Louis C.K. hosts a serviceable episode of Saturday Night Live, kicking off a five-show finale to what is widely considered to be the show’s best season in a while. SNL42 has managed to achieve this impressive feat with only one breakout star (Kate McKinnon), relying instead on a reconstituted (and re-inspired) writing staff, the strength of a diverse and vibrant ensemble, and an American political establishment that’s been shattered. Unsurprisingly, these are the same elements that shaped the show into an American television icon four decades ago.
Saturday Night Live is Saturday Night Live again. Which is not to say it’s flawless—making and watching live sketch comedy is not for perfectionists. There are the cracks and vulnerabilities that are inherent to the one-week production format. Still, as this bumpy Louis C.K.-hosted episode proves, the show is worth following again, worth keeping up with, worth our time.
As witnessed in his recently released Netflix special (2017), Louis C.K. is back with brand new stand-up material, back where he started: on stage holding a microphone, telling jokes. (Though this time around, he’s traded his signature black T-shirt and jeans for a suit and tie.) C.K.’s opening monologue gives us more of the new stuff. His stand-up has always been disquieting, but his new jokes are sharper, edgier than before. He fumbles and stumbles his way into matters of race: “Why did the chicken cross the road? There was a black guy following him.” The joke builds from this set-up, of course (The chicken: “I’m not in your soup yet, ya Jew!”), but the telling is precarious. When C.K. talks about having sex with a goat (“A trash can I can make love to”), he doubles down on the audience’s discomfort: “I don’t care that you’re upset. I’m still getting the goat!” C.K. ends his set on the topic of white privilege: “It’s wrong that white people get preferential treatment, but as long as we do, what’s going on at this hotel?! I’m supposed to get the best!” The material is raw and as uncensored as one can get on broadcast TV. The unease we feel is the point. C.K. is teasing our strident morality, our willingness to scold and correct each other. He makes us laugh in spite of our better selves, as if to say: “Ha! Made you laugh!”
Pre-tapes “Thank You, Scott” and “Pepsi Commercial” poke at the same wound. “Thank You, Scott” is a sarcastic tribute to a well-known cohort on social media: so-called “virtue signalers.” These are people who crow the loudest about the latest outrage on Facebook or Twitter, but don’t actually physically do anything about it. (If you don’t get “Thank You, Scott,” then you are probably a Scott on social media.). “Pepsi Commercial” offers a sly poke at the thinking behind Kendall Jenner’s new Pepsi ad, which was pulled almost as quickly as it was posted due to its glib appropriation of serious protest and its general tone-deafness. Beck Bennett is fantastic as the commercial director who gradually realizes how offensively vacuous this ad is, with Cecily Strong’s appearance as Jenner highlighting the ad’s vapidity in a final stinger.
Cold open “Trump’s People” attempts something a bit more nuanced than the broad political parodies the show has previously attempted with Alec Baldwin’s Trump impersonation. In it, Trump has returned to coal country for a quick ego boost after a rough couple of weeks in Washington. The twist is that these Trump Train devotees are starting to realize the President’s policies are not quite what they were hoping for. It’s an odd piece for a cold open in that it is more of an ironic think piece than a broad parody. “The O’Reilly Factor With Donald Trump” works better. Not just because Baldwin’s O’Reilly is so uncanny (better than his Trump), but because the sketch’s premise in simpler, less nuanced and crafted to match the tone of Baldwin’s parody. This should have been the cold open.
A one-joke riff on the power of long, flirty eyelashes, “The Lawyer” is the episode’s strongest sketch. Louis C.K. plays a lawyer with gorgeous eyes who knows just how to use them. It’s a dumb, old-style SNL sketch with a lame ending, but it really delivers the laughs, unlike “Soda Shop,” the sketch that follows it. The regrettable “Soda Shop” cracks wise about creepy old guys and the underage girls who indulge them. Watching the sketches back-to-back offers a perfect example of what’s working this season and what isn’t: juvenilia with a dash of whimsy works, juvenilia with a dash of sex crime doesn’t.
Weekend Update felt a little off its game this week. Maybe they were a little thrown by President Trump’s first presidential-style act: the bombing of a Syrian airbase in retaliation for Bashar al-Assad using chemical weapons against his own people. There were some good jokes—“It was reported that Yahoo and AOL will combine to form a new company. Because no one wants to die alone.”—but overall, the segment lacked the swagger that’s made it so fun to watch this season. The segment is certainly helped by another Kate McKinnon small miracle: her portrayal of bad Jesus painter Cecilia Gimenez vehemently defending that awful bust of Cristiano Renaldo at the Madeira airport in Portugal.
Neither of The Chainsmokers’ performances—“Paris” or “Break Up Every Night” from their new album Memories…Do Not Open— will win them any new fans. (Though there can be no doubt that confirmed fans will certainly dig in their heels.) The band’s material is middling, anthemic pop and their performance style may, at best, be considered…casual. It’s the least impressive musical booking all season, so I’m willing to give SNL a pass.
“Birthday Clown,” a pre-tape starring Louis C.K. and Bobby Moynihan was good, playing a bit like an outtake from the show Louie: funny, simple, an absurd comedy of existential despair. “Sectionals,” a commercial parody that imagines what would happen if a man devoted his life to long, right-angle leather couches with built-in recliners and drink holders, is another late-in-show gem. It is the preponderance of pieces like these that has given SNL deep content this season. And in turn, made the show can’t-miss television once again.
NEXT WEEK: Jimmy Fallon and Harry Styles
Chris White writes and directs independent feature films. His latest is
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