“Maybe you can tweet about it, that will solve everything.”
Rachel Brosnahan has rightly broken out as the brashly funny stand-up comic star of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, so it’s strange how little SNL used her in her first ever hosting gig. She had the monologue, of course—a pleasantly mild musical number (alongside Cecily Strong, Kenan Thompson, Aidy Bryant, and, briefly, Kyle Mooney) where the cast’s plan for a “Let’s have fun!” 2019 kept getting derailed by topics like the government shutdown, the L.A. teachers strike, and that Russian drug that makes your skin melt. (Seriously, don’t Google Krokodil.)
Even in her showcase, though, Brosnahan didn’t get the big laugh lines (Cecily’s references to an unexplained hunt for “the killer” did that), something that persisted through the show.
Brosnahan wasn’t bad—she’s a solid, stable presence in the middle of sketches. She got to play Midge in the expected Mrs. Maisel sketch (alongside Aidy as Susie and Kyle Mooney doing a brief but effective Tony Shalhoub) but it was really Leslie Jones’ showcase. The joke there was muddy—Leslie’s comedy club domestic kills the white 1960s crowd with some raunchy Def Comedy Jam material—a conceit that really has nothing behind it but Jones’ energetically filthy (bleeped) nastiness.
If Maisel is about a female comedian breaking down doors and finding her voice in comedy, then her advice to Jones’ Rita May Johnson to “say what’s on your mind” could’ve gone in more satirically fruitful directions, but settled for a “wouldn’t it be hilarious if a black lady did dirty jokes in the 60s” arena. But overall, it was one of those nights where it seemed like all the plum roles just went elsewhere, while a funny actress was left playing it straight.
Jost and Che returned with a joke about the government not returning, with Jost snapping off a few of his signature snarky passing shots against “Scrooge MCDonalds” not caring about the hundreds of thousands of people his mulish tantrum over his racist Game Of Thrones fantasy is hurting. Che chimed in, noting that Trump’s Saturday speech demanding he get his way didn’t mention said workers at all, Che’s “which I found rude” delivered with catty aplomb.
With a month’s worth of stories to choose from, the duo went in on the now-disputed Buzzfeed story concerning Trump’s alleged subornation of perjury. Jost rightly brought up that it’s transparently ridiculous that the White House is jumping all over itself praising Robert Mueller’s team for disputing at least some of the story’s claims (since that investigation is a WITCH HUNT and all), but SNL continues to go for easy jokes over smart ones. Che did a funny run about Buzzfeed being like the aunt with cockroaches asking what she can bring (“Ice!”) that, nonetheless takes the pooh-poohing path of internet hacks everywhere in devaluing a story by mocking the source. It’s especially lame since Buzzfeed (of the “Which Friends friend are you? quizzes) and Buzzfeed News (of the recent, multiple Pulitzer Prize nominations) are separate entities entirely. Political jokes are better when they build on the actual facts, and not the most conveniently crowd-pleasing.
Kate McKinnon wheeled out her second big political impression tonight, with her Elizabeth Warren once again gracing the Update desk with a minutely observed and very funny correspondent piece by the Massachusetts senator and announced 2020 presidential candidate. McKinnon can get inside a character like no one else, and her Warren has the right mannerisms and demeanor, exaggerated just enough to pop for the audience. Her tales of a hardscrabble Oklahoma childhood are peppered with details about playing “between a railroad track and a sand tornado” and capped off with a neat little bit of object work, miming herself driving one of those handle-cranked handcarts. McKinnon’s Warren did a nimble little dance around the whole “likeability” issue, claiming that, of course, a recent Politico article on the subject was sexist (“I’m not young and pretty like Donald-jackass-Trump”), while admitting that her particular brand of pugnacious energy is an acquired taste. “Bend over and let mama get to work” might not be the catchiest Warren 2020 slogan, but, as she says, comparing her hard-talking approach to a prostate exam, “nobody wants one, but if you don’t have one, you’ll die.”
Easily the best five minutes on SNL tonight (perhaps this season) was Pete Davidson and guest John Mulaney’s two-hander review of Clint Eastwood’s recent, 90-year-old guy smuggles drugs and has three-way sex film, The Mule. The ongoing, very public struggles of Pete Davidson and his mental health is no doubt a difficult subject for SNL to approach. Bringing along friend and guy who looks “like Pete’s lawyer” Mulaney is a strangely comforting way to ease Davidson back into the swing, after his mentioned-in-in-passing-here public suicide threat right before the last episode of 2018. SNL has a long history of troubled people behind the scenes, whose issues have occasionally been made into running gags. (Belushi, Farley.) It’s a risky move in a lot of ways—the performer’s well-being first among them. (Followed at a distance by accusations of exploitation.) But Davidson started appearing on Update as himself, he’s good at it, and this latest episode—with Mulaney’s help—is turned into one of the warmest, funniest, most triumphantly cathartic bits of the season.
