Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Saturday Night Live returns to a changed world looking very much the same

Chris Rock hosts Saturday Night Live
Chris Rock hosts Saturday Night Live
Photo: NBC
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“Just stand here and look lucid.”

I’m not an actor, I’m a [TV, movie, formerly neglected Saturday Night Live] star!!

Doing the late-night rounds in preparation for kicking off Saturday Night Live’s 46th season, host Chris Rock confided that he wasn’t sure what the show was going to look like. As it turns out, Season 46 SNL looks a whole lot like Season 45 SNL. Sure there were some noticeable differences around the margins in the season premiere. Rock did his monologue temporarily clutching his protective mask in his left hand, and noted that the sparse, mask-wearing groupings on the coveted floor seats were all first responders. His monologue wasn’t up to the standards he himself has set for a Chris Rock SNL set, but he got the biggest tension-relief laugh by joking that the brave medical personnel “let people die tonight” to be there. Bandleader Lenny Pickett’s mask hung from his ear when he played his sax, while the SNL band played behind individual plexiglass spit-shields, and the goodnights saw the overflowing cast and guests exchanging far fewer post-show hugs than usual. (Aidy Bryant and Melissa Villaseñor did a hygienic elbow bump.) The interstitial backstage prep saw fewer stagehands setting up the next sketch, and I’m pretty sure I spotted an on-set nurse at one point.

It’s a different world even than the one the show confronted back in March, when SNL wisely fled Studio 8H for hand-drawn backdrops and Zoom sketches, and we all hoped that this 46th season would see the show—and the world—creeping back toward something like normal. Whatever that could possibly mean. But the comedy cruise ship that is Saturday Night Live doesn’t change course much these, well, decades, and this first episode delivered exactly the sort of down-the-middle lounge act it’s settled into in recent memory. A cameo-happy bid for isolated YouTube views and Sunday morning roundtable show references, a ludicrously underserved and over-full cast rushing through some indifferent sketches, a few standout performance pops—in a TV world (and, you know, world) calling out for innovative ways of making comedy out of chaos, pain, and a democracy at a perilous tipping point, Saturday Night Live was, in its first outing, satisfied to steam ahead as if self-satisfied mediocrity were enough. It is—and I cannot state this forcefully enough—not.

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Rock himself has never been the most assured live sketch guy. He’s getting decent reviews for stretching his dramatic range in Fargo, and nobody can fault his filmmaking ambition, at least. But, here, he was cue card-heavy and hesitant as someone who hadn’t been a cast member for three years. His monologue was better, naturally, although, again, he’s been better at injecting energy into his hosting gigs with some bracing stand-up. It’s tempting to cut this initial live outing of the COVID era some slack, so I’ll do just that. The direction tonight echoed more with missed camera cues and directorial stiffness than the socially distanced, less densely packed audience reactions. I actually found the necessarily sparse laughs kind of energizing, feeling more spontaneous and, well, human than the usual applause-sign automatic response. Hearing an individual, distinctive laugh from an off-camera audience gave Rock’s monologue, at times, a more intimate feel, which worked in his favor. Plus, there was a more on-the-run feel to the camera movements throughout, which hinted at the jolting changes the show has gone through over the summer, as hard as SNL tried to hide them.

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Rock’s set was fine, of course. He’s Rock. The show’s Trump material all night had to walk the line of traditional Trump mockery and everyone’s acute knowledge that—despite hazy half-truths, conflicting messages, and ginned-up proof of life videos emanating from the ever-shifty White House—Donald Trump is currently sick with the very virus he’s been woefully unwilling and unable to confront in his capacity as leader. Rock did the old switcheroo in referencing Trump’s current hospitalization, feigning sincerity as said “My heart goes out, to COVID.” That’s about as hard as Rock went, though, as he forewent his signature fire-spitting in favor of watered-down takes on a checklist of political topics. (Term limits, Democrats not wanting to seize the moment, Anderson Cooper’s relatable chumminess versus Sean Hannity’s at least car crash-compelling lunacy.) Not to quote Donald Trump any more than is safe, but, like the show that followed, this first monologue was uncharacteristically low-energy.

