A Handy Pete Davidson Ushers in SNL‘s Delayed 49th Season

Comedy Reviews Saturday Night Live
A Handy Pete Davidson Ushers in SNL‘s Delayed 49th Season

And Your SNL Host…

Pete Davidson was slated to host SNL back in May, before the writers’ and actors’ strikes kicked in. So it makes sense he’d kick off the strike-delayed Season 49—Pete’s barely been off the show, he knows the moves (he’s always been a cue card dependent), and no doubt it was easier to have a recent alum in the house as Saturday Night Live comes off a tumultuous extended off season in a something of a rush.

That the show opened with Pete shuffling through a heartfelt speech voicing SNL’s hope for peace in both Israel and Gaza is yet another chapter in the show’s long and often tone-deaf history of “getting serious” in the wake of the unthinkable. The thing is, I didn’t really cringe much once Pete got going. That he had an on-point story about his father’s death (when Pete was just 7) in the World Trade Center terrorist attacks helped, but it was more about the fact that Davidson was clearly aware of the incongruity of SNL’s former stoner little brother being expected to carry such emotional weight.

He did carry it, though, telling a no-doubt true anecdote about his beloved mom buying him Eddie Murphy’s decidedly age-inappropriate Delirious special and letting the young and grief-stricken kid listen to all the F-bombs (and unfortunate homophobia) because sometimes, as Davidson said earnestly, “comedy is really the only way forward through tragedy.” Pete stumbled, he shuffled, and he paused to “um” his way through his speech, and it came off as kind of sweet and honest. He (and SNL) made sure to stress support for both the Palestinian and Israeli people affected by the ongoing horror show of bloodshed (there was a later title card with info for viewers to donate to charities benefitting both groups), and, considering the source, Davidson’s plea that, “No one in this world deserves to suffer like that, especially not kids,” got to me. Whether Saturday Night Live deserves to court this sort of cringe-y sentimentality at all is up for debate, but Pete did this as well as anyone could have.

And then, in his monologue, Pete did standup bits about watching Game of Thrones’ incest scenes with his sister (punch line: “Am I about to bang this chick?”), and a long anecdote about his former “sex friend” wishing him well on his way to his first comedy performance. (Punchline upon seeing the young woman’s face on the news after she OD-ed a few years later: “Hey, I banged that girl.”) Davidson’s standup mixes humility and boorishness in an aw-shucks manner that could use some freshening and tightening, even if Pete’s openness about his improbable fame and ongoing mental health and substance abuse issues keeps him on the windy side of off putting. He was all over the sketches tonight, and did a yeoman’s job, cue cards and all.

The Best and the Rest

The Best: Look, it’s been a long, messy, and no doubt trying summer for SNL’s writers and performers, so I’ll grade this initial outing on something of a curve. I liked the episode’s occasional forays into absurdity, as in Heidi Gardner’s sketch as a preternaturally prepared law office assistant whose Rader-like anticipations of her boss Pete’s needs veers more and more into weirdo territory. Gardner does the clipped Gal Friday banter like a champ, and tosses herself right through her prop desk like a trouper (even doffing her blouse for the laugh), and if the sketch could have really sung with someone a whole lot better at live performing that Pete (endearing though he is, he’s not a razor-sharp timing guy), it still had be off balance and happy for the most part. Points, too, for James Austin Johnson’s new guy responding to Gardner’s rapid-fire incorrect guesses about his ancestry with a brisk, “Nope. I think I’m done meeting her.”

The Worst: Here’s to new movie stars Please Don’t Destroy for getting their very own SNL credits title card. Less so for their first outing of the season, a one-joke bit about Herlihy, Marshall, and Higgins’ improbable childhood stint as successful Def Jam comics. Seeing three nerdy young versions of the team Davidson calls, “Like, the whitest people I’ve ever seen” doing bits about “coochie” to a howlingly appreciative Black crowd is the gag, and we get it—over and over.

The Rest: I haven’t seen Barbie yet (or eternally yoked life mate Oppenheimer, so calm it), but the “I’m Just Pete” riff on that movie’s iconic musical paean to everybody’s favorite misunderstood himbo is the sort of meticulously lavish musical parody SNL has become so damn good at over the years. As a vehicle for Davidson to unpack the world’s unlikely obsession with his love/private life, the original’s plea of a yearning ding-dong to be appreciated for who he is hits the sweet spot. Pete incorporating references to his travails (“I’m mentally ill and I’m on drugs!” he croons at a pivotal point) into the whole spectacle continues the vein of lacerating forthrightness in his comedy, with self-digs at his feud with he who must not be named for legal reasons (Kayne’s image pops in, Tyler Durden-style), big dick energy, bipolar energy, rehab, and his relative attractiveness compared to the rest of the male comedy scene all slot in nicely.

