Tom Hanks (Photo: Mary Ellen Matthews/NBC)

“I’m not an actor, I’m a [staggeringly famous and beloved movie] star!”

You know, you never realize just how much you need Tom Hanks until he’s back on Saturday Night Live. Sure, sure, he’s got the Oscars, and he’s saving a plane full of people, or a spaceship full of people, or all the people (as in his newest Dan Brown movie, which, okay, maybe we don’t need). But, blessedly, Hanks has never lost his inner goofball, and, tonight, in his ninth hosting appearance, he was the Hanks we need right now.

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In his monologue, Hanks parlayed his recent magazine cover title as “America’s Dad” into a bit that was funny and oddly touching, as he sat down his son (America) and reassured the offscreen lad that everything’s gonna be all right. It’s a cleverly written bit, with Hanks telling his “champ” not to get upset that his complexion’s getting a little darker, that he’s a little gayer, since, after all, he sure got through that Depression just fine. Coming as it did right after another accurately boorish and contentious presidential debate cold open, the monologue served to let Hanks work his singular brand of calm, sensible decency on us. Yes, he might not be crazy about all the open weed smoking, and he’ll just let the whole issue of his boy’s gun obsession drop (who needs that fight?), but with this endless election season making it seem like the whole damned thing is on fire, Tom Hanks telling him/us “You got a lot goin’ on inside you. You are gonna be fine” is damned reassuring. Thanks, Dad.

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That humorously healing vibe continued to great effect in the return of ”Black Jeopardy,” with Hanks taking on the role of the one whitey destined to feel out of place in a game show written for and by black America. Only this time, Hanks’ rough-hewn, Trump-supporting white guy found common ground with Sasheer Zamata and Leslie Jones’ co-contestants and Kenan Thompson’s ever-gregarious and knowing host, Darnell Hayes, simply based on their shared suspicion of the government, hatred of taxes, and appreciation for “sturdy women.” I love “Black Jeopardy.” Like the seemingly retired “How’s He Doing?” it’s a sketch that feels like its talking from the inside out, both playing around with and subverting stereotypes, with the joke always ultimately on the white contestants for their presumption that their perspective is the only correct one. When Hanks trotted out a gruff accent and a “Git ‘r’ done” for his Doug, it looked like the sketch was going obvious, but the way that Doug’s grievances lined up with the others’ was both insightful and, as with Hanks’ monologue, strangely hopeful. Sure, it can’t stick. (“Well, it was good while it lasted,” Thompson says upon unveiling the final category, “Lives that matter.”) But there’s something so optimistic and goodhearted (and edgy) about the sketch that elevated it above even the very funny past installments. That’s a neat trick for a recurring sketch to pull off.

Throughout, Hanks was as outstanding as we’ve come to expect. Even when the show wheeled out a requisite Sully sketch, Hanks (alongside 16-time host Alec Baldwin) sold the hell out of it. The premise—Sully doesn’t take kindly to having to sit copilot upon returning to flying—might be standard, but Hanks underplays the hero Sullenberger’s pissiness so as to induce non-stop giggles. (“Have you seen Sully?” “I have not.” “It’s about me.”)

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And then there’s one David S. Pumpkins. Perhaps a distant relative of Larry David’s Kevin Roberts, Pumpkins was the star of a haunted-elevator-themed Halloween attraction whose inexplicable self-possessedness, catchphrase (“I’m David Pumpkins! Any questions?”), and energetically inappropriate skeleton backup dancers baffle the hell out of ride patrons Beck Bennett and Kate McKinnon. The inexplicable Mr. Pumpkins was also the star of a damned fine episode of SNL, a loopy yet carefully crafted creation where each successive absurd progression leapt incrementally further into classic sketch territory. Bennett and McKinnon (and Kenan Thompson’s elevator operator guide) set off each reappearance of Pumpkins and company with exquisite deadpan. (“He has a middle initial now?” “Why did you go all in on David Pumpkins?”) I’m still chuckling writing this, so that’s a good sign.

