Michael B. Jordan Helms the Most Confident Saturday Night Live of the Season

Comedy Reviews Saturday Night Live
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Michael B. Jordan Helms the Most Confident Saturday Night Live of the Season

And Your Host…

Michael B. Jordan is a very handsome man, and Saturday Night Live wants you to know that. From this week’s promos to the parade of SNL female cast members interrupting his monologue to hit on the newly single Creed III actor and director, there was no getting around the fact that one of People’s Sexiest Men Alive is still quite sexy. (Even Punkie Johnson got in on the act, the openly gay actor noting hopefully, “Even vegans have cheat days.”) So it was especially adorable to see the young MBJ in a 2003 clip from one of his first TV gigs, playing an awkwardly on the make teenager on All My Children. “I think I hit puberty mid-howl,” noted Jordan.

Jordan is on top of the world, his monologue explanation of that “sad Michael B. Jordan” internet meme notwithstanding, so it’s only natural that his sketches tonight featured the actor in a particularly flattering light. Jordan was game, don’t get me wrong. The first sketch after the monologue saw him doing the sort of grotesque, go-for-broke physical schtick one imagines other hosts greeting with a mortified call to their publicist. And Jordan was a pro throughout, his goodnights hint that he’d love to come back and host again soon a most welcome thought. Still, Jordan was a bit reserved, either by his or the show’s design, the star never quite put in a position to step outside his undeniably smooth image. Jordan played a lot of “third guy in” supporting parts, which he was fine at, but which didn’t often see him as the guy driving the sketches. Then again, he did go toe-to-toe with Sarah Sherman for all-out weirdness in his first ever sketch, so that’s not nothing.

The Best And The Rest

The Best: This was a solid show all around, with a little bit of everything. That said, I’m going with the car dealership sketch for epitomizing the 10-to-one spirit, even if, technically, there was one sketch after it. There’s virtue in a sketch keeping you guessing. So, so often an SNL bit announces its premise so loudly at the top that it’s still ringing in your ears by the end. Here, James Austin Johnson and Andrew Dismukes (who had a huge night) are two typically hyper local TV car pitchmen who only gradually, the facts slipping out through their high-pressure sales banter, that their dealership is being run into the ground thanks to the long drive-in lines of a recently opened chicken restaurant.

First of all, Johnson and Dismukes are outstanding here—when a performer can suggest an inner life to a sketch character in the context of a bit, it’s always a great look. And the details here are dropped so judiciously, from the duo’s hatred of the chamber of commerce guy who okayed the chicken franchise on their “beloved exit 260,” to the chyron of car models being replaced by all the family functions they’ve had to miss thanks to their marathon sales efforts (including Johnson’s son appearing as Nathan Detroit in an all-child production of Guys and Dolls), to Johnson relating his college professor daughter’s metaphorical description of the pair’s dilemma, it’s all perfection, delivered at rat-a-tat speed. (After noting how his daughter describes the situation as “a funhouse mirror held up against the American Dream,” Johnson notes, “I don’t know about that, baby girl. All’s I know is I’m gettin’ F-ed in the A by councilman Hugo Gallegos!”) And that’s all without Jordan’s appearances as their secret weapon from corporate, who pops in menacingly threatening to reveal the chicken chain’s secret sauce recipe one ingredient at a time unless they close up shop. (“Don’t believe me? Check this out—ketchup,” Jordan’s burly Bryan Pattmore sneers before exiting.) It’s a writer’s sketch, then a performer’s sketch, with both elements firing on all cylinders. From the seemingly ordinary place it begins to the absolutely loony destination it arrives at, this feels like a Tim Robinson number, which is about as strong a recommendation as I’ve got.

The Worst: Not a sketch so much as a motif, but the product integration tonight was more distracting than ever. Insurance companies, auto manufacturers, airlines, video game franchises—I get that Lorne made a conscious decision a few years ago to cut down on actual commercials with some back room placement deals, but some weeks their ubiquity sort of undercuts SNL’s whole anti-establishment cred, such as it is. And, sure, it’s unlikely Southwest paid for airtime in the form of an extended mockery of the troubled air carrier’s latest PR disaster, but the constant onslaught of corporate synergy all around tonight was numbing.

The Rest: Sarah Sherman’s hiring was exciting, and worrying. I wasn’t worried about the infamously out-there Sarah Squirm doing something shocking—quite the opposite. The boldly bizarre Sherman had all the indications of being the sort of performer who’d get hired, hamstrung by network policy and SNL’s middlebrow instincts, and flee after a single season, disgruntled and dispirited. Well, while Sherman hasn’t been able to bring some of her most outrageous antics to America’s TV screens, she’s certainly pushed Saturday Night Live into some gleefully gross and weird spaces.

