A Weird and Well-Written Saturday Night Live Gives Zoë Kravitz Room to Shine

Comedy Reviews Saturday Night Live
A Weird and Well-Written Saturday Night Live Gives Zoë Kravitz Room to Shine

And your host…

I have to admit that I had my doubts after Zoë Kravitz’s monologue. This season has seen Saturday Night Live largely abandon some of its go-to writing templates. Fewer talk shows, game shows, and recurring sketches all around is a good thing, and something to be encouraged. And the monologue, especially, has been home to a lot fewer audience Q&As, cast interruptions, musical interludes, and other tactics meant to distract us from the fact that either nobody came up with an actual monologue for the host (admittedly a tough gig), or that said host doesn’t have much to bring to the table. Or, you know, both.

And so the whole many Catwomen thing didn’t exactly fill me with confidence that current Catwoman (sorry, “The Catwoman”) was going to be an integral part of tonight’s show. It was cute, sure. Kate goofing around in a squeaky version of Michelle Pfeiffer’s gear (described by McKinnon as “Sandy from a porno version of Grease—it’s still called Grease), Ego Nwodim purring as the Eartha Kitt vintage, and Aidy as a shopping cart-pushing cat lady. (Complete with a very well-behaved, very good kitty.) Chris Redd’s Katt Williams rounded out the bit, which ended on a cat-pose freeze-frame and left Kravitz looking poised to be another accomplished actor sent out to fill the requisite straight-person roles.

Man, was that a fake-out, as Kravitz was center stage for a striking number of sketches. And even if the High Fidelity and Big Little Lies actress wasn’t precisely a live sketch natural, she was the sort of game and capable performer that SNL can truly build an impressive show around. And this was an impressive show, a varied and energetic showcase for writing and performing both, with Kravitz a genuine asset all around. Some of the best SNL hosts are like that—unassuming and up for anything, their acting chops bringing dimension to sketches that might otherwise feel thin. Zoë Kravitz was stealthy good.

The Best And The Rest

The Best: I laughed a lot this episode. I enjoy most Saturday Night Live nights (to some degree), but I rarely laugh out loud. I watch alone, where actual laughs are tougher to get, I suppose, the late-night silence and solitude (and the inconvenient fact that I’m at work) making out-loud laughs scarce. But after the third sketch where I caught myself breaking the quiet, I had to admit that there’s a special enjoyment that comes from non-performative, alone-in-a-room chuckles.

That said, no sketch was especially groundbreaking. They were all just—good, with a snap to the writing that kept sucker-punching me. You know, in a good way. The post-monologue wedding toast sketch kept doing that. This was a giggly-smutty little episode all around (you know, but in a good way), and Kravitz’s maid of honor just kept a straight face as she gradually revealed all the stuff about bride and best friend Cecily Strong that groom Kyle Mooney should really have vetted beforehand. But even before Kravitz took the mic, the tone was set with emcee Mikey Day, surprised by the brevity of best man Chris Redd’s speech, getting caught with a mouthful of cake, and then explaining just why he’s got a mouthful of cake.

It’s a little thing, and technically an unnecessary thing, But it’s these little asides and frills on the mandatory premise set-up that make me imagine that the writers are getting more latitude. We’ll get to the premise. But no matter how slam-bang a sketch’s premise might be, I often find myself remembering the small details that add some color to the proceedings. Anyway, the premise here is solid, as Kravitz happily reveals just what Mooney’s gotten himself into, her smiling and unconcerned revelations about Strong’s past (drunk driving, accessory to a shooting, the fact that all nine of her former fiancés have died by suicide) emerging each with a little more English on the ball than I was expecting.

Kravitz’s litany of the crimes both she and Strong have perpetrated during their friendship rolls along with a relentlessly funny momentum, audience squeals subsiding from her offhand reference to her past as a student-preying former educator, only to come back harder as we (and Mooney) learn that Strong was a Capitol rioter. Then there’s Kravitz’s list of all the dating apps Strong immediately deleted after meeting Mooney, including one called ChokePony (which I’m just going to go ahead and assume is fictional) and the entire Tor browser. Oh, and she also has slept with all of the Jackass team. “I’m gonna die,” Mooney’s resigned groom notes in closing. You sure, are, buddy.

