A Strong Monologue from Jerrod Carmichael Can’t Save a Middling Saturday Night Live

Comedy Reviews
A Strong Monologue from Jerrod Carmichael Can’t Save a Middling Saturday Night Live

And your host…

I was already uniquely excited for Jerrod Carmichael to host Saturday Night Live before I sat down to watch the stand-up comic’s latest HBO special Rothaniel on Saturday afternoon. (I’m nothing if not thorough.) In his monologue, Carmichael joked about being “the least famous host in Saturday Night Live history.” I mean, he’s not. (Carmichael’s self-titled NBC sitcom lasted a full two seasons and 19 episodes longer than John Mulaney’s, just for comparison). But I get it—when Carmichael’s booking was announced, I got the good kind of surprised.

Apart from being a very good stand-up, and the creator of an intriguing (if divisive) documentary series about his family, Carmichael is the sort of host who suggests that SNL is going for quality, Q rating be damned. And Carmichael’s monologue bore that out, as the comic forged an intimacy with the live audience like only the best stand-ups can. And, after watching Rothaniel earlier in the day, I’m comfortable in saying that Jarrod Carmichael is one of the best out there.

In the Bo Burnham-directed Rothaniel, Carmichael indeed gets intimate. Filmed in exquisite close-up (every still could be an album cover), Carmichael works through some very personal and painful stuff with a startlingly raw storytelling skill, the revelations he shares with his rapt audience lending next-level power to his stage persona. Carmichael repeats the special’s most talked-about revelation tonight, announcing himself as a gay man, and joking that he came out of the closet right onto Saturday Night Live’s stage. “If you’re gay in New York, you get to host Saturday Night Live,” Carmichael joked in response to the Studio 8H crowd’s warm embrace, an echo of the conflicted emotions that have greeted his coming out between his New York friends and his loving but disappointingly judgmental North Carolina family.

I know I’m going on about Rothaniel, but it’s really that good.

There was a tingly tension in the air right from the jump, with Carmichael’s up front announcement, “I’m not gonna talk about it,” suggesting various possibilities. As it turned out, that quickly-broken pledge was in response to the Chris Rock-Will Smith Oscars debacle, and if Carmichael feigned being put out at having to continue the discourse, his material was at least far better than SNL’s all night. I liked how confidently Carmichael threw Lorne Michaels under the bus for all the slap jokes, as he reproduced what he claimed was Lorne’s sententious entreaty that it was up to the comic to “heal” America. Whatever truth there is to the idea that Lorne Michaels tried to steer his host into revisiting a topic he’s already thoroughly sick of, Carmichael’s defiance looked really good on him. “Don’t turn your back on me, Lorne!” is the sort of line a first-time, lesser-known host confronted with an elderly and powerful white man busts out when commanded to deliver up material on a racially charged public scandal. (We’ll get to the main sketch on the topic in a bit. Spoiler: skim down to “The Worst.”)

For the rest of the night, though, I’m afraid Carmichael was left stranded by some half-baked premises and so-so writing. (And pacing—this was just a sluggish, hesitant show all over.) Honestly, Carmichael was very good in sketches. He was effusive during the goodnights, calling this one of the best weeks of his life, and that really came through, despite some sputtering sketches. Some hosts are just engaged. They listen when they’re not delivering their lines, and that’s awfully endearing. Shame, then, that when it came time for SNL to wheel out its own take on the Oscars kerfuffle, he was reduced to playing straight man to a big heap of nothing.

The Best And The Rest

The Best: I can’t say I was filled with joy at the bumper showing that the post-monologue sketch would be a game show, but the Kate McKinnon-hosted, post-COVID quiz show Is My Brain Okay? was a pleasant surprise. Nobody’s going to top Bill Hader at making something out of the thankless game show host roles, but Kate was very funny as the brain-fogged Lisa Something, riding herd over a trio of similarly lockdown-addled contestants in Carmichael, Sarah Sherman, and Bowen Yang.

