Host-Musical Guest Megan Thee Stallion Is Game, But Saturday Night Live Fizzles Again

Comedy Reviews
Host-Musical Guest Megan Thee Stallion Is Game, But Saturday Night Live Fizzles Again

And Your Host…

With the mid-show announcement that Jack Harlow will be hosting the next, October 29, episode, the whole “host and musical guest” concept is getting a real workout early in Season 48. And while Megan Thee Stallion didn’t always have the best material (or technical support) to work with tonight, Mr. Harlow will have to bring his A-game to match the Traumazine rapper in the confidence department. It’s not that Megan (how I’ll be referring to the host, as opposed to a NY Times-style, “Ms. Thee Stallion”) was especially versatile as a comic performer, it’s that her signature onstage charisma and drive carried her through some so-so sketches with a forgiving verve. That the show also repeatedly paired Megan up with Ego Nwodim and Punkie Johnson was energizing, too, as the sight of three Black women carrying an entire episode of Saturday Night Live is still rare enough to warrant some attention.

As in her two very, very impressive musical performances tonight, Megan’s sketch presence smacked rewardingly of seasoned professionalism in front of an audience. Her monologue was, oddly, the least assured of her appearances, despite the singer using her time to continue her campaign publicizing the website she’s launched to steer Black and LGBTQ people toward mental health services. (She also called out the person who stole her first choice name, which you either should or should not Google, depending.) Regardless, Megan was a high-energy host whose strengths were played up in sketches where she, Nwodim, and Johnson could play off one another. It’s especially impressive since, as Megan feinted toward acknowledging during her monologue, the dick move of someone breaking into her Los Angeles home while she’s in New York for the show has left the seemingly indefatigable rapper not a little understandably fatigued.

The Best And The Rest

The Best: Energy and host commitment aside, this was not a strong show on the writing front. That’s a problem especially for this cast, which hasn’t collectively shown the ability to pick up a flagging show with jolts of performing energy. I said it last week, but this iteration of SNL seems staffed by role-players lacking the confidence (or maybe the talent) to step up and seize the very real and plentiful opportunities last year’s departures have gifted them. So in a show where nobody, once again, truly shone, Ego Nwodim’s substitute teacher at least managed to generate an infectious comic groove. As a woefully under-prepared sub whose condescendingly uplifting schtick proves completely unsuited to the prospects and reality of her STEM class’ heady aspirations, Nwodim walks us through a very funny act of comic discovery, as students Megan, Punkie, and Devon Walker all gently correct her clichéd assumptions about them being downtrodden underdogs ground down by low expectations and systemic racism. I’m not entirely sold on the students calling Ego’s spiel “racist,” even though the biggest laugh does come from Nwodim’s Ms. Fink conceding that her prejudicial assumption that the all-Black student body of what turns out to be an elite academic institution made her “say and do racist.” (That said, the sketch does recall the time George H.W. Bush gave a similarly unnecessary pep talk to a group of Latinx honor students in what infamously became known as the “You too can be a janitor” speech.)

But it’s Ego’s sketch to carry, and she performs the all-too-neglected art of building a character out of what’s merely a premise-delivery system. There’s a Chekhov’s fire alarm lurking conspicuously in the background as Ms. Fink discovers just how over her head she is, but, before then, Nwodim fleshes out her character’s dawning confusion and dread with amusing asides and peremptory detention assignments as her stock approach is disassembled by the unimpressed students.

The Worst: The booty boot camp sketch was scuttled almost immediately by the first major technical screwup of the season, as the camera kept cutting to uninvolved characters while the people speaking were left offscreen. It happened several times, leaving an already average sketch floundering along with the confused-looking performers. I know live TV is tough and all, but this, along with an audio gaffe during the earlier talk show sketch, suggests that Lorne’s about to give some backstage personnel the what-fer. As to the sketch itself, unlike the formerly recurring personal trainers sketches, there’s a shortage of manic absurdism even without the camera screw ups, as Megan’s prodigiously endowed ass-trainer keeps throwing to her even more-impressively no-butted fellow trainers, Heidi Gardner and Chloe Fineman (who seem to be forming a fine comic doubles act tonight). Apart from the truly impressive and disturbing Spanx technology that went into transforming presumably garden-variety backsides into two-dimensional nightmare bums, the sketch doesn’t have much going for it. I did appreciate how Gardner and Fineman’s ass-flattening exercises included a round of energetic rump-punching, but, sadly, it’s not enough to overcome the all-around limpness of the bit.

The Rest: Ego’s other best outing tonight was the talk show sketch. I know I’m on record as trying to kick out the talk show format crutch from SNL’s writers room, but at least the team of Ego, Punkie, and Megan (and a funny Andrew Dismukes) did what they could with the premise of Ego’s no-bullshit host dispensing sound advice with nothing but a variably intoned, “Girl…” It’s hardly a new joke—I can think of examples in everything from Baseketball to Dude, Where’s My Car?—but there’s a lived-in delivery to the three leads’ interaction here that finds some unique angles on the bit. (I especially liked how, once the show has turned on subtitles for “white people and men,” Megan’s “Girl…” to the news-beleaguered Punkie emerges in a solid screen’s worth of block text explaining the entire Russia-Ukraine situation.) The switch-up with the out of place Dismukes not getting the vibe until Megan straightens him out with a knowing, “Dude…” isn’t bad, either.

