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SNL just can't find the right strange things for David Harbour to do

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“This has been my dream ever since acting was too hard!”

“I’m not an actor, I’m a [professional demon-fighting] star!”

David Harbour’s career has seen him score on the New York stage many times before (guy’s been nominated for a Tony, for crying out loud), but perhaps one might be forgiven for imagining that live TV sketch comedy isn’t really his thing. Still, as some of his more recent projects have confirmed, there’s a big, goofy ham lurking inside that imposing frame, and his first SNL hosting gig turned out fine. Harbour is the sort of unlikely host whose actorly persona can provide some fresh inspiration for SNL writers. Sure, we got a requisite Stranger Things sketch, but it was dispensed with in a genially disposable (if expensive-looking) monologue bit where he kept calling the Upside Down-ed Aidy “Barb” and discovered that Kenan is really the one in charge of everything, including the Kenneth The Page-esque Lorne Michaels. Oh, and Beck got eaten by a demogorgon, relieving Harbour of having to hear Bennett’s road-to-SNL story again. (The backstage SNL llama emerged unscathed.)

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As for the rest of his hosting tenure, Harbour—while not perhaps possessed of the natural cue card-reading prowess of the more experienced live sketch performer—was all about presence. Which is good, since none of the sketches he got were especially sharp. (So many non-endings and swallowed would-be laugh lines all night.) But the show occasionally made good use of that Harbour presence to imbue sketches with the uniquely bracing energy an incongruous host can bring to the party. The best example was in the teacher’s pet pageant sketch, where Harbour’s no-nonsense principal keeps shutting down the lone overenthusiastic student in the crowd with a Harbour-esque, booming, “No! Enough!”

But if there was an illustrative sketch for how SNL used Harbour—for better and worse—it was what I have no choice but to call the “horny Italian grandparents” sketch, where Harbor and Kate (each in drag) made their trio of adult grandkids predictably uncomfortable by being, well, horny, old, and stereotypically Italian. While Harbour’s presence apparently saw the writers ditching recurring characters and sketches (or being unable to shoehorn their towering guest into one), this sketch turned simply on the spectacle of Kate McKinnon hanging all over the game Harbour like a randy monkey on a particularly sturdy, giggle-suppressing tree. As for the sketch itself, SNL’s go-to joke construction of having a group of straight-persons repeatedly call attention to how weird some weird person is acting remains a deadening dead-end, while the reliance on funny-sounding foreigners saying “sauce” again and again recalls nothing so much as the catchphrase-happy days of “You like-a the juice?” But at least that earlier sketch copped to the fact that there was nothing else to the sketch and eventually bailed out in meta-textual surrender.


Best/Worst sketch of the night

Harbour, unsurprisingly, was shown at his best in the pair of filmed pieces. Of the two, the showier was the Joker parody Grouch, where Harbour’s increasingly unhinged sanitation worker gradually transforms himself into the face-painted, ashcan-dwelling Travis Bickle of Sesame Street. Harbour’s take on Joaquin Phoenix’s Method mugging is spot-on, railing in self-obsessed righteous rage at the way the Street has become a haven for Gotham-style crime, grime, and yucky trash. The idea of a “gritty antihero orgin story” about the most antisocial Muppet is a great chance for Harbour to show off just why he’s so good at unnerving people onscreen, but, for me, it was the little touches around the edges. Mikey Day and Alex Moffat’s makeup as suitably horrifying crime victims Bert and Ernie; Bowen Yang’s signoff as Muppet newscaster Guy Smiley from “ABCDEFG News;” the movie being brought to you by the letter/rating “R.” All embroidered around Harbour’s striking central turn, it was a funny conceit, exceptionally executed, even if there wasn’t much meat on the satirical bones, considering how variously buzzed-about Joker and Todd Phillips have become for a number of reasons. (The ad for Joker midway through the show sort of robbed the sketch of some impact.)

Maybe it’s just because of how ungodly many podcasts I listen to, but I give the edge to the subtler graces of the father-son podcast microphone short. Promising to wallpaper over the awkwardness of father-son relationships with “the comforting cadence and structure of a podcast,” the product’s makers have clearly hooked into both, as standoffish dad Harbour and inarticulate artistic son Kyle Mooney find their communication gap bridged by shaping their heart-to-heart chatter in reassuringly familiar soothing podcast style. Here, too, the specificity makes the joke, with Harbour avoiding the implications of Kyle’s too-real reaching out by throwing to a commercial read for ubiquitous podcast sponsor Squarespace. (Promo code: SonLoveDad.) For extra credit, there’s even an ending to the piece, with the mic’s tagline calling it the best way to fill those “three awkward years before you can start drinking together.”

