Hey, maybe the mid-show announcement of next week’s host was a strategy on SNL’s part to take the expected heat off of this week’s innately controversial stand-up host. Just a thought, although Amy Schumer, returning for her third time as host, did her live TV best to ply her trade in button-mashing comedy, her monologue deploying abortion, Kanye West’s current Nazi pivot, and the terms “butthole,” “fupa,” and “raw-dogged from behind.” Throughout, Schumer was characteristically game to make herself look foolish and/or gross, whether stuffing an entire matzo ball in her mouth or, in a questionably tasteful pre-tape parodying that very real and unfortunate family getting stalked by a creepy letter-writer, alternately on the toilet or masturbating to reality TV on the sofa. Schumer even went cross-eyed at completion, just to really put the button on the gag, so to speak.
Such fearlessness isn’t a bad trait for a host, even if Schumer herself brought more volume than nuance to her performances all night. There was a shaggy gracelessness to the comic rhythm during the show, not all of which can be laid at Schumer’s feet. The tailgating sketch, which posits that New York Jets fans are an unruly bunch (if you can believe such a thing) was the most egregious offender, with Schumer, Kenan, Andrew Dismukes, Mikey Day, and Cecily Strong bellowing unprofitable pseudo-profanities at an ever more vulnerable series of unfortunate Bills supporters. (Here’s to the little girl who mimed a “cuckoo” gesture as she and her Buffalo-clad pals were subjected to the abuse. I know nobody told you to do that, little girl, and I salute you.)
A good bellowing sketch can, in the right performers’ hands and vocal cords, be an uproarious thing. But this one served to highlight this cast’s collective lack of confidence, something that can turn a big, booming sketch premise into a sweaty exercise in yelling for its own sake. As with those cross-eyes, tonight’s episode trundled along in lurches and starts, displaying the all-around shakiness of the season so far.
Well, my picks for the actual best sketches have their own categories in which to shine (see recurring and 10-to-one below), so I’ll toss a distant bronze medal to the restaurant sketch, if only for its veer into absurdity, as Kenan appears in an inset to belt out a musical narration of Schumer’s desperate attempts to enjoy her soup. I like a bit of silliness, especially when it serves to head off what looked to be some clumsy looking physical comedy as Schumer’s hungry diner impatiently listens to the train-wreck details of friend Heidi Gardner’s life. The sketch is half over by the time the long-locked Kenan pops in to croon, “How long must I wait, to eat my soup without looking like an a-hole?,” though, and, by that time, the sketch badly needed the jump start. Thankfully, the second turn in which Kenan actually appears to triumphantly serenade Schumer’s long-delayed mouthful works just as well, Kenan Thompson’s effortless brio pepping up yet another sketch in his 20th season. Schumer was caught spitting her character’s coveted, studio-staled matzo ball out after the sketch, which is understandable—that thing looked nasty.
The Jets sketch actually made me laugh one time (for the record, it’s when the otherwise-pleasant Jets fans hurl beer cans at the very pregnant Heidi Gardner), so I’ll go with the news report sketch, another exercise in boorishness without the performing energy to back up the yahoo stereotyping. I kept thinking about how great Amy Poehler was in similar sketches. It’s all about the confidence in inhabiting an over-the-top character that takes it somewhere other than simple shouting for its own sake, and everyone here exhibited a paralyzing tinge of sheepishness as the denizens of a dingy and burning apartment building play out their dysfunction on a live new report. Michael Longfellow, like his other new hires, keeps getting decent airtime, which is good. Less ideal is how his neophyte reporter brings little energy to the scene, which leaves the sketch without an anchor. (Say what you want about these thankless kinds of roles, but a funny performer can make gold out of them. Think Bill Hader.) As the gabbling ding-dongs whose three-way familial love triangle set off the conflagration, Cecily, Schumer, and Bowen Yang are left without much to play other than “loud and dumb,” although Cecily is such a strong actor that her belligerent dweller slots nicely alongside her menagerie of other such weirdos. The payoff in which things escalate until everyone in the neighborhood lines up to show off their funny faces and unimpressive stunts doesn’t actually escalate, the parade of buffoonery just plopping along, one after the other. And Longfellow had a nice Update intro earlier in the season, but his too-cool schtick doesn’t bring much verve. Time to switch it up.