Weekend Update update

Like the cold open debate sketch, Update mined the campaign for ready-made jokes, but at least they were decent jokes. Michael Che and Colin Jost took what Trump gave ’em, with Jost scoring by comparing Trump to Kramer (“He’s high-energy, his plans were insane, and it’s only a matter of time before he yells out the n-word onstage”), and Jost compared media coverage of Trump to the sober girl at the bar trying to make sure “her drunk friend doesn’t go home with that scuzzy orange dude.” Che also lands a joke about Trump quite possibly being the one amongst friends like Roger Ailes, Mike Tyson, and Gary Busey who does have the most respect for women. (“Compared to them, Trump is Tina Fey, I guess.”) Here, too, the “give it to both sides” SNL doctrine holds sway, as far as they’re able with Donald Trump weighting down his end of the political see-saw. Che cautions Hillary Clinton that while Trump’s campaign is “a full diaper,” some 40 percent of the country is still saying, “Yeah, but at least he’s not Hillary.” For people (okay, me) hoping the all-out Trump attack SNL unleashed after that Access Hollywood tape came out meant that the show was entering unyoked “fuck this guy” mode, this element of “hit the targets, wherever they are” shows a measure of necessary comic impartiality.

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The Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started A Conversation With At A Party is a character that I’m tired of but that a number of my esteemed colleagues think still has a lot of juice left. So I’ll just say that, as much as I admire Cecily Strong’s performance as the woefully ill-informed but infinitely self-righteous party girl, a character built largely on a tottering tower of malaprop humor (“voter insemination,” “devil’s abacus”) is going to topple for me pretty quickly. Still, Strong always finds weird little twists of logic that make me laugh. (“40 percent of children are just their legs,” “I need to go to Cuba before white people ruin it.”) I feel guilty, but I laugh.

And Leslie Jones finally returned as herself to address the torrents of abuse (and the release of her personal information and nude pictures) this summer. She joked about the hack of her personal website and phone at the Emmys, but this is the forum I figured Jones would avail herself of, and, man, did she. People who don’t like Jones’ comic style will continue to find her broad and loud and brash, but this was a woman staring down not just a TV camera but a whole internet full of sneering little sex criminals who tried to silence her by humiliating her in the worst way they knew how. And Jones simply wasn’t having it. She stumbled a bit at the start—whether from nerves or her signature shakiness on live television—but then she came strong. “I don’t know if you know this about me, but I ain’t shy,” said Jones, continuing, “I am very comfortable with who I am. I keep my porn in a folder labeled ‘porn.’” As Jones went on, she’s gone through much worse than a bunch of trolls “tapping on their keyboards” as she’s risen through the comedy ranks as a now 49-year-old black woman to become a legit star and writer on the notoriously white Saturday Night Live, among other accomplishments. It was funny. (Talking about making it in black comedy clubs, she says, “The guy who played the crackhead in the movie Friday has a whole hour on my feet.”) And it was rousingly, defiantly human, as Jones took a long beat to let the joke land that when she says “If you want to see me naked, just ask!,” she’s actually asking if anyone out there is interested in her romantically. Leslie Jones isn’t having it, and it was exhilarating to behold.

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Best/worst sketch of the night

I’m torn between “Black Jeopardy” and David Pumpkins for top spot. Honestly, “BJ” is a richer and better-written sketch, but I’m laughing again just remembering Pumpkins. Laughs always win. Damn you, Pumpkins, I have no questions.

