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Saturday Night Live Season 43, Episode 8: James Franco

How’s the Cold Open?

Oh my god…what’s this? A Cold Open that doesn’t feature Baldwin’s or even any political figure parodies? It’s political, yes, that’s what this slot pretty much is. But I want to give it points just for ACTUALLY being something different.

Plus the fact that it’s a pretty solid comedic concept. Kids saying things beyond their years is always kinda funny, and it is funny to think about how children are processing this news cycle. This is pretty much a “Kenan Reacts” sketch and definitely a rough few moments (live performances with kids are always a difficult prospect) come along with that, but I’m honestly just happy they tried something new.

Who’s Hosting?

James Franco is one of those guys who’s just so utilitarian and eager that of course he’s a returning and good SNL host. He’s absolutely committed to everything here that it kind of gets you over how amused with himself he always is. There’s an endearingness to his breaking that’s more along the lines of Gosling than Fallon.

What Sketches Are Worth Watching?

“Spelling Bee”

People working out their dark secrets through mundane shit is extremely my comedic jam. James Franco gives a great performance as a tightly, wound ball of neuroses unveiling for all the world to see at a spelling bee. Just kudos all around on this one, even if Franco could stand to keep it together a little more at the end and if the writing could have used a little more variation in structure.

“Za”

Like the last, another bit that pretty much rests on James Franco’s commitment to the bits this evening, going all in on that Za/Sa distinction. Thompson’s judge keeps it going well and Gardner is exactly the straight woman this sketch needed. But Franco’s the star here, a perfectly absurd twister.

“Christmas Charity”

A crib on an Arrested Development joke, sure. But “Christmas Charity” is just well-made enough and changes its joke at just the right time to sell exactly what it needs to. Cecily Strong is doing particularly great work here, a great Christmas sketch.

“Scrudge”

I appreciate Beck and Kyle getting their pre-filmed bits earlier and earlier in the show. A way better Christmas Carol riff than last week, Scrooge as that asshole who always happens to be around a group of friends. Bennett is doing phenomenal work here and those great and specific bits of assholery work so well.

What Didn’t Work?

“Sexual Harassment Charlie”

Woof, this is just a total whiff of a sketch. It’s hard to find what the point is here, honestly. Half the possibilities are offensive, the other half are bland and boring. Thompson and Franco are working their asses off trying to sell it, especially as Charlie gets more and more disturbing with what he does. But it’s an overlong sketch that never feels like it has the right idea about it, just confusing morass.

“Reunion”

In case you’re wondering what the plan for Heidi Gardner is, this should fill you in. This is the exact kind of sketch that Kristen Wiig and Kate McKinnon started out making their bones on, these weird specific character pieces. While this one doesn’t quite work, the rhythms are a little off and there’s no real jokes, Gardner’s carving her place out early.

“Gift Wrap Counter”

A gross-out sketch is always fun for SNL, but Franco is not the actor for it. He’s too goofy and too amused by what’s going on to anchor the chaos in the middle of a sketch like this. Being game is good, but you need more than that for a gory sketch to sell.

“James Franco Audience Question Monologue”

His celebrity friends dropping in had to be expected, but there’s more cameos than laughs in this one. Also, good on you, Jonah Hill.

Weekend Update!

Nothing too hard-hitting this week honestly. Che and Jost are as good as usual, but the material felt a little slacker than one might have expected. The handling of Franken didn’t quite sit right, seeming like it was playing as a “why do the Democrats have to be the good guys?” without really peeling and working with that like they needed to. No great zingers either. Just an energetic if poorly written week, like the rest of the show.

Two correspondents this week. Cathy Anne is a returning delight, the kind of character who seems to always feel just a little fresh no matter what they do with her. Great work from Strong here, the point on Doug Jones actually playing fairly salient. The other is Che’s riff on “White Like Me.” While I’m not entirely sure this sketch finds and makes its point, as a piece of comedic absurdity, it kind of works. Che’s ability to sell his gruff and excessively masculine self as a white lady is a great conceit and Che really goes hard with it. I just wish it felt more pointed or focused. Still, kudos on Weekend Update for taking the extra shot.

Did You Actually Watch The Musical Guest?

I did! It was cool! I should listen to SZA!

MVPs!

I’m gonna give this to Kenan tonight. It’s an absolute pleasure when he really goes for it and he seems to be going really big this season. Trying to end on a good note?

Cecily Strong – 2
Kenan Thompson – 2
Kate McKinnon – 1
Aidy Bryant – 1
Heidi Gardner –
1
Chris Redd – 1

Final Thoughts!

An uneven week mostly bolstered by Franco’s charisma and energy. A lot of sketches that seem to muddle their way to the point, but plenty of energy and goofiness in the stuff that does work.

Season Rankings (Shamelessly stolen from SNL Scorecard)

  1. Chance the Rapper
  2. Tiffany Haddish
  3. Saoirse Ronan
  4. Kumail Nanjiani
  5. Gal Gadot
  6. James Franco
  7. Ryan Gosling
  8. Larry David
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Saturday Night Live Season 43, Episode 7: Saoirse Ronan charms a night that gets better as it goes along

INTRO

How’s the Cold Open?

Holy fuck this is bad.

It’s hard to talk week after week about how bored I am by Baldwin’s Trump and I not only appreciated the break but was sure that I would have warmer feelings when he returned.

But even if I did, one of the most obvious and irritating pieces of writing that they’ve come up with in sometime would have dashed all those quickly. I mean, look, Trump Christmas Carol is a premise so blatantly obvious as to be hackwork just do it, much less to do it totally earnestly without any real subversion.

It’s made all the worse by the sketch playing it as standard and woefully obvious recitation of “things Trump has done and said” in order to reach for clapter. That Conway “I got so drunk I told the truth line” or that Clinton “Lock Him Up” has no real comedy basis and no joke to it and within the sketch land like a wet thud, even if McKinnon is doing her best to sell it.

