“I’m not an actor, I’m a [very talented, not at all Asian, Five-Timers Club] star!”
Scarlett Johansson joined the Five-Timers Club tonight, to little fanfare apart from Kenan Thompson and Kate McKinnon’s pilfered welcoming theme song in the monologue. (Which sounded suspiciously like product placement for a certain sandwich chain). The other joke is that Kenan’s tribute video to Johansson’s other hosting stints only shows Kenan clips, which is cute, but which also underscores that Scarlett’s admission into the ranks of the FTC is less momentous than a lot of others have been since the concept was cooked up back in 1990.
In a way, it makes sense, as Johansson’s always fine without being memorable when she hosts SNL. She’s committed, a good actress, and gets her share of laughs—but the next time she hosts, I’ll still have to look up how many times she’s done so before. Let’s call it somewhere in the Elliott Gould/Candice Bergen wing.
Weekend Update update
Jost and Che’s double’s act was relaxed and confident tonight, which would be wonderful if their jokes were sharper. Smooth and light just isn’t enough texture for an Update that’s been leading the satirical charge around here for much of the season. They took their customary shots—at Trump’s racist “travel ban” and grotesque, transparently cruel and avaricious ”Trumpcare” ACA replacement, at Paul Ryan’s use of clunky PowerPoint, at Trump’s shriek-inducing White House surprise to a gaggle of unsuspecting children. But nothing went deep, and nothing stuck. Che joked about Trump’s ambivalence about the Republican’s healthcare plan being named for him, explaining that he’s even put his name on the Trump University “Ponzi scheme” in the past. And Jost drew gasps by joking about the GOP’s attempt to destroy Planned Parenthood—cue picture of adorable baby accompanying the punchline “You won’t be able to keep your doctor, but you’ll have to keep something else.” But Trump’s watching, you’re doing political comedy, Trump hates jokes at his expense—these are rare opportunities being squandered.
Better was the joint appearance of Jeff Sessions and Al Franken, essayed ably by Kate McKinnon and Alex Moffat, respectively. Moffat showed off his unexpectedly strong impressionist chops last week, and he does a fine Franken. (I keep waiting for the current Senator from Minnesota to pop up back in his old stomping grounds. He’s pretty busy.) And McKinnon’s Sessions remains a mischievously malevolent hoot, as she lets the Attorney General—who blurted out false information to Franken in his confirmation hearing—keep slipping nuggets of unseemly truth into his countrified patter. “I may talk cute, but I am very scary,” says the ever-grinning Sessions at one point, right after he’s caught using a dummy hand to swear on the bible and confessing, “This is my oathin’ hand. I’m a danger to the country.” In the parade of unqualified bigots and crooks that Trump keeps trotting out, the media plucks out “personality” as a distracting element of the narrative, and Sessions’ much-imitated drawl comes across in McKinnon’s performance as particularly devious clownery. Playing up to the unimpressed Franken about their supposed friendship, Sessions’ bumpkin misunderstanding of Franken’s Jewish heritage is slyly critical. Republican senators who voted to confirm Sessions despite a very long paper trail of racism spoke of how well-liked he is by his colleagues in Congress. McKinnon makes a very pointed case that bigotry steeped in Southern charm is still bigotry.
Pete Davidson did another of his “First Impressions” political pieces, which went over fine. Davidson’s sharpened his goofball “I don’t know anything about anything” persona this season, and while he’s basically doing an all-politics version of David Spade’s “Hollywood Minute” with these pieces, he’s a whole lot less smarmy and smackable. Some decent lines peppered Davidson’s tour through the week in Trump-ville—saying lizard-like spokesman Stephen Miller looks like “Fredo Corleone if he’d been even sicker as a child” was a solid burn—and it’s a good move for Davidson to add some more colors to his onstage character.
Best/worst sketch of the night
Beck Bennett and Kyle Mooney have hidden their greatest strengths under a bushel for a while now, the unique and specific sensibility that brought the former Good Neighbor sketch team to SNL subsumed by their successful transition into regular ensemble players. Their next-to-last sketch tonight was a live resurrection of the style they used to ply largely in filmed pieces, a deft exercise in conceptual anti-comedy that saw them (as themselves) starring in a sketch “for the female cast members.” Introduced by Johansson and Aidy Bryant as the guys’ fill-in while all the female cast was participating in Wednesday’s “Day Without A Woman” strike, the sketch was an exercise in well-meaning but infuriatingly patronizing mansplaining, as Bennett and Mooney’s feminist dudes ran down literally every sexist dilemma women face—while Bryant, Johansson, and the table filled with all the other woman cast members sat stewing in bewildered silence, waiting for lines that never came. (Aidy and Scarlett did get to thank the guys for speaking for them.)
