Kate McKinnon, Colin Jost, Michael Che (MSNBC)

The Weekend Update team of Michael Che and Colin Jost had a legitimately outstanding year behind the Saturday Night Live faux-anchor desk last year. And they needed one. When they started out together, Jost’s prep school smirk came off like he was doing a bland Seth Meyers impression, and Che’s sharp standup style went stiff in the spotlight. What’s more, they had no chemistry. Co-anchors on Update need a rhythm of give-and-take that blends their disparate comic styles into a confident team effort. These guys always seemed to have just met.

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It took a while, but last season saw the two very different comedians and writers discover roles that worked. Jost played up his air of privilege and blandness, and let himself be the butt of Che’s jokes (and regular correspondent Leslie Jones’ lust) in a way that humanized him. And Che turned some jokes into little outposts for his standup, which allowed more of his personality and point of view to shine through. Plus, they batted jokes and asides back and forth and, basically, loosened the hell up, and Update was much, much better for it.

Chemistry or not, political comedy has always been hit-or-miss on Update (and SNL in general). In the SNL oral history, onetime host Ralph Nader damned the show with faint praise, calling it “a .275 hitter” on political matters. I’d call that a little low—SNL goes on hot streaks with its political comedy—but it’s also true that it traditionally lacks the consistency to put it into the Hall of Fame. Still, as Jost and Che loosened up last year, the political jokes improved, too. The show seeks the heat, and that usually means hitting the targets that are going to get the biggest guaranteed response. But Update can go subtler than sketches, as a rule, and Jost and Che often went for edgy, smart jokes the audience wasn’t always prepared to follow. In last season’s finale, for example, Che went hard on an anti-NRA joke, scoffing “Nobody’s trying to take your guns—except maybe a curious toddler.” The audience chilled and groaned before the laughs came, and that’s always a good thing on Update.

So the revelation this week that Jost and Che were doing a pair of Weekend Update specials at each of the party political conventions on MSNBC was good news. For one thing, having each special be targeted at first the Republican then the Democratic convention, would free up the writers to set aside the “we hit everybody” supposed comic even-handedness that’s been the show’s mantra for so long. (It’s said by so many people in the oral history that it sounds like everyone’s running for office rather than satirizing those who do.) And second—this Republican convention has been such a goldmine of jaw-droppingly ludicrous and/or horrifying spectacle that the SNL writers must be wondering why in the hell they take the summers off in a convention year.

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In practice, the special was… fine. Like an above-average Update, but no more. For one thing, there are a lot of political comedy series out there now essentially doing a Weekend Update nightly (The Daily Show, The Nightly Show, new champion of the form Full Frontal With Samantha Bee), or weekly (John Oliver’s equally outstanding Last Week Tonight). (Not to mention the welcome, if brief, return of a certain pretend-asshole pundit.) A regular-length Weekend Update from the very floor of the most contentious, some (me) might say ludicrous, political convention since 1968 just comes off as too inconsequential. It was a bold move for Che and Jost to do Update in essentially an empty room, with only the sparse off-camera laughter of what sounded like about ten people to buoy the jokes. And the material was solid, if not spectacular, with the anchors’ joshing between themselves feeling natural, if a little hollow-sounding in the emptiness of the studio.

Michael Che

As for the jokes, they walked a decent line in finding clever angles on irresistible stories. Watching the unending flood of gaffes, baffling choices, and occasional outright lunacy of the Trump campaign, I’ve been feeling like it’s almost too rich a meal for comedy. It’s tempting to just grab double-fistfuls of what’s being offered, but that’s the way to kill the comedy. When reality becomes insanity, humor has to get smart, and subtle.

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This Update got laughs in expected places. Melania Trump’s plagiarism scandal saw Che scoring by playing up the ludicrousness of a presidential candidate’s wife using a speech from the current First Lady in tone more than anything, saying, “And their denial of plagiarism was the exact definition of plagiarism.” The fact that the best “celebrity” endorsements of Trump came from people who’d, as Che says, be too low-rent to appear on Trump’s reality show The Apprentice was an obvious target, but the pair hit it in a nimble bit where Jost echoed each name with faux-impressed asides. (“Scott Baio.” “Got him.” “Antonio Sabato, Jr.” “Couldn’t get Senior.” “One of the Duck Dynasty guys.” “Probably the best one.”) Rudy Giuliani’s red-faced inability to make the appropriate hand gestures. Chris Christie’s “Salem Witch Trials”-esque “light crowd work” whipping up the crowd into an anti-Clinton frenzy. Ben Carson’s claim that Hillary is in league with Satan. (Jost, as Lucifer, denies any congress with the candidate. Her husband, though…) Decent jokes all, on targets that can’t but be swung at.

