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Saturday Night Live can't quite squander Fleabag's Phoebe Waller-Bridge, but it tries

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“Back in the day, horny women were to be feared, and now they’re given Emmys.”

“I’m not an actor, I’m a [sexually depraved, foul-mouthed, and dangerous] TV star!”

Look, SNL tried to pigeonhole Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the Fleabag creator and star just wasn’t having it. Sure, they crammed her into the Claire Foy box with that letters home from war sketch, apparently now a go-to rite of passage for talented British actresses. And she had to play straight-woman in an inevitable royal family sketch, since, again, she is British. But Waller-Bridge staked out her territory in a longer than usual for a non-standup monologue and hurled herself into every opportunity to go big in her first Saturday Night Live showcase. Unsurprisingly, PWB was impressively bold, right up to and including her turn as one of a quartet of female barroom rowdies in the ten-to-one sketch, going belly-laugh to belly-laugh with champion buffoons Aidy, Kate, and Cecily. There were some wheezy sketches—recurring and “new”—which was baffling, considering who the show had on hand. But Waller-Bridge seemed to relish the chance to have fun, while anchoring even the flimsiest premises with the expected cheeky aplomb.

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Best/Worst sketch of the night

The newscaster four-hander stood above (although Kenan elevated more than one sketch tonight), not as much for the boldness of the premise as for the all-around confident performances. The premise that the white (PWB and Alex Moffat) and black (Kenan, Ego Nowdim, and weatherman Chris Redd) anchors root for each successive crime story’s suspect to be of the others’ race isn’t new, per se, but anytime SNL puts race at the center of a sketch and doesn’t completely shank it gets extra points. And everybody involved (especially Ego and Kenan) is exceptionally good at finding the right note of practiced but enthusiastic gamesmanship that’s clearly turned their newsroom into a placidly divided media workplace for a long time. Again, I can think of lots of comics who’ve used the premise of keeping score on the news as a form of cultural self-defense and/or attack, but the way the anchors engage so openly in the contest at least allows the suggestion of deeper sociological ambitions in play. (“Good game, good game,” Kenan’s victorious anchor tells Waller-Bridge’s crestfallen colleague, extending his hand.) But it’s really the performances that sell the joke—Nwodim’s never been as relaxedly funny on SNL, and she and Kenan find a rhythm that’s delightfully sly and funny to watch.

Kenan killed it once more in that royal romance sketch, basically prepping the Rudy Ray Moore ground for Eddie Murphy’s long-anticipated hosting gig on SNL’s Christmas show. As American comedian, blaxploitation star, and dubious karate expert Jimmy Jay Robinson (aka Thunderstick), star of such Dolemite-looking flicks as The Return Of Petey Biscuit-Bits, Ho Ho Hi Ya, and the exquisitely on-point Bitch, I Will Shoot You Right In The Face, Thompson hilariously channeled his infamously foul-mouthed star’s claim of being “both ahead of and way behind my time.” Having engaged in a whirlwind (or Human Tornado) romance with Waller-Bridge’s stuffy minor royal the Duchess of Clerkenwell, Thunderstick is seen bringing his unique brand of party album crudity and portly action star swagger to the halls of the insanely proper. Thompson makes Thunderstick’s disruptive antics thoroughly entertaining, the entertainer’s unimpressed bravado coming across like telling dirty limericks at Prince William’s christening and air-humping a palace ottoman ain’t no big thing at all. PWB didn’t get to do much but sit up straight and relate Thunderstick’s knighting of Sir Mixalot with a straight face, but sometimes you just let Kenan do his thing.

The Love Island British reality dating show was mostly a parade of regional UK accents tarting up another filmed piece about how those reality dating shows are bait for un-self-aware, dim exhibitionists. (The announcer assures us that Great Britain, like America, has plenty of “100 percent pure-grade trash.”) But everyone was at least putting everything they had into the bit, with lone actual Brit Waller-Bridge leading the way with her botox-happy contestant whose father was a boxer and mother was a pub. Cecily went Liverpool, Chloe Fineman’s Irish player was from “the part of Ireland where the soil is bones,” and Aidy got stuck in a pair of beanbag chairs and revealed that her makeup-less face is literally just a Steve Oedekerk-style thumb, at least tossing in a bit of absurdity to the staling mix. Oh yeah, let’s also throw “reality show parodies” onto the scrap-heap for a season. (See below.) Just see if literally anything else comes to mind.

