After last week’s (Feb. 3) blitz of a cold open — one of those “David S. Pumpkins” moments where you can feel it trending as it happens; this week’s is a damn doozy — Melissa McCarthy-as-Sean “Spicy” Spicer had quite the
vastly more realistic/cartoonish big-boy suit shoes to fill.
It’s the second sketch that locks in a character or bit, we’ve seen: The characters and qualities of the environment that have to be hit every time. The Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With at a Parmty (Cecily Strong) will always end on a triplet of one-liners, of which the penultimate or antepenultimate beat will be no-fault racist and the finale cruelly incisive; she will dig through her purse for something that doesn’t go in a purse; she will recognize someone more interesting across the way precisely halfway through.
Stefon (Bill Hader) gives us three — sometimes four — lists of four (sometimes five) objects or qualities of ascending randomness, which generally include an off-label use for little people third from the end and generally follow a profane/profane/innocent scheme, an anapestic meter as dependable as the pause for laughs: perv-perv-childlike, perv-perv-childlike, just like the club kids he’s imitating. And so on.
But when these characters first appear, they’re all over the place, because they need to know what sticks: Improv becoming format, through the rehearsals we don’t see and into the live performance that we do. And so this week, with Spicy, we’ve lost the thicket of Gallagher prop comedy for a more vicious and clever White Barbie vs. Moana-of-Color TSA run-through. (We’ve yet to gain Rosie as Steven Bannon, but McKinnon joins in as Jeff Sessions — while visually uncanny, the impression itself needs some time to breathe, coming off as a doughy standard with a robust helping of Hader’s creepy Jim Carville.)
Spicy’s supersoaker watergun is, this week, a leafblower that treats Cecily Strong to some anarchy, which — as fans of her films and certainly of her appearances on this show already know — is McCarthy’s actual favorite thing. She thrives on those almost-legitimately-scary moments of onstage chaos, and this week the sketch leans into it with a vengeance, leading into one of the funniest and smartest uses of a limited 8-H stage space since the last time we got to see one of those extremely woke, absolutely misguided school plays Vanessa and Kenan Thompson are always attending.
The monologue is interesting, insofar as host Alec Baldwin broke his own record this week, his 17th visit. (Steve Martin remains at 15.) A weirdly spare tour through that history is interrupted by Pete Davidson doing Pete Davidson, which gives Baldwin not much room to maneuver, but opportunity to react with class, which he does — and the episode’s final moments, an embrace with the mostly recovered cameo player Tracy Morgan, seemed particularly fraught. Neither of them have been consistently well-behaved individuals, but they are doing their best and that’s something to celebrate. Anyway, Jack Donaghy hugged Tracy Jordan and it was swell.
Unless, of course, by mentioning Jimmy Fallon’s name Alec Baldwin has cursed Pete Davidson to become his generation’s Jimmy Fallon, in some dark future — in which case we would say to those future individuals, how is it going? Do you still have electricity? Did anyone ever figure out the deal with the Trivago Guy? Who’s the president there? How many times has Alec Baldwin hosted “Saturday Night Live” by then, and has he let one opportunity to mention Schweddy Balls pass him by?
(The first thing I think of when Alec Baldwin hosts “SNL” is the time that he played a molesty Boy Scout Leader — because it was, let’s say, formative in certain ways — but the second thing I think of is, “In what benighted f***ing century did ‘SNL’ think child rape was on the table,” and then immediately, “Oh right, 1994” — and that Baldwin’s apology, when he returned at the end of the year, involved pointing out that Adam Sandler’s character wasn’t underage, just mentally disabled, so it’s fine. The show has been on for a long time. Lots of changes in our world, over that period — we’ve mostly figured out about Adam Sandler, for example.)
And then, fairly early in the night given the intensity of it all, we got the “break the internet” sketch, a digital short putting McKinnon’s fame-addicted, sharklike Kellyanne Conway in the Glenn Close role of “Fatal Attraction” — Jake Tapper, metonymically a media proxy but one more specifically for CNN itself, as the Michael Douglas: Played with fire, cheated on his beloved Truth and betrayed the Fourth Estate, got shamed for it — for once — and has finally put his foot down — for once — by reacting to out-and-out falsehoods with something other than blithe disinterest.
