Louis CK, Kate McKinnon (NBC)

“I’m not an actor, I’m a [standup comedy/movie/TV] star!”

When you get Louis CK (here hosting for the third time), you’re looking for a great monologue, and, again, CK delivered, with a solid seven minutes that went to some audacious places (audience gasps followed by huge laughs is a sound SNL needs more of). His material—about the “mild racism” he learned growing up in the 70’s, his daughters’ constant bickering being analogous to Israel and Palestine (“a couple of selfish little bitches who wont fix anything”), and especially his attempts to get inside the mind of child molesters (“You can only really surmise that it must be really good”)—was the kind of smartly uncomfortable comedy he’s made his stock-in-trade. And, as ever, it was the best showcase for CK of the night. As Louis protests in that Matthew Broderick cop movie segment on Louie, he’s no actor, which is sort of a disingenuous claim to make, seeing as how he’s done strong character work not only on his own show, but in disparate places like Parks And Recreation, The Invention Of Lying, Blue Jasmine, and Home Movies. Even some Louie episodes function like sketch shows—sad, bleak, and cringeworthy sketches, but still. But in his stints on SNL, there’s a shuffling bashfulness to his performances that keeps Louis distanced from the material, either because he feels over his head fronting a live TV show, or because he’s doing material that’s slightly beneath him, I’m not here to say. Whatever the reason, Louis on SNL is always fun and charmingly awkward, a combination that, nonetheless, doesn’t make for classic host material.

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The closest CK came to injecting some of his monologue’s deliberately uncomfortable energy was in the Sprint store sketch, where his new employee, caught doing an unflattering impression of his brash, African American boss-lady (Leslie Jones, naturally), decides the only way to keep his job is to keep up the ruse that his normal speaking voice is that of a stereotypically “sassy” black woman. It’s a risky idea, and the sketch doesn’t quite hit (for one thing, Jones has her second-worst blown cue of the season), but otherwise the two play off each other well, and CK’s commitment to doing something so potentially offensive is commendable. (One is reminded of Angie warning Liz Lemon, “Don’t do impressions of other races” on 30 Rock.) The captions explaining that he’s been carrying off the charade for one, then five whole years elevates the premise nicely, and there’s even a solid ending, with Jones dropping her act to talk “normal,” only to snap back into full-on stereotype mode once she’s ferreted out that Louis has been faking. (Any SNL sketch that makes an effort at a genuine ending to the premise earns points.) Otherwise, Louis was his usual, pleasantly bumbling SNL self tonight, which was only a problem in the one sketch that called for strong characterization—and that paled compared to its forbear from earlier in the season.

Weekend Update update

Oh, Jost/Che era, we hardly knew ye. Or knew ye, but struggled to remember ye, whichever. In their final Update of the season (or longer), Colin Jost and Michael Che worked competently in the low-key, forgettable groove they’ve found over the course of season 40. No groaners, no huge laughs, a few minor chuckles. Che’s line about the possibility of a Harriet Tubman twenty dollar bill was best (“A move that could have racists all over saying, ‘can I get that in tens?’)—I heard someone make a similar joke on @midnight earlier this week, but SNL can’t get accused of stealing every funny idea (see the stray observations for more on that). No, this season’s Update went out as it came in—it was fine.

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The correspondents were fine, too, with Pete Davidson doing his usual self-effacing cutie-pie thing, coming out to celebrate his 21st birthday (holy crap, that’s young) by being mumbly and sort of charming. Taking the bull by the horns, he wondered how he ever got on the show (“Did my mom see an NBC executive run over a kid and then drive off?”), since he doesn’t do impressions, or have much range. The answer, of course, is in the appearance here—Pete’s young, and kind of adorable, and Lorne clearly likes him.

