The first time Tom Hanks hosted Saturday Night Live was in December of 1985 alongside musical guest Sade and comedian Steven Wright. He’d just had two minor summer hits (The Man With One Red Shoe and Volunteers), but was still mostly known for Ron Howard’s 1984 film, Splash. It would be another two years before Big made him a bona fide movie star.
Hanks returns to SNL thirty-one years later for his ninth guest hosting assignment in a year that will see the release of three new films: A Hologram For the King, Sully and Inferno. 2016 promises to be his biggest year at the box office in more than a decade. And not surprisingly, back at Studio 8H, he’s terrific.
Hanks plays in every live sketch of the episode and one pre-tape. He even appears in a cut-for-time segment on Weekend Update (“Bruce Chandling and Paul Cannon on Halloween”). Really—every single sketch is superb. Even the weakest—pre-tape “Funny New Comedy”—would have seemed stronger on an average episode. And though there can be no doubt that Hanks’s presence inspired the SNL writing staff this week, we’d be remiss not to congratulate co-head writers Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider for keeping things organized, flowing and fun.
“Black Jeopardy with Tom Hanks” is yet another SNL42 satirical slam-dunk. The sketch fearlessly connects the dots between the most enthusiastic white passengers on the #TrumpTrain, and economically disadvantaged African-Americans. Though polls consistently suggest that these two groups are pitted against each other at the voting booth, lifestyle similarities between “ghetto” blacks and “redneck” whites is striking—one of the most under-reported socio-political phenomenon of the current election cycle.
It’s a fine line. And though the sketch occasionally skates too close to condescending to both groups, the ultimate effect is eye opening. We are presented with a credible snapshot of America at the lower end of the socio-economic ladder. That so many find themselves baffled by the political posture each group is inclined to take is an indictment of both the various privileged bubbles we choose to live in and of a disconnected political class that is more than willing to exploit them for political gain. It is heartening to see Saturday Night Live step into this important conversation with such biting satire. It’s what so many fans aspire for the show. It’s a way back to cultural relevance. It’s how the show can reinvigorate itself while bringing power back to sketch comedy.
Compare “Black Jeopardy” to “Donald Trump Vs. Hillary Clinton Third Debate Cold Open.” The debate sketch is a parody…and very good one at that. It’s what most of us look to SNL for—timely, cultural cartoons. It has hilarious laugh lines like Hanks as Chris Wallace: “Settle down entire planet, settle down.” Alex Baldwin as Trump: “I’ve even got the best Baldwin brother, Stephen.” The pointed Hillary Clinton jab: “Who do you trust to be president? The Republican or Donald Trump?” Even this stinger from Trump: “I am winning in every single poll taken outside of the Cracker Barrel.” These are terrific jokes, made funnier by spot-on political parodies. But “Black Jeopardy” is the deep dive, the profound stuff. It’s the sketch people will replay in ten, twenty years…and marvel at.
“Tom Hanks America’s Dad Monologue” was a perfect use of Hanks as guest host, and ironically comforting. “Halloween Block Party” followed with another SNL42 pitch-perfect absurd, live theatre riff…and another sketch for the Saturday Night Live Halloween pantheon. “Haunted Elevator” featuring the Hanks-created, funky-spook David S. Pumpkins was hilarious, too. The sheer weight of one solid sketch after another, the variety of comic tone, the sense that this episode was so well cast—all the right players in the right spots… This was a great night for SNL.
Lady Gaga’s performance of her new song “A-Yo” (featuring producer Mark Ronson on lead guitar) demonstrated that in addition to being an incredible performer and vocalist, Gaga (or is she Joanne now?) knows how to play the room at Saturday Night Live. Even the Meatloaf-esque, rock-and-roll melodrama “Million Reasons” soars because Gaga understands the stagecraft of playing live music on this big stage.
Weekend Update was on point. Jokes were sharp and funny—even featured bits “Leslie Jones on Being Hacked” and Cecily Strong’s “Girl at a Party on the 2016 Election” felt finely tuned, better played than in previous appearances. This episode was positively infected with Tom Hanks. In “Cockpit,” we see Alec Baldwin take off his Trump wig to goof with Hanks in a kind of old-school, Second City / SNL sketch where Hanks’s Sully Sullenberger, forced into the co-pilot’s seat, just can’t shake his need to wear the mantle of hero. Of course this is a “Let’s put Alec and Tom in a sketch together!” piece. And it totally works!
Which brings us back to Splash-famous Hanks hosting Saturday Night Live for the first time in 1985. Ron Howard’s film Cocoon had been a huge summer hit that year, and had only recently left theaters when his friend Hanks saw his SNL hosting dream come true. It is fitting, then, that 10-to-1 “America’s Funniest Pets with Tom Hanks” gives us Hanks’s whimsical impression of Howard as the host of a bad pet bloopers TV show. Howard directs Hanks in the upcoming Inferno, so the hat-tip is at least somewhat promotionally motivated, but still. Hanks clearly understands that part of his role as “America’s dad” is to remind us where you came from, who helped you get there, and to never stop having fun once you’re enjoying the ride. This lesson has certainly not been lost on SNL. Well into its fifth decade as an American television institution, the show is fun again and enjoying the ride.
Yep, it’s official. Saturday Night Live is back.
SNL returns November 5 with guest host Benedict Cumberbatch and musical guest Solange
Chris White writes and directs independent feature films. His latest is
a southern gothic comedy starring Patti D’Arbanville and Michael Forest. Follow Chris on Twitter.