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Saturday Night Live can’t find the right roles for Benedict Cumberbatch

Benedict Cumberbatch (Screenshot/NBC)
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“I’m not an actor, I’m a [go-to bigger-than-life fictional hero/villain] star!”

A superstar portrayer of archly magnetic big- and little-screen characters (he’s here promoting his Doctor Strange), Benedict Cumberbatch was at his best tonight playing himself in the amusingly odd game show “Why Is Benedict Cumberbatch Hot?” There, the nonplussed thespian gamely played along as game-sshow host Beck Bennett (as himself) asked contestants/coworkers Aidy Bryant and Vanessa Bayer why they’re so into Cumberbatch. In the sketch, Cumberbatch answers the question indirectly, simply by being kind and attentive, and assuring Beck that, yes, Bennett’s headshot is, in fact, more attractive than the goofy photo of Cumberbatch Bennett chosen for comparison. (He also concedes that he looks like a hammerhead shark, a sexy lizard-man, and the sloth from the Ice Age movies.) Cumberbatch underplays nicely throughout, and earnestly compliments Bennett for being “funny, and charming, and super-nice… until this sketch,” and evinces the charisma that’s made him everyone’s favorite not-quite trustworthy sexy lizard-man. (“When you look at me, I feel… truly seen,” gushes Bennett, finally.) Similarly, while his Shaft-like musical monologue (yes, another one of those) wasn’t especially funny, he endearingly played up his humility to backup singers Melissa Villaseñor, Sasheer Zamata, Cecily Strong, and the on-the-make Leslie Jones. (He explains away his CBE as like a knighthood but not as impressive. “I got a certificate in the mail.”)


Unfortunately, Cumberbatch is not adept at translating that charisma to knockabout comedy, as he came off variously flat and sheepish in what were, admittedly, some of the weakest sketches of the season. If you’re going to have a belly-laugh sketch about two surfer-dude bachelorette party strippers (Cumberbatch and Mikey Day) who proceed to do unspeakable things to an old lady (a game as ever Aidy Bryant) who they don’t notice has died of a heart attack, said strippers have really got to go for it. Here, the sketch went on interminably and awkwardly as Cumberbatch and Day’s physical comedy was as indifferent as their “The Californians”-esque accents. (At least Brit Cumberbatch has an excuse.) And that’s even before a trio of Chicago Cubs show up to join in the stiffly salacious grinding. (More about them on Update.)


When an acclaimed dramatic actor has a tough go of it as host, it’s often hard to parcel out the blame. True, Cumberbatch seems like a pleasant enough fellow, but his comic gifts seem best suited to his Sherlock Holmes’ wry menace than, say, trying on another shaggy wig and shaggier spacy American accent in the return of Gemma. There, his would-be magician (sorry, illusionist) continued to show why that sketch has only ever worked in its first incarnation, when Dwayne Johnson’s ability to inhabit an over-the-top but fully inhabited meathead provided the perfect foil for Cecily Strong’s amusingly vapid British would-be singer. Louis CK fell flat when he tried, too, but Cumberbatch just doesn’t appear to have that oversized comic character in him.

Weekend Update update

The last SNL before election day was something of a letdown, as the show, rather than gathering momentum going into Tuesday, sputtered. Maybe they’re as exhausted by this soul-devouring slog of a political season as the rest of us, but Colin Jost and Michael Che didn’t take the opportunity to deliver some final death-blows, instead delivering largely standard Clinton and Trump jokes. This season saw these two find something of an edge—better late than never, but still. Here, though, in a position to really land their takes on what has been the most divisive, ridiculous, and therefore comedy-rich election season in recent history, the jokes were… fine. Jost had to wait for the audience’s guffaws over his setup about Melania Trump’s recent campaign against cyber-bullying to subside before revealing her husband’s predictably bullying response (“Sad, fake, and gay”), which worked despite too-ludicrous-to-satirize reality. And Che’s comparison of Clinton’s astonishment that her email scandal is keeping news traction compared to what one imagines is in Trump’s computer history as, “Like giving up weed for a job interview and then losing that job to a crackhead” is decent. But, in an episode that seemed determined to bring a note of healing to a battered nation, their matching calls for common ground were pretty toothless stuff (McDonald’s all-day breakfast, getting songs stuck in our heads, not throwing out that sweater you’ll never wear), while their punchlines (we’re all going to have to endure equally endless impeachment hearings, we’re all going to die from global warming/flooding) said little. (It also didn’t help that their inspirational music cue came in late.) Che’s wondering if the Klan’s newspaper (one of the only publications in the country to endorse Trump) has a sports section had some bite to it, especially as he allowed the audience to catch up to the joke.


