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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

RuPaul’s got the strut, but a wobbly SNL can’t keep pace

Photo: Will Heath/NBC
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“First of all, how dare you . . .”

“I’m not an actor, I’m a [big, bright, fabulous] star!”

RuPaul owns stages. That’s just what Ru does. So it was unsurprising how easy it was to watch the RuPaul’s Drag Race star (giving his baby a shout-out in the monologue) do some live TV. Sure, there was some fairly conspicuous cue card-reading, but Ru’s not alone there, as far as hosts go, and Ru’s presence was enough to make sketches flow past, charm and charisma winning the day. That said, the sketches themselves weren’t especially sharp—whether dealing with RuPaul-specific topics or not—and the whole enterprise ultimately smacked of something of a missed opportunity.

Ru’s monologue saw the performer come out resplendent in a bright pink suit, and mostly took the form of an inspirational pep talk to those watching who are, as Ru put it, drawn to “all the colors in the crayon box.” Urging people to not take things so seriously (plus, to “get the money up front,” and not pay any mind to those not paying your bills), the closest Ru got to a genuinely biting joke was when referring to a (real or fictional) attempt by Lorne Michaels and NBC to tone him down, Ru offering up only a “fill in the blanks” short-form version of an anecdote about his life in 1980s New York, consisting of the words “correctional officer,” “Yonkers,” “House of Pancakes,” and “feet.”

Teasing aside, SNL didn’t seem particularly bashful about tonight’s host, letting RuPaul strut through roles in drag, out of drag, and as himself, in and out of drag. As Ru put it at the top of the show, “You’re born naked, and the rest is drag.” As with anything or anyone not straight, white, male, and preferably graduated from Harvard, Saturday Night Live has a checkered history with regard to issues surrounding gay jokes, doing drag, and people of color, so I went into this episode a little queasy thinking of ways it could go very, very wrong. (Joke or not, J.J. Watt’s reference to a 10-to-1 drag sketch cut last week for being potentially anti-gay or anti-woman still lingers.) But RuPaul had the air all night of someone not paying any mind to anyone, even if SNL was, technically, picking up the check.


Best/Worst Sketch Of The Night

That said, there really weren’t very many memorable sketches to pick from here, so I’ll skip all the way to the end for The Old New York Show With Madge And Dickie, which not only gave Kate McKinnon and Aidy Bryant the chance to continue their always-money comedy team, but saw RuPaul giving his most natural comic performance. As two lifelong drinking buddies and roommates making the most out of their building’s rent control loopholes (they’ll be evicted if they ever step outside), the pair spend their days making prank calls to room service, reminiscing about the good old days (pining for when Rudy Giuliani “killed all the whores” and “sent all the squeegee men into hell”), and inviting the survivor (Ru) of the two men they both married at one time or another to gab about how they met. (“Stuffing our blouses with other, nicer blouses,” in a Bergdorf’s dressing room.) According to Madge and Dickie, their public access show is only available on the hotel’s in-room TV, but that doesn’t stop them from tipsily asserting their city cred with half-realized songs, NYC-specific sound cues (“bedbugs stampeding out of electrical sockets”), and their shut-in’s brand of in-building pranksterism. (Asking first for “turd soup,” the trio delightedly hangs up after Kate’s Dickie signs off by promising to blow up the building.) SNL’s always loved the conceit of self-important weirdos imagining that the newest technology offers them the chance to show the entire world just what stars they are, with the best ones being less about catchphrases and the same stock jokes (sorry, Jarrett’s Room), and more about letting actors sketch out characters whose inner lives you just can’t help wonder at. Plus, Kate and Aidy should team up in every sketch, have their own sketch show, and reign forever as queens of the sketch universe.

Pete Davidson (refreshingly back in the full swing of things tonight) brought back Chad, the least remarkable/most desired doofus in the world for the funny short film wherein RuPaul—desperate for a “new face of drag”—inexplicably fixates on menial photo shoot crew member Chad. It’s a change from the usual Chad template (although there was also that time he didn’t realize he was being stalked by a serial killer), in that Ru isn’t so much lusting after Chad’s dubious charms, but more inexplicably drawn to Chad’s potential as the next glamorous drag star. Still, the joke continues to work in Pete’s commitment to making Chad walk the line between endearingly blank and insufferably blank, as he compliantly puts himself in Ru’s hands for a semi-successful makeover. As douchey as Chad is and will seemingly ever be (chuckling at the word “gist” because it sounds sort-of like “jizz” is pure, unadulterated Chad), there remains something almost noble about the dude’s complete lack of judgement about those who fall under his grimy, unintentional spell that’s as amusing as it is sort of creepy. Chad abides, bidding farewell to his benefactor after his new heels send him hurtling through the craft services table with, “Bye, Ruple,” emerging with wonted blissful apathy.

