Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Regina King reigns over a pleasantly ordinary Saturday Night Live

Regina King
Regina King
Photo: Mary Ellen Matthews/NBC
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“It’s a great day for 30 percent of America!”

“I’m not an actor, I’m a [multiple award-winning, superhero-playing, hit movie-directing, no-guff] star!!”

In her monologue, Regina King lightly roasted Saturday Night Live’s place in the country’s pop culture landscape, noting that Black viewers might know her from some of their favorite movies, while white viewers will know her from “Watchmen, or this monologue right now.” But we kid that portion of SNL’s viewership that’s surprised to learn that King has won (among many other shiny things) an Oscar, a Golden Globe, four Emmys, and is likely to get a Best Director Oscar nomination for One Night In Miami. But we kid Lorne Michaels along with King, who claimed that the venerable SNL producer tried to act a little too “cool” prepping her for her first hosting gig.

As it turns out, King is one of those actors whose professionalism and ease was the best part of some so-so material, throwing herself into characters with the skill and dedication that’s partially redeemed many a half-assed sketch. In her goodnights, an ebulliently masked-up King let out a relived, “I did it!,” but it was pretty clear from the jump that, no matter how the show went as a whole, she’d be fine.

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Or more than fine when given a chance to shine, as in her turn as 70s disco goddess Fliona, strutting backstage in preparation for a big show where inept tour manager Bowen Yang has failed to negotiate even one of the diva’s many, many rider demands. Kitted out in one of those slinky, spangly deep-slit dresses that’s all clavicle and judiciously applied tape, King was Fliona, rattling off each list of things (food, makeup, a band that actually knows her songs, such as “Beep, Beep, Hey Hey, Who’s That, It’s Me”) that Yang’s masochistically incompetent lackey has utterly whiffed at procuring. Yang continues to rule, his mustachioed Maurice accepting Fliona’s punishing face-slaps as his due as well as his true payment for his slavish devotion. And King is regally funny, her songstress queen accepting the codependent relationship with trouper’s resilience, and lots and lots of slapping.

Best/Worst Sketch Of The Night

I laughed most at the birthday party sketch, which gave a whole roomful of funny women a chance to spring an expertly escalating set of prop reveals. With Aidy as the birthday girl in a wine-sipping gathering of suburban friends alongside King, Heidi Gardner, Cecily Strong, and Chloe Fineman, things gradually turn delightfully dark and silly, as the incessant gift parade (of those signs with benignly insipid sayings moms everywhere hang over their liquor cabinets) gets far too real for Aidy’s comfort. Excruciatingly polite even as their cutesy signs start hinting at Aidy’s lockdown day-drinking problem in ever more stark terms, the party is packed with precise characterizations. (I especially loved King’s emphatic assertion that every sign is her favorite, and Cecily’s as-ever lived-in characterization.) But Aidy’s discomfort is our treasure, as signs reading things like “It’s wine o’clock” and such, gradually segue into the craft store decorations like, “Hey barkeep, I want to die tonight,” and a long, fold-out one explaining just what Aidy does under the trampoline when no one’s looking. (She drinks, a lot.) Ramping up a premise is delicate work, and this, in the hands of these women, is just about perfect.

Sticking with a theme, the filmed piece about King’s hostage negotiator inadvertently showing up to a crisis having scarfed down all of cop Bowen Yang’s weed gummies goes for the pitch-perfectly weird. From Pete Davidson and Aidy Bryant’s glassy-eyed rooftop gummy bears, singing the sort of stoner ditty that’ll haunt your nightmares, to Melissa Villaseñor’s Marge Simpson (secretly Satan, telling the tripping King, “I’m the devil, and you’re my greatest creation”), to Beck Bennett’s talking nighttime Teletubbies sun, confiding that the moon is his mortal enemy, the film takes good old drug humor to some uniquely funny places. (Again, Pete and Aidy are looking into your soul.) Remember, there’s a race of volcano people, and they eat lava, and, whoops, Mikey Day’s crook just surrendered because things are just too strange. Good work, detective.