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Weekend Update update

Hey, so Donald Trump is heading for impeachment finally, a gathering political storm strewing material aplenty for Jost and Che to rummage through. And while we got an extra-long Update tonight—making up for last week’s mid-show afterthought—the pair spent comparatively little time delving particularly deep into the mess. Well at least, unlike a certain president I could name, it looks like they’ll have plenty of time to write some more trenchant jokes about the collapsing house of marked cards that is the Trump administration. Che had one solid observation about Trump continually hanging onto the “no quid pro quo” talking point for dear life concerning that whole “blackmail a foreign power into helping him dig up dirt to sway an American election” thing, noting that a noted non-scholar like Trump whipping out so much Latin is like “guys who can barely count, but somehow can tell you exactly how much cocaine you can get caught with before that’s considered trafficking.” (“That’s three grams, by the way,” added Che, expertly capping a laugh with a different, and bigger one.)

Che was even better when constructing a bit around Trump’s [gathers strength to type this] proposal to bolster the effectiveness of his pet Game Of Thrones wall with an alligator- and snake-filled moat. “I don’t know how to say this, but are we sure its okay to make fun of this guy?,” Che asked, gingerly skirting around the issue of the mental fitness of the person with the nuclear football, and following up with an Of Mice And Men comparison. “Remember how Lenny was really . . . strong?,” teased out Che, waiting for the audience to catch up. Later, after Jost’s joke about the band Nickelback suing to stop Trump from using their music in an insulting Twitter meme (“A sentence that, if you had said it at any other time in history would have meant you were in the middle of a stroke.”), Che piped in from offscreen, “See! He’s strong!,” stealing the biggest laugh once more. (He again waited for the laugh after ending a joke about the number of “carjackings” caused by a recent porn-hacked electronic billboard, adding accurately, “That’s a smart joke.”)

As good as Che was tonight, new kid Bowen Yang stole Update. As Chen Biao, the Chinese official in charge of tariffs, Yang, for one thing, showed SNL just how much more you can do with an ethnic role when you—wait for it—have an actual cast member of that ethnicity bringing more shades to the role than whatever amount of makeup you slather on a white guy. Who knew? Yang’s Biao was a fully formed character independent of his role as “Chinese guy,” his condescending responses to Trump’s disastrously ill-advised trade war with the economic giant Biao serves equally concerned with reveling in the rush of attention and power his suddenly vital government job affords him. Starting out in Chinese, Yang responded to the confused Che asking if he speaks English by exploding happily, “Yes, fluently, and that’s called a power move! What’s up, Che?” Yang’s Biao revealed the bitchy diva within his buttoned-down bureaucrat throughout, turning every trade concern into an opportunity to mock Americans’ hubris. Pronouncing himself “100 percent that trade daddy,” and announcing his arrival as “the Lizzo of China,” Yang’s Biao crowed, “This is my time, I’m having my moment,” and, from Yang’s first big showcase, I’d say that that’s about right for him, too.

Kate McKinnon’s Elizabeth Warren came back, this time to mock the latest, immediately debunked inept hit job from farcically awful-at-this “Republican operatives” Jacob Wohl and Jack Burkman that Warren [deep, cleansing breath before typing once again] has been engaged in what McKinnon’s Warren summed up as “transactional sex with a younger man.” “Yeah, that’s Elizabeth Warren’s vibe for sure,” beamed McKinnon, barely able to contain her triumphant amusement. McKinnon’s political impressions aren’t all gold—it’s more stunt- than good casting to slap her in a suit to play every other male member of the Trump administration. But her Warren, in addition to being uncanny, is a huge leap in internalized impersonation over her Hillary Clinton. Here happily interrupting Jost to call some of the individual small donors who’ve given to her burgeoning campaign, Warren interrupted the doctor’s appointment of one woman who chipped in two bucks and a Duane Read coupon before sending a call out to Che, who it turns out donated ten grand on the strength of the whole “BDSM affair with a hunky Marine” rumors, desperately false as it may be. (It is.)

