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On SNL, five-timer Will Ferrell gets plenty of help, doesn't need any of it

Chippy, Will Ferrell
Screenshot: Saturday Night Live
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“I’d kill my own mother for a time machine.”

“Im not an actor, I’m a [goddamned movie star, a fine actor, a better SNL host, and get of the goddamned shed] star!”

Nobody needs to be sold on the premise, “Will Ferrell = funny” at this point, but, if you’ll all indulge me. Ferrell is one of the best (like, “if he’s not in your top 5 all-time, you’re disqualified”) Saturday Night Live performers ever, for the simple reason that he has never been any less than 100 percent present. No matter how dire the sketch, Will Ferrell is in. And while that hasn’t always carried over into his movie career, well, I suppose it’s harder to maintain that level of commitment when you’re asked to sweatily keep a 90-minute bad joke afloat than a 5-minute one. But in the sketch comedy (or late-night talk show) form, there’s never been anyone more willing and able to command focus like Ferrell. As with tonight’s monologue, watch Ferrell on a talk show—never content to just put in the studio-mandated time, he’s always armed with a bit, his bottomlessly febrile and restless comic animal too primed to allow anything like coasting.

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Back hosting SNL for the fifth time, there wasn’t a Five-Timers Club bit. And there wasn’t a single returning Ferrell character, although no doubt the audience (and the show) would have been more than content with Ferrell wheeling out any one of a dozen or more. And while there were even more returning SNL pals (Maya Rudolph, Fred Armisen, Rachel Dratch, Tracy Morgan, Alec Baldwin, who’s essentially a cast member/hostage at this point), and others (Ryan Reynolds, Larry David, Woody Harrelson) than usual when there’s an alum in the house, Ferrell’s contribution took the form of all new material and characters, about which, once more, I ask you to stick with me.

Ferrell’s stock-in-trade is “thwart.” He’s got those small, deep-set eyes that he can seemingly will to go doll/shark-black in an instant once his characters’ own desperately smiling confidence is inevitably revealed as façade. It’s in this gift for conveying the inner storm raging under the placid outer appearance of white male assurance that powers a Will Ferrell sketch character, and turns a premise as simple and potentially unprofitable as, say, ketchup bottles that make fart sounds into something more akin to improbably potent characterization haiku. When Ferrell’s seemingly serene Thanksgiving dinner dad responds to his family’s harmless jokes about him cutting the cheese, Ferrell’s tightly controlled burst of a line, “It’s not who I am!” transforms the sketch from a simple observational toilet-joke into a tiny gem of characterization, all in the never-blinking blink of those eyes.

The same goes for the Cinema Classics sketch—yes, a repeater, but not a Ferrell repeater—where the central gag becomes more about the righteous ire of Ferrell’s diminutive doctor than that Dorothy (Kate McKinnon, killing it) could only dream up insulting dream stereotypes for the surprising number of accomplished little people in her Kansas life. There, too, it’s Ferrell, and it’s one line (“What were we wearing!”) that flicks the sketch alight with the flash of a seemingly ordinary guy who’s got a whole lot more going on inside than it first appeared.

Even the monologue was the sort of self-contained piece of performance art that Ferrell invariably brings to his “in-person” TV appearances, the joke that the flustered Ferrell can’t get over the fact that Ryan Reynolds is right in the front row turning into a tightly controlled exercise in manic absurdity. “No way, it’s too late, I’m locked in!” is this Ferrell’s on switch this time, his star-struck semi-self fanning out in too-awkward-to-please catchphrases until he lapses into a ranting Tracy Morgan impression, and until he’s one-upped by Morgan himself, both of them eventually shouting about “the prophecy!,” and the whole loopy enterprise working better than any monologue in a while. Reynolds did some fine embarrassed underplaying—credit where it’s due—but it was Ferrell’s stubbornly hilarious unwillingness to go through the motions that made the whole monologue (and episode) work.

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Best/Worst sketch of the night

For the worst, check politics below. Otherwise, you get to see just how much better Will Ferrell can make your sketch comedy show.

