Ayo Edebiri is a bright light in anything she does. The Emmy winner, comedian, voice actor, comedy writer and all-around delight threw herself around the Saturday Night Live stages like the impossibly young and assured comedy performer she is all night, her emotional monologue announcement that hosting her first SNLis a “dream come true” emerging with such sincerity and emotion that I wanted to stand up and cheer for the 28-year-old breakout star. That this episode kept intermittently making me want to throw things was not, in any way, her fault. In fact, the cold open especially made me feel like the show was deliberately slighting a brilliant and hilarious young performer.
I mean, they’re likely not doing that. The fact that the cold open featured Edebiri bantering with a GOP presidential candidate who recently topped off a rampage of pandering bigotry by peevishly denying that slavery was the cause of the Civil War was a terrible look for the show, sure. And, okay, the fact that Nikki Haley and not Ayo Edebiri got to kick off the show with a wooden “Live from New York” only doubled down on the jaw-dropping cluelessness of Lorne Michaels’ aging comedy cruise ship. And, if you want to get picky, the bumper announcing the upcoming homecoming hosting gig of an outspokenly bigoted white comic and abortive SNL hire during the hosting stint of a young queer Black female performer like Edebiri was tone deaf to the extent that any sane person would at least theorize that some sort of Haley-esque pandering to an audience that will never love it was going on. Will there be scathing think-pieces tomorrow about all this bullshit? Well, sure. But, hey, Ayo Edebiri was fucking terrific, the cast clearly loved working with her, and she will go on living her best life while Saturday Night Live continues its creaky decline in the rundown to Michael’s long-overdue retirement. I can practically hear Lorne’s long-winded explanation of the show’s simpering welcome for Haley. (“You know, when you have an opportunity to book a major political figure, you have to balance the show’s needs with that of the candidate, and I feel we did a service to both by…)
Enough of this non-Ayo talk, as Ayo was outstanding all night. There’s an energy when a host is obviously and infectiously into the sketches that bumps everything up several notches. That was Edebiri. Bristling with energy and a performer’s glee, the Bottoms, Big Mouth and The Bear star seized every role like she wanted to shine in it. And shone she did. Hosting SNL has defeated many, many talented people, the sheer pace and volume required often flattening out even veteran performers, but Edebiri was simply up for it all, bringing different energy and well-considered personas to every sketch. Even if the sketches were… fine, Ayo was outstanding, committed, and unerringly hilarious.
The Best and the Rest
The Best: No piece better illustrated how into the whole enterprise Ayo Edebiri was than the classroom sketch. You can always tell when a performer is excited to seize a sketch in their comedy choppers and shake, and Ayo’s turn as a hyper-religious student objecting to Andrew Dismukes’ visiting hypnotist saw her bringing not just a funny voice but an infectious verve to a character she was clearly delighted to play. After vociferously refusing to give verbal consent for Dismukes’ Mister Fantasmic to work his hoodoo on him, Edebiri’s stickler jumps on the opportunity provided to out himself as bisexual, feigning fury at the “warlock” responsible. It’s a funny enough idea, elevated by the sort of loony energy Ayo was slinging all night. “What have you done to me, warlock? What have you made me said?,” is just fine on paper, but in the host’s delivery it’s a killer. Taking things further, Edebiri’s aghast student also uses the moment to out himself as a really good singer, eventually sweeping the entire class into his musical spell. There’s a matchless fearlessness to a host who goes so big, and so specific in her comic choices, and Edebiri pulls focus expertly and with the ease of a seasoned sketch veteran.
The Worst: See the political comedy report. You probably could have guessed that. I wasn’t nuts about every sketch tonight, but the gap between that GOP campaign ad and the next worst piece is so wide, I can’t in good conscience pick another one here.
