Ryan Gosling, Aidy Bryant

“I’m not an actor, I’m a [movie] star!”

With not one, but two major releases to plug, there’s no secret why Ryan Gosling’s appearance as host was something of a gimme. Despite his currency, though, Gosling’s been in show business since he was a young, fresh-faced (he’s still pretty fresh-faced) Canadian lad, an entertainer’s pedigree put winningly on display tonight, with the host showing of some solid dance moves and pipes in a couple of sketches. His Scarecrow, stumbling into this week’s impressive live version of The Wiz, saw him breaking out some truly impressive, Ray Bolger-esque, loose-limbed dancing, and the otherwise underwhelming hometown sketch—with Kyle Mooney’s childhood bully goading him into singing and dancing for an appreciative bar of Cornwall, Ontario’s finest—had Gosling looking just as solid. If anything, I was worried that the brooding, Method intensity he’s become known for (and that’s so effective contrasting with the aforementioned face-freshness) would keep him from loosening up. In practice, Gosling loosened up too much as it turns out, becoming repeatedly—and, it has to be said—endearingly afflicted with the giggles in almost every sketch.

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Breaking (or “corpsing,” as it’s more evocatively termed by British thesps) has a long and complex history on SNL, being a live show and all. Lorne Michaels is notoriously down on the concept, and you can see his point—SNL is meticulously timed out and jigsaw puzzle-assembled, right down to the last second. If Jimmy Fallon and Horatio Sands get on a goofball stoner jag every time you put them in a sketch together, it’s gonna muck up the whole, barreling train. That being said, some of the fun of SNL being live is the ever-present tingly promise of someone losing it, setting off a chain reaction that can be refreshingly alive on nation television. (See the most egregious and famously hilarious example here.) Lorne’s long-standing putdown is that breaking is “too Carol Burnett,” and, for better or worse, Gosling went full Harvey Korman at times tonight, trying with all the professionalism he could muster to tamp that nonsense down, to mixed success. A purist (and Lorne) may scoff, and corpsing can be cheap and lazy, but Gosling’s earnestness in his comic distress was contagious—to both his cast-mates and the audience. And me. Seeing such a traditionally serious actor losing it made the sketches funnier because his laughter seemed to be bubbling up from a well of both genuine amusement and nerves that it was hard not to be on the guy’s side.

Weekend Update update

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Look, at this point, you’ve either come around on the Jost-Che team or you haven’t. I have, for the most part, with the duo’s looseness and growing ease with each others’ comic styles finally coming into something like confident rhythm. Still, their material isn’t the strongest this week (especially compared to last week’s unexpectedly biting outing). The debate over SNL’s political comedy legacy rages on, but Update is, by its nature, political territory—if the satirical material doesn’t hit on Update, it’s just unseemly. Tonight, there were a few moderate feints at the increasingly bizarre and joke-worthy Republican presidential field, but nothing worth quoting beyond Jost’s line about noted xenophobe Ben Carson’s claim that Syrian refugees he’s met don’t want to come to America. (“It’s a decision they made after asking Carson, ‘Where are you from?’”) And Che calling out Congress for voting to defund Planned Parenthood worked up a nice head of steam, comparing the lawmakers’ skewed priorities in the wake of a year with more mass shootings than days to an exterminator who says, “Your house is full of rats, so the first thing we have to do is defund Planned Parenthood.” Genuine emotional commitment goes a long way toward selling Update’s political humor.

Still, I enjoy watching Update more this season. Che and Jost continue to play off each other well—Che’s willingness to seemingly go off-book with asides is a big part of his appeal at this point. (Seeing a picture of a baby with the most unpopular baby name, “Isis Cosby,” he appears to ad-lib, “There’s no way Isis Cosby is white.”)

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Cecily Strong tried out another in her line of specifically targeted correspondent characters, as her Glamour reporter—ostensibly there to review new gizmos for Christmas—spent the entire time asserting that Colin Jost was hitting on her when he was emphatically not. Like her Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started A Conversation With At A Party (who appears to have been sent to the out-of-gas characters pasture), her Glamour correspondent is less mocking women, or sexy women, or even fashion magazine reporters, than she is an embodiment of a woman playing a stereotypical societal role. In this case, the desperate for male attention lady who’s learned all her performative conversational stylings from, well, places like Glamour. Strong’s affinity for these characters seems to spring from her intimate knowledge of—and sincere annoyance with—limiting roles for women. (Plus, she‘s really good at them.) It could be funnier (the premise is obvious very quickly) but the escalation to absurdity, as she produces a jar containing a single popsicle for Jost to open—ends it on a strong note. (Not a pun at the end there—it’s actually a strong ending.)