King was good as well as the eager contestant of the MTV dating show, a confident Black woman so turned on at the thought of just how servilely worshipful a “cringey white dude in his early 40s” will be to her that she can barely contain herself. That despite the three bachelors competing for her affections being, indeed, extremely cringey. Kyle Mooney (who lives in “cringey”) is the guy who keeps ostentatiously praising Black people, women, and Black women until co-host ego Nwodim appears to have a disgust seizure. Hair-plugged Alex Moffat is the aspiring musician one who keeps serenading King with personalized Sin Doctors lyrics. But it’s Mikey Day’s punch-worthily self-conscious, riffing dork (“I’m crashing and burning!,” he vamps, in, again, a punch-worthy little singsong voice) that truly wins King’s heart. “Oh, I think I just got menopause,” recoils Cecily Strong’s other host at Day’s stream-of-self-consciousness impressions and not-jokes, but King, squirming in her seat at the thought of being the object of this goober’s awestruck gratitude makes the premise work as well as it does.

The ad for that absurdly expensive home gym bicycle equipment brand makes the case that there’s a market for those whose workout regimen is tough enough to stick to without a peppy, ab-toned personal trainer beaming sunshine up our expansive asses every second of an exercise session. Anyway, Ego, Melissa, and Beck are all appropriately grumpy and bewildered at the spinoff product (Peletaunt)‘s use of variously abusive, passive-aggressive, or withholding trainers, the sweaty riders finding much more relatable motivation in being asked if they wear that big, concealing T-shirt in the pool too, or irritatedly proclaiming they get paid whether you ride the damned bike or not. Villaseñor’s beleaguered rider is especially funny in her expertly catered-to neediness, trainer Yang and Day’s barely-there private conversation spurring her to work harder just to show them she’s worth listening to, dammit.

The live ad for lawyers solely interested in representing those harmed by their misuse of a particular adhesive product benefitted from having Kenan Thompson running the show (alongside a game King). Look, a lady made a mistake and, because the internet, now she’s the inspiration for a pedestrian but passable sketch on Saturday Night Live. It happens. Still and all, there were some things here that made me laugh despite myself. That high, wobbly, glued-stiff spike of hair on King’s head kept bobbing with her emphasis until I chuckled. And the sketch’s conceit that the not-bright victims (“We are not stupid people!”) of glue-head think that Gorilla Glue is made by actual gorillas kept returning until I succumbed. I’m not proud. Although the person who came up with the legal hotline 1-800-GLOW should be.

Then there’s the school assembly sketch. Hey, if I’m the only one this is bothering, I’ll back off, but there are other joke constructions than having someone (or, in this case, three someones) doing something outlandish while someone else (seemingly always Mikey-freaking-Day) points and says, “Why, those people are being inappropriately outlandish!” Along with talk shows, game shows, and monologue Q&As, it’s the fallback sketch trope SNL needs to take a break from most. Just for a year or so. See if anything new pops to mind. Anyway, at least the weirdos (a quartet of feminist monologists at a school assembly, as Day’s principal dutifully informs us) are pretty funny. Kate McKinnon’s Joan Rivers’-style schtick, Regina King’s self-serious spoken-word poet, and Aidy Bryant’s gung-ho greaser chick all did their thing, teaching the kids about the beauty of women’s reproductive organs all while responsibly substituting the word “elbow” for “vagina.” (Aidy brags about rubbing her newly-awakened elbow on “every pillow in Poughkeepsie!” You get it.) It could have been worse—the kids’ reactions were funnier than Day’s requisite (“Hey, what’s with you acting all outlandish up there!” routine), but, man, workshop some new framing devices.

