“Here’s to all the moms and dads who let their kids stay up too late for all the right reasons.”
Confidence goes a long way. Whether because he wasn’t on SNL to promote anything in particular, or because he’s had intermittent contact with the show over the years since his only other hosting gig in 2002, or maybe just because he’s Matt freaking Damon, Matt Damon presided over a particularly smooth and funny Saturday Night Live. He got the inevitable reprise of his beery Brett Kavanaugh out of the way in the cold open, popping by a Trump-less White House Christmas party in a wheezy It’s A Wonderful Life parody, with his version of the accused sexual predator and now Supreme Court justice happily explaining that, with Merrick Garland justly on the bench, his fratboy’s love of beer is considered “charming, and not like I’m threatening violence.”
In his monologue, Damon set the tone for what he called SNL’s Christmas episode with a story about his late father’s policy of allowing the young Matt to stay up to watch SNL, and how now his own kids were at the show, trying to stay up to watch him. There were some fine, offhand jokes along the way—he surprised Beck Bennett by announcing that this was Beck’s last episode (it’s not), and by expertly undercutting the sentimentality of his anecdote by claiming that his 8-year-old daughter wasn’t all that into the experience. (“Who’s the musical guest?”) But it was sentimental, in the best way. As much as Matt Damon can say some tone-deaf shit from time to time, there’s an honesty to him, his joke that he was absolutely sure he’d be the success he is followed by his parallel certainty that he and Boston buddy Ben Affleck would be “washing cars in Somerville” ringing just as true.
All through the show, Damon looked like he was on skates, gliding from sketch to sketch with an easy pro’s graceful goofiness. Playing the smooth-talking judge of the middle-aged male beauty pageant of the Westminster Daddy Show, Damon delightedly pranced into the ring when unexpectedly drawn into the competition, his happy little footwork buoying the bit as his performing confidence did every other one he appeared in. (Which was, in fact, every single sketch of the night—including Update—the sure sign of a host who was there to play.) As Damon put it succinctly in his monologue, “I certainly didn’t come all this way to suck.” He didn’t.
It’s been a rough few weeks for Update, Jost especially. Whether because the idea that political humor is better with actual context broke through, or because the Trump jokes here were just too baldly obvious to miss, Jost and Che fared better this week. It helps that, this week, Donald Trump’s personal attorney turned state’s evidence and implicated “Individual-1" in numerous felonies, letting Jost’s smirky shtick work its magic on the line, “I’m no lawyer, but neither is Trump’s lawyer.” Che was on, too, incorporating an incredulous runner about Trump’s tweet throwing personal fixer Michael Cohen under the bus for not knowing the law. “You know who else should know the law? The freakin’ president of the United States!,” joked Che, before breaking back in with asides about an astronaut not knowing what the moon is, and an Arby’s manager not being familiar with thinly sliced roast beef. “Am I buggin?,” asked Che at one point. No, no you are not.
And I’m going to take it on face value that Che and Jost truly didn’t know what was on the cue cards they wrote for each other in their final segment, simply because it worked so well. Loosening up is always a good look for these two—remembering their frozen stiffness at the start of their Update tenure is still enough to chill the blood. And being playful about their differences (in race, experiences, lifestyle, comedy style) works wonders to thaw their dynamic further. So Che’s jokes for Jost about how his family calls Rosa Parks Day “uppity bus passenger day” works like a little comedy bomb from Che. Same goes for a punchline about even Africans not being able to tell black people apart, as Che’s needling of his comedy partner kept popping Jost’s composure again and again. (Jost tried to give back, but it’s tough to make Che feel uncomfortable with jokes about his sex life.) Legendarily, John Mulaney used to crack up pal Bill Hader by changing the Stefon cue cards just before air, and if Che and Jost want to keep up the tradition, it certainly looks good on them.
