Saturday Night Live Excels with Unlikely Host Nate Bargatze

Comedy Reviews Saturday Night Live
Saturday Night Live Excels with Unlikely Host Nate Bargatze

And Your Host…

“Look, I’m as shocked as you are.”

The ongoing SAG strike has forced Saturday Night Live to adjust their usual, “Who’s got a big movie coming out?,” host casting. And it’s largely worked out. Pete Davidson got a pass as an alum, and Bad Bunny—WWE theatrics and a few minor screen credits aside—pulled host/musical guest double duty, both to decent effect. So why not a mid-tier stand-up just famous enough for everyone to Google him as soon as his booking was announced?

But I kid the accomplished Nate Bargatze. A veteran headlining comedian, favorite late-night guest, and all around nice guy from all reports, Bargatze’s pick was a good sort of surprise. Wobbly strike restrictions or not, it’s always good for Saturday Night Live to pluck a talented performer from the skirts of the limelight. It keeps the show on its toes—and viewers as well. I did my requisite catchup on a comic I knew only in passing and wondered how the Tennessee native’s drolly self-effacing delivery would translate to one of the most difficult 90-minute live gigs in show biz. (His monologue was, naturally, where Bargatze seemed most at home, and introduced the unfamiliar to his sly slowpoke demeanor.) And I have to say, Bargatze was really freaking good.

Sure, he’s not a natural actor. (No offense to the time he played himself on Maron.) There were some cue cards in play, and the show tailored Bargatze’s roles to his persona with deftly inconspicuous sleight of hand, but the comedian was truly funny at what he did all night. The best example for me was in “Chef Showdown,” whose one joke—that white, Rhode Island-born cook Dougie unexpectedly beats out his Black competitor (Ego Nwodim) in a soul food blind cook-off—benefitted from two genuinely brilliant under-players in Bargatze and Kenan’s outraged judge.

It’s the old premise switcheroo formula and it wouldn’t work without Bargatze’s pitch-perfect delivery after every successive revelation that he has, somehow, created a meal the judges unwittingly proclaim, “This right here is the culture.” It’s not a tough role, necessarily, but it’s suited so perfectly for Bargatze’s own self-deprecating persona that I wanted to applaud every time his Dougie responded to the winning announcement with eyes-averted statements like, “I just did my best and, again, sorry.” Rewards such as a slot alongside Punkie Johnson’s judge’s cooking show The Black Kitchen, an appearance at Essence Fest, and an honorary award from Howard University are all greeted with the same sincere apologies, Bargatze’s tone never wavering from its palpable desire to not be where he is. The whole thing is aided, naturally, by Kenan’s own mastery of deadpan assassination, as when his baffled judge tries to reevaluate Ego’s plate of deconstructed soul haute cuisine (I’m a vegetarian, but the reveal of her “Impossible catfish” made me want to hurl), only to deliberately push the offending plate off the counter like an affronted cat. There were a few sketches tonight seemingly crafted around the unique talents of an unusual host, and, as with last week’s Bad Bunny outing, the challenge brought out the best in the writers.

The Best and the Rest

The Best: This was a toughie. The chef sketch used Bargatze best. The Hallmark movie was an outstanding piece of Halloween inter-network punching down. I enjoyed the heck out of music video Lake Beach. But for writing alone, I have to give the top spot to the George Washington sketch, where Bargatze’s be-wigged father of our country regaled his initially enthusiastic Revolutionary War troops with his dreams for America—all of which centered on the adoption of our complicatedly contradictory systems of weights and measures.

Here’s where rookie host and non-actor Bargatze went to the cue cards most obviously, but it really didn’t derail things, as his Washington’s single-minded determination to throw off the British oppressors’ streamlined metric measurements in favor of America’s holdout reliance on everything from yards, to tons, to Fahrenheit kept his loyal soldiers gamely trying to follow along. “And what will a thousand pounds be called, Sir?,” asks Mikey Day’s soldier after Washington’s proud introduction of the ton. “Nothing,” Washington replies steadfastly, “Because we will have no word for that.” A sketch built on a single, silly premise that never blinks at its own silliness is my jam, and this is some prime unblinking writing and performing all around. Bargatze’s Washington never wavers in his faith that all the world will come to see that a mile consisting of the easily remembered 5,280 feet (no one knows how many yards) is the one truth.

