Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Chris Redd, Kenan Thompson, Adam Driver
Chris Redd, Kenan Thompson, Adam Driver
Photo: Ashley Good/NBC
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“I was yelling, I was crying, I punched, I sang—all four emotions.”

“I’m not an actor, I’m a [semi-reluctant] star!”

Well, it took three tries, but Saturday Night Live figured out how to use Adam Driver. Coming out for his monologue promising that he’s finally unlocked the secret of how to relax and chill, Driver took hold of his complicatedly prickly reputation and poked it cannily, acting the hell out of trying not to act. Noting that his red carpet smile looks like “a kidnapped person trying to send a message with my eyes,” Driver yet wrung big, confident laughs from the friction between his stated intention to just be one of the gang and his inability to let go of his exacting reputation when directing the band at playing and appropriately laid-back groove (“You can hear that’s better, right?”), and failing utterly at the simple act of handing out an autographed action figure to an audience member. (You look like a Star Wars fan—no offense,” he tells the guy, before his chit-chat veers into threats to kill his new pal if the thing shows up on Ebay.)

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Apart from the requisite self-parody, though, Driver evinced a newfound comfort with the live experience all night. In the monologue, he joked about taking his time so he wouldn’t have to do drag in the last sketch of the night, noting in expert SNL-jabbing, “I don’t know if it’s transphobic or just really dated.” I’m going to count it as a subtle running gag that there is no ten-to-one sketch tonight, rather than assume Driver successfully scuttled something he wasn’t happy about. (It also helps the comedy go down that Driver’s reputation seems to center on a sincere discomfort with the trappings of stardom and not being an abusive asshole, depending on how you view his recent NPR storm-off.)

And while Driver shone in sketches where the joke hinged on his intimidating presence, I was especially impressed with his dad in the sleepover sketch, a straight man role he, yet, made into something more human through sheer underplaying. As the beleaguered parent attempting to ascertain just which of the tween girls’ attempts to hide the toilet blocked by an unwisely flushed sanitary pad (Kate McKinnon, matching him every step), Driver managed to maintain an air of well-intentioned decency while outlining in horrifying detail just how much chaos the embarrassed girl has caused him and his home. (Duct tape, painting over the bathroom door, and attempting to order another toilet online are just the start of it.) Like a lot of his sketches tonight, Driver simply willed depth into his parts—even a lovelorn ketchup bottle—and raised everything up nicely.

Best/Worst Sketch of the Night

The return of Kylo Ren going undercover on the Starkiller Base (or whatever) is going to get all the press, so I won’t fight it. Going back incognito (everyone knows it’s him) as a lowly First Order intern sees Driver/Ren trying once more to tamp down his unnerving presence, which only makes things more unnerving, especially when Ren can’t stop force-murdering balky printers and Beck Bennett’s mocking admiral. (They didn’t re-do this one in Driver’s second outing, so here’s to some restraint.) The bit isn’t bad—I liked the turn where Ren’s genuine mortification at the Empire’s sexist TIE pilot hiring policies sees his beneficent gesture to fellow intern Chloe Fineman turn bloody once she expresses a preference for Luke Skywalker’s flying skills over Ren’s. (“And now you’ll die like him,” Ren hisses into the ear of the lightsaber-skewered woman, adding the trying-too-hard insult “Okay, boomer?” as a final twist of the laser-blade.)

But if that filmed rerun seemed more of an SNL ask than anything Driver was really into, the Medieval Times live sketch was Driver at his most engaged, and best. As Cameron, the community theater acting student who’s gotten way too into his role as one of the overpriced theme restaurant chain’s jousting knights, Driver successfully freaks out everybody as he goes maniacally Method. With emcee Mikey Day unsuccessfully reigning Cameron in (he’s brought homemade armor and weapons, and provided a whole tortured backstory for his knight’s crusade against the playacting king and queen), Driver plays the role with as much steely seriousness as Cameron would if he’d suddenly been cast on Game Of Thrones instead of hawking $110 chicken and potato dinners that don’t even come with “the dignity of a fork!” The premise is a simple one for Driver to hang his delightfully straight-faced performance on, his attempts to role-play tolerance toward coworker Bowen Yang’s “Mongolian” and Chris Redd’s “blackamoor” attendants greeted with unnoticed horror, and his backstory emerging in the anguished wail over his nonexistent dead son, “His name was Brannon!!” That’s how you put Adam Driver in a comedy sketch.