Taran Killam’s appearance as beleaguered Patriots QB Tom Brady had more of a motor to it, as Killam channeled Brady’s beaming, ingratiating charm (and refusal to answer any direct question about “deflategate” with anything but meaningless non-answers) to very funny effect. Charming the pants off the hero-worshipping Jost, Brady eventually seems ready to succumb to Che’s relentless questioning, only to snap back into Tom Terrific mode just in time (“I’ve got one thing to say to you—I have no comment at this time.”) It’s the sort of sustained character work Killam’s so adept at—especially when he’s allowed to play someone as prone to toothy, dead-eyed narcissism. (I’m a Pats fan, but, c’mon, Tommy—just say the words we all know are true. Jeez)

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Thankfully, the last Update of the season closed out with a return from Bobby Moynihan’s Riblet, Che’s supposed high school friend who, once again, dropped his badgering about how he’s better at Che’s “jorb” than Che is only to prove it by seamlessly reading a few solid jokes. Again, Riblet seems like something of a raw burn on Che’s habitual awkwardness behind the desk, but the character is solid, and Moynihan and Che play off each other well. And Riblet serving himself up one final mic drop on this year of Update seems an appropriate way to put an underwhelming year to bed. Riblet out.

Best/Worst sketch of the night

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I’m disqualifying CK’s monologue from consideration, since it wasn’t a sketch (my review, my rules), so the top spot in an underwhelming show goes to the police lineup sketch, where CK, Taran Killam, Kyle Mooney, and Beck Bennett played pretentious actors brought in to repeat the lines a mugger said to Pete Davidson outside a theater. Making fun of self-serious actors might not be the most challenging concept, but the four guys here made the most of the bit, creating four uniquely silly characters whose inability to turn off their egos means they’re essentially auditioning for jail. Everyone’s funny in it, finding distinct deliveries and cadences, and the twist that Bennett’s actor is having so much trouble delivering because he’s the mugger and the whole experience is “too personal” for him is a solid capper. Again—always points for an actual ending.

The shoemaker and the elves sketch coasted on Kenan Thompson and Vanessa Bayer’s creepily cheerful performances as their kinky elves gradually revealed that they’ve been slacking off so Louis’ shoemaker will…do stuff to them. It’s adorable, edging into disturbing. Louis never got into his character, but his delivery of the line “I’m not going to go to the restroom upon you” made me laugh. I’d say points off for not having an ending, but that’s just standard SNL procedure.

The lumberjack runner, with CK as a tearful woodchopper bearing stoic witness to people not using toothpicks and preferring ebooks to paper ones was mainly funny for Beck Bennett’s over-emoted theme song, but the whole thing seemed like it was building to a reveal that never came.

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The worst sketch by far was the reprise of the double date sketch from the excellent Dwayne Johnson episode back in March. In that sketch—the best one of a great show—the engine was Johnson’s fully committed characterization of the bulldozing, boundary-free, motormouth boyfriend (still the finest acting I’ve ever seen him do) to Cecily Strong’s hilariously oblivious British twit would-be singer. Here, the role is picked up by CK (as a new guy), with a calamitous plunge in energy and commitment, and the sketch just dies. I’d love to see Louis dive right into a broad jabroni character like this, but he doesn’t come close to doing so here, instead looking and sounding embarrassed and fatally uncertain. Strong’s characterization is still funny and precise, but the sketch lazily wheels out the exact same jokes (Strong demands an enormous amount of shrimp instead of onion rings), and, sans Johnson, there’s just nothing here.

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

In the cold open, Kate McKinnon’s reign as the maniacally driven Hillary Clinton continued. The show’s conception of Clinton as a crazy-eyed careerist who can’t connect with normal Americans is clearly locked in at this point. (“Hey there 18-25 year olds, how does it all hang?”) It’s not a bad jumping off point for however many months/years of Clinton candidacy/presidency we end up with, especially considering how McKinnon’s signature steely comic intensity sparks off of the impression. Good SNL presidential impersonators have worked from similarly one-note concepts and spun them out into years of classic comedy, so there’s no reason McKinnon can’t do the same. Besides the impression itself, the sketch was a nice goodbye for the whole cast (some of whom, no doubt, appearing on their last show). As they all joined in singing about the first days of summer (and singing the “Live from New York” together), I got a little misty. Starting the show by giving everyone a shot at a musical sendoff was a sweet idea.

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Reese De’ What was back with another Forgotten Television Gems, providing Kenan Thompson with another chance to do the same schtick, as De’ What introduced the abortive 1950s TV non-classic “Whoops, I Married A Lesbian.” The parody gave Kate McKinnon and Aidy Bryant an opportunity to do some 50s-style sitcom acting (and some humorously chaste bird-peck kissing), but this wasn’t up to Louis’ previous appearance, where he teamed up with McKinnon and Bill Hader for a tour of forgotten Australian non-masterpieces. As with all but the strongest recurring sketches, these De’ What bits have found a safe level of diminishing returns. (The 50s, male-written idea of McKinnon and Bryant being lesbians by vacuuming while holding hands was a nice touch, though.)

