Saturday Night Live Season 42, Episode 2: Lin-Manuel Miranda helps the show ignite

This was the kind of Saturday Night Live that every season dreams of having. A “So hot right now” host. A hungry cast willing to prove itself. Most importantly, Satirical gold dropped into its lap basically the night before without a single other late-night show having the time to interrupt it. Saturday Night Live was, for almost the first time ever, the first late night comedy show to have a chance to comment on a seismic political happening, the Trump Tapes. How’d they do?

How’s the Cold Open?

They knocked it out of the park.

The obvious subject of the Cold Open this week was the Vice Presidential Debate, with its constant shouting and interrupting and easily imitable gestures, plus that’s just how the schedule of these things go. SNL does the Debates as Cold Opens during Election Season.

That’s the initial feint of the sketch, with Beck Bennett coming out as Mike Pence and Mikey Day coming out as Tim Kaine (actually a flip of how I thought this would go). It doesn’t go that way for long, and it’s solid when it’s there. Mostly thanks to Beck Bennett’s Pence. Bennett is starting to show a knack for not the affable morons that Killam played, but rather for the sinister politicians, playing his generic white dude with just the right amount of comedic menace. Had it just remained a VP Debate, it might have been fine. And then came the twist.

The rest of the sketch becomes about the Trump Tape scandal of the last few days, giving Baldwin a chance to try out his Trump in an actual sketch. Baldwin seems even more comfortable this week, and shows why Hammond’s Trump wouldn’t have worked in this cycle. Hammond played Trump as the goofy reality show host. Especially this week, Baldwin plays Trump as a gargoyle, barely stretching what Trump said, but saying it in a way that clearly takes any kind of salesmanship out of it. Baldwin’s Trump is barely able to contain himself, constantly straining and twisting, the change in facial expressions are wonderful. Baldwin’s Trump is the unveiled monster we’ve found him to be, played as satire.

Plus, the sketch is funny! It couches discussion of the real mockery (the things he said) with the obvious comedy bit (him never knowing when his mic is on). Cecily is a great scene partner here, allowing herself to slowly express the horror she feels, eventually just hugging herself. It’s just specific enough to be understandable, it’s SNL actually grasping at satire. This is a hard moment and election to satirize, but SNL actually does it.

In fact, it’s definitely a strong sketch when Kate McKinnon’s Clinton isn’t even the highlight. She comes in and she’s still a lot of fun, but the basis of the joke is one they functionally made last week.

A hell of an opening, and one of my favorite Cold Opens last week. By the way, it’s good they pushed the boundaries with the word “pussy” last week, because they needed the hell out of it for this opening sketch to work.

Who’s Hosting?

I’ll disclose up front that I was predisposed to love this one. I think Lin-Manuel Miranda is one of our most important artists working, not just for his skill but also for the sheer lack of cynicism in his work or in his public life. His perfectly sincere, full-throated theater kid enthusiasm is what’s fun, and of course makes him a natural fit as an SNL host. The live theater experience doesn’t hurt either.

And he didn’t disappoint. Miranda is a hell of a lot of fun in this episode, a natural performer who avoided taking over the show. He’s a natural fit into the cast and shines the couple times he’s really given a chance to shine. The cast also clearly loves working with the guy. When he says that this has been the best week of his life, despite the fact that almost every host says it, you can tell he means it. I won’t be surprised to see him back.

What Sketches Are Worth Watching?

“A Day Off”

To continue with the theme of “a show with a host made for me,” this was the show of “sketches almost entirely made for me.” “A Day Off” is an incredibly strong one, a perfectly escalating look at Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway being completely unable to escape her candidate. The structure is fantastic and McKinnon’s performance sells every new appearance. It’s a small idea made very large by some great writing and increasingly strong sketch filmmaking. It’s the kind of thing that SNL will increasingly become good as the Internet sketch comedy writers now on the show become more and more comfortable.

“Crucible Cast Party”

This one was wonderful. So specific and so deadly accurate and so much fun. One of the few sketches besides the monologue to make use of Miranda’s musical abilities, this is also new cast member Melissa Villaseñor’s induction into the “Lady Cast Songs” group, and proves herself a worthy addition to the strongest bench of female cast members this show has ever said.

For anyone who’s ever been into anything nerdy, you got this sketch. You saw something you did, or something you know someone did. While it may not be the best musically, it’s probably the most specific and accurate, and you know everyone in the cast was fully committed because they’d been there too. Love this one.

“Diego Calls His Mom”

A weirdly sweet little interlude and the only sketch Miranda was actually the lead in. A call home by an immigrant to his mother, it’s just good, gentle fun. No huge laughs, but great little details and a great outsider perspective. I really liked this one from a filmmaking perspective too, the hazy darkened stage he’s putting his memories on to really comes to life.

“Substitute Teacher”

Yeah, this is a sketch that Miranda was made for. His sincerity sells the hell out of the cliche “inspirational” teacher and the kids’ deadpan response makes it hit all the harder. I’m torn over whether I enjoyed Kenan Thompson’s undercutting or Pete Davidson’s prediction of the teacher’s life story.