None of the three filmed pieces thrilled me tonight, with “The Looker” at least allowing the cast to do some genuinely interesting acting in contrast to Schumer’s butt-of-the-joke mom. James Austin Johnson remains one of the best straight-up character actors in recent SNL history, his worried dad going through the sketch’s ominous beats with an unblinking seriousness that makes the mysterious letter-writer’s turn toward outing Schumer’s unseen peccadillos that much funnier. Again, props to Schumer for being willing to grunt it out on the can and on the sofa and on the exercise bike, and to once more stuff food into her mouth, but once the premise is sprung, there isn’t enough variety in her desperate denials. Not bad, though.
The Covid-as-vacation commercial is a questionable premise, considering that people are still dying of it and there are new variants a-coming, while millions continue to flout the (free, government-provided, and effective) vaccine in opposition to the sketch’s premise that everybody’s had their shots. The central idea that getting Covid is akin to “basically a 10-day cruise” is blissfully acted out by Sarah Sherman’s beleaguered office worker, Heidi Gardner’s harried mom, and Michael Longfellow’s cabin-retreater, while Cecily’s narrator admits that the virus is “still kind of bad, but doesn’t it seem different now?” and all three victims are seen being variously uncomfortable. Longfellow stresses that the possible long-term brain effects of Covid are worth it if he doesn’t have to talk to anyone for 10 days, which, okay, I have to concede. It’s been a long pandemic, folks.
The period panties commercial saw Schumer game for more bodily functions comedy, as the absorbent reservoir of her new miracle underpants traps so much of her monthly flow on her date at the zoo that the entire animal kingdom starts stalking her. It’s one joke, but Schumer sells both her mounting terror and her willful ignorance of a whole lot of dogs burying themselves in her crotch with all the commitment the premise requires.
The courtroom sketch was supposed to be a huge crowd-pleaser, but it fizzled thanks to that lack of rhythm I was talking about. Yang, Schumer, and Sarah Sherman are the three jurors whose audible gasps as they hear details about the murder case at hand turn gradually into more disruptive antics until Schumer’s use of the dull chef’s knife (also Exhibit A) to cut her chicken cacciatore breaks the case wide open. This seems like the sort of broad characterization that Bowen Yang could really run with, but ultimately there wasn’t enough of a build to the trio’s shenanigans.
A bit better was the next-to-last sketch, where Dismukes’ asshole boyfriend has been reformed thanks to girlfriend Schumer convincing him that his life-altering therapy is only for guys with big dicks. Schumer, again, needed to give some more oomph to her character’s desperate attempts to get her two female friends to stop asking questions about her various, ego-stroking male gambits (including the “fat rod vegan meal plan” and “long dong church”), but the premise is decent, and Dismukes’ clueless, pseudo-reformed d-bag is fitfully amusing. (Dismukes gets to destroy some furniture to end the sketch, something he seems to really enjoy.)
Jost allowed himself to get weird tonight, and I’m here for it. Apart from his signature cheek, the co-anchor also whipped out a gun for one punchline, called the toddler protagonist of a real-life child abandonment story a loser, and compared the sudden Musk-unleashed rise of the n-word on Twitter to “the last time I stubbed my toe,” which sounds like a candidate for the end-of-year joke swap. (Che asked what the hell was up with his partner at one point.) The topical jokes were glib and amusing, as ever, before Jost and Che moved on to the non-politics material, which was also glib and amusing. Che took swipes at out-and-proud anti-Semites Kanye West and Kyrie Irving (and Schumer wore an “I heart Jews” sweatshirt in the goodnights, for good measure.) It was all above-average, even if there’s that whole Midterm elections for the soul of our tottering democracy thing they had to work with. Oh, and Che being Che, we got another of his joking… or am I? misogynist one-liners about women smiling more, because Michael Che really leans into his whole deal.