It’s just a broad and clunkily written sketch. It feels like all the worst SNL political tendencies in one sketch, buoyed by a fairly lazy impression. It’s like the sketch someone would write to make fun of the show, nothing hits, overly broad, doesn’t know how to end, and ultimately pointless and reassuring with no comedy.

Who’s Hosting?

Saorise Ronan is one of our finest young actresses, one destined for an Oscar shortly enough and one who I may not have suspected to be so ready for the SNL stage. But the same self-assured confidence of performance that makes her so great on film is what makes her work here. Ronan manages to never feel out of place or nervous and she’s actually acting and selling bits of comedy based on her performance. She’s game and really talented with this and I hope to see more of her doing comedy and more of her on SNL.

What Sketches Are Worth Watching?

“Welcome to Hell”

This is undoubtedly the sketch that’s going to have the most life outside of this episode and for good reason. The Ladies of SNL Music Video has been a mark of quality and a recurring sketch onto itself and this one is a fairly smart handling of the sexual harassment stuff. It’s centering reaction of the women and contrasting the bright bubblegum pop of the song and video to the real horrors described, stacking and building in just the right way and using the production design here so well. It’s a lot of fun and even if it could have used a little more energy, this is another great music video.

“Floribama Shore”

We should maybe be a little concerned about the increasing dropping of “Live” from SNL, but we can get to that later. This is a solid send-up of the mining of “middle-class affecting the lower-class reality show” that MTV found working around Jersey Shore. Great characters and details (Quartney, “Benghazi Truther in the Streets,” damn Aidy Bryant really owned this one) and the inclusion of Chris Redd’s sane person in the middle of the whole thing may be the funniest gag of the whole night (that shot of him packing in the middle of the party). And look at Luke Null getting a moment (more on him later).

“The Race”

Beck and Kyle sketches are this show’s truest and most consistent delight, the talent and the specificity are just so good. This is another example, a short that’s half sports-parody and half-80s pastiche parody that spirals so wacky that telling you out of context would just spoil it. Greta Gerwig cameoing is also real fun, she should host.

“Bachelor Auction”

Chad is one of the most odd recurring characters on this show, no voice and no backstory and no conceit but Davidson playing the dumbest possible version of himself. The joke is that everyone is ridiculously magnetically attracted to him for reasons they aren’t quite sure of themselves. This is the first live version but it absolutely plays right,

“Return Counter”

This is a “Parade of Weirdos” sketch and a fairly effective one. Like the Floribama Shore sketch, it’s just about getting those great little details in, what people think and do. McKinnon is probably the best of these at the end, even if Strong is definitely giving it the most effort in this one and is definitely my favorite by a mile.

“American Girl Store”

Mikey Day is getting good at finding these recurring bits, isn’t he? “Distracting Guy in the News Report” (I’m sure it has an actual name) is always a fun one and even if this one is a little more obvious, Day is playing it well and Ronan is underplaying so nicely.

Huh…

“Aer Lingus”

I’m not quite sure what’s going on here. I honestly laughed really hard for reasons I don’t understand. It’s slightly too surreal to just be “Irish jokes” and it definitely just kind of ends, but there’s such a great oddball quality to this one.

What Didn’t Work?

“Late for Class”

Woof. Let’s talk about this one for a second.

Clearly intended to try to give new castmember Luke Null a chance, it’s a really bold choice. A sketch that’s supposed to give no laughs for two minutes so that it can pull up at the end and turn things around and mine how uncomfortable the beginning of the sketch was.

But it doesn’t work. First, the fact that you’ve already bombed and set the audience against the sketch leads to some mild titters among the crowd when it turns around and a hostile atmosphere for the rest of the performance.

But I also think Luke Null doesn’t play it right. He overacts, hitting it too hard, feeling like he isn’t necessarily threading the needle between funny and uncomfortable. Which is hard, I get it, but it’s still what he’s being asked to do.

I feel bad that he took such a hard challenge, but it’s not a fun look to start him out with. Nothing he can do that Mikey Day or Alex Moffatt or Beck Bennett can’t.

“Saoirse Ronan Monologue”

$20 bucks if the monologue isn’t about her name.

It is? Then I got 20 bucks.

Weekend Update!

Boy, Jost and Che have really turned it around. Or the writers have at least. Che may have been weirdly a little off tonight, but there was plenty of great hits on the continuing sexual harassment scandals (comparing it to the Powerball numbers), Roy Moore (segueing out of the creepy YouTube kids videos), and hitting against the tax bill passed in the wee hours of the night. No all-timers, but a lot of strong hits.

Two correspondents this week.

Mikey Day and Leslie Jones return as the sexually adventurous married couple. It’s threaded and performed well with Day letting the passive-aggressive resentment sink in as Jones bashfulness occasionally gives way to her intense desires. Plus the “Stop Whining, Sandwich Boy” is such a good gag.

McKinnon adds another world leader to her repertoire with British PM (for now) Theresa May. While McKinnon plays her with the same able and nimble performance that she does Clinton, Merkel, Ginsburg, and others. But it doesn’t work with May, personally.

McKinnon’s specialty with these characters is taking straitlaced lady world leaders and creating an interesting and funny character out of them. Ginsburg as an insult comic, Merkel as a nerdy high school girl with a lot of crushes, Clinton as power-mad and ruthlessly competent. In other words, people who aren’t terribly funny becoming funny.

The problem is that Theresa May is a hysterical figure. Not intentionally, no. She’s an Armando Iannucci character, someone who believes they’re the only smart person in the room but proceeds to trip over their dicks all the way down the stairs. The person who called a snap election with a double-digit lead and proceeded to lose all of that and her majority to THE ABSOLUTE BOY/JEREMY FUCKING CORBYN and had to ally with insane Scottish reactionaries to barely cling to power as most of her party is waiting desperately to desert her. The character they’ve put together here is just not as funny or comedically interesting as the real person.

Did You Actually Watch The Musical Guest?

I did not!

I haven’t heard the new album yet and wanted to wait.

MVPs!

Cecily Strong had a strong night, really going for it at a lot of turns, including stealing K-Mart straight from under the feet of every one else. Just a good solid night for a great performer.

