We'll never know how last night's episode of Saturday Night Live might have played out during any other week. The shadow of the Eiffel Tower, now closed indefinitely after Friday night's nightmarish attacks in Paris, loomed large over the proceedings. Many viewers likely came to the show simultaneously needing a laugh and with their thoughts preoccupied—leaning on the second screen a bit harder to check for updates. There's simply more gravity watching this perennial live show, which thrives on staying current and reflecting each cultural moment, rather than checking out, say, Aziz Ansari's Master of None — even if the former is far goofier. The somber occasion was reflected in a historic cold open, during which Cecily Strong conveyed SNL's and New York City's sympathy for and solidarity with the people of Paris — first in English and then in surprisingly fluent French. It was a touching tribute reminiscent of another time the show had to acknowledge a horrible tragedy without humor — the first cold open after 9/11, when then-mayor Rudy Giuliani appeared flanked by NYC firemen, and Paul Simon performed "The Boxer" as a message of resiliency. This choice was far more respectful than just running whatever sketch might've been planned for the slot, perhaps one involving the latest democratic debate, airing almost concurrently with the show. It's tough work, though, kicking off a comedy show with an echo of 9/11 and a somber recognition of the insanity of right now.
Also looming large over the episode was Donald Trump. While glancing at their phones, some viewers may have noticed that the presidential candidate, to whom SNL lent its platform just last week in a widely derided episode, used the occasion of the Paris attacks to rail against gun control. It was a typically tone-deaf move that likely helped embolden Colin Jost and Michael Che to savage Trump during Weekend Update for his bizarre behavior this past week. For some viewers, however, and your recapper is among this group, it felt like too little too late, and only served to reinforce the foul aftertaste of experiencing SNL and Trump as bedfellows.
Last night's episode was bound to be an improvement no matter who was hosting, outside of Steven Segal maybe. Fortunately, the host was none other than Elizabeth Banks, long overdue for the honor. Although Banks hasn't had too many shots at a lead role, she's stolen the show in everything from The 40-Year Old Virgin to 30 Rock and the Pitch Perfect movies, the second of which she also directed. Faced with the challenges of the timing here, Banks proved herself game and indefatigable in every sketch, a sunny foil for the gloomy mood enveloping the episode. She couldn't quite keep the dark clouds at bay, but she tried her best and nobody could've done more.
Elizabeth Banks Monologue
The latest installment of The Hunger Games films, in which Banks plays cotton candy-haired Effie Trinket, is ostensibly the reason she is hosting. However, the show wisely lets Banks glide over that fact and slide into a monologue that focuses on her new prowess as a director. While belting out a from-the-gut rendition of "What a Feeling" from Flashdance, our host begins giving elaborate stage and camera directions. The fact that she's doing this at all is the joke at first, but then the directions get more self-referential and silly, such as "More diverse dancers" and "Lose Bobby [Moynihan]." (Side note: never lose Bobby Moynihan. More Bobby Moynihan is always a net positive.) Even after the crew has some trouble removing her tear-away dress — live TV, ladies and gentlemen — Banks sells the bit with enthusiasm, commitment, and star wipes — two out of three of which carry through to the rest of the episode.
Imagine if the gig economy allowed you to contract out every last task you needed done, but with service provided exclusively by the most sketchy people. That's the concept of this digital short — an ad for Aron's List, an Angie's List surrogate wherein the name is an acronym for American Registry of Non-Violent Offenders. Beck Bennett's plumber of ill repute sort of shrugs with his face as the announcer mentions that, rather than the bad kind of sex offenders, these guys are just guilty of low-level sexual misdemeanors like "missed the cutoff on statutory stuff" and exposing oneself on a jumbotron. The sketch is also notable for kickstarting a hot night for Jay Pharoah. Although he only has one line here, his delivery is probably the most memorable aspect of the sketch. Elsewhere, he sort of makes a pitch for himself as reliable utility player, rather than go-to impressions guy — popping up in nearly every scene and either scoring memorable lines or carrying the whole thing.
Black Jeopardy! with Elizabeth Banks
A few months into SNL's big diversity initiative of early 2014, the show scored a cultural hit with Black Jeopardy! during a Louis C.K.-hosted episode. The sketch resonated because it celebrated a way of talking that not all black people necessarily employ, but only black people can pull off. The answers in categories like "It's Been a Minute" and "Psssh!" interrogated stereotypes through the prism of speech patterns, without pandering or parodying. The butt of the joke was the white person flailing at keeping up. That sketch got a worthy follow-up last night with Banks lumped in as a contestant on the show alongside Sasheer Zamata and Jay Pharoah. (Having dated a black guy once is her stated qualification.) While the formula is left largely untouched, the writers updated the categories, which now include "Who Try'na?" "It Ain't Like That" and "What Had Happened Was." The only update the sketch did not necessarily benefit from is having the clueless white contestant baldly state the theme of the sketch — "It's just that, as a white person, I'm not really sure how to answer these questions" — which has more impact when left unsaid.
First Got Horny 2 U
If last week's "Bad Girls" felt like something of a misfire, this all-woman musical number is right on target. Sporting all white ensembles like Boyz II Men, most of the squad that sang "Dongs All Over The World" returns with an ode to adolescent sexual awakenings. "First Got Horny 2 U" charts four SNL stars and Banks' increasingly ridiculous pathways to tingling sensations — complete with hilariously lived-in methods of bodily experimentation. Since all of these women came of age in the ’90s, the references include Carson Daly, Mr. Sheffield from The Nanny, and most memorably, the reptilian son from Dinosaurs, who inspired a pint-sized Aidy Bryant to sit on her hands and scoot around the room. It's as funny as it is nostalgia-inducing for a time when young people had to search a little harder to get turned on.
High School Theater Show With Elizabeth Banks
"Mirror to America: A Reflection of You" is the latest student play a group of parents had to sit through painfully on SNL. It's the third time we've seen this sketch, since its debut during last Thanksgiving's Cameron Diaz episode, and the firmament is pretty sturdy by now. Making fun of self-serious teenage dramatists is like shooting fish in a barrel, but the shooters here have really precise aim and the fish are particularly annoying, so bravo.
The decision to nail Donald Trump this week seemed to arise from a crisis of conscience at having had him host the previous week. Addressing that fact before picking apart Trump's nonsensical 95-minute tirade from Thursday only served to remind us, though, of the pulled punches from last week's segment. At least the rest of the Update jokes were on point, complete with