Oscar Isaac made his first ever Saturday Night Live hosting gig into an audition to be the next Jon Hamm. Acclaimed actor willing to act like a complete goof? Check. Sex object for the intellectual set clearly relishing the opportunity to send up his public image? Double-check. Able to establish silly sketch characters with effortless grace alongside a cast grateful to have found a guaranteed return host and playmate? Check your inbox for an email from Lorne, Oscar.
When not causing red carpet swoons and winning all the awards, Isaac is a remarkably versatile actor, an arrow in his quiver Isaac playfully mocked in his monologue by noting how he’s played everything from “a pharaoh to Timmy Chalamet’s daddy.” He also prodded the Hollywood casting tradition by shouting out both his Guatemalan and Cuban heritage and his real name, Óscar Isaac Hernández Estrada, noting that he’d allowed the entertainment industry to pick two of his four names. “Guess what they went with?,” Isaac chided, before happily throwing to assorted clips from his long-ago movie debut, presumably when he still had all four names.
That would, of course, be The Avenger, a home movie made by and starring the 10-year-old Isaac as a tormented and vengeance-minded ninja type. (The more things change, huh?) The whole adorable clip show was the sort of monologue conceit only someone confident on the Studio 8H stage could pull off with such aplomb, with the perennially debonair Isaac warmly citing the need to “encourage kids to be weirdos.”
And the show that followed took that theme and just ran with it, tossing Isaac into some of the oddest sketches in years, with Isaac carrying over his Globetrotter-like performer’s confidence into, just to pick one example, a singing, tumorous meatball-man. Meatball’s in your court, Hamm.
: Yep, I’m going with the meatball-man. When SNL hired Sarah Sherman, fans of the comic’s “Sarah Squirm” online persona were rightly worried that Sherman’s singular talent for deliberately offputting, semi-experimental absurdist comedy would be flattened to fit SNL’s middlebrow needs. And while Sherman’s gotten some squirm onto the airwaves (her Update pieces taunting Colin Jost with career-ending scandal are bracingly bold), this is the first time I get the sense Sherman just wasn’t taking no for an answer, dammit.
Since time-honored tradition at SNL is to keep the writers’ individual contributions consigned to the too-fast credit roll, I don’t know, as of review-time, if Sherman wrote this pre-taped bit about her blushing third-date paramour (alongside an ever-game Chris Redd) revealing that she’s covered in singing, barfing, cheese-eating meatball-like growths. But I’m going to go ahead and glance over that sentence again and assume that she did.
I spent the first half of this thing thinking, “This is a Michael O’Donoghue sketch,” because I’m old and have fond memories of Saturday Night Live’s boundary-pushing writer Mr. Mike. But then it dawned on me that this is a Sarah Sherman sketch, letting a bananas, potentially audience-turning conceit play out into a literal crescendo of mutant comic weirdness. The meatball people’s gibberish song (transcribed as “Eeeeee-oo-llah-oo-ah-digga dah,” as best as I can figure) emerging through the glassy-eyed grins of Sherman’s little flesh passengers strives for the sort of escalating madness O’Donoghue squeezed onto network airwaves if nobody stopped him, and Sherman kept topping it. The old “soundtrack music is actually diegetic” joke (there’s another meatball playing piano in Sherman’s armpit) always works, and Sherman’s huffy lover explains to the barfed-upon Redd, “It’s not poisonous or anything. It’ll just stain your clothes. And it is poisonous.”
One of my most beaten SNL drums is that the show needs to stop being so damned safe. And, for my sins, SNL gave me exactly what I asked for. The fact that this sketch appeared not in the ten-to-one slot but mid-show only underscores a blessed willingness to take some chances, and it’d be hypocritical of me to not give this thing the top spot.
There weren’t any real bummers tonight, which is something I’ve said a number of times throughout season 47, happily. That said, a handful of pieces came up just short of good/greatness. The H.R. sketch had Isaac and Cecily Strong, which, nothing wrong with that. As a pair of human resources reps lecturing a roomful of increasingly confused employees about proper workplace culture, the sketch first looked to be about double-standards, before Issac and Strong revealed themselves to be chipper loonies whose PowerPoint presentation is peppered with references to “juicy booty slaps” and “raw intercourse.” I appreciated the sketch’s pileup of twists, as the pair are revealed as actors, hired to teach the bewildered drones that things could be a lot worse (even if Kenan’s office perv keeps peeping in the bathrooms). And I’m not complaining too much, as the final joke is that the whole thing is actually a promo for Kevin, a sitcom about Kenan’s office perv, Kevin. An ‘A’ for effort and oddity, but points off for not quite sticking the landing.