Same goes for the science show sketch, where Driver—taking over for Sam Rockwell’s similarly beset PBS kids’ show host—incrementally creeps into the red at the ineptitude of his two returning, preternaturally not-bright child assistants (Cecily Strong and Mikey Day). Here, the slow burn isn’t so much slow as turned up quickly to boiling, as Driver’s teacher, just trying to teach about air, for crying out loud, can’t help but lose it. It’s perhaps a bit too quick on the bunsen burner, but the climax, with Driver suddenly spinning and hurling a very real tape dispenser at a very real shelf of science stuff, is nicely shocking, and Strong and Day’s dim-bulb kids are just uniquely bad enough at science to get some laughs of their own. Day blows up a balloon so ineptly he passes out, while Strong, wrestling with some massive mouth gear, lets out some unsettlingly intimate details about just what her older sister does in the science room. (“That was an awful conversation we just had!,” Driver’s host exclaims.)

As with Driver’s last time hosting, Lorne Michaels’ increasing commitment to product integration proves an irritant in the otherwise funnier-than-it’s-got-a-right-to-be sketch about a TV commercial for a particular chain of fast-food Mexican. (Not that one, the other one.) Look, if it cuts down on commercials and helps pay to keep Kenan, Cecily, Kate, and Aidy in the house a little while longer, these inelegantly shoehorned advertisements are a necessary evil, I guess. But (as with Driver’s last one of these), you can practically hear said company’s marketing people giving notes about really hitting the new slogan and price points, and it’s fucking distracting. Still, the sketch—against all odds—manages to shrug off the Jack Donaghy-like corporate unpleasantness and turn into one of those weird little pieces that are irritating until the escalating repetition finally becomes really funny. (For some people, that transformation never happens. I weep for those people.) As Driver’s marketing person for said taco concern and Beck Bennett’s director repeatedly hector Kyle Mooney’s hapless commercial actor with their readings of his catchphrase, “Aww, man, I’m all outta cash!,” their increasingly aggressive criticism just keeps getting more comically hostile. “No, you’re not a pervert!,” scolds Driver, before concluding of the desperately compliant Mooney, “I think we just gotta beat the hell out of this guy.”

Chris Redd and Kenan Thompson doing musical comedy is always with a solid, meticulously crafter laugh (and sometimes an Emmy), so it’s unsurprising that their music video slow jam (alongside Driver), “Slow,” is another winner. The joke—that crooning lotharios’ boasts of lovemaking attentiveness are irritatingly literal—makes for a funny turn, embroidered by the film’s weirdo little touches. Redd drives so slowly on the way to his rendezvous that he’s pulled over, and Driver’s gift of ice cream melts, plus Driver’s bass voice is so mellow that it’s nearly unintelligible. To one of the bored ladies who suggests that their intended dates might in fact be “slow-slow,” Redd caps the bit off with the hilariously boastful aside, “Naw, doctor said we just above the line.”

I don’t watch Cheer (only so much time in the week, you guys), but I sort of feel I have, as Heidi Gardner and Driver’s cheerleading coaches’ asides about the various grotesque injuries suffered by their still-game teenage charges (“I’m kinda smelling his arm rot.”) gives the impression that that Netflix docu-series’ appeal is akin to watching NASCAR for the crashes. Gardner hasn’t had a role this meaty for a while, and she and Driver find just the perfect note of genteel Southern manipulation in their coaches’ relationship with their busted-up students. (“She’s never had a momma so we can mold her like clay,” murmurs Gardner of one hobbled but willing girl.) Kenan’s great as the one enthusiastic kid who’s “always a maybe,” and musical guest Halsey comes on at the end to show that she can do a serious high-kick. (As well as sing while riding a fake mechanical bull, as we see later.)

Weekend Update update

Jon Stewart popping up on The Late Show on the week of a nation-defining impeachment trial (despite merely being a plug for his upcoming movie) pointed up just how much The Daily Show’s nightly satirical engagement with the news is missed since Stewart left. (I know it’s still on the air.) Weekend Update can’t ever be that, really, nor should we expect it to fill that role entirely, time constraints being what they are for SNL’s comedy newscast centerpiece, but it could do a lot more with the time it’s given. I’ve said it before—if Saturday Night Live wants to ditch politics and just put all its energy into putting together a really tight 90-minute comedy variety show each week, then go to it. But the show has long prided itself on its political relevance, and certainly enjoys the ratings and viral popularity whenever a political sketch hits the public consciousness, so it’s always disappointing when the show chooses to do politics and does it badly.

