Ana de Armas Isn’t the Only Problem on a Listless Saturday Night Live

Comedy Reviews Saturday Night Live
Ana de Armas Isn’t the Only Problem on a Listless Saturday Night Live

In her enthusiastic goodnights, Ana de Armas pitched a return hosting gig to Lorne Michaels. The fact that she showed more infectious charisma as herself in this unscripted postscript only served to emphasize how listless an episode this was and, sad to say, how nondescript the Ghosted star was all night. I’m not laying this all on de Armas—this was easily the worst episode of Season 48 of Saturday Night Live, a collection of half-written sketches, deeply unnecessary recurring bits, and an overall chore to sit through. It didn’t even have the benefit of being a train wreck to gawk at in guilty fascination. I was mostly just bored.

Update made a joke at Colin Jost’s always-vulnerable expense that the whitebread anchor had been aghast that de Armas led off her monologue by pretending not to speak English. As it came off, though, the Cuban-born Oscar nominee’s switch from her native Spanish was gracelessly unfunny, hinting at de Armas’ affect to come through most of the show. She wasn’t terrible. She was sort of just there, her obvious eagerness to adapt to the live sketch world coming off as dully competent. Even her can’t-miss monologue anecdote about Robert De Niro (costar of her little-remembered 2016 Roberto Duran biopic Hands of Stone) unexpectedly dropping by her shocked father’s work on a subsequent visit to Cuba fell flat, which seems improbable at best. Again, I’m not laying this bummer of an episode at de Armas’ feet, but, should Lorne ever make the call to bring her back to host, we could use a whole lot more of that goodnights energy and confidence.

The Best And The Rest

The Best: Not applicable.

The Worst: It’s so much easier when there’s an obvious stinker of a sketch to really lay into. Tonight, we got a lukewarm tray of comedy mush, the show’s uniform mediocrity turning a review into an endurance test where thesaurus.com gets its own dedicated tab. (There are only so many words for “fine.”) That all said, I’ll rouse myself to proclaim that the dog acting school sketch was the worst, least original sort of rehash. Cute dogs are cute, and unpredictable, sure, but I just found myself feeling for unwilling canine costars Henry, Coco, Romeo, Biscuit, Mai Tai and Jellybean, who appeared to like the experience even less. Chloe Fineman and de Armas plowed through interactions with the dogs, attempting desperately to mine the tired live animal formula for something fresh, and failing. SNL loves a dog sketch and, don’t get me wrong—those were some good boys and girls. But on a night where writing wasn’t the show’s strong suit, this just played out to a few scattered “awwww”s and some blank stares. “Whiskers R We” worked because Kate McKinnon and her rotating partners in cat adoption spun an enchantingly weird unspoken backstory, not just for the unruly kittens, but for the two weirdos who’ve made it their business to fashion improbable and hilariously absurd rap sheets for their feline charges. Here, Chloe has a “funny” name (Donna Colonoscopini) and a broad accent, de Armas is a nonentity, and the jokes are nowhere to be seen. Even the dogs seemed checked out.

The Rest: Perhaps feeling the sun on their faces for the first time in recorded memory, the SNL writers ditched all semblance of a political cold open. Which is nice. The location report from the first warm day of the year in Central Park was more of a New York inside thing, but it was breezy and cute. Also feeling the sun were a parade of NYC loonies, giving most of the cast a chance to interact with Bowen Yang and Heidi Gardner’s vapidly excited presenters. Perverts with binoculars, a middle aged woman learning to rollerblade, another pervert with a drone, some happily stoned park workers, a rich woman who explodes in panic mode the moment her child is out of her sight—you get it. Ego Nwodim was funniest as the woman angrily barking vague clues as to her whereabouts into her cellphone, with added points for coming back to interrupt the “Live from New York!,” in a neat, rare little touch. It was a pleasantly underwhelming opener.

On a night where premises were often the entire sketch, the Please Don’t Destroy guys’ hung-over memories of last Saturday’s SNL afterparty similarly went nowhere original. Apart from the questionable choice to remind people of some regrettable SNL afterparty incidents, the guys simply don’t come up with anything original to mark their drunken night. (They got drunk, basically.) I like the PDD films’ low-key backstage world-building, where three junior writers find themselves at the bottom of the SNL pecking order and fill their time with absurdist shenanigans. Here, though, the hijinks are more effortful than inspired, even if I did enjoy seeing Heidi Garder chuck a glass at karaoke-singing Bowen Yang before the two start making out. But even though Chloe Fineman is revealed to be packing heat, this outing substitutes noisy destruction for inspired silliness.