And there’s another Nate-Kenan back-and-forth here that kept killing, as Washington keeps blithely blowing off Kenan’s relevant questions about the place of Black new Americans in favor of not missing a beat about his pet measurement project. It’s a delicate comic choice made to have Washington not even acknowledge the question, one that SNL too often bulldozes with over-explanation. Toss in some tangents about how metric will still be used for some measurements (soda, alcohol, swimming and track), and how the unfamiliar sport football will not only not use much in the way of feet, but will also adopt a similarly unintuitive point system when it does, and Bargatze—cue cards and all—maintains just the right tone. It’s a writers’ sketch, but a performer’s challenge, and everybody is great in it.

The Worst: This is two out of three I’m giving to the Please Don’t Destroy guys on the young season, a trend not born so much out of their short films being lousy (they’re not, really) but because they’ve done so much better. The joke here is that John and Martin’s new meal delivery service provides them with big bags of dog food (branded “Dawg Food”), to Ben’s horror. And that’s it, really, the bit never escalating to any of the trio’s usual absurdist heights. It’s just two guys plunging their faces into personalized kibble bowls, one guy recoiling in disgust—and that’s it. John deadpans through the confession that the stuff tastes bad and that his girlfriend also finds his new diet disgusting, and there’s a kicker that he “died doing what he loved” after he unadvisedly switches to wet food, but the PDD fellas, who’ve just completed their feature film debut, haven’t been delivering their all this season.

The Rest: “Lake Beach” is the sort of music video bit that Saturday Night Live has been doing so well for so long, it’s tempting to take for granted. But this country-tinged Southern rocker about the impeccably observed details of a summer outing to the town’s favorite murky, stagnant, diaper-bestrewn watering hole is as catchy and authentic as it is low-key funny. Barzgate, Andrew Dismukes, and James Austin Johnson (as the aptly named Mudpuddle) twang us through all of the dong-hungry snapping turtles, firework mishaps, pretty girls all with the same haircut, and perilously unobtrusive Solo cups filled with dip spit with affectionately lived-in authenticity. Everyone’s cell phone’s at 7%, that one uncle (Dave Grohl) gets way too into cornhole, and everybody has a good, grubby time at the lake beach.

The Hallmark movie formula (big city career woman comes to small town, rediscovers the real American happiness of men with rough hands and the true spirit of [insert holiday]) is old hat by now. (I defer to Ted Lasso’s evaluation of the genre.) But transplanting the traditional Christmas milieu to a Halloween-themed horror setting is pure genius, with Chloe Fineman’s harried visiting writer being stalked by a sack-headed slasher before a meet-cute cuts off the murder in favor of a reunion with Bargatze’s hometown high school crush (and serial stabber). Yes, it’s A Stab At Love, Hallmark’s foray into the spookiest holiday, where “two almost-attractive actors with almost human-sounding names” (“Gashley Greigert” and “Bren Cloebog” play the mismatched lovebirds) find squeaky-clean love, and the tried and true Hallmark playbook seamlessly substitutes severed limbs and rustic murder-workshops for the usual sleigh rides and handmade wooden toys. Filmed on a Samsung Galaxy in budget-friendly Estonia, it’s a simple gag, embroidered exquisitely.

I’ve been tough (but, I’ve decided, fair) on Sarah Sherman’s propensity for pitching her every line reading to the cheapest seats during her time on Saturday Night Live, but if the noted not-impressionist is going to essay any celebrity, Fran Drescher isn’t a terrible fit. The trick-or-treating sketch (for this is the Halloween episode and all) sees Sherman’s SAG president interrupting some kids innocent candy questing with a scolding replacement of their studio-branded costumes with some union-approved adjustments. The bit stems from both SAG’s ruling on members dressing up in IP-boosting branded characters and Drescher’s effectively abrasive turn as head of the actor’s union, with Sherman playing up Drescher’s exaggerated braying persona while gently joining in on the mockery of SAG’s strident costumery rules. Again, I think Sherman brings a bracing energy to SNL, even though she has never once toned down her own outsized persona to fit an ensemble. Here, her Drescher is fine—it’s not a hard impression—and her back-and-forth jabs at candy-dispensing dad Bargatze smacks of the sort of broadsides Sherman usually reserves for favorite target Colin Jost. (Oh, he’ll get his, just wait.) Eventually, the sketch pulls back to allow for a pro-union kicker, and the whole thing is amusing enough. But there’s some symmetry in Sherman’s Drescher referring to her “exhausting” reputation, is what I’m saying.