The Olive Garden sketch (product placement ahoy) worked in performance, absurdity, and even in its little dash of social commentary, as Beck Bennett’s commercial director forced his background players to do weirder and more uncomfortable things. Kenan, Leslie Jones, Johansson, and Mikey Day all were gamers, whether Kenan was spending much of the sketch face down in spaghetti sauce, or the other three were tasked with making more and more grotesque orgasm faces. That the sketch veered into uncomfortable territory with Bennett intermittently directing the increasingly disgusted Jones in exaggerated Butterfly McQueen dialect kept the comic energy unpredictable. Not a groundbreaker, but consistently funny work by everyone involved.
“Good Day Denver” was a one-joke bit, but everyone performed their parts in it well, and it made me laugh in its predictable silliness. After Mikey Day’s innocent animal photographer is accidentally introduced as the local zoo’s “animal pornographer,” every pull quote flashed on the screen took on unsavory associations, and you get the gist. Not the strongest lead-off sketch after the monologue, but amusing enough.
One joke also, was the commercial for Logo’s new reality show, Cherry Grove, a counterpart to its all-male, all-gay sex-and-drama extravaganza, Fire Island. Only, in stereotypical fashion, all the affluent lesbian couples in their beach house squabble over parenting methods, drunkenly celebrate puzzle completion (“That’s a wolf sanctuary all right!”), and have hidden camera bedroom escapades consisting of one partner tearfully pleading with the other for better communication. Again, the gag rests on the idea that gay men and gay women are different and so forth, but all the actresses involved are great, lending their well-meaning, perhaps overly responsible co-parents an undeniable comic dignity.
“What do you call that act?” “The Californians!”—Recurring sketch report
Kate McKinnon in blobfish makeup as a mermaid creature named Shud is something I’m always going to watch. That’s just how that goes. McKinnon just has a fearlessness to her downtrodden yet undefeated female characters that’s formidable and funny. Still, it takes a rare breed of recurring character to survive long-term, and Shud’s shtick just isn’t singular enough to sustain itself. The first time Shud appeared on the show, the unique grossness of the conceit powered the jokes about bafflingly slimy bodily functions, but here, trying to lure stranded soldier Mikey Day away from her two more conventionally attractive mermaid sisters, Shud’s boast of having her butt and mouth be essentially the same orifice just aren’t sufficient. Johannson did her best to help out, doubling the weirdness as Shud’s half-anglerfish buddy Cunk (she does some fine, snapping jaw work), but Shud’s time in the sun looks to be up.
Leslie Jones tore her ACL doing awkward cartwheels the last time she played Shanice Goodwin, the well-meaning but YMCA-trained ninja. Points for commitment in returning, but Jones’ intentional awkwardness as Shanice is mirrored in the sketch’s unintentionally lumbering pace and single joke. (Shanice is not very good at ninja stuff.) As with Shud, Johansson was added in (as a rival, much more competent ninja) to prop up the bit, but with even less success.
“It was my understanding there would be no math”—Political comedy report
Alec Baldwin has expressed ambivalence about continuing as SNL’s Donald Trump. And that’s understandable—like Trump, the prevailing sense is that Baldwin jumped into this thing as something of a lark and, finding out the time and effort involved in being President Donald Trump full-time, both are balking. The show has an unprecedented opportunity to get under the orange skin of its prime target, and even when Baldwin is in the house and under the wig, Saturday Night Live’s Trump pieces are getting as tired and obvious as any other recurring character. If, as it is very clear, the people behind SNL want to go after Trump and every bigoted, crooked, hateful thing he espouses, then trotting out Alec Baldwin whenever he feels like it to do some medium-funny shtick isn’t going to cut it. For political satirists at SNL, making fun of Donald Trump should have more impact than making fun of one of the Kardashian clan.
The cold open posits that, in a major crisis—you know, like warlike aliens from Zorblatt 9 conquering most of the country—Donald Trump would be a self-aggrandizing, self-obsessed, cowardly boob who cares more about his numbers and business interests (he may have secret dealings with the Zorblattians) than in being anything resembling a leader. It’s up to Kenan Thompson’s commanding officer to rally the troops, while Trump can only praise Infowars blowhard nutjob Alex Jones (the Trump advisor and ”news” source who, to be fair, has lots of theories about evil reptilian aliens), make fun of Arnold Schwarzenegger and NBC, and scapegoat the only two black women soldiers in the platoon rather than admit that he’s not up to the job. (Sasheer Zamata’s “Oh, okay, no…” is some fine, disgusted underplaying.) There’s nothing off-base here, but, apart from the minority-blaming, nothing incisive either. Moderate chuckles for the choir.