Tonight, with a tired morning show setup (Kenan and Chloe Fineman pulling thankless desk duty), there was really no way to know what was coming when the anchors threw to their usual cooking segment. That it was Sherman as a woman who’d been trapped on a speeding roller coaster for 19 straight hours isn’t bad. That Sherman proceeded to do the entire segment with her lips stretched back into a hideous rictus by one of those painful dental apparatuses while her hair and clothes were permanently deformed by her ordeal is a funny kicker. That Sherman (and the Jordan, as the weatherman trapped alongside her all day and night) proceed to do the entire cooking segment while unable to chew, swallow, or pronounce anything without drooling and threatening to choke to death is an exercise in comic commitment that earns the audience’s uneasy laughter.

Progressing from wine (which Sherman appears to partly aspirate) to chunky minestrone, to handfuls of spaghetti (which Sherman and Jordan share Lady and the Tramp style), it’s another good old fashioned SNL gross-out sketch, with a Sarah Squirm chaser. The final act reveal of an unfortunate duck, legs feebly kicking, embedded in Sherman’s torso by the 200 mph impact on the roller coaster is hardly necessary to up the ante, but props to props for getting those legs to work on cue. Honestly, the sight of Jordan and Sherman, faces dripping with a vomitous mix of food leavings as their wind-deformed faces grin in insane tandem is enough to cement Sherman’s place as one of the god-damnedest presences in SNL history.

Product placement issues aside, the “Jake from [insert name of massive insurance concern here]” pre-tape was pretty great. With Jordan popping in as the ubiquitously helpful spokesperson, the ad goes from blandly ordinary to subtly terrifying so gradually that the joke never has time to grow stale. That the hunky, irrepressibly capable Jake should displace Mikey Day’s hapless husband is a decent enough joke, but the other level, that the ever-smiling Jake never stops pitching his boss’ product in impeccable corporate-speak even as he pushes the irate Day up against the family room wall, is chillingly funny. Points off for the all-too-regular use of actual sponsor information (here, said insurance company’s price-matching plan, etc) as part of the integrated sketch, but Jordan, Day, and Heidi Gardner’s increasingly smitten wife are all terrific. The button involving yet another insurance mascot coming to the suicidal Day’s rescue suggests a whole other avenue of sponsorship infiltration, but I’ve been crabby enough about the issue for one night.

In kept expecting to tire of the two-hander with Marcello Hernandez and Kenan playing two garrulous towel boys at a Dominican resort, but the duo’s energy kept me pretty tickled throughout. There’s more than a whiff of Key & Peele’s valet parkers in the conceit, but I’ll give it a pass, as Hernandez and Thompson (bringing back his Big Papi accent) find a winning chemistry as their happy functionaries dispense towels alongside a steady stream of patter with the resort’s assortment of variously dismissive American guests. There’s an infectiousness to the pair as they chatter in exaggerated Dominican accents about everything from “Ellen Demenemis” and her talk show dancing, to the Mission Impossible movies (the missions really are quite possible, as it turns out), to the big twist in Finding Nemo. (They find Nemo.) I’m hesitant to praise this one too much in fear that this lightly amusing bit will go into heavy rotation, but the two performers have such an easy rapport and their interactions display such a generosity of spirit that it’s hard not to smile. Add in another understatedly stellar characterization by James Austin Johnson as a bible-thumping vacationer offering prayers instead of tips, and, what can I say? I liked it.

Bowen Yang’s big sketch tonight saw his effeminate voice actor unwisely being tapped to provide the manly grunting for a fighting video game franchise. (Again, I’m not getting paid to plug products.) Alongside the more conventionally tough-sounding Jordan, Yang’s actor is unapologetically himself, much to the confusion of Andrew Dismukes’ director. That tough guy Jordan finds Yang such an engaging scene partner that he, too, adopts a more conciliatory demeanor for his macho fighter is sort of adorable, with Yang’s guileless enthusiasm never bowing to bombastic video game convention. Even when the irritated Dismukes finally orders him to act “more hetero,” Yang is unfazed, his interaction with Jordan turning into a mini-playlet about two supposedly straight guys meeting up on the same dating app, and his “animalistic” combat noises emerging as kittycat impressions and the like. As Yang’s fighter promises, “See? Kindness wins.”

The Southwest spot (which Southwest definitely didn’t pay to air) was a fine little slice of corporate assassination, perhaps cooked up by a writer whose holiday plans were scuttled by the airline’s massive dysfunction. There’s not much to the piece other than kicking a dying horse, but the details about Southwest being run on those old thinkpad laptops with the little red nipple mouse and the company’s new policy of sending all luggage of the same color to the same city are specific enough to be amusing.

