Peter Dinklage, Leslie Jones (NBC)

“I’m not an actor, I’m a [movie/TV/it’s not TV it’s HBO] star!”

Peter Dinklage, for all his deserved fame as the wryly brooding, mathematically proven lead of the massively popular fantasy series Game Of Thrones, is a funny guy. (His pronunciation of the phrase “food taint” remains one of my biggest underrated laughs from 30 Rock.) That being said, Dinklage’s is something of an arch wit—as many times as he’s comically beaten the shit out of Will Ferrell or been drugged and trussed up in a sexual blackmail scheme (twice on screen, in the latter case), there’s always the sense that Dinklage isn’t particularly interested in looking silly. So his willingness to do some broad physical comedy tonight should have been more fun than it turned out to be. Dressing up as Winnie the Pooh could have worked, I suppose, if the game Dinklage weren’t more of a prop to Jay Pharoah’s streetwise cousin bear Denny the Real. Pharoah’s humorously sensible objections to the whimsical goings-on in the Hundred Acre Wood left Dinklage stranded playing straight man in a bear suit and snout. (As formidable a presence as Dinklage is, it took a certain amount of chutzpah to pitch to the actor, no doubt. Too bad the writing didn’t take advantage of his willingness to do it.)

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But then there was “Space Pants.” Oh, “Space Pants,” that’s the stuff, as Dinklage, in angular blonde wig and, yes, space pants, threw himself all the way into his portrayal of an unflinchingly strange nightclub performer whose new wave anthem distracts increasingly entranced Bobby Moynihan’s mob boss from his plan to gun down a pair of deadbeats. Dinklage—complete with solid robot dance moves and musical guest Gwen Stefani’s unexpected assist (wearing space shorts)—gives the extended bit the sort of comic commitment such a sketch needs to sustain it. Any blinking, any half-measures and the thing would sink into awkwardness. As it stands, Dinklage willed it into the sort of loony brilliance that’s going to endure.

For the rest of the night, Dinklage excelled most when he got to act, usually as deep-voiced authority figures. His oddly pronounced undersea hotel manager Roark (or is it Ra-Rark?), reality crime show host, humorless magic show dupe, and even gamely gobbling restaurant customer in the glory hole sketch operated from a base of dickish superiority, letting Dinklage flesh out his characters into three dimensions.

Perhaps oddly, he seemed least invested in the requisite Game Of Thrones material, looking disinterested in both the monologue (where Bobby Moynihan’s goofy George R.R. Martin fed him bad jokes), and the behind-the-scenes filmed piece where he largely ceded the floor to Moynihan again, this time as the motion capture actor disrupting things as dragon Drogon. When talking about Game Of Thrones, I always get the sense that Dinklage isn’t as invested in the fanatical following the show has, and his apparent disinterest in goofing on the show here bore that out.

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Weekend Update update

The Colin Jost-Michael Che formula—loose and chummily joshing—continues to please. Jost’s come an inconceivably long way from the days when he delivered lines liked an overmatched freshman at the fraternity talent show, and Che’s found the right tone to incorporate his sharp standup persona into the newsreader role, and the two have turned into a great team. Tonight, with the Trump train a-rolling, and scattering irresistible material in its wake, the two teamed up on the erstwhile SNL host and jabbering racist Republican frontrunner, focusing mostly on his recent tack this week of alienating all women. (Over a picture of Trump, Jost could barely contain himself as he deadpanned, “Women’s History Month really ended on a high note…”) If for no other reason than a political figure so ludicrously divisive and self-aggrandizing makes their job so much easier, both anchors tucked into their solid Trump burns with glee. Jokes about Trump University, Trump’s bafflingly ill-considered and contradictory position(s) on abortion, and Che’s riff on President Obama being the good boyfriend we’re all going to start texting as soon as President Trump destroys our lives all scored, the comics reveling in the freedom the candidate’s consistently ugly behavior affords them to just keep whacking him around like an overstuffed orange piñata. Some (like me) are still sore that the guy was permitted to co-opt SNL in the first place, but at least the show is taking some pleasure in making Trump their number one target.

