Jake Gyllenhaal Hosts a Confident, Funny SNL Season Finale

Comedy Reviews Saturday Night Live
Jake Gyllenhaal Hosts a Confident, Funny SNL Season Finale

Jake Gyllenhaal hosts Saturday Night Live like he doesn’t have something to plug. I mean, he does (Apple+ is doing a miniseries adaptation of Presumed Innocent for some reason) but the guy is so into his hosting duties that he gives off the vibe that he’s been begging to some back for his third go-’round. That the Road House star has some across-town Broadway musical cred opens up the sketch opportunities, Gyllenhaal is more than okay at getting weird with stuff, and he can play comic exasperation straight man with the best of them. Add to that the wired, let’s-just-try-it spirit of a season finale (of a mostly conventional and resolutely average season) and you’ve got the recipe for an energetic final show of Season 49.

Gyllenhaal kicked things off with a big, brassy musical monologue, joining Punkie, Kenan, Ego, and Devon for a Boys II Men farewell to the season. He’s one of those acting pros who isn’t exactly the most natural singer but whose gift of being pretty good at everything is infectious, so all the self-deprecating lyrical jokes about trying to pretend he’s actually hosting the milestone Season 50 premiere sweep right along with the overall confident silliness of it all. That Kenan gets to deliver the most truthful zingers about the season’s sketches being “fine” is some typical SNL kidding on the square, and Gyllenhaal tossing in a reference to the “roomful of blow” that fueled some of the more fondly remembered season doubles down on that.

Jake Gyllenhaal didn’t make a misstep comedically all night, bumping up sketches through sheer talent and enthusiasm. The highest compliment I can pay the family gathering sketch following the monologue is that I got some light Tim Robinson vibes, with Gyllenhaal’s beaming father ignoring visiting boyfriend Andrew Dismukes’ plan to ask daughter Chloe Troast to marry him in favor of a wild-eyed fixation with both swiping one of his wife’s just-baked cookies, and swearing the baffled Dismukes to lifelong silence. Like Robinson’s métier, the sketch deals in singular obsessions and escalating social awkwardness, as Gyllenhaal’s dad, masses of crumbs clinging to his cardigan, is all comic intensity to a Robinson-ian degree, his secret need marking him out as resident of his own maniacal little universe. (“Bitch, I’ve always got crumbs on me!,” he screams in response to Dismukes’ pointing out the potential evidence on his jumper.) Even the standard straight-people get into the swing, the warily playing-along Dismukes’ lie about eating one of of mom Heidi Gardner’s signature peanut butter cookies (to which he’s very allergic) seeing Troast unexpectedly leap into frame to plunge an epipen into her beloved’s neck. It’s a tight little number that banks on the host’s ability to suggest depths of comic madness, and it kicks things off on an unpredictable note the episode largely sustains right to the end.

The Best and the Rest

The Best: In a strong show overall, I’ll hop past Update in the rundown to pick the NYPD press conference about the rash of seemingly random character actor street attacks for my last top spot of the season. Jake Gyllenhaal’s spokesperson introducing a new task force (Acronym OH HIM) to prevent unexpected beatings of beloved “that guy”s like the recently accosted Steve Buscemi, Michael Stuhlbarg, and treasure of two nations Rock Moranis is funny enough. He lays out warning signs for endangered character performers including: ever being on Boardwalk Empire; doing a three-episode arc on any crime show with titles that are just initials; playing a girlfriend on Seinfeld or a boyfriend on Sex and the City; having 100 IMDb roles with only first names; and being greeted by casting people with an appreciative, “Oh, interesting…” He also notes that special care is being taken to protect Stephen Root, Judy Greer, William Fichtner, Walton Goggins, and Stephen Tobolowsky, which I think we can all get behind. They’ve also asked Paul Giamatti to shelter in place, which kicks the sketch into its welcome second gear as press members start questioning just what makes a character actor, leading to some humorously on-target digressions. (Dismukes’ reporter suggests that Oscar-nominee Giamatti has leapt to leading man status, and responds to Heidi Garder’s journalist scoffing, “He’s no Brad Pitt,” with an irritated, “Obviously he’s not Brad Pitt!”) Throw in a popping-by Jon Hamm to ask if he’s okay (“You’re fine,” the cop responds, although Gardner once more says he’s no Brad Pitt) and handsome leading man Jake Gyllenhaal praising character actors for being famous not for being good-looking, but for “being good at acting,” and this one was right in my wheelhouse from start to finish. And remember, people, if you see, say, David Dastmalchian walking in the Villiage, “Don’t punch him, Google him to figure out the thing he was in, and thank him.”

