Kristen Wiig Shines in a Sea of Stars on a Delightful SNL

Comedy Reviews Saturday Night Live
Kristen Wiig Shines in a Sea of Stars on a Delightful SNL

Sometimes, I get what I wish for. I confess that I get a little preemptively exhausted whenever Kristen Wiig is announced as host, past experience teaching me to expect the sort of greatest hits episode that feels equal parts alumnus ego-trip and writers’ week to kick up their feet. To be fair, this week saw Wiig, starring in the streamer Palm Royale, also popping on that bowl cut wig for a series of Target Lady commercials, something that did not fill me with confidence that SNL would choose new sketches over that and a handful of other old Wiig chestnuts.

But choose SNL did, with this being a largely repeater-free episode. (Okay, there were three, but that’s about four fewer than I was expecting, and two of them weren’t even Wiig originals.) Here’s where I traditionally protest that I love Kristen Wiig. She is one of the most prolific and hilarious performers in the show’s history and she could anchor a show while still raising all boats. Still, when condensed into a single hosting stint, Wiig’s stable of characters could all feel a little same-y and shrill. But here we got to see why Kristen Wiig was so damn good on Saturday Night Live.



Wiig’s monologue was where all the guys came out to goof around, with fellow Five-Timers Club hosts Paul Rudd and Jon Hamm joined by Martin Short, Matt Damon, Will Forte and Fred Armisen (all sporting coveted Five Timers smoking jackets) stealing her thunder. (Paula Pell, author of some of Wiig’s biggest hit characters, was there, too, reminding everyone that Girls5Eva is on Netflix, and is as hilarious as it is perennially overlooked.) Wiig mostly played it straight to the guys’ showboating, pointing out that most of the boys haven’t actually hosted five times and having her “This Is Your Life” serenade interrupted by Forte screeching that Ryan Gosling is standing with Lorne—getting his own jacket. I generally whine when so many big names steal focus, but everybody here was so funny and affectionately silly (Gosling eventually presents Wiig with her jacket while tenderly running a lint-roller over it), that even I was content.

Wiig is a great sketch actress. It made perfect sense that she and James Austin Johnson were teamed up several times tonight, as he is similarly able to commit to a character with such lived-in, deadpan sincerity that a sketch commands attention. Kristen Wiig is able to hold your gaze through sheer, contained, weird intensity. Even at her broadest, Wiig makes her characters feel alive, a valuable and singular trait that marks out people like her, JAJ, and a couple of tonight’s pile-up of guests in Fred Armisen and Will Forte as their own breed. SNL needs people like that. They add texture and depth, and tonight there was plenty of both.

The Best and the Rest

The Best: To come back to the Wiig-JAJ power team, the go-kart sketch is my easy pick for sketch of the night. As the parents of a couple of understandably worried kids (Andrew Dismukes and Chloe Troast) whose amusement park outing is weighted down with the parents’ poorly concealed ominous secret, the sketch is a little masterpiece of sketch acting. Wiig and Johnson are in the moment throughout, as they puncture Dismukes’ enthusiasm for the ride by announcing pre-race, “After the go-karts your mother and I have something terrible to tell you.” That set-up is all the comic justification JAJ and Wiig need to stretch out the kids’ shredding anxiety, not through malice but in an attenuated parody of the suppressed panic and pain of parents with terrible news to spill everywhere. Johnson and Wiig are so great here, putting on brave faces unaware of how their supposedly stoic forbearance is only making their children lose their minds. (There’s a killer mid-sketch reveal of birthday girl Troast, with birthday crown on head, sitting in a theretofore unseen go-kart next to Dismukes.) As for the secret, we and the kids never find out, although we can guess, as the parents spin out hypotheticals about the kids having to choose which poolside parent to swim to, but even then there’s no surety. “How would you all fell if I started drinking again?,” Johnson asks matter-of-factly before calling someone named Sheila to ask if she’d come to the park to help them break the news. (“Who’s Sheila?,” a terrified Dismukes asks. “She’s part of the bad thing.”) So often in this iteration of SNL, a sketch pounds a premise into the dirt with over-elaboration that this exercise in restrained madness comes off like a classic. It sort of is.