Mikey Day brought back supercentenarian news correspondent Mort Fellner to deliver updates on some of the recent accomplishments of his fellow over-110 citizens. That they all died immediately after said milestones is the joke, although at least Day’s Tim Kazurinsky-esque little old man voice buoyed the bit a bit, his unflagging enthusiasm at least lending the one-joke joke some energy.

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

For the second week in a row, the cold open was the worst sketch on display, but that gets its own section, so it’s hard to think of a less excitingly original way to come back after the monologue than with the recurring game show sad trombone of What’s Wrong With This Picture? It was . . . fine the first time, but hardly the big winner you’d bet was destined for the franchise tag, and this outing was comparatively limp, fialing to find the escalating groove any “dumb contestant” sketch requires. Kenan did his best (he’s no Bill Hader, but he can take the thankless game show host role and make something out of it better than most) to nudge the premise along, but Aidy, Kyle Mooney, and Waller-Bridge’s very wrong guesses never built momentum, and, as a starting point for the night’s sketches proper, this was a harbinger of spent ideas to come. I just keep throwing it out there, but, as an exercise, what about a season-long moratorium on talk- and game-show sketches? You know, just see what other sketch forms there could possibly be in the entire world. (Negative points for giving PWB a stinker of a fart joke.)

“The War In Words” sketch, like last season’s other returner tonight, was worth a few chuckles last time out, with Mikey Day’s British soldier losing his moony-eye epistolary reserve once his beloved wife (Waller-Bridge here) keeps dropping in absurd/alarmingly abrupt news from home in her replies. Calling out Saturday Night Live for bringing back sketches is akin to chiding your mom about calling to tell you who’s died recently, but that doesn’t make either experience something to look forward to particularly. I’ve said before that the (very) few recurring bits that never wore me out are numbered on one hand (Herb Welch, Stefon, “Get In The Cage,” maybe “Bronx Beat” and “What’s Up With That?”), and that’s mainly due to performance trumping the familiarity of decreasing returns. Here, Day’s increasing exasperation is merely serviceable, his stiff upper lip chafing uner PWB’s successive absurd leaps of correspondence. (She’s clearly lost their dog, both his parents are dead, and she somehow would up on holiday with Hitler.) The one turn of phrase from Day that captured the clammy panic of his character’s letters is his polite demand for clarification, “Also rabidly curious about the Hitler of it all.”

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Plus Mort Fellner.

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

Well, Alec Baldwin took the week off, so that’s something. But, as yawningly broad and dull as it is, Baldwin’s Trump impression is never the worst thing about these Trump era cold opens. Subbing in Beck Bennett’s sonorously boring Mike Pence (alongside supporting collaborators Kate’s ghoul-like Giuliani an Aidy’s indifferent William Barr) just illustrates how bluntly written these pieces have become. Pence’s vocal attacks on the LGBTQ community stem from his secret gayness? Check. Rudy as self-incriminatingly loose-lipped Nosferatu? Sure. I do appreciate the continuation of Trump’s most nakedly evil henchmen being portrayed in absurdist turns rather than making up a cast member to try to make the hateful white supremacist Wormtongue antics of the likes of Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller funny, so the Miller as cobra conceit works better. (Especially as his hissing, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi satanic gibberish is far more evocative than anything the writers of these pieces could come up with, clearly.) Less profitably, Lorne dipped into his contact list to bring in yet another big celebrity ringer in the form of Matthew Broderick this time, basically doing a less-interesting Cooter Burger as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. That Trump and his people are guilty of (among many, many other things) fucking with American democracy by extorting other counties is obvious (only partly because Trump keeps publicly bragging about it when not throwing everyone around him under the bus), and theoretically fruitful territory should SNL want to keep up these White House cold opens going forward. But here the whole thing revolved around some mediocre impressions, no instinct or desire to penetrate the skin of these figures’ motivations with any depth at all, and, in deference to Broderick’s listless participation, some super-timely Ferris Bueller references. I won’t say this was worse than last week’s Baldwin-fronted opener, but good god, it was no better. (Oh, Kate’s Giuliani donned Joker makeup because—topical?)

