It’s still weird to see Larry David on SNL. Sure, he’s popped up several times or so over the last two years, doing his stunt-casted Bernie Sanders impression and hosting an episode two seasons ago. Still, this is the guy who infamously got only one sketch on the air during the season he was a writer on SNL over thirty years ago. It’s a job he quit and then returned to like nothing had happened, which directly inspired that George Costanza storyline on Seinfeld. Even beyond his personal history with the show, David’s comedy just doesn’t seem to be a good fit with what Lorne Michaels looks for. David’s all sharp edges and misanthropy, and SNL is shiny, sanded-down silliness. It shouldn’t work, and last night, it only did during a few select moments.
David felt even more out of place last night than he did in his previous hosting gig. The obvious disconnect started with his monologue, which bombed awkwardly in the building and generated some complaints on social media for its content. The most controversial aspect of it isn’t a terrible comedic premise—David, who is Jewish, wonders if he still would’ve been trying to hit on women if he was in a Nazi concentration camp during the war—but it had a weird setup involving Harvey Weinstein’s crimes and followed some weak jokes that failed to land with the audience. I didn’t find it offensive, per se, but it was hard to watch because of how thoroughly it bombed.
From there David was a largely professional presence in a series of sketches built around how out of place he feels on SNL. Like the Kevin Roberts sketch from his last episode (a classic that was the obvious basis for David S. Pumpkins), David played characters who clearly didn’t belong in every other sketch he was in, and was the clear highlight in almost all of them.
The least notable sketch featuring David was the first after the monologue. He did his obligatory Sanders portrayal as a contestant on Celebrity Price is Right, with the joke being that the other celebrities are so divorced from financial reality that Bernie’s lowball bid of eight cents still wins the Contestants’ Row, despite his strong anti-consumerism invective. Imagine Celebrity Jeopardy but without the antagonism between Will Ferrell’s Alex Trebek and Darrell Hammond’s Sean Connery. This was also the first appearance from musical guest Miley Cyrus, who popped up in another piece later in the night, and who was joined here by real-life boyfriend Liam Hemsworth. The only real highlight here was the return of Alec Baldwin’s Tony Bennett impersonation, which I’ll get to later on below.
Cyrus also appeared in one of the episode’s two pretapes, a hip-hop parody called “The Baby Step” that featured Pete Davidson, Chris Redd, Kenan Thompson and Cyrus as rapping babies. That wasn’t the actual joke, though—the fake video repeatedly cut to David sitting in an office, refusing to take part in the shoot. Capitalizing on David’s too-cool-for-this-shit vibe while parodying some of SNL’s own worst tendencies might sound like a clever bit of self-criticism, and there was one legitimately great line near the end when David interrupts the shoot and asks Thompson how long someone has to be on the show before they can finally refuse to do embarrassing stuff like this. It’s hard to see how the fake video was all that much worse than some of the actual pretaped music videos the show has made over the last few seasons, though. It’s not easy to effectively parody your show when you regularly lack awareness of what actually works about your show.
In another sketch David played an adman getting a lifetime achievement award from the Ad Council. A retrospective of his work started with 1980s PSAs about drugs and alcohol where each one had a tagline that would be considered offensive today, stuff like “no way, that’s gay” and “making fun of someone with a disability is retarded.” On one level this is probably the best-written conventional comedy sketch of the night—it’s built on a clear premise, that words that were regularly used by teens 30 years ago are clearly unacceptable today, and ends with a twist that works, which is that David’s character also created Bill Cosby’s Jell-O ads. It’s a little too self-congratulatory in its “edginess,” though, in how it flirts with offensive language, so it’s a bit obnoxious in that way. Still, it’s solid comedy writing, even if it’s a little unlikely that every ‘80s PSA would feature the same actor (Mikey Day) in the same outfit.
“Fresh Takes,” a sketch about a high school’s morning TV school made by freshmen that looks and feels like a cable news show, wouldn’t have made any impression without David. Day, Alex Moffat and Kate McKinnon play three freshmen who talk about school scandals, and David is their AP US History teacher and official gossip correspondent. So David plays a creepy old guy talking about which students are hooking up and which ones “famously” hate wearing condoms. David’s awkward lechery elevates the writing, and the fake ads for magic club and drama club are funnier than anything in the actual “show.”