“Where’s Wes?” keeps coming back, huh? The joke—that Mikey Day’s correspondent immediately wrecks the hashtagging game stunt by accidentally blurting out his location right away—was once a cute little idea, I suppose. The elaborate setup, including theme song, is part of to the immediately blown gag, but it’s not the sort of thing that gets funnier the more they do it. Stay lost, Wes.
On the other hand, Heidi Gardner’s Angel (a.k.a. Every Boxer’s Girlfriend From Every Movie About Boxing Ever) can come back any time. Her joke never varies, either—she’s really worried about Tommy’s next concussion, and she’s gonna take her kids to her sister’s—but Gardner’s characterization is so precise and hilarious that it always works. Plus this time we get to meet punchy Tommy (Damon), who wins his worried lady back by informing her, to her delight, that she’s pregnant with their fifth kid, after Mikey, Nicky, Keno, and Peppers, of course. (“How does he now before you?, asks the perplexed Che.) Throw in Tommy’s confession that he was “born in the back of the Cheers bar,” and the authentically (barely) exaggerated working class Boston-ness of the whole enterprise (the couple lives at 343 Donnie Wahlberg Way) just sings. So welcome, baby Gronk.
It was a night where everything worked pretty well. The only exceptions were the traditionally underwhelming Trump opener (see below), and the ten-to-one Theresa May sketch, which mainly tanked because the show ran into timing issues at the end. There wasn’t an overwhelmingly successful bit all night, but none bombed either, and the overall vibe was of cheerful confidence, which, again, goes a long way.
“Best Christmas Ever” isn’t a sophisticated joke—the idea that parents go through a lot to give their family a nice holiday is the stuff of season-appropriate commercials everywhere. But Cecily Strong and Damon make their particular parents’ trials specific and immediate, with the cross-cutting between the pair’s exhaustedly contented Christmas night cuddle in front of the fireplace and the day’s worth of screeching kids, farting elderly relatives, and MAGA-hatted bigot cousins feel lived in and deservedly warm. Both parents are in this together, as Strong and Damon are shown having their individual battles (and furtive cigarettes and wine) during the day, but settling down for a restorative round of the sort of soft-voiced white lies and genuine affection that couples employ the world over to regroup after the holiday carnage. Like the sketch, the couple paper over the mess with something sweet and kind and peaceful. It’s lovely.
The cop bar sketch is that way, too, as a group of off-duty police (Kenan, Beck, Kyle Mooney, Cecily, Alec Baldwin, and Damon) all blow off steam by “busting balls,” especially at the expense of Mooney’s sad sack peer. Homeless (since Bennett accidentally shot Mooney’s bride at their wedding), forced to listen to his friends (Kenan, currently) having sex with his little sister from his bed on her couch, and desperately lonely, Mooney’s cop drinks along with his bullying buddies, even as they gradually reveal the very thoughtful sentiment behind the gag gifts they’ve gotten him for Christmas. Noise cancelling headphones from Kenan to drown out the lovemaking—but really nice Beats By Dre, because that’s gotta be tough. A gift certificate to a massage parlor for the loneliest guy they know—but, no, seriously, everyone deserves a spa day. Everyone here felt nicely lived-in and chummy, as they chased every ball-busting with something bashfully sweet.
The Christmas dinner sketch is clearly the product of an argument by two people on SNL with very strong feelings about the checkered career of the band Weezer. It’s a premise that’s designed to exclude, well, most everyone else, but damned if it doesn’t work, thanks to the escalatingly specific anger between Weezer devotees Damon and a never-better Leslie Jones. SNL often goes for the easy laugh, but it’s a tonic when a weird, conceptually narrow sketch—one that lives or dies in performance and odd minutiae—sneaks through the show’s filters. It’s got a lot in common with the funny Sterling K. Brown sketch (about a dinner guest who gets really, really heated on the subject of Shrek), but this is even better, as Jones and Damon only gradually reveal the depths of their divergent views on the relative value of post-Pinkerton Weezer. (“Oh, you bringin’ up stuff from Hurley?”) Kenan underplays his husband’s mortified but unsurprised reactions like a champ (he murmurs, “I will testify this time” to wife Leslie after she threatens Damon with a broken champagne flute), and the reveal that Damon is the hostess’ (uninvited) ex-husband just takes us out on the right note of loopiness. More like this, anytime.