Cecily Strong – 2
Kate McKinnon – 1
Aidy Bryant – 1
Heidi Gardner –
1
Kenan Thompson – 1
Chris Redd – 1

Final Thoughts!

A nice week! Saoirse Ronan is a great host anchoring a lot of strong performance-based sketches. “Welcome To Hell” is definitely going to have some legs here, but a lot of strong stuff here! A few duds, but nothing bringing down the night too much.

Season Rankings (Shamelessly stolen from SNL Scorecard)

  1. Chance the Rapper
  2. Tiffany Haddish
  3. Saoirse Ronan
  4. Kumail Nanjiani
  5. Gal Gadot
  6. Ryan Gosling
  7. Larry David

Saturday Night Live Season 43, Episode 6: Chance the Rapper charms his way through a solid episode

How’s the Cold Open?

Another week off from Baldwin’s Trump is another week in which I don’t have to complain about it, so let’s all be grateful for that.

Instead, we get Moffatt and Day’s Eric and Don Jr. which I could honestly watch every week. Day and Moffat’s comedic chemistry is pretty delightful and the double act of “God’s Perfect Manchild with Patrick Bateman” is the most comedically potent parody of any of the Trump associates. Moffatt’s wondrous reactions are near perfect.

The conceit of a meeting with Julian Assange is pretty thin here, McKinnon playing Assange with a barely there accent and taking a back seat pretty quickly. It’s all about the increasingly popular Eric and Don Jr. impression and the great characterizations there (the relationship between them is almost genuinely kind of sweet). Also, that Minions backpack is just too good.

There’s also something really nice about making fun of these people for being legitimate morons, not devious masterminds. Like the real world, these are people playing at being way more brilliant than they are.

Who’s Hosting?

Chance the Rapper is such a positive and charismatic musician that I’m shocked it took as long as it did for him to get in front of the camera. Having essentially gotten a test audition with a couple sketch appearances during last year’s Casey Affleck show, Chance takes the hosting gig with as much aplomb as Tiffany Haddish did last week.

Hell, perhaps even more. Chance is a shockingly polished performer here, hitting every role with as much precision and charisma as in his music with a lot of extra game and goofiness. He goes big, he goes small. If the universe is just, this should mark a recurring performer for SNL as big as Timberlake.

What Sketches Are Worth Watching?

“Rap History”

This is a sketch where the production value of it is really what helps sell the joke. Now, be clear, this is a great piece of writing and performance. Chris Redd repeatedly sliding in with “a little bit of crack in it” as well as the name DJ Grand Wizard Karate are both comedic masterstrokes. But the largely serious appearances of Common and Questlove as well as the great costuming and aged videos really make it feel like this particularly bizarre chapter from the history of Hip-Hop.

“Sports Announcer”

This one is perhaps the best show-off for Chance all night. It’s a pretty solid bit of bewilderment, never over-the-top, just wringing the comedic potential of someone in a situation they know absolutely nothing about. The ability of the writing to make everything around him sound completely impenetrable with Chance’s smart underplaying just really has this sketch singing.

“Wayne Thanksgiving”

The disproportionate socio-economic effect of The Batman is a pretty well-worn joke among comic book fans, but it’s still pretty fun to see it come up in the mainstream. Bennett’s increasingly embarrassed Bruce Wayne is the centerpiece here, but I love how everyone tells basically the same story (he broke his jaw in 3 places!). Just kind of a solidly goofy sketch that doesn’t have that “Fellow Kids” vibe a lot of SNL geek culture sketches have.

“Family Feud: Harvey Family Thanksgiving”

I’m usually not a big fan of the Celebrity Family Feud sketches, but regular Family Feud ones here really tend to work, a usually solid premise anchored by Thompson’s greatly enjoyable Steve Harvey impression. Even if you can kind of tell where this is going, Chance’s performance deserves to give you the little surprise of his back story. There’s also a wonderful Forrest Gump reference that had me rolling on the floor.

“Come Back, Barack”

Kind of a sequel to last year’s “Jingle Barack,” “Come Back, Barack” is another sketch that really works on how good the production is. The R&B song here hits all those tropes (the “I want you back, baby” song) so dead-on and all three of the performers (Chance, Kenan, and Redd) have such great comedic chemistry that it feels like an actual lost R&B group. I also love the little twist it takes during the spoken-word breakdown.

“Porn Pizza Delivery”

Hey, it’s been a while since we’ve seen this one! Bryant’s delightfully clueless child against the deliberately bizarre porn actors will never not make me laugh, Heidi Gardner fills into this one incredibly well. And man, Chance is just an absolute delight in everything he does tonight.

Almost!

“Chance-giving Monologue”

This one is almost there. The song falls apart a little bit towards the end, but Chance has such cheer and skill that he sells it well past where it needs to. Musical monologues only make sense when the performer is a musician.

“Career Day”

This one has an adorable sort of energy with those right little dark touches that make a sketch like this fun, but I think it ends up riding on the same joke too long without ever deepening it and you end up just feeling like “I get it.”

Weekend Update!

Another week, another person accused of sexual assault associated with SNL that they have to address. Again, Weekend Update remains the place to do it and Jost and Che hit right up top and hit a few jokes on it. No excusing, even if they did use it as a pivot to talk about Trump’s own hypocrisy. But they’re hitting pretty hard lately with some actual good jokes. It’s just nice when Jost and Che’s chemistry is actually backed up by some solid writing.

An extended Weekend Update brought us three correspondents this week.

We’ve got McKinnon bringing back her breakout Jeff Sessions. Sessions is basically non-human at this point, a possum wearing person skin. Seeing her twist her way around the shady lies and attempted folksy charm of Sessions is always a delight and the increasingly disturbing details added to his body and his character have given this character a little more life than you might expect.

After that is Kyle Mooney’s Bruce Chandling, who is definitely an acquired taste, an anti-comedy character on a show that definitely doesn’t indulge in that all too often. But fortunately I’ve acquired that taste. The sublime confidence in terrible material going into deep despair is so suited to Mooney’s awkwardness that Chandling is a welcome delight.