I did sort of tire of the bachelorette party sketch, although Heidi Gardner had her moments as the enormously pregnant wife of hired male stripper Jordan, happily popping in to charge her phone and whap Chloe Fineman and Sarah Sherman in the face with Jordan’s fireman hose prop. She similarly bops Fineman in the head with her massive belly as she and Jordan double-team bump-and-grind at one point, her energy making up for an unexpectedly reserved Jordan. Punkie and Ego have a few funny asides—when Ego finds out how cheap Jordan’s services were, she notes, “My peanut butter costs $30,” with Punkie snapping, “Bitch, where you gettin’ peanut butter?” When Gardner goes into labor (with Jordan admitting she’s been pregnant “a little over a year”), the whole thing sort of just ends, although the fact that everyone gets on on the birth coaching is sort of nice.

The male confidence seminar (and how creepy does that sound) is in a minor key, but I liked it for that. Andrew Dismukes is solid as the would be alpha male guru, coaching a scattered roomful of incel types (James Austin Johnson’s attendee works at “critiquing female stand-ups on YouTube”) until Jordan’s effortlessly macho water delivery guy decides to take the wind out of his puffed-up sails. Making fun of men’s rights types isn’t hard, and Jordan’s takedowns are more about mocking this particularly unimpressive specimen than taking on the whole laughable breed, but it’s the most relaxed and comfortable Jordan seemed all night, his skeptical onlooker dismantling Dismukes’ confidence with a single word. (“Forehead,” he states simply, causing the rest of the crowd to turn until someone agrees that Dismukes looks like “Jimmy Neutron who does street magic.”)

Weekend Update update

People take Kenan Thompson for granted. Granted, he’s been here for so long that it’s tempting to regard him as just part of the scenery at this point, but that disregards the fact that there’s a reason why Kenan’s been on Saturday Night Live for 20—count ‘em, 20—years. As Che’s new doorman Carl, Kenan drops by the Update desk and pulls focus, since that’s what Kenan does so effortlessly. There’s nothing unique about the type of character—after all, with Cathy Anne gone, there had to be someone else from Michael Che’s neighborhood who’d pop up sooner or later. But it’s Kenan’s utter confidence and ease playing a cheeky weirdo that makes Carl seem both fresh and like someone we’ve seen a dozen times. Asserting a kinship with his tenant that Che does not share, Carl is so self-possessed in his effrontery that its Che who gets a Jost-style dose of humble pie, with Carl’s grinning, unrequited chumminess as irresistible as it is increasingly silly. Pausing midway through his litany of hints about Che’s secret mistress, child, and dog, Carl, noticing the cameras, asks, “So, uh, what’s this?,” his obliviousness to his tenant’s night job just another happy mystery in the enigma that is Carl the doorman. Toss in his final story about a man named Cornelius who keeps leaving one shoe for Che at the security desk and I just want more Carl in my life.

Heidi Gardner’s Every Boxer’s Girlfriend From Every Movie About Boxing Ever (aka Angel) made a welcome return, aided by the revelation that Jordan’s Adonis Creed not only fought (and beat the color receptors out of) boxer boyfriend Tommy, but is the father of one of her growing number of children. Angel was one of Gardner’s first major home runs, showing off a characterization skill that has only fitfully been employed over her time on the show. Here, what could have just been another rehash got an injection from the real Adonis/Jordan, the illicit couple’s shared past adds to Angel’s ongoing trials, and her rundown of her numerous brood includes new children “Keno” and, most alarmingly, “the twin.”

Jost and Che were good as ever, my usual complaints about how little meat is on the topical comedy bones notwithstanding. Indeed, the leadoff political material is often less interesting than the way topical jabs slip in later, with Che’s joke about the Ticketmaster scandal turning into a “Taylor Swift fans’ fathers were all January 6 insurrectionists” slam with impressive stealth. Same goes for Jost going after serial GOP liar and fraud George Santos. After Santos admitted (after multiple denials) that that is, indeed, a picture of him in drag in Brazil, his denial that that makes him a “drag queen” elicited a catty, “Okay honey, we knew that from your contouring.” With someone as slimily, blatantly hypocritical as the smugly fraudulent Santos to bat around, sometimes coming at him from a weird angle is all you’ve got.

“Oh, Star Wars/ If they should bar wars / Please let these Star Wars / Stay.”—Recurring Sketch Report

Only one talk show, no game shows, and no repeaters? Pinch me.