The Worst:The Princess and the Frog sketch continues my suspicion that there’s a dedicated writer’s room index card board with the names of every Disney animated movie on it, and a big cup of darts. I’m as fond of the Mouse House’s output as the next American human inundated since birth with the most powerful marketing department in movie history, but, c’mon. Regardless, the little snap here was that this particular film was being aired on “Disney-Minus,” which is apparently where the studio’s also-rans end up. (No hate to me, Princess and the Frog enthusiasts, please.)

The whole gag was about how frogs don’t have actual penises, which, (quick remedial Google) is, yep, apparently true. As Kravitz’s smitten Tiana gets less smitten with each of frog Naveen’s successive fun facts about frogs’ reproductive system and habits, the sketch is just one long run of no-dick jokes, even if Redd’s happy obliviousness to how things are going buoys the proceedings. Kenan pops in as the film’s villainously problematic Dr. Facilier (announcing himself as “the voodoo doctor—from this movie”), which always helps, as does the revelation that Redd’s prince also had no penis as a human (thanks to an unfortunate bowling alley penis-prank), and Andre Dismukes’ closing appearance as the film’s least-loved comical sidekick, a snaggle-toothed, crazy-eyed swamp bug named Ray. (I’ve never seen The Princess and the Frog, being childless and middle-aged, but, yeesh, that thing is a bummer.)

For all the baffling Disney-hood of it all, everybody involved is into the silliness, with the specificity of Redd’s anatomical lectures at least showing that the sketch was more about the writers being taken with a goofy idea and getting weird with it than simply spending money on costumes and counting on that to be the joke.

The Rest: The Amazon Go pre-tape was an outstanding little mix of social commentary and corporate-bashing, as Kravitz, Redd, Kenan, Ego, and Punkie Johnson all evince a healthy skepticism of the tech giant’s chain of “go ahead—just take it and go” automated convenience stores. As billionaire tech moguls like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and former SNL host Elon Musk continue their quest to put our personal health and safety in the watchful care of their fleets of data-reaping retail outlets and self-driving cars, these Black consumers all simply assume that this happy Big Brother business is just a trap. You know, since tech companies’ innovations have traditionally contained some pretty glaring and suspicious blind spots, and the world at large has, itself, a whole lot of work to do, too.

Here again, I bow to Kenan Thompson, who, at this point in his record-breaking SNL career, makes everything look so easy. His shopper responding to Cecily Strong’s spokesperson telling him to just walk away with his purchases with a knowing, “Nah, son,” nails down the premise expertly. And his wary reticence upon leaving is matched by the chillingly chipper Strong’s voice urging, “Go ahead, leave—just walk out,” a canny encapsulation of the unique dilemmas Black consumers face in a facelessly automated landscape that, yet, has a built-in suspicion of certain kinds of faces.

Sticking with the pre-tapes, this was my favorite so far of the Please Don’t Destroy shorts. With Ben, John, and Martin’s gift of a thematic real, live cat for the visiting Kravitz, the initial gag (the guys are socially inept weirdos) quickly transforms into a rapid-fire absurdist gag machine, as the initially skeptical Kravitz joins in to enthusiastically hunt for the escaped kitty upon finding out its true name of Snugglebucket. (It’s a strong episode for very good kitties.)

The joke that the PDD guys are the show’s bottom-rung, behind-the-scenes punching bags keeps finding ways to work. Here, Kravitz’s The Batman co-star Paul Dano is revealed to be living under the guys’ office couch in order to research a role in his next film, Three Boring Writers. (Dano explains it’s about “three guys who suck,” and, according to the poster, stars Dano, Justin Theroux, and Gabriel Iglesias.) As the cat-hunt storms on, we hear about how the guys similarly gifted Paul Rudd with an ant (“We got Ant-Man a man ant!”), while the elusive kitty (“Why did we ask for the smallest and fastest cat they had?”) keeps outsmarting them with expert comic timing. (John settles in to assess the situation, not realizing he’s petting the cat in his lap before the thing disappears again.) It’s tightly controlled comic chaos, and it made me laugh, repeatedly. Yes, out loud.