For live sketches, I’ll take the sweetly silly harmonies of Harbour, Kate, and Aidy’s period folk trio any day, a lovingly written evocation of the double-layered comedy-musical charms of A Mighty Wind, although undeniably broader stuff. The joke that the three longtime bandmates’ life of endless, unremunerative gigging provides an escalatingly revealing lyrical peek into the desperate sadness, loneliness, and weirdness of their lives vies with the undeniably pretty sincerity of the melody and the performers as they let out details like that one time the two female members kissed and all three still obsesses over, and how much time they’ve spent, for example, thinking Maine was a town in Vermont. The details, all sold in straight-faced, lilting prettiness, continue to toss in eccentric but never over-the-top revelations like Kate habitually eating pizza in the dark “like [she] has a gun to [her] head,” and how Harbour’s grown son now does stand-up exclusively mocking Harbour’s paintings. It’s a mix of melancholic daffiness that could have gone on a lot longer, not something I say about many SNL sketches.

The welcome lack of game show or talk show sketches tonight makes me wish the Little Miss Teacher’s Friend Pageant sketch was a little stronger. A different sketch format built around an unusual premise and giving a number of performers a turn in the character acting spotlight should be applauded, though. And the premise—little girls with various (onscreen bullet-pointed) issues who latch onto their teacher’s professionally withheld personal affection—is, again, specific and unique enough for some ambition-applause, too. Aidy, Kate, Melissa Villaseñor, and Chloe Fineman are just right as the contestants, whose desperate need for their forbearing teacher’s attention hints at the bubbling stew of family and personal problems within. Kate’s teacher’s pet is 12 years younger than her siblings and once sprung out of a school bus’ emergency exit, so great was her need to tattle, while Aidy’s glad-hander stresses that she views “adults as peers and children as disgusting.” As mentioned, Harbor, underplaying, has the two biggest laughs as his principle’s practiced calm cracks to reveal the rage-monster disciplinarian inside, and the whole thing is just good enough to lament that it never quite takes off.

Seeing the SoulCycle set being erected at the ad break suggested a much more relevantly biting sketch than we eventually got, as the product-integrated bit centered on the instructor auditions of would-be spin class taskmasters Bowen Yang, Harbour, Kate, and Heidi Gardner. All are fine, delivering their instructors’ inevitably loopy motivational spiels while gamely pumping away at some exer-cycle pedals in turn. Of the four, Yang was funniest, continuing his season-opening hot streak, his intense cyclist introducing himself as “Flint, like the water,” and spinning an elaborately nonsensical inspirational rant about saving Abraham Lincoln through SoulCycling. (Also, he “Googled racism,” and it really bummed him out, you guys.) Ego Nwodim and Alex Moffat continued that grand SNL tradition of making sure we know how weird those weird characters are being by telling us how weird those weird characters are being, although they at least were given a little more inner life and backstory, as Nwodim keeps shutting Moffat down for even leaning toward thinking about hitting on her. Again, here’s to something different, for giving Yang and Gardner (finally) stuff to do, and for cokehead spinner Harbour’s line after giving the dutiful Nwodim a candle for being the worst in class (“You have sad eyes, ma’am.”). Just wish it were tighter, and funnier, in execution.

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Weekend Update update

Look, as the Trump gang who can’t treason straight gets closer and closer to the edge of the impeachment/imprisonment/suspicious death while in custody volcano, there’s no shortage of stuff to work with, and Che and Jost continue to join in the late-night TV chorus of jokers looking to turn national nightmare lemons into national comedy lemonade. As the world burns, it remains a little (okay deeply) disappointing that SNL continues to fail to rise to the political comedy heights it’s sometimes striven to, but Update can’t help but be a reliable tee for Che and Jost to whack serviceable jokes off of.

