable, got more so, then veered right into serious darkness. Louis made for a squirmy soda jerk (and how) as his chipper, middle-aged proprietor segued with practiced, sleazy skill from commiserating with stood-up high schooler Cecily Strong to role-playing a deeply questionable, clearly long-held fantasy about driving off with a teenage girl, to parts very unknown. (“I don’t think he’s taking her to school,” deadpans Sasheer Zamata’s classmate, knowingly.) The twist that Strong, after BMOC Pete Davidson asks her out after all, knew exactly what CK was up to and that egging on his “pervert” fantasies fulfils her own secret, sadistic desires jumped the rails nicely, with CK bloodying his hand on the jukebox an unnerving coda to the whole thing. Not a triumph—for one thing, Leslie Jones blew her one line—but I’ll take dark comedy over another celebrity impression or game show to kick off an episode any day.

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The last two sketches of the night went for the same conceptual comedy vibe, also getting more points for ambition that execution. The actual ten-to-one sketch (the one about the too-accurately prejudiced Tenement Museum reenactors, played by CK and McKinnon) scored mainly on the pair’s unidentifiably entertaining period anti-Italian slurs and Kenan Thompson’s expert underplaying as a suitably unimpressed guest. Once a reliable, go-to for camera-mugging, Thompson has created a fine niche for himself as the character in sketches whose resigned, deadpan commentary on whatever foolishness is happening routinely steals the moment. His reading of “And you just answered it,” in response to CK’s character calling him “chocolate face” was a stealthy killer.

The better of the two, and equally stealthy pick for best live sketch of the night goes to the sectional sofa not-salesman played by Louis. From starting off his commercial with the tail end of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 to Aidy Bryant’s equally sectional-obsessed Barb demanding “Bigger!,” to CK’s intense pitchman sitting down and breaking character to confide solemnly to camera, “I used to have a family,” this was the sort of weird-ball idea that wouldn’t work without complete commitment. (Think “Space Pants.”) And CK, like he did in a previous show’s concierge sketch (“It’s a noble gas.”), found the unwavering, odd center of a man who just really, really loves sectional sofas. Again, the twist that none of his store full of elaborate sectionals are actually for sale isn’t even necessary for the sketch to work. It’s like frosting on an already, weirdly delicious cake. (I was trying to think of a sofa metaphor, but I’m just not as into sectionals as I might be.)

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The pre-recorded material was all strong tonight, with Bobby Moynihan’s party clown sketch being the best of the bunch. Brought up short by the realization that lonely, 50-ish guy Louis has hired him to perform his kids’ tricks at CK’s lonely solo birthday, Moynihan’s Dodo alternates between gamely going through with his routines and commenting wryly on how very uncomfortable the situation is. Moynihan kills it, responding to the offer of a tip with a deadpan “There’s no protocol for whatever this is,” and immediately telling two additional arriving entertainers “You don’t want this” before slamming them mercifully outside. That he responds with nodding acquiescence to the revelation that CK’s going to murder him and chop him into pieces (“Yeah, that seems about right”) is the perfect capper, a starkly melancholy punchline to a dry, perfectly executed bit.

As impressive for its timeliness as its execution, the Pepsi ad mocking the immediately shit-canned Kendall Jenner commercial benefitted most from Beck Bennett, who’s revealed himself as perhaps the best pure actor in the cast, especially in filmed material. Watching his excited commercial director’s face gradually and repeatedly drain of all life and color while a succession of loved ones on the phone inform him of how tone-deaf and misguided his big idea to co-opt Black Lives Matter for a soda ad is is a little masterpiece of characterization. The meticulously elaborate piece obviously whipped up on the fly (the stupid ad only premiered a few days ago), Bennett’s performance is simply wonderful, as his well-intentioned ad man realizes, as GOB Bluth might say, he’s made a huge mistake. Only hearing his side of the conversation, we watch as Bennett desperately re-pitches his vision to a number of people, his repeated abashment dribbling out in deftly timed defeat. (“Don’t even touch it… Be insane to touch it… Right…)

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

We got Cecilia Giménez, who was most welcome. And a double helping of Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump, which…

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

…has to go, frankly. It was fun and novel to have Baldwin play Trump, especially considering the guaranteed Twitter tantrum the actual Trump would throw every time Baldwin strutted out in the wig and the pumpkin-paint. But Baldwin’s Trump has only gotten duller, serving as a crutch that keeps SNL from taking its Donald any deeper than silly caricature. Tonight, the requisite cold open had one decent premise—that white Trump fans are going to overlook how badly they’re being screwed because of how completely they bought into Trump’s populist (white-targeted) message. Here, a succession of West Virginia folks attempt to get Trump to address some of their concerns (health care, addiction treatment, child care, environmental and workplace safeguards), only to see Trump glibly announce that he’s cutting off all debate by cutting off all said programs. That the people grin and swallow is summed up nicely in Trump’s “It’s like you found a finger in your chili, but you keep eating it because you told everyone how much you love chili,” but even that is problematic. If the joke is that Trump lacks the self-awareness to connect with the people he’s reaching out to for an ego-boost, he shouldn’t have the self-awareness to recognize it. It’s a funny line that breaks the character.

