On Saturday Night Live, Keke Palmer Kills It (With Some Help From Kenan & Kel)

Comedy Reviews
On Saturday Night Live, Keke Palmer Kills It (With Some Help From Kenan & Kel)

And Your Host…

In just one of her impeccable scenes tonight, Keke Palmer approached fellow former child star Kenan Thompson for her planned, Emmy-baiting gritty reboot of Kenan & Kel, titled Kenan & Kelly. The pre-taped piece itself is funny enough—Kenan is roped into Palmer’s reboot under false pretenses, allowing Palmer’s co-lead to emote the hell out of things once the show’s traditional goofball antics allow her the spotlight. (“I think we have a tone issue,” a concerned Kenan admits in interview right before a scene where the returning Kel Mitchell is shot by a robber while the pregnant Palmer moans, “I slept with him just to hurt you!”)

The fact that the 29-year old Palmer tells the 44-year-old Thompson that she’s been a fan ever since she was a little girl might make Kenan feel his age, but it’s a fact that both former child stars have been in the business forever, and that both have emerged as effortlessly charming and ebullient performers. Palmer tonight was flawlessly funny no matter her scene partners, but the Kenan-Keke team was a truly outstanding one, the two lifelong troupers riding the same charismatic rail all through the show.

Palmer’s monologue saw the Nope star peeling off her concealing overcoat to reveal that, yes, the internet trolls got it right and she’s visibly and delightedly pregnant. The Emmy winner attempted to slip an as-yet unawarded Oscar nom to her CV (“Thats part’s not true, but it’s not lying if I’m manifesting!”), but in her hosting duties tonight, Palmer was everything a future SNL hosting Emmy winner should be, anchoring every sketch she was in with a smoothly engaging professionalism and drive. As with esteemed colleague Kenan, Keke Palmer just has the “it” that can elevate any scene, and she was nothing but a damn delight. Easily the best host of the season, Palmer has the live TV chops to be doing this full time. She’s probably going to be pretty busy, though.

The Best And The Rest

The Best: All that being said, none of the sketches tonight quite struck comedy gold, even with the invaluable Palmer to aid in the quest. There weren’t any terrible sketches, either—it’s just that a pretty good all-around show when you’ve got a slam-dunk host in the house feels like a squander. Still, for sheer loopy chutzpah alone, I’ll give the top spot to the Hello Kitty sketch, in which Palmer and Bowen Yang’s initially thrilled new hires at New York’s first store dedicated to the ubiquitous cartoon figure become increasingly unhinged as bosses Cecily Strong and Molly Kearney read off the critter’s eye-openingly weird, corporate-mandated lore for their sales patter. It’s not like taking down the harmlessly lucrative cat-thing is edgy or anything, but Palmer and Yang sell the hell out of their shared horror as their understandable assumptions about just what that mouthless, cat-eared little thing actually is are stripped away. (Short version: Despite all sense and logic, she’s a little girl and not a cat, but her boyfriend is a cat despite looking exactly the same, and she’s chronologically 48 years old and in the third grade.) Yang and Palmer’s mounting incredulousness is unfailingly funny stuff, with their every thwarted attempt to poke holes in the bosses’ binders of lore met with outbursts like Yang’s, “Oh, you didn’t want to touch that one?,” when confronted with Hello Kitty’s market-driven racial ambiguity. (They’re also truly aghast at the bestiality implications of it all.) Things really take off (as do a few sketches tonight) in absurdity, when seemingly all of New York (or at least a lot of NYC stereotypes) pop up to join in the outrage, eventually revealing that former host Natasha Lyonne has been moonlighting inside the Hello Kitty mascot costume all this time. There’s precious little point to it all, apart from mocking the needlessly complicated backstory of an unspeaking backpack decal, but that’s what makes all the hubbub so amusing.