The Rest: Some sketches are so obviously geared toward giving everybody in this overcrowded cast some screen time, but when it’s done as well as the Valentines Day report sketch, it shows off the ensemble to great effect. Bowen Yang’s reporter does a person on the street piece pestering passing couples for their meet-cute stories, only to be greeted with one mortifyingly disillusioning example after another. That means Dismukes and Chloe Troast’s new parents revealing that they were mutually cheating on their partners, got knocked up, and now are together since Dismukes is rich and trapped. Heidi Gardner and her much older suitor are the result of him being her professor and her father recently dying. Deliriously happy Ayo and Devon Walker smilingly explain that they’re both in dying marriages to other people but use their workplace marriage as a substitute. (“And we do have sex as well,” Edebiri beams.) Punkie and a smiling old guy were matched up in a cult, Ego and beau Martin Herlihy are victims of New York rent prices. And best of all is a gaudily dressed Kenan and Sarah Sherman’s materialistic character, with Kenan summing up their relationship with a deliciously knowing, “Pass.” There’s even an ending of sorts, with the frustrated Bowen’s own meet cute with a passing Marcello Hernandez undermined by news co-anchor Molly Kearney’s horrified recognition that Marcello is her husband. And give it up to James Austin Johnson as Ayo’s clueless spouse, gamely assuring Yang that his marriage is fine even as Ayo vainly attempts to feign that she’s never seen the reporter before. Just a crisp, impeccably acted little number, this.
Got some “good, not great” vibes from the filmed pieces tonight. Marcello (coming into his own as the cast’s go-to cutie pie) singing to his commemorative Dune: Part 2 popcorn bucket is an able fake-out to some moderately amusing product placement. To be fair, that rubberized monstrosity of movie memorabilia is a horror, what with it’s gaping maw filled with pointy Sarlacc teeth that moviegoers shove their buttery hand into. (Seriously, the thing is so grotesquely suggestive that it’s either a hilarious marketing own goal or one of the most incongruously knowing in-jokes ever perpetrated by a self-seriously would-be epic film.) The switcheroo that Marcello was prepping for a big, no-parents night with high school crush Edebiri looking like it’s going to be a 40 Year Old Virgin masturbation joke only to pivot to the entire high school body being obsessed with jamming their mitts through that rubber orifice to reach the gooey treats inside is fun stuff.
Elevatorland made me laugh with its carful of stalled passengers turning quickly to a repopulated elevator utopia plan. Ayo, Kenan, Dismukes, Sarah and Bowen all commit, with Ayo and Yang’s initial feint toward just being super horny segueing into a contagious collective desire to escape to a new world where everyone can be an astronaut, mailman, or Marilyn Monroe proving pretty endearing, with the payoff fantasy world indeed suggesting the power of five crazy people’s imagination. “Let’s be real—whatever’s out there is not working,” Bowen pitches passionately, right before a firefighter pries open the door to ask if they all want to come out. Sometimes you get the sense that a host is bringing out the best in the cast, and here Ayo’s deadpan sincerity of purpose is matched by everybody around her, the spinning out of the premise gradually enveloping all resistance. (“Enough food for the mouths,” Bowen swoons after Edebiri’s passenger cites the man-to-woman ratio.)
The micro-dosing sketch could have been another of those SNL bits where the super-obvious premise is belabored ad nauseam. (And the fact that prime offender in that area Mikey Day was front and center had me on alert.) But Day and Edebiri, as a pair of virulently anti-drug grad students objecting to Dismukes’ innocuous mini-mushroom dosing are—say it with me one more time—all in. Say this about Ayo Edebiri, she does not take a play off, here lending a manic zealotry matching Day’s booming disapproval. There is a worrying strain of over-explaining going on from the rest of the cast, with various fellow students suggesting that Ayo and Mikey overdosed on their high school D.A.R.E. program’s single-minded messaging, but the sketch is carried along on pure performing energy. Nothing special on paper, reliably entertaining in practice.
Another game show sketch? At least this one let Ayo and Ego bounce off each other as a trivia contestant and the host obviously helping her win. They both went to Spelman and share an immediate kinship over the reulting student loans, leading to Nwodim’s host feeding Edebiri the answers in every conceivable manner, much to the chagrin of also-ran players Mikey Day and Sarah Sherman. The premise is paper-thin, but the two leads bring the funny, teaming up on irate and baffled Day for his desire to use his winnings for a sport fishing boat. “You can fish on any boat,” Ayo snaps, while the two crowd out Day’s interrupted insinuation about why Ego’s helping Ayo cheat with a defiant, “Say it with your chest!”