The Christmas tree sketch worked on a similar note of absurdity and strangeness, too, although it didn’t look that promising going in. The joke—husband Kyle Mooney’s beloved drunk Santa ornament gets exiled to the back of the tree, where he meets his co-wall-huggers—seemed headed for too-cutesville. But Kenan (the new glue) presides over the introductions to all the other misfit ornaments with aplomb as the airport-bought “Greeting from Cleveland” afterthought he clearly was. (“Greeting! Singular!”) There’s Mikey Day’s broken Harry Potter, whose snapped-off quidditch broom looks tree-inappropriate, Kate McKinnon’s 9/11-era Rudy Giuliani, baffled why he’s been relegated to shameful obscurity (“Why? Did something change?”), and Damon’s 20-years-later “for your consideration” Good Will Hunting talking Will Hunting, whose pro-Weinstein Company message and battery-drained catchphrase leave him understandably Southie-resentful. But it’s Aidy and Cecily who really make the sketch, Aidy as a kindergarten pity-hang who calls herself “Macaroni Turd,” and Cecily’s face-melted angel topper, now relegating to wigging everyone out with her madness-tinged half-carols.
I’d call the Oscars host auditions sketch a weak link for how the lightning round celebrity impression format gets wheeled out so often, but, hey, some of these were pretty solid. Damon has always done a great McConaughey, Aidy, it turns out, does a very good Hannah Gadsby (watch Nanette, everyone), Cecily’s Rachel Brosnahan is right on, Melissa Villaseñor’s been killing her Sarah Silverman presumably since her audition, and Heidi Gardner’s tequila-happy Allison Janney can host my Oscars anytime. Ego Nwodim’s Tiffany Haddish, Kate McKinnon’s Michelle Wolf—solid. (Plus Damon’s little wink after his Chris Hemsworth asks “Why would anyone want to look at me?” is Oscar-worthy itself.) The only real issue is that the sketch is introduced with a reference to Kevin Hart’s Twitter-aided, abortive hosting disaster and the sketch is just a parade of impressions without reference to what’s laid out as the premise of the bit. At least McKinnon’s Ellen takes us out by joking that she never does anything controversial, except be gay, which everyone’s finally okay with—“except the person who was supposed to host.”
Where’s Wes?, Angel, celebrity auditions, Trump.
Doing an It’s A Wonderful Life parody showing Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump how much better his life would be if he’d never been elected president is . . . a choice, I guess. The premise isn’t new (I can remember a Chris Farley as Newt Gingrich version, at least), but weaker clotheslines have supported stronger sketches in the past. Kenan’s fine as this version’s angel Clarence, showing Trump a Christmas party where Ben Stiller’s Michael Cohen is still happily making problems go away (although clearly wearing a wire), Aidy’s Sarah Huckabee Sanders has put her gift for soulless mendacity in the service of the unconscionable into PR for Facebook and romaine lettuce, and Kate McKinnon’s Kellyanne Conway still talks to her Trump-hating husband and is no longer “being eaten from within by lies.” Eric’s in adult ed, Brett Kavanaugh’s free to be drunkenly belligerent largely free from scrutiny, the divorced Melania’s happy and accent-free, new, younger Trump wife (Hernia) was on Serbian Deal Or No Deal, and Trump himself is back to being able to say whatever crazy racist bullshit he wants on Fox News, since everyone knows that in no sane and functioning democracy could someone like that could ever be elected president.
It’s cute enough. The jokes about a Syrian immigrant curing Trump’s baldness and transgender Navy SEALS being the ones to thwart a major terrorist attack take swipes at Trump’s bigoted, white supremacist agenda with deft little jabs, and the whole thing is over before Robert DeNiro’s typically halting performance as Robert Mueller can grind the whole thing to a halt. It’s still infuriatingly inaccurate for SNL to continue the conceit that the women in the Trump administration are all secretly decent people racked by guilt (instead of willing enablers and participants), and Baldwin’s Trump is a walking burst of toadying recognition applause in search of a coherent characterization, but it’s . . . fine.
