Molly Shannon Returns for a Feel-Good Saturday Night Live

Comedy Reviews Saturday Night Live
Molly Shannon Returns for a Feel-Good Saturday Night Live

Saturday Night Live: And Your Host…

The thought of Molly Shannon coming back to host SNL for her second time filled me with a cozy sort of pleasure. Molly could always go huge in her time on Saturday Night Live, but carried herself in a bubble of such serene professionalism that it always seemed that every sketch was in capably hilarious hands. Even when she threw herself through walls and into stacks of hard metal folding chairs as Mary Katherine Gallagher (who only got a fleeting, virtual cameo tonight), Shannon’s comic boldness came yoked to an unflappable confidence that all but guaranteed a soft landing. (Metaphorically—Shannon really did bust herself open for our entertainment as much as Chris Farley or Chevy Chase ever did.)

Reading Shannon’s recent autobiography, Hello, Molly!, gives a bracing insight into the hard work and acting commitment she put into everything she did on Saturday Night Live. (It’s also frequently harrowing stuff—young Molly had a life.) Shannon mocks her early career ambitions toward being a serious dramatic actor, but take a look at the work she’s did in 2016’s Other People and everything she’s done with Mike White (treat yourself with Year of the Dog and the Enlightened episode “The Ghost Is Seen,” trust me) and unlock the secret to her knockabout comic genius. Molly Shannon is a great actor.

Her monologue was adorable, paying tribute to her beloved and complicated father (again, read her book) with a song and dance number that blended the sweet and the silly. I’ve complained about both the overused singing monologue and the “cast members interrupt the monologue” bits before, but it’s Molly, everybody was adorable, and if Martin Short wedged himself in there somehow, well, I’m pretty sure he’s just a ubiquitously impish show biz ghost at this point. You try to keep him out.

The Best And The Rest

The Best: I’m going to yank out an Update piece for the top spot, mainly because, on a perfectly pleasant episode, Bowen Yang’s Ron DeSantis-taunting Jafar was a jolt of good old fashioned performance gold. With the book-banning Florida governor at war with (and him constantly getting spanked by) Disney over the company’s steadfast refusal to knuckle under to DeSantis’ anti-LGBTQ bullshit, Yang’s Aladdin baddie turns out to be on the side of the animated angels this time, with Jafar mocking the “swamp rat” by disdainfully calling him “Boy!” and gleefully pointing out that a pre-fascist DeSantis actually got smilingly married right in the heart of the Disney kingdom. With the happily out Jafar confirming Disney’s gay-friendliness by claiming, “Open up Grindr on Main Street USA and your phone explodes,” Yang also swipes the schtick of Jason Sudeikis’ Satan by mocking DeSantis’ white supremacist, “dan’t say gay” book-seizing campaign. (“Banning Rosa Parks in schools? I’m a dark sorcerer and I was even like, ‘Jesus dude, it’s Rosa Parks.’”) Mocking a power-mad mini-despot’s hypocrisy likely only makes the little creep happy, but Yang, bathed in dramatic red light, hammily skewering the Republican’s ever-growing list of outrages in a very funny, sure-of-virality Update piece is at least going to irritate the right people.

The Worst: Season 48 hasn’t been bowling me over, but it’s also been blessedly free of sketches that make me scowl at the screen. I can’t see that level of okay-ness being tenable in the long run, but a baseline competence is refreshing. The commercial for a very poorly named menopause drug (“Vagerted”) gets the booby prize this week, mainly for being so diffuse. Is the joke about dancing spokesperson Shannon trying to manipulate her fellow dancers out of the spotlight, or is it Kenan’s admittedly funny turn as the brash male side effects reader who keeps coming up with arguably worse names for the product each time? Everyone’s fine, and Kenan can wring laughs out of this sort of enthusiastically clueless character all night (Vagerted really seems like a disaster waiting to be inserted), but the whole silly premise never gels.

