May this be the last time you ever have to read about the fun-house-mirror fever dream that is "Too Many Cooks," but let's talk about it for a moment. That 11-minute exercise in nostalgic deconstruction was the most bizarre comedy short to achieve critical mass probably ever. (Technically, it was more than a sketch; it was art.) "Too Many Cooks" was passed around, think piece'd, and parodied so much that everybody is sick of it by now — which is only a testament to the thing's left-field ingenuity. It was like the opposite of U2's new album-distribution strategy in that it emerged unannounced when nobody was watching, but we were all still more or less forced to gaze upon it. The viral success of "Cooks" must have cast a shadow over the team at SNL, who reassembled after a week off, right into the Adult Swim short's immediate wake. You could sort of see the impact of "Too Many Cooks" in the resulting show — but not in the way one might expect.
It was a weird episode, to be sure, but it wasn't wall-to-wall weird, and it never went beyond the parameters of how weird the show usually gets. Rather, the influence can probably be explained in one sketch. The premise of "The Dudleys" is that it's a CBS sitcom constantly being retooled and modified in response to Twitter reactions about diversity and the like. (The constant refrain is "We heard you loud and clear.") This sketch was already a bit of meta-commentary on SNL's own responsiveness. Recall the online outrage after the show introduced six new cast members at the beginning of last season — all white, 83 percent male — and the personnel changes that followed as a direct result. Although "The Dudleys" is ostensibly about sitcoms, it doesn't take any stylistic cues from "Too Many Cooks." However, after two underwhelming episodes in a row, one can imagine the SNL staff traversing the Adult Swim short's enormous digital footprint and thinking, We hear you loud and clear: We will do better. Or maybe I'm reaching. Either way, something must have happened, because last night's SNL was the best and most consistently entertaining episode in years.
A Drink at the White House Cold Open
"You know, I would enjoy having some Kentucky bourbon with Mitch McConnell" is a thing President Obama said this past week, after the former was elected Senate majority leader. Thus, an above-average cold open was born. It's a clever way to comment on the Republican-favoring midterm elections without going too much into detail about just what happened. As Jay Pharoah's Obama and Taran Killam's McConnell escalate their drunken repartee, they begin discussing issues of race openly, in ways that seem studiously avoided at all times but probably shouldn't be. That the opening sketch doesn't outstay its welcome is merely the cherry on top.
Woody Harrelson 1989 Monologue
It's been 25 years since fresh-faced Cheers bartender Woody Harrelson first hosted SNL. To commemorate that 1989 event, Harrelson's monologue gives us a musical walk through the year 1989, to the tune of a song from Taylor Swift's new album, entitled 1989. "Swift isn't the musical guest, but she still looms so large over this pop-cultural moment that she doesn't even have to show up — although eventually Jennifer Lawrence drops by, along with Harrelson's other Hunger Games co-stars, and the host remarks, "Hey, it's the real Taylor Swift!" I was ready to dismiss this monologue the moment Woody picked up his guitar, but once the Hunger gang arrives, the joke becomes that our guy is too stoned to accurately remember the year 1989. (He thinks the Kool-Aid Man tore down the Berlin Wall.) It won't be the last time in the episode Harrelson picks up a guitar, or his proclivity for pot is referenced.
This throwback to MTV-style dating games of the '90s (think Singled Out) earns laughs right out of the gate with its contestants' pun-loving horniness. Then comes the turn — loopy bachelorette Cecily Strong is Match'd host Harrelson's daughter. The contestants' demeanor remains the same, even as their answers shift toward the overly formal and respectful, giving us the alt-universe version of the end scene from Mallrats that we never knew we wanted. This sketch also has one of the best throws to commercial that I've ever witnessed.
New Marijuana Policy
Last week, Police Commissioner Bill Bratton asked NYPD to stop arresting people carrying less than 25 grams of pot. After a righteously stoned-looking Pete Davidson sees this news on TV, he goes outside to find a communal celebration on a beautiful day. It's as if a spell has been lifted. Woody Harrelson elevates his pot-crusader persona to a higher level, sporting a reggae-colored poncho and blonde dreads to glide atop a car and scream, "Free at last." It's all very theatrical and "epic" and all the more impressive for having been conceived and filmed in a matter of days.
Football Halftime Speech
This sketch has it both ways: It's effective as a critique of how a generation of concerned parents tends to go overboard in the name of safety, and also an indictment on the game of football for being too dangerous. It's both of those things, and yet still silly enough for a sight gag about enormous helmets.
The jokes were funny on "Weekend Update" this episode, and hearing Killam's Matthew McConaughey refer to Woody Harrelson as the Luigi to his Mario was like being taken to church, but this segment belonged to Leslie Jones. A woman in California was arrested recently after she tried to break into the house of a man she met online — this is the setup for Jones's desk piece this week. It turns out, though, that it's just an excuse for this hilarious performer to lay waste to men's perception of women as crazy. Jones forces Colin Jost to look at her breasts, calls out creepy uncles, and lists the Seven Dwarf–like varietals of penis that exist. Her delivery is beyond assured, and it's also unpredictable and unstoppable. If there was any doubt about Jones after the Chris Rock episode's Old Couple sketch, this segment should squash it.
Old New York
Here we have a solid premise solidly executed. A bunch of walking stereotypes are draped around a bar, basically putting the song "New York, I Love You, But You're Bringing Me Down" into conversational form. They can't believe there's frozen yogurt everywhere these days and that it's hard to find a decent hot dog. Woody Harrelson's wistful memories aren't for food, though, but for crack. The host does a great job marrying the scuzziness of a junkie with the Regular Joe factor everyone present evokes. It's a fairly straightforward sketch, but by the time Harrelson brandishes a "Vote for Nader" button as a badge in a bid to fake-arrest his friends and take their nonexistent crack, it rises to a level of inspired lunacy.
Like the "Paul and Phil" graveyard jamboree from the recent Jim Carrey episode, which I may have been a bit unjustly tough on, this strange earworm of a song has an idiosyncratic goofiness, and it evolves over the course of the sketch. The difference, though, is that this one has a nice turn at the end that complicates everything that preceded it. I love this song, in an usual way.
Last Call With Woody Harrelson
There's not much to say about this sketch, the latest to feature a sartorially challenged Kate McKinnon in her desperate Last Call Lady role and Kenan Thompson as bemused bartender. It's great. There's an extended leaf metaphor that kills, some seriously gross kissing, and McKinnon's stated occupation is "re-plastering popular glory holes." What more do you need?
You don't ordinarily hear the name Woody Harrelson and think "comedy powerhouse," but he handled every sketch thrown his way like he was born to do so, and he seemed to be having fun the whole time. It's been quite a year for the actor, bookended by True Detective and the latest Hunger Games movie, but in neither of those projects is he particularly funny. It's easy to forget the Cheers alum is a seasoned comedy pro, but nobody who's seen this episode will be doing that soon.