The Worst: Hard to hate on anything tonight, largely thanks to Palmer’s bulletproof (or critic-proof energy), but that cold open was another real bummer of a nothing, right? Kenan doesn’t really do a Herschel Walker impression, instead just cluelessly rattling off some of the Republican senate candidate and knuckleheaded spousal abuser’s greatest hits. (Paying for multiple abortions while acting as a GOP anti-abortion puppet, not being able to complete a coherent sentence, etc.) There’s value, I suppose, in hammering away at former gridiron hero Walker’s utter and contemptible incompetence in the days before Georgia’s vital runoff election on Tuesday, but, apart from Kenan being Kenan/charming, the entire satirical landscape being scoured for this low-hanging fruit is another example of SNL making the most obvious jokes and calling it a day. Even if the show isn’t going to jump on weightier matters like, say, the fact that the current GOP frontrunner for president calling for the Constitution to be suspended so he can take over as unelected dictator-king this week, there are better Heschel Walker jokes to be made. (Just throwing it out there, but the fact that Republicans cynically propped up a home-state Black sports hero with CTE to give cover for white Georgians’ guilt about voting against a much more qualified Black senator is something to work with, if you’ve got the talent, courage, and inclination.)

The Rest: The class action movement for women who’ve been name-checked as villains in Drake songs is a funny idea that gave most of the women in the cast some time to shine. The United Tingz of Aubrey (#tingsacrossamerica) sees Palmer, Punkie Johnson, and Ego Nwodim joined onstage by a gaggle of the multitude of women (“literally thousands”) who, despite sometimes tangential associations with the singer, are painted as Drake’s “exes and shawties” in songs that have netted the Canadian superstar millions of dollars. Nwodim’s complainant merely left a voice message about an overdue car payment. Heidi Gardner fake laughed at his joke while working at P.F. Chang’s and now she’s immortalized as an ex. (“Make that make sense.”) Palmer, as herself, is pissed about that whole “Kiki Do You Love Me?” business, demanding, “Stop acting like we smashed and give me my six million dollars.” Everybody’s great in the sketch (a tardy directing cue leaves Ego trying not to break, but she maintains in the end), and it just works as a silly but sort-of heartfelt dig at male singers who mythologize their own pain on record.

The 1980’s soap opera parody Forcington’s Ridge paired Palmer up with Cecily Strong for a literal knock-down, drag-out recreation of all the era’s Dynasty-style catfighting and scenery-chomping. And while it’s amusing to just watch two badass funny women spew lines such as, “Like you didn’t forget not to fellatiate my husband every day,” the real kicker comes in the effortful use of beefy stunt doubles, and the actors’ subsequent efforts to make the swaps look seamless. They do not, as their duck behind a convenient sofa sees two people wearing wrestling kneepads and ill-fitting ball gowns hurling themselves all over the place. As a technical achievement, it almost works—there’s a fine line between mocking old shows’ inability to edit around the stunt work and a sketch’s murky approximation of same. But it’s worth it for the two actors (and an archly funny Bowen Yang as the “fellatiated” husband/lover) just hamming it up.

Maybe it’s bias as a big boy myself, but the “Cuffing Season” music video featuring musical guest SZA, Punkie, Ego, Cecily, and Keke made me happy. As the sun sinks lower and the nights grow colder, the slinky singers all extol the virtues of having a beefy fella who’ll keep you warm at night, has legs “like a monster,” and can bring all your groceries in in just one trip. The tune is good enough to match the joke, and even Punkie has to admit that, while she remains an out and proud lesbian, sometimes you just want to be the little spoon, you know? And, as Kenan notes in a walk-on, you’ll always know where your big boi is all winter—outside shoveling snow in shorts. I feel seen.

Showing off the invaluable “game for anything” hosting trait, Palmer got into the stirrups, showed off her baby bump, and blew (stagehand-assisted) cigarette smoke out of her hoo-hah. As a women pregnant with some unnervingly active ultrasound-revealed twins (Yang and Sherman, sporting umbilical cords and bald caps), Palmer assured her increasingly freaked out doctor (Cecily) that things were all good, even as the monitor shows them breakdancing, jump-roping with their own cords, smoking, and eventually managing to order delivery food—which is grabbed and paid for by a pair of grasping little baby hands reaching out from under the unconcerned Palmer’s hospital gown. SNL loves a big ol’ (literal) belly-laugh of a gross-out sketch, and Palmer, Strong, Yang, and Sherman are all-in for the lowbrow hijinks. With the unborn playing pogo sticks with two of of their mom’s lost IUD’s, the sketch dares itself to go a little more into the weird, eventually attaining it when the empty ultrasound reveals that the little monsters have hopped uteri, Strong’s suddenly with-demon-child doctor letting out a proper Twilight Zone, “Noooooo!” If you’re gonna do it, do it.