Weekend Update update
It’s tempting but naive to assume that Jost and Che using the eve of President Biden’s complete trouncing of his Democratic “rivals” in the South Carolina primary to make the same tired “Gosh, he’s old” jokes was a sop to the visiting Republican also-ran from the cold open. This is just who the co-anchors are, smart-asses who think political jokes are too hard or boring to bother with. I’ve ranted enough for one… lifetime, so I’ll end it there. There were better jokes once the duo dispensed with their grudging nod toward the most pivotal election in American history. Any time Jost uses old footage of Trump happily dancing with late pedophile panderer Jeffrey Epstein while scoping out a roomful of young women “like nobody’s checking IDs” is at least worth a chuckle.
Mocking Fox News’ penchant for skating past any good Biden news with scare headlines like “Are migrants turning your kids trans,” is obvious but on point. Che’s Haley joke played into the visitor’s hands, as he used his “Who, me?” sexist schtick to avoid confronting Haley with anything substantive. (Maybe my suspicions weren’t all that naive after all.) These are funny guys who let me down and piss me off, although not in the way they imagine they’re doing. Like Lorne, it’s time to hand off the baton. There are other voices better suited to the times.
Sarah Sherman bashing Jost is such a crowd-pleaser I’m shocked she’s not on every week. Here, as the young standby ticket holder who’s clearly implied to be Jost’s illegitimate son with his former housekeeper, Sherman bats her boss around with customary glee. Sherman’s not a subtle performer (here she does a little self-mockery, noting her penchant for “being way too loud after she blows that one line”), but the repeating gag where “Cat’s in the Cradle” (complete with hazy filter) keeps butting in to her string of damning evidence is the sort of over-the-top silliness Sherman is best at.
Recurring Sketch Report
Another benefit of having a host who’s in it to win it is the juice they lend to old sketches. I do like game show “Why’d You Say It?,” in which sheepish contestants attempt to explain their embarrassingly revelatory replies on social media well enough. The widening gap between what we are willing to say online versus what we actually have to account for in person is always good for some comic friction. Here, I laughed out loud when contestant Mikey Day, learning for the first time the show’s premise, dips immediately, only to be replaced by equally uninformed Chloe Fineman. And then there’s Ayo, who puts a majestic little quaver in her voice when her player explains why she responded “Die” to a post where Drew Barrymore blissfully extolled the pleasure of dancing in the rain. (“Just a sweet woman enjoying the rain,” Kenan’s peerlessly knowing host sets Edebiri up.) The repeated buzzers nixing her ensuing string of half-excuses eventually lead to Ayo mumbling a dead-eyed confession that she’s dead inside and that provoking responses online is the only way she can be sure she exists, and I laughed out loud again.
Dismukes’ online negging of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is revealed as an elaborately one-sided mental game in which they will end up having sex, leading to the contestant going into a protective fugue state once his in-attendance wife registers her displeasure. (“You’re is not real and none of this is happening to me,” Dismukes states blankly , while Kenan responds to his complaint that nobody told him the show’s premise when he signed up with a chipper, “Then don’t sign up for stuff.”) Chloe used a natural disaster to promote her terrible song, confessing that it’s either that or she has to move back to Ohio. On the meta front, Edebiri was tasked with addressing this week’s manufactured elephant in the room when she, referring obliquely to her podcast criticism of musical guest Jennifer Lopez, blurted a mea culpa about being “24 and stupid,” which is about as harmless a way to dispense with that outside distraction as possible, I guess. Ongoing note to SNL: If you have to do repeater sketches, wait until the host has something new to bring to the party.