“Went to Hollywood. Failed Hard.”

A lot of this show’s strength is in the specifics, whether it’s in parody or satire.

“Lin-Manuel Miranda Monologue”

It’s the first time in a very long time that the show’s mainstay of a musical monologue has made sense, and also the only real reference to Hamilton the whole show. An adaptation of “My Shot” about hosting SNL, it’s not a particularly hilarious, but it’s energetic and a great bit of tone-setting. Plus, Miranda being the first non-Jost and Che person to go in on Trump having hosted SNL last year (including a famous little riff from “The Reynolds Pamphlet“) was kind of everything I needed.

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“Stranger Things”

While a sketch that might have been better in a docket-clearing season premiere, and the kind of sketch I’m not overly fond of (SNL never feels older than when they try to shoehorn in references to popular things), the turn this one takes really makes it work, revealing Lucas’ (Sasheer Zamata, making an actual sketch appearance) parents and pivoting almost into a discussion of the difference between the world white kids and black kids face. It’s surprising. Plus, Miranda as the kid with the lisp (so help me god if I can remember anything much about Stranger Things at this point) was just great.

“You don’t have to be scared, it’s the police chief.” “We know.”

“Dying Soldier”

Could have gone wrong. It didn’t. It turns Davidson’s soldier and his final requests into what might have been an extended gay joke that never feels mean, just eccentric enough and bizarre enough to remain on the side of funny rather than unfortunate.

“Melania Moments”

I’m glad it looks like we’ll be seeing this regularly. A darker joke this time, Melania (Cecily Strong) sensing that Trump’s next wife is being born and deciding to kidnap her, “not for my sake, but for hers.”

What Didn’t Work?

“Camping Ground”

Just a bizarre sketch that goes nowhere. It has the same elements that all the others that worked tonight did, a lot of weird details and commitment from its performers, but the joke just never really found its place.

“The Music Man”

The only real dud tonight. The sketch took way too long to get to its central joke that felt like it was shoehorning in a reference that didn’t much make sense. I thought maybe it was because I’ve never seen The Music Man, but the person I watched this with had, and told me that it didn’t make the sketch make any more sense. Oh well, they can’t all be winners.

Weekend Update!

JOST AND CHE WENT HAM.

I’ve liked Jost and Che, but tonight is the most shining example of why they work. Their chemistry feels natural as they let out all the anger they’ve had about Trump during their first segment. The two tear into him in the most SNL way, never landing a killing blow, but keeping a series of strong hits. That was the most fun I’ve had with Weekend Update in a while, and while I question why it took them so long, I’m not about to worry why they got there.

Che: “You started off your campaign by accusing all Mexicans as being rapists. Now you’re on tape explaining how you sexually assault women. The only way it could be more hypocritical is if you said it in Spanish.”

Jost: “This is just the worst thing he said to Billy Bush, while miked, on an Access Hollywood bus.”

Jost, on the idea of Trump’s words as locker room talk: “Which locker room, Penn State? This isn’t ‘just how guys talk.’ It’s not how humans talk.”

Che: “ ‘They’ll let you do anything because you’re a celebrity’, so you’re literally explaining your entitlement

This is the best the hosts have been in a while.

Which makes the other host return boring. We had Tina Fey and Jimmy Fallon come back as two undecided Philly housewives, and while I get the idea, it doesn’t work. Partially because while Fey gets the accent, it seems like she’s willing to drop it when she’s actually getting going, which pretty much dulls anything she’s doing.

And also because Fallon is still a shitty SNL character performer. He constantly broke, had no idea where the accent or the character was, and seemed like he hadn’t read the script before walking up. Fallon’s attempt at apology for his softball Trump interview falls flat, and it leaves the sketch dull.

Pete Davidson is always fun.

Did You Actually Watch The Musical Guest?

Nope.

To paraphrase the great Nick Cave, I’m forever near a stereo saying, ‘What is this garbage?’ And the answer is always Twenty One Pilots.

Impression of the Night?

Baldwin’s Trump. There were some other fun ones, like Miranda as Dustin (I looked it up) in Stranger Things or McKinnon starting to turn Kellyanne Conway into a character, but it was Baldwin’s night to shine and he performed exactly as he needed to.

MVPs!

Jost and Che.

This was an ensemble night, with everyone playing their parts and bouncing off the energy Miranda, but Jost and Che going in on Weekend Update was the star turn of the evening. Plenty of great performances, but those two deserve the honor.

Season so far:

Kate McKinnon – 1
Jost and Che – 1

Final Thoughts!

This was my kind of episode. Way more hits than misses, a lot of fun and specific and committed comedy, a host that’s game for anything, and the first time SNL is feeling a fire under its ass about its political satire. It’s an early homerun and if our cast and writers can bring half this much fun week by week, we may have a comeback story on our hands.

Season Rankings (Shamelessly stolen from SNL Scorecard)

  1. Lin-Manuel Miranda
  2. Margot Robbie

 

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