Selena Gomez Sleepwalks Through a Listless Saturday Night Live

Comedy Reviews
Selena Gomez Sleepwalks Through a Listless Saturday Night Live

And your host…

As far as former child stars go, Selena Gomez has done all right. She name-checked Only Murders in the Building co-stars and SNL legends Steve Martin and Martin Short in her monologue tonight, and got Martin (Steve) himself to appear, albeit in a pre-tape. Having been a musical guest in the past and a creditable actress in the present should have been experience enough for Gomez to fare just fine in her first outing as host.

And yet.

A host, unless catastrophically Steven Seagal or Paris Hilton terrible, is rarely what sinks a bad episode of Saturday Night Live. The show has carried some real stiffs through to passable shows. But that happens when everyone is on, the writing is sharp, and, hey, an explosively talented musical performance or two doesn’t hurt. Here, Gomez was muted to the point of sleepiness, the sketches were bordering on dire, and Post Malone—well, I just don’t get Post Malone. After a string of solid outings, SNL was due for a dud, I suppose, although it’s been a few seasons since I scanned over my notes and realized I had no memory of jotting down, “I hate this.”

There were a few bright spots. With 21 talented performers (24 if the Please Don’t Destroy guys are tossed onto the pile) somebody has to hit. Tonight it was mainly Sarah Sherman, who returned to Update as herself/Colin Jost’s nemesis. Taking the cameras backstage into Jost’s dressing room, Sherman was loose and brash and very funny, even turning a dropped prop into one of those only-on-SNL laughs that’ll live on in the memory. Sherman has carved out her niche. Or niches, as her signature penchant for grotesquerie (I see those meatball men in my dreams) and her turns baiting co-head writer Jost on Update are routinely energetic—and weird. Don’t forget weird. As this season wraps up next week, it’s time to start handicapping who’s in and who’s out. Sherman should be fine.

The Best And The Rest

The Best: Sticking with Sherman, if anyone’s going to play a terrifying infant interacting with oversized props and generally freaking everybody out, it’s gonna be Sarah. Sherman brings the 10-to-one spotlight around with her, but this was the actual last sketch tonight, with Sherman and Bowen Yang dolled up in onesies, sprigs of unruly baby hair, and unnerving white eyes in the baby monitor feed their party-hosting sister (Gomez) reluctantly checks on. Shot in that black and white babycam style just designed for horror movie heebie-jeebies, the sketch escalated nicely, as Yang and Sherman’s tots progress from just being tetchy to somersaulting around their crib (thanks, stunt people), to glaring knowingly into the camera with all-white CCTV raccoon eyes. That Malone suddenly appears in their crib as another, inexplicably tattooed infant at one point only elicits a shrug from Gomez, as she assures her aghast friends, “Sometimes he’s there and sometimes he’s not.” There’s no ending to speak of, but I’m a lot more forgiving of that in the final sketch, especially when everyone worked so hard and so successfully to get weird with it.

The Worst: I usually skip over the name of the various products and brands name-checked on the show. (Nobody’s paying me for product integration.) But the “Bratz dolls come to life” sketch was so suitably repellent in its blunt encapsulation of those “sexy dolls for pre-teens” that I’ll make an exception. Sherman’s here, too, although not allowed to do much as a young girl smarting from her parents’ announcement that they’re getting a divorce. When Aidy, Gomez, and Bowen appear as her dolls come to vapid and decidedly unfunny life, Aidy’s oversexed former American Girl Doll calls Sherman’s mother a bitch, while the three lust after her unfaithful dad.

I don’t know what could have salvaged this thing, but Gomez’s deadpan underplaying ain’t it, and Yang and Bryant make their living dolls obnoxious without making them funny. The joke is that Bratz dolls are bad role models, I guess, which, fair enough. But for the first sketch after the monologue this lacked every laudable element of similar but more successful “inanimate object come to life” sketches. I hated this.

The Rest: It was a close second, but that cold open was about as disposable and irritating as it gets. Kate’s frame as MSNBC’s Nicole Wallace apparently set the tone for tonight’s largely politics-free episode, as Wallace explained that everything is so awful that watching a couple of rich and famous people squabble in highly televised court proceedings is the sort of rubbernecking nonsense we all need right now. I’m gonna go ahead and question that, as a show-opening sketch about the Johnny Depp-Amber Heard defamation trial strove mightily to make me give a crap about the whole sideshow.

Or should I say, “give a boo-boo,” as the whole sketch rested on more CCTV footage, this time of Depp household staff discovering human feces in Depp’s bed that may or may not have been deposited there by… you know what, I’m out. I may be abrogating my responsibility to delve deep enough into the news of the day to make informed comment about a comedy sketch, but I surrender. I can say that the online discourse about this trial has proven reliably horrible and attracted the absolute worst people in the world to give a shit (sorry, “boo-boo”) about which side they favor.