While Ferrell himself made the aforementioned ketchup and Wizard Of Oz sketches into something, the pizza restaurant (chain name redacted because I’m a bitch about doubling down on Lorne Michaels’ product placement deals) sketch matched Ferrell and Kate McKinnon for the first of two times tonight, and it was, unsurprisingly, pretty great. Those two made a different kind of funny in a similar sketch in the past, but here it’s more about character work than just goofing around on old Mainers at a diner. First up was Kate, her chipper mom lapsing into sullen, passive-aggressive murmurs once her kids object to her mom-joke about being “all horned up” for pizza. Then, once mom flees, snapping that at least the death row guys she teaches typing to appreciate her, it’s Ferrell’s dad who, unable to function without his wife to prop him up, has a different sort of breakdown. Asked by the director to just talk to his kids as he normally would, he first asks his teen daughter abruptly about her period before telling his son, haltingly, “And son, um, fight me?” He then reveals how lost he feels with a series of escalatingly absurd details (hiring a prosititute to teach him how the stove works when McKinnon was away for the weekend was the capper), before she came back to save the day with the reunited couple’s co-dependent assurance restored.

The week’s music video, about teens Mikey Day and Cecily Strong’s house party being unnervingly disrupted by the smiling presence of Ferrell’s AP English teacher, lived in some funny details, like Ferrell inexplicably watching The Shawshank Redemption in the middle of things. But it was really all about Ferrel’s teacher and how his circulating air of placidly pleasant incongruity kept interrupting the teens party rap flow, culminating in a final, last-to-leave meltdown all the funnier because of how underplayed it is by Ferrell. It’s a fine idea, but, with Ferrell at the heart, it was great stuff.

If there was one (again, toilet humor) sketch that even Ferrell couldn’t do much with, it was the Native American Thanksgiving sketch. Look, I get that having Ferrell put a stop to the thing with a to-camera button about there being “a lot of problems in this crazy, crazy sketch” is a funny conceit/construction. (Although the only “white actor playing a Native” in the sketch, technically, is Ferrell, he’s right that the idea is sort of 2014.) But having the sketch turn on a poop/corn joke wasn’t the most sophisticated way to disarm the whole uncomfortable dinner conversations with racist old relatives premise, especially when Ferrell’s Native grandfather keeps using Trump minions’ talking points about building walls and dirty, criminal foreigners while describing, you know, the actual settling/invasion of white settlers, all the way up to and including germ warfare and genocide. (Instead of that white supremacist/Fox News/Stephen Miller nonsense “white genocide.”) I mean, self-mockery about SNL’s history of black-/brownface is cute and all, but the parallelism of the underlying joke here is so wrongheaded as to remain queasily unrealized, even after the turn.

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And I know what you’re asking: Can Ferrell even make something of a sketch about a ventriloquist dummy “hand up my ass” gag work? See the ten-to-one section, O ye of little faith.

Weekend Update update

Is it fair to get annoyed that one of the still most-watched satirical fake news outlets on TV is content to take snarky potshots in one of the more dire and eminently mockable political and social crises in American history? Well, I’m writing this, so I declare my annoyance is entirely justified. Che and Jost have just 10 minutes or so to cram in a week’s-worth of overflowing political material? Make it a tight, focused 10 minutes. This week’s Update was . . . fine. With Trump and the GOP’s calumnious culpability in the undermining of everything America brags about standing for on bare-assed display all week in televised impeachment hearings, Jost and Che felt smugly comfortable lobbing blunt insults. (GOP conspiracy conspirator Devin Nunes looks like Spongebob? Trump is brain-damaged? Mike Pence is still in the closet?) It’s . . . fine, especially since Trump’s made it abundantly clear how even such so-so critical material gets under his—let’s call it “skin.” But smirking your way through some self-satisfied mediocrity isn’t going to cut it when the possibilities for actual, insightful political comedy are as abundant and potent as they are.

There were a few jokes around the edges that worked better. Che ending his report on billionaire presidential candidate late-comer Michael Bloomberg performatively apologizing for instituting New York’s blatantly racist “stop-and-frisk” policy with, “Apology . . . noted” stung. The fact that Jost is still willing to do jokes about college pal Pete Buttigieg’s abysmal polling among black voters at least smacks of some comedy courage. (We’ll see how things go in that department when the co-head writer’s fiancee hosts on December 14th.) And Che’s line about that whole “Julia Roberts as Harriet Tubman” story being titled Runaway Bride 2 was just solid.

And, in the one correspondent piece of the evening, the whole one-joke joke of Alex Moffat’s obnoxious Guy Who Just Bought A Boat at least brought out Reynolds to shore up the premise that overcompensating douchebags actually have lots of things to overcompensate for. The way that Moffat initially let slip his sexual inadequacies between his insufferably lame double entendre was a great little piece of comedy, but the dude’s asides about his tiny wang have become more obligatory over time, and Reynolds’ (big wang that doesn’t work) prep school chum just doubled down on the gag, giving the pair an excuse to say the grossest stuff they could get on TV. Meh.