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Best/Worst Sketch Of The Night

The Best: Since expectations should be sufficiently tempered at this point, I’ll throw a little love to a late-show sketch about nothing but itself and some funny performances. The stunt performer informational film started out as a funny enough exhibition of physical comedy, with rough-and-tumble stand-ins Mikey Day, Ego Nwodim, and Chris Redd exchanging some niftily choreographed to-camera remote jabs and kicks, before revealing that its real target is the middle-aged stunt work of Aidy Bryant and Kate McKinnon’s character actor helpers. Specializing in taking crotch-kicks, head-clonks, and strategic dog-vagina bites in “kid-friendly” comedies, the troupers unassumingly show off the stunt skills that have made them staples of such films as Cool Kid Library (where Aidy played “rude shusher”), Camp Bitch, and Nurse Wedgie. Kate and Aidy are a comedy team of all time, and they’re never better than when their characters are super-serious about something silly. And the joke that the only way to stop an overeager, vagina-biting dog performer is to cut its head off is just a weird enough laugh to net this unassuming but tightly conceived sketch the top of an indifferent heap.

The worst: The NBA Bubble Draft. Women, amirite? Anyone? With a world of pandemic-related comic targets out there, it’s sort of comforting to see that Saturday Night Live still makes a home for “women are objects” comedy on the reg. With Rock (stiffly presiding as the unfunnily funny-named Patrice Soupsalad), the sketch presents itself as the way that sequestered NBA superstars choose their “first wives, second wives, mistresses, and side-pieces,” allowing various stereotypes of each to do their thing. As noted, SNL decided that simply heaping three more featured players onto an already 17-member cast was a swell idea, so this was the biggest showcase for newbies Punkie Johnson and Lauren Holt, so welcome to the show. (Other new onscreen talent Andrew Dismukes got his one line delivering Johnson’s inadequately sequestered would-be bubble girlfriend her ill-advised hot wings.) The sketch didn’t even go in for an NBA player impression, with Redd’s anonymous lustful baller going off the board to pick musical guest Megan Thee Stallion, who came armed with her online shopping list. At least opening sketch all-star Maya Rudolph stuck around to play the one dignified woman in the room, a player’s loyal, accomplished longtime wife who discovers, with admirably controlled anger, that she could have been in the bubble alongside her husband this whole time. A quick-hit parade of caricatures sketch is as good a way as any to give stage-starved cast members a line or two, I guess, but this was obvious, limp, and sort of ugly. (“You can’t keep a good ho’ down,” the sketch would like you to remember, please.)

The rest: Nobody said making jokes in the midst of [checking notes] constitutional, medical, moral, election, racial, white supremacist terrorism, economic crises was easy, so why not go for the easiest possible laughs, right? The funny name sketch was about funny names. That’s the joke. The writers room didn’t go for “Mike Hunt,” but their bulletin board winners did include “Finn Gerbangh,” “Edith Puthie,” “Tess Tichol,” and “Mike Litt,” which is as close to “Mike Hunt” as NBC allowed. Nobody loves a great funny name joke more than—some people. And who couldn’t use a good, rude, silly, blessedly free from all relevance yuck nowadays. Plus, Beck Bennett made his “Mike Rodick”’s lifetime’s obsession with how much of a pause people but between his names pretty funny. (And I did smile at the guilty cleverness of “Duncan Dixon-Coffey” and “Moe Lestin Jr.,” so sue me.) And wrapping the whole gag in a story about a super-spreader event at the name-changing government office served to offer up a preview of how even innocuously stupid shit is going to have to incorporate what’s passing for real life in 2020.

Chris Redd’s been killing the music video parodies since he joined up, and the whisper-sexy pandemic seduction anthem “Hello,” while not his best, is certainly as lovingly crafted and performed as usual. The joke being that his (and Pete Davidson and Kenan’s) crooning suitors still haven’t seen what’s under their respective dates’ PPE. Catchy and performed with sonorously sexy gusto by Redd (and with energetic chip-ins from Rock, and Ego Nwodim and Megan, slapping back with the women’s perspective), it’s the weird little dating anthem of our times.