McKinnon pegs just the tone of hazy, fatalistic bemusement that a game show about the accumulated mental and physical effects of this never-ending pandemic is on the air. SNL is often best when it comes at a BIG ISSUE at an oblique angle, and McKinnon’s airy exhaustion here eloquently hints at the only appropriate response to two-plus years of this neuron-frazzling ordeal. The sketch builds nicely, the contestants’ answers becoming appreciably more absurd and disconnected as their own pandemic-stifled minds attempt to identify such outdoor items as a wheelbarrow. “Farm bicycle” is about as close as one can get, while Sherman’s player writing her rambling final answer with her tongue caps things off with just the right note of bubbling insanity. Carmichael’s winner, given the choice between a dream vacation in Hawaii and going back to his apartment and staying there, makes the only relatable choice once his winning answer about daylight savings time is accepted. (“If you set the clock ahead you don’t have to be alive as long.”—Excuse me while I Joker-laugh into the wee hours.)

The Worst: Enter the big heap of nothing. I’m on record with my Chris Redd appreciation. (Bust Down is yet another example of Lorne spending his money to give his most original comic minds a showcase—away from SNL.) But he does a mediocre Will Smith, which wouldn’t be an issue, really, if the sketch in question weren’t simply a verbatim rehash of the whole, talked-to-death spectacle. This sketch will age like sun-forgotten milk, the sort of low-effort box-checking that equates topicality with satire, recognition laughs with actual ones. It’s not offensive. It’s not insightful. It’s not anything. Carmichael and Kyle Mooney’s seat-fillers are taken aback at their idol pausing in his glad-handing friendliness to live-smack an Oscar presenter, Redd’s Smith segueing with practiced ease between beneficent friendliness and shockingly raw outrage, which I suppose could be a comment on big stars’ facility with glib image-mongering. But the sketch is, overall, just there because SNL had to do something about the event. It’d be glib to say that nobody put much imagination into this thing, but the alternative—that the writers had six days of incessant media jabbering to work with and thought this was solid gold—is actually worse.

The Rest: The pre-taped music video was another pandemic-themed charmer, with Pete Davidson, Chris Redd, musical guest Gunna, and drop-in rapper/actor and Red Rocket star Simon Rex/Dirt Nasty extolling the virtues of short-ass movies. Again, pandemic humor is best when its roped to something specific and weird, and the relatability of reaching for only the most comforting and easily digestible entertainment content at this point in our collective fear-prisons strikes true and clear. Redd and Pete are so good at these, and the film nerd in me responded to the litany of under 100-minute watches like Evil Dead, Punch-Drunk Love, and Good Time like the sketch was written just for me. A simple, silly premise, once more, thrives on specificity, and Pete’s breakdown of how the second Sex and the City movie somehow runs 20 minutes longer than Jurassic Park doubled down on the joke nicely. That The King of Staten Island was over two hours is the sort of self-burn that only makes a funny bit that much more on-point.

I suppose it’s to the QVC sketch’s credit that it doesn’t go for the joke I thought it would. Written by Streeter Seidell and Mikey Day, the ill-fated shopping network sales pitch of doll maker Carmichael is in the long and storied tradition of SNL going for the cheapest, loudest belly-laughs, and it sort of works. Cecily and Day are pitch-perfect as the church-y, bantering hosts grinning their way through hard sells on everything from Alex Moffat’s Jesus-themed (but, you know, cool) lunch boxes, to Carmichael’s garish Rhylee Rainbowlocks doll.

In Carmichael’s best acting job of the night, his entrepreneur patiently explains the reasons why, for example, his dolly’s growing hair emerges from an unruly, rainbow-shaded “vajafro,” and why resetting the doll’s growable mane involves doing something unspeakable to its unseen nethers. (“It’s an anchor point,” he responds to one phone buyer’s horrified reaction.) Look, if “Shweddy Balls” can be included on every SNL Christmas special, we’ve long crossed the Rubicon as far as snickering over jokes about fisting children’s toys. (The onscreen purchase tally goes up exponentially while Carmichael desperately thrusts his hands up Rhylee Rainbowlocks.) As noted, I was left wondering why the sketch set up an expectant dynamic about the show’s overtly Christian hosts confronting a rainbow-colored children’s toy, as the subtext never manifested into text. Not that Carmichael’s recent coming out necessitated gay-themed sketches or anything, but it’s odd for this one to edge up to the idea without ever taking the leap. Weird.

Weekend Update update

Jost and Che took a typically scattershot approach to the irresistible Rock-Smith story, with the pair hitting and missing in equal measure. I’m gonna follow Carmichael’s lead in not adding to the festering, tell-on-yourself compost heap of takes regarding one famous millionaire smacking another one on national TV. That said, at least Jost and Che each appeared to have a point of view, unlike SNL’s centerpiece sketch on the topic. Che veered between mocking Smith’s “crazy” assault and making a smirky joke about Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith’s supposedly unconventional marriage, as hinted at in the couple’s interview series, Red Table Talk. Jost was all-in on defending Rock (in a display of SNL cast solidarity, perhaps), bringing up how Oscars producers left it up to Rock whether or not eventual Best Actor winner Smith should be ejected from the Dolby Theater, and equating it to victim blaming in an abusive relationship.