In the Ru being Ru department, the library sketch—with RuPaul giving a Drag Race-style “reading” of beloved children’s book characters from Eloise, to Madeline, to The Very Hungry Caterpillar—cruised by on Ru’s charms. Hearing (the not-in-drag) Ru dish on just what’s up with Eloise’s signature rat’s nest hair, or the fact that Madeline’s field trip to the Eiffel Tower shouldn’t be anywhere near the nonexistent woods (“You ain’t never been there, girl!”), is solid easy listening laughs, even if the sketch imagines it has to spell out its concept and terminology (like “reading”) so as not to alienate the audience. At least Kate was funny as the mom having the most fun since “this kid blasted out of me,” although the way the sketch took pains to reassure everyone that the idea of a gay man reading to their kids is okay limply echoes the “Eek—gays and kids!” tenor of mainstream discussion of the tradition of Drag Queen Reading Hours at local libraries across the countries. Seriously, with RuPaul in the house and a sketch like this in the roster, this sort of milky, unthreatening take is destined to be forgotten as soon as it’s over.

Cecily Strong and RuPaul made a fine team as well as a pair of office workers taking umbrage at their work dinner’s plan to split the check. Both dressed in Designing Women finery, each performer took turns essentially channeling Julia Sugarbaker’s self-impressed dudgeon as they ostensibly stuck up for mousy coworker Heidi Gardner, who didn’t even have wine with dinner, for god’s sake! The sketch never finds anything funnier than Cecily’s emphatically over-enunciated use of the word “woman” (pronounced “hWOman”), although that their avalanche of outrage sweeps up Chloe Fineman’s into-it waitress along the way brings a nice little touch of escalating absurdity to the bit. (“Lock the doors!”) Aidy does some nice underplaying as the boss, innocently offering to just pick up the whole check before being rebuffed, and Gardner, wishing to just disappear as these two strangers (turns out they’re temps) rail against her “empty apartment, empty bed, and empty head,” supposedly in her defense.

The charades sketch kept almost becoming something, as two new neighbor families—one white, one black—engage in an ill-fated get to know you game night. SNL has quietly amassed some very funny black performers to join all-timer Kenan Thompson, which allows for a sketch with an entire black family to air now and then. Here, Chris Redd, Ego Nwodim, and RuPaul join Kenan as the new family whose understanding of the rules of charades is markedly different than that of their neighbors, whose competitiveness quickly becomes an issue. As the black family plays fast and loose with the “no talking” rule, the sketch’s racial underpinnings get muddied, with their more laid-back approach to the game being presented as fun but wrong compared to their stickler neighbors. There’s an element of “white people are like this, while black people are like that” tiredness to the piece, although the fact that Kenan’s family can get Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood just from son Redd’s “Damon Wayans face” makes the point of black and white cultural makers being very different emerge in a big laugh. Still, the joke is mostly about black people not getting how things are done, which is a deeply questionable peg to hang a sketch on, even if the white family’s insular privilege is seen emerging all too easily once things don’t go their way.

I suppose adding one vowel means the “Boop It” commercial wasn’t technically product placement, and it gave Beck Bennet some funny stuff to do as a divorced dad whose time with the kids degenerates thanks to his obsession with beating his kids’ complicated new toy. The drunken Beck yelling, “I’m almost good!” to no one is one of the saddest things I’ve seen in a while. You know, but in a funny way.

Weekend Update update

Che had a Chevy Chase moment tonight. I mean that as a compliment, something you have to clarify these days. The fact that Donald Trump presented the Medal Of Freedom to talk radio bigot-blowhard Rush Limbaugh was, while decidedly on-brand, ripe for the bashing. And while Colin Jost joking that the sentence “Trump gave a medal to Rush Limbaugh and celebrated the creation of the Space Force” sounds like one of his unearthed childhood Mad Libs neatly captured the fact that we’re living in a berserkly cobbled-together nightmare reality, it was Che trailing off after saying, “Look, now say what you want about Rush Limbaugh . . .” that brought to mind the 1975-6-era Chase’s original flavor Weekend Update. Maybe it was absently fiddling with the pencil afterward that did it, but the insouciance of the joke construction mixed with Che’s delivery to encapsulate the grossly ludicrous reality of, well, reality in a way that just seemed timeless. A lot of people have done Update better than Chase did (I’d put him about fifth), but his confident irreverence in the face of the week’s news was a potent formula, and it worked well with Che.