Speaking of gossip fuel, the NFL Sunday sketch, apart from being a vehicle for some so-so impressions (James Austin Johnson’s Jimmy Johnson is the best, unsurprisingly), functions as SNL’s take on the fact that pop icon Taylor Swift is now de rigueur hacky sports talk fodder, thanks to Swift apparently dating Kansas City Chiefs star Travis Kelce. Still, it’s not a bad swerve as the initial jockish dismissal of Swift as NFL news quickly gives way to the hosts all competing to out-Swiftie each other. “It was a formative relationship!” Johnson’s Johnson blurts in outrage at Mikey Day’s Howie Long suggesting that “‘Karma’ isn’t about Joe.” (Not being as devoted a Swiftie, I’ll leave that argument to the readership.) Meanwhile, Kenan rides herd, deadpanning with consummate ease as exasperated host Curt Menafee, his momentary relief at throwing to Davidson’s sideline reporter thwarted by Pete’s conspiracy theory about Taylor possibly being at the Jets game. (Travis’ brother Jason plays for the opposing Eagles, and the internet is buzzing.) Toss in a benediction cameo from Travis himself as the one person who wants to talk anything but romance, and it’s all pretty amusing. (Taylor herself shows up later to introduce “Karma” collaborator Ice Spice’s second number, completing the coziness loop.)

I suppose it wouldn’t be a new SNL season without a shit joke. Thankfully, a quick Google assured me that none of the actors from a purported new Marvel show, Stark Labs, exist, so we’re all free to laugh and laugh at the idea that Pete Davidson’s young co-star was, in fact, that unfortunate passenger whose tummy troubles grounded an entire passenger jet. The product placement of a particular website’s popular “complete the internet query” segments aside, it’s just Davidson’s actor getting embarrassed over and over, with nary a variation or twist. Meh—the button where Pete tries to throw Chloe Fineman’s co-star under the bus (“Her grandmother was a Nazi!” “Only during the war!”) is too little, too late to save this stinker.

There’s no such saving grace for the beach party scene, where Andrew Dismukes does some decent work as the guy who’s been playfully buried in the sand when Davidson’s partier receives some tragic news. Dismukes can grab ahold of an oddball concept with authority, and the sketch actually swerves twice—Dismukes attempting to sincerely comfort his grieving pal while just a head and sandy starfish boobs is some fine underplaying, while the gradual reveal that nobody even wanted to bury him in the first place shows some added effort on the writing side. Still, there was no ending on the horizon anywhere.

Was this the first SNL to feature both “pussy” and “snatch” as laugh lines? I’ll have to do some research on that, but the gynecologist sketch that transforms into an ad for the undercarriage makeup kit for women, Glamgina, at least lets Sarah Sherman off the leash for the new year. With her legs in stirrups and horrified gyno Pete playing aghast straight man to the parade of inexplicably appearing fellow spokeswomen hawking the new product (“Where are you guys coming from?” “The parking lot!”), Sherman is all brash to-camera hamminess, as is her wont when she gets to do her thing. All the female cast gets a line or two, and then Kenan pops in as the janitor, asking if the product also works on “the booty-hole.” So let’s add that to the research: snatch, pussy, booty-hole… I’m on it.

Weekend Update update

Jost and Che know their wheelhouses, alone and as a team. Look, my complaints about the Jost-Che Update cruising on attitude over substance is dull even to me, so I’ll keep it as short as possible to start the new season. They could be doing a whole lot more with the fake news conceit—toss a rock and hit a hot button injustice ripe for insightful comedy. But that’s what The Onion and John Oliver are for, so if the guys want to cruise on past the tangled horrors of Gaza, Trump praising the terrorist team, seditionist and sexual assault enabler Jim Jordan being the GOP House’s chosen Speaker, a sitting Senator indicted for being a foreign agent and more with a smirk and a zinger, well, they are pretty good at that.

Their best lines are genuinely good jokes. Jost calling the Gaza crisis “a great week for random idiots who like to share completely unhinged thoughts wherever they can” and Che turning a story about porn star Mia Khalifa’s firing thanks to Trump-like statements praising murderous terrorist groups into a defense of his at-work Googling habits are top notch. The rest are solid, especially when the guys go to the well for some “let’s embarrass Jost” joke-switching gags. (Che throws to a supposedly horrified Jost to deliver two racially touchy one-liners about California’s recently instituted “Ebony Alert” law.) “Could do more, but do what they do just fine” is the Jost-Che legacy.

Man, I love Kenan Thompson. Now in his no-sign-of-slowing-down 21st season, Kenan is rarely anything but Kenan, and I’ve been fine with that since 2003. He can do a character, whip out a decent impression (I miss his Big Papi almost as much as the real article), but as innumerable game show hosts, talk show hosts, straight men, and random assorted oddballs, Kenan is just money. No slight to the late Phil Hartman, but Kenan’s been the glue for a lot longer. Here, his newly unveiled Deion Sanders doesn’t sound anything like the former two sport legend turned attention-gobbling Colorado head coach, but who cares? Kenan loves a braggadocious sports figure, and his preening Prime Time is a damned delight as the Buffalos coach repeatedly demands Jost name just one team that’s better/has more wins/fewer losses than his guys. As Jost gamely rattles off dozens of teams better than Colorado’s respectable 4-3 record, Kenan acknowledges each example dutifully, only to rebound with a fresh round of boasts. I loved it. Kenan can stay on SNL forever if he wants to. I’ve never tired of the guy—and have had ample opportunity.