The Worst: The benefit of having Kristen Wiig (and literally seven powerhouse guests in Armisen, Forte, Jon Hamm, Paul Rudd, Martin Short, Ryan Gosling and Matt Damon) in the house is that there wasn’t much chance for an outright bomb. As ever, I had my critical antennae up (metaphorically—I am not an alien) at every premise’s introduction, preparing for the worst. (I am, however, an SNL critic.) But sketch after sketch largely avoided the usual traps. It was refreshing, even in the repeater in Heidi Gardner’s Trudy sketch. Having Hamm in town only cemented the sketch’s loony explosion of its Mad Men-era office sexual attitudes, even if the whole enterprise is sort of unfocused in what it wants to accomplish. Gardner’s Trudy is both hyper-confident and anti-competent, her clichéd, Radar O’Reilly (look it up) penchant for predicting her boss’ every whim being 100 percent wrong each time. (A sandwich order comes with a side of “cole-” “Onoscopy,” Gardner’s Trudy smugly predicts, while Wiig produces a swaddled infant out of her file drawer, much to the childless Hamm’s shock.) Then there’s the sketch’s oddball take on period sexism, with Trudy and Wiig’s new hire Toody, speaking in dynamite old movie-style rat-a-tat patter, happily assuming their male bosses would like their martinis shaken between their pressed-together bosoms and Hamm’s panini warmed up between their buns. (“Takes like ass!,” Hamm exclaims.) Finally, the sketch goes for knockabout physicality, as Trudy and Toody’s eager, manic servitude sees them hurling themselves through breakaway furniture and losing articles of clothing (revealing era-specific foundation garments). It’s all amusing as heck—Gardner and Wiig make a fine team, too—even if it’s all over the place.

The Rest: I should give the bottom slot to the March Madness cold open, but perhaps I’m just cutting it some slack from taking a week off of SNL‘s version of political satire. (Tonight’s show was essentially politics-free, which I’m okay with. If the show is going to half-ass topical comedy like it has been, it’s best to just throw in the towel.) James Austin Johnson, Devon Walker, and Kenan’s Charles Barkley are the real-life college basketball commentators, here making the point that the women’s tournament this year (featuring Iowa superstar Caitlin Clark among others) is far superior in drawing power and general interest than the mens’ side. It’s a refreshing enough take (on Update, even Michael Che couldn’t find much to mock about the resurgent women’s game, although he tried, being Che), and there are a few decent jokes. Kenan’s Barkley is one of the few actual impressions he does (his Barkely’s rounded pronunciation of “ten feet in the errrr” made me laugh), and Barkely’s chagrin at googling “Vegas women’s spread” doesn’t undermine the overall positivity of the bit. Bringing on controversial LSU coach Kim Mulkey (Heidi) opened the door for something edgier, what with Mulkey’s Washington Post-outed penchant for anti-gay bigotry, running up scores, abusing players, and general right-wing insufferableness (plus the predictable kerfuffle over her team missing the National Anthem). But apart from a reference to the coach’s “resting QAnon face,” the piece was content to mock her flamboyant wardrobe choices. (“Like the Riddler went to Talbots” is pretty spot-on.) Nothing special (apart from avoiding SNL‘s long history of making fun of women’s sports), but, well, nothing special.

Another example filed under “Kristen Wiig: Acting” was the board game sketch, where she found yet another outstanding match from the current cast in Andrew Dismukes. The premise is that Wiig flatly refuses to play a train-based board game during her visit to her beau’s friends-group dinner because she doesn’t want to get “Jumanji-ed.” I could see this one going wrong in so many way, but dammit if it didn’t keep me cracking up and happily expectant, as first Wiig then host Dismukes become increasingly steely-eyed and intense about the possibility and, indeed, the very definition of being Jumanji-ed. It takes a particular kind of performing chutzpah to go head-to-head with a worked-up Kristen Wiig character, so Dismukes’ challenge to his intransigent guest’s refusal is bracingly funny. (“What even is Jumanji to you, lady? Because it sounds like you think that getting Jumanji-ed is going into Jumanji. But in Jumanji, Jumanji comes out. The kids don’t go into Jumanji, Jumanji comes out of Jumanji!”) Those are a lot of Jumanjis, and Dismukes and Wiig make each one rattle out with venomous hilarity. And then comes Will Forte in one of his two stolen scenes tonight as the malicious train conductor from the as-it-happens haunted board game, delivering a wild-eyed warning to everyone (except the wisely wary Wiig) that, if they die in Ticket to Ride (which Dismukes admits he bought from an old lady at an estate sale) then they die in real life. If you buy an evil board game, there’s likely going to be a strange Will Forte character in there.

