This was an excellent episode of Saturday Night Live—a perfect case study of why the show, now in its 42nd season, is back in fine form after a couple of hit and miss, mostly forgettable seasons.
Head writers Chris Kelly, Sarah Schneider, Brian Tucker and Kent Sublette have done an outstanding job this season, both managing and elevating the material without seeming too fussy or precious about it. In “Zoo Pornographer,” a riff on a cheery local news show’s unfortunate flub, we get locker room sex jokes and a sly media satire. In “Olive Garden,” we get a lighthearted, behind-the-scenes, showbiz comedy and hard-eyed social commentary. This has become the show’s tone in its best season in ages, as well as its animating theme: SNL will address the political and social moment, while also having fun… and seeking comedic invention. Sketches without an ending—like this episode’s 10-to-1 “Funeral Home”—which have always been more a result of the weekly production time crunch than lack of ambition—have been fewer and farther between.
Scarlett Johansson is flawless in her fifth appearance as SNL guest host. And though this season hasn’t always looked to returning veterans for its hosts, it’s insisted on familiar faces frequently—nearly every other week—giving SNL a sense of confidence that never slips into staidness or irrelevance. For every first-time host (Aziz Ansari, Felicity Jones, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Margot Robbie), there’s been a seasoned veteran (Alec Baldwin, Tom Hanks, Kristen Wiig, Emma Stone). The same goes for musical guest booking—which, let’s face it, has been the show’s most consistent strength for at least a decade now. Lorde’s stunning performances of “Green Light” and “Liability” (from her soon-to-be-released album Melodrama) were staged beautifully, executed flawlessly and perfectly scaled for the tiny 8H stage. Lorde may very well be remembered as the best musical performance of SNL42 when its all said and done, but who knows? They have all been quite good this season.
It’s hard to imagine any comedy stage that finds a way to build such consistently strong content with as diverse an array of talent as SNL has this season. Star Kate McKinnon’s Shud the Mermaid was back this week, as well as her Jeff Sessions, two wildly bizarre characters McKinnon manages to invest with both comic invention and sweetness—a tribute to her unique talent.
But the episode also revealed and relied upon the fifteen other unique talents that occupy the same stage. It was a big night for Beck Bennett, who’s been having his strongest year to date, and another solid episode for emerging star, Mikey Day. Both Bennett and Day are winning the battle for screen time with Keenan Thompson, Cecily Strong and McKinnon not far behind. And then there’s the evening best sketch—“A Sketch for the Women”—where Beck Bennett and Kyle Mooney offer a “Day Without Women” sketch where they proceed to mansplain the critical value of “girls” in our society. Mooney’s self-effacing approach to standing out in this crowded company stands in high contrast with Leslie Jones’ brash approach. But with this cast, the tension works. Oh, and adding Alec Baldwin to the rep company this year, as permanent Trump has been a most helpful development too.
It was not long ago that many (including this writer) were calling for an end to this entire segment, as ripped-from-the-headlines stand-up jokes have become something daily talk show hosts do better than SNL. But the pairing of Colin Jost and Michael Che as co-anchors has proved prescient. I’m glad Lorne Michaels stuck with Jost and Che in spite of the criticism.
Who can deny that the ascension of reality TV star/New York City real estate tycoon Donald Trump to the presidency has been a boon not only to cable news, but also to television comedy? Last night, “Alien Attack Cold Open,” “Translator,” pre-tape “Complicit” and almost all of Weekend Update was driven by Trump jokes. In “Alien Attack” we meet Trump in the middle of an inter-planetary disaster and find him to be unrattled and unchanged. In “Translator” we experience the utter dismay of a woman who learns her dog wants to make America great again. And in “Complicit” we are sold Ivanka Trump’s new fragrance, made squalid by the stench of her father: “I bet when she watches Titanic she thinks she’s Rose. Sorry girl, you’re Billy Zane.”
President Trump has even given Pete Davidson something less trifling to riff on. No matter what you think of America’s prospects under a President Trump, SNL’s prospects continue to be bright.
Pre-tape “Fire Island,” ostensibly a TV promo for a Logo channel show about weekending lesbians (“If you like separating types of people into shows, you’ll love Cherry Grove!”) captures in two minutes why SNL is so good again—perfectly illustrating the first three reasons cited above, and prompting another: the sheer brilliance of SNL’s pre-tape and studio production units.
Truly, with writing and acting and producing like this, SNL is on fire. It won’t last forever, but what a great watch the show is right now.
SNL returns April 8th with host Louis C.K.
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.