Sometimes a nothing sketch finds a funny out that makes it hard to really dislike. The future ghost sketch, with Kyle Mooney’s 2000 slacker not getting the point of specter Chris Rock’s vision of himself still living in his mom’s basement, skates by mainly on Mooney’s facility with making off-putting slacker types improbably amusing, if not endearing. Brushing aside Rock’s warnings about what 2020 has in store for him, Mooney’s video gamer is just stoked the new Tony Hawk graphics are so awesome. There isn’t a joke beyond that, but the reveal that it’s all been a preview for a new Peacock show called My Mom Married Kenan Thompson bails the leaky premise out with the sheer force of Kenan being Kenan. I love Kenan.

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Weekend Update Update

Saturday Night Live just isn’t in the political satire business. Under co-hosts and co-head writers (along with Kent Sublette and Anna Drezen), Update anchors Colin Jost and Michael Che are more in the aren’t-we-clever business, and I’m just going to have to accept it. Che is habitually sharper, using his perspective as Black man to throw the occasional dagger, but Update has still become just another, increasingly nondescript centerpiece for a comedy-variety show. There’s nothing wrong with that, I guess—the occasional political zinger brings about a wince from the right people here and there, no doubt. But for a show to court “SNL is relevant again” thinkpieces as eagerly as SNL does, it remains, despite its increased visibility as Donald Trump’s seasonal hate watch, mostly harmless (as Ford Prefect might dismissively put it.)

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Of a piece with tonight’s groaningly predictable cold open, the first Update of the season took a look at a summer’s worth of [looks around] all this, and went right for the middle. It’s telling that Megan Thee Stallion’s first musical number went both harder and more specific, politically, than did either Jost or Che tonight. I’ve come to appreciate Jost’s smirky assurance kicking off Update. Tonight’s opener about Trump’s COVID diagnosis (“Say what you will about 2020 but, well, it’s got moves”) is more about delivery than substance, but it’s a pretty great delivery. Che, for his part, continues to treat his side of the desk as a place to work out his free-flowing, pessimistic disdain for the news, an effective strategy, even if he doesn’t break out the mid-report booze for punctuation this time.

It’s just that there’s a lot of fucking news out there in Donald Trump’s America, all gift-wrapped in enough hypocrisy, venality, bigotry, and naked, grasping moral bankruptcy to make any self-respecting comedian absolutely slaver for the spotlight. And SNL is content to just be itself. Moderate, cheeky, and ultimately disposable. After Jost and Che plow through their political material you can almost see the relief when they get to joke about the Jets and pogo-sticking kids and disease-carrying pet lizards. (Always cook your bearded dragons thoroughly, kids.) And maybe that’s what people want, too. The jokes there were funny. Jost is good at mid-joke turns like when his report on the kid setting the pogo stick quotes his parents. (“Open the schools!”) And Che’s attitude is always that he’s a little too hip for the room, which makes the veteran stand-up’s show biz report about Vin Diesel’s new music career trail off with vicious economy. (“And look, I know a lot of people are making fun of him, and saying it’s terrible, and he should stick to acting . . . [end of joke]). But if you guys want to engage just a smidge more in your roles as fake news anchors in a very real comic shitshow of a country right now, well, that would be fine.

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Aidy and Bowen Yang continued the cozy familiarity vibe by bringing back some comfortably funny recurring correspondents. (See below.)

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

See? Yang’s “business daddy,” Chen Biao, can come back as often as he likes, Yang’s breakout character (although he’s still credited as a featured player) allowing him to show off his strengths. As to how a cattily flamboyant gay young man became the Chinese government’s go-to financial spokesperson, well, that’s part of the incongruent gag, with Yang’s Biao holding court on everything China-U.S. with the over-cocktails disdain of the unconcerned winner. (“Brick-and-mortar, cool,” he purrs dismissively at Che’s news about WalMart possibly taking over control of Chinese app TikTok.) There’s an undercurrent of topicality to Biao’s America mockery (Trump is, after all, sick with what he’s been bigot-baitingly calling the “China virus”) that lends the sneering Biao some heft, as when he notes the whole WalMart idea is stereotypically American enough to come off as racist if it were invented by an Asian person. (“But I guess Cracker Barrel didn’t want to play ball,” Biao concludes the joke with a snap.)