Again, I’m not getting into it, as nobody but nobody needs to hear another middle-aged white guy’s opinion. (Okay, just a little: It’s been both dispiriting and hilarious to watch bro-comic defenders war between tough guy, patronizing pro-Smith posturing and “comedians can say anything they want” Rogan-style posturing. You can practically see smoke pouring out of their ears.) Jost and Che don’t appear to have much personal investment in their Update jokes as a rule, so looking to them to do anything other than amuse each other is pretty pointless.

I don’t know that we needed an O.J. appearance, but Kenan had fun, so I had fun. Kenan’s such a nimble and assured performer that he can make even the tiredest Simpson material slyly funny. Kenan can make a telling pause into a laugh line, even against all reason. I’m not proud, but I laughed.

Cecily came out in a blowsy wig as inept Republican troll and Tennessee Senator Marsha Blackburn, gleefully defending GOP attacks on soon-to-be-confirmed Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson. Update pieces like these are perfect for short-form character assassination by righteously worked-up cast members, and Cecily lays into the notably awful Blackburn with happy malevolence. Even when SNL isn’t particularly sharp on an issue (say, Republican lawmakers pushing focus-tested right-wing talking points to unsuccessfully discredit a very qualified Black woman), simply letting jackasses’ own words boomerang on them on live TV is pretty effective. Here, Strong lays out some of Blackburns’ colleagues’ most egregiously bad-faith broadsides (“Are babies racist?,” “Is murder bad?,” “What is a woman?”), before noting primly as an aside, “And those are real questions that my fellow Republicans asked an adult judge.”

So, So Sketchy—Recurring Sketch Report

Apart from the cold open’s inevitably recurring cast of right-wing propagandist punching bags, here’s to another SNL without a repeater. Even if the new stuff didn’t quote work out here, I’m all about the effort.

“Tonight, we’d like to stick our necks out a little bit on national television and call for a violent overthrow of the United States government.”—Political Comedy Report

Will I get tired of James Austin Johnson’s Trump? Anything’s possible. And, sure, I’m willing to concede that being freed from five years of criminally limp sketches featuring Alec Baldwin’s Donald might have sent me fleeing into Johnson’s infinitely superior embrace. It’s not just an accuracy issue. Johnson’s Trump is exponentially better than Baldwin’s, sure, but Jay Pharoah’s Obama was similarly superior to Fred Armisen’s, while nobody at the show ever figured out anything interesting for him to say.

Johnson has the impersonation chops, but he’s also got a hook. His Trump is the chopped-syntax, groove-skipping megalomaniac who can’t separate his own flitting desires from the mundanities of political competence and protective ass-covering. As the actual Trump gabbles his way through speeches to head-nodding cultists, Johnson punches Trump’s tics (dropping articles before operative nouns is especially effective) while masterfully aping the former reality show host and fraudulent steak salesman’s discursive, throaty aging cadence. Darrell Hammond notably explained how a great impression is less about technique than about channeling an essence, noting how his Sean Connery didn’t really take off until he cheated to bring his meticulous impression into sync with public perception. Johnson, both in his Trump and his Biden, is working with an impressionist’s whole toolbox. If you’d asked me last year if I ever wanted to see another Trump on SNL, I would have dead-eyed you until you slunk away, slowly. Now I look forward to Johnson’s every appearance.

The rest of the cold open was—fine. Mikey Day’s no Bobby Moynihan when it comes to essaying Fox and Friends empty talking head Brian Kilmeade, but he, Alex Moffat, and Heidi Gardner got a few laughs out of the morning show hosts’ robotically vapid right-wing sycophancy. Kilmeade shifts seamlessly from noting how Trump’s farcically doomed Truth Social app overheated his phone and burned his son, to praising his Glorious Leader’s newest venture/scam. Kenan and Kate came out as Clarence and Ginni Thomas, the conservative lovebirds grinningly admitting their individual complicity in Donald Trump’s ongoing coup against American democracy.