Weekend Update Update

Hey, that asshole got acquitted (after being impeached for the second time) today by the very Republican lawmakers he sent a white supremacist mob of violent goons to murder, so Jost and Che had some fun with that. Speaking of that foregone conclusion concerning the GOP’s continued fear-worship of a despotic reality show clown and mail-order steak huckster, Che had the best line, noting for Black History Month that “just because there’s video evidence doesn’t mean you’re going to get a conviction.” You know, because 43 Republican senators sat doodling and slipping advice to the defense attorneys while Democrats showed unequivocal video proof that the Trump-incited mob was literally stalking their workplace looking to straight-up murder them on behalf of their Glorious Leader. As Jost summed up the implied GOP message to fellow colleague/near hanging victim Mike Pence, “43 of his work friends were like, ‘Stop being such a drama queen.’”

Update proper was fine—which, for Jost and Che, as much as I could wish them to have a more focused approach to a fake newscast, is reliably funny. They’re funny guys, and sometimes they look relieved when they can just riff on stupid shit in the news rather than having to do a miniature Daily Show every week. Che’s other great joke concerned the renamed Aunt Jemima brand, as he explained that new moniker Pearl Milling Company is “the name of the white woman who owned Aunt Jemima.” And Jost, perhaps preemptively stealing some of Che’s traditional thunder, continued the on-air mockery of former SNL musical guest and new white supremacists’ solidarity-buy Morgan Wallen. Pointing to the all-too-predictable boost in Wallen’s record sales after those cancel culture crazies decided that drunkenly screaming racial slurs was suddenly not cool, Jost deadpanned, “If NBC would just let me say it ...”

Three, count ’em, three correspondents tonight, all good but not especially memorable. Kate was pretty delightful as Grismelda, a poorly disguised Q-Anon believer and actual witch, who’s just into the lunatic, white supremacist conspiracy horseshit for the rumored Democratic baby-eating. (Seriously, there’s at least one elected member of Congress who fervently believes that high-ranking Democrats and left-leaning celebrities gather for secret baby-buffets.) But even Kate’s witch couldn’t really get on board, telling Jost that she’s starting to have her doubts. Plus, as she confides at one point, “This is gonna come out of left field, but I’m a witch.” Kate in a witch costume and mocking the mainstream-encroaching fringe wingnuts of the Republican Party? What’s not to like?

Lauren Holt made her move with a special Valentine’s Day correspondent piece, her chipper love guru’s steam only partially escaping when she receives a series of dump-texts from her supposedly committed boyfriend. Holt’s mounting despair and smiling-through-the-tears performance was a real piece of acting, perhaps a little more than the audience was comfortable with, judging by the response. (Although who the hell knows with pandemic-winnowed crowds?) Anyway, Holt held the screen and made an impression, ever the tried-and-true strategy of featured players using Update to score.

I’m just gonna say it—I don’t like Beck Bennett’s drunk acting. It’s a deceptively tricky thing to pull off, and his drunk Tom Brady sounded more brain-injury slurred than sloppy-drunk. Still, the idea that the ever-abstemious and ageless footballer has truly taken to the Tampa lifestyle of boat drinks and trophy-tossing is funny enough, and Bennett makes his Brady’s mid-segment segue into ho-hum post-Super Bowl MVP malaise unexpectedly affecting. (For New England fans, your mileage may vary.) “I just won the Super Bowl,” Brady says, unenthused, sighing, “Prolly gonna win another one next year, too.” As previous host Jon Krasinski noted while also impersonating Brady, nobody but nobody really likes that guy (it’s the Trump-cuddling more than the way he kisses his sons, as Bennett’s Brady guesses here), but at least he’s got another damned trophy. Plus Gronk’s there. That’s gotta be comforting.

“What do you call that act?” “It’s Pat!”—Recurring Sketch Report

Not a one. I salute you, SNL.

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

Still no Joe, although Alex Moffat got to bring out his equally adequate Tucker Carlson for tonight’s post-impeachment cold open. I’d say kudos to the writers for whipping up a “Republicans aquitted the guy who tried to murder them and set up a Trump-branded dictatorship” opener just hours after the actual Senate vote was taken, but they could have safely written the bulk of this one a month ago. Still, here’s to the return of amusingly off-model political impressions and “so obvious they’re sort of amusing in a ‘We’re all gonna die’ way” references. Kate, Aidy, and Beck all spent the hours before showtime getting strapped into their wattles and wigs as Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Ted Cruz (R-TX), and Mitch McConnell (R-Inferno), aping the too-real-for-anything-but-Joker-laughter cynical political cowardice and treason of today’s GOP leadership.