We already covered that double date sketch.

I am hip to the musics of today

Rihanna is a striking performer, tonight using visuals as much as her always-interesting music to create some pop performance art. (I especially liked how the back-projected cop cars chasing her in the first number gradually formed a moving circle behind her. Neat.)

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

It’s clear that, going forward, Kate McKinnon is the chosen one, her coronation as the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate cementing her place in the top spot. Luckily, she deserves it—in a cast seemingly as comfortable with the ensemble concept as any in recent memory, McKinnon’s star status is less showy than, say, Kristen Wiig’s was, but it’s still impressive and consistently entertaining.

No least valuable tonight—call me a sap, but, at the end of a long, hard season, I’ll just stick up a postcard here of the whole cast singing onstage in the opener. SNL is a hard gig—maybe the hardest on television. A grateful “see you next season” to everyone who made it to the end. (And, because I’m a cold-hearted bastard, check the stray observations to see which cast members I think are going to get the axe.)

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

Reese De’ What also functioned as the last Ten-To-Oneland sketch of the season, which was too bad. Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett haven’t been given this slot in too long—which may mean they never get it again.

Stray observations:

  • “My last vacation was in 1953. I played one round of hopscotch with a friend. I found it tedious.”
  • “You know what else is cool? In two years, I’ll be 69. Bill told me to tell that to young males.”
  • “Women shouldn’t be on money, they should be paid the same amount of money…and Michael Che shouldn’t be paid at all!”
  • “The Chinese government has banned its soldiers from wearing the Apple Watch. Said one soldier, ‘But my daughter made it for me!’”
  • “The doctor told him there’s a good chance he’s gonna die in me.”

SNL Vintage report: Man, remember when everyone wasn’t tired of/annoyed with Kevin Spacey? I cut him slack for years for busting out a William Hurt impression alone. That being said, I can only hope that that audience—which barely tittered at Michael Palin and John Cleese doing classic Python sketches—has found a way to navigate the intervening two decades without any sense of humor or appreciation for what’s good and true and beautiful whatsoever. (Seriously, screw that audience.)

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On that Muhammad sketch: Joke thievery in a world where everything ever broadcast is available with a simple Google search is a fool’s errand. And while SNL has been called out—sometimes quite rightly—for appropriating others’ ideas, this sketch from last week (where a poor sap is tasked with drawing “the Prophet Muhammad” on a Pictionary-style game show) seems more a case of that nebulous “parallel thought” phenomenon. While startlingly similar in concept to a sketch on a Canadian show called This Hour Has 22 Minutes which aired in January, it’s a comic conceit the recent “draw Muhammad” Texas art contest/deliberate provocation/predictable idiots shooting people incident earlier this month could easily engender. (“Drawing Muhammad drives some extremists to violence…we do a lot of game show parodies…what about a Pictionary show where some guy has to draw Muhammed?”) Even the punchline, with the guy’s wife deciphering his unwillingness to draw as “the Prophet Muhammad”—present in both sketches—is an inescapable wrap-up, following that train of logic. Plus, there’s simply no percentage in stealing sketch ideas on SNL any more. It’s been done—Jay Mohr is open about how he lifted a sketch from comedian Rick Shapiro in the early 90s, and even Lorne was caught swiping a police lineup sketch from a National Lampoon cartoon by Brian McConnachie for the legendary Richard Pryor episode (McConnachie didn’t raise a stink, and eventually wrote for SNL)—but, even in the competitive Thunderdome that is the SNL writers room, simply cut-and-pasting a recent, existing sketch is a sure ticket out of 30 Rock. (On the other hand, that Tina Turner sketch from last season is such a specific, strange idea, that its apparent theft—from the Groundlings this time—may invalidate everything I just said. Don’t steal jokes, kids.)

Featured player report: In a season marked by blandness, the failure of the current crop of featured players to assert themselves was a major weakness. The “and featuring” crew is supposed to be the launch pad for the new kids to work their way into the main rotation, but, for the second year in a row, no one’s made enough of an impression to make graduation a sure thing. Unlike last year, when three featured players were clearly just waiting for the axe, this year’s j.v. is, for various reasons, more of a puzzle.