Political Comedy Report
And here we go. To quote Tracy Jordan, “Now, I don’t want to go on a rant here…” So tune out if you don’t want to hear me go on a rant. Nikki Haley is a terrible person who has played down to every conceivable MAGA bigotry, conspiracy, and hare-brained dipshittery in pursuit of the White House. In today’s Republican Party, the only conceivable way forward is to out-awful Donald Trump and, bless her pandering, shameless heart, the former South Carolina governor and person who claims that racism isn’t a thing in America and that Florida’s hateful “don’t say gay” laws “don’t go far enough” has shown herself as willing to plunge down deep into the muck with the worst of them. Saturday Night Live has long dined out on its perceived political radical courage, despite the fact that that reputation is monumentally self-inflated. As content as Lorne Michaels and his brain trust are these days to take flabby jabs at political figures enough to provoke sputtering condemnation on Fox News and the Sunday shows, they’re more than delighted to court ratings by inviting lightning rod public figures to juice ratings. The choice to platform Donald Trump during his initial run for president has been discussed to death, but it’s worth repeating that that stunt scuttled whatever pretense to political relevance or courage SNL ever had. With the candidate already having proven himself willing (if not delighted) to pander to the most ugly, bigoted, reactionary, and un-democratic fringe of the American right in his egomaniacal power grab, Lorne invited Trump anyway. That the show as a disaster in every conceivable measure except for the predictable ratings was the final nail in most people’s willingness to grant SNL the benefit of the doubt, or pay any attention to Lorne’s tiresome “comedy means hitting both sides” equivocation. Some things aren’t just good old partisan gamesmanship. Some things are fucking evil, and platforming them on your show means you’re complicit.
Anyway, this was a cold open. James Austin Johnson’s Trump is a funny caricature drifting away on the lukewarm gas of cautious innocuousness. Punkie’s Gayle King and Kenan’s Charles Barkley were competently amusing hosting a CNN town hall with the presumptive GOP nominee, adjudicated rapist and guy about to lose more money in court than Elon Musk in a compensation hearing. And there were a few passable attempts at satire along the way. Michael Longfellow’s undecided Republican voter’s, “Somehow that was what I wanted to hear,” in response to JAJ’s Trump’s signature string of non sequiturs and gibbering bigotry hit with medium force, and Devon Walker keeps peeking his head above the featured player waters, here bringing back his energetic Tim Scott.
And then came Haley, with my notes, upon re-reading, exclaiming, in all caps, “OH, WHAT THE FUCK?” (I honestly don’t remember typing it.) Look, she’s a public figure in a high-profile, unbelievably high-stakes election cycle. Let’s give SNL the benefit of that doubt. Nikki Haley is also (at least) an opportunistic bigot whose desire to out-Trump the single most wretched candidate in American presidential history puts her squarely in opposition to any conception of comedy that isn’t punching down. (That Trump recently launched his own racist attacks on Haley only proves what happens when you get in bed with terrible people.) Comedy is truth told with corkscrew logic, observation run through with knowing humanity and perspective. Saturday Night Live, born as it was out of a wiseass young Canadian’s desire to puncture post-Watergate malaise (and TV comedy malaise), set itself up as stand-bearer for youthful insouciance toward the status quo, the atavistically ugly and narrow, and the cravenly opportunistic. Nikki Haley was given a platform tonight to not only take shots at her Republican rival but the current president running against him, and then handed the keys to start the show. That’s as tacit an endorsement as it gets.
I make no bones about my disdain for bottom-dredging bigots like Trump and Haley, who play to the worst in the American electorate for squirmy, self-aggrandizing and downright reprehensible gain. Sue me—I hate bigots. I also love Saturday Night Live, and have spent literally the entire preposterously long run of the show (I may not be young) excusing it. Bad sketches, bad hires (hello next host), lazy targeting, shameless clout-chasing, the occasional on-air trainwreck—that all comes with the territory of a live, weekly 90-minute comedy enterprise. But deliberately giving airtime to someone who spits in the face of not only your core viewership but many of your cast and crew with their smirking right-wing bullshit? That’s a choice. It sucks that Ayo Edibiri had to throw to Nikki Haley, no matter that her jab made Haley have to pretend to regret her slavery denialism. It sucks that Lorne and his crew feel that forcing the show’s LGBTQ and non-white cast and crew have to endure the presence of Shane Gillis when the show comes back on the 24th is a good idea. It sucks that this show, with it’s overblown veneer of political boldness, has, under the aging Michales. become so cozy with the very forces it purports to satirize. It sucks.