As for Johnson’s Trump, even the Fox hosts can’t steer him away from doing the same, with Johnson making Trump’s Mar-a-Lago confessional a chillingly funny approximation of Trump’s penchant for bragging about the things his underlings have been vociferously spinning. It ain’t hard-hitting stuff, but as a showcase for talented comedians to at least remind everyone that, for example, a Supreme Court justice was the one dissenting vote against revealing his wife’s coup-adjacent communications with a twice-impeached former president, well, it gets the job done.

Not Ready For Prime Time Power Rankings

Aidy took her A-lister’s weekend pass this time out, while Pete at least popped by at some point during the week to film the charmingly silly streaming pre-tape.

As for the people who were actually in the building, Aristotle and Melissa were shunted to goodnights-only waving. In contrast, Kate had her glassy-eyed seditionist Ginni Thomas, and her winningly glazed game show host. Cecily got Pirro, Blackburn, and her home shopping host, and Kenan got to whip out his O.J., for amusingly irrelevant reasons. Kate takes it by a nose.

“I’ll put corn in his muffin! I’ll crimson his face! I’ll butter his bean and serve it to him cold I will!”—10-To-One Report

The funeral sketch should have worked—on me, at least. The show ended tonight with essentially three straight 10-to-one sketches, which I’d normally be thrilled about. Sadly, there was a serious lack of confidence in the weirdness that sank the first two. (The actual final pre-tape was just meh.) Here, Andrew Dismukes and Carmichael show flashes of what this darkly outrage-courting sketch could have been, as their officiously polite undertakers—solemnly awaiting a family’s ash-scattering speech to end—instead hurl the decidedly un-cremated deceased bodily over the waiting cliff.

The initial joke came off great—audience gasps are always the goal on something like this. But I’m remembering the Python sketch where Graham Chapman’s undertaker unblinkingly proposes that they eat the corpse of John Cleese’s recently departed mum. Not to hold this half-written sketch to the highest standard when it comes to corpse-defilement humor, but if you’re going to do something comically outrageous with a dead body, you really have to commit. Dismukes and Carmichael almost get there by underplaying. (“So, that was not relayed to us,” Carmichael states.) And there’s a rattling collection of odd ideas around the margins (Carmichael’s morgue attendant has brought along an urn-shaped soup thermos, which Dismukes quickly terms a “thurnmos”), but the enterprise sputters to an end without ever justifying its existence.

Same goes for the restaurant sketch, where Kyle Mooney’s NYC-visiting country cousin tries way too hard to appreciate city resident Carmichael’s brunch anecdote. Kyle’s métier is guys who sweatily try too hard to fit in, but even the punchline addition of self-pitying piano music over his apology can’t pump this doodle of a sketch up to the level of his cringe comedy best. When in doubt, hurl yourself over a table, I guess?

The actual last sketch was a filmed piece, which is never ideal. This is the spot to let your writers’ oddest and least commercial ideas do a little dance, and the live aspect is a crucial part of sending audiences home wondering what the hell they just watched. As it happened tonight, the sloganeering onesies for infants commercial could have gone anywhere in the show—or at least in any show of middling quality. I suppose the joke is on the try-hard hetero parents’ performative “wokeness” for the benefit of Bowen Yang and Carmichael’s gay couple. One straight dad can’t help but tell on himself by letting slip a cliché about gay promiscuity in the midst of shouting “This slays” at the sight of his child in a “Future Twink” garment. But apart from a onesie reading “Holland Taylor can hit me with a truck,” nothing in the piece brought anything new. And, just to anger the right people, a political climate where the GOP is actively peddling hateful nonsense about LGBTQI-accepting parents being pedophiles and “groomers” really isn’t the place to end a show with such an unfocused, lazy sketch.

Parting Shots

I’ve said it before, but I always feel a little charge of enthusiasm when a stand-up comedian calls for a hand mic to start the monologue.

Saturday Night Live abandoned the whole musical-variety concept around forty years ago, but it’s still pretty shocking when the show’s disregard for musical fidelity is so blatant. Gunna’s two numbers were plagued by bad sound, with the rapper at one point instructing the booth to turn up his monitor, and the popped plosives on the mics making his two numbers all but unlistenable. Sort of a real issue when he and Future teamed up for a song called “pushin P.”

This week’s RIP title card went to Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins, who most recently appeared on SNL in November, 2020.

Next week: Jake Gyllenhaal hosts for the second time (his first in 15 years), alongside musical guest Camila Cabello.

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.

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