Finally, a Pete Davidson bit, a little different this time for having Jost along for the ride. The bit is about the different reactions Davidson and Jost’s home of Staten Island have to their career, and the interplay is actually pretty sharp here, two young guys, one clean-cut and one very much not. There’s something that SNL could do with that. It’s a solidly charming bit.

Did You Actually Watch The Musical Guest?

They gave Eminem a Prince spot, so seemed worth giving it a shot. The new stuff still doesn’t work for me as much and there’s something that always amuses me about rappers with big symphonic backing. Probably because of this:

MVPs!

I’m gonna give Redd the shout-out. It’s always difficult for a new player to break-in and it was really impressive how much face-time he got this episode. Redd and Thompson seem to be a potent combo and he seems to vibe with the hosts well. Plus he’s just a great performer.

Kate McKinnon – 1
Aidy Bryant – 1
Cecily Strong – 1
Heidi Gardner –
1
Kenan Thompson – 1
Chris Redd – 1

Final Thoughts!

This is one of those episodes that while nothing really stood out, everything was delightful and really solidly written. Production and writing and performance were all fairly tight, the slack that tended to really tended to hurt the early part of this season seems gone. It also helped that Chance the Rapper hosted his ass off.

Season Rankings (Shamelessly stolen from SNL Scorecard)

  1. Chance the Rapper
  2. Tiffany Haddish
  3. Kumail Nanjiani
  4. Gal Gadot
  5. Ryan Gosling
  6. Larry David

Next Time: Saoirse Ronan joins U2 on the single most Irish episode of SNL ever.

Saturday Night Live Season 43, Episode 5: Tiffany Haddish gives the show a much-needed shot in the arm

How’s the Cold Open?

What? Is this a Cold Open…without Trump? It’s a legitimate goddamned miracle.

My guess is that given some recent PR shitstorm they felt it best for Alec to take a week off and let some heat die down so that other people can actually get some attention for once.

Namely, McKinnon’s Sessions, which has steadily evolved into one of the more effective parodies with McKinnon playing Sessions as a creepy contorted goblin of a man. It’s one of those impressions that’s accurate that it gets down into the core of who the man is, not just working through his mannerisms.

We’ve also got Roy Moore (Mikey Day) who’s just pretty much doing a Southern guy in his “naughty little cowboy” outfit and using the things that Judge Moore actually said and believed to horrify us. Like the fact that he diddled teenagers. Let’s be clear about that: Roy Moore diddled teenagers. I am from Alabama, he’s been a monster for years, and he diddled teenagers.

Which should make it clear that I do wish that they would have drilled down harder. This is definitely more edged than any other political cold open has been this season, but I think a little more opening up Roy Moore and his connection with the GOP might have made this more interesting before switching into the more ridiculous Sessions monologue.

This is the sort of thing (following up on last week) that I’d like to see more. Harder-edged, less recitation of the news and more mocking of the news.

Who’s Hosting?

Tiffany Haddish was the undeniable highlight of Girls Trip, the kind of breakout performance that launched Melissa McCarthy’s career back at Bridesmaids and should launch Haddish’s the same way.

She’s really great in this episode, the kind of host that can really help a flagging season by injecting a lot of energy into a show. She’s clearly a little shaky (most stand-ups are doing live performance) but she’s so enthusiastic and so much fun to watch that she ends up papering over most of this.

It’s the kind of thing where you just remember that she could have been in the cast and weep for what might have been.

What Sketches Are Worth Watching?

“Tiffany Haddish Monologue”

Stand-up hosting always makes for the best monologues. Besides the fact that they’re the most adept at making jokes for a few minutes at a time to a crowd, it also just feels the most natural. Haddish is kind of introducing us to her style here with shoutouts to the foster system she came up in (which honestly is amazing and I didn’t know that) and gives us a taste of her confident and high-energy performing, which really ended up being what this season’s been needing. Plus she’s just damned funny here.

“Message from the DNC”

This is the other sort of thing I’d like to see more often out of SNL.

Look, I’m a leftist (quelle surprise) and I have some hardcore fucking issues with the DNC. And I understand that there’s not exactly a vanguard party coming along anytime soon to flush everything out and rebuild in my vision, so the DNC’s gotta be the framework to work in. It means that I believe there’s absolutely a need for organizations friendly to them to start addressing their issues and start angling them towards a future actually capable of reversing the massive and horrifying system issues neoliberalism and the hard right has inflicted on this country.

All this is to say is that, yeah, it’s heartening to see something like SNL take a swing at the DNC and connect. Their stagnant leadership base, the poor decision-making, and the overwhelming sense of doom that hangs over those politicians at all times is really smartly handled. Also, Strong does a great Feinstein and it’s always good to see the return of Sudekis’ Biden.

“Beck and Kyle”

The ongoing story of the great Leslie Jones/Kyle Mooney romance is one of the best recurring sketches introduced into the show last year, a dramedy blending just past the point of absurdity with a lot of surprisingly strong acting out of the cast here. This time we’ve got Bennett, introducing his jealousy at losing the attention of his long-time friend. Bennett is one of this show’s most enjoyable actors and he really sells the jealousy and the weirdness here. But Colin Jost might end up being the real star, leaning into his 80s-frat-dude persona and being really enjoyable here. Even better is him getting punched at the end by Mooney, Bennett, Jones, Haddish and even Lorne. It’s just a great little Lonely Island-ish gag.

“The Dolphin That Learned To Speak”

There is almost no way to explain this sketch that gets across how bizarre it is that they did it. The filmmaking here, emulating the documentary look, is surprisingly strong and the second the gag hits, they manage to escalate it perfectly. This is just good writing and, again, absolutely insane that they did it.

“Whiskers R We With Tiffany Haddish”

“Whiskers R We” is the kind of fun, little bizarre sketch that it seems they can do over and over again to fill time at the end of a show and will almost always work. It’s got that great little live element of trying to deal with the cats (especially that one that clearly didn’t want to be there) and the weird flirtatiousness between the two that McKinnon underplays so well. It’s just good fun.