But is it too late for Jake to save himself? Is his integrity gone forever, this last ethical hail-mary too late to do anything but hobble him further? Will she pull him back in, through seduction or terror or worse? Does he secretly love the rush, the naughtiness, the unpredictable give-and-take that comes with her particular brand of unplanned, randomized alternative-fact bingo?
It’s a good sketch, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Casting Conway as an attention- and power-hungry demon is not just accurate but something that’s been applauded up to now, rightly, and the trappings of the film’s references may cause a false-positive “misogyny” response, and God knows they will try it, but let’s be clear: McKinnon isn’t playing a real-life woman, she’s playing a force of nature, specifically an embodiment of the post-fact corruption of consensus reality itself, which is a necessary precondition for fascism. This is a story about journalism trying to get its pants back on over its shoes and hoping it can make it home before it gets gone-girled, because it forgot, briefly, the agreements it made.
And secondly, in any case you can’t roll back women’s health initiatives going back decades, signal to states’ governments to do the same, base an entire presidential campaign on the abuse and hatred of women (in particular, if not exclusively), with long-term anti-woman activist Kellyanne Conway as its mouthpiece, and then cry “sexism” because somebody made a joke — on a TV show of jokes. Blood wasn’t coming out of her anywhere, nobody grabbed her by the anything, and the day the (21-to-7 male/female) writers’ room runs out of jokes is the day they start going to the Ivanka well, so count your blessings. At least Conway knows what she is.
And maybe “SNL” does, too. Or is starting to. The week-to-week meandering that started around election time seems to be reaching a synthesis, and even “Weekend Update” has calmed itself down considerably. The bits this week aren’t hugely memorable, but at least they aren’t outright hateful, which is an improvement. McKinnon’s clever Elizabeth Warren impression and a few funny lines — nothing like a solid Jost burn, which frankly are rarer than they think — show a character still in progress, but at least they’re remembering to address the show’s past contributions to President Trump’s visibility:
Seems like an odd hair to split — making fun of Trump, making neutral use of Trump, and having Trump physically in the studio are not actually all polar opposites of each other — but you have to assume those conversations were happening in 30 Rockefeller way before we ever had reason to be concerned.
On that note, we go to “People’s Court” with the president, who takes on the 19th Circuit as promised: A reality TV president in a reality TV courthouse does make sense, even if it’s a first-draft idea, and what brightens it all up is the ensemble. Even among the seated bystanders, things are happening — and by taking on Trump as a man, the sketch provides a specificity that makes it all the sharper.
Alec Baldwin isn’t just doing Trump because he’s the guy that does Trump, we’re reminded: He’s doing it because to watch “SNL” in 2017 is to stand on the sidelines of a high-noon fistfight between the show and an audience of exactly one.
Which isn’t to say there’s anything important about a beef between a mostly overlooked TV show — “Tell me when it’s good again,” goes the annual refrain — and a mostly uninteresting baby-man. It’s easy to feel a sort of fuzzy conflation of “SNL” with “journalism” with “politics,” “having a take” with “casting a vote,” but they’re all radically different things. I think this is Jon Stewart’s fault, honestly, this sort of participatory active listening that tricks the uninvolved and underinformed into feeling like crucial players in the process.
Any case, just because “SNL” is capitalizing on Trump’s mistake — specifically, his belief that TV and the internet are real, rather than just bathroom walls on which many things have been written that have nothing to do with him — doesn’t mean it’s part of the discourse, recognized as authority, or otherwise meaningful. North Korea’s got ballistic missiles, children are dead in Yemen, our country is in the hands of proud white nationalists who promise they’re only jailing suspicious individuals temporarily. Those are problems.
Whether or not a pretext for disingenuous outrage has been gifted to people without morals or a fiduciary duty to their countrymen — or an understanding of the concept of fiduciary duty, or in many cases the ability to spell the word “fiduciary” — those are not actual problems. And not in the “other people have it worse” way, either: In the “don’t let them dictate the terms of the conversation, because they demonstrably can’t do so with competence” way. Handing them the ammo is not a problem, and should not stress you out, because they will always have ammo and it will never be legitimate. And that will continue not mattering.