Mulaney—who legitimately does hang out with the younger Davidson in real life, Odd Couple friendship—is, naturally, hilarious in discussing The Mule, which he calls “the greatest, weirdest, most bananas movie ever made.” Having gone with Pete on opening day, the pair swatted the flick back and forth between them with the relaxed ease of a couple of very funny pals on a very good podcast. Also, Pete Davidson and John Mulaney should have a movie podcast.
A power-swing for the cheap seats, the earthquake/funny names sketch mostly lands, because who doesn’t like a parade of names like “Holden Tudyks,” “Morgan Mindy,” and “Pete Ophelia?” Tossing in the tiniest scrap of a newsworthy Trump-slam (the earthquake trapped people backed up by the shutdown while trying to legally change their names) at least adds some color to the proceedings, and McKinnon’s inappropriately pun-happy anchor (whose name turns out to be censor-baitingly change-worthy as well) keeps getting told off by Mike Day’s field reporter for jokes about “who’s at fault.” Pete Davidson steals some laughs in the background as a fireman who can’t help himself, and Brosnahan plays a straight-faced doctor reading off the list of injured and missing, but here’s to her for keeping that face straight in the face of “Ty Neadick.” Sometimes a big, stupid laugh isn’t a bad thing.
The “Leave Me Alurn” commercial was a crisply executed conceit, a handy travel urn for women who don’t want to deal with dudes hitting on them while at the beach, hiking, or out on the town. Beck Bennett and Kenan both did fine little turns as guys whose come-ons pivot immediately into funny dribbles of horrified apology. Also comes with lower back spiked belt—seriously never “accidentally” touch a woman’s lower back in passing. What the hell is wrong with you?
“Millennial Millions” was yet another Saturday Night Live game show sketch, although it got better as the premise played out. (Just a thought: SNL takes a full year off from game show and talk show sketches. Just see what else springs up in their place. Here to help.) With Kenan ably presiding, the contest between two of those darn millennials (Brosnahan and Pete Davidson) promised to erase college debt and provide health care, but only if the contestants can stay mum in the face of some serious Baby Boomer self-involvement. The joke that Kenan’s Gen X host is content to “just sit on the sidelines and watch the world burn” adds a nifty third element to the premise, while the Boomer stereotypes (retired, rich, and collecting Social Security, and aging hipster collector with three houses) are nicely specific. Aidy, coming as a contented Boomer out to sing the theme song about her generation’s resource-sucking longevity (“And they won’t ever die!”) appropriately infuriates the youngsters, who simply can’t stay quiet in the face of, say, Brosnahan’s dad lecturing about how he worked his way through college. (“College cost, like $300!”)
The Kool-Aid commercial was a dig at that Gillette toxic masculinity ad that has internet dudes tweeting pictures of them throwing their razors in the toilet. Che joked on Update about companies making “a firm social stance that literally nobody ever asked for,” which is a fair point, although, like here, the joke never goes much deeper that that. As much as the actual commercial infuriated all the right men, there’s a vein of satire to be mined concerning performative corporate do-goodery. (Think Don Draper’s final commercial.) The joke that little boys are learning the wrong “smash through walls and yell” lessons from the Kool-Aid man takes the premise into absurdity, which sort-of works—I liked the detail that Moffat’s young Kool-Aid enthusiast becomes a meeting-interrupting jerk with a red suit and a berry mustache. I dunno. It seems like there are all manner of different jokes to be made, but the one they settled on here was at least well-executed.
Speaking of things designed to infuriate certain men, the Tabitha talk show sketch (seriously, just think it over—a year off, is all I’m suggesting) posits that men in relationships are best treated like disobedient dogs. I’ll leave the “not all men” screeds to . . . other men, but at least this was a great showcase for Kenan’s physical comedy skills. As Tabitha’s husband in cell phone footage, Kenan reacts to being caught making messes and eating things he’s not supposed to with a wordlessly impeccable canine shame. There’s not much more to the bit, although the final twist that Cecily’s husband’s transgressions are a little more serious (he has a secret family) closes things out with a weird little snap.
Barbie Instagram, Trump, Elizabeth Warren.