In a week where—regardless of whether you view the ongoing impeachment trial as a last, desperate referendum on the last scrap of what America claims to be, or you’re a Donald Trump supporter—there’s a bottomless well of thematic and eventful material to work with, Michael Che and Colin Jost’s main takeaways on tonight’s Update were that it’s taking up so much of their time. Sorry, guys. Maybe fewer layups about Trump jabbering like an idiot about unimportant stuff and more effort into fashioning something less immediately disposable. Again, if SNL didn’t want to do politics, that’s fine. But doing it so lazily in the midst of a satirical premise goldmine is just professional malpractice.

There were a few half-decent jokes, the sheer lowness of the hanging fruit meaning Jost and Che feel comfortable just whacking away. A picture of Mitch McConnell elicits Jost’s description of the self-professed grim reaper of representative democracy as “seen here, calmly watching an orphanage burn.” And Che, despite continuing to maintain his wonted too-cool-to-care stance, did cut fairly deep by complaining that Americans should be better at removing crazy dictators, since “we’ve been practicing all over the world for, like, 100 years.” But, man, that’s a low, unproductive batting average when real life keeps tossing up meatballs the way Trump and the Republicans are these days.

The correspondent pieces might be wasted as far as allowing some of the other cast voices to chime in on the events of the day, but at least Aidy Bryant is delightful. Coming back as tween travel consultant Carrie Krum, the breathlessly bashful kid has all the best travel tips—as long as they’re the places she’s dragged to by her extended family. It’s a character piece, and Aidy’s great, her repeated appeals for Chen to listen to her salacious tales of glimpsed boy belly-hair and off-color bible quotes a sweetly lived-in work of characterization. Aidy is always welcome. (Plus, Carrie claims Halsey gave her five bucks!)

Better, though, was a rare Update appearance as herself by perpetually underserved Melissa Villaseñor. Sporting a sparkly red carpet dress, Melissa promised her Oscar insights, all of which consisted of a series of identically tinny songs accurately describing the theme of most of this year’s Academy Award-nominated films (Joker, The Irishman, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, 1917, the Best Director snub of Little Women’s Greta Gerwig) as “white male rage.” With Jost playing along (he claims to work out to Joker every day), the smiling Villaseñor succinctly gave vent to women’s frustrations with just how much acclaim is heaped on tales of white guys’ violent angst with a deceptively cheery song in her heart.

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

The Science Room, Carrie Krum.

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

There were a few things going for the political cold open tonight. One—no Trump, except in absentia as the subject of the ongoing impeachment trial that formed the backdrop for the piece. (The trial is ongoing, but—despite Donald Trump’s Twitter whimpering—he is already and perpetually impeached.) For another, the sketch took another turn putting Maine Senator, faux-moderate, and performative fretter Susan Collins (R-ME) front and center, a high-profile skewering of New England’s lone, currently sinking Republican member of the House or Senate that this Maine boy can heartily endorse. (And Cecily’s got Collins’ tight vocal warble down pat.) You can toss in some nostalgia to the proceedings, too, if you’re not as irritated as I am at Lorne’s continued employment of high-profile impressionist ringers, since Jon Lovitz dropped by as Trump legal advisor/apologist Alan Dershowitz. Lovitz doesn’t sound anything like noted defender of truly terrible people Dershowitz, but recognition applause is more valuable currency than allowing the overstuffed and underused cast to fill out these cold opens, clearly.

But the most encouraging part of this Baldwin-less opener is in it’s “fuck it” central premise, as Dershowitz, after a Senate chambers episode, winds up right in hell. He’s not dead, but just brought in for a meet-and-greet with Kate McKinnon’s worshipful fan Satan, a conceit that at least abandons some of the show’s signature toothless both-sides comedy in favor of just framing the joke as “The current GOP is full-on hypocritical, soulless evil, so go ahead and tweet, Donnie.” There’s nothing especially revelatory or bold in the writing otherwise, really. (Look out, satirical targets Flo from Progressive, Mr. Peanut, and the guy who wrote “Baby Shark”—SNL is a’comin’ for you!) But sometimes simply putting empirical facts up there on the screen on national TV is gasp-worthy enough. Bennett’s froggy Mitch McConnell brags about stealing Merrick Garland’s Supreme Court seat and he and Collins agree that a fair trial includes “no witnesses, no evidence.” Dershowitz warmly greets late (“Too bad I was murdered!”) wealthy pedophile and Trump pal Jeffrey Epstein (Driver), before adding that he’s still also proud to have defended O.J. Simpson and Claus Von Bülow before contradicting everything he’s ever said about impeachment to defend Donald Trump. Noting that the Menendez brothers are the ones that got away, Lovitz’s Dershowitz says proudly, “‘It’s not a great look’ is printed on my business card!”