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Pete Davidson’s very Pete Davidson appearance as Pete Davidson was… very Pete Davidson. I like Pete Davidson, but can understand those who find this much concentrated Pete Davidson a lot of Pete Davidson. His typical stoner-cutie routine—here commenting on the Hulk Hogan/Gawker 140 million dollar settlement over Hogan’s sex tape—derived most of its entertainment value from personality rather than sharpness. Although his bewilderment that the settlement makes Hogan the highest paid porn performer “by 139 million dollars” was pretty good, and hearing a young goofball call out guys for “slut-shaming” is always welcome—even if his stated rationale is that doing so means fewer women will be willing to sleep with him.

And then there’s Big Papi. I’ve made my feeling clear about Kenan Thompson’s version of the Red Sox slugger in the past, so I’ll just say this—Big Papi is the formula for a great recurring character. SNL eventually runs almost all such characters, no matter how initially successful, right into the dirt, but the exceptions (Kaitlin, Matt Foley, Stefon, Herb Welch, probably a few others not played by Bill Hader) are kept alive by the way the conception and performance of the character refuse to let his or her necessarily formulaic nature go flat. Thompson’s David Ortiz—with his unwavering smile and love of food and half-understood endorsement deals—is a completely winning comic creation. Even when he, responding to Jost’s halting attempt at a Spanish greeting, says “Shut up!,” he’s simply spilling over with infectious joy, his complete belief in the nonsensical products he’s planning of hawking once he retires emerging with the same enthusiastic glee. (Best one tonight? Bee World: “It’s like Sea World, but it’s just bees! Everybody gonna get stung!”) In case there’s any doubt—I love Big Papi.

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Best/worst sketch of the night

Winnie the Pooh went precisely nowhere, although Jay Pharoah (who brought all his roles a lot of energy tonight) gave a very lived-in performance as Denny the Real. A number of sketches deflated rather than ended tonight (the glory hole sketch, the underwater hotel sketch—both of which forced Beck Bennett to end on some lame scatology), and this was one of them.

As stated, both the Game Of Thrones sketch and the monologue were limply written and saddled with ambivalent Dinklage, although that was an impressively specific Iain Glenn impression from Taran Killam.

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Dinklage really did bring a lot of life to the hotel, restaurant/glory hole, and magic show sketches, simply by virtue of how they let him do different iterations of a self-important, booming asshole. He and Aidy Bryant took big bites out of the things that they were required to actually take big bites out of in the glory hole sketch, one of SNL’s periodic swings for the cheapest possible seats. (It’s this season’s “Schweddy Balls.”) It’s not an especially clever excuse for the two to suggestively chow down on the most phallic food available, but they both went for it—apologies—hard. Plus, Vanessa Bayer’s deadpan responses to their ravenous chomping (“Uh, I can’t remember anything but what I’m looking at right now”) were outstanding. That ending though made no sense—I mean, if you’re establishing a premise about people eating food out of a glory hole, why would Bennett’s character think he had to stick the food up his butt in order to fit in. A little consistency is all I ask.

The hotel sketch benefitted from some great dead body pantomiming from Killam, as he floated outside the undersea honeymoon suite of just-marrieds Bennett and Cecily Strong (the face-dragging against the window especially), and Dinklage’s officious manager attempting to downplay the horror by offering the couple comped Eagle Eye Cherry tickets helped keep the dark comedy nicely absurd. (Again, though, why is Bennett’s character suddenly so eager to have sex in a room filling with corpse-water at the end? A little consistency, SNL. All I ask.) And the magic show sketch, too (see Ten-To-Oneland) let Dinklage’s commitment to performance carry a sketch with an odd premise with aplomb.

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But, yeah, the best sketch was “Space Pants.”

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

Big Papi. Never stop, Kenan.

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

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The usual political cold open was typically okay. Kate McKinnon and Cecily Strong really nailed their performances as CNN’s Kate Bolduan and Trump booster Scottie Nell Hughes, respectively, and, again, SNL keeps taking giant, Big Papi-style cuts at that low-hanging fruit Trump keeps providing. McKinnon, as ever, can bring a character to life with just a gesture or a pause, her incredulous Bolduan repeatedly letting Strong’s fanatical, ineptly-spinning Hughes hang herself (“That’s your actual answer?”) as Hughes attempts to frame clips of Trump beating up a protestor (actually a supporter) and leading a “Women suck!” chant with glassy-eyed, unblinking fanaticism. The point is that Trump supporters simply will not be swayed by reason, I suppose, but by having Darrell Hammond’s Trump do things even more ridiculously hateful than the things Trump actually, routinely does, the sketch is watered down.