“The Last Black Unicorn”

While the sketch was just a little too slack at times, a problem a lot of the sketches tonight had, it was really saved by the energy of Haddish and Jones together. The slow spiral down Bryant’s character’s life is really enjoyable and there’s just something about how committed everyone is that really makes the sketch work.

Almost!

For the sketches that just barely work or just barely don’t work.

“Tournament Fighter”

In case you’re wondering this one just barely works. The pacing is really slack and I don’t think it ever builds up to the right big conclusion that it needed to. But Haddish’s energy is really infectious here, Kenan Thompson is an MVP of underplaying here, and I also just do appreciate the production value they’re trying to put in there. I wish it had hit a little harder, but they are trying.

What Didn’t Work?

“The Lion King Auditions”

Look, there are some really strong impressions here. By which I mean Mikey Day is doing a pretty solid John Oliver and I like Beck Bennett’s Nick Offerman and holy shit Heidi Gardner’s Kristen Schaal is the most dead-on impression that I have no clue what you would do with. But otherwise, none of the impressions are very deep and there’s not too much of a joke here.

“Get Woke With Tamika”

I really like this one as a concept, giving Leslie Jones her own Brian Fellows-esque talk show sketch. There’s some really great choices here (those sponsors) and I see how this could have been a great idea. But the execution just feels weirdly slack and it goes on way too long. Maybe they should give this one another shot.

Weekend Update!

This is definitely one of the best performances out of Jost and Che this season. The two were flying fast and furious and the jokes were generally nailing it. From the “naughty little cowboy outfit” of Roy Moore to Bob Marshall being so reviling of Danica Roem that he “refused to get within 8 points of her” to “President Miss Thing” being catty towards Kim Jong Un, Jost and Che had a strong rhythm that made it all work.

They even hit the sexual harassment stuff really, hitting three shots at SNL mainstay Louis C.K. when “everyone you’ve ever heard of is now a sex monster” and directly saying that “maybe someone who always jokes about masturbating wasn’t joking about masturbating.” It’s gonna be hard for the show to figure this out as it continues to become widespread enough to hit close to home and at least they’re trying. This is a show that has, as a rule, never been pointed, finding its pointedness is going to get hard.

Two correspondents this week, both really phenomenal comedic performances.

Strong’s Claire from HR is the one more likely to get shared around, her tornado of exasperation somehow perfectly selling everything to be felt about the current moment. There’s a lot of great lines (“14, but you’re gay now so hooray how brave” is a fucking brutal one) but that glancing

“This is you…”

“That’s me?”

“Well, it’s all of you.”

just hits so nicely without a laugh. This is just a phenomenal bit of comedy from Strong, one of this show’s best performers, that feels perfectly enraged and chaotic and exasperated in the way everything about the last few weeks and the sexual harassment/assault enema should feel.

On a much lighter note, Kenan Thompson’s LaVar Ball is just a show of how great Thompson is as a performer. He just owns the room the second he comes in and he’s so much fun to watch here. It’s even fun to watch him break because it really is so rare. That reading of “rotisserie” is A+.

Did You Actually Watch The Musical Guest?

No.

MVPs!

I’m actually going with Kenan based on how much he’s working to sell the sketches tonight. He’s playing straight man here and reacting in a way that makes a lot of Haddish’s energy actually hit. And then he gets LaVar Ball as a way to show how much fun he is when he goes big.

Kate McKinnon – 1
Aidy Bryant – 1
Cecily Strong – 1
Heidi Gardner –
1
Kenan Thompson – 1

Final Thoughts!

Exactly the kind of episode this show needed right now. It’s a little sloppy still, but the energy is so much better and it actually feels like the show has some wind under it. Haddish was a great anchor for the show to get a little energy and a lot of the pre-taped material helped to show everybody off. It’s still a transition season, but hopefully this helps push them through into who works.

Season Rankings (Shamelessly stolen from SNL Scorecard)

  1. Tiffany Haddish
  2. Kumail Nanjiani
  3. Gal Gadot
  4. Ryan Gosling
  5. Larry David

Next Week: Chance The Rapper!

Saturday Night Live Season 43, Episode 4: Larry David leads a show that feels lost

How’s the Cold Open?

We’ll hit up top with the standard points I make at pretty much every Cold Open now:

  • Baldwin’s Trump is just every other Presidential impression now, reciting the news.
  • If Baldwin’s Trump is just reciting the news, there’s no reason for Alec Baldwin to be playing him.
  • A new Trump could inject some new blood.
  • Baldwin’s Trump is getting tired.
  • Trump impressions should not feel tired on a show of this prominence.

Okay, great.

Instead, I want to point out a good, which is Bennett’s Mike Pence, which shows maybe how SNL needs to start handling Trump (and not just by having Bennett play him). Pence here is an actual clear character at this point, one pushed slightly past the point of absurdity to become recognizable.

Let’s take Pence wearing a suit in the shower. It’s based in some real thing about Pence, his…monastic sexual ethics. It’s then ratcheted up (“I’m not married to the water”) and delivered in a way that feels like part impression, part character work. It turns Pence into someone creepy and repressed and Bennett sells that exact idea.

In other words, it’s interesting to watch. It makes something substantive out of the material far more than just “Pence did a thing.” Maybe it helps that Pence seems to be keeping his head down and there isn’t stuff from the news to pull about him, but that’s the approach that feels more incisive.

Who’s Hosting?

Larry David is a comedy legend and he doesn’t need to be here. If anyone had done one of the things he’d done, they’d be in the comedy canon. With David’s career, he’s hanging out over on SNL (a show he started out writing for before never getting anything on air) mostly for old-age kicks.

Which means that while his above-it-all-ness really can be fun, it also means he’s not essentially leading the show, more a curmudgeonly ensemble player. The last episode had such great material that his approach was moving along with a fun episode. Here, the material is much weaker and while he’s having fun, he’s not guiding the show.

What Sketches Are Worth Watching?