Like the gross-out blood gag from last week, the deer sketch implies that SNL has a secret algorithm that slots in a silly animal puppet sketch a few times a year. I didn’t mind this one, since it gave Kenan a chance to goof around as the clueless dad who remains the only person in a bucolic cabin not to spot the increasingly conspicuous woodland creature, at least until the gentle fawn comes at him with a knife. There’s not much to this one except Kenan+puppet, but if you can’t appreciate Kenan Thompson being amusingly silly for a few minutes, then what are you doing here?

The three filmed pieces were both good, not great. Music video “We Got Brought” is a mildly amusing portrait of plus-ones getting ditched by their respective significant others on a night out. Bowen Yang, Megan, and Ego are the unlucky and sweatily awkward trio of unconnected third wheels reduced to making interminable small talk while their chaperones happily catch up. I liked Megan’s blurted attempt to come up with a third innocuous question after “Where are you from?” and “What do you do?” (“What’s y’all’s trauma?”) And Bowen similarly punches through the politeness with a panicked, “I don’t wanna be here any more!,” once Ego reminds him that it’s only 8:05. Been there, pal.

The Please Don’t Destroy Guys at least got back into the SNL offices that have been their reliably fruitful stomping ground after last week’s nondescript outing. Still, the guys’ schtick works best when they play on their supposed roles as the lowest-tier writers on staff and not when, as here, the sketch is just a non show-related hangout session where they complain about how the pandemic and other assorted stresses are turning them into manic zombie-people. It’s not terrible or anything—I liked the escalation to where the trio’s desperate wellness talk incorporates offhand talk of a new app that lets you just delete money from you bank account, and how John has found a new drug that provides all of Zoloft’s side effects without actually treating his creeping depression. Again, the guys are low-key charming as ever, but their place on the show was won by mining backstage lore and politics into absurdly unique short films. Back to it, please.

And the sketch promoting a charity for dumped women to warm themselves with their ex-boyfriends’ pilfered giant sweatshirts gave Heidi, Megan, and Ego some funny bits of business to do, even if the funniest gag is the assortment of dude-centric sweatshirt logos. (Slipknot, Patriots, and Dunder Mifflin, all suggesting that these women can do much, much better.) Toss in the inspired touch of Kenan’s singer crooning a soulful version of “Hallelujah” to underscore just how serious the problem facing single, chilly women, and this one earns its place just fine.

For the first sketch after the monologue, Hot Girl Hospital coasted on the combined looseness of Ego, Punkie, and Megan working off each other as the beauty- and style-obsessed sort-of nurses of a hospital in Shonda Rhimes’ new medical drama. It’s not the most inspired of premises, something the sketch calls out with the always-good-for-a-laugh fake reviews, including one calling the show “Somehow empowering and regressive at the same time.” I did like seeing three Black women planting their flag right from the jump on Saturday Night Live, which might consider allowing such things to happen even on shows not hosted by a Black person. And the reveal that the “hospital” is, in fact, a product of NBA player Draymond Green’s public service provides a funny little swerve.

Weekend Update update

The odd couple vibe of Colin Jost and Michael Che’s Update team has equalized over the years into a glibly amusing wiseass joke parade. I really thought we were due for a change after the cast exodus and Che’s off-season hints that he’d be joining the mass exit. And, frankly, SNL needs it, both on Update and in the head writers’ spot. It’s not that Jost and Che aren’t funny. It’s that their brand of bros humor comes yoked to a self-satisfaction that turns too many jokes and sketches into empty cleverness. On Update, it’s especially damning, since the whole point of having a dedicated fake news segment has expanded beyond Chevy Chase’s original smug wiseass spotlight. Saturday Night Live relishes in its reputation as a political comedy player, even when, far too often, that reputation rides on the backs of a few stellar spots in a sea of milky takes.

Jost and Che do what works. Aping the late-night staple of the sly story introduction, Jost flashes a picture of a smiling Mitch McConnell, noting, “Seen here watching someone get injured at the Special Olympics.” Che mines his joking/not joking misogynist schtick to tout his participation in National No-Bra Day as him “not supporting women.” The news, as bountifully ridicule-worthy and fruitful as it has been in my lifetime, gets a few smirky swipes, as Jost notes how the national Adderall shortage and Trump’s 14-page screed against the Jan. 6 Committee may have something in common. Meanwhile, Che approaches that hearing’s release of footage of an under-siege Nancy Pelosi taking charge during the coup to make a joke about her owning stock in private prisons, which studious Googling refuses to corroborate. (Private prisons are pure evil in capitalist finery, but Che’s Pelosi joke veers so far off topic that it plunges into irrelevance.) Nobody’s as tired of hearing it as I am saying it, but if SNL wants to play at political satire, the late-night airwaves are filled with people doing it far, far better.