Weekend Update update

Jost and Che are funny guys. Some of their jokes conclude with a satisfying towel-snap at the audience’s sensibilities. I’m not knocking the long-standing duo’s tenure behind the desk—there have been some seriously dire years when Update represented the deadest spot in some already-inert seasons. So having a couple of reliably funny wiseacres do their thing is always at least entertaining.

And yet. Saturday Night Live basks in its reputation as TV’s satirical wild card. Its initial flowering immediately after Watergate was perceived as a genuine cultural threat, the show’s live nature underscoring its youthful staff’s scruffy rebelliousness. Times change, and even if that original show’s legacy as gonzo political comedy badass turned out to be more posture than substance, Lorne Michaels and company still present SNL as a topical comic force to be reckoned with. Witness the somberly self-important season-starting cold open, where poor Pete Davidson was wheeled out to plant SNL’s flag right on the recently ignited Israel-Gaza conflagration. (Not that Pete did badly with the thankless task.)

Well, Gaza is still going down, bloodily, the tangled mess of political, religious, and racial conflict costing hundreds of lives by the day, all while opportunistic grifters and assorted bigots look to inflame public opinion to their own ends. American democracy hangs on by a whisker, the seditionist former POTUS all but assured to be the GOP nominee and his unindicted co-conspirators angling to give him another shot at it. There’s unprecedented governmental gridlock, suspiciously beneficial to a foreign dictator whose assaults on American politics are even more unprecedented. Texas and Florida are vying to see which state can pass the most regressively hateful and bigoted laws, and there’s another mass shooting literally every day while Republican lawmakers take in millions from the NRA to keep that gun money running. (I live seven minutes from the site of Wednesday’s Lewiston mass murder of 18 people—I checked on Google maps.)

Plenty to work with, is what I’m saying, and even if Saturday Night Live wants to settle just for taking potshots at politicians’ personal foibles and outed scandals (all low-hanging fruit Update traditionally lunges after), there’s no shortage there, either. Do politics or don’t, even if Update is the one place where “don’t” seems impossible. But if, as it’s been clear since Trump left office at least, SNL just would rather not, then at least leave off with the ostentatious, self-congratulatory stunts. And admit that your whole, carefully burnished rep as a satirical player just isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.

In the one correspondent piece, Sarah Sherman beat up on Jost again, this time as the co-anchor’s brash agent, on Update to lament that she’s stuck representing someone without “the slightest glimmer of humanity.” (That according to the Jeffrey Dahmer biopic producers who rejected him.) The bit is always fun enough, with Sherman playing off of Jost’s perceived bland punchability (his word) and terminal whiteness to play a round of kick the boss. Punching up is always fun, even if the whole joke is well-trod territory at this point. I especially liked the idea that Jost was considered a shoo-in for the Pocahontas sequel centered on John Smith. “He hit it, quit it, and then remembered what team he’s on,” Sherman’s agent pitches to his suitably aghast client.

Recurring Sketch Report

None, hallelujah.

Political Comedy Report

Um, why? I suppose that might sum up my response to the whole cold open this week, but more specifically I’m asking why Mikey Day is now SNL’s chosen Joe Biden. James Austin Johnson’s Biden, while not as crowd-pleasingly broad as his Trump, is at least as well observed. Plus, you know, Johnson is actually an impressionist. Love to Mikey, but he’s always Mikey + prosthetics, and his Biden doesn’t bring anything unique or more interesting than his predecessor’s. He tosses in an out-of-breath wheeze, but that’s about it. I don’t know the story behind the swap, but Day over Johnson is a downgrade for Saturday Night Live any way you slice it.

This would matter less if the writers room had one single thing to say about the current Commander In Chief, but these cold opens continue to be perfunctory to the point of mere white noise at the top of the show. Joe is old. Joe’s dog bites. End of joke list. Decorating the Oval for the holiday, Day’s Biden then stands around and has nothing amusing at all to say as Michael Longfellow trots out an indifferent Michael Johnson.

As the utter christo-fascist nutcase the House GOP has just made third in line for the presidency, SNL’s Johnson gets prodded about the emerging story of the Black “son” Johnson claims to have adopted as a single, 25-year-old man. (The kid, who does not appear in any Johnson family pictures, was just 11 years Johnson’s junior, and I’ll let you burrow into that creepily twisting story on your own.) But despite the new GOP golden boy’s long, long, long list of targetable opinions and actions (some frighteningly racist, sexist, homophobic, and seditionist, some just bananas), that’s all we get from this “political” cold open. When the Republican Party just this week installs a person who led Trump’s attempted coup against democracy to a position pivotal in the upcoming election and SNLcan only snicker at Johnson’s (admittedly eyebrow-raising) personal life, it’s all the evidence you need that actual political satire just isn’t a priority. I’ve said it before: Do politics or don’t. This room temperature toothless mush is just embarrassing.