“Beers”

While Good Neighbor (Bennett and Mooney) have a nasty tendency of getting cut, it’s always a delight when their sketches actually show up in the show. Their weird deconstructive parody of 90s Sitcoms always feels like a way to introduce a direct mainline of surrealism and this one sure enough does. That ending is maybe one of the best laugh-out-loud shocks SNL has done since “Goodbye Mr. Bunting.”

“Career Retrospective”

This is one of those that took me a couple watches, but I’ve ended up coming around on it. The quickly changing virtues in language is fairly ripe for parody and this one is just ridiculous enough to be funny. It also works due to the reactions of the people around him at the Gala. Aidy Bryant is probably running the best reactions here.

I’m Not Touching This One

“Larry David Monologue”

Look, I know this one is controversial. I know I’m not equipped to say things about that controversy. So I’m leaving it here.

What Didn’t Work?

“The Baby Step”

The joke here is solid (Larry David doesn’t want to participate in a frankly humiliating sketch) and it’s so close to working that I feel weird having it here. But I think it partially comes down to having just no joke outside of Larry David’s refusal to participate. It never falls apart because of that, it never builds on that, it just feels like a cut-in to something that’s dumb that they’re taking dead serious. Look at “Jack Sparrow” for a similar premise (guest derailing something taken seriously) and how that one works.

“The Price Is Right Celebrity Edition”

The never-ending search for something that can be the new Celebrity Jeopardy (without ever really getting why that worked) continues with The Price is Right. They at least come close here, but none of the impressions really end up sailing here. The best is Chris Redd doing a surprisingly able Lil’ Wayne and actually getting to play the joke against Kenan’s straight man.

“Fresh Takes”

Honestly, I get the premise here, but the structure is just so limp and listless that I feel like it never ended up really working. It feels like too much of this is playing to dead air both between the performers and to the audience. It’s a sketch that just kind of piles up in a crash.

“New Wife”

While there is pleasure in a sketch that makes someone like Larry David break (this is still one of my favorite SNL videos), I just wish it was around for a better sketch. They’re just not sure what the actual idea here is, what the joke is that ended up making him break was. McKinnon does a great job underplaying here, but the main thrust of the sketch never feels like it comes into focus to make it work.

“Press Conference”

This just reminds me of Melaninade last year. I get that Sarah Sanders isn’t as much of a character as Spicer was, but you could try. Aidy is having fun here, but this just feels limp and confusing, a Variety show thing rather than a sketch or a joke.

Weekend Update!

As the Trump administration material chugs along, it’s become increasingly clear that Michael Che is the better equipped to take it all on. There’s an exasperated directness to his handling of the horrors of Trump that just feels more direct that Jost’s square thing.  His rant about how tired he is of all this really works, his looseness feels raw rather out of a lack of practice.

Three correspondents, this was a real correspondent-heavy week. We’ll start off the top with Leslie Jones’ segment with the World Series-winning Houston Astros. It’s not much at all, not even as much fun as last year’s World Series segments. It’s just a thing. The other two are way better.

First, let’s talk the return of Moffatt and Day’s Eric and Don Jr. The two Trump sons are definitely not the most accurate characterizations (Don Jr. seeming to be a real-life total moron where Day plays him as Patrick Bateman) but the characters really work here (reference my earlier talk on Mike Pence). Day and Moffatt’s comedic chemistry is so good and that’s half of what sells this. The other half is Moffatt’s physical work, that moment with Fun Dip is next level good facial expression.

Then, let’s talk maybe the winner of the whole night. Heidi Gardner’s “Every Boxer’s Girlfriend From Every Movie About Boxing Ever.” They’ve done this kind of character before (One-Dimensional Female Character from a Male-Driven Comedy comes to mind), but holy shit Gardner may be better at it than basically everyone. Not only is the writing great (the catchphrases and the way she twists in) but Gardner’s performance is so so dead-on. She’s so funny, she’s so committed, and she takes control of the whole situation the second she comes in. It’s the good shit, Gardner may have had her break out moment tonight (as the show looks for someone to inevitably become the next big star once McKinnon leaves in the next couple years)

Did You Actually Watch The Musical Guest?

Nah. Though Miley Cyrus showed up in a few extra sketches tonight.

MVPs!

On a show without a lot of real winners, Gardner’s Weekend Update correspondent was the most unabashed success. It was the kind of home run a young performer needs and getting it in her 4th week is particularly impressive.

Kate McKinnon – 1
Aidy Bryant – 1
Cecily Strong – 1
Heidi Gardner –
1

Final Thoughts!

It’s a pretty middling week, nothing absolutely awful but even the successes (outside of Weekend Update) felt like they were barely pulling themselves over the top. This episode felt like a lot of muddled and confused writing not helping an increasingly strong cast of performers. This show needs something to help kick its writer’s room in the ass soon.

Season Rankings (Shamelessly stolen from SNL Scorecard)

  1. Kumail Nanjiani
  2. Gal Gadot
  3. Ryan Gosling
  4. Larry David

Next Week: Tiffany Haddish!

Saturday Night Live Season 43, Episode 3: Kumail Najiani stands above a bizarrely muddled episode

How’s the Cold Open?

Look, I’ve said everything I can say about these at this point. Baldwin’s Trump is limp at this point, any hint of vitality just totally drained through repetition and the fact that he was definitely never supposed to be playing the character this long. They’ve tried to move into the idea that this is just what it is now, think every other Presidential impersonator, but Baldwin’s not got a quite deep enough take for that.

The stuff with Pence is kind of funny even if the timing feels really off. I wish we could go a little deeper into Bennett’s Pence, just as kind of unnerving and creepy as the real thing.

SNL has got to find a way to inject a new energy into these, they’ve got four years and they’re already running out of steam with a character more ripe for mockery than ever.

Who’s Hosting?

Kumail Nanjiani is one of comedy’s brightest lights, a guy with movie star presence, character actor specificity, and podcaster endearingness and openness and weirdness. His turn in The Big Sick shows his potential as a leading man and I hope getting his chance here makes him into a star.