If not for my darned principles and my desire to fan every flickering flame of Saturday Night Live’s risk-taking, I should have given Aidy Bryant’s big sketch the top spot. The episode did fine, breezy work with SNL’s backstage life all night, and the framing device here was that Aidy, after 10 years of playing “women named ‘Diane,’ ‘Susan,’ or ‘teacher,’” has been rewarded with an Aidy Bryant-penned sketch on a topic of her choosing. Her choosing? A gauzily lavish setpiece in which an English accented Oscar Isaac (playing “Oscar Isaac”) seductively woos what Aidy claims is her long-running recurring character, The Sexual Woman.
Prosaically praising the evening-gowned Aidy as “beautiful and sexual and I can tell by your personality is very, very good” with a clipped and lispy British ardor, Isaac is Aidy’s well-deserved reward, and she’s going to get what’s coming to her. Even if, in the sketch’s conceit, Aidy isn’t especially good at matching overheated dialogue to her swoony yet klutzy intent. (Oscar Isaac cooing, “I must confess I have a big, cool boner right now,” is working its way into America’s consciousness.”) Aidy has, indeed, been working in the SNL coal mines for a decade of stellar service, and the sketch works so well because of how much goodwill and genuine love we have for her, with her on-the-spot improvised catchphrase, “Hey, you, get your fat ass on my lap, bitch!,” striking just the right note of Aidy Bryant endearing awkwardness to remind us why.
Isaac’s first sketch saw him doing a Tim Calhoun-style political spiel as the candidate attempting to recall the mayor who’s turned his town’s entire municipal well-being over to the Paw Patrol. Seemingly born of SNL writers gone mad during lockdown with nothing but their kids’ favorite, puppy-based programming blaring in their brains, the sketch consists of one joke. You know, that six puppies and one child minder, no matter how spunky and adorable, can’t cope with 911 calls about drug overdoses or the town’s 258 unsolved murders.
It’s not a bad joke, but it’s a drawn-out one, with even Isaac, Kate McKinnon, Kenan, Cecily, and Mikey Day’s testimonial-giving irate citizens’ performances unable to inject a real reason for this premise to take up the pivotal post-monologue spot. Still, Isaac set the tone in his committed acting job as the camera-unready candidate, his Herb Tangier’s atonal voice, stiff hand movements, and frozen stare all signaling that Isaac was very into whatever the show had prepared for him.
More backstage comedy came in the form of Chloe Fineman’s obsession with Netflix’s Inventing Anna, as the ace impressionist aped the “Russian accent that’s also German” of series star Julia Garner. Fineman immediately uses her pushy borrowed con-woman’s confidence to bully Andrew Dismukes into giving her his sandwich, airily order an intern to put a luxury writers room meal on her Metro card, and baffle Issac with her variously accented tries at the word “poor.” Fineman’s a vital asset for the impression-reliant Saturday Night Live, and this is the sort of showcase she’s built for (and that fellow fine impressionist Melissa Villaseñor continues not to get). And if the whole pre-tape pivots on a show you may or may not be watching, it’s still pretty funny.
I suppose I could have bumped “In Over Your Head’ to the bottom spot tonight, but there was something about an old school, premise-explaining jingle opening that charmed me. (“Mr. Short Term Memory,” “Brian Fellow’s Safari Planet”—you get the idea.) And then there was Isaac’s turn as the just-electrocuted home handyman, running down his misadventures with DIY wiring in a Cuban accent so precise and yet exaggerated that I wanted to shake his hand.
The joke (home repairs are usually a terrible, terrible idea) didn’t really lift off, but, there, too, the episode allowed strange little fillips of jokes to goose the sketch to life just when my attention started to flag. I don’t know if Kyle Mooney’s long stare-down on his inept pool installer’s way offstage was a fluff or a bit, but it made me laugh. And Kenan’s host being berated by wife Ego Nwodim for not having actual tools (his are chocolate) in his tool shed was, again, just goofy and unexpected enough to keep this doodle of a sketch alive. But it was Isaac’s still-smoking guest interrupting to tell Kenan, solemnly, “No, trust me, there is no God,” that was the real juice.