Aidy’s middle schooler travel correspondent Carrie Krum is as low-key charming as ever, a sustained piece of adorable character work from the ever-reliable Bryant. Never going anywhere cool even at the best of times, Krum’s contentment with her stay-at-home coronavirus fun (driveway hose-play, seeing boys’ bedrooms in the background of their homeschool Zoom calls) just fills in some lines on Bryant’s already endearing sketch of an unworldly girl’s as-yet indefatigable enthusiasm for living and all things half-understood and not particularly naughty. All gripes about already settling into a familiar groove aside (seriously, you guys had all summer), Aidy and Carrie are impossible to dislike.

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

Che joked about the current, let’s call it “unpleasantness” surrounding Donald Trump’s health, saying there is—despite what hypocrites who thought Trump’s “Hillary has pneumonia” material was side-splitting—plenty that’s funny about it. “Maybe not from a moral standpoint, but mathematically.” Good point, Che, as the sheer number and immensity of the satirical targets in a Trump administration beggar comic imagination. I mean, some of the jokes have to hit, no matter how scattershot the aim.

Which brings us to tonight’s much-hyped political cold open, where megastar (and one-time SNL cast rejectee) Jim Carrey made his debut as this season’s (and theoretically beyond’s) Joe Biden. Squaring off in Saturday Night Live’s inevitable recreation of the first presidential debate/shitshow (CNN’s words) meant a return for Alec Baldwin’s much-maligned Trump, too. And while Carrey’s Biden was a more restrained and lived-in character performance than I was expecting (mid-debate bit with Biden chasing Trump’s laser pointer aside), the whole show-topping spectacle lived down to SNL’s standards when it comes to direct Trump depictions.

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Carrey (wig, makeup, teeth, and nicely tuned hoarseness all in place) turns out to be in things for the long haul, acting-wise. He could have come out matching Baldwin’s simultaneously hammy and sluggish Trump (sort of an impressive combination, in truth), but, instead, gave us a Biden the show can grow into. (Which, again, here’s hoping.) From the jump, this premiere’s technical jitters and growing (or shrinking, crew-wise) pains were in enervating evidence, with repeated dead spots in the actors’ transitions and deliveries, and the camera movements. Still, Carrey’s impersonation/performance was intriguing, playing up the expected traits (age, the tendency to ramble), while laying the groundwork for a simmering rage that the always-grinning Biden is going to work overtime to tamp down.

Baldwin’s Trump, as Trump might hand-wave, “is what it is.” Cherry-picking from the sagging tree of low-hanging gaffes, lies, and hate speech that is Donald Trump’s presidential profile, Baldwin has little more to do than poke his mouth out, lower his voice to a whiny drone, and mug in the desultory manner of a big star whose favor to Lorne has turned into a boat anchor of a chore. Baldwin’s half-assedly defended his indifferent Trump, saying that the man himself doesn’t deserve an impressionist who, you know, tries. But that’s a cop-out. For one thing, some people do Trump with style and substance worthy of such a once-in-a-lifetime subject. But Baldwin’s half-right: his broad caricature of a performance is certainly worthy of Saturday Night Live’s writing when it comes to Trump. With this debacle of a debate and all of Trump’s inept bullying and bellowing to pluck from, Carrey simply quoting Biden’s fed up, “Will you just shut up, man?” goes for the irresistible laugh and gets it.

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When Baldwin’s Trump finally stalls in mid-rant, I thought at first that someone has even more dramatically missed a cue than previously, but the fourth-wall breaking Click bit did give Carrey’s Biden something more to work with, conceptually. Greeted with applause for his effort “not to hear [Trump’s] voice for a single goddamned second,” this Biden conceded that his stories are a little folksy to the point of incoherence at times, but made his direct appeal to voters to “make America not actively on fire again.” At the same time teasing the post-debate COVID White House epidemic to come, Carrey, like Che, came as close to reveling in the sight of a president whose done literally everything short of establishing National Lick A Neighbor Day to ensure as many COVID deaths as possible as anything on the show.

