Spring has returned to New York City in a puff of flowering trees, balmy temperatures and hordes of young adults flocking to Prospect Park. Meanwhile Ben Stiller has returned to Saturday Night Live as a timid, grimacing Michael Cohen, Donald Trump’s beleaguered quote-unquote attorney. He helmed last night’s star-studded cold open, a sketch that contains more cameos than jokes and ends on one of the dumbest lines I’ve seen in some time, with Stormy Daniels as Stormy Daniels telling Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump, “A storm’s a-coming, baby.” In the interim Martin Short shows up as Harold Bornstein, Trump’s personal Leo Spaceman; Scarlett Johansson plays Ivanka alongside Jimmy Fallon’s high-pitched, flailing Jared Kushner; and Kate McKinnon plays a thoroughly functional Rudy Giuliani, her arm crossed hook-like across her chest. Like the episode more broadly, the sketch is short on comedy—the bit is that Cohen’s trying to coordinate an alibi with Trump and Giuliani but keeps accidentally dialing other parties, meanwhile the FBI is listening it—and nobody seems to be having a good time, not even Fallon, the guy who’ll cracks up if you sneeze near him. Oh, also Beck Bennett pops up as Mike Pence, who apparently meant to dial a no-questions-asked sex line but ended up with Cohen. Wouldn’t it be so funny if Pence were gay, guys, don’t you think that would be so funny? Hahaha, yikes.
What life the episode had came courtesy of Atlanta and Solo star Donald Glover, though that isn’t much life to speak of. An alum of Derrick Comedy, one of the internet’s first viral sketch groups, Glover is no stranger to the form: He’s a sly, boisterous performer who commits wholeheartedly to the act, at least, when the act is worth committing to. The material last night was, with few exceptions, disappointingly thin. His monologue, a catastrophe of bland one-liners and hokey physical bits, set the tone. There were several genuinely entertaining moments, namely when he called out SNL for not casting him, but this spun into a totally overlong routine where he walked around the studio questioning other cast members about their auditions and causing himself various physical harms. And the jokes preceding this routine were mind-bogglingly lame: “The answer to the question everyone’s asking is yes, I am Danny Glover’s father.” Come on, what?! “I used to live in New York and it’s so great to be back here, especially now that I’m rich. No, seriously, I recommend it, I was poor here and it’s way better when you’re rich.” Hmm, okay, fine. “I’m an actor, a writer and a singer. Some people have described me as a triple threat, but I kind of like to call myself just a threat.” Come on, isn’t this guy supposed to be funny?
The sketches themselves were a mild improvement, if only because Kenan Thompson and Pete Davidson were in some of them. An early basket of cringe was “Dirty Talk,” whose premise you’ve seen used by every amateur sketch group and open mic comic: A guy (Glover) tells his partner (Melissa Villaseñor) he wants her to talk dirty while they (gulp) make love, which she takes to mean she should say actual offensive things. Also, a more apt title for this sketch would be “Donald Glover and Melissa Villaseñor Rub Each Other’s Arms All Weird-Like.” Much more entertaining was “Friendos,” a Migos parody in which the trio (Glover, Thompson and Chris Redd) goes to therapy to sort out their differences. Thompson, per usual, manages to carry the sketch from its sidelines, but everyone gives a sterling performance, including Cecily Strong as their eagle-eyed therapist. In “Courtroom,” Glover plays a whacky lawyer representing Jurassic World against a patron (Mikey Day) whose friends died in the park. The sketch is weirdly paced—Day gets an awful lot of stage time for a fairly routine straight man role—but Glover sells it, as, again, does Thompson as a bemused judge. This dynamic also applies to “Lando’s Summit,” in which Glover as the titular character holds a convention for all the black characters in the Star Wars universe; the turnout, would you believe it, is low. “80’s Music Video” stars Glover as Raz P. Berry, a singer who tracks down his unfaithful lover to tell her, in song, about the absurd lengths he went to spite her, only to discover he’s tracked down the wrong person. As partial as I am to long-con sketches like this, I don’t think Glover quite pulls off the smooth-talking 80s singer-type he’s parodying. (I also kind of scoff every time SNL critiques toxic masculinity, even when the critique is totally on point, though I recognize this is a PERSONAL FOIBLE.) Strong and Thompson, as the woman Berry tracked down and her husband, neatly compensate for this, and about half the sketch is devoted to them picking apart the logic of his scheme. If you, like me, hate when a sketch waxes on the absurdity of its own premise, then you might, also like me, be delighted to find that this one pulls it off. The sequence ending when Thompson asks, “Yes but how does that do that though?” is a delightful coup-de-grâce, if you ask me, someone who has never used the phrase “coup-de-grâce.” Great stuff.
As for Weekend Update, I have nothing to say.
Seth Simons is Paste’s assistant comedy editor. Follow him on Twitter.