The Rest:

Some sharp writing and Shannon’s impeccably straight-faced performance elevated the theater sketch, where Devon Walker’s boyfriend comes to realize that his playwright girlfriend’s play, A Year of a Thousand Men, not only reveals his beloved’s truly eventful recent love life, but also cast him as Mr. 1000, the hopelessly nerdy washout she settled for. The onstage stuff is the finely calibrated diva work Shannon was made for, while the pileup of crushing revelations in Heidi Gardner’s play is registered by the aghast Walker in escalating laughs, right up to the twist, where its revealed that the scarf-wearing character Shannon ends up with on stage is the same, destined-to-replace-him audience member who complimented Gardner when the couple sat down. Toss good old Kenan in there as the fictionalized but identically dressed Walker, woefully disappointing Shannon’s author avatar in bed, and this one worked just fine.

The Please Don’t Destroy guys got back into their cramped Saturday Night Live office again, thankfully, their late-night gaming session interrupted by Molly, who’s understandably appalled that her likeness has been used in a series of videogames about her real life, going back decades. The details of the eerily Shannon-realistic game are weird enough—you earn turnips for playing the right humorous anecdote to bust up Jimmy Fallon on “the Tonight Show side quest,” and the Mortal Kombat stages see one Molly disemboweling another while taunting, “I’m gonna kill you, bitch!” Better still is when, after the guys leave in a huff over Shannon’s confusion, we get a mini music video with the now-obsessed Molly becoming a “level 99” rapper-Molly, complete with the boasting bar, “You know what the verdict is/In the Molly game, they’re connecting turnipses.” And then John Higgins accidentally drinks pee (Molly’s apparently been taking lessons from the male SNL writers profiled in Tina Fey’s book), because the PDD guys are most effectively funny when their presumed position as SNL whipping boys is part of the gag.

I was smiling placidly along with the valet sketch right up until Kenan, attempting to copy the servile, three-step process of Andrew Dismukes’ boss, unexpectedly breaks into a sprint toward Devon Walker’s unsuspecting car owner and screams, “Ahhhhhhh! I’m gon’ steal your car, you Black bitch!” And I laughed out loud alone in my seat, something that rarely happens when I’m in note-taking SNL mode, sadly. The sketch itself is awfully low-key for the first post-monologue sketch (Shannon’s meek, babbling trainee is a close cousin to Mary Katherine Gallagher’s sweaty anxiousness), but, man, that was outstanding.

A fart gag is a surprisingly delicate thing. The baby shower sketch was a long, patient fart joke that took its sweet, fragrant time to build, complete with an impressive tummy rig for Molly’s, as it turns out, not pregnant office worker, and a couple of very, very long, loud farts, for good measure. The sketch plays out in such bland normalcy that we’re left waiting for the turn to come, and, when it does, it comes out in one blasting fart, while Shannon’s gassy belly deflates and we gradually discover that she’s a catfish-addicted weirdo who’s made the same mistaken assumption about her swollen tummy four other time before. Kenan’s boss is some classic Kenan underplaying as he rightly rebuffs the clearly-loony Molly’s assumption that she’s still due for paid maternity leave, and the rig gets even more pronounced the second time, when a nibble of her customary lunch order tricks her once again. In the middle of it all is Shannon, committing to her character (and those farts) like a boss. I’ve seen worse fart jokes, is what I’m saying.

Weekend Update update

I like Jost and Che when they’re this loose and playful, their jabs coming fast enough that the occasional misfire is quickly swallowed up by the next joke. Plenty of appalling stuff for Saturday Night Live to talk about as usual—I appreciated the inclusion of some solid jokes at the expense of Harlan Crow, the right-wing billionaire who, just earlier in the day, was revealed to be equally fond of hosting Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas and his seditionist wife Ginni (to the tune of unreported half-million dollar lavish getaways) and a whole lot of Nazi memorabilia. The audience gasps greeting the story indicating that some people hadn’t been checking their phones Saturday afternoon, and that only added to the queasy punch of the jokes. Che jumped in to mock Tennessee Republicans for expelling Black Democratic lawmakers Justin Jones and Justin Pearson from the state’s House of Representatives for protesting against gun violence while white lawmaker Gloria Johnson, who also participated in the protest, was not. “Republicans said they know what it looks like, but they were actually expelled because their skin is Black,” explained Che, with a cutting deadpan. As far as the guys’ always entertaining back-and-forth goes, it was a very good night as well, with Jost begging viewers not to GIF his Nazi salute punchline and Che delivering his kicker, “Not how I do it!” to the Pope’s recent judgement that sex is a beautiful, god-given thing with some happy mugging.