The Worst: “Worst” is a harsh word on an episode like this, but I’ll indulge a pet peeve and pick the generally entertaining Scooby Doo pre-tape here. Look, I know ads are part of the game, and there have been some pluses to Lorne’s increasing willingness to seed product placement throughout sketches to cut down on actual commercials. (Having four or five sketches before the first ad break helps the show build and sustain momentum.) But it is dispiriting to see in action as here, when the otherwise amusingly nasty Scoob segment turns out to be an ad for the streaming service hosting the episode’s host in an upcoming series. Apart from that, there’s some nice uncanny valley CGI transforming Jake Gyllenhaal, Mikey Day, Sarah Sherman, and musical guest Sabrina Carpenter into Mystery, Inc. (And who doesn’t love a computer-generated Scooby, I guess?) The gag takes a long time to get there through all the lovingly predictable verisimilitude, and when the turn comes and Gyllenhaal’s Freddy accidentally tears off bound baddie JAJ’s face thinking its another rubber mask, the whole thing tips gleefully into the sort of gore-soaked deconstruction of a beloved childhood classic I’m sure someone is planning once the cartoon’s trademark expires, Winnie the Pooh-style. Seeing the desperate Freddy shoot both Kenan’s aghast cop and the unseen spy hiding behind one of those cut-out-eye paintings ups the stakes, and if I could live without hearing Scooby say, “Ruh-oh, Bitch,” it at least fits the established tone.

The Rest: SNL built a nifty little uphill bike ramp to ferry Gyllenhall’s pot-bellied, obnoxious bicyclist to and fro past hiking lovers Mikey Day and Chloe Fineman. As the couple frets over taking their relationship long-distance, they have to content with the sort of guy who bellows voice messages (complete with “eggplant emoji” commands) to his phone, all the while battling the steep grade with his bike in the lowest and slowest possible gear. It’s another opportunity for the host to stress his eagerness to go big and weird with it, as his cyclist berates the duo for crowding him (they are not) all while segueing from one boorishly improbably phone call to another. (“What really happened to dad?,” he barks as part of his emoji-laden message to his mom.) The gag where he plummets back out of frame (only to emerge with Bowen’s equally booming and boorish fellow rider straddling behind him) is, again, a nifty piece of set work, and while the character sketch stays broad, the details keep pumping it up. “Feeling dangerously unstable—send with slap effect!” to his therapist is enough to clear any hiking trail.

The ad mocking a certain China-based online retailer of suspiciously inexpensive consumer goods (you know the one) does the expected very well. With the smiling models gradually coming awake to the parent company’s impossibly low prices and suspect business practices through the chipper voiceover’s unasked-for reassurances that the company does not use slave labor or have unsafe lead levels, the piece slots nicely into a specific genre of corporate target-hunting. Everybody onscreen does some fine underplaying, “Okay,” Marcello0 Hernandez’s model replies uncertainly to the voice happily explaining that they use no forced labor, while another model is taken up short by the voice assuring her that the company doesn’t make people work for pennies, even if they believe in “the wrong religion.” With China’s civil rights record warring perpetually with the West’s desire for beneath-cheap stuff, and the ongoing debate about TikTok throwing a spotlight on the issue, relevancy is there, and the execution is spotless.

Jake Gyllenhaal’s musical theater chops came into play happily once more in the cabaret sketch, where a period audience of swells is treated to the requisite scantily clad (for the 20’s) showgirls—and a squad of nondescript young men. With Gyllenhaal’s beaming host singing up a storm to the initial delight of married audience members Kenan and Heidi, the show leans more and more into the young men in their tan button-downs and knobbly knees, all while the singer keeps making the case for the guys’ cachet as outwardly unimpressive but solid marriage material. Sometimes, a sketch leaves you feeling baffled because it lacks focus. Here, the whole premise and execution are so oddly enthusiastic that I rode right along on its wave of ambiguous silliness. (Seeing all the young male cast strut in awkward splendor behind Gyllenhaal made me laugh despite myself.) Sure, there are gags where it looks like Gyllenhaal’s rhymes are going to say “dick” and “cock” respectively, but the yucks are all in service of a sketch that’s confident in its own weirdness. “Yes, I’m Fred McDonalds!,” James Auston Johnsons’s shorts-wearing boy states after Gyllenhaal assures the audience that he’s more than he looks, since his dad owns a burger chain. It’s not even that Gyllenhaal’s compére is trying to sneak gayness into the expected cheesecake review (“I was told that if I sweat, legal action will be taken against me,” Sarah Sherman’s showgirl complains from the wings) as much as—well, here I shrug my shoulders in appreciation. (It’s not Kimmy Schmidt‘s deliriously winking Daddy’s Boy, for example.) It’s weird for its own sake, and I can respect that.