The rest of Update wasn’t as good as that, but had its moments. Sometimes letting Trump speak/seemingly have an episode for himself is all you need, as the SOTU clip of Trump decrying “skanktuary cities” Leads Jost to joke that perhaps he’s just been listening to too much Outkast. (Seriously, the dude is sundowning hard, though.) The GOP’s sham impeachment acquittal this week got its share of attention, although, as ever, the fact that SNL has this mid-show cudgel in its arsenal and continues to do so little real damage with it suggests that co-head writers Jost and Che are more concerned with amusingly jabbing at each other and at inconsequential laugh lines than in making use of their guaranteed platform to do anything particularly original or daring. That said, Jost had his best moment in a while, too, as his joke about California potentially banning physical fitness tests because of bullying landed with the punchline, “Good job getting gym class cancelled, you fat losers.” It isn’t often that SNL lets a good, risky joke pass by without explaining the bite out of it, so I’ll show the same restraint.

Oddly, it was Cecily Strong’s returning Cathy Anne (normally spouting her garbled wisdom outside Che’s apartment) who made more of an impact. Strong is outstanding at character work, and Cathy Anne gives her a whopper of a role to play, the ragged but unbowed sort-of street person the sort of lived-in New York character far more common than those darned “elites” conservatives like to dismiss all blue state big city folk as. Sure, she gets the names wrong, but dammit if “Mick McDonalds” didn’t rig an impeachment trial by calling no witnesses and allowing no evidence (something the beleaguered Cathy Anne could use every once in a while). And while the Democratic debate cold open tonight played up the inter-party drama, it’s Cathy Anne who called out the “purity politics” of voters who need to be focusing on ousting Trump, “McDonalds,” and all those responsible for the ongoing, crunchy-sheets shitshow in the White House and stop “all the damn infighting.” She may only be 21, as revealed tonight, but Cathy Anne’s got it goin’ on.

In the biggest surprise of the night, the other correspondent slot finally and blessedly allowed featured player Chloe Fineman to do some of the stellar impressions she was reportedly hired to do on a show that’s lived and died by its celebrity impressions for 45 years. Say what you want about the current cast, but the inexorable move toward more and more ringers, cameos, and returning alums when it comes to casting has robbed the newer cast members of the chance to grow into themselves on the show. Saturday Night Live’s a strange and unique gig, one that requires a lot of screen time to refine your style and find your voice. Getting shoved aside for more and more of Lorne’s pals—when it comes to political figures especially—is just a crippler for someone like Fineman, whose mimicry acumen seemed a shoe-in for an early regular-cast bump-up. Of course, the same can be said of similarly talented Melissa Villaseñor, and, like Melissa last week, Fineman seized on the the venerable SNL tradition of turning an Update shot into a much-needed showcase. An Oscar preview gave Fineman just the excuse she needed to wheel out some hard-honed takes on actors like Saoirse Ronan, Meryl Streep, Laura Dern, Rene Zellweger (as Judy Garland), Timothée Chalamet, and, most crowd-pleasing of all, Colin Jost’s significant other and Best Actress nominee, Scarlett Johansson. (“Do you feel like you’re at home Colin?”) Look, I agree that some nights I’m not overwhelmed with optimism at the ability of the current, second-tier (meaning apart from Aidy, Kate, Cecily, and Kenan) cast to step up and wow us, but at least Fineman’s fighting for her chance. Impressive.


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

Democratic debate, Cathy Anne, those darn thirsty cops. Ego Nwodim continues to get more screen time, which I am all for, but are we all on board for “Thirsty Cops” being one of her few returning sketches? It’s got one joke (she and RuPaul’s cops are thirsty, this time for distracted driver Pete Davidson), and even the addition of third thirsty cop Kate as backup can’t hide how thin the laughs emanating from that one joke are. Still, give it up to Pete, who at least provided a little more color than usual to the sort-of into it driver, which at least makes the throwback civil rights violation comedy a little more palatable.