Sasheer Zamata. Put into an impossible position when her hiring was—in perception if not reality—forced on Lorne Michaels in an external diversity push, Zamata has, nonetheless, not done much to distinguish herself on the show. SNL’s monochromatic sensibilities (not to mention overwhelming male-centric ones) are deeply rooted in the show’s makeup, right from its birth, and the calls for a more diverse cast before last season weren’t wrong. But they did drop Sasheer into a no-win situation, one that continues into the off season. If she’s kept on despite—let’s face it—not creating a single memorable character in her two years on the show, then her retention will be seen as Michaels not wanting to piss people off. If she’s let go, it’ll just piss people off. Her only hope after being subjected to judgements which had nothing to do with her abilities was to emerge as an undeniable, magnetic comic force (see: Murphy, Eddie and Rudolph, Maya), one who shattered all the ancillary bullshit simply by being indisputably brilliant on the show. As bright and confident a performer as she’s been (to the extent that she’s been given a chance), I can’t imagine anyone saying that Zamata has been that. Prediction: I honestly have no idea—but I know whatever happens will be unfair to a good comic actress who was ever under unwarranted scrutiny. If I had to pick, I’d say she goes.

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Beck Bennett and Kyle Mooney. Brought in as a team to inject their singular, often brilliantly weird brand of humor into the show, they’ve, instead, faded into the background. I thought Bennet, at least, would have graduated, thanks to one broad breakout character (that baby CEO) of the type that Michaels has a weakness for, and his comfort essaying the sort of deadpan talk show/game show host roles Bill Hader used to make his own. But Bennett and Mooney’s filmed pieces have become scarcer (with Mike O’Brien’s taking a more prominent role), and the pair (especially the enduringly odd Mooney) more relegated to small parts. Prediction: I think they part ways with the show as a team. If it were going to happen, it would have—it seems clear that the concept of them as the next Lonely Island digital shorts guys hasn’t taken hold.

Pete Davidson. Pushed hard in his first appearances, Davidson’s cooled some, although his position as the cast’s goofy, cute stoner little brother has taken on some life. Davidson hasn’t shown much range, but Michaels seems as smitten as everyone else. Prediction: He stays, and gets promoted.

Leslie Jones. Another woman of color hired in the diversity controversy (initially as a writer), Jones has made more of a splash than Zamata on camera, although opinion is sharply divided on whether that’s a good thing. I appreciate her more on Update as herself than as a sketch performer, where her one-note brashness couples with still-unsteady performances. (In a cast infamous for blowing lines, Jones remains the undisputed queen.) God knows the show needs to broaden its comic voice, a conflict never more evident as in the amusing contrast between Jones and her chosen comic foil at the desk, Colin Jost. Prediction: She stays in the writers’ room and makes the occasional Update appearance. Plus, she’s a Ghostbuster now—she doesn’t need this.

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Colin Jost and Michael Che. Update isn’t working. That’s not a secret, but it bears examining why, and the co-anchors are the biggest problem. Update needs to be SNL’s mid-show wake-up alarm, a sharp, energetic, and confident intrusion of the real world into the night’s comedy. (Not that the show proper couldn’t use more of that.) Instead, Jost’s affect as Seth Meyers’ spoiled little brother combines with an unadventurous political sensibility to make Update—pleasantly inoffensive, I guess is the phrase I’m looking for. Che has more potential to inject some danger into the show—he’s made a few jokes at the expense of complacent American exceptionalism that have elicited satisfying gasps from the audience—but, despite his Daily Show pedigree, he hasn’t been especially sharp, either. (Plus, it has to be mentioned, he blows a lot of jokes.) Not to overdo the comparison, but the reason why shows like The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, or Last Week Tonight resonate is their ability/willingness to take hold of something hypocritical or just plain wrong in the political or public sphere and shake it until it’s in tatters. Update, which, at its best, has functioned like a miniature version of those shows, too often settles for a lazy nip before moving on. A strong comic voice in the person of the anchor can overcome SNL‘s traditional lack of bite to an extent, but with two tentative anchors, this Update remains awfully—to bury the well-worn metaphor—toothless. Prediction (and hope): They go.

Whew. That’s a wrap on SNL season 40, gang. Thanks for reading—as ever, being allowed to review one of my favorite shows of all time is an honor. See you in the fall.

Episode and season grade: B-

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