Weekend Update update

Some recurring bits on SNL are more comfortably recognizable than beloved. “Comfortable” has never been a hallmark of Jost and Che’s immensely popular year-end joke swap since the concept premiered back in 2018. The idea of having the hosts—whose playful ribbing of each other has become one of their enduring charms—read out offensively tailored jokes written for the other sight-unseen retains its edge. These aren’t soft laughs, as chummy as the pair obviously are. There’s a nuaghty desire to have things both ways that can be effectively weaponized in pieces like this. Former Update host Seth Meyers does a less biting version in his Late NightJokes Seth Can’t Tell” three-hander with pals Amber Ruffin and Jenny Hagel, but the SNL version mines Jost and Che’s established roles (Che’s as player with woman issues, Jost as whitest guy in town) for some Stefon-esque live unpredictability. (Here, I’m taking the pair’s seemingly genuine on-air discomfort at face value that they have not, in fact, seen these cue cards beforehand.)

Last time out, Che introduced another level to Jost’s squirminess by hiring an actress to sit silently as a supposed famed Civil Rights Movement hero while his partner did deliberately horrible race jokes. Here, Che doubles down by promising that, while the last lady was just a hired hand, the smiling woman he sat next to Jost this time was in fact an actual New York rabbi. (No word as of writing if this one’s true or just another Che fake-out.) Whether you’re into the idea of Che using mature extras as comic props, the element has really raised the stakes, as Jost is forced to stammer his way through reference to such Marjorie Taylor Greene-style anti-Smeitism as Jews controlling the weather, championing Harvey Weinstein in solidarity with Israel, and, in the kicker, doning a goggle-eyed Hasidic rabbi puppet to do a joke about Jewish space lasers. Che got got in equal measure this time out, with him calling noted diss track assassin Kendrick Lamar a “bitch,” implicating himself in underage sexting, and outing himself as the guy who’s been punching random NYC women in the face. (Jost channeling Che as demanding, “Get the hell out my way, bitch” plays on Che’s noted issues with misogyny in a way that’s simultaneously cleansing and ugly. Sort of a neat trick.) Meanwhile, Rabbi Jill only winced and smiled, even when Che was enlisted to do a particularly icy Catholic clergy molestation joke. Again, nasty and on-point is a tough balance to pull off. This bit’s runaway popularity functions as an exercise in buddy-buddy live TV chop-busting and explosive “we’re just kidding… or are we?” audience-baiting that is more potent than the pair’s usual stuff, yes. It’s also right on the razor’s edge of pandering to the “I’m just saying what everyone’s thinking” crowd in a way that’s inevitably queasy.

The rest of Update was a Jost and Che Update. I have no inside dope on whether the longest-serving anchors will return for Season 50 (that big round number seems awfully enticing), so I’ll leave this well-worn complaint as my potential epitaph. Their Update is consistently funny and consistently disappointing in how little actual bite these two talented joke-tellers put into their topical material. Each Update under Jost and Che is a bracingly hip and funny exercise in one-upmanship and cool undermined by a myriad missed opportunities. When they do go, their practiced zingers will be missed. I can’t wait. (Oh, and they would like you to know, for the millionth uninspired time, that Joe Biden is old.)