As if Keke Palmer needed another chance to show viewers what she could do, the school choir sketch gave Palmer the chance to let loose with some truly impressive singing as the new girl whose effortless “O Holy Night” solo rattles former snotty divas Cecily and Molly. The premise is straightforward stuff, but the episode’s commitment to letting some absurdity nibble around the edges serves this one well, with Bowen Yang’s immediately thunderstruck choirmaster fielding a call and telling Palmer’s soloist, “That was Broadway. You’re the new Funny Girl.” Suitably, there’s ultimately goodwill for all, with Palmer’s talented newcomer sharing her coveted solo with everyone, leaving them all to pick up on Kearney’s desperate-to-impress lyrical vamping about Jesus being “born in the cit-ay.” Short and kind of adorable.

Even though the sketch itself is pretty funny, I’m putting the fast food bit tucked down here at the bottom on general principles. That’ll show ‘em. Even if there weren’t an actual commercial for the fast-eating chain (the one with all the meats) later in the broadcast, these sorts of product integration sketches are so insidiously ubiquitous on SNL now that I find myself bucking against the corporate synergy. I get even more irritated when they make me laugh, and the gag here that the wary customers all start to wonder just how said chain can possibly make a profit on their medium dollars for mountains of meat special deal made me laugh, dammit. Palmer is especially good, as her diner argues with Kenan’s unseen spokesperson, “I know bread is super-cheap, but it’s not, like, negative dollars,” while Mikey Day uneasily states, “We’re trying to understand the physics.” There’s some nice comic editing, with Kenan’s booming Ving Rhames (for ’tis he) breaking in repeatedly to simply repeat the deal as if nothing is fishy, eventually roping in yet another fast foodery’s equally suspect bulk meal deal to try to make his bosses look good by comparison. Kenan eventually emerges, his Rhames noting to the befuddled customers, “I’m physically present at every [roast beef concern]’s location, the silliness ramping up when Cecily’s diner smacks boyfriend Bowen Yang for daring to question her on camera. (“You do not shame me! No on my debut [brand X fast food chain] commercial!”) I kid Lorne’s sneakily lucrative product integration, but sketches like this, using as they do the sponsor’s actual price points and specials as the central premise, are straight-up just doing PR for a corporation while adopting a veneer of cheeky subversion. The whole thing makes me feel a little, I don’t know, greasy?

Weekend Update update

Putting aside the usual complaints (see previous reviews about how Che and Jost should be putting a lot more work into the news part of their fake news segment), two excellent correspondent pieces made this one of the most enjoyable Updates of the season. Jost and Che were quick and funny. They almost always are, even if, well, see the above parenthetical. Che’s joke about Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones’ recently unearthed photo (showing him participating in barring Black students from entering his high school) prompted the most appropriately pointed line. (“Would a racist own a team full of the strongest Black men he could buy to work on his field?”)

Kanye got taken for a ride, what with him praising Hitler and so forth, although Jost mainly used the ensuing outrage to sort of double down on the anti-Semitic nutjob’s “Jews control everything” nonsense. (“I’m gonna go out on a limb and suggest that maybe she had an easier time finding a good lawyer,” jokes Jost in reference to West’s pending divorce.) Jost and Che like to play the naughtiest boys in class, counting on their charismatic cheek to carry them through, as when Che made yet another of his signature “women, amirite?” jokes tonight. (Che did continue his anti-Apple jokes concerning the company’s use of child labor, at least party counterbalancing the aforementioned corporate-cuddling.)

Michael Longfellow delivered another desk piece, this time about his experience as a child of divorce. It’s another chunk of his standup material, which is a time-honored way for new cast members to stake out some territory. This one was his best so far, another chance for the young performer to hone his deadpan schtick in the audience’s view. Noting how his own situation as a child of oft-remarried parents had its advantages (such as wishing for a new brother and getting one the next day, “off the shelf, ready to go”). Norm Macdonald’s stare-down techniques are all in evidence, but Longfellow has his own thing, too, a more confrontationally ironic vibe that allows him to join in the venerable sport of making fun of Colin Jost in passing. “Why?,” Longfellow challenges after Jost jokingly notes, “I at least hope he has a nice body,” in reference to Longfellow’s nudist stepfather. Speaking of his birth father, a divorce lawyer, lets the comic add another layer to his delivery, his effusive praise of his “workaholic” dad’s dedication to his own series of divorces imbuing the bit with a potent undertone of character comedy.