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

Ringers, ringers everywhere, as the cold open centered on Friday’s Democratic debate, bringing back Rachel Dratch (Amy Klobuchar), Larry David (Bernie Sanders), Jason Sudeikis (Joe Biden), and a photo of waiting in the wings non-invitee Michael Bloomberg (Fred Armisen), to join Kate’s Warren, Bowen Yang’s Andrew Yang, and Colin Jost’s Pete Buttigieg onstage. (Pete Davidson didn’t make the most uncanny Tom Steyer, but that’s suits the amiable billionaire also-ran just fine.) Most of the online ire in these wee hours is coming from Bernie supporters angry at David’s Bernie claiming to be “the most popular guy on 4chan,” but, well, the tone of those online complaints isn’t doing much to defuse the sketch’s mild acknowledgement that Bernie Sanders has a documented problem with attracting abusive online assholes. “Could I stop then in their tracks?,” David’s Sanders says of his “Berniebro” contingent, “Yes. Will I? Eh.” And I know this is the point where everyone says “Well, I’m not that kind of Bernie supporter!,” and here’s to you—you’re not who the sketch was talking about. But be someone who dares point out anything remotely questionable about the Sanders campaign online and see what kind of an expletive-filled cesspool your Twitter mentions turn into. (Looking forward to it. See you on the ball field.)

Still, as the Democrats lurch into the primary season, SNL’s wonted “both-sides” approach to political satire continues to founder in lazy stereotypes and lazier gags when it comes to the Democratic slate. Bernie is old. Klobuchar is square. Pete is bland. (Jost tried and succeeded in getting #WhiteObama trending, although, not as his version of Pete pleaded, unironically.) Biden is also old, but colorfully out-of-touch. (Sudeikis’ Biden has always been an especially strong take.) McKinnon’s Warren continues to emerge as frontrunner, at least comedically speaking, as Kate’s got the mannerisms down flat, and her Warren’s sardonic asides about the “likability”/“electability” bullshit yet another strong woman candidate has to go through this election cycle keep scoring. (“Great solution for that—elect me!”) There are substantive debates to be had about which Dem is best suited to unseat the single most corrupt and farcical president this country has ever had, and, should SNL wish to do more than make the same slate of watery swipes, then I’m all for it. Momentarily trending a hashtag and riling up the easily rile-able with easy jokes isn’t doing much for anybody.


I am hip to the musics of today

Ah, the Bieb. Nobody at SNL missed you, which is why you didn’t pop up in any sketches (even though you’ve hosted), why Kate McKinnon’s you didn’t, either. The latter’s just as well, as Bieber’s new mustache joins with his abundant tats to make him look more and more like Pete Davidson. (Honestly, when Bieber came out for his second number doing his signature shoulder-rolling, boy band-choreographed thing, I thought it was Davidson for a second.) I don’t know who’s all in on Justin Bieber these days, but somebody must be, so more power to him. I will question why he and his dancers were all kitted out in front of a green screen box when they just did some shadow-dancing, but their limbs all moved more or less in unison.

Most/Least Valuable Not Ready For Prime Time Player

Some new faces in contention tonight, but Chloe Fineman’s Update piece was the sort of thing that could lift her up a level, if she’s allowed to show her stuff in actual sketches more going forward. Pete’s looking confident, and Ego’s getting some time to do her thing. All positive developments.


But this cast is, as Joy Mohr might put it, gasping for airtime, and the fact that talented performers like Heidi Gardner and Melissa Villaseñor barely registered tonight is sort of waste that present-day SNL keeps committing.

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

One way to help with the airtime thing might be to get the show’s timing right, as, for the second week in a row, there was no final sketch, only a brief return for the band to vamp at 12:58 before going to commercial one more time before the goodnights. (Where Mikey Day very sweetly kept pointing out Chloe Fineman to the audience after her big night.) Still, the Madge and Dickie Show was just character-driven and odd enough to take its rightful spot here, and we can all sleep well knowing that some writer is getting extra drunk at the afterparty because his-her sketch was cut because something screwed up somewhere else.


Stray observations

  • Che, throwing to a video of the GOP reacting to Trump’s acquittal, showed a clip of O.J.’s verdict instead. Hey, at least there were witnesses at that one.
  • Madge and Dickie claim to live overlooking “the Fort Authority Bus Hospital.”
  • Che, after clips of Trump’s post-acquittal televised railing against “sleazebags” and “bullshit” deadpans, “At least he’s happy.”
  • “Can I crash here? My apartment’s been a CVS for 20 years.”
  • Two weeks off and then we’ve got Mulaney and his Sack Lunch Bunch pal, David Byrne, so rejoice, people.

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

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