In Chloe Fineman’s backstage sketch, Michael Che greets Fineman’s assertion that Lorne has given her Che’s Update gig with a relieved, “All right, bet,” as he whips out the wheelie bag he’s had hidden under the desk. Che’s Update persona is basically that—the too-hip-for-the-room Black half of the Weekend Update team just itching to push enough buttons to get fired. (Or, you know, to move onto a Lorne Michaels-produced HBO Max sketch side-hustle.)
It works as part of Che and Colin Jost’s mismatched buddy comedy version of Weekend Update, as the duo’s vibe has always been more about entertaining themselves than delving into the fake news report concept especially hard. And, especially as the long-serving team (also SNL co-head writers) has gone on, the combination marks out an above-average place in the Weekend Update pantheon. (Say, just above Dennis Miller, but notches below Fey and Poehler.)
I know I’m new here at Paste, so presumably nobody here is already tired of the observation that, for a show that courts morning-after Twitter buzz and politician hate-watches, Saturday Night Live should do a lot more with its satirical content, as a rule. And Update has become a victim of its own success, the mid-show phony news concept having inspired such towering progeny (The Daily Show, Last Week Tonight, The Colbert Report, Full Frontal) that Jost and Che’s flip takes can come off a little piddly in comparison.
There are always a few tightly conceived zingers. Jost got the most sustained laugh by flashing a picture of a pissed-off and confused-looking Florida governor and torch-bearing anti-gay bigot Ron DeSantis (R-FL), noting that he’d just been told someone’s pronouns. And Che, always swinging for the audience’s most vulnerable spots, did a joke about National Pig Day indicating he’d been arrested for wishing a happy one, to a pig. There were some clunkers. Jost seems determined that jokes about right-wingers like Lindsey Graham being in the closet are aces, for one example. To sum up for new readers: Jost and Che are fine, even if having 10 minutes of guaranteed network airtime to do any topical material they want seems to inspire them to show off how clever they are more than write smarter jokes.
Take Kate McKinnon’s desk piece in contrast, a hilariously pointed and exquisitely performed bit mocking aforementioned Republican asshole Ron DeSantis’ signing of Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Kate comes out excited that Florida, of all places, is banning the use of “gay” as an in-school insult, letting the gag breathe before Jost dutifully breaks it to her that the bill is actually a regressive middle finger to every LGBTQ kid in the state that outright bans the acknowledgement of gay people in schools, and, terrifyingly, empowers school personnel to out gay kids to their parents.
Kate being Kate, her realization came in the form of some deeply funny noises of shock and horror, followed by a stream of Freudian slips where she says the word “gay” as much as humanly possible. As an out gay woman herself, this is McKinnon’s breaking-the-fourth-wall Update piece akin to Cecily Strong’s searingly blunt and biting abortion rights piece from earlier in the season. Ending by getting the audience to chant “gay” along with her to the tune of “Smoke on the Water,” McKinnon yet stays true to the premise, never abandoning the idea that she could be forgiven for thinking that no state government could be as cruelly backwards and hateful as fucking Florida.
Recurring sketches aren’t, in themselves, a bad thing on SNL. You know, even if I can count on one solitary hand the number of repeaters that never wore out their welcome. (Not that you asked, but: Stefon, Herb Welch, Nick the Lounge Singer, Maine Justice, Black Jeopardy. End of list.)
That said, I remain genuinely impressed and appreciative that this season (and most of last), SNL has cut way back on sketches hauled out of the trunk. Tonight, apart from the cold open and its inescapable cast of real world recurring characters, it was just Ego Nwodim’s eternally beleaguered mom Pauline, slouching out once more to complain about things. It’s a nicely deserved piece of character work for Ego, with her now-pregnant single mom (Che is revealed as the father) getting in a few good lines. Her pregnancy cravings including “pickles, peanut butter, and the barrel of a shotgun” got the gasp-laughs, and I chuckled at Pauline’s dismissal of Rihanna’s maternity wear being from “a sex funeral.” Not groundbreaking stuff, to be sure, but Ego keeps pushing back against the show’s perpetual efforts to elbow her aside.
