That Lorne Michaels and NBC would bank on four extended Weekend Update specials this summer makes sense on a lot of levels. For one, Update mothership Saturday Night Live is coming off some particularly strong ratings, and the initially beyond-shaky pairing of co-anchors Michael Che and Colin Jost has improbably gelled into something reliably funny and more or less on-target, satirically. (Jost snapped off a decent joke comparing the upcoming, pre-air Will & Grace season two renewal to NBC’s strategy of getting a little bit of success and “diluting the brand.”) For another, it’s summer—shooting what turns out to be just another, albeit double-sized Update right on the same Studio 8H set doesn’t represent much of a major investment, especially in the August TV doldrums.
Mainly, though, the sense—perhaps hope—was that the prospect of nearly three months of eminently joke-worthy news had the Update crew simply too impatient to get back to work picking apart the daily evidence of a country very clearly losing its collective mind in increasingly absurd ways. What tonight’s first installment reveals, though, is that the Saturday Night Live brand of political comedy steers like the big, handsomely mounted entertainment enterprise it is. It’s a comedy cruise ship, simply unsuited to making the daring, risky adjustments others have found necessary to navigate political satire in the age of Trump.
That’s not a huge complaint, really. More of a nod toward 40-plus years of complaints about how SNL is SNL, while acknowledging that Jost and Che (and guests) put on a consistently amusing show. It’s not fair to judge Weekend Update: Summer Edition against those doing the same sort of job. Other late night TV comedians like Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee, Jim Jefferies, John Oliver, Trevor Noah, Anthony Atamanuik, former Update anchor Seth Meyers, and others are all coming at the day’s or week’s political situation in their own ways, and it’s a tough job these days. When your job is to point out absurdity, a uniformly absurd world forces the best to change their playbooks. Weekend Update: Summer Edition is just Weekend Update: Longer Edition.
Again, that’s not to say it’s not funny, or that Jost and Che don’t get in some above-average lines throughout. The opening, Trump-centric segment of the half-hour show saw Jost kicking off this summer SNL experiment by addressing just how much nonsense has piled up since May. “What a crazy year it’s been these past few weeks” is the sort of joke that’s been making the rounds since last November, but Jost has been honing his confidently smarmy to-camera staredown. Che, deceptively looser, is confident, too, contrasting his perspective to that of his button-down co-anchor with a more direct hostility to injustice, and a flair for character work. Taking on the anti-immigrant assault on the Statue of Liberty (and that pesky “huddled masses” poem white supremacists hate), Che lands his point with a dating metaphor that—couched in female stereotypes as it is—builds in comic logic. Jost and Che are still a solid team.
But while the jokes were fine, they weren’t especially ambitious, and that’s a problem if Update—and, by extension, SNL—is going to keep up. Things are moving too fast for a cruise ship. The sheer number and increasing severity of the things being joked about keep pounding away, and a lazy trip through the chaos is going to feel awfully passé as the weeks and months roll on. The fact that we got a joke about The Emoji Movie midway through the episode was not an encouraging portent, and only half of the four guest appearances really engaged with current events. And while Kenan Thompson (as camera-hogging Laker dad LaVar Ball) and Leslie Jones (as Leslie Jones) did their respective things to amusing effect, the effect on viewers was pleasantly predictable. Jones, hyping up her new gym regimen (and demanding Jost kiss her new “Michelle Obama arms”) built up a funny Roseanne Roseannadanna momentum as she got worked up about some gross stuff at her preferred workout spot, which is, indeed, a compliment.
The more political pieces weren’t much more adventurous. Alex Moffat and Mikey Day broke their vacations short to return as Trump sons Eric and Donald Jr., respectively, and, as happens with recurring characters, worked the same dynamic. Eric is the loose-lipped manchild (here getting his tongue stuck in a fidget spinner when not spilling inside info on Donald Jr.’s alleged collusion with Russian operatives), as Donald tries to keep a slicky-boy lid on his brother while spouting douchey catchphrases and ignoring Jost’s probing questions. It’s funny—both Day and Moffat should make the leap to full cast this coming season, something they’ve put the work in for. But it’s just funny.
Same goes for the episode’s big guest spot, with SNL alum and utility all-star Bill Hader showing up as The Mooch (peremptorily shitcanned Trump communications director Anthony Scaramucci). Coming late to the party, Update has had to watch literally everyone with a camera do their Mooch material over the past month, so bringing in ace ringer Hader to essay their version provided a jolt of anticipation. In practice it, too, was… fine. The mannerisms and attitude of the showily aggressive Scaramucci were all there, but no one thought of much to do beyond letting Hader show off his mimicry skills. If this were a Mooch among Mooches a month ago, it’d partake of some residual Mooch-mania. Here, only Hader’s delivery of Mooch’s rapid fire confession that he destroyed his entire life only to be “king of Idiot Mountain for 11 days” had any snap to it.
Weekend Update: Summer Edition should do well enough to justify its existence to NBC. Whether it can up its game to stand out among a crowd of seemingly more invested political comedy shows remains to be seen.
- I admire the verisimilitude of having Hader’s Mooch delay his responses a beat to ape the Face Time premise of his bit, but it did mess with the timing.
- Moffat’s grown on me, with his childlike amazement at his brother setting the fidget spinner spinning making me laugh as much as anything else tonight.
- Kenan’s Ball boasting that he could beat Michael Jordan one-on-one while “wearing a beekeeper suit and Hamburger Helper gloves” launched the character into a whole other level of much-appreciated silliness.
- As did his prediction that, in addition to winning the regular series and NBA finals MVP, son Lonzo will win “best truck in his class by J.D. Power and Associates.”
- Leslie calls Colin her “sexy-ass white walker.” You should check out her recent Game Of Thrones-watching appearance alongside pal Seth Meyers, if you like Leslie, Game Of Thrones, or laughing.
- There’s no start date yet for SNL’s 43rd season, but I’ll be back next Thursday for the next installment. See you then.