There wasn’t a bad sketch in the lineup tonight. I suppose Hanks’ Ron Howard wasn’t the most accurate thing in the world in “America’s Funniest Pets,” but Hanks was so damned invested in the impression that it was endearing to watch, and pretty funny in its own right. The block party sketch, too, might have been a clunker were it not for Hanks and Cecily Strong’s commitment to their characters. Having spent all year preparing an elaborately bananas Halloween play for the kids that no one asked for (and that no one certainly agreed to pay them $2,000 to perform), the couple, alongside college-age daughter Melissa Villaseñor, thew themselves into a musical tale involving a witch, Dracula, and a zombie (and nudity, and special effects). Again, without the performances, it might have gotten more tiresome, but it coasted along on the acting, the weirdness, and some fine underplayed reactions from their fellow block parents. (“So they wrote a love triangle with their daughter?”)

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The filmed bits were solid, if not spectacular. CBS’ desperate attempt to emulate the online/cable “comedy without laughs” award-bait programming model, “Broken,” alternated jabs at how terrible a CBS prestige dramedy would be, and how such series are often categorized as comedy, seemingly because, as the sketch puts it, “If it’s 30 minutes, it’s a comedy.” As the misery piles up, the show is revealed to be about a family of adjunct professors who were all diagnosed with depression at the same time, that one adult daughter has both an alcohol problem and Crohn’s disease, and that the other daughter, for some reason, spends an entire episode touching everything in the family’s living room. For anyone tired of often-wrenching, half-hour shows that are hard to classify, “Broken” is your new Transparent. Or Atlanta. Or Better Things. Or Grace And Frankie. Or Master Of None. Or Love. Or Lady Dynamite. Or…

“A Girls’ Halloween” worked because of the stellar acting of Cecily Strong, Aidy Bryant, and Vanessa Bayer, as a trio of costumed friends whose Halloween Night cuts between their politely sober planning and the torn-stocking, irrational drunken fighting, pizza-puking 4 a.m. reality. Points, too, for Bobby Moynihan’s exasperated pizza joint owner, who we see in flashback optimistically hanging cheery Halloween decorations, before cutting back to him turning the hose on the three belligerent women to get them out the door. (Bryant, naturally, Hulk-smashes right through the plate glass window, before hooking up with Pete Davidson’s Hulk-makeupped patron the morning after. Because Bryant is a force of nature.)

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

We got The Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With at a Party, “Black Jeopardy,” and the French cat ladies, none of which tried my patience all that much. And, in the case of “Black Jeopardy,” actually upped its game.

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

As Tom Hanks’ moderator Chris Wallace said about tonight’s debate sketch, “It’s like the third Lord Of The Rings movie. You don’t really wanna watch but, hey, you’ve come this far.” McKinnon versus Baldwin. Clinton versus Trump. Reopening the barely scarred-over mental wounds of the shitshow that was that final debate, the performers and writers pulled the expected verbatim horrifying Trump quotes (after promising to come out slow, Baldwin’s Trump leaps right to “They’re ripping babies out of vaginas!” when asked about reproductive rights), and play at evening things out by having McKinnon’s Clinton be both pre-programmed and cocky. Mimicking Clinton’s strategy of letting her opponent hang himself with blustering nonsense, McKinnon’s Clinton is seen absently picking her teeth at one point. (Hillary Clinton’s derived more benefits from split-screen during these debates than Brian DePalma has in five decades of filmmaking.)

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It’s funny, as ever, with Baldwin and McKinnon sinking fangs into their portrayals, and Hanks essaying Wallace’s widely lauded control of the debate by shushing stock footage of audiences laughing their asses off at Trump’s “No one has more respect for women than me” with a stern, “Settle down, entire planet.” By now, though, the debate sketches are—like Hillary’s Trump Bingo card (she wins with “bad hombres”)—largely a matter of ticking boxes. Trump chickening out when meeting with Enrique Peña Nieto—check. (Although Baldwin got laughs for remembering a neighboring head of state as Mr. Señor Guacamole.) Hillary dodging email questions by steering back to “Trump is a pig”—check. “Nasty woman”—check. (Hillary is already selling merch.) If SNL is dedicated—as has been its mantra, historically—to going after both sides, then these sketches have done that. It’s just that, well, one of the candidates is Donald Trump, and, as Baldwin states, the worst thing the media does to him is “taking all of the things I say and all of the things I do and putting them on TV.” If there’s a hard-hitting joke in there this time, it might be Clinton’s twist ending, asking who America thinks is fit to be President, “the Republican, or Donald Trump?”