The cold open was a Trumper, with Alec Baldwin doing . . . what he does. Still, there were some perks. Kenan’s Steve Harvey—subbing in for Howie Mandel in a Deal Or No Deal sketch about the negotiations for Trump’s billions-dollar wall boondoggle—is always a treat. And at least the game show setting is set up by Harvey’s admission that a “game show with women holding briefcases” was really the only way to get The Apprentice star’s full attention. Kate McKinnon broke out her newly empowered, gleefully cocky Nancy Pelosi to the impression’s best effect yet, slipping faux-innocent smirks to the audience after claiming not to be drunk on her own power or anything. Alex Moffat’s avuncular pushover of a Chuck Schumer is corrected when his briefcase offer is first revealed as “whatever you want,” with Speaker Pelosi telling her overly pliable colleague “We’re not doing that any more.” As Kenan’s Havey (and Jost on Update) points out, Trump’s $5.7 billion for vague promises about maybe, temporarily not deporting the DREAMers sounds more like a racist lunatic’s ransom demand than a good-faith negotiation, so there’s a real-world catharsis to the sketch, in that it posits a world where a strong, canny Democrat is finally going to stand up to Trump’s bullying bullshit. After that, it’s more disposable, although Leslie’s Maxine Waters shutting down Trump’s “low-IQ” insults by noting that she can subpoena Trump’s tax returns any time she wants got a quick turnaround in Baldwin’s demeanor. And any time SNL wants to take an otherwise unmotivated poke at outed longtime white supremacist Steve King (whose offer for the wall just reads “whites”) is a-okay with me. As ever, these cold opens are hung on a limp impression, (plus “hamberders”) but the key may be, as here, to surround it with better ones.
Greta Van Fleet has made it clear that they would like people to stop comparing their Led Zeppelin pastiche shtick to Led Zeppelin, so here goes. Greta Van Fleet sounds like the band Almost Famous’ William Miller went on to idolize after Stillwater. Greta Van Fleet’s amiably tuneful classic rock throwback shtick is enjoyably disposable, even if I can’t imagine listening to an entire album of it. From fellow A.V. Clubber Emily L. Stephens: “like if a bunch of cartoon characters formed a Rush cover band.” And, agreeing with Colin Jost on Update, the name Super Blood Wolf Moon would be a much more apt name.
We’re gonna miss Kenan when he’s gone, but Kate McKinnon had two big turns as major female politicians that will get all the press on the Sunday talk shows.
Melissa Villaseñor’s mimicry talents continues to be underused, but she’s got an Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez in her pocket, so that’s a good sign for her.
The new kid struggles of Ego Nwodim continue. I am not sure we needed a Cardi B appearance to end the cold open, but at least Ego got a line. (Here’s her getting to be funny on the latest Comedy Bang! Bang!, at least.)
The returning Ken and Barbie sketch was Brosnahan’s best showcase (just under the wire), as her ultra-serious focus group member’s pitches for the Mattel dolly’s Instagram feed got committedly dark and weird. Kenan and Cecily’s execs were expertly and understandably flustered, both by Brosnahan’s narrative about just what Barbie is hiding under that jacuzzi, and other panelists Pete Davidson and Heidi Gardner’s clueless (and nicely odd) tangents. (Racoons, wallets.) What was under that jacuzzi?
- McKinnon’s Warren comares her style to that of “Monday Night Raw hosted by NPR’s Terry Gross.”
- Kenan’s Steve Harvey, shaking his head at Trump’ sexism, “On the day of the Women’s March . . .”
- Harvey, after an ad showing an old woman floating in a beach toy far out at sea, “The Coast Guard’ll be back soon—hang in there, Beth!”
- Technically, this episode was a mess, with the wrong chyron for Aidy’s singer in the Millennials sketch and a glitch followed by about 30 seconds of dead air in the Mrs. Maisel filmed piece.
- Brosnahan’s contestant gripes about not having health insurance because she’s kept on at Google as a freelancer. (I would like to take this freelancer’s opportunity to congratulate my—salaried—colleagues at the A.V. Club for their successful recent unionization and state for the record that the A.V. Club is not Google.)
- McKinnon’s Warren on her DNA testing debacle: “I did the DNA test, and the test came back ‘100 percent bad idea.’”
- “Look, America, you will do anything you possibly can to not vote for a woman for president. All I am asking is that you let me be that woman.”
- Andy Garcia was once rude to John Mulaney at a Lakers game.
- Next week: James McEvoy makes his hosting debut, with musical guest Meek Mill. And, yes, I will be working overnight on my birthday. Please send medals to the A.V. Club offices.