Not Ready for Prime Time Power Rankings
With Ayo in the house, it was Ego who made the best team-up with the host. (“AyoEgo” team name? Anyone?) They played off each other’s energy with terrific chemistry, and Punkie wasn’t far off, either.
Devon Walker continues to gather strength, with a couple of sizable side roles, even if this is clearly Marcello’s featured player race to win. Longfellow, Kearney and Troast make up the field, in that order.
Kenan—what can I say? There was sketchy report this week from a notorious garbage site that Kenan might be leaving after this year, but I’ll believe it when I see it. From time to time, I see articles and comments claiming that Kenan Thompson is not one of the best to ever do it on SNL, or at least that his long tenure is out of proportion to what he brings, To that nonsense, I say only, quoting Kenan’s dagger of a single-word scene-theft tonight, “Pass.”
Mikey Day is another story, a guy who’s been here for a long time whose position as writer-performer is just valuable enough to keep him in the mix. I like Mikey, despite my refrain that his recurring role as “guy who explains a sketch’s premise to the slowest kids in the back” seems to be the result of a mummy’s curse. He had a good night tonight—he can still bring some manic energy when he’s not in terminal straight man mode.
Now this is more like it. After a run of repeaters, filmed pieces, and occasional timing-related skip-its of late, we finally got a little weirdo of a final sketch tonight. Granted, I don’t know how much blood The People’s Court has left as a concept, but here’s to the staging and the prop department, as Edebiri’s plaintiff finally reveals the reason why she’s suing hairdresser Ego Nwodim—a raw, exposed brain in the back of her skull. A big old gross-out reveal like that is one thing, but here’s to Ayo for inhabiting the understandable ire of this woman with embroidery like the horrifyingly specific fact, “I can feel my memories being blown away!” Punkie does a double-fakeout, with her comically Ego-receded hairline looking like its going to be the gag, only to turn around and expose her own exposed brain. Ayo, once more, brings it, summoning tears when confessing to judge Kenan about her fleeing memories and doing a little unexpected mid-conflict grab at her painful wound. Man, she’s terrific, as is Kenan’s summation, “Now, I am not sure who should pay who. But I hope all involved go to hell when they die.” Exposed brains in the 10-to-one spot is my sweet spot.
Hey, Shane Gillis is hosting the February 24 show! You know, the comedian who was hired then immediately fired after SNL failed to do even cursory research into Gillis’ history of trafficking in racial, ethnic and gay slurs. The guy whose immediate shit-canning overshadowed the hiring of Bowen Yang and Molly Kearney, the show’s first LGBTQ and Asian and non-binary performers, respectively. What a fun development for them and the rest of the SNL family, especially in light of the sanctioned appearance of transphobe hobbyist Dave Chappelle in last week’s goodnights. Look, I know I’m just a woke snowflake and whatnot, but Lorne cannot tootle off to St. Bart’s fast enough.
A lot of above-average extra work tonight. Give it up for the lady behind Haley, clearly expressing naked displeasure at sharing the screen. The older dudes in the couple sketch were so composed and wordlessly amusing that I first assumed they were cast members in makeup. And here’s to the guy staring in unbroken horror all through Ayo’s speeches as he stares down the barrel of her open skull.
Is Martin Herlihy’s appearance in the couples sketch the first time one of the Please Don’t Destroy Guys has done a solo turn in a live sketch? Huh.
I couldn’t possibly care less about the ginned-up would-be feud between two very talented women of color fluttering around the press for tonight’s show. Just not interested.
J-Lo did do some impressive “I’m 50!” Sally O’Malley kicks during her first number.
Che joked that police shot the recovered remains of the stolen Jackie Robinson statue “because it wouldn’t drop the bat.”
Good one. On a related note, I hope the people who defaced American hero Robinson’s statue actually try to come at arresting police with bats in their hands.