On the other hand, the dog translator sketch made the audience uncomfortable. When scientist Johansson’s (moderately well-behaved) pug is strapped into her revolutionary pet communicator, we hear—in the smug yet not-unreasonable voice of Beck Bennett—that the dog vote most likely would have gone to Donald Trump. Apart from Bennett’s voice performance, and the adorableness of that dog (who only pries off his helmet once), the joke is that the dog is able to defend his points better than the humans, whose kneejerk hatred of Trump sees Johansson and the rest only able to sputter out clichés. It’s uncomfortable not because the dog is right, but that he’s able to couch his Trump-love in more rational, if blinkered terms. Essentially, the dog is every privileged, patiently racist white guy you’ve ever gotten into a Facebook argument with, while the scientists are unprepared hotheads. (Admittedly, hearing your dog not only talk, but defend Trump’s racist deportation policies would take anyone aback, although that Cecily Strong’s administrator whips out a handgun to shoot the pooch doesn’t speak well of humans.) There’s a boldness to the comedy here in letting the Trump supporter—four-legged though he is—be a better arguer, even if he is a dick about it. (Speaking of his Chihuahua dog park associate, the dog snaps a cold-hearted, “Hey, if he was born in this country, he’s got nothing to worry about.”)
The impeccably shot and conceived ad for Ivanka Trump’s new perfume, “Complicit” is, like McKinnon’s Sessions’ bit, another sharp slap at the way this administration’s dark agenda is being marketed through personality. This time, the target is Trump’s daughter, which would be a cheap shot if Ivanka Trump weren’t setting herself up publically as a check to her father’s worst impulses, all while using the Trump name to further her financial interests while not actually affecting any change whatsoever. As the commercial’s narrator puts it, “She’s a feminist, an activist, an advocate for women… but, like, how?” Painting Trump as Billy Zane in Titanic rather than one of the story’s heroes, the bit ends with the line, “for the woman who could stop all this, but won’t.” Again, that’d be unfair to an unelected young woman without any real governmental power—if she weren’t constantly being photographed sitting in on meetings with world leaders and her daddy, and if she weren’t carefully marketing herself as “the reasonable Trump.”
I am hip to the musics of today
Lorde brought some entertaining theatricality to the show tonight, her pair of songs contrasting the stripped down low-fi of her piano player and her mic-popping vocals with a dramatic showmanship that was consistently arresting. I liked both songs, and Lorde herself.
Most/Least Valuable (Not Ready For Prime Time) Player
In a week where news of a big rumored cast departure’s been out there, it’s clearer than ever that SNL is grooming Mikey Day to step into the big time. Playing straight man in several sketches and popping up all over the place, Day’s being groomed. And that’s not a bad thing—Day’s got a flexible enough persona to go big and broad or understated, and, as an experienced SNL writer, he’s capable of generating his own stuff.
Pete Davidson was the other big news recently, as he explained that his relative scarcity on SNL this season has been due to him trying to wean himself from the substances that have long fueled his comic persona, and his life. He mentioned it in interviews, and again tonight, as he closed his Update piece by hoping that being off drugs (at least some of which were genuinely medicinal) won’t make him unfunny. For a performer whose persona as SNL’s funny stoned little brother has been the key to his success there, it took guts to announce his decision so publically. And on the evidence of his Update appearance, he’s going to do fine.
After getting a big shot to show off her skills last week, Melissa Villaseñor showed up in a couple of wordless spots tonight as far as I could see.
“What the hell is that thing?”—The Ten-To-Oneland Report
This one got better in the details, as Vanessa Bayer’s widow found out that her dentist husband was secretly a successful songwriter of sexually explicit and adventurous club hits. Kenan and Johansson made the joke as the deceased singer pals, who lovingly crooned his hits about butts, sex, butt sex, and the like, while Aidy Bryant’s unassuming-looking friend kept dropping very specific musical terminology that added nicely to the sketch’s weirdness. (“These are very hardcore circuit tracks.”)
- In the monologue, first-time Oscar attendee McKinnon compared her experience to megastar Johansson’s. While ScarJo went to the Vanity Fair afterparty, McKinnon was relegated to one thrown by Purina Dog Chow, which featured an “extremely cash bar.”
- Bobby Moynihan looks like he’s already on his way out the door, his defiant stubble undermining the verisimilitude of his Good Morning Denver co-anchor’s look.
- Logo pitches Cherry Grove to those who “like separating people into shows.”
- “I wouldn’t laugh at a little person.” “But an Olive Garden customer would.” Hmm, maybe that wasn’t product placement after all.
- Jost jokes that the criteria for Trump’s revised “travel ban” consists merely of a book of brown-tone color swatches.
- Davidson on why Fox & Friends is Trump’s favorite show: “They trade in for a new blonde every two years.”
- I don’t know why Shud and Cunk’s siren song of the sea is The Simpsons’ theme, but I am here for it.