But it’s Sarah Sherman’s turn to steal another Update, this time in character as a predictably outraged “concerned viewer” rolling with wide-eyed rage at the recent announcement that noted TV cartoon character Peppa Pig with be interacting with a friend’s gay parents. Doing a Helen Lovejoy, “Won’t someone think of the children!” stereotype is easy—if ever fruitful—comedy targeting, but Sherman here is a marvel of wide-eyed, monomaniacal repression turned full bore on a little animated pig-show’s message of side-character inclusion. Ranting about how the show’s two gay polar bear daddies (it’s actually two moms, as Che counters) will be “anally entering each other” (complete with hand-drawn illustrations of the act), Sherman’s fundamentalist mom gradually reveals her own painful reasons for protesting, suggesting an whole subterranean inner life of sublimated fixations. It;’s a bravura performance, a weirdo little jig of character work and social commentary that might be Sherman’s best role of her time on the show.

“We didn’t ask to be bees. You’ve got Normal Lear and a first-rate writing staff. But this is all they came up with for us.”—Recurring Sketch Report

Not a one. Hallelujah.

“The musical Time Out New York calls, ‘Dangerously oversimplified,’ and ‘Literally helping no one.’”—Political Comedy Report

Kenan being amusing, James Austin Johnson spending time in the makeup chair, and a bit of timely public service makes it hard to hate on the cold open. But it’s also impossible to care much about it, either.

Not Ready For Prime Time Power Rankings

Ego just worked well with Keke Palmer, the duo’s obvious chemistry allowing Nwodim her most center-stage outing of the season. Punkie was right in there, too, for a change, which was great to see. Cecily is so solid that it’s easy to overlook how instrumental she is, and Kenan is Kenan. Kenan gets his. Sarah Sherman killed it on Update, and she and Bowen went big in form-fitting fetus suits, too.

Michael Longfellow gets another solid Update feature, which bumps him up the new kids ladder, although Molly Kearney was in there swinging all night, with a couple of sizable supporting roles. Devon Walker and Marcello Hernandez might be lagging a bit, but overall, I’m impressed how this season’s cast has been shuffled in and out from the bench.

“Brasky’s colonoscopy tape got higher ratings than How I Met Your Mother.”—10-To-One-Report

A good night for Ego closed things out as she and Palmer teamed up as a pair of flight attendants cheerfully celebrating their one-millionth air mile, even as the horrified passengers learn that the plane they’re on is also celebrating its ten millionth mile of service. Oh, and the captain is celebrating his 90th birthday. The wacky stews conceit is a go-to for SNL, although this can’t quite qualify as a recurring bit, but Palmer and Nwodim’s no-nonsense efforts to keep their decrepit airliner running (including some realistically sparking jumper cables at one point) brings in some funny details. (A piece of tape covers the “whites only” sign on the ancient plane’s bathrooms), and both performers are clearly having fun. “You grow through what you go through,” Palmer’s unflappable attendant advises the jittery customers, a dictum the equally unflappable former child star appears to have internalized with aplomb.

Parting Shots

Man, I always assumed that the Arby’s spokesperson with the booming voice was venerable character actor P.L. Brown. Ving Rhames gets that beef and cheddar.

We may not be getting a Kenan & Kel reunion, but apparently Good Burger 2 is a go, people.

Mocking those bros who similarly laugh off her love of astrology, Palmer asks, “Hows that crypto goin’?”

The usual technical gaffes tonight. Apart from the late cut that nearly derailed Ego, Palmer soldiered on like a pro when one of the fast food bumpers played prematurely over her line. And there was such an interminable double host/musical guest double title card that I’m surprised the ten-to-one sketch wasn’t cut for time. (The goodnights were cut off mid-sentence.)

Next week: It’s beloved, schtick-y old timers week, with performing amigos Steve Martin and Martin Short teaming up to host, alongside musical guest Brandi Carlile.

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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