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SNL has done its best Trump satire in sketches without Baldwin to lean on. It forces the writers outside the nest Baldwin’s applause-generating Trump feathers for them whenever Baldwin fits an appearance into his schedule. It also frees up some room for a talented cast that is struggling to define itself even more than ever now that big name guest stars like Baldwin and Melissa McCarthy have an open invitation, a situation pointed up further by the double-Baldwin showboating of the Bill O’Reilly sketch. When the commercial bumper showed the crew setting up the O’Reilly Factor set, I speculated along with my wife about just who was going to play noted blowhard, recently outed sexual creep O’Reilly. (I thought Alex Moffat, while she singled out Beck Bennett.)

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So when it turned out to be Baldwin, it was more than a little disconcerting. Baldwin did fine, I suppose—he didn’t look or sound like O’Reilly overmuch, but the jabs at the rapidly sinking ship that is Fox News’ most blusterous right-wing pundit showcase were both welcome and on-target. That the allegations of numerous sexual harassment settlements against O’Reilly have cost him some 60 of his sponsors made for some funny fake ads, and that his attempts to throw to a couple of not-having-it female correspondents saw Cecily Strong’s talking head reporting in via satellite from a safe distance landed hard. As did the very real irony of the imminent release of O’Reilly book on virtuous living.

But then Baldwin’s O’Reilly threw to Baldwin’s Trump for a split-screen recounting of the actual Trump’s vocal support of pal O’Reilly and I wondered just how committed Lorne Michaels is to his cast at this point. The Baldwin-Baldwin pairing went fine—Trump admitting that he knows little about the specifics of the charges against O’Reilly pointedly underscored just what wavelength these two notably misogynistic, powerful men are working on. But, in a show where we saw precious little of half the show’s cast, this Baldwin-ization of Saturday Night Live is more than a little worrisome. SNL’s on a ratings roll this year, and it’s not unreasonable to think that Baldwin’s star power and guaranteed notoriety once Trump finds his phone have a lot to do with that. But Saturday Night Live thrives best when its ensemble is allowed to stretch itself and grow. Alec Baldwin, tonight more than ever before, crowded most everyone else out.

Then there’s Scott. The music video tribute to Louis CK’s well-meaning couch potato mocked the idea of Facebook activism with a lavishly ironic paean to the chip-eating, crapper-tweeting Scott, whose “Black Lives Matter” Twitter bio and clapping hands emoji to his 84 online friends are cited as the tipping point for social justice reform around the country. Like the Trump-loving dog sketch last episode, it’s a swipe at lazy self-satisfied activism from people who, most likely, agree with the sentiments involved, which is a bolder move than expected. That this mockery of internet virality will probably go viral itself in the morning only makes the joke better.

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I am hip to the musics of today

The Chainsmokers could, with just the barest of tweaks, be a Lonely Island sketch for all their terminally bland, repetitive, high-fiving, bro-bravado. “Too nondescript to be overly bothersome” is the best I’ve got. Although the fact that the lead singer seemed to be wearing a jacket festooned with images of the Sex Pistols “God Save The Queen” record sleeve didn’t do the duo’s forgettable dance-pop any favors.

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

Blame Baldwin, but Mikey Day, Melissa Villaseñor, Alex Moffat, Pete Davidson, Leslie Jones, Vanessa Bayer, and Kyle Mooney had, collectively, very little to do.

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

That was the Polish immigrant sketch, where, just when you were wondering if CK’s accent and the ethnic jokes were going to go full Borat, CK’s “My wife” popped out to seal the deal.

Stray observations

  • That really is a creepy Ronaldo statue. Other descriptions from Cecilia: “What would he look like if he had a stroke while saying cheese?;” “I got a fish in my mouth and I’m trying to keep it in there.”
  • O’Reilly, pressing Strong’s reporter about Susan Rice: “What was her vibe? Was it a firm no or was it like, convince me?” Ew.
  • Trump describes Sexual Assault Awareness Month as “a subject near and dear to my hand.” Also ew.
  • Aidy gets the top spot tonight solely on her reading of “Bigger!” in the sectional sketch.
  • CK gives a nice shout-out to Don Rickles, who died this week.
  • And, since we’re talking about powerful white guys accused of creepy behavior toward women, here’s the disclaimer that Louis CK has several unsavory allegations hanging over him, too. (The second very talented host to have that going on this season.) Unaddressed on the show, I figure it has to be mentioned here.

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