Saturday Night Live: “Dave Chappelle/A Tribe Called Quest”

Comedy Reviews Saturday Night Live
Saturday Night Live: “Dave Chappelle/A Tribe Called Quest”

In a week that saw the unexpected passing of Leonard Cohen and Hillary Clinton’s political career, it was fitting for Saturday Night Live to acknowledge both. But even more unexpected was the strange and wonderful way the show accomplished this feat—with cast member Kate McKinnon donning Hillary wig and pantsuit for (perhaps?) the last time, sitting down at a piano, and playing and singing Cohen’s signature ballad, “Hallelujah.”

“Election Week Cold Open” must be seen to be believed. No factually accurate description of the piece can capture the sheer bravura of the idea and deep poignancy of the moment. Particularly stunning is when McKinnon gets to the third verse of the song, which serves to both eulogize Clinton’s failed presidential bid and to consecrate it:

“I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.”

The performance serves as protest of the week’s election results and paean to the beloved Cohen, but it is more than that. McKinnon, who has parodied Clinton for years, closes the act by choosing to dignify her and whisper hope to those who supported her.

For those who espoused love trumping hate, this was your finest moment.

Dave Chappelle, who soared in the early 2000s with the now legendary sketch comedy show, Chappelle’s Show, is back…though it’s not entirely clear what for. His first SNL hosting gig was not timed to coincide with the release of a movie, comedy special, or tour. Still, his appearance the week following a rancorous, racially-charged U.S. election is fascinating. Chappelle has lived in a kind of self-imposed exile from show business since the inauguration of Barack Obama in 2009. Now, as a new president who was buoyed by overtly racist campaign rhetoric replaces Obama, Chappelle returns. It is as though he’s been called back to an America who needs his hard-charging brand of comedy again…or perhaps, he’s just here for the party: “I’m gonna….get this tax break and see how it works out!”

Chappelle’s opening monologue brings to mind Louis CK’s stem-winding, stand-up club-styled open in May 2015. Executive Producer Lorne Michaels allows him to go eleven (uncensored) minutes and it’s all really strong, though it’s the last two and half minutes that is just as breathtaking as McKinnon’s show opening performance. Chappelle tells of a recent White House social event sponsored by cable network BET, an event that was attended by “all black people…and Bradley Cooper.” Chappelle explains the pride he felt, being black, among other African-Americans, in a place that was once expressly off-limits to people of his skin color. And then he surprises with magnanimity. Chappelle: “So I’m gonna give him [Trump] a chance, and we, the historically disenfranchised, demand that he give us one, too.”

The evening’s first sketch was the painfully satirical “Election Night,” which gives us a moment-to-moment replay of Clinton’s unexpected electoral loss while an #ImWithHer victory party turns sour. Or rather, we watch as several white Hillary supporters turn as cynical as their black guests (played by Chappelle and Chris Rock in a surprise appearance). The sketch stings. It cuts deep to the core of the white privilege bubble in which so many of us found ourselves during this election cycle. Gone is the generosity of spirit of McKinnon’s cold open or the hard-won hope of Chappelle’s monologue. SNL is self-righteously indignant in this piece—though not at so-called “Trumpkins.” This is a sketch about socio-political hubris and cynicism. And if you find yourself frustrated as you watch, it’s very likely that you are the target.

SNL42’s new found interest in meta-comedy continues with “Jheri’s Place”—a purposefully bad sketch followed by a post-game style press conference about what went wrong—and “Love and Leslie,” an Office-style mockumentary about a workplace romance between Leslie Jones and Kyle Mooney. Both pieces are quite funny—“Jheri’s Place” is inventive in ways we’ve not ever seen at Saturday Night Live. But self-referential comedy has it’s dangers. Too much navel gazing can turn the show into an inside joke for the privileged few. Meta comedy is working, SNL, but proceed with caution.

A Tribe Called Quest performed “We the People” and “The Space Program” from their latest and last album, We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service. Both performances are exciting and high-energy—it’s good to see the band back together again, especially after the tragic loss of Phife Dawg to diabetes. But even in solemn tribute to their lost friend, Tribe is pointed, angry and protesting: “All you black folks, you must go. All you Mexicans, you must go. And all you poor folks, you must go. Muslims and gays, boy, we hate your way, so all you bad folks, you must go!”

Near the end of the show, it suddenly occurred to me that there had been no sign of Alec Baldwin’s Trump. Baldwin, who has been playing Trump for SNL42, was a no show. It will be interesting to see how the show handles President Trump. It is doubtful that Baldwin will commit to four years of SNL, so my money’s on Darrell Hammond returning to the role. Still, how nice it was to be rid of the 2016 presidential election—if not the consequences of it, certainly the tension of not knowing how it would turn out. I wonder if around Studio 8H, not seeing a glowering, cartoon Trump standing in the wings was something of a relief, too.

Lest we forget, it was the real Donald Trump who hosted Saturday Night Live one year to the day of his being elected President of the United States—November 8, 2015.

NEXT WEEK: Kristen Wiig and The XX

Chris White writes and directs independent feature films. His latest is Unbecoming, an award-winning, southern gothic comedy starring Patti D’Arbanville and Michael Forest. Follow Chris on Twitter.

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