While not a recurring character per se, Cecily Strong’s appearance as Tammy the Trucker (who promises she’s here to talk about gas prices and definitely not abortion) is a close cousin to her lauded (by me, for one) Goober the Clown. (Who has similarly strong feelings about the fundamentalist-packed Supreme Court setting back women’s rights and women’s health a full half-century with the aid of the Republican Party.) Strong, who used Goober to tell her own abortion story, is not fucking around, bringing another thinly disguised rant to Update at a moment when abortion rights are literally on the ballot. (Vote Tuesday, for all that is decent and not-insane.) Here, instead of Goober’s bicycle horn, Tammy (“or Tina, or whatever name I gave you”), has a trucker’s steering wheel (with balky sound effects) to punctuate both her hastily Googled big rig slang and Tammy’s outraged attacks on those (Republican) politicians prepared to strip millions of women of essential and deeply personal healthcare decisions.
Increasingly under Jost and Che, the correspondents are treated like guest commentators, the straight-on political material therein used as counterpoint to the anchors’ veneer of above-it-all impartiality. (Or, in Jost and Che’s case, too-cool-for-school smartassery.) It’s a formula, I suppose, although by fobbing off more impassioned satire to the correspondents, it leaves Update proper feeling rather toothless in comparison. But Strong is just the person to take up the reins here, once more playing nimbly with the show’s expected format by shedding the barely-there raiment of Update caricature to, instead, deliver some hard truths. (Women everywhere really need to stop using those period-tracking apps in a world of encroaching right-wing surveillance and legitimate threats of prosecution.) The shtick of Strong’s Tammy waving away Jost’s attempts to keep her characterization on track is potent, too, with Strong’s need to speak her piece turning all other show-related considerations irrelevant. Strong even supplies a little trucker-specific analysis to the upcoming election, with the actor noting how high gas prices—sucking as they do—are the result of “a global recession fueled by global greed and war,” and that voting with your wallet in a time of atavistic encroachment by conservatives into Americans human rights is, well, a Texas dickhead move. As she did with Goober, Cecily Strong uses her power (“I have this big giant radio,” Tammy notes) on Saturday Night Live to cut through the sketch comedy trappings and put herself out there. It’s bracing, it’s brave, and it’s funny. All words that should describe SNL more frequently.
James Austin Johnson got to trot out both his Biden and Trump tonight at separate times, and, perhaps because both appearances were on the short side, they worked out nicely. The cold open saw his President Biden showing off the Democrats new strategy to overcome the GOP’s reliance on flashy incompetents and famous dilettantes, introducing a raft of mediocre impressions. The premise is—fine, I guess. Vapid and/or dangerous clowns like Herschel Walker, Dr. Oz, and Kari Lake are poised to possible take on some very powerful positions thanks to Republican voters’ ceaseless desire for jingoistic pandering, so if the Dems want to run the likes of Guy Fieri, Marianne Williamson, Azealia Banks, and Tracy Morgan to fight fire with unqualified fire, then, sure, I get the joke. I might take issue with the idea of Biden introducing Ego’s Banks as the woman who’s going to take down Marco Rubio in Florida by noting that actual badass Black woman Val Demings is actually on the verge of doing just that, but then I’m a sucker for satirical consistency.
I like Johnson’s Biden, the actor’s technical mastery yet finding room to stretch into exaggeration for comic impact. He’s got Biden’s cadence down, and while his Joe isn’t as garrulously folksy as, say Jason Sudeikis’, it’s a solid throwback when Johnson’s Biden urges ageist critics to “Google ‘young Joe Biden’ and start a bubble bath.” And I like how the sketch concluded by allowing every loopy new candidate to shout out something completely different in response to Biden’s rallying cry. I caught Kenan’s above-average Tracy craving “sugar-free White Castle,” while Chloe Fineman’s Williamson promised a “parallel timeline.” Still, with a sort-of pivotal Midterm election coming up this week (you know, if you’re interested in American democracy continuing to exist), this is awfully shallow stuff.