I am hip to the musics of today

Not being the most up-to-date Lady Gaga enthusiast, I’ll let Annie Zaleski’s fine review of Gaga’s latest album do the talking. That being said, in her first, country-themed number, did anyone else get visions of that time Jenna Moroney “went country?”

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Most/Least Valuable (Not Ready For Prime Time) Player

Assuming that was Mikey Day alongside Bobby Moynihan as one of David Pumpkins’ skeleton dancers, I can’t recall seeing any trace of other new guy Alex Moffat tonight.

On the most valuable side, I really can’t just award the top spot to Kate McKinnon every week. So, as much as McKinnon nailed her roles (Clinton, elevator patron, French cat lady), I’ll give the nod to Cecily Strong. She, too, was very funny making French-accented cartoon noises (“Dorp!”) over tragic cat videos, and while I restate my desire to retire The Girl You Wish, etc, in the Block Party sketch, she was fully committed to selling her ridiculous sexy witch character. Sometimes there’s an art to a true shoulder-shimmy, and Strong found it. (Plus, additional commitment points for onscreen vomiting in “A Girls’ Halloween.”)

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

“America’s Funniest Pets” saw Tom Hanks’s aw-shucks Ron Howard delightedly introducing corny cute animal videos until Cecily Strong and Kate McKinnon’s hosts of the much less cuddly French version start to freak him out. Hanks’ impression of old pal Howard is enthusiastic but not great (he sounds a lot like Andy Richter, instead), but if Tom Hanks tells you he’s got a Ron Howard in his back pocket, you say “Sure thing, Mr. Hanks,” apparently. Like most recurring bits, it’s one-joke (the French idea of whimsy doesn’t preclude kitty drug overdoses and piglet prostitution), but McKinnon and Strong sell it in their performances as people who are more than willing to adjust for their American audience, but can’t quite get there. (Urged by Howard to try some puns, they spin a tale of a lonely cat waiting for his father to finish up with his prostitute by intoning, “He provide no emotional su-purr-t.”) Weird idea, ably executed. Welcome to Ten-To-Oneland.

Stray observations

  • “Who is David Pumpkins?” “His own thang!” “And the skeletons are?” “Part of it!”
  • “You are great. You got a summer birthday, that’s always tough.”
  • Jost, quoting Trump’s assertion that the women subjecting themselves to national scrutiny (and horrific abuse from Trump supporters) by coming forward to accuse the Republican candidate for president of sexual abuse are only looking for “10 minutes of fame: “The expression is 15 minutes of fame. Trump is so cheap he’s lowballing them on their minutes of fame.”
  • Che, on how this election has his head spinning: “An old, white billionaire is arguing that it’s fixed, and I’m on TV arguing that it’s not.”
  • “A woman gave birth while in line at a Wal Mart, said the janitor’s resignation letter.”
  • “And on November 9th, make sure to check out Trump TV. You’re gonna hate it.”
  • Baldwin’s Trump uses his position as Trump-in-residence to take a shot back at conservative, little-employed Baldwin brother Stephen for his recent insult of Alec’s SNL portrayal. That’s bringing a knife to a gunfight, Steve.
  • Hanks’ Doug also liked Tyler Perry’s Boo! A Madea Halloween, saying, “If I can laugh and pray in 90 minutes, that is money well spent.”
  • “Mike Pence disagreed with the candidate, saying he will accept the results of the election, unless they’re gay.”
  • “You people are fun! Oh, can I say that?” “We’ll give you a pass this time.”

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