For a lot of people, Saturday Night Live will never really make up for letting President Trump host. That appearance…
is considered to have been one of the first signs of normalizing a man who had already engaged in some hateful and vile rhetoric. But you know, it’s not like it got worse.
My own feelings are more complicated, but they hinge on a belief that SNL can atone for it. Yeah, I believe it’s a decision to atone for, bite me. Short-sighted decisions are exactly that, no matter how stupid, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that SNL is starting to take the long view. Between this week’s and last’s, they’re figuring out how to take advantage of what they’ve got.
How’s the Cold Open?
Case in point.
SNL has never been so acutely aware of its audience. Specifically, one member of its audience, the furiously tweeting President Trump. While there have been a few direct call-outs, it seems that the satire is slowly evolving not just with the changing realization about who Trump is, but about the fact that with him watching, you can really point messages directly at him.
This is probably the most scorching piece they’ve ever done on him. I mean, look at that Russian flag pin on his lapel. *chef’s kiss* Baldwin has President Trump as a character down. There’s that disconnected speech, that arrogance, that play of the character as almost too stupid to know it’s evil. It’s pointed because it’s a reflection of what it’s becoming clear actually bothers him through the lens of satire. Baldwin’s Trump is stupid and manipulable and outplayed by every single world leader he takes a phone call with, more dangerous through mistake than through purpose.
I also want to talk Bannon here. As much as they could probably just slap some “gin blossom” makeup on Moynihan and call it a day, representing him as the malevolent skull-faced Death seems more pointed (I believe Mikey Day is in the costume). While I have no doubt it flatters a man who once favorably compared himself to Darth Vader, Dick Cheney, and Satan, that’s not the point. It’s the representation of power. Bannon here is a far more imposing and malevolent figure than Trump, directly pointed at him. Bannon is the real power, the one pushing Trump and making the decisions. Trump is just playing his game, a game of a darker figure.
I feel like I always talk about these cold opens as a piece of political writing rather than comedy and I want to make sure that comes back in. It’s wickedly funny, the appearance of Bannon is a wild comedic moment, and each call plays perfectly. The play between him and Moffatt’s Nieto is particularly great. And any appearance from McKinnon’s Angela Merkel is worth celebrating. But all the comedy works because of how pointed it is. They know their audience, and they’ve aimed it squarely at him.
I am a noted Kristen Stewart defender, but I’ll admit I wasn’t totally sure how she would end up handling a live gig like this one. Actors like her have failed before. Hell, remember Casey Affleck a couple weeks back?
So I’m especially pleased to report that she acquits herself incredibly admirably here. She’s not the tightest performer in SNL history, her nerves at live performance appear from time to time. But she gels well with the cast and she actually seems to alter the show around her a little bit, which the best hosts do. With her in place, there’s a looseness to the show, much more of a high-wire “Anything can happen” vibe which we haven’t had in a while.
What Sketches Are Worth Watching?
“Sean Spicer Press Conference”
Although, it almost doesn’t matter who hosted, because no one was stealing this show from Melissa McCarthy and this sketch. This is an instant classic, a sort of masterclass in writing and performing political satire. .
From the writing side, it’s the sort of cathartic release it provides. It knows that its audience knows a lot of the weirdness that’s going on and collects and escalates those just the littlest bit. The gum swallowing, the aggressive responses right off the bat and the way it takes those and metes them out so the over-the-top stuff hits right when it’s been building. There’s so much going on here that I don’t quite feel there’s any improv going on, it’s too dense with jokes and details and specificity and action.
Then the performance comes in. Spicer as created here is the kind of character that McCarthy excels at. This is Spicer is blustery, huge, and incredibly thin-skinned. McCarthy is never better than when she’s on the offensive against the most minor of slights, and that’s what Spicer does. It’s a comedic gravity where for a few minutes she practically has the whole show in her hands and she’s using it. Her ramming the podium into the audience is just total perfection. This is as good as sketch performance gets.
I also want to shout out Bobby Moynihan’s reaction face in this, which is just incredible.
“Totinos with Kristen Stewart”
The Totinos sketch is increasingly becoming one of my favorite recurring things on this show, the ever-escalating adventures of Vanessa Bayer’s unnamed wife (which they address here) and her quest to satisfy her unthinking “hungry guys.” This year’s disruption comes at the hand of Sabine, a sister of one of her husband’s friends, who opens up a new world of love and hunger.
Part of the genius of this sketch is that the joke is almost entirely in escalation and juxtaposition. The joke isn’t the passion or the gay, the joke is simply that it’s happening in the background of the Super Bowl party while her husband pays absolutely no mind. The camera work and music and lighting is simply perfect, pulling the joke up higher and higher without ever breaking into parody. I see someone’s a French New Wave fan. Coupled with Stewart’s announcement in the monologue that she’s “super gay,” this is part of the daring and bold feel this episode had on the whole.