Recurring Sketch Report

None! Keep it up, you brave, brave heroes!

Political Comedy Report

Just Pete’s cold open and about a third of Update.

Not Ready for Prime Time Power Rankings

I’m gonna pair up a couple of sketches under the banner, “Five words: Too much all the time.” That’s a line from the second of Bowen Yang’s two main sketches tonight, with his fanny pack-sporting former starship crewman making a nuisance of himself on the bridge of his old ship while it’s under attack. I like Yang a lot—he’s got presence, loves the spotlight, and usually finds a singular voice to carry a sketch. He can also, perhaps increasingly, sub in attitude for material, which was the case in both outings here. The spaceman sketch was something of a dud all over, with funny costumes and Pete’s spindly alien fingers unable to lend much more than props to the makeup and props people. And Yang’s rambling, kvetching Marley is too bleary a caricature to carry things, leaving Yang looking a little too pleased with his ability to ham it up.

Same goes for the mostly dire Christopher Columbus Update piece, where a half-there silly accent barely lifts a wan characterization. Che introduced the bit with some promise of addressing the ever more obvious issue of the Italian explorer’s unsuitability for his traditional seasonal worship, and having Yang come out in a wig and cloak claiming to have discovered everything in sight is just… there. I don’t know what hand Yang had in writing these, but he needs tighter roles and premises to not seem like he’s coasting on his (considerable) charm.

With all that out of the way…

Hot out of the gate: Kenan, naturally. Dismukes led two sketches. Newly promoted Sarah Sherman planted her beaming weirdo flag with the gynecologist sketch. Newly cemented regular JAJ didn’t have too much to do, but is always stealing scenes with lived-in precision.

New year, same as the old year: Punkie got maybe two lines. Molly Kearney played a heavily prosthetic-ed Terry Bradshaw, then seemed to disappear. (I didn’t even spot them in the extra-long goodnights.) New kid Chloe Troast (our second Chloe) got into a few minor roles. Michael Longfellow flubbed a line as a wisecracking space captain. Devon did his lisping, amusing Michael Strahan. Marcello was around.

I’ll repeat myself. This cast doesn’t have a breakout star as yet. The position is there. Someone needs to buckle down, steel themselves and take it.

10-to-One Report

There are a lot of bars in Ten-to-Oneland. I liked this new joint, where Kenan’s unsuspecting barfly is accosted by the father and son duo of Andrew and Pete (Pete’s the dad) with offers of free drinks and a very gradual come-on concerning the earning potential of lots and lots of online foot fetish pictures. A memorable last sketch is all curlicues and daffy embroidery, here seeing Dismukes and Davidson echoing each other’s promises of “nine, 10, even 11 figure” windfalls compared to the “two, maybe three figures” they earned at the nearby factory. (“Two figures? That’s like 10 dollars,” Kenan deadpans with the expected precision.) Toss in the duo only ordering booze made by famous people and their boasts about adding zeroes to the front of their old paychecks, (plus the whole shebang turning out to somehow be an ad for the Cheesecake Factory), and it’s just what I want from this sort of thing. Unhurried, escalating character weirdness is the name of the game this time of the morning.

Parting Shots

Just to head off any questions/vituperative broadsides: Neither appearing on nor reviewing SNL during the ongoing SAG-AFTRA strike is a problem—according to SAG-AFTRA.

That said, this un-unionized and lowly freelance writer says all power to the strikers.

Kenan’s Menafee touts the day’s matchup between the NFC-leading Eagles and the Jets, “who were cursed by a warlock a thousand years ago.”

Jost kills. “Scientists in Europe are studying a skeleton they say is rewriting the history of syphilis. The skeleton is better known by its stage name, Russel Brand.”

Kenan’s Deion Sanders tries to claim the superiority of his long-derided 1995 musical performance on SNL, only for Jost to once again list the music legends who had “Must Be the Money” beat. Upon hearing Sinead O’Connor’s name, Deion pronounces, “Brave woman.” I agree.

As much as I’m impressed how Ice Spice’s first number pulled off that pixilated, interference effect live, my sleep-deprived brain is now throbbing like I just watched Battling Seizure Robots.

Next week: It’s double-duty for music star/WWE dabbler Bad Bunny. I’m all right with that.

Dennis Perkins is an entertainment writer who lives in Maine with his wife, the writer Emily L. Stephens, and their cat, (Special Agent Dale) Cooper. His work has appeared in places like The A.V. Club, Ultimate Classic Rock, and the Portland (Maine) Press Herald. You can find him on Twitter, where he will anger you with opinions, and Instagram, where you will be won back over by pictures of Special Agent Dale Cooper.

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