Speaking of Will, his various appearances tonight remind us of just how singularly weird and wonderful his sense of humor is. (It makes sense he’s one of the SNL slums who’s showed up in Tim Robinson-land.) I suppose someone else might have written Forte’s speech from the retirement sketch, but I doubt it. As the adult nephew of the rental hall where Kenan’s employee is having his big goodbye party, Forte seizes the mic to explain how said retirement reminds him of encroaching death, eventually warning all the assembled that, even though they are destined to die and be eaten by worms, they will be fully aware of “every excruciating nibble.” (Okay, and here’s the part where I remember that he’s playing his recurring character creepo Hamilton, but since it’s not a Hamilton sketch per se, I’m leaving this entry here. Sue me.) As ever, Hamilton is just one of the parade of assorted weirdos stealing focus from Kenan’s retiree, with everyone from Paul Rudd’s insufferable corporate improv troupe (Gits & Shiggles), to Matt Damon as himself (explaining all the various addictions he learned about while shadowing the abashed Kenan for an un-produced role), to Fred’s HR nightmare, to Bowen Yang telling a horrific story about Kenan helping him clean up the carnage from his doomed emotional support chinchilla, and so on. Wiig shows up as a breathing tank-using coworker whose every bit of praise emerges only after a lead-in suggesting some terrible Kenan-related secret (“Never be alone in a room with Jerry—he’ll make you laugh so much, your sides will hurt.”) Oh, and the beleaguered emcee who complains about all the shenanigans—Mikey Day. I’m as shocked as you are.

The Pilates horror movie trailer draws on so much specificity to the apparently regimented cruelty of the popular exercise regimen that I’ll assume it’s accurate. Molly Kearney and Chloe Fineman are the unwise duo who venture into the long-rumored den of evil, only to be strapped into its ominously elaborate stretching machines, berated by Kristen Wiig’s ever-smiling instructor for forgetting “sticky socks” (again, I surrender), and being subjected to the overall cult-like vibe of the place. (Seriously, pilates-heads, there’s a machine called a “reformer?” Run—run very fast and far.) Like all SNL ad parodies, this is exceptionally produced (the smash cut spider-walk scare at the end is spot-on for this sort of trailer), if not overall hilarious.

Weekend Update update

New York had a li’l earthquake this week, something as notable as it was harmless, which made it perfect to joke about. Still, even I wasn’t ready for Marcello Hernandez in a body suit and wobbly skyline hat having a WWE-style showdown with Kenan as the upcoming solar eclipse. Both of these guys are great at this sort of booming, leering schtick, and I’m with Jost in being unable to keep it together as the two unusual natural phenomena first spar over who is more terrifying. Is it the gentle rumble of feeling “like a scary massage” or hearing a book gently fall from a shelf? Or is it the unbridled terror of having to look through a shoebox for four minutes and watching your dog get slightly confused? Eventually, the two make up and plan to team up for the sort of superstition-baiting double whammy than used to get virgins thrown into volcanoes, with both performers clearly having almost as much fun as I was.

Oh, and there was an Update as well. Good jokes delivered with a knowing smirk. Not too much for anyone to actually get upset over. You know the drill by now. Politics is whizzed by with a few mid-level zingers. (Jost on Trump’s persecution complex over his many civil and criminal trials and his ever-pending punishment for trying to intimidate witnesses and the families of court officers: “‘I will gladly become a present-day Nelson Mandela’—unfortunately for Halloween.”) Making passing reference to an issue in service of their own cheek is the Che and Jost way, as in Che’s joke mentioning the newly passed draconian Florida abortion restrictions, noting that now the only way Florida women can terminate a pregnancy is on a roller coaster. I get not wanting to belabor positions the writers at least nominally agree with—believe me, preachiness is not what I’m asking for. But the anchors just seem so pleased with themselves for not betraying that they care about much of anything. Anyway, Jost and Che are good at their jobs. It’s that the Update job as currently conceived is smirky rather than substantive. It can be both.