The other correspondent—a perennially divisive one partially redeemed by host Gosling—will be covered in the recurring characters report. Or so I’ve heard… (You get it.)

Best/worst sketch of the night

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The filmed segments have been one of the strongest elements of SNL this season, a trend that continued tonight with a pair of typically well-realized and impeccably performed pieces. The ad for Settl, the new dating app for women who’ve decided to do just that (but with an “e”), saw Vanessa Bayer, Kate McKinnon, Sasheer Zamata, and Leslie Jones turning in some stellar subtle character work as their single ladies reluctantly make the best of lowered expectations. Apart from the actresses’ expertly calibrated forbearance throughout, the joke works best because their sort-of chosen suitors (played by Taran Killam and Kyle Mooney) aren’t the worst, per se. They’re gainfully employed, decent, solicitous, and, are as one woman puts it, “normal guys with characteristics I am now willing to overlook.” Jones’ dead-eyed politeness at date Mooney’s offhand references to not having a car and “usually being in bed by now” allows her to go small for a change, and is all the funnier for it. And Bayer’s response to the fact that fiancee Killam kisses sort of weird is just right, too.

Gosling’s wonted intensity was put to excellent use in the Christmas party short, as he and Bayer, as the new couple in the neighborhood who reveal that they are disturbingly invested in the reality of Santa Claus, ride Gosling’s commitment to character work to drive the bit into loony Tarantino-Natural Born Killers territory. (Gosling’s eye-work in creeping out party host Beck Bennett is especially brilliant.) Weird and pretty great.

The parody of the George Clooney-Danny DeVito coffee commercial is a step behind, simply by virtue of how badly it’s going to age once the admittedly perplexing ad about unlikely pals Clooney and DeVito playing out Clooney’s arbitrarily elaborate steps to a crappy-looking espresso is forgotten. Bobby Moynihan elevates it, however, less through his acceptable DeVito impression than by how well he sells the guy’s increasing bafflement at Clooney’s wordless task-mastering. (“Were we in Batman together?” “Oh great, sushi—the one thing that doesn’t go with coffee.”)

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It’s tempting to give best sketch to the one that got the biggest laughs, although the alien abduction sketch was so successful largely because of the aforementioned breaking. Gosling was the worst, but by no means only transgressor, as Cecily Strong, Kate McKinnon, Aidy Bryant, and Bobby Moynihan also struggled valiantly not to incur the wrath of Lorne. I don’t think they’ll have to worry to much, as the sketch was already pretty hilarious on its own, with McKinnon—whose experience aboard the alien craft was decidedly less enlightening than her co-abductees—turned in one of her best performances ever. Her chain-smoking, middle-aged lady paints her low-rent experience in such character-specific terms that everyone’s collective chuckle-storm makes perfect sense. Knees splayed wide as she tells of a line of 40 little grey aliens taking turns bopping her boobs around (which she demonstrates, at length, on the barely-keeping-it-together Strong) and watching her urinate in “a steel ball” before being unceremoniously ejected pantsless seven feet above the roof of a Long John Silver’s is, in McKinnon’s matter-of-fact delivery, a thing of lunatic beauty. For all the ancillary laughing going on, it’s McKinnon’s world-weary performance that strikes just the right balance—she’s more bemused than upset, especially that her fellow abductees saw God, while she got inexpertly pawed by what she suspects was the craft’s janitorial staff. (“I don’t think I was dealin’ with the top brass.”) What the hell—top sketch it is.

Check the recurring sketches for the worst. (Why does that phrase sound so familiar?)

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

Bless Aidy Bryant for her ever present glee in going big—she’s the most fearless female physical performer since Molly Shannon, and tonight, bringing back her inappropriately horny sleepover girl Melanie, goes a full Farley, careening off a wall and smashing a solid-looking coffee table like Matt Foley, Motivational Speaker. Problem is, Melanie’s come-ons to her friend’s nerdy dad were more crude and gross than funny. Gosling’s stiffness as the dad does’t help matters, giving Bryant’s energy nothing to bounce off of. (Plus, he calls her “Morgan” a few times, accidentally.) When we last saw Melanie too-precociously lusting after Drake’s nerdy dad, the sketch took the safer way out (see: Canteen Boy) of explaining that Melanie had been in a coma for a decade, making her at least of-age (it still wasn’t all that funny). Here, while Bryant’s fearlessness is as admirable as ever, Melanie’s just too broad and creepy.