I am hip to the musics of today

Hey, do you like Gwen Stefani? She sang two songs. They were Gwen Stefani songs. I have very little reaction to such things, so I’ll leave it to those with stronger opinions on such matters.

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And, hey, since we’re talking music and SNL, check out Marah Eakin’s recent Expert Witness piece featuring longtime SNL band member Jared Scharff.

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

It is not a good sign for Sasheer Zamata that she seemingly was not present at all tonight. (If she was in the truncated goodnights, I didn’t see her.) Late into her second season on the show and she seems to be making less of an impression, rather than more.

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Otherwise, things were spread out pretty evenly tonight. Jay Pharoah’s parts weren’t huge (apart from Denny) but he popped even in smaller roles in the hotel and restaurant sketches. (He and Kyle Mooney did some nimble character work in the latter, with just that small hole to work through.) Killam, Bayer, Bryant, Strong, McKinnon, Moynihan, even a nice character bit from Jon Rudnitsky in “Space Pants”—that’s teamwork, everyone.

But Leslie Jones gets the top spot, making the biggest impression with her two-spot with Dinklage in the Naked And Afraid: Celebrity Edition piece. Jones remains divisive, I suppose, her big personality and broad characterization (mostly as a version of herself) rubbing some the wrong way. I’ve been vocal about my appreciation for Jones, seeing her brash, give-no-shits persona as part of a long and valuable SNL tradition, and finding her performing courage and unapologetic sexuality bracing, and funny as hell. And while the idea of pairing a scantily blurred-out and nude Jones and Dinklage together could have been just an easy laugh, both actors dove into the sketch with a fearless abandon. I’ve heard Jones’ overt flirting (with Jost, after Leonardo DiCaprio, etc) described as stereotypical. Here, heedlessly splaying herself wide open for an on-camera confessional, dousing leaves with hot sauce, and spooning the wary Dinklage for warmth (and Game Of Thrones fantasy purposes), Jones transcends the joke about her size and her sexuality just as her co-star does—by being unapologetically funny about exposing herself.

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

I really liked the last two sketches tonight, and since they both were the sort of concept-driven, performance-oriented bits that usually get the last spot of the night, I’m putting ’em both here. (My review, my rules.) They both featured Dinklage commanding the scene as a stentorian-voiced guy who simply refuses to drop his pretensions to commanding the room despite mounting evidence that things are not going his way. The “Vacation Nightmares” sketch worked all around, with Beck Bennett and Cecily Strong’s crime victims gradually rejecting the inept reenactments of their Danish misadventure, and McKinnon and Bryant murdering the flashbacks as the obviously female Danish tough guys doing the mugging, their hilariously awful accents and constant need to slip the word “Danish” into every sentence cranking up the absurdity each time. And Dinklage, as the self-serious host, never drops his Robert Stack-style voiceovers, even as he acknowledges that, yes, the actors they hired for the reenactment had in fact misrepresented everything about their qualifications. And the actual last sketch saw Dinklage, again, creating a character whose defining trait is his inability to admit that he’s not in charge, his boss-man demanding that Killam’s corporate retreat magician admit the logical inconsistencies in his joke about the boss having smelly underwear. It’s a long shit joke, but if anyone can brazen out a shit joke, it turns out it’s Peter Dinklage.

Stray observations

  • Investigation Discovery does, in fact, have a long-running reality crime series called Wives With Knives, so the ID sketch’s joke that they also run Husbands With Hus-Guns is pretty great.
  • “I’ve got the brain for MSNBC but the hair for Fox News, so here I am at CNN.”
  • “As a woman I support Donald Trump, but as a full-blown nut job I freakin’ love him.”
  • “Actually let’s not do that one. Anything Asian is… tricky.”
  • “Well some women do suck. Are you saying Casey Anthony doesn’t suck? Because she’s a close friend of mine, and she does suck. Always late.”
  • Added points for Jones menacing Dinklage with her dragon tail in the monologue.
  • Che, reporting on a street fight between bikini-clad women: “Said police… [long pause]… All right, break it up.”
  • Big Papi for “Welp Reviews”: “What’s a good seafood place in Cleveland? Welp, I can’t help you. I live in Boston, man.”
  • Dinklage’s crime show host, on the actors’ ability to do a Danish accent: “These two said they could and we didn’t check. Our bad.”

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