Mark Ronson backed Miley Cyrus through two numbers, the warbly country belter “Nothing Breaks Like A Heart,” and a cover of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s holiday anthem, “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” complete with guitar and chorus work from Sean Ono Lennon. I’m gonna go ahead and admit I liked them both—say what you want, but Cyrus has a legitimate vocal presence at this point, and, if the Lennon number is as vaguely political as it’s ever been, it’s at least a choice. I shall leave it to the rest of the internet to debate the relative properties of topical adhesive with regard to costuming, however.
Cecily Strong is the sort of rock-solid performer any respectable SNL cast needs, and she had another of her signature musical, character-driven showcases tonight. (Strong is outstanding at actin while singing, something that’s a lot harder than it looks.) Alongside Damon (as her catty, bisexual, unfaithful ex-husband Sonny), Strong’s Dianne Gellerman took hold of her lounge singer version of Barbara Streisand’s version of “Jingle Bells” with enough sass and swagger to be an honorary Sweeney Sister.
The news on Saturday was buzzing about Pete Davidson’s troubling Instagram post. Pete made one live appearance tonight, introducing the second musical number, which no doubt involved a lot of discussion at the show. I’ll just say that Davidson’s openness about his very real struggles with depression and other mental health issues is brave as fuck, especially considering how the internet (meaning actual human beings who yet chose to post unthinkably hateful things to a guy obviously in some serious turmoil) responded to his post (since deleted). Pete Davidson’s turned himself into a valuable member of this cast in his time on the show, and I can only hope, should he read this, he knows that he is a valuable person, too. So are you. That’s all.
The Theresa May Christmas special had some enough good things in it that I wished it hadn’t been scuttled by being stuck at the end of a show destined to run long. I suppose there’s a chance that the bit never had an ending, but I’m being charitable by assuming the abrupt cut-out was a result of desperate circumstances and not shoddy workmanship. Kate McKinnon’s May is another finely observed and performed characterization by the all-star, as the embattled British PM attempted to maintain her chipper onscreen demeanor through a hail of hurled bricks, stony rejections (by Aidy’s guesting Elton John), and constituent Christmas packages filled with feces. That the sketch never really tackles that country’s own hastily racist election catastrophe (Brexit) is disappointing. (Let’s pretend all the political subtlety was cut for time, too.) But Damon’s appearance as former PM and person on whose watch the whole mess happened David Cameron was just as good as McKinnon’s. The high-foreheaded Cameron, looking rested and tan from his leisure time as ex-prime minister airily offered advice to the clenched and harried May (“You should make a deal, have you tried that?”), taxing May’s stiff upper lip to the breaking point.
- As genuinely heartwarming as it was to see Sean Lennon singing his dad’s music, it would have been even better if they’d turned his mic up.
- I’m assuming music rights are the reason I can’t link to any Sweeney Sisters sketches, because lawyers hate joy. Happy holidays.
- Considering Damon’s history with both Harvey Weinstein and in supposedly defending Harvey Weinstein, his ornament joke is worth thinking over.
- Where are we on the “rabid homophobe Mike Pence is secretly gay” jokes? Lazy, uninspired, and beyond cliché at this point? Yeah, me, too.
- Damon starts off his monologue by defiantly taunting the New York crowd with a “Go Sox!” Because the Red Sox won the World Series, and not the Yankees. Again.
- Kyle Mooney’s actual commercial for a certain product is posted on the show’s YouTube page, if you’re into product integration.
- “And she said, ‘Who’s hosting?’” “Me. Your dad. Matt Damon.”
- “Thank you for joining us, I don’t have a name!”
- “I’m ride or die.” “For Weezer?”
- And that’s a wrap on SNL for 2018, people. See you on the other side.