I suppose the Twitter moderation sketch is political enough, what with a conspiracy-minded billionaire nutcase taking over the world’s most social media platform mere days before an election, stripping it of all safeguards against misinformation, and partnering with a prince from the country driving GOP-aiding gas price inflation. But I kid the guy who’s totally not trying to tank the American experiment in a fit of pique and mid-life crisis megalomania. Kenan and Chloe are the two remaining Twitter employees left after Elon Musk’s recent purge which has seen the already problematic microblogging site descend into an abusive maelstrom of racial slurs and QAnon lunacy. Deciding which of the banned users to be readmitted to the site should be much more pointed, though, with only some so-so jabs at Amy Schumer’s obvious sex bot (steering users to “sexpalacebitcoinscam.iraq”), Cecily’s conspiracy kook loudmouth, and Bowen’s fatigues-wearing Call of Duty swatter making appearances.
Things do perk up when James Austin Johnson’s Trump turns up to similarly seek reinstatement, Johnson’s conception of Trump as a subject-hopping headcase with a penchant for self-incriminating asides the best interpretation of the former reality show host, perhaps ever. Plus, as noted, it’s a short appearance, with Johnson’s Trump jabbering on about his love for good friend Jonathan Taylor Thomas (“I said, ‘That kid’s gonna be a star,’ and he was, for a very brief time”), before admitting in passing that his own unmoderated hellscape app Truth Social is “very great, and, in many ways, also terrible.” Johnson’s Trump rattles off his stream-of-consciousness in uncanny verisimilitude (Johnson grasps both the effrontery and the discursiveness), twisting his subject at just enough of an angle that this Trump becomes a character, rather than a bag of tics and catchphrases. And with the repentant Trump promising he won’t do anything akin to the inciting seditious behavior that got him banned originally, “except maybe coup,” the sketch posits a Twitter where such stuff merits a mere billionaire-to-billionaire boys club shrug.
It’s the returned Cecily’s night, something I imagine will become more common now that her mini-hiatus is over. Tammy is another all-timer, and by dint of sheer performing confidence and professionalism, she’s got the inside track on a cast that has yet to prove up to challenging her. Kenan was solid as ever, too, the long-term veterans continuing to carry their sketches.
The new kids continue to get some airtime, although nobody but Longfellow had roles of any size. And poor Punkie had her one line. At least she got to represent Black Twitter, but, still.
I chose the header quote purposefully, as the “Big Dumb Hats” testimonial follows the template of Vanessa Bayer and Cecily Strong’s cluelessly dreamy pitch-people, only subbing out the porn stars for the sort of glazed-over white women who sport enormous-brimmed hats and post a picture of their wedding every single day. This isn’t as inspired or as funny as those sketches (I miss Vanessa Bayer on SNL), but it’s still pretty good, with Schumer, Heidi Gardner, and Chloe Fineman all not just wearing those big hats (which get bigger during the camera cutaways), but also skewering a certain kind of “well-off-woman with perfect makeup and long, straight hair” that the show’s own women are gunning for. It’s a soft target, with the joke that certain people give their kids names like “Poet,” “Story,” “Lyric,” “Fire,” and “Arcade” specific enough for the laugh. The prop work is a bit effortful, with not only Schumer’s ever-expanding lid, but Heidi’s hats dispensing Starbucks and fire-roasted pizza for her Yellowstone watch party. Still, the three performers leaned into their characterizations with aplomb, their Stepford Wives vibe suggesting a creepy undertone to Schumer’s blank-eyed assertion that her big dumb hat proves that, “When I was in high school, I wasn’t mean or nice.”
Post-Update, the show put up a memorial to Kirshnik Khari Ball, better known as Migos’ Takeoff, who appeared on SNL back in 2018. (And who, along with his bandmates, was reportedly none too happy with SNL’s Donald Glover-led Migos riff from the same year.)
Steve Lacy’s smooth funk-soul laid-back throwback vibe was deeply pleasant.
And, yup, Dave Chappelle’s coming back to host for the third time, this time after supposedly being “cancelled” for anti-trans bigotry. So that should be fun. At least there’s the liberating possibility that Twitter will have ceased to exist by then. Fingers crossed. Musical guest, Black Star.
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.