I know I gave game show sketches a hard time before. You know, because they’re a creaky crutch SNL has worn down to a nub. Still, Word Crunch got me. The premise probably didn’t need to be explained as much as it was, as we find out that the game’s word searches had to be cobbled together by Sarah Sherman’s stagehand thanks to a writers strike. That the puzzles all contain repeated occurrences of the non-word “momhole,” and that contestant Kravitz can’t stop finding it, is eccentric enough of its own. And while Andrew Dismukes isn’t quite Bill Hader-level in turning the thankless game show host role into something beyond itself, he made the sputtering, befuddled guy schtick his own enough to liven things up. And Kravitz was stubbornly funny, her contestant demanding to know why “momhole” was showing up all over the place if she wasn’t allowed to use it. It’s a valid question.

Kenan killed once again in the home movies sketch, as his pre-recorded patriarch’s “If you’re seeing this, I must be dead” video message is viewed by his increasingly aghast family. With the very much alive father upstairs in the bathroom, we, along with family Ego, Kravitz, and Redd, learn that he’s lost their savings to JB Smoove’s gambling app, that he was never a backup singer for the Commodores, and that he’s likely passed on erectile dysfunction to son Redd. Here again, premise isn’t the whole joke, as the baroquely goofy little details of the father’s secret life fill out the sketch. Like how Kenan hid his tape in a box marked, “big fish that I caught” to throw his wife off the trail. Or that he only has a secret daughter because he had no idea what that sperm bank was going to do with his semen. Or how he’s sure that his un-produced screenplay for crime thriller Dallas City Bouncers will certainly take care of his funeral expenses, and pay back JB Smoove. Throw in a delightfully dippy recurring gag where Kenan pantomimes his family fast-forwarding past him vainly attempting to remember Jamie Foxx’s name (his preferred casting for Dallas City Bouncers’ Det. Rico Tremaine), and the whole sketch just kept working on me.

Weekend Update update

I know what to expect with Jost and Che by this point. Which isn’t to say that they aren’t good at what they do. It’s just that, with what might be termed a shit-ton of truly shitty news to work with, their glib self-pleasing schtick can be a trifle irritating. A lot TV comics have had to wrestle with just how to joke about Putin’s fascist assault on Ukraine, and many Republicans and Fox News types’ not-so-subtle cheerleading thereof, but it’s all just patter for Weekend Update. I don’t know who exactly came up with the “Seen here” gag over a photo of [insert reprehensible person], but it wasn’t Colin Jost. He sure loves it though, and why not. It’s a guaranteed cheeky laugh that seems more insightful than it is. And Che continues to find ways to make sexist jokes that are marginally but never quite at his own expense, as when he caps off a story about “International Women’s Day” by saying that he hoped women remembered to smile more.

Still, if a series of quick-hit jokes are what we get, there are at least some solid ones tonight. With McDonald’s closing its Russian outlets in response to Putin’s attack on Ukraine, Jost, noting how many Russians have stocked up on Big Macs, cuts to a picture of fast food junkie Donald Trump, adding, “including some honorary Russians.” And Che, citing high gas prices, notes that America “might have to move back in with our ex” (over a map of Iraq). I’ve been accused of expecting too much of Update, while I counter that ten minutes of guaranteed political satire real estate on national TV deserves a little effort. And thus the quagmire continues.