Anyway. Not the most amazing sketch, but there’s depth and variety there far above the reasonable minimum, which is encouraging: The real one — the truth-to-power silver bullet; the Rosie-as-Bannon middle-finger — is the dangerous and righteous arc of this short, which begins with Leslie Jones seizing on a plan to play the show’s Trump and travels into the stratosphere, ending on one of the most stunning and frankly bad-ass moves the show’s attempted since… Well, earlier in the evening. But excepting this episode itself, it’s been a long damn time.
Come at Kellyanne, you’ll get tut-tutted and fingerwagged for overdetermined reasons that will never make sense. But to end on the note that this sketch does is to level a full-on threat, in a language only one man speaks, at a volume he can’t ignore. The tedium of the middle third of the short is more than acceptable, given where it eventually ends up: With the man himself suffering a fourfold cuckolding, Melania bedded by a 1) Woman 2) Of Color who 3) Is impersonating him and 4) Works at “SNL.”
What makes the Rosie scenario art — trades, in this case, shock value for moral merit — is the fact that in his entire life, Donald Trump has never been so obsessed with anyone, not even Robert Pattinson, as much as Rosie O’Donnell. For decades this has been going on. So to give her Bannon isn’t funny because she’s a lady, nor because Melissa McCarthy made such waves last week, but because it is laser-focused on provoking the most easily provokable (and most powerful) human alive: Rosie is to Bannon as Leslie is to Trump himself, and it is beautiful, and it is honestly a little scary.
Where it gets exciting, and messy, is in two sketches that reach for timeliness while also searching desperately for something that goes beyond thesis and antithesis, past the “both sides” fallacy, past every possible take, hoping to land somewhere real. A good deal of the “Weekend Update” problems this year come from a thing most guys do at a certain age: Fall into the uncanny valley between Social Justice Warrior and “South Park” Republican — feeling around the ideas of intersectionality, feminism, privilege and the rest of it while terrified to use those words, for fear that’s all we’ll hear.
For Jost and Che — and “Weekend Update” head writer Pete Schultz, of course — the classic Gen X whatever-and-ever-amen tends to suffice, because they deem themselves sufficiently enlightened as to be above reproach. But now, in the time-honored tradition of cool kids everywhere, trying to escape the hipster hall of mirrors into something fresh and new seems to actually be bearing fruit. If caring is uncool, and not caring is uncool, and being nice is uncool but being crappy is also uncool, you have to find your coolness in an entirely undiscovered place. They are trying to think their way out of a box, for the good of us all, which is as far from the queasy centrism of last year’s run of episodes as you can get.
But if the crowdsourced take-factory called Twitter — which especially for comedy writers and the politically minded is an exceedingly anxious salon of poses and stances and shadowboxing, hurt feelings masquerading as sprezzatura and earnest feelings masquerading as elaborate, recursive iterations of irony — hasn’t arrived at the solution, it’s doubtful the three or four basic punchlines the “Weekend Update” crew seem to have in the fridge are going to do it.
Everyone remembers the Thanksgiving 2015 sketch in which a family at odds is brought together by Adele: Classic and recent “SNL” style, to the letter, in which the crazy Republican aunt and the queers at the end of the table and the loud feminist and whatever are all one big mess of noise, united by their love of the song “Hello” — this is “SNL’s” classic, risk-free mode, in which the joke is a distraction from the noise altogether. The stance of making a point, and quietly putting the pieces back when we’re done, because “identity politics” is a dirty phrase unless your identity happens to be dominant.
Under the jokes and funny performances, that’s a sneaky “All Lives Matter” move — and it’s one from which the show continues slowly to distance itself, as it moves into a new generation of comedy and awareness: In 2017, the joke is not that everybody has a point, and deserves a little ribbing, but that even gentle satire has to lean left, out of the sheer inertia pulling us right.
In 2017 the joke isn’t that everyone loves Adele, it’s that everyone is going to die.