The joke swap only left time for one desk piece, but Marcello and Kenan made the most of their time as a pair of elaborately costumed cicadas, excitedly buzzing through their expectations for the big, gazillion-strong double cicada emergence heading our way. (Get your sleep-earplugs ready, Southeast and Midwest friends.) SNL loves to dress people up in bug suits, and these are some good ones—great appendage work shoutout to both these guys. Is it too much to praise the piece for finding a consistent comic tone for a pair of giant, noisy bugs? Naw—Hernandez and Thompson portray these long-hibernating, short-lived bugs’ pell-mell quest for sex and partying with a decidedly well conceived worldview. Sure, it might be, as Marcello states happily, “Hump and scream and die,” but if you’re a bug with a short, weird lifecycle, then your approach to the world is going to be shaped that way. Both actors find an amusingly upbeat tone, Kenan’s brash, “Look, Im not gonna sugar-coat it, man. I’m probably gonna die tonight,” less a lament than a defiantly knowing statement of cultural inevitability. Plus, Kenan makes a great “dah-dah-dah-dah” cicada noise, and both guy wiggle their articulated front legs with expert timing. The fact that Kenan’s since-2007 hibernating bug still uses a Motorola Sidekick to contact his potential hookups is just the perfect wayward cicada in your fruit punch.

Recurring Sketch Report

Customer service lines are enough of a modern universal hangup that it’s understandable that SNL would bring back the “I’ll transfer you” of it all. Here, Jake Gyllenhaal is the increasingly frustrated Southwest traveler whose attempts to rebook/cancel his flight are met with the usual quick-hit montage of smiling-voiced underlings who either cannot or will not help him. I feel like this sort of thing has been done to near-death (again, I’ll point people to the Superego Rockstone Investments audio sketch for my favorite example), but it’s a good excuse to get everybody involved, to check out the host’s exasperated straight person skills, and to put Bowen Yang in an outlandish getup as the end-of-the-line corporate god figure in the machine. It’s all about the journey to an inevitably unfulfilling consumer destination, and all the beats are here, even if this sketch could have used some directorial goosing of a too-sedate pace. (SNL directors who can do the equivalent of live in-camera comedy editing should be paid their weight in platinum bars.) This one pokes along, but amusingly so, as Gyllenhaal’s name (Reginald Keane) is immediately transformed into “Vaginald Cream,” he’s variously transferred to a baggage handler and the airport newsstand, and so on. Original touches like a misunderstanding labeling him as racist (“I hope one of our white employees was able to assist you” comes back to haunt him), and Mikey Day trying out an up-talking “No..?” as new Southwest policy (“We are trained to say no and see if people accept it”) pep things up. Poor Vaginald was never going to come out on top, and Yang’s sotto voce fine print exit outlining all the cancellation fees is a predictable capper, but this is a perfectly serviceable repeater. Extra credit for being the name brand product placement tonight that nobody paid for.

Political Comedy Report

Trump’s back, here with JAJ’s always solid criminal defendant speaking from his daily presser outside the courthouse where he’s facing multiple felony charges that he falsified business and campaign records to cover up the affair he had with a porn star while his wife was recovering from childbirth. (Sue me, it’s the last chance of the season to lay out those details.) As much as I admire Johnson’s abilities, the same complaints apply to this sort of thing. A good impression without much to say is simply not adequate to the opportunity (not to say responsibility) Saturday Night Live has to live up to its inflated reputation for satirical courage. America (where SNL resides) is in an existential crisis fomented by a single political party headed by longtime New York laughingstock and adjudicated sex creep Donald-fucking-Trump, and this sort of half-chuckling stuff is the best they can do?

Here, Trump’s self-incriminations are minor league and disposable. Falling asleep in court, rambling incoherently about Hannibal Lecter, auditioning GOP lickspittles like Devon Walker’s Tim Scott and puppy-murdering Kristi Noem like reality show hopefuls—I mean, it’s all true, but those are the easiest and least impactful approaches to the festering democracy-tumor currently ramping up his campaign of ignorant hatred and authoritarianism. Partisanship isn’t a vice when one side is so egregiously horrible and immediately dangerous, and SNL‘s bland-as-mush take on Trump provokes little but weary contempt. Johnson managed to rouse another limp cold open with a runner about the thuggish right-wing violence underpinning Trump’s support—a juror accidentally shows her face, immediately seeing Trump sic his minions on her with a chuckling, “Gotta pull the kids outta school, sweetie.” A lot’s been made recently (or incessantly, if you run in my social media circles) about how the mainstream American media remains resolutely incapable of grappling with the fact that Trump’s brand of demagoguery is not political business as usual. (Especially when it comes out that the lure of high-profile “access journalism” has incurably infected some very influential media figures.) Add Saturday Night Live to that list, as the show—never as much of a punk political comedy force as it liked to boast—maintains its stance that “both sides” means pretending that Joe Biden’s age and Donald Trump’s Project 2025 fascism and undisguised bigotry are just two sides of the same satirical coin.