Lots of correspondents tonight. Bowen Yang’s gets his own entry, so that leaves Punkie Johnson’s take on recent NCAA hoops champ and white conservatives’ latest sporting double standard lightning rod, LSU star Angel Reese and Heidi Gardner’s newest Update character, The Co-Worker Who’s Extremely Busy Doing Seemingly Nothing. Punkie was energetic, and her Reese took some swipes at the ginned up outrage surrounding her championship game trash talk, noting how mostly white losing team Iowa also got invited to the White House in an “all teams matter” gesture. Mainly, though, this one turned into a Big Papi bit, with the brash Reese shilling for a variety of weird products. (I did like how huge false eyelashes were touted as essential for “empowering Black ballers and Snuffleupagus since 1972.”) It’s okay, and nice for Punkie to get some spotlight on Saturday Night Live.

Gardner planted her Update flag once more with her performatively busy and bug-eyed office worker (she turns out to be Michael Che’s assistant) making a big show of shuffling her papers, checking her phone, and whipping out her laptop in order to prove to Jost that she just doesn’t have time for any of this with how busy she is, etc. This one grew on me on the strength of Gardner’s as-ever all-in characterization, the biggest (again, out-loud) laugh coming when, after she’s tossed away her work phone in exasperation, she pulls her “salad phone” out from within her hastily and messily gobbled Caesar salad bowl. “What does it say?,” asks Jost, barely keeping it together. “I’m screwed!,” manically sing-songs Gardner, tossing the remains of her lunch all over the Update desk in showy defeat.

“And I like to kick! Stretch! And kick! I’m 50!”—Recurring Sketch Report

Oh, Sally O’Malley, I’ve missed you and your defiantly visible camel toe. Like a lot of Shannon’s sketches tonight, the callbacks were more controlled and understated than some SNL’s alum’s self-impressed returning characters. (Love you, but looking at you, Wiig.) Like the indefatigable (and 50 year old) O’Malley, this sketch, with Sally taking over as the aging Jonas Brothers’ choreographer, took the time to stretch with an unhurried energy that ultimately proved as snug as Sally’s signature red stretch pants. Bowen lost it a little at Shannon tugging those things up higher and higher, the better to taunt the world with the proudly unconcealed outline of her Grand Canyon (Sally’s words). In the old days, perhaps there was a Standards fight or two over the prospect of Sally’s contoured red undercarriage, but there’s something so enduringly formidable about this old trouper’s unimpressed chutzpah that makes the gesture a strangely empowering one. Here, Sally does the same for the similarly kitted-out Jonases, even if the brothers seem wan and bashful next to their dancing mentor’s heavy-lidded gyrations. The joke that someone questions whether the eternally 50-year-old O’Malley (Shannon is 58) is actually 50, but she has been and will always be her brashly unimpressed 50-year-old self.

Shannon also brought back Jeannie Darcy, her stand-up comic whose hopelessly uninspiring “Don’t get me started” observational humor hasn’t evolved since the “standing stiffly in front of a brick wall” days. That doesn’t keep Darcy from landing her own Chris Rock-style live simulcast Netflix stand-up special (the hilariously titled Selective Startage), where Shannon’s imperturbable, blazer-clad comedian plows ahead with call-and-response crowd work to a crowd catatonic with confused non-laughter. The anti-comic premise recalls Kyle Mooney’s later Bruce Chandling, but Shannon never lifts the mask of her hopelessly untalented comedian to give a glimpse of the despair underneath. I love Mooney’s Chandling, but Shannon’s commitment to the bit is even more daringly anti-.

“Governor Bush, I listened very carefully to the Vice President’s remarks, and I honestly do not believe he messed with Texas.”—Political Comedy Report

Finding a proper framing device for James Austin Johnson’s Trump is a necessity SNL has at least fitfully applied itself to doing in the post-Baldwin days. (If I ever see that “Don’t Stop Me Now” cold open again, no laptop is safe.) And this one, with Johnson’s Trump hijacking an apparent Last Supper recreation to whine about his recent indictment (and brag that he’d have come back from the dead in two days, not three) peps things up nicely. Johnson’s Trump is one of the best (second, maybe, to Anthony Atamanuik’s), but ask poor Jay Pharoah how enduring the political impression gig is when SNL doesn’t bother to come up with enough original material to back your play.