The rest of Update was turned over to what turned out to be a uniquely unrewarding return of a pair of beloved SNL alums. Dana Carvey brought back the Church Lady, which is nice and all, although in practice, she brought little to the desk, especially since Carvey was so low-energy in the old iron-grey wig and prim dress. You know what you’re going to get with Church Lady, as she smugly threw shade at both candidates, “the bitter female android from the 90s or a riverboat gambler with a big tummy and a giant head.” As seen in his recent stand-up special, Carvey doesn’t really do politics, and whatever laughs there were to be had here were nostalgic ones. (There was another blown music cue, too.)

And, for a New York-based sketch show, there were sure a lot of Chicago Cubs on hand tonight, although at least here they brought along Cubs fans extraordinaire Bill Murray (to thunderous and sustained applause). The conceit that there was a Voice-themed Update singing contest was just an excuse to get Murray and Cubs David Ross, Anthony Rizzo, And Dexter Fowler back out to sing Cubbies’ theme song, “Go Cubs Go,” seemingly in its entirety. Murray got a laugh sheepishly answering “I did,” to Che asking if he used to work there, but there was no real joke to the sight of four non-singers sing. Congrats and all, guys. Three of you are not funny.


Best/worst sketch of the night


Cumberbatch played a very good straight man, emoting his heart out in the filmed piece “Office Hours,” where Pete Davidson reprised his oblivious pool boy from last season as a college student blissfully unconcerned by the fact that his professor (Cumberbatch) has made a pass at him, and is going through some very heavy stuff. Davidson’s never been funnier on the show than he is as the guileless, dim Chad, his perfectly timed “my bad”s and “okay”s to Cumberbatch’s impassioned entreaties and revelations effectively painting a portrait of amiable superficiality. (“Oh no, your globe,” he exclaims flatly after Cumberbatch’s closeted prof hurls his office globe across the room in anguish.)

The other filmed piece was a decent outing for the host as well, parodying the famous Macintosh ad as he unveils a cool new toilet. Being a gamer is a big part of hosting, and Cumberbatch, sitting astride the sleek, black, backward-sitting crapper with his pants down (and lighting a cool-guy match afterward) earned him his hosting bona fides as much as his ill-fated stripper did.


And while the sight of a ticking time bomb set up hopes that there’d be another returning past cast member (there is apparently another MacGruber movie in the works, improbably), Cumberbatch’s turn as the criminal mastermind who loves the sound of his own riddles played to his strengths. The fact that we see his minions hesitantly questioning the need for such game-playing is a funny idea (Kyle Mooney’s henchman helpfully suggests making Beck Bennett’s cop guess how many marbles are in a jar instead).

But the stripper sketch, Gemma, Church Lady, Cubs singalong: Dead air.

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

Gemma, Chad.

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


Again, poised on the brink of the real world payoff to the season-long running battle between Kate McKinnon’s Hillary and Alec Baldwin’s Trump, the show went for nice rather than pointed. The cold open started out as a lesser version of the solid debate sketches we’ve gotten so far. The same jokes about Clinton’s emails getting far more attention than Trump’s unceasing parade of deepening awfulness took on a surreal edge, as McKinnon’s Hillary could only react in increasing amazement that Cecily Strong’s Erin Burnett kept ignoring Trump openly kissing an FBI agent, a klansman, and Beck Bennett’s shirtless Vladimir Putin. And Trump’s unconvincing disavowals that he’s even heard of such people/organizations (“What even is a ‘K’?”) gave McKinnon a chance to do her thing. (She lets out some great frustrated roars.) The sketch seems to be on the verge of letting her Clinton say something, listing the essential American values (plus Tic-tacs and the color orange) that Donald Trump is trampling all over in his shameless appeal to the country’s basest instincts. But the same jokes and the same takes on each figure looked to be how SNL would limp to the finish line of this election season. When the big swerve came, with Baldwin breaking character and telling McKinnon, “I just hate yelling all this stuff at you like this,” it summoned up just a spark of that live TV unpredictability that, still, makes SNL unique. (Look for the place to be fairly buzzing when the ever-unpredictable Dave Chappelle’s in the house.) When Baldwin goes on, sincerely, “I just feel gross all the time,” there’s the ring of truth to the moment—only the ugliest, most callous soul could bear witness to the spectacle of pettiness and cruelty that’s marked this seemingly endless presidential campaign and come away feeling clean.