Heidi Gardner and Chloe Fineman hit big with their Hocus Pocus-demonizing Texas moms, Debbie Hole and Stacey Bussy. (Big night for the funny names trope, with Ego’s Mo’nique Money Mo’nique Problems joining in the hacky fun.) And if the elevation of such real-life satanic panic loons is precisely the sort of things nobody should be doing, at least the demon-hunting duo here have a ball spotting nonexistent threats in the halls of “SN-Hell,” with Fineman’s movie-banning mother eventually making good on her fear that talking too much lets a demon fly down your throat. Too often penned in by nondescript roles, both Gardner and Fineman make a very funny meal out of the pair’s impromptu possession/exorcism while Che’s scoffs are met with all the self-righteous ding-dong dudgeon two fundamentalist Helen Lovejoys can muster.

Devon Walker got his Update showcase after Michael Longfellow and Marcello Hernandez took their turns in the first two episodes. It’s not that Walker’s material was any weaker than his peers—all three showed glimpses, even if just getting to do a few minutes of their stand-up act doesn’t tell us anything about their sketch acumen. It’s that Walker was a bit hesitant, probably because the crowd (notably subdued all night) greeted his material about being a Texas guy in NYC with crickets. Just one of those nights. Shake it off.

“Rocket/I’m taking a rocket/I’m packing my suitcase/Hey, look out, Moon!”—Recurring Sketch Report

Not a one. Please, this lifelong SNL watcher is begging Lorne and the writers room—that is a good thing. I have no issue whatever in leaving this space blank for the rest of the season.

“My opponents have been using my full name to scare people. Is it my fault that my middle name is ‘Boo?’”—Political Comedy Report

The Trump cold opens are back! So… yay? This one wasn’t terrible, honestly, as Kenan’s Rep. Bernie Thompson rides herd over fellow January 6 Committee members with a plate of withheld reward cupcakes while the committee wraps up its summer-long exposé on just how fucking close the United States came to being turned into a farcical, anti-democratic dictatorship thanks to the shriveled soul and bloated ego of a former reality show host and mail-order steak salesman. As ever, the trick with these opens is to find ways to pump up the already ludicrous and beyond-parody shenanigans of Donald Trump and his traitorous cadre of Republican toadies and knuckle-dragging white supremacist thugs with something approaching actual satire.

It doesn’t quite get there, settling, as so many of these show-openers do, for peppering the predictable proceedings with a few genuine (and genuinely dispiriting) facts about that day Trump and his minions threw a nation-destabilizing murderous hissy fit. Over it all glowers the signature modern-day SNL cloud of “who cares—nothing’s going to change” ennui, which remains the least productive attitude for any political comedy. If Heidi’s Liz Cheney notes that Republicans aren’t watching the televised proceedings and that non-traitorous humans are just “nodding so hard, your heads have fallen off,” well, there’s really no place for the sketch to go. Chloe Fineman and Sarah Sherman make their bids to leap into the Kate McKinnon-Aidy Bryant political impersonation roles, with moderate success. The details of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s unassailably heroic and canny actions on that now-famous phone call to embattled Veep Mike Pence are trotted out verbatim (complete with the predictable echoing of Pelosi’s use of “poo-poo”). And Sherman’s Chuck Schumer continues the show’s ridicule of the Senate Majority Leader as a garrulous but jelly-spined pushover goof, which, again, is the so-so impression wagging the political satire.

The most biting bits are almost done as asides, with James Austin Johnson’s Trump rambling (from his gold toilet) about his good friend Apollo Creed before asking, “Is Mike Pence dead yet?” And, wrapping this mostly inconsequential bit up, Kenan’s Thompson (no relation) notes glibly, “We tried—it was a fun country while it lasted.” Not to inject too much social commentary into the TV criticism, but, yeah, that’s pretty much the ball game if non-MAGA humans don’t get out and vote in overwhelming numbers. If only Saturday Night Live would get over it’s too-cool-to-care self in these sketches and truly dig deeper. Ah well—we had a good run.

Not Ready For Prime Time Power Rankings

It’s all Ego this week, with the perennially underused performer finding a home anchoring Megan Thee Stallion’s many sketches. Punkie, too, had her best and most impactful episode yet, even if the writing all around could have served both better.

That said, watch out for Fineman and Gardner, whose chemistry in the Update piece more than compensated for the way their gym instructors’ would-be physical comedy showcase got submarined by the direction. Both women are funny, and both have shown flashes that suggest they should be bigger stars by now. Perhaps teaming up in a Kate-and-Aidy style tag team is the way forward.

Devon Walker got his new guy Update spot, and, if it was the weakest of the three such showcases so far for the new featured players, it’s still a strategy I’m on board for, SNL. Overall, this was a pretty even-handed show, cast-wise, except that I genuinely don’t remember seeing Marcello Hernandez anywhere. Hang in there.

“Shelley Long has died for your sins, you sons of bitches!!”—10-To-One Report

That’s Ego’s substitute teacher. Normally, I’d be tickled that a 10-to-one sketch took top honors, but this was more a case of barely rising above a below-average show.

Parting Shots

Dammit, put Megan in Bridgerton, bitch.

Next week we’re off, but look for host and musical guest Jack Harlow to anchor the October 29 show.

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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