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You know, like how the president’s personal lawyer is professional pals with two Russian nationals (or “Two Shreks” as Jost termed them), who were just caught trying to flee the country, and whose sideline business include a Russian hotspot called “Mafia Rave” (“Which I think counts as a full confession”), and the too-broad-for-a-hack-writers-room concern called “Fraud Guarantee.” Jost, as ever, lets his smirk do a lot of the heavy lifting, but there’s some bite to jokes about Trump’s racist bullshit, including noting how Trump’s race-baiting recent rally to a crowd of whoopingly receptive goobers is “like Showtime At The Apollo, except, you know, opposite.” Also, the joke about Trump framing his abrupt betrayal of our Kurdish allies in Syria as punishment for them “not supporting us in World War II,” by adding, “of course, it’s hard to know who Trump means by ‘us’” is pretty harsh, all things considered.

Che continued piling on the central casting looks of those two Russian hoods/documented presidential associates, admitting, “I know these are easy jokes.” But that doesn’t mean they’re terrible jokes, as Che did a deep cut by comparing Rudy Giuliani henchmen Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman to those guys who helped “George Costanza get that Frogger machine across the street.” I think Che’s outspoken, outsider perspective on Update is refreshing and necessary (and usually very funny), even if he has the thin-skinned habit of going after pop culture writers who dare question any single, sometimes deeply questionable take (whoops), and his more obliquely angled swipes at Trump bring a nice contrast to Jost’s self-mocking prep school entitlement schtick. Stepping outside the expected track of a joke is Che’s strongest move, and if his joke about Trump being so bad, Che’s willing to entertain the notion of a 78-year-old guy who just had a heart attack as a viable presidential alternative elicited some groans, well, that’s the sort of thing Che lives for.

Pete Davidson has been located. Please call off the search for Pete Davidson—repeat, Pete Davidson showed up for work. But I kid SNL’s resident latest funny guy we’re all a little worried about. Returning after two weeks off (supposedly filming the Suicide Squad sequel), Pete only appeared as Pete in the monologue, and then again on Update, to do a bit about the rise of curable STDs, looking, as he himself put it, “like I have all of them.” The joke of Pete Davidson’s self-revelaed struggles with mental illness, substance abuse, and tabloid infamy remains a queasy one for SNL to trot out every week (when Pete’s in-pocket). On the one hand, Davidson’s used his position on Update to talk about some very personal stuff with bracing humor and candidness. On the other, there’s a whiff of exploitation to the “Pete being Pete” running joke SNL’s been milking for the last few years, something not helped by the undercurrent of ragged defensiveness in Davidson’s signoff responding to Jost’s recent on-air joke about Pete’s absences. Comparing his own gaunt, wire-haired appearance to Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker (so much Joker tie-in comedy tonight), Davidson seemingly went off-script as Update signed off, telling Jost, “I think you should start being much nicer to me. I’m serious.” As to the bit itself, I’m with Jost in prompting viewers to get a second opinion to Davidson’s “bad advice” about non-fatal STDs being no big deal, but Davidson’s observation about dating apps overcoming traditional sexual and racial divides in romance at least suggests a deeper point than his joke about “leaky pipes.” That said, seriously, choose Planned Parenthood over Pete Davidson when it comes to your sexual health advice.

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In the only recurring bit of the night (and, hey, let’s encourage that trend, shall we?), Heidi Gardner (again, finally) got some airtime, this time as returning movie expert and minutely observed teenager, Bailey Gismert. The joke in these appearances is less about YouTube figure Gismert’s lack of insight about the latest films, and more about letting Gardner ply her trade as SNL’s resident title of best cast character actor. Here, barely touching on the movies at hand while rolling her eyes in misguided mock-embarassment at Che’s non-existent flirting, Gardner, once more on Update, creates a little mini-showcase for her gifts as a comic actress, a singular individualism that the show hasn’t always found ways to fit into its broader sketch palette. It’s a good character, but, from what we’ve seen, it’s time to let Gardner bring some new creations to the Update desk. Oh, and Bailey’s really into Phoenix’s the Joker, correcting Che (“Okay, his name is Arthur . . .”), and lapsing into solipsistic tears about the stresses of having to make a thousand ribbons for school. (“Ribbons to end hurricanes, Michael!”)

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

Just Bailey, refreshingly, although . . .