And so, as Baldwin and McKinnon loosen their respective costume straitjackets and burst out through the 30 Rock revolving doors, their relief and joy is palpable. The setup to the piece promised another rehash of the point-scoring and the awfulness (and wasn’t even as funny as it has been) so—despite the fact that the pre-filmed nature of the bit sucked the spontaneity away—there’s a genuine catharsis in seeing the two actors seeking out different people to embrace. Baldwin finds a black man and a Latino family, McKinnon pauses, then goes in for a hug with a guy in a “Trump the bitch” T-shirt. And when they show up back in the studio, Baldwin and McKinnon try to carry over the come-together spirit of the big, hand-holding circle they formed outside, appealing to the audience that’s tuned in to watch their avatars tear into each other all season to vote, and to “choose what kind of country we want to live in.” “We can’t tell you who to vote for,” is the sort of strange even-handedness that SNL’s political comedy generally strives for. And I suppose there’s integrity to that.


Except that SNL is in the political satire business.

It’s very easy (and unspeakably dull) to call SNL lazy when it comes to its politics. As someone who has watched the show literally since its first season, the idea that there’s much room for laziness in the production of Saturday Night Live is nonsense. This is a weekly 90-minute live comedy show that—for all the sniping (that started essentially in its second season, if not before)—takes on the events of the week and tries to make it funny. Does SNL play it too safe? Is it governed by a distant father figure whose tastes are often impossible to figure out? Does it fail at making brilliant satire more often than it succeeds? Sure. Anybody who’s read these reviews over the past year knows that the guy writing them thinks the show crippled its credibility by having Donald Trump host last year. It’s a another club to beat the show with, and the harsher tone the show’s writers adopted once Trump’s list of publicly condemned infractions seemed safely egregious enough to do so was undercut by the way the show had allowed itself to be used. For noted lefty Baldwin and openly gay McKinnon to stand on that stage and not take a final bloody bite out of someone who (for all the show’s claims of even-handedness) clearly most of the SNL writers and performers have no earthly use for, and make a plea for something as benignly idealistic as voting your conscience, is a stand. I got choked up watching them. But the show is in the political satire business. It got improved ratings and big laughs going deeper and harder than usual. In the end, let’s call this a well-intentioned, even much-needed, cop-out.


I am hip to the musics of today

Solange has a cool-smooth Diana Ross vibe in her two songs tonight. I liked them. Some people like them a lot more.


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

Beck Bennett had the most screentime in an undistinguished episode, and managed to find individualistic little touches in the time bomb sketch (“But we were playing a game. This is fun!”), the ten-to-one sketch, and the game show sketch, bringing colors to himself.


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

All the ingredients were there for a good ten-to-one sketch. Weird premise, played straight? Check—Kenan and Beck make an appeal on behalf of their hospital to a rich philanthropist who turns out to be an eagle statue in a suit, Cumberbatch is the eagle’s put-upon assistant/translator. Odd escalation and detail? Yup—the initially skeptical Bennet burst out crying at the fired Cumberbatch’s plight, Cumberbatch retrieves his belongings to leave (a soccer ball and a single scuba flipper). It was what a good last sketch should be without ever quite coming together.


Stray observations

  • Kate McKinnon had a bald cap under her Hillary wig to cameo as Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One in Cumberbatch’s monologue, making appropriately bananas screeching sounds in duet.
  • SNL’s doing an Election Eve special on Monday, and I’ll be there, seeing if there are any better jokes to be had, and devouring my own stomach lining in anxiety.

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