He’s great in this show, even when the material around him isn’t. His great underplaying and connection with the performers around him shows an old hand and the kind of guy who VERY clearly could have been a cast member. If the show had given him more to do, he would have made a much clearer place as the best of this season so far. He still is, but it could have been clearer.

What Sketches Are Worth Watching?

“Kellywise”

Something of a sequel to the Kellyanne Conway/Fatal Attraction sketch, this time placing McKinnon’s Conway into IT as a clown dredging the media into the sewers with her (a surprisingly apt metaphor). McKinnon’s Conway has definitely evolved as a character since the early days of the “put-upon babysitter” and crossing that more sinister interpretation with McKinnon’s surprisingly apt impression of Skarsgard’s Pennywise to create a character that’s surprisingly unnerving and pulls off laughs and a couple startles. The cinematography here is also just great, how good has the craft gotten on these pre-written sketches as of late? A smarter core and some great performances make for a great sketch.

“Bank Breakers”

While my sympathies towards game show sketches may be different than most (I love ’em), this is still a seriously solid one. The great situation it puts Kumail’s character in is really elevated by his perfect exasperation at the whole situation. Strong underplays really well and while I wish there had been a twist here, I do love this thing’s slow pushing in of the knife.

“Customer Service”

Julio Torres is one of this show’s most quiet all-stars, a writer of sweet and bizarre and quiet sketches that get laughs and pull on the heartstrings in just the right way. After being the Gosling episode MVP for “Papyrus,” “Customer Service” comes along and becomes something quiet and lovely in an episode that didn’t tend towards those things. Strong’s Melania as a prisoner of Donald feels more accurate than those choices for any other woman and the connection between her and Kumail’s character really does feel genuine. Give this man a TV show/movie/whatever and I’ll be there.

“Kumail Nanjiani Standup Monologue”

For those of you who aren’t all-in on podcasts or haven’t had the pleasure, Kumail Nanjiani is a truly phenomenal stand-up and I’m thrilled to see him get a chance to show that on such a national stage. A unique and deeply funny voice, Nanjiani’s speaking on Islamophobia is a bold routine and I hope this motivates to get out and watch his stand-up.

What?

This week, I don’t know if the stuff so much didn’t work as just left me sitting there baffled.

“Nursing Home”

There’s one really solid joke here. McKinnon’s bizarre wordless grandma versus the description of her sexual proclivities to her shocked descendants. Nanjiani’s very cavalier doctor gives an extra layer of absurdity that never quite covers it all. But there was a bizarre looseness to the sketch and a problem with endings that seemed to carry through the whole night. Just couldn’t ever quite get off the ground rather than crashing.

“Hotel Check-In”

As a piece of writing, a less-good version of the far more specific and bizarre version of this sketch that Louis C.K. did a couple years back. As a piece of performance, Nanjiani basically doing his recurring character from Portlandia carried this through really strongly. And at least it had an actual ending, even if it just felt like a lesser version of what we’ve seen.

“Film Panel”

Ehh, I’m not quite sure we should have another Debette Goldry. As much fun as McKinnon has with the character, the writing and the reaction just feels too muted to work at this point and this is a character that can’t be coming in with expectations, it only works when unexpected. It’s smart to use this for the Weinstein stuff, but it feels like the point of the sketch (it’s nothing compared to the old days) feels tone-deaf when the details of Weinstein’s harassment rings loudly in everyone’s ears right now. It’s showing how little change there has been, a sketch like this misses the point. I know the show feels the need to address it, but this wasn’t the best way.

“Office Halloween Party”

A sketch with bizarre energy for its placement in the show. This is a 10-to-1 that was up at the top, maybe the first thing that really derailed this show’s momentum. I really like the low-key reactions and the monotone work, but the premise just never finds its twist or its timing and it ends up just feeling like a trip than a strut.

Weekend Update!

The continuing evolution of Che and Jost into clapter machines moves along unabated here. They go after Weinstein pretty hard here, getting a few fairly solid shots off (Jost’s joke about the alternative to a cushy sex rehab “Yeah it’s a prison” is particularly strong) and Che’s later rant about Trump’s use of the Christmas culture wars is on-point. While SNL has always had a weirdly mushy politics to avoid pissing anyone off, Trump is such an easy target that it’s focused these anchors in a way they’ve really needed. Che’s sloppiness feels passionate, Jost’s blandness feels deliberate.

One correspondent tonight, Strong bringing in new character Ivana Trump, Donald’s wife from back in his 80s-heyday (*sigh* well, first heyday). Strong’s character work is really strong here, carving out a different take than Jan Hooks’, and plenty of great details even if Ivana is a minor player right now. Strong is maybe one of the better character players on the show right now, and considering they lost two of their best, it’s needed.

Did You Actually Watch The Musical Guest?

I did!

P!nk puts on a good show!

MVPs!

Between her great work in the Bank Breakers sketch, her Ivana Trump character, and her ability to play along better than anyone else tonight, it’s Cecily for the MVP tonight. One of the show’s best actors and one of its most important assets, it’s gonna be harder to lose her than we would think.

Kate McKinnon – 1
Aidy Bryant – 1
Cecily Strong – 1

Final Thoughts!

Boy this show feels limp transitioning back from a big season, doesn’t it? It always tends to be weak coming back from an election, having had all the attention focused on them and having blown through a whole lot of ideas because of that. Plus as the show moves into the transition to its next cast (McKinnon is the center and it’s clear we’re hitting the time for most of the cast to make their move), the show’s obviously got a lot ahead of it.

So maybe that’s why this one feels so sloppy. No one quite knows what’s happening, the cast is enthusiastic if messy. A lot of talent is flying around and it doesn’t feel focused. Nanjiani is a great host, but would have been even better with a more energized cast. Hopefully the break can whip them into shape and Larry David can bring them some good shit.

Season Rankings (Shamelessly stolen from SNL Scorecard)

  1. Kumail Nanjiani
  2. Gal Gadot
  3. Ryan Gosling

Saturday Night Live Season 43, Episode 2: Gal Gadot plays the straight woman all night

How’s the Cold Open?