The other filmed piece takes on those tragedy-beset American Girl dolls, a premise that’d be more impactful if I couldn’t immediately think of two recent comedies (Ted LassoBig Mouth) that made the exact same jokes first. And better. There’s no doubt some fine term papers written about this particular company’s need to provide its historical dollies with appropriately ghastly backstories, especially Ego Nwodim’s Addy, whose era-specific racial woes leave her all-white colleagues averting their eyes. And I did like how several dolls start coughing up blood and dying on the dolls’ cinematic journeys, but the whole thing was awfully bland. (Points off for acting as product placement for that other, upcoming doll-based flick.)

The recording studio sketch saw Ego and de Armas’ singers responding to Devon Walker’s rapper requesting some suitably hungry catchphrases for his latest track with a series of increasingly insulting musical come-ons. Nwodim, especially, is in the groove, her insinuations that Walker can’t read or do math, and that his personal hygiene is lacking emerging with smooth guilelessness. Kenan’s engineer gets a few laughs from his lunch obsession blinding him to his client’s discomfort, and the escalation isn’t bad, as both singers start suggesting that Walker is a Cosby-style drink-drugger. (“Ohh, he need to be on a watchlist!,” Nwodim coos with the beat.) It’s probably the closest this episode has to a more or less realized sketch from a writing standpoint, but it’s still awfully average.

The Spanish teacher sketch gave Mikey Day another in his long line of opportunities to spell out the premise through awkward humiliation, as his smug language teacher is confronted by two, actually fluent new students in de Armas and Marcello Hernandez. There’s no wider context about, say, the shortage of qualified language teachers in public schools, or the mindset of those teachers whose one-chapter-ahead Spanish vocab comes yoked to an unearned ego boost as they correct their young charges. Hernandez and de Armas’ students aren’t malicious in correcting Day’s outdated vernacular and broken syntax, even as their answer to Day’s “What food do you like?” question emerges in poetically effusive detail. If there’s a point to the piece, it’s more about making the overconfident teacher look rightly out of his depth. Which is fine. The sketch is fine.

Weekend Update update

Jost and Che’s topical material was even airier than usual tonight. With Molly Kearney in the wings (or, rather, the rafters) to bring some actual political heat, the anchors skimmed through the week’s overstuffed bad news file, taking the most time in mocking the recent revelations that Supreme Court justice and accused sex creep Clarence Thomas is deeply—deeply—in the pocket of right-wing billionaire Harlan Crow. Sure, I get irritated that Che and Jost habitually skate over some of the more hard-hitting opportunities, but it really pisses me off when they get something wrong, as Jost did when he proclaimed that outed Hitler fanboy Crow, in addition to purchasing Thomas’ mom’s house and lavishing the justice and his sedition-fan wife with millions of dollars in vacation trips, “had no business before the Court.” Except that Harlan Crow has donated millions to conservative groups who’ve argued before SCOTUS, the billionaire’s cash specifically earmarked toward getting specific right-wing cases ruled on by his pal Thomas. I know, I’m a lefty pinko freak, etc, etc. But Jost’s smirky charm goes down a lot easier when he’s not being lazy about the actual substance of his jokes. Either do political comedy or don’t, but don’t do it badly.

Kenan got dressed up as a gorilla, specifically one Funky Kong, a minor player in the Nintendo universe who was apparently cut from the recent Mario movie. I love Kenan. I make no secret of that. And the guy can slide into a particular kind of beaming, smooth-talking goofball like nobody else, so if he wants to goof around in a monkey suit, then who am I to complain. Here, the joke is that the ladies man Funky Kong was too raw for the family-friendly flick, giving Kenan a chance to embroider his portrayal with phrases like “titty meat” and boast of bedding Toad after some banana rum. I dunno—sometimes it’s amusing enough to watch Kenan do something utterly silly and inessential.

Sarah Sherman brought out a new character, a meditation guru who continued the comic’s season-long mission to mock Colin Jost. It’s always a laugh—Jost has made a career on SNL of leaning into his aura of prep school entitlement, and nobody except Michael Che pokes him more efficiently and inventively than Sherman. Here, she insinuates that Jost thinks of his driver as “subhuman,” tricks him into quoting Hitler, and notes in passing that he was incensed over de Armas’ bi-lingual monologue, all with a knowing confidence that the audience will eat her cheekiness up. Update Sherman plays on the reliable kick-the-boss theme, setting herself up as the rebellious new kid courageous enough to take the co-head writer down a peg on live TV. It’s all a running gag at Jost’s expense, and if Jost himself is fully in on the bit, it’s still a good way for a brash newcomer to make her mark.