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I am hip to the musics of today

Every heard of this Taylor Swift? Not a bad singer, especially in her first number, the achingly lovely piano ballad, “Lover.” Not being a super-Swiftie myself, I defer to those clearly thrilled at the singer’s appearances here, although I was more partial to “Lover” than the swagger-y swing-soul of “False God,” which at least gave SNL’s venerable bandleader and former tower of the Tower Of Power, Lenny Pickett’s ever-smooth sax work. Oh, and congrats on finally denouncing those Nazis, Taylor!

Most/Least valuable Not Ready For Prime Time Player

Well, Pete Davidson gets a did not attend for the second week in a row kicking off season 45, so it’s sort of his “least” spot by default. But Melissa Villaseñor and Heidi Gardner were conspicuously absent but for the goodnights.

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Of course, that did give new hires Fineman and especially Yang time to shine, which they both admirably did. And here’s to second-year new kid Ego Nwodim who had her best role yet, and showed what an asset she can be, should the show decide to actually use her this season.

But it was the old guard who ran game tonight, with Aidy, Kate, and Cecily all turning in multi-role goodness. That said, Kenan takes the top spot, with Thunderstick sealing the victory.

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

The bar sketch that closed the night (not another Sheila Sauvage thankfully) gave Kate, Cecily, and Aidy a chance to dress and act way down as a trio of down-home barflies who, along with pal PWB, took turns pretending to be over their Guitar Center dirtbag ex (Beck). As far as these sorts of swing-for-the-cheap-seats yahoo showcases go, it at least had the energy of four very funny and game women doing some gleefully physical comedy, complete with an escalating series of violent attacks on the playing-along Bennett. Strong coming out fast with the final assault of an electric guitar right to Beck’s kisser was the sort of abrupt big finish the piece was built for. Other than that, the funniest thing was how big the four women were willing to go with their drawn-out, leather-lunged drawls, including the all-in Waller-Bridge’s tale of woe about receiving “a big ol’ surprise vagina-mash” thanks to some carelessly discarded sheet metal. Is the sketch as funny as it would likely be to watch the actual Waller-Brdge, Bryant, McKinnon, and Strong get drunk and goof around as themselves? Probably not, but, as with much of what she was up for tonight, PWB gave some so-so material everything she had.

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Stray observations

  • There may have been another ten-to-one sketch that got lopped off, considering that the last ad break came back just to let the band vamp for a minute before cutting back to another commercial.
  • Two references tonight to the continued absence of Pete Davidson, the funnier of which saw Jost finishing off a joke about a man still looking for his parked car a week after a music festival with, “Well, we hope you make it back soon, Pete.” (Supposedly, he’s actually off filming his as-yet-unrevealed role in James Gunn’s Suicide Squad sequel.)
  • Bennett’s Pence, referring to the White House crime crew getting its stories straight, muses, “Even if they’re not straight now they could still be converted to straight.” See, because “Mike Pence is in the closet” is the easiest joke to make about that guy. But still, Pence believes in conversion therapy, so screw that guy.
  • “It’s a great time to be a psychopath right now. They’re really having a moment, don’t you think?”
  • Waller-Bridge also makes mention of Fleabag’s “hot priest” heat, dubbing the fan thirst for Andrew Scott’s character “a horn-storm.”
  • The clincher in the newscasters’ race-contest comes when the final story leads with details about a mass shooter dressed as the Joker. (“Dammit!,” concedes Moffat.)
  • As pretty as Swift’s version of “Lover,” her all-green ensemble in front of an all-green painted piano distracted me with thoughts she was going to be green-screened the whole time.
  • Warren brags about taking selfies with “every Warby Parker customer in America.”
  • Jost’s comedy daddy issues continue: “A new study finds that cats actually bond with people like dogs do, but they’re too aloof to show it. Which is why I named my cat ‘Dad.’”
  • Next week, we’ve got everyone’s favorite sheriff and second-favorite Hellboy, David Harbour, alongside musical guest Camila Cabello. Join me, won’t you?
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About the author

Dennis Perkins

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