This is just one of those sweet and small pieces the show’s been loving to do, a simple joke well-made and really well-performed. Just the right kind of silly and Stewart and Davidson’s sheer joy playing with those romantic comedy tropes really make this sketch sing. I always did wonder when people ended up getting that information.
Again, knowing that Trump is watching makes this sketch work all the better. If you’re familiar with the concept of “form meeting function” in filmmaking, this is about the best example. It’s calling out the Ban as being slapdash and poorly thought-out and harmful and harsh by slapping the new video on top of the clearly professionally made older video and slapping X’s on basically any vaguely brown person in the video. It’s a pretty direct call-out, but made with the right kind of goofy for laughs anyway.
A couple flubs notwithstanding, this is just such an aggressively weird sketch that it couldn’t help but being a good time. I think this is where Stewart’s nerves show through the most, but it almost translates into a sort of casualness about the bizarre things she’s found herself in. The little comedic details play perfectly and the ensemble does a good job of supporting the constantly barreling forward weirdness. That reverse mohawk is also just a stroke of genius.
“Kristen Stewart Monologue”
SHE SAID FUCK! Sorry, this is one of those super rare occasions for SNL and the first one I think I’ve ever been around to see. Besides those A+ .gif faces from Bryant and McKinnon, it’s also kind of great because it shows how legit excited Stewart is to be here. That’s kind of the overwhelming thing I got from her monologue, some savoring of her chance.
Again, there’s a direct (literal this time) conversation to Trump, going over the weird-ass Tweets that Trump used to make about her and declaring how much he was gonna hate tonight because “I’m like so gay dude.”
What Didn’t Work?
“Celebrity Family Feud: Super Bowl Edition”
This is a sketch I’m pretty much putting here on principle. Unlike its predecessor, Celebrity Family Feud is structurally unsound and never quite pointed or weird enough to be enjoyable on its own merits. So far, I’ve never seen one that proves me wrong. But it is usually a chance for the cast to bust out impressions you’d never expect. The MVPs of that here go to Stewart’s Gisele Bundchen, which is a surprisingly accurate impression I definitely wouldn’t have expected her to have in the back pocket, and Moffat’s Casey Affleck, which is so scary dead-on that it really needs to come back around the Oscar week.
An old joke about this movie (Yeah, Grandpa Joe is actually kind of a lazy dude) that this sketch really didn’t find a new angle on. The recreation is amusing enough, but it kind of just never goes anywhere.
Unfortunately, the looseness the whole show extended to Weekend Update, where it manifested itself less in a danger or a boldness and more in just a series of mistakes. Jost and Che really only work when their delivery is strong, so this many flubs really stands out. I mean, most notably, Jost threw to the end of the segment halfway through and just…woof. Che got lost in his riffs and seemed to keep mis-stepping with the joke and repeating the same things. There’s some decent material, attempts to play with nuance and maybe avoid turning Weekend Update as explicitly partisan (or at least as blindly partisan) as the rest of the show, but it was hard to focus on this week with the two of them constantly screwing up the delivery.
Only one correspondent this week, Thompson’s David Ortiz. It was fine, pretty much the same appearance he makes every time. Funny, but slightly less riotous every time.
Did You Actually Watch The Musical Guest?
Crunched for time, so I had to skip her, unfortunately.
No particular standouts, but not quite an ensemble night. I don’t give MVPs to guests, so Melissa McCarthy can’t be here, despite the fact that it would make so much sense. So I’m electing for Vanessa Bayer almost solely on the strength of the Totinos sketch, where she plays that character pitch-perfectly.
Season so far:
Beck Bennett – 3
Kate McKinnon – 2
Cecily Strong – 2
Vanessa Bayer – 1
Jost and Che – 1
Leslie Jones – 1
Bobby Moynihan – 1
Kenan Thompson – 1
Ensemble – 1
This was a seriously seriously phenomenal SNL. Stewart’s hosting gave the show an exciting looseness and an actual feeling of being unsure where things were gonna go. When you kick off with a “fuck,” it can only get crazier from there. With some all-timer sketches and some really solid pieces of writing and performances scattered throughout the whole show, Kristen Stewart helps bring the game that no one was expecting. And that Melissa McCarthy as Sean Spicer sketch is gonna be the next big viral thing.
Season Rankings (Shamelessly stolen from SNL Scorecard)
- Dave Chappelle
- Tom Hanks
- Kristen Stewart
- Lin-Manuel Miranda
- Emma Stone
- Aziz Ansari
- Kristen Wiig
- Margot Robbie
- Casey Affleck
- Benedict Cumberbatch
- John Cena
- Felicity Jones
- Emily Blunt
Next Time: Alec Baldwin hosts, and we can only hope the show will be an hour inside Trump’s White House.
Seriously, the show has built up a lot of good will, going full bore political for an hour and letting them loose on the Trump circus could be a huge huge deal.