“Alright now, Dawn, now I believe that people should be judged solely based on their appearance. And I’m gonna tell you, I think you look very tough and hard.”—Recurring Sketch Report

Trying to recapture the spontaneous magic of a fluke hit sketch is death. Ego Nwodim scored hugely with Lisa from Temecula a while back because we had no idea just where her obstreperous diner was going or just how destructive her eventual attack on her overcooked steak would be. It broke everyone up, onstage and off, Nwodim’s pea-flinging, table-shaking determination a minor classic of physical comedy and characterization. It was unassuming and spontaneous, exactly the sort of sketch to leave alone. Instead, Lisa came back, this time dramatically disrupting a wedding reception by clumsily tossing the table salad, and it died a death. Nwodim was all-in as usual, suggesting enough oddball depths to the brash Lisa, but watching her effortfully try to wring the same laughs once everyone knows the one and only joke is a slog. Even her destabilizing fight with that salad is forced and sweaty. It felt like Phil Connors’ second try at seducing Rita in Groundhog Day—what was once charmingly spontaneous comes off as calculated to the point of creepiness.

Mikey Day’s Matthew Patrick Schatt (or Matt Schatt, as Kenan’s baffled game show host dubs him) is a returning character from Day’s very first episode of SNL, functioning now as then as emblem of Day’s signature fate as resident bland straight man. The joke is that the unimpressive Matt is way beneath his romantic partner (de Armas here) in terms of, well, every measurable characteristic. He’s poor, nerdy, has a humiliating job he doesn’t even get paid for, and, as the final twist, is here revealed to sprout randomly placed extra nipples at regular intervals. In the original, Margot Robbie-led sketch, the one joke sort of worked thanks to news anchors Beck Bennett and Cecily Strong’s genuine, deadpan fascination with the unlikely couple, whereas tonight it was up to good old Kenan to overact his game show host’s increasingly hostile bewilderment and, if you need someone to inject some professionalism into your wheezing, second-hand premise, you can do worse. Still, even though Kenan Thompson is as close to a natural born sketch lifer as we’ve ever had, there’s no snap to the joke, no surprises, and precious little reason for this to come back. (Especially as the first post-monologue tone-setter.)

“Let me sum up. On track, stay the course. Thousand points of light.”—Political Comedy Report

Molly Kearney’s Update piece mocking the growing movement of emboldened bigots attacking LGBTQ people should have had more of impact. Kearney themselves is non-binary, and, as Cecily Strong showed in several all-time classic Update pieces over the last few years, there’s potential to turn personal political anger into powerfully funny Update commentary. Kearney gives it their all, even lowering down in a crotch-strangling harness to the Update desk to deliver their message of tolerance, acceptance, and not being a narrow-minded, hurtful little Republican creep. But I’m still not sold on Kearney’s ability to channel their boisterous persona into focused comedy. The Chris Farley comparison might be unfair, but it’s obvious that the late SNL star was an inspiration (plus, Farley memorably also rose up from the Update desk in a harness at one point), and Kearney has yet to find their groove as SNL’s current red-faced comedy shouter. A-plus for intent, especially considering how ugly and violent the mainstreaming of anti-trans rhetoric and legislation has become. But, creatively, this was a missed opportunity.

Not Ready For Prime Time Power Rankings

Kenan had to dance pretty fast to keep this episode alive. He did it, barely, but it’s a lot to ask.

With politics out of the cold open, James Austin Johnson had uncharacteristically little to do. Overall, the ensemble concert continues to work for me this season, although, on a night where sketch after sketch wilted, there were unclaimed opportunities for people other than Kenan to steal a scene or two.

“The weatherman is dead! I killed the weatherman! His strength is in me!”—10-To-One Report

The nail salon sketch should have worked. I mean, getting Bowen Yang into some impressively clattering gnarled fake fingernails is some 10-to-one stuff right there. But the sketch, like so many tonight, doesn’t build. Yang and wife de Armas’ trip to the salon is hampered by the sullen Yang’s revelation that he’s just been named the Guiness people’s longest fingernails record holder, which gets a laugh. And that’s essentially it, as the couple’s fight reveals that de Armas has been wiping Yang’s butt for a decade, followed by Yang storming out, meeting a woman very into fingernails, and then returning to save his marriage by cutting his nails and finally promising to do hand stuff. Again, it’s a nutty enough premise to belong here, but a real last sketch needs to pile on absurdity after absurdity, instead of letting the lone prop do the work.

Parting Shots

Che did so many “Biden is old jokes,” he nearly forgot to make a “Dianne Feinstein is old” joke.

We’re off until May 6, with Pete Davidson returning to host for his first time, alongside musical guest Lil Uzi Vert. See you then.

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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