To put every contradictory stance and thought into a blender, and make a delicious unforeseen thing that isn’t compromise, but transcendence — which is what art is, even in postmodernity: Taking the binary that history has handed you, a black-and-white, and somehow spinning it not into gray, but a riot of color. Two years later, the Thanksgiving miracle is not that everyone loves Adele, but that anyone’s left at the table. So although these two sketches — both zeroing in on post-Super Bowl malaise through an anticorporate lens — have their problems, they are still reaching forward, and deserve something for that.
First up, “Russell Stover” presents one kind of corporate-wokeness paralysis, arising from the confluence of Valentine’s Day and Black History Month you could spot on a whiteboard from a mile away. It’s a simple idea that trades on the “abuela”-style pandering/naivete of corporate attempts to be human more than the crass commercialism of it, but it does try to span both. What’s really worthwhile about it is Sasheer Zamata’s performance, which hints at great things she may well one day get to do.
Much angrier, if less focused, is “Pitch Meeting,” in which a slick pair of advertising execs sell the Cheeto arm of Frito-Lay on an increasingly liberal — and meaningless — collection of ideas. What’s tricky and good about this sketch is that it doesn’t lay all crass corporatism at the foot of the campaigns it’s referencing (Dove’s incredible trans ad, Budweiser’s notorious Super Bowl ad), but merely notes, correctly, that this is a case of diminishing returns: You cannot trust everyone to do it right, and therefore it’s worth pre-shaming those who would do it wrong.
There is an archness to Kyle Mooney’s and Cecily Strong’s lines here, as they do the work clarifying what aspects of compassion advertising are good (the creative process; a lazy-but-present intent toward goodness beyond merely capitalizing on a trend) and which are bad (jumping on the bandwagon with products that don’t really fit; profiting from oppressed people’s stories and lives without their participation or consent). And while the whole “advertising is inherently evil” stance is pretty Gen X-stale, it appeals to basically everyone, because even those who understand it or profit from it as an art in its own right are still expected to hate themselves for it.
What’s different about this one isn’t enough to make it a great sketch — there is nothing on this earth quite so boring as cynicism-about-cynicism, speaking of inventing people to be better than — but it worth noting the care with which it tries to thread the needle: That’s the new thing. 2015 “SNL” would write these con-men off as shock-doctrine profiteers and the execs as soulless goons, and give the competing pair even less to do as a result — but most importantly, it would present the ideas and their intentions as uniformly bad, crude, and worst of all uncool.
Instead, we’re invited to see the thoughts behind the thoughts, on both sides of the pitch: Alec Baldwin and Aidy Bryant’s smarmy account managers may well believe what they are selling, so convincing is their sales routine, while Cecily Strong, with Beck Bennett, gives a note-perfect portrayal of a well-meaning but ultimately privilege-blinded and self-absorbed capitalism. While the right has always treated itself as a brand, using any technique it can to achieve penetration and target its markets without shame or forethought, this idea — of selling tolerance, kindness, softly liberal values; of assigning them a price point — is new. It’s easy to pick at because it’s barely formed, as yet.
The early ’90s gave us recycling, and cracked the door on environmentalism in general; they gave us “Philadelphia” and the AIDS Quilt, and the Berlin Wall; they gave us Anita Hill, “Designing Women,” and “A Different World.” We have been in this situation before, eyes briefly open to the horrors — and the wonders, and the absolute vulnerability — of other people. Prodded into seeking out and looking directly at the gap between how things just are and how they easily could be.
“Hidden Figures” does a remarkable job of ringing that bell in almost every scene, without it ever feeling repetitive: That “how things are” is a lie to shut you up, because the world is always moving forward and the future is always better than the past. “How things are” uses itself as a weapon to defend itself, and we’re all the ammunition. It’s hard to remember that “how things are” is also a hell of a lot better than “how things were” — that “how things are” is a lie that always changes, but that those changes bend toward justice.
We made great strides, together, under a Republican dynasty and during a depression, and those things are so knit into our culture now it’s barely possible to remember what the fever was even like, before it broke. Those things don’t seem liberal or conservative to us now, they feel like the way things are. Like not smoking indoors, or drinking while pregnant; like wearing a seatbelt, or saying “chairperson,” they are part of the status quo.
But oh, at the time. Honey, at the time they called it a war.
“Saturday Night Live” airs at 11:30 p.m. ET/PT on NBC. Next up: Octavia Spencer, March 4.