Colin Jost

This being Update, there were a few correspondent pieces, one a lot better than the other. Che did a field piece akin to what he did during his brief Daily Show tenure, playing “find the minorities” at the RNC with the help of his “Trumpémon Go” app. The fact that this campaign has openly courted controversy (or outrage and horror) by courting white people (and those who really, really think white people are the best people) is not really up for debate at this point. (Please begin your debate in the comments.) But this sort of confrontational man-on-the-street comedy’s been done better. Also, if this brief piece lets the SNL writers get the whole Pokémon thing out of their collective system before September, then I wholeheartedly support it.

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Newly minted movie star Kate McKinnon reprised her Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the other piece, which is always a welcome event. McKinnon’s been the de facto star of SNL for a few years now, and her Ginsburg shows off just how vividly she invests her characterizations with unique, idiosyncratic life. There’s nothing new here—Ginsburg delights in doing schtick at the expense of the right people (“You just got Gins-burned!”) and then doing her funny little old lady dance close enough to make Jost uncomfortable. Like the real RBG, McKinnon’s version is so appealing because she just does’t give a fuck what anyone thinks. “Trump messed with the wrong 15-pound, 200-year-old marionette, baby!” Again, nothing revelatory, but McKinnon always makes everything better, as summer movie audiences have discovered.

Kate McKinnon as RBG

In the end, this was a worthwhile little warmup for the new season, with Jost and Che showing that they’re still on the same page. Considering the setting and the material reality served up for them, though, this Update wasn’t anything special. Call it about a .280 hitter. It’s still pre-season.

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Stray observations

  • “We’re right next to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which is where you can find all the legendary artists who won’t let Republicans use their music.”
  • “Trump says he only wants the best and the brightest. I honestly worry that Trump thinks ‘Baio’ and ‘Sabato’ are Spanish for ‘best’ and ‘brightest.’”
  • “I thought Trump’s whole point was that he’s trying to deport guys named Chachi.”
  • I was initially disappointed in how short this Update special was, so I stuck around to see if Che and Jost would hang out and do something else review-worthy. And, dear God, am I glad I did. When the two sat down opposite Hardball host and frequent SNL target Chris Matthews, it was easily the equal of the special proper, for a couple of reasons. One—that Che and Jost camaraderie that developed over the past SNL season carries over nicely when they’re working off the cuff. Both smart, funny, and well-informed guys, they were able to field Matthews questions and fire back solid, unrehearsed lines with impressive alacrity. Che talking about being one of the very few black people in the convention hall came across beautifully when he talked about not wanting to be in the same hot dog line as another black man. (“It’s like not having the President and the Vice President in the same place.”) But two—watching them both try to keep it together in the face of Matthews’ bafflingly tone-deaf questioning was a master class in deadpan professionalism in the face of a complete nutcase. When Matthews first brought his oft-imitated, scattershot energy to his questions, I was disappointed, thinking, “This would be so much funnier if it were Darrell Hammond.” As it went on, I was reminded that Hammond’s impression was always only so amazing for how little exaggerated it was. When Matthews prefaced one remark by saying to Che, “I have a theory about African-Americans—but anthropological, since I don’t have the experience,” Che’s gleefully restrained smile of anticipation signaled just how off the rails this things was going to go. It’s not that Matthews is racist or even trying to be provocative—it’s just that he thought he was one of the boys, and that he was going to mix it up and riff. When he, out of nowhere, asked Che who the funniest black comedian is, I thought, “Oh my God, he’s Michael Scott.” Then, after Che strung him along with Jim Halpert-esque bemused patience, Matthews concluded by blurting out, “It’s Chris Rock!,” and the whole debacle came in for a landing. Jost, too, responded at one point—after Matthews asked what hotel room he was staying in—by simply putting his head down on the anchor desk and laughing hysterically. When Matthews, clearly thinking he’d nailed it, thanked them for coming, Che beamed delightedly, “We’ll come every night.” We could only be so lucky. Glorious.
  • Update will be back next Wednesday, July 27th, after the DNC, and so will I. See you there.

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