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I am hip to the musics of today

SNL officially loves Halsey. And while I wasn’t overly enthusiastic about her double-duty turn earlier this season, the singer certainly can hold a note, and the stage. And if the leather boot-scoot choreography in the bracing “You Should Be Sad” verged on the silly, well, maybe that’s just me.

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

Again, there was no ten-to-one sketch proper, as Driver threw to Halsey’s second number and then straight to the goodnights, but I’m counting the ketchup marriage sketch. For one thing, it can accurately be described as the “ketchup marriage sketch.” For another, where the hell else would you put it? A combination of groan-worthy wordplay (Ketchup bottle Driver claims ketchup bottle bride Cecily Strong is “getting cold bottom of the bottle”), and impressively straight-faced acting (sorry ACTING!), the goofy little piece kept refusing to die the death it seemed poised to die at the start. Packing a BBC period melodrama’s-worth of overblown romantic entanglements into one silly packet, the sketch kept making me smile in spite of my better instincts. And pride. Driver’s haughty ketchup container is revealed to be named “Windemere,” and Cecily’s big secret (apart from her bastard love child with Kyle Mooney’s hot sauce bottle) is that she’s secretly been catsup all along, and she tells off the suddenly prejudiced Windemere, telling him furiously, “You’re not even Heinz, you dirty Hunt!,” and, again, I’m not proud of this. But Driver and Strong acted their asses off to the extent that Driver’s parting regret, “I don’t relish telling you this” kicked through the horror of that gag to make me laugh. That’s what last sketches are for, people.

Stray observations

  • Buck Henry got a single title card in tribute to his passing earlier this week, so I’ll just say this. Henry was a successful writer and creator when SNL started, but the affably game Henry became such a frequent early host that people often mistook him for part of the original cast. Noted for being the easiest, most uncomplaining host to work with, Henry was infamous for doing riskier sketches that no other host would touch, and for coming in to host late in the season when everyone was running on fumes. Rewatching a season two Henry-hosted episode this week after his death was reported, I was struck all over at how Henry’s knowing, button-down sleazy persona added a charge to the show, those beady eyes and that tight little smile hinting at possibilities, some you perhaps were not ready for. That was the show where Henry’s forehead was sliced open on-air by an ill-timed swipe from Belushi’s Samurai, but Buck still took the sketch-ending plunge out a prop window, and then—joined by the rest of the cast in an ad-libbed roster of accumulating bandages and plasters afterward—went on with the show, defiantly highlighting the electric “live” of Saturday Night Live. Buck Henry was a pro, and one of the all-time great hosts.
  • In his monologue, a deadpan Driver reminds the audience that they might know him from Marriage Story or “the space one.”
  • Driver, comparing doing SNL to his time as a Marine, says that, in both places, you do one by the book, and then your bosses tell you, “Now do one for fun and make it your own!”
  • McKinnon’s devil invented podcasts, and delights in the complex irony of counting Adam And Eve adult toy concern among her sponsors.
  • After McKinnon explains that she appears to different people differently, Driver’s Epstein got audience groans by claiming happily, “To me, the devil is a woman my own age!”
  • McKinnon’s sleepover guest, attempting to prove she uses tampons and not pads: “Loop ’em up and, string first, right down the gullet.”
  • “I’m about to scream the c-word into my shirt.”
  • Bowen Yang’s cheerleader claims that, despite his two full-leg casts, doctors promise that “nothing is broken, but nothing is connected.”
  • Up next week, SNL’s illustrious history of inviting sports stars to try their luck at live comedy marches on with NFL tackle-man J.J. Watt and musical guest Luke Combs.
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Contributor, The A.V. Club. Danny Peary's Cult Movies books are mostly to blame.

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