Alex Moffat came back as LSD-fueled movie reviewer Terry Fink, a one-joke character Moffat redeems with some fine lunatic underplaying. With just two days to cram every Oscar nominee (and every other 2021 release) into a weekend, Fink’s glassy-eyed ramblings segue seamlessly from vapid show biz chatter to teeth-chattering horrors, his viewing of The Power of the Dog emerging as the harrowing tale of Dog the Bounty Hunter making fun of Fink’s underwear in the voice of his high school bully. Moffat is one of those players that’s baseline good enough that, once he truly sinks his teeth into a role, he can work wonders. Here there’s a moment where Fink gets lost in his flashbacks, Moffat’s face registering a good 20 seconds of conflicting and shifting emotions before snapping right back into chipper reviewer mode. It’s impressive, and so’s he.

Kyle Mooney debuted one Dan Bulldozer (likely inspired by the cartoonishly macho Dan Bilzerian), a bluff and hearty “lifestyle influencer” complete with impressive fake muscles and beard, and a booming, baritone voice, thanks to some semi-seamless mic trickery. Asserting that he’s “won at life,” what with dating 940 girls at once and snowboarding with bazookas and such, Mooney’s Bulldozer is another in his line of self-deluded caricatures, albeit a more confident one than, say, poor Bruce Chandling. As with many of Mooney’s creations, Dan Bulldozer is something more to marvel at than find broadly hilarious, although I did get blindsided by the title of Bulldozer’s solemnly hyped forthcoming inspirational autobiography, Ass Book.

Nothing But Doubles—Recurring Sketch Report

Kate McKinnon and Aidy Bryant are one of SNL’s all-time great teams. They play off of each others’ energy with such endearing camaraderie that I’m never unhappy to see them onscreen together. Even in a recurring sketch like Josh and Jason. The template remains, in the way of all SNL repeaters, inviolable, as Kate’s nerdy Josh surreptitiously calls his nerdy best friend Jason for advice over a classmate’s unexpected romantic attentions. But its all about characterization more than catchphrases with these two, and Kate and Aidy (with an invaluable assist from the very present and sincere Kravitz) find the sweet spot between mocking the socially inept (a Saturday Night Live staple since Billy and Gilda), and allowing these two co-dependent little guys a moment in the sun.

There’s so little cruelty to the set-up, either at the expense of Kravitz for being attracted to the verbosely awkward Josh, or Josh and Jason, for being the sort of kids who traffic in old-timey expressions and uncool shared pastimes. Nobody’s really the butt of the joke, making this more of a playlet than a hard-charging laugh riot, even if I did indeed laugh at the panicked Josh describing his posture on Kravitz’s porch swing as “Facing away from her and I’m clinging to the edge for dear life like a marmoset.” Kravitz isn’t portrayed as clueless for crushing on the unpopular braniac either, the sketch based on the heartwarmingly silly fact that the barely teenaged heart goes where it wants. And if Jason’s Cyrano advice is silly and culled seemingly from stuff he’s read, it’s also well-intentioned and sincere, as Josh obligingly confides how he got mono from a trumpet by way of opening up to Kravitz’s classmate. And even if Josh confesses to Jason that he “can feel [his] penis in [his] head” at one point, the sketch never succumbs to boorishness, as Josh responds to Kravitz’s offhand confession to being attracted to boys and girls with a respectfully excited, “Consider my brain short circuited—we have a modern woman on our hands.”

“Do You Have Any Allman Brothers?”—Political Comedy Report

For all the jokes about Joe Biden being old and out of touch, it’s odd to see a sketch where SNL comes off like the square. After hosting a conclave of TikTok influencers at the White House this week, Saturday Night Live took the easier path of assuming that that represented Old Joe being out of touch with the youth of today. And while Kate McKinnon’s very funny Jen Psaki got the biggest laugh by deadpanning that the whole thing stemmed from a joke that got out of hand, I’ll go ahead and say that enlisting social media influencers to listen to actual facts about U.S. foreign policy about Russia and Ukraine is actually one of the savvier and more forward-thinking moves the Biden administration could make. Sure, it’s funny to have James Austin Johnson’s still-excellent Biden sputter on about how “computer very mean to me,” but let’s give the guy credit for adapting.