Here, the fake-out is baldly outrageous enough to keep the audience on its toes throughout. Plus, the idea that Donald Trump would compare his upcoming felony trial over illegal dealings to pay off the porn star he cheated on his third wife with to Jesus’ whole crucifixion thing is something Trump has 100 percent actually done, as the sketch notes. Airing something so brazenly, ludicrously blasphemous in the minutes before the major Christian holiday isn’t as risky for SNL when, you know, Donald Trump actually did the thing they’re parodying. Anyway, Johnson’s Trump is as discursive and groove-skipping as ever, his pop culture asides alternating with inevitable one-upping of “Jesus of Azkaban,” with Johnson’s Trump winding up the tittering crowd by making sure they understand that what he’s doing, he’s actually doing. There’s a welcome little backstage bit of business, with Mikey Day’s Jesus having to freeze in shadowy background mid-gesture for the entirety of Trump’s ramblings, with Johnson playing up Trump’s awareness of his presumably hired-for-the-occasion savior’s discomfort feeling right in line with what we know of the man. (Johnson also taunts Day and the assembled apostles, noting, “If you break a big political character, you can say the big line,” before kicking off the show.)

The last piece of the night was a commercial for CNZen, an app for those Americans nervous that lifelong sleaze Donald Trump is going to evade consequences once more. (This time for that whole “fraud to cover up an extramarital affair” thing.) There’s a snideness that feels like a sop to whatever semi-conservative viewers Saturday Night Live’s got, with the voice over explaining that the app’s non-stop litany of sonorously read damning legal analysis and ASMR courthouse sounds will soothe the voters whose “entire personality is hating Donald Trump.” Oh, those darn libs and their concerns that a major political party’s chosen one is a twice-impeached Russian stooge, bigot, and seditious white supremacist! But I kid a writing staff who lump in noted Trump-apologist access-hounds like Maggie Haberman and Van Jones in with the other real-life CNN journalists here portrayed pandering to a fringe of people who obsess over the right-wing yahoo infiltration of every level of American politics. Ugh, anyway, the execution of the bit is excellent as always (here’s to those SNL editors who averted a strike and got their deal), and, my griping aside, the concept is sound enough, in a halfhearted “see, we can play both sides!” way. (James Austin Johnson also got to show off his weeping, sycophantic Lindsey Graham, shilling for a Trump defense fund with the URL, DonaldJTrumpRU/FundraisingScam.guilty.)

Not Ready For Prime Time Power Rankings

Man, I like this season’s welcome rededication to the ensemble. Typically, a returning alum will gobble up airtime on Saturday Night Live, but Shannon was largely one of the gang throughout, leaving plenty of room for most everyone to get some chances. Only Marcello Herrnandez got the conspicuous shaft tonight—hey, somebody has to thanklessly deliver a main character’s lunch order.

Of the rest, Kenan made me laugh the most, while Gardner and Yang’s Update pieces were both stellar stuff. James Austin Johnson had his Trump and Graham, and even a role as a non-famous person in the valet sketch. At the wire, it’s Kenan.

“I’m sorry. I’m tired. I did 900 voiceovers today for Jag-u-ar. I also killed a man in an elevator.”—10-To-One Report

There was no 10-to-one sketch tonight. The CNZen bit was a filmed piece, it could have slotted in anywhere, and I make the rules. This space is holy ground for your weirdest Saturday Night Live writers and performers to bust out some conceptual weirdness. Get it together, Michaels.

Parting Shots

Those Jonas boys seem like nice, safe boys.

Jost, on newly crowned King Charles admitting that his family had holdings in a slaving organization: “Yeah, it’s called England.”

Devon Walker and James Austin Johnson continue their t-shirt based goodnights protests, with the pair holding up a shirt reading “Jones Pearson,” referencing those Tennessee lawmakers Che was talking about.

This seems like the first show in forever that didn’t include a memorial card. Stay alive, SNL veterans.

Next week: Ana de Armas and musical guest Karol G. Fun, if upon-reflection sobering fact: de Armas will be the fourth consecutive woman in a row to host Saturday Night Live, which is the first time that’s happened in the show’s 48-year history. So, yay? It’s also the very first time both the host and musical guest slots will be filled by Latinas. Double-yay?

Read more Saturday Night Live reviews from Dennis Perkins.

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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