Christopher Walken (also, like the actual Biden, a relatively spry 80) weirds things up as the visiting Spirit of Halloween, but why not just build a cold open around SNL vet Walken mispronouncing words and being all Christopher Walken-y about everything. It’d be funnier than this void of a cold open—and no less relevant. It couldn’t be.

Not Ready for Prime Time Power Rankings

I should ding James Austin Johnson for losing Biden, but considering how these cold opens are going, maybe it’s to his benefit. Same holding pattern for Mikey Day—the Oval is yours now, pal. Good luck.

After a huge week last time out, Marcello was all but absent. Of his fellow featured new kids, Devon Walker had screen time, although not given much to do. Longfellow had a character which could recur (shudder) in Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, and there’s a spark of squirmy comedy there to work with. Molly and Troast got a line each in the airplane sketch.

This was apparently Ego’s 100th episode, which makes me wish she had more going on.

I’m not against the ensemble concept. When you don’t have to feed a couple of huge, can’t miss stars, writers can get ambitious and weird with it, as they have at times this season. But that does leave SNL feeling a bit rudderless. Kenan is royalty, and working royalty at that, but he’s more of a scene-stealer than a sketch-carrier these days. Honestly, it was neophyte Bargatze who got me most interested on a consistent basis tonight.

10-to-One Report

Man, the last third of the show was a throwaway tonight. Clearly, something got bumped, at least unless a quick return from commercial at 12:57 for a minute of band-vamping and then the goodnights was part of the plan. The post-Update lineup went: sketch, second Foo Fighters number (with guest H.E.R.), Please Don’t Destroy film, band vamp, RIP card to former host Matthew Perry (still can’t get my mind around that one), then goodnights. So, with no real final live sketch to speak of, I’ll reach back to the airplane sketch, especially since it is built around the sort of oddball, offhand idea that 10-to-one sketches live on.

With Chloe Fineman’s airplane passenger going into labor, calls for a doctor are answered, instead, by a succession of passengers debating which profession is rightfully the runner-up to doctor on the difficulty/worthiness scale. Here again, Barzgate’s unassuming deadpan is just right, as his lawyer patiently asserts that his profession is next in line. Andrew Dismukes (a 10-to-one all-star by this point) argues for engineer, even though he’s a lawyer, too, the sort of yes-and escalation just right for this sort of thing. Bowen Yang’s creepy claim to be “kind of a doctor” gets shot down immediately, and Chloe Troast’s teacher unaccountably finds herself target of unanimous, debris-tossing scorn. There’s no real resolution (Barzgate’s polite applause for Heidi Gardner’s stay at home mom segues into immediate dismissal), but this one’s just weird enough to jump the line to Ten-To-Oneland.

Parting Shots

Since SNL is apparently open to stand-up hosts who’ve never gotten a shot before, I’ll share my dream list: Patton Oswalt (crazy he’s never hosted), Maria Bamford, Ron Funches, Hannibal Buress, Anthony Jeselnik. All singular, all would bring a completely different energy and skill set. C’mon, Lorne—off the beaten path is where the good stuff lies.

Since Walken and Foo Fighters were both in attendance, Walken reprised his signature, “Ladies and gentlemen, Foo FIGHTers,” introduction to their first number.

The cameos continue. In addition to Walken, that was Padma Lakshmi as herself, reluctantly doling out rewards to Bargatze’s equally uncomfortable chef, Dougie. “That’s so cool. I’m so sorry,” made me laugh out loud for the third time that sketch.

Bargatze, describing the dodgy joys of the county fairs he went to as a kid, including riding rides “that were on the interstate an hour ago.”

“Foot-ball, Sir?” “It’s a sport where you throw the ball with your hands.” “So in football, there’s no kicking?” “There’s a little kicking.”

“I’m not dressed as Sloth, I’m just holding a Baby Ruth.”

We get our first bye week next week, so look out for second-timer Timothée Chalamet and musical guest boygenius on November 11. Chalamet, indeed, has Wonka coming out to promote, so I don’t know what SAG has to say about that. Have to ask President Drescher.

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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