The influencer jokes are all pretty shallow, and sure to age like unrefrigerated milk. And, sure, TikTok isn’t exactly known for nuanced discussion of geopolitics, but that’s why reaching out to at least arm young internet celebrities with from-the-horse’s-mouth actual information in a world of deliberately weaponized misinformation is actually a smart move, politically. Smarter than this lukewarm mush, anyway, as the sketch posits that the only attendees would be a gaggle of tiresome ding-dongs. (That poetry-reading actress-person I know about, so I’m just going to assume that everyone else portrayed here is at least based in TikTok reality.)

There are some inventive touches. That Bowen Yang’s influencer (known for suctioning plungers on his body—and, no, I don’t want to know if that’s a real guy) gets a stirring speech as the camera slowly pans toward his plunger-sucked nipple is weird enough to be winning. It’s just that, as happens too often, Saturday Night Live goes for the easy joke that makes the show seem like the cranky old codger in the room.

Not Ready for Prime Time Power Rankings

It’s a mark of progress that it took me a while to recognize that the majority of the sketches tonight were peopled by the show’s Black performers. With Kravitz in the house, it meant that a family sketch would feature Redd, Ego, and Kenan, that the Princess and the Frog sketch would feature Redd and Kenan, and that the Amazon sketch would feature all the show’s Black performers. SNL’s made some lurching missteps in rectifying its representational blind spots over the years, but I’ll just note that having the personnel on hand to have a sketch with an all-Black cast be no big deal is sort of a big deal.

And, through it all, there’s Kenan Thompson, who held court all night with customary aplomb. I’ve said it many times, but Kenan was simply born for Saturday Night Live, his easy charisma and knowing yet trouper’s presence able to lift any sketch he’s in. He was all over the place tonight, and, yet again, showed just how valuable he is to this show. Comforting isn’t the right word for somebody who can surprise me even after all these years, but Thompson’s unerring professionalism is SNL’s glue.

Not in the house: Pete. He’s a little busy these days.

Melissa got one mid-sized role in the cold open, which is more than usual, but still less than she deserves. Aristotle Athari got the featured player booby prize as the fifth-funniest person in a game show sketch.

“Through the Stormy Deep, the Babe Is Heard—Tetragrammaton!!—10-To-One Report

Now this is a 10-to-one sketch. I did get worried upon seeing Yang, Kravitz, Ego, Redd, and Heidi Gardner seated around a restaurant table that we were going back to the “uncomfortable topic dinner conversation” well again. Instead, Yang’s mounting, fancifully rapturous enthusiasm over the Ohio State University marching band’s rendition of “Don’t Stop Believin’” becomes the sort of monomaniacal rant that a great last sketch can work with. Again, specificity is an effective and oft-overlooked sketch comedy tool, with Yang’s love for the song in question mentioning everything from the fact that the bombastic cover song is misspelled online (and, yes, this is a real thing), to the ideal activities to engage in while listening. (He and the swept-away Kravitz agree that playing Rainbow Road on Mario Kart 8 while listening would be transformative.)

Yang is the engine, his obsession with the OSU/Journey banger inspiring his character to assert along with Kravitz that “anything is possible, and all that was once beautiful can be again.” I also appreciated that he’s apparently the only person who actually uses Cortana). The last sketch of any given Saturday Night Live should always be given over to one writer’s most sleep-deprived conceit, and the idea that someone came across this one song (possibly while playing Mario Kart) and just had to write a sketch about it is the sort of thing that gives me hope. You know, that anything is possible, and that all that was beautiful can be again.

Parting shots

Rosalía was striking, the Spanish singer-songwriter sporting everything from nightwear to what looked like a down comforter on a stage like a giant, disassembled iPhone. Her backing tracks were minimalist to the point of irritating, with Casio beeps rhythmically laying backgrounds for her singular voice and all-Spanish lyrics. SNL having a foreign-language singing star on is a rarity, as is booking someone relatively unknown to much of its core audience, so here’s to that. I wasn’t bored, which is another plus.

No new episode next week, so get some sleep. I know I will.

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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