The cold open had a can’t-miss target to shoot at this week. Which isn’t to say that Saturday Night Live doesn’t miss such targets more than half the time, but this one landed with an admirable body-blow to sweatily backpedaling Russian apologist right-wing media types everywhere. Kate played her Laura Ingraham, while Alex Moffat did a pretty solid Tucker Carlson, as the two Fox News sneering heads hosted a Fox-sponsored Ukrainian invasion spectacular (to benefit, as it turns out, the Russian oligarchs currently being relieved of their yachts through NATO sanctions).
Beating up on Fox is easy at this point, even if SNL can’t always find the fish in that particular barrel. But this was relatively tight and on-point as far as these cold opens go, with both Carlson and Ingraham having to gaslight their viewers even more effortfully than usual as they pretend they weren’t cheering on Putin’s invasion of a sovereign democracy last week before it turns out world opinion isn’t so easily swayed into championing a dictator’s assault on democracy as they imagined. “We did sound pretty awful in hindsight—and foresight,” confesses McKinnon’s Ingraham about Fox racing too far ahead of even its audience’s gallop toward totalitarian sycophancy.
The real star of the sketch was James Austin Johnson’s Trump, a stellar characterization that hitches an already good impression to an actual comic conceit. That being that Fox increasingly must cut around the fact of their “former and current president”’s gabbling incoherence and receding relevance. (And, yes, nobody knows that the possibility of a second Trump term looms more than I do, but I’m talking about the waning ability of even Trump apologists to pretend that their Glorious Leader isn’t a gibbering, politically incoherent ninny.)
Johnson’s Trump is a track-jumping runaway train of self-obsession and addled delusion, rambling on to the nonexistent caller on his dial tone-echoing pledge phone about everything from Rihanna (big night for Ri-Ri), to the rise of plant-based fast food alternatives. Delivered in Johnson’s pitch-perfect old man gargle, this post-Baldwin Trump is an upgrade in every conceivable way, with even his final love song to pal Putin miles ahead of whatever that “Don’t Stop Me Now” travesty was. That staggeringly irrelevant thing still gives me stomach pains.
On the strength of her self-penned ode to her own gloriously awkward yet sexy self, Aidy wins the night. Not that Aidy Bryant needed 10 years to establish herself as a reliably hilarious fan favorite on the show, but this was her gold watch sketch, and she deserved it.
Second place goes to Sarah Sherman, who, finally, asserted herself as the go-to strange-o Saturday Night Live needs. I’ve said it about a lot of similarly singular cast members over the years (most recently Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett), but, in a 90-minute show, SNL would be best served by just handing four minutes over for Sherman to do whatever she wants.
Absent in this overstuffed cast’s revolving door policy this week was Pete Davidson (who may or may not be in boyfriend protection at the moment). I saw Aristotle Athari in the background once or twice, but couldn’t spot Punkie Johnson in the crowd anywhere.
A less bold show would have put Sherman’s meatball-men here. Or, more likely, straight into the “cut for time” YouTube bin. As it happens, the creative writing class sketch was significantly less weird than that, although it was still character-based enough, and with enough of an off-center specificity, that it nestled comfortably into SNL’s repository for offbeat sketches unlikely to spin off into their own franchise. Isaac was, once more, deeply into his weirdo character, a night school janitor whose own writings turn out to be an 800-page fantasy about a janitor who teaches Dua Lipa how to make out.
Isaac’s friendly custodian presents his autobiographical fantasy, The Apogee of Midnight, in the lived-in voice of an avuncular, lonely man who pines for the heyday of vintage pornography with a connoisseur’s eye. There’s even the hint of subtext in that the class’ female teacher and students can see where this is heading, even as the two male students pretend to merely be interested in giving a new author a break. Too often SNL will settle for the most obvious joke (weird guy is creepy and weird), so here’s to a little ambition in the last sketch of a pretty good night.
Charlie XCX got her make-up gig after fleeing 30 Rock alongside most of the cast on Paul Rudd’s big, Omicron-scuttled night. Sometimes “provocative and edgy” can come off as “clompy and sort of embarrassing,” and I kept looking at the “Beg For You” singer in her Emma Frost supervillain-wear and her Wolverine claws and waiting for Cecily Strong’s Gemma to join her for a rendition of “Feelin’ Naugh-y.”
Hey, I’m Dennis, and I’ll be your new Paste Saturday Night Live reviewer. It’s an honor to be here, and I’m looking forward to finishing out the rest of Season 47 in my new digs, and generally angering you with my wrongness. See you next week for Zoë Kravitz and musical guest Rosalía.