A later sketch where David plays some kind of wealthy lawyer who’s recently married an overly flamboyant performer from a gay nightclub played by Cecily Strong is only notable for three reasons. First off, David fell apart down the stretch, visibly cracking and laughing throughout the last third of the sketch. His voice would rise to a high pitch as he struggled to keep the laughs in, breaking up his lines and ruining everybody’s flow. That’s fine, though, as like the original Debbie Downer sketch, the breaking salvaged the thing. His character was also dressed almost as ridiculously as Kevin Roberts, with his shirt unbuttoned, huge sunglasses indoors, slicked back Elvis hair and a big, fat cigar. Finally the sketch seemed to exist primarily to get David to drop as many gay slang terms in as short a time period as possible. This thing wouldn’t have worked as written, no matter how ridiculously David was dressed, but his failed attempts to keep a straight face at least made it memorable.
The final sketch of the night was the best. It was an almost Tim and Eric style parody of ‘80s/’90s sitcoms starring Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett, with them blankly delivering terrible jokes that a laugh track loudly roars at, and increasingly surreal transition shots between scenes. David shows up as Bennett’s cousin CJ, who promises to feed their goldfish but is so consumed by his addiction to beer that he completely forgets about it. And then he accidentally shatters the goldfish bowl while shredding on his guitar. Oh, and then he stabs Mooney. It’s the kind of absurdity that Mooney and Bennett are occasionally able to slip onto the show, almost always resigned to the last slot of the night, and often more interesting than anything else, even when it doesn’t quite work on its own terms. This sketch is one of their better works, though, nailing the insincerity of TGIF-style very special episodes and providing the inherently ridiculous image of Larry David in a backwards ball cap flailing on a guitar in a kitchen.
The musical guest, Miley Cyrus, played two songs. She wore black for one of them and white for another. The first was a dull blues rock strut that sounded like something Alannah Myles would sing. The second was poppier but no more memorable. Look, maybe I’ll start covering the music on this show in more detail if they ever start booking artists worth covering.
There was also a Weekend Update. It had the standard anemic one-liners and apolitical jokes about politics, along with the return of Moffat and Day as Eric and Donald Trump Jr. Michael Che had a solid line about Donald Trump’s tweets and being “tired of the president having an emotional breakdown on social media like he’s Tyrese.” New cast member Heidi Gardner introduced new correspondent Angel, every girlfriend from every boxing movie ever; it was a one-note joke about an impassioned Gardner defiantly telling Che and Colin Jost that if every news topic they brought up tried to do it one more time she was leaving and taking her kids to her sister’s. It’s a very specific characterization that stuck too closely to the standard SNL school of repetition, but Gardner was tremendous in the role, and turned it into something legitimately funny. Later on George Springer, Alex Bregman and Jose Altuve of the Houston Astros crashed Leslie Jones’s latest commentary on how much she likes staring at baseball players’ asses; Springer got all the lines but didn’t seem too thrilled to be there. Weekend Update is what it is these days: mostly weak jokes interspersed with broad character work and cameos from real-life figures playing themselves. It could be so much more, although with so much political comedy these days, and with the idiotic Trump and his incompetent administration being so shameless and inherently self-parodying, that it might be harder than ever to write legitimately effective political comedy.
Earlier I mentioned that I’d get back to the return of Baldwin’s Tony Bennett. At this point Baldwin’s Trump is a listless, perfunctory performance that is rolled out almost every episode not because it’s funny but because the show basically thinks it has to do it. There are new Trump offenses and inanities to mock every week, even if they’re effectively unmockable because of how cartoonish and mean-spirited they are, and with all the attention the show has gotten for Baldwin’s stunt-casting they’re obviously not going to stop using him, as long as he’s willing. It just kills the show’s momentum dead, though. Every Trump cold open at this point is a boring, obvious slog that starts the show off on the worst possible foot. So it was shocking to see how great Baldwin’s Bennett impersonation still is during the Price is Right sketch. Baldwin’s befuddled enthusiasm and blind confidence as Bennett are as charming as they’ve ever been. Somehow it even makes SNL’s scatalogical jokes work, like when Baldwin-as-Bennett pitches various constipation and diarrhea medicines during this sketch. Nobody involved with the show seems to have any passion for the weekly Trump sketches anymore, and it showed on this episode’s cold open, where the only thing close to a laugh came from the cutaways where Strong’s Melania Trump fell in love with the inflatable toy used as a Trump decoy on Air Force One. (The same kind of inflatable toy that was used for Otto from Airplane, for some reason.) Compared to his Trump, Baldwin’s Bennett felt alive in a way this show frequently hasn’t over the last season or two, even if it’s something we’ve seen many times before over the last two decades. Combined with Larry David’s cranky, aloof stature, it was the best thing about this episode.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games and comedy sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.