The SNL after a tragedy is always a weird thing, something so visible and so of its moment is always gonna feel the need to address what’s happened and yet it’s never not gonna feel weird for something so goofy (which will have a sketch about tiny mice mocking a lady for being poor later on) to be addressing a mass shooting like this. Yet it’s what we live in now, where you just have to learn how to talk about these things and move on.

This is a relatively classy way, letting Jason Alden perform and retake some narrative around him and also pay tribute to the late, great Tom Petty. A solid, kind, and evocative way to deal with a tragic event.

Who’s Hosting?

Gal Gadot has been a charming screen presence ever since she first popped up in the Fast and Furious franchise, but she’s the kind of actress who can have issues on SNL. Game and eager, but more adept at the physical parts of acting than wrapping around the dialogue. Gadot also has little live acting experience and the accent could have made things tricky.

Gadot is certainly eager and game, which is most of hosting, but the show honestly doesn’t give her much to do. Unlike most hosts, Gadot is never given the chance to really cut loose or play the comic character. She’s the reaction or the straight woman in every sketch and when she does get to be the comic character, she’s really low-key (such as in her Jenner performance).

What Sketches Are Worth Watching?

“First Date:

This is definitely one of those sketches that feels like a weird premise being held back from the 90s, but with OJ in the news, I guess now is as good a time as any to use it. This one is sold entirely on Kenan’s skillful comic underplaying of OJ here and the great little comedy of errors stacking that the writing does here. A solid premise and performance that uses OJ as a shortcut rather than a whole joke, the kind of sketch that tends to be rare.

“Safelite”

Honestly, if we’re gonna do these heavy product placement sketches, let’s make the companies regret doing ’em. Beck does great work with his bald goateed creep and the steady escalation honestly feels almost too real to be funny, tipping just past into the point of absurdity. This is a dark sketch, like the White Castle one from last season, and I’m all for it.

“Themyscira”

A thin premise (and what appears to be an apology to Kate McKinnon for all those Last Call sketches) is pretty much buoyed by Aidy Bryant and McKinnon’s delightful energy here. It has the same weird “Fellow Kids” quality that applies every time they do a sketch using some popular genre series, but again, Bryant and McKinnon are just having so much goshdarned fun I can’t help but enjoy this one.

“E! New Lineup”

I’m actually a sucker for these fake show sketches (Powerful Sluts of Miami is such a great title) and this is a fairly solid one, some solid easy pitches the show manages to hit. Gadot’s Kendall Jenner is surprisingly accurate and Chris Redd’s Kanye impression that doesn’t say a thing feels more dead-on than Pharaoh’s vocalized Kanye. Doesn’t overstay its welcome either.  New cast member Luke Null actually getting a chance to show off too.

“The Chosen One”

Pete Davidson’s recurring character, the moron teen that everyone has big plans for (may not be the actual name), is one of the most low-key successful recurring characters on this show. Even if it’s pretty much the same joke every time, there’s something that feels infinitely malleable about the performance and everyone’s reactions to him that get funnier the bigger this gets. Suffice to say, the very serious and big fantasy world being reliant on this idiot is pretty funny.

What Didn’t Work?

“Mirage”

Kind of a silly sketch, but really just hammers home the same joke without ever finding another angle to mine something fresh out of it. Just too thin to be really that great.

“The Maiden and The Mice”

Like a more innocent version of those sex fiend elf sketches, this one has pretty much the same amount of laughs that like…the 5th or 6th version of that sketch did. It doesn’t know what the joke is, doesn’t know what it’s mocking, just not sure at all what’s really happening outside of the fact that they know how to do this shrinky effect.

“Espionage”

A lesser version of the Surveillance sketch from Wonder Woman co-star Chris Pine’s episode, this one didn’t have the same goofy innocence that one did, this one ended up more like an attempt to connect two disparate sketch ideas, forcing the events that they’re seeing to do more work than just their reactions to it.

“The Naomi Show”

This one ends up kinda feeling like a lesser version of a sketch that a lot of different shows have tried at one point or another, the “Maury” parody with an excessively strange character. The host is not usually the straight-woman, it’s weird to slot Gadot in here. But while Gardner is certainly going for it here and Bryant is giving just as much oomph to her performance, this one just feels like a fizzle.

“Gal Gadot Monologue”

There’s just not much to say here, cute concept, doesn’t amount to much.

Weekend Update!

This was an Update that went for a lot of Clapter (applause for truth-telling over comic punch) as Che and Jost largely spent their joke segments going for gun control. It’s passionate for sure and the raw confidence and attitude is certainly a different look for them. Jost and Che might consider seeing how they could turn it into a different tone as they found some stronger jokes in going bold and direct and avoiding the muddled politics that SNL is often rightfully accused of.

Two old standbys round out Weekend Update. I’ll confess that I don’t much cared for McKinnon’s Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who’s the sort of broad comic character that McKinnon can do better than and feels way more like an early ’00s piece than of the modern era. There was something delightful post-election, but outside of that it feels bland. Here, you know the joke, there’s not much more to it.

Davidson makes a pretty bold admission on air (his Borderline diagnosis), Davidson as the show’s open and honest presence has been a good niche for him and he gets some solid jokes here.

Did You Actually Watch The Musical Guest?

Nah.

I’m still mad at Sam Smith for winning that Oscar. Such bullshit.

MVPs!

Tonight, Aidy Bryant by and away runs away with the show. In a show that leans towards the low-key, she manages to buoy a couple sketches with some very loud, very strong energy and is just an all-out delight to watch in this episode.

Kate McKinnon – 1
Aidy Bryant – 1

Final Thoughts!

Honestly, I think putting Gadot in all straight-woman roles tonight was a mistake. It made for a show that didn’t feel anywhere near goofy enough and kept its energy too low to lift off the ground. It’s a benefit for that energy that the show was more about weird premises than anything else as it suited a lot of that listless energy. But a few strong ones don’t take away from how sleepy this one was.

Season Rankings (Shamelessly stolen from SNL Scorecard)

  1. Gal Gadot
  2. Ryan Gosling