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

I was anticipating more of a Kristen Wiig-style cavalcade of threadbare favorites, but Ferrell just wasn’t interested, seemingly. Just Guy Who Bought A Boat and Cinema Classics.

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

Wow, does Alec Baldwin not want to be here. In the shortest and least-consequential Trump cold open in memory (which is saying something), the whole gag during a week were the House is on the verge of returning articles of impeachment against a sitting president is the premise here was that Trump likes to dodge questions by standing near a running Marine One. Ferrell dutifully donned a bald cap as GOP star witness who actually totally buried Trump Gordon Sondland, trying to wring laughs out of enthusiastically throwing his boss under the boss and yelling about people “loving his ass,” but at least this one was over with merciful quickness. (Baldwin’s muffed line didn’t help things.)

Another Democratic debate sketch really brought in the ringers, as Dratch (Klobuchar), Harrelson (Biden), David (Sanders), Rudolph (Harris), and Armisen (Bloomberg), joined Ferrell’s unblinking Tom Steyer, and actual cast members Bowen Yang (Yang), Chris Redd (Booker), Colin Jost (Buttigieg), Strong (Gabbard), McKinnon (Warren), and Melissa Villaseñor’s moderator Rachel Maddow. There were a few okay touches—I liked how Armisen’s coy Bloomberg kept interrupting things carrying big fountain sodas, and his joke about Trump fans finding nothing to conspiracy theorize about with “a Jewish billionaire with his own media company” at least went there. McKinnon’s Warren remains the best presidential hopeful impression of the season, here, enthusiastically telling would-be voters to just leave her alone to get on with fixing things like a mom who just needs everyone out of her Thanksgiving kitchen. But the rest was just all quick-hit nothing jabs at the easiest targets, leaving the whole overstuffed exercise inoffensively forgettable. Bernie’s old, GOP operative Gabbard is evil, Biden’s also old, Yang and Klobuchar exist. The joke that other billionaire attempting to buy his way into office Steyer walked unsettlingly straight toward the camera was at least some funny Ferrell business. And Maya’s Kamala Harris benefits from Maya being Maya, but the joke that Harris (a formidable debater with a few good showings under her belt) is relying on meme-able moments to carry her debate performance is just . . . an idea that SNL would have.

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I am hip to the musics of today

Alt-pop wunderkind King Princess is 25 years younger that Saturday Night Live, which isn’t a knock, just an observation to make myself feel old. Her two songs were energetic enough. I like that her teasingly raunchy “Hit The Back” went straight-up disco partway through, because, again, old.

Most/Least Valuable Not Ready For Prime Time Player

After finally getting a decent showcase last week, where the hell was Ego Nwodim? Same goes for Pete Davidson, whose peek-a-boo season continued with a very successful disappearing act. Chloe Fineman had very little to do once more, although hers was the best and most committed of the munchkin voices, so that’s something.

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It’s dispiritingly apparent that Lorne isn’t interested in letting his actual cast members prove themselves in political sketches, as he deployed just a limo-load of ringers throughout. Seriously, he’s got both Fineman and Villaseñor—fine impressionists both—and they’re barely used in that capacity, even when the DNC’s inability to whittle down its debate roster provides nothing but opportunities. It was a sparse night generally for the cast. Cecily had a few plum parts, but it’s Kate again, thanks to her Elizabeth Warren, pizza mom, and Dorothy.

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

If you see a sketch performer bring out a ventriloquist dummy, the joke about “having a guy’s hand up my ass” is, more than likely, going to make an appearance. That Farrell (plus horrified audience members Kenan and Cecily) managed to score with this brief bit (it started at 12:56, by my clock) was a neat combo of all-around commitment, gross-out comedy (so much lube), and good old ten-to-one (four-to-one, in this case) weirdo spirit. (“My name is Lewis Maldonado! Someone please call my wife!”)

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Stray observations

  • In the cold open, one of the extras playing a White House reporter has a notepad with the sentence, “Live like a lost boy :)” conspicuously scrawled on the back. I’ve searched by Twitter-addled memory banks for a reference there, but I’ve got nothing. Anyone?
  • Strong and Day’s teens, rap-speculating on what Ferrell’s Mr. B is doing at their party: “Midlife crisis?” “Naw, it’s deeper than that.”
  • Che jokes about being so nervous every time a cop asks him his name, he can barely squeak out “Kenan Thompson.”
  • Warren and Sanders somehow produce game show buzzers in anticipation of being asked finally about healthcare.
  • Jost, after a story about scientists trying to invent an “ultra-black” material, complains that his own attempts at the same got him booed offstage at the Apollo.
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About the author

Dennis Perkins

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