“Gird your loins! By the beard of Jupiter, gird your loins!”—Political Comedy Report

With classified White House documents suddenly being found everywhere like discarded candy wrappers, the Merrick Garland cold open was marginally better than I anticipated. The premise that infamously milquetoast Attorney General (who looks “like [he] was born in a library”) is playing tough for the cameras (complete with meme-ready catchphrases) is, in Mikey Day’s performance, hardly the stuff smash repeat characters are made of, but it’s fine. And the sketch at least feints toward drawing the very real distinction between the accidental whoopsies of Joe Biden and Mike Pence’s hastily returned documents and the cache of lucrative stolen state secrets the Trump camp has repeatedly hidden, lied about, and attempted to hoard for seriously shady purposes for the last few years. (Could SNL have made that essential difference the centerpiece of a cold open addressing the beyond-terrifying implications of a twice-impeached Russian asset and insurrectionist former president having unsecured US intelligence at his golf resort frequented by at least one foreign agent that we know of? Well, sure.) Instead, the sketch hinges on the differing reactions of both the subjects and conductors of the investigations at various politician’s houses. Bowen Yang’s agent is still awestruck at how cool Barack Obama was (the former president put Beyoncé on hold to talk to him), while Ego Nwodim made the joke that Vice President Kamala Harris is supposedly on the outside, security-wise. Kenan did best, his no-nonsense agent painting a funny portrait of how lonely and obliging former VP Mike Pence was at his visit. “Check on your people, that’s all,” Kenan’s concerned agent shrugs as he describes how Pence tried to keep his visitors from leaving with an impromptu game of tag, Thompson’s way with an effortless aside still unmatched.

Not Ready For Prime Time Power Rankings

It’s a Dismukes vs. Yang vs. Sherman footrace, with my edge going to Dismukes at the wire. The boyish performer looked like the sort of blandly amusing guy who’d get lost in the shuffle when he was cast, but Dismukes has found a groove and he’s got the stellar car dealership sketch, the final pre-tape alongside Jordan, and the male confidence seminar, which wasn’t bad, either. He’s a stealthy presence, is Dismukes.

Decent outing for the new kids except for Molly Kearney who, after a big week last episode, simply didn’t appear, not even in the goodnights as far as I could see.

Overall, I’m digging the ensemble feel this season, as well as the overall dearth of big name celebrity drop-ins and recurring sketches. This might be a lower-wattage group (thus far) in terms of star power, but that’s just meant a general sense of everyone doing well. I’ll take it.

“Vote Pat Finger, he’s gonna lick crack in Butts!”—10 To One Report

The auto dealer sketch really deserves this spot (for one thing, 10-to-one sketches need to be live), but I’ll give it up to “Falling Down” for finding the right conceptual weirdness tone. The premise—that cool and confident Michael B. Jordan keeps inexplicably tripping whenever Andrew Dismukes is nearby to witness it—keeps getting funnier thanks to Dismukes’ increasingly eerie, identical response of, “You okay there, bud?” Jordan keeps falling, Dismukes’ bland concern keeps irritating Jordan, and, finally, Sarah Sherman and Bowen Yang show up to berate their cast mate for witnessing the thing that keeps happening right in front of him. (“Hey, I’m at work!,” Dismukes protests.) The turn, with a contrite Jordan bemoaning the fact that he’s alienated his “best friend on the show,” leads to a pre-monologue gambit where Jordan, rushing out to the street outside 30 Rock, hurls himself into traffic in the desperate hope that the absent Dismukes will once again appear. In the end, the two best buddies wind up flying into the New York sky rather than falling, a gently loopy little twist of the sort last sketches are made of.

Parting Shots

Fun/mind-blowing fact: A quick search shows that Jordan’s All My Children character, one Reggie Porter, was initially played by none other than his future Black Panther co-star, the late Chadwick Boseman.

A camera loomed into the foreground of the stripper sketch so stealthily that I thought it was part of the gag. That thing crept in there like the land shark.

At least the cold open eschewed the beyond-tired “Mike Pence is secretly gay” gag with a “Mike Pence masturbates to a secret file of clipped-out Shania Twain pictures” one. Kind of a lateral move, but still.

Big night for Bowen Yang making animal noises, if that’s your thing.

Next week: Pedro Pascal hosts, Coldplay musical guests.

Dennis Perkins is an entertainment writer who lives in Maine with his wife, the writer Emily L. Stephens, and their cat, (Special Agent Dale) Cooper. His work has appeared in places like The A.V. Club, Ultimate Classic Rock, and the Portland (Maine) Press Herald. You can find him on Twitter, where he will anger you with opinions, and Instagram, where you will be won back over by pictures of Special Agent Dale Cooper.