There are jokes, of a sort, as Graham posits that all those Trump flag-waving assholes who staged and armed coup on the very seat of government where he works might well have been “Tiffany-heads.” And anytime someone wants to point out the fact that Ted Cruz still licks the boots of the buffoonish sexist ass who insulted Cruz’s wife that time is at least good for the nation’s soul. And if one could wish that these cold opens found more novel way to start the show (Kate McKinnon’s spot as herself a few weeks ago was a good template), at least it probably chafes some insecure Republican white males that they’re being mocked by woman dressed up as barely exaggerated, chins-wobbling versions of themselves.

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Moffat’s Carlson was, again, fine, relying more on well-worn observations about the Fox News propagandist and bigot-booster’s habit of listening to his blowhard guests, “like a baby seeing his first balloon.” Moffat’s a funny guy, but he’s not much of an impressionist, and, with the rabidly awful Carlson emerging from the Trump era all nostalgia-energized for another four years of white grievance whine-sneering, it’s incumbent on him to find a better handle.

I Am Hip To The Musics Of Today

Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats put on an enjoyably off-kilter pair of country-rock numbers, the burly singer’s strangled little voice a captivating incongruity. (His first number sounds like the end song for a particularly melancholy Friday Night Lights episode.) That one, “Redemption,” is awfully sad and pretty, and if it’s also the theme song for that movie starring that guy everyone’s mad at at the moment, well, it’s not Rateliff’s fault.

Most/Least Valuable Not Ready For Prime Time Player

Not anywhere near the star of the episode, but here’s to Andrew Dismukes for giving even his smallest featured player roles a little extra juice, every time.

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But the real top cat this week is Aidy. She’ll get the buzz for busting out her Ted Cruz (continuing the amusingly inaccurate current mode of female cast members impersonating terrible Republicans), but she was the best part of the best sketch of the night in the birthday piece, so that’s an MVNRFPTP right there. Cecily is so sneaky-good it’s always a danger to overlook how completely rock-solid she is in everything she does, while Kate is Kate, and Kenan Kenan. But tonight’s Aidy’s.

Big cast. Too big. People are getting lost and–not naming any names at the moment—the time to make your move is now. Lauren Holt made a creditable stab tonight on Update. Be like Lauren.

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

We got screwed on the last sketch tonight. Again. Judging by the extra-long band-vamp and goodbyes, it was a timing issue, so I’m putting Kyle Mooney’s cut for time sketch here in protest. Kyle Mooney should always have a few minutes at the end of the show to be weird and offputting, and I will not stand for it.

Stray observations

  • As part of Carlson’s “loose collection of scaremongering non sequiturs,” he shows posters for Soul and Inside Out, exclaiming, “Pixar: is it making our kids depressed or gay? Pick one!”
  • Pete Davidson plays Trump lawyer and bi-partisan legal laughingstock Mike van der Veen, noting of his mangling of the names of Ilhan Oman, Ayanna Pressley, and Vice President Kamala Harris, “Did I mispronounce the names of all these women of color on purpose, or out of ignorance? You’ll never know.”
  • King claims that, when the pressures of celebrity get too much, she just goes “to the nearest white town,” where, as she puts it, “I’m just another suspicious shopper.”
  • Most of the time, SNL could do worse than to just have Kenan show up to act as the flagging monologue’s hype man.
  • “Im sexually promiscuous and my house is dirty!” would be a big seller. Michaels, I’m talking to you.
  • The football season may be over, but making fun of the Jets is forever, as Jost referred to a proposed 10 percent capacity limit for sporting events as “Jets-level.”
  • Next week, Bridgerton is officially a thing, as Regé-Jean Page (that’s the hunky Duke of Hastings to you) hosts alongside musical guest Bad Bunny.
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Contributor, The A.V. Club. Danny Peary's Cult Movies books are mostly to blame.