Recurring Sketch Report

Apart from Trudy and her new pal Toody (and a sneak attack from Hamilton) Aunt Linda was the one Wiig all-star to make an appearance tonight, waiting all the way until Update to hit the stage. That’s some restraint, and even if I’d place the unlikely movie reviewer auntie somewhere in the lower-middle of my favorite Wiig recurring characters, she’s still a fun exercise in eye-rolling, movie-skewering silliness. Even with Linda, there’s a hint of real characterization, as anyone who’d ever tried to explain their enthusiasm for contemporary pop culture to older relatives will understand. As ever, the individual movie takes aren’t the real show. (The lameness of calling the Oppenheimer director “Christopher Nothanks” is the joke.) It’s more about having a loudmouth, performatively over-it busybody proudly trumpeting the fact that she doesn’t get what all the fuss is about. And Wiig is Wiig. The running gag that she keeps referring to current Update anchors Che and Jost by the names of anchors past is amusing in itself—just whose aunt is Aunt Linda, anyway?

Political Comedy Report

None to speak of. And I’m largely including Update, since Jost made a joke about voters preferring an empty podium over both Biden and Trump. Say what you want about the shaky premise of voter ambivalence about the candidates themselves this time around, but there hasn’t been a more furiously fired-up electorate in my long lifetime. Maybe it’s the prospect of Donald Trump and the GOP actually ending democracy. Or something. Like I’ve said far too many times, if SNL wants to do politics, then do them. If it doesn’t, then that’s fine, too. But half-assing it makes the show feel like a glib, lazy irrelevancy in this regard.

Not Ready for Prime Time Power Rankings

I should be pissed (it is me after all) that so many roles got snapped up by the big guest stars tonight. Hell, the goodnights saw a virtual wall of outside talent obscuring all but the tallest actual cast members. The usual also-rans were left out again tonight—sorry Punkie, Longfellow—while some regulars (Ego, Day, Sherman) got shunted into unrewarding support roles. With a cast already swelled to bursting and so many ringers in town for Kristen Wiig’s big night, the whole ensemble concept didn’t stand much chance.

And yet, the whole enterprise tonight was buoyed with so much talent and goodwill that even I have to tip my ball cap (Go Red Sox!) and admit that this kind of energy is something the last few seasons have been missing. Of the in-house talent who did get time tonight, Marcello killed, Kenan was Kenan, Heidi had two juicy roles, Dismukes shone twice, and JAJ remains my stealth MVP. The talent is there, it’s a question of someone(s) recognizing there’s a Wiig-style chance to break out—and seizing it.

Ten-to-One Report

There’s a certain kind of glitzy European entertainment media that makes Americans feel like they’re slowly going mad. “Sprockets” knew it. “Les Jeunes de Paris” knew it.  Viva Variety knew it. And this final sketch taps right into it, as PBS presents a retrospective of the hallucinogenically weird French variety show, La Maison du Bang. Hosted by glammed-out marrieds Bowen Yang and Chloe Fineman, the show is all little kids smoking and drinking champagne, white Frenchmen in afros and gold lamé approximating American funk, a mime, and Kristen Wiig in a leotard doing the sort of hip gyrations that are as mesmerizing as they are subtly unnerving. I’m sure my American brain just can’t comprehend Gallic brilliance, but these sorts of spectacles (I’m looking at you, Eurovision Song Contest) leave me wondering if I ate the wrong kind of gummy bears with all their plastered-on smiles, music that sounds fourteen degrees askew from reality, and general, bewildering foreignness. Ego Nwodim had the thankless job of introducing each act from a present-day perch, but the overall spell of this one was just what I’m looking for from the last sketch of the night.

Parting Shots

Okay, I’m not the only one who saw the water stain (cat hair?) all over Bowen’s blazer in the Trudy sketch, right?

I really like Raye’s whole throwback bluesy-jazzy-scatting thing. That is all.

Matt Damon introducing himself as The Legend of Bagger Vance‘s Matt Damon made me laugh.

After Ryan Gosling showed up in the monologue and then was later announced as next week’s host, I like to image he’s just gonna hang out all week backstage, being all handsome and helpful and all.

I could watch James Austin Johnson and Wiig in snappy period wear snapping dialogue back and forth all day. “Nice to meet you, Toody.” “Ohh, you look like an educated man. Let me guess—Harvard?” “No.” “Yale?” “No.” “Yarvard?” “No.” “Hogwarts?” “I think I’d like to leave now.”

(“Gosling? More like Ryan Gosling!” “That’s just his name.” “I know, he’s very hard to make fun of.”) Next week: Ryan Gosling, with musical guest, Chris Stapleton.


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