And then there’s Anthony Crispino. Returning to Update as a guy convinced his second-hand version of current events is inarguably correct, Bobby Moynihan’s Crispino is either your guy or he’s not. Moynihan’s commitment to his creation always keeps him palatable for me, even though it’s the same joke with different, labored malapropisms each time (tonight, we have Star Wars: The Four Jamaicans, directed by Jar Jar Abrams, for example). Adding a sidekick is a time-honored, rarely successful formula for revitalizing an exhausted recurring correspondent (the great Peter Drunkledge notwithstanding), but it was both surprising and energizing when Gosling came out as the identically dressed and coiffed Angelo, who gets his news third-hand (from Anthony). It’s still not the most hilarious bit, but the sense that Gosling just likes the character and pitched to join in made the return palatable. But maybe let Anthony roam free in that pasture we were talking about earlier.

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For some recurring kinky elves, check Ten-To-Oneland.

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

If there is a reservoir of lingering resentment at how Donald Trump co-opted SNL last month, it’s a lot shallower and more tepid than suspected, based on the sort of mild Trump-teasing on display since. Still, Taran Killam does a fine Trump (even though Darrel Hammond’s right over there), and there were some funny digs at the expense of the… Republican presidential frontrunner. That still hard-to-fathom fact is the source of the cold open’s best jab, with Trump not recognizing that a phone call from Hillary Clinton (“Please, please let this be!”) meant anything but sincere well-wishing, and not the fervent hope for a polarizing, questionably electable giant gasbag for an opponent. Cecily Strong’s Melania Trump asking incredulously of Mark Zuckerberg’s recent charitable plans, “If you give away your money, how will you stay married?” is a sharper character slam, although hardly satirical, as such. Pair that with the harmlessly humorous single Trump joke on Update (about the candidate’s signature self-aggrandizement), and SNL’s post-Trump strategy seems, well, watery.

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I am hip to the musics of today

The only real criticism of Leon Bridges’ thoroughly enjoyable soul throwback style is that it’s so dependent on its need to sound like recently unearthed Sam Cooke material, even down to his wardrobe. Whatever, I’m just being picky—Bridges is great.

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

McKinnon. That was one of her all-timers in the alien abduction sketch.

For the second week, no sign whatsoever of new guy, Jon Rudnitsky. Either that whole “being kind of a dick on Twitter” thing is still lingering, or he’s just going through the “oh shit, am I going to get fired” featured player initiation process.

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

A recurring sketch in the Ten-To-Oneland spot is never a good sign. This is where SNL allows some weird, conceptual sketch that’s sure to alienate the majority of the audience (barely) on the air. The return of the horny elves, this time slacking off in the desperately sleazy hopes Moynihan’s Santa will punish them benefitted from Kenan Thompson, Vanessa Bayer, and Gosling’s creepily grinning double entendres (and Gosling’s final inability to keep a straight face of the night), but the bit wasn’t great the first time, and played to diminished returns here.

Stray observations

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  • Gosling looked stiff in his monologue until fellow Canadian Mike Myers popped in to urge him to embrace his Canadian roots with a silly song. Myers has been M.I.A. for so long—since The Love Guru… unpleasantness—that it’s great to seem him on the SNL stage again. “I live backstage,” he jokes, but Myers does seem at home goofing around at SNL more than anywhere else these days. (He does seem to be turning into fellow Canadian SNL alum Martin Short a bit, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.) A hosting gig next season, maybe? Lorne?
  • McKinnon’s abductee, asked if her aliens’ actions seemed part of a higher plan: “No, that felt super off the books.”
  • “Did y’all get the knocker stuff?”
  • Jost, urging President Obama to dumb it down in his addresses: “We’re a country four deep into a Chipmunks franchise.”
  • Okay, I confess—I don’t get the joke of what Anthony Crispino and Angelo were looking for under the Update desk. Commenters—away!
  • Gosling’s Scarecrow admiringly touches his Wiz counterpart’s straw hair, then moves onto Sasheer Zamata’s Dorothy, who shuts him down with a curt, “Don’t.”
  • Also, The Wiz universe does not call the Wicked Witch’s henchmen “flying monkeys.” “Yeah, we had a lot of meetings about that.”
  • A title card announced that the episode was dedicated to SNL wardrobe person Jenna Krempel, who, no doubt, had a wealth of great stories to tell. You can’t hide anything from wardrobe. RIP.

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