Saturday Night Live horrifically miscasts Casey Affleck as guest host, and in doing so, leaves a proverbial lump of coal in our collective stockings.
This is prototypical bad SNL: a guest host who brings absolutely nothing to the table matched with a writing staff and repertory company that seems completely out of gas creatively. What might be forgivable and forgettable any other week isn’t for what has traditionally been the best or near-best episode of the season—the Christmas show.
Affleck walks onto the stage for his opening monologue like a man condemned. He quickly points out the film he is there to promote (Manchester By the Sea), the film that’s got industry insiders projecting him as a top Oscar contender, and wonders aloud why they’d bring him in for a sketch comedy show over someone who is actually funny or cool. He goes on to describe his acclaimed film as “incredibly depressing,” “a downer,” “unbearably” and “crushingly” sad. (Sorry about that Roadside Attractions and Amazon Studio…) The entire monologue plays like an apology for what we’re about to see. Affleck knows the show is going to be bad, SNL knows the show is going to be bad—so bad that not even SNL guest host legends Alec Baldwin and John Goodman (in a funny dad joke of a cameo) can convince us otherwise.
We’ve seen this happen before. The wrong guest host can sandbag an entire episode. Affleck is not a bad actor, he’s just a bad Saturday Night Live host. With the sole exception of Boston-razzing pre-tape “Dunkin’ Donuts,” he’s not the kind of host who inspires a parody or a sketch. Affleck is a host the show has to work around. Indeed, the episode’s best moments come when Affleck is off-screen or relegated to parts cast member Pete Davidson could have (should have) played.
“Christmas Miracle” brings back a Kate McKinnon classic, Ms. Rafferty. Rafferty, again, is chain-smoking, cynical, and horribly unlucky in the face of supernatural phenomenon. These sketches could work as stand-alone McKinnon monologues or as Weekend Update interviews. But the SNL writers cleverly use the happy and peaceful experiences of two other witnesses (always Cecily Strong and the week’s guest host) to contrast with McKinnon’s monologue, and an ostensibly official inquest by Aidy Bryant and Bobby Moynihan to direct the flow and build to bigger laughs. This particular incarnation of the sketch, where Rafferty and her friends are magically whisked away to the North Pole by Santa Claus and the Krampus-like Krinklemaus, was as funny as ever—maybe the night’s best offering. But somehow the laughs never grew to the level they have before. This might be because (for once) McKinnon’s supporting players never broke. Or maybe the joke’s grown stale. But it’s hard not to notice that Affleck’s there…pretty much bringing nothing. No wonder, no sense that any of this actually happened and changed his life forever. A comic actor would know that’s the joke and play it. Affleck is aloof, like he’s already at the cast party after the show.
The jokes at PEOTUS Donald Trump’s expense were hard and fast…and mostly dead-aimed at increasingly damning ties between Trump and Vladimir Putin’s Russia. “Donald Trump Christmas Cold Open” goes where no Saturday Night Live Trump satire has gone before: Trump as Putin/Big Oil’s patsy. Trump here is the hapless pawn of nefarious forces, an idiot child obsessed with TV celebrities and his image. It’s a different tactic and it works. As do the relentless jokes from Jost and Che’s Weekend Update: “Taking the presidency away from Donald Trump now, is like giving a monkey a machine gun and then trying to wrestle it back from him. At this point all we can do is just pray that he can’t figure out how it works, gets bored, and just puts it down and walks away.”
Fred Armisen’s surprise return to SNL helps in the sketch “Robot Presentation” and in a charming appearance on Weekend Update with Vanessa Bayer as “Putin’s Best Friends From Growing Up.” Armisen is always good returning to SNL, which begs the question: why wasn’t he cast as Christmas guest host? Is Casey Affleck that much more of a ratings draw than Fred Armisen?
Chance the Rapper returns to Studio 8-H performing two songs from his new album Coloring Book: “Same Drugs” with Francis and the Lights and “Finish Line/Drown” with Noname. He also makes an appearance in a musical parody/tribute to Run-D.M.C. and President Obama, “Jingle Barack.” Chance appeared on the Chris Hemsworth-hosted episode last year about this time, and turned in one of the best musical performances the entire season. He knocks it out of the park again this year, making him the odds-on favorite to be brought back as Christmas episode guest host and musical guest next year.
The episode winds down with another, always-awful (unforgivably bad) S&M elves sketch (“Mrs. Claus & The Elves”) and two forgettable (but forgivable) head scratchers: “New York Now” and “Christmas Bar.” Yet it is “Hillary Actually” that may be the night’s most bewildering sketch. A pre-taped parody of the Andrew Lincoln/Keira Knightly cue card scene from Love Actually, the sketch places Hillary at the door of an elector (Cecily Strong) trying to get her to change her vote. The piece is funny enough and topical (if you understand the way the Electoral College works) and yet…these post-election Hillary pieces are starting to darken. It certainly can be argued—no, it should be argued—that for the sake of comedy, nothing is off limits. All who enter the political ring are fair game. But SNL’s post-election Hillary stuff is starting to feel like a return to the scene of the crime. Parodying Hillary as cold, out-of-touch, and desperate makes no sense after a political defeat that is, effectively, the end of her career. It’s time for McKinnon to retire the pantsuit.
Sadly, the SNL42 slump is real. December in particular has been pretty painful to watch after an incredible October and November. May we all raise a glass of eggnog to a return to proper form in 2017…which is entirely possible if for no other reason than it will no longer be god-awful 2016.
SNL returns January 14 with guest host Felicity Jones and musical guest Sturgill Simpson.
Chris White writes and directs independent feature films. His latest is
an award-winning, southern gothic comedy starring Patti D’Arbanville and Michael Forest. Follow Chris on Twitter.