And, hey, maybe there’s a really great sketch to be made here. You know, one that insightfully and originally dissects the ways our cultural obsession with celebrity and internet abusiveness has coarsened our very existence as a species. But this, again, ain’t it. Kenan, as Depp’s major domo, always makes me laugh, and him saying “boo-boo” is as amusing as the old pro can make it. Kyle’s Depp is nothing special, while Cecily’s judge repeatedly stating that she’s going to allow the footage, “Because it does sound fun and this trial is for fun,” is deeply untrue as the sketch plays out. I object.

Coming in second place on the positive side, the filmed piece about Mikey Day’s live-in boyfriend toddling out to try and function in the big, scary adult world lived in the performance. Apparently taking off from a real-life Japanese reality show about actual toddlers being sent out on errands (which has been a hit on its home country for decades?), the American remake sees relationship-stunted manchildren being tasked with, in Day’s case, purchasing specific eye makeup and two shallots, all on his lonesome. The scene where Kenan crosses paths with Day is a little gem of performance, with the two equally dazed and helpless long-term boyfriends goggling at each other in man-baby confusion before assuring each other they’re doing just fine. Same goes for Heidi Gardner as the Sephora salesperson who coddles Day in his errand there. She’s seen this before. As premises go, it’s an excuse for jokes about bad boyfriends, with an emphasis on those who’d rather do their Lego sets and play video games than have sex. (Gomez concludes that they have to break up after Day proudly hands over the wrong makeup and two five-pound bags of yellow onions.) Mikey had a big but underwhelming show, but this was a solid turn.

Every iteration of SNL needs its Bronx Beat. You know, an ultra-local talk show where cast members can put on exaggerated regional accents and prove that not everybody should have their own talk show. Here it was Melissa’s turn to anchor a sketch, as she and Gomez hosted A Peek at Pico, the two Mexican-Americans playing Latina pals whose responses to their guests and the news alternate between a solemn “That’s sad,” and “That’s good.” This was the one sketch that seemed to rouse Gomez a bit from her wonted monotone, while she and Melissa inhabited their thin but energetically funny caricatures nicely. Mikey Day (who would like to remind everybody within earshot of the premise of the sketch) can’t get through his remote report about a local park, while Heidi’s librarian and Chris Redd’s rapper Li’l Hubcap manage about as well. Not a laugh riot, but I’m happy Villaseñor got a funny would-be franchise up and running. That’s good.

The theater sketch (in which the entire Covid-stricken cast has been replaced, last-minute, by woefully unprepared understudies) also featured Mikey Day as a character who would very much like everyone to notice and understand that the show they are watching is not good, and that the premise of the sketch is that the play is going poorly. I genuinely have no idea if Day is really into these types of roles, if he’s writing them for himself, or if he’s just SNL’s go-to guy when someone is worried that somebody, somewhere won’t get the joke. I pick on Day’s penchant for playing this same guy a lot, but it’s more about the show’s deadening need to have one character in a sketch to point and say, “Look! This person is behaving strangely and this situation is not progressing according to normal logic!” There are so many other sketch formulas. So, so many.

Still, we had Kenan who, as the harried director feeding his overmatched cast every single line, blew on the sparks of inspiration until we got a little heat. Still, Cecily and Gomez don’t have much fun with the Noises Off of it all, and Kenan can only do so much, even as he assures the packed house that, yes, this play will feature a live penis at one point. (Oh, they go there.) Yang’s premature entrance as the stand-in penis guy gets the one genuine laugh. As he anxiously tells Kenan that it’s now or never, penis-wise, and delivers the actual line from the play, “It’s dong o’clock—Aawoooga!,” there’s the barest glimpse of the absurd fun that could have been.

Fifteen-time host Martin made his appearance in the Gomez-hosted Inventor documentary pre-tape, as the guy who invented the whoopie cushion. And the joy buzzer. Plus snakes-in-a-can, electrified pen, and electrified gum, all thanks to the inspiration of Aidy’s perpetually gassy and accident-prone Deena Beans. Yes, there are a lot of fart jokes, which nobody’s saying can’t be a hoot. And watching Aidy yell as she’s repeatedly struck by lightning is also something I rarely tire of. Martin’s fine, although not as into the kooky inventor schtick as one might’ve hoped, while Gomez’s host needs a good shock of comic lightning to kick her glassy performance into gear. It’s fine.

Chris Redd was in another musical pre-tape, although not as the driving force of the piece, which knocked it down a notch. With Punkie Johnson and Post Malone popping in as the angel/devils on the shoulders of suspicious lovers Redd and Gomez, the musical part of the sketch never really engages in the way it usually does when Redd’s at the mic. Punkie has a few mid-sized roles tonight, which, like Melissa’s, were long overdue. And there’s nothing wrong with this one, as Redd and Gomez credulously succumb to their phantom advisors’ entreaties to snoop, and occasionally smash stuff, before agreeing to angry, post-fight sex.