Yeah, I hate Donald Trump and all that he and his MAGA cronies broadcast at every opportunity. Again, sue me—human rights, basic decency, economic justice, and the ideal of American participatory democracy are a-okay in my book. (Plus I have a visceral reaction against serial sex criminals openly soliciting oil company bribes to doom our planet..) But this isn’t carping that SNL is walking it’s traditional safe route between center-right and center-left mockery. This is SNL failing to recognize (or, more likely, choosing not to engage with) the fact that this upcoming presidential season is for all the fucking marbles. The Saturday Night Live Saturday Night Live likes to pretend it is would have a whole lot more to say, and the courage to say it. But this is the ramp-up to the big 50th anniversary, and nothing as inconvenient as actually pissing the right people off is going to stand in the way off Lorne Michaels’ victory lap.

Not Ready for Prime Time Power Rankings

The goodnights saw everyone together for the last time, as inevitably some of the cast won’t be back for the big 50. I’m not going to handicap that this year—I genuinely like everybody in this cast, even if there isn’t a breakout star in the bunch, and I’ll be sad to see anybody go even if this overstuffed roster could use some pruning. Good luck, everybody.

Tonight, I’m all about JAJ. Snake Eyes is my guy (RIP), and I forever shake my head at how potent his Trump could be if someone at SNL took off the muzzle.

10-to-One Report

As the clock ticked to 12:57, I was prepared for another episode-ending anticlimax of timing-scuttled band-vamping leading to the goodnights. Thankfully, the SNL timing gods were smiling on us enough to give us one last, near-perfect little 10-to-one gem to go out on. I’ve been a big James Austin Johnson booster since his first episode as featured player. Hired largely on the back of his pitch-perfectly groove-skipping Donald Trump impression, JAJ certainly provided a cold open upgrade in that department. But he quickly proved himself a uniquely charismatic character performer, the sort of glue guy who can bring life to a sketch character with the finest brush strokes of mannerism and accent. JAJ pops. The saloon sketch, in which Jake Gyllenhaal’s bearded tough gets into a face-off with Johnson’s infamous Snake Eyes, is clearly leading up to the big reveal of just what this feared, Lemmy from Motorhead-looking bruiser is going to do. The fact that Snake Eyes’ demeanor turns out to be that of a catty Southern Sunday School teacher is a good gag, but it’s Johnson’s impeccable craft and commitment that the necessarily brief sketch thrives on. JAJ’s not playing Snake Eyes gay (he’s knocked up barfly girlfriend Sarah Sherman at some point), but rather the sort of oddball whose utter, unshakeable confidence in his own rightness and toughness wars comically with a prissy inarticulateness that Johnson uses to wring helpless laughter out of us. There’s no back-down to Snake Eyes, even when the defiant Gyllenhaal’s stranger stands up to this fearsome barroom legend, Snake Eyes’ “You better not!” emerging with no trace of fear or doubt, even as Johnson makes him sound like a guy complaining about his brunch frittata order. Puncturing expectations is fine, but a mediocre sketch won’t find the right tone to sustain the bit. This does. Or, rather, JAJ does, and the unexpected bloody conclusion of the dueling duo’s evil look showdown ends Season 49 with a hint of the stranger, bolder, and better season this could have been.

Stray observations

Man, Apple had some conditions for Jake hosting, huh? I counted two in-show references, one complete with logo.

Speaking of Boardwalk Empire, we lost an all-time great “that guy,” with SNL putting up a title card for the recently late Dabney Coleman.

No sight of the Please Don’t Destroy guys in the season finale? Interesting.

Jost’s joke about Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz does reference both Gaetz’s under-investigation penchant for underage girls and his open echoing of the neo-Nazi Proud Boys. Your Republican leadership, everybody!

Che gets his gasps when his joke about Trump’s Boeing-built plane clipping another jet on a runway ends with him musing, “the good news is Donald Trump flies around in a Boeing.”

And that’s all for Saturday Night Live Season 49, and my reviews thereof. We lost a few episodes to the strike (unions forever), but, as ever, it was an honor and a pleasure. Thanks to all the fine people at Paste for the chance, and all you knuckleknobs for reading.



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