That’s as close to sharpness as the piece got, though, although Maya Rudolph’s equally anticipated return as Vice Presidential nominee and woman who’s going to make Mike Pence cry for Mother on Wednesday was the saving grace you’d expect. Much as the K-hive views Harris’ stop at Number One Observatory Circle as just a pit stop on her inevitable streak to the White House, Rudolph’s turn here as the one adult in the room who can stop all the shenanigans from these two blustering males stole the show. And while this white male is perfectly aware that we’ve got nowhere to go but up in political discourse, diversity-wise, it is worrisome that SNL seems to be settling into this stern kindergarten teacher track for Harris/Rudolph going forward. Yes, it’s likely any two female candidates wouldn’t be posturing so ridiculously at each other, but Trump’s steamroller attacks and interrupting mendacity were egregious enough to make the show’s signature both-sides approach feel especially toothless.

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I am hip to the musics of today

With a quartet of Grace Jones in Vamp-look backup dancers and some choice voice samples for emphasis (Kentucky Attorney General and Trump favorite Daniel Cameron, check your DMs), Megan Thee Stallion’s performance of “Savage” made an impact even through the TV self-edits. (Pretty sure I heard one “bullshit” slip though.) Still, with a performer so invested in provocation, there was an element of “Why bother?” in her striking yet heavily lip-synched performances. The carefully negotiated drop-outs in her duet with Young Thug on “Don’t Stop” were particularly hard to ignore, making the experience like trying to watch an R-rated movie on network TV. Buy the album.

Most/Least Valuable Not Ready For Prime Time Player

This is going to be a brutal year for the cast. With an absurd 20 members all looking for airtime (intros ran a full 1:40—I timed it), nobody’s going to get served well, and anyone’s rise to the top is going to be at the expense of a half-dozen others. The big winner and not-winner tonight exemplify that completely, as dueling impressionists Chloe Fineman continued to slide into the spotlight, while I only spotted a masked Melissa Villaseñor in the goodnights. Fineman’s very good at what she does—her Drew Barrymore talk show is clearly coming back, bringing with it ample opportunities for Fineman’s spot-on Barrymore to sunnily interview herself (here as Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon). But Villaseñor’s good at what she does, as well, so here’s hoping that, amidst all this jostling, she doesn’t get elbowed aside even further.

Kate and Aidy are so at ease on SNL that they’re practically part of 8H at this point. Same with Kenan. There’s an ease and confidence to what they do each week that even this 20 pounds of cast in a ten cast member bag can’t hurt them. (I’d say the same for Cecily, but, apart from a thought-bubble impression of the screaming—and recently scandal-plagued—Kimberly Guilfoyle, the consummate pro sunk beneath the horizon this time.)

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

SNL’s always relied on filmed pieces, and the various COVID restrictions and limitations didn’t seem to up the pre-recorded sketches appreciably. Plus, the stunt performer bit was a fine, gently pointed showcase for Kate and Aidy to do some funny character work. Still, here’s to keeping this the home of the live, weird stuff that, on a better show, would be more the norm.

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Stray observations

  • Rock even got his own character’s name wrong in the funny names sketch. Just wasn’t funny enough, I guess.
  • Joe Biden listens to Harry Styles relaxation tapes, so we got Harry Styles in a thought bubble, because guest stars are fun.
  • After Update, Kate McKinnon’s RBG waved a sad, silent goodbye from the audience. Apart from what it means for the possible death of American democracy, Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s death robs us of some sure-fire Update fun. Thanks a heap, God.
  • Che trolls the audience (successfully, by the sound of the reaction) when he deadpanned sorrow that Trump was sick, since was scheduled to host next week. (Thankfully, it’s actually Bill Burr, with musical guest Morgan Wallen.)
  • 2000's My Mom Married Kenan Thompson takes place just three years before Kenan joined SNL.
  • Carrey’s Biden urges everyone to switch to the Biden Train, which is “literally, a commuter train to Delaware.”
  • Rock’s set wasn’t his best, but here’s to his analogy of rich politicians making decisions for poor people being like your attractive friend giving you dating advice. “Yeah, that works for you, Idris.”
  • Rock finished up with James Baldwin, and it’s tough to top that, so, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Election’s in 30 days. Check your voter registration and state rules (and how Republicans seem hell-bent on stopping you) here, here, and here.
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Contributor, The A.V. Club. Danny Peary's Cult Movies books are mostly to blame.

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