Ego Nwodim could also use a win, but the school assembly sketch was another tonight that just sort of… existed. Ego and Bowen play guidance counselors obsessed with getting their graduating students into modeling, with Gomez emerging stiffly as the one grad-made-good who actually followed their advice. All the speed-vogueing and single-mindedness of absurd purpose should be a lot funnier, but nobody involved seems to be at the wheel, and it was another sketch that just petered out to the sort of uncertain audience reaction spurred by the “applause” sign in lieu of anything resembling payoff.

There were some conspicuously funny lines throughout the episode, the sort of showy writers room noodling you get when people sense that the roster of actual sketches isn’t cutting it. The three princesses/one suitor sketch started out with Kenan’s king proclaiming, “Ah, Prince Edmund, welcome to our big, cold castle in Europe.” Might as well get a laugh somewhere. I actually didn’t mind the sketch, although—wait for it—Mikey Day’s dragon-slaying prince spends his entire time in the throne room making darn sure nobody gets lost in the setup. (Presented with three seemingly normal princesses to choose for his bride, Edmund explains the whole rule of threes comedy premise. And then repeats it. Four times.)

Kate saves the day, though, her blonde third princess answering the prince’s questions with such offhand and good-natured normalcy that Day’s would-be groom just can’t get his mind around it. That Kate winds up having a big exposed butt that spews bubbles is a funny payoff, the patriarchal bullshit of her father’s kingdom undone with a sly wink—and a bubble-butt.

Weekend Update update

After going harder than usual last week, the Update duo largely coasted through some average material here. Jost nodded toward the overall national awfulness by at least nodding toward how much the news sounds like a Mad Max movie’s opening narration. (“Women forced to breed” is about as pointed as it gets.) And Che followed suit, mocking the five (count ‘em, five) sitting Republican elected representatives recently subpoenaed by the committee investigating that whole “try to overthrow American democracy” thing, quoting them as complaining, “You can’t force us to do anything—we’re not pregnant!”

Che’s joke about a mistaken lottery announcement forcing him to sheepishly un-quit in Lorne’s office this week was the most telling detail. Che and Jost have been making noises about leaving the show (where they’re head writers as well as Update bosses) for a while now, and they’ve been at the desk for a very long time. Their mismatched buddy vibe has grown on me over the years, but the self-satisfied, too-cool-to-care take on the fake news is proving increasingly inadequate to what is shaping up to be an unprecedentedly huge moment. For political comedy, if not the entire country.

“I just stepped in a big pile of sassy!—Recurring Sketch Report

Baby Yoda, huh? If it keeps Kyle happy and you’ve already paid for the prosthetics and props, I guess it’s mildly amusing enough to hear Mooney’s dirtbag Hollywood Grogu big-time Michael Che and threaten rival Baby Groot. The initial conception (so, so long ago, it seems) had a loony jolt to it, mainly in Mooney’s manner of channeling a certain type of louche pretty boy self-absorption. (It turns out Baby Yoda’s in a cult with Jared Leto.) And Mooney can imbue a character (including “Kyle Mooney,” as in the monologue tonight) with a specific kind of clueless dickishness that’s all his own. But whenever Che throws to another Grogu, it’s a long, steep climb to anything resembling an original laugh.

“Look, look, we do have a very important deficit reduction package to talk about. Is there any way we can get off this slave sex issue?”—Political Comedy Report

Well, it’s not like there’s anything going on in the world right now or anything. But I kid a show with 90 minutes of live network airtime and a largely overestimated reputation for political satire. Jost and Che had a few zingers hearkening back to the energized anger of last week’s material about the Republican-packed Supreme Court’s stated intention to return American women to forced pregnancy under pain of state-mandated imprisonment, so that will have to do, I guess.

Not Ready For Prime Time Power Rankings

Sherman planted an inspirational Post-it in Colin Jost’s dressing room reading, “I’m the real king of Staten Island,” but with Pete Davidson missing yet another show, it’s sort of like Pete’s abdicating the borough crown to his partner in decommissioned ferry ownership. Also no sign at all of Alex Moffat, which is new, and I may or may not have spotted Aristotle in the goodnights.

Mikey Day had the most airtime, but mostly as scolding straight man. Bowen got his, although that Bratz thing was a bummer. Nice to see Melissa and Punkie have some stage time (and Punkie was very funny hitting on the lovelorn Gomez in the monologue). But I’ll give the top spot to Sarah Sherman, whose 8H-ranging Update piece was a pip, and whose turn alongside Bowen as a baby was equal parts creepy and funny.

“Well, what if you just really wanted that cheese, though?”—10-To-One Report

Babies. Creepy, creepy babies.

Parting Shots

I’d like to credit Post Malone with juxtaposing the sentiment, “You’re the reason why I got my ass kicked” with a full choir and two standing drummers all dressed in black for some sort of knowing self-awareness. But I just wasn’t getting that vibe.

I do appreciate how Che keeps going after SNL sponsor Apple for their use of child labor.

For the second week in a row, Saturday Night Live hasn’t acknowledged the recent death of admittedly short-tenured featured player Dan Vitale. Not cool.

Next week: Season 47 comes to a close, with the sure-to-be interesting booking of Natasha Lyonne and Japanese Breakfast.

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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