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

While not a recurring bit, per se, the latest Democratic debate sketch, while—praise the comedy gods—freeing us from Alec Baldwin’s Trump for a week, continued SNL’s run of not having anything new or enlightening to say about the swollen roster of Dems still jostling each other to be the one to free the country from the actual Trump. The premise this week centered on the candidates’ performances at the recent CNN Equality America town hall on LGBTQI rights, and did precious little to assure us that the show has a comedic handle on how to satirize the Democratic slate. For one thing, the show continues to rely on Lorne’s Rolodex rather than developing in-house talent for what’s going to become a handful of go-to political impressions for the next year. This week, we got Lin-Manuel Miranda making up for the last Dem sketch’s exclusion of Julian Castro by making a typically enthusiastic guest appearance, plus a returning Woody Harrelson, once more popping on some blinding white teeth for another round as a ramblingly out-of-touch Joe Biden. Don’t get me wrong—the fact that SNL can get big, talented stars on the horn during the week is fun, but to borrow a New York comparison, this reliance on high-profile ringers is the sort of Steinbrenner-era Yankees strategy that leaves your bench and farm system to wither away.

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And at least the free agent policy brought us Pose’s Billy Porter, ebulliently emceeing the event with Alex Moffat’s serviceably even-tempered Anderson Cooper by, for example, introducing Kate McKinnon’s Elizabeth Warren with an ethusiastic “Warren-ing” to all. The impressions otherwise weren’t focused enough to make much of an impression—again, something that could be worked on if Lorne were more committed to building these sketches as a going concern—although I loved Chris Redd’s abrupt “Uh oh!” immediately upon his Corey Booker being prodded about that 1992 op-ed whose problematic takes on homosexuality he’s really hoping people will forget about. Jost, who made fun of his utterly nondescript Pete Buttegieg impression later on Update, accurately but slyly dug into recent news by pronouncing “There’s no wrong way to be gay—unless you’re Ellen this week.” Woody’s Biden remains moderately biting, overcoming Harrelson’s complete dissimilarity to Biden’s cadence and accent with the running bit about Biden’s handsiness, gaffes, and questionably authentic anecdote game. After embarking on a story about his father teaching young Joe the virtues of good old Delaware tolerance, Harrelson got the biggest laugh by summing up the growing unease about Biden by blurting, “Who’s nervous about this story, show of hands.” SNL has always struggled more when there’s not an outright right-wing villain in the White House, and, as happy as I’d be if they continued to do so after the restoration of a well-meaning, harder-to-satirize functional human to the presidency, the chief relief of these Dem cold opens is that they’re not another Baldwin Trump sketch.

I am hip to the musics of today

Or, rather, my 14-year-old niece is, who counseled me that musical guest’s earlier song “Havana” was pretty good, and also, watching Camila Cabello’s two songs tonight, gingerly asked about the use of guide tracks on “live” SNL performances.

Most/Least valuable Not Ready For Prime Time Player

Well, Pete at least avoids another N/A with his Update appearance tonight. Ego Nwodim continues to make up screen time, although she was more of a straight-person in her two major roles tonight. Bowen Yang continues to pop, although he didn’t have a standout show piece as great as last week’s, while Chloe Fineman was pretty nondescript in her one turn as one of the teacher’s friends. I’m worried how little airtime other talented impressionist Melissa Villaseñor continues to get, the fear being that Fineman’s hiring will eat further into her niche.

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For sheer volume, though, Kate was in nearly every sketch tonight, and if I liked some roles (folk trio, Warren) a lot better than the cheap yuks of dressing Kate in man’s clothes once more, she’s Kate, and invaluable.

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

Speaking of Kate, the “Dog Court” ten-to-one sketch gave her one last little plum character role, as the devoted dog mom whose civil case (alongside dog Skittles) against Harbour’s appropriately burly and overly-playful pooch sees her whittling away at a vivid miniature. Otherwise, the sketch was a guaranteed easy laugh on the way to the goodnights, with plenty of live doggie reaction shots and a mildly distressing bit of scene-stealing by the judge’s panic-squirming pug. Cecily Strong, keeping it together as best she could while losing viewer focus to a front-and-center pug anus, was, as ever, charmingly up for whatever.

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Stray observations

  • None of the snaps McKinnon’s Warren gave to the questioner who cited religious faith as justification for anti-gay discrimination were as tight as the actual Warren’s this week.
  • According to Jost, at least Giuliani’s goon-accomplices (or gooncomplices, if you will) can count themselves lucky they were “somehow not killed by John Wick.”
  • Bailey Gismert accuses Che of being jealous of new crush Joker, explaining it’s because “You’re both, like, trying to do comedy or whatever.”
  • She also suggests he’s just bitter because his “wife” Leslie isn’t on the show any more.
  • We’re off next week, but a mid-show announcement that Chance The Rapper is returning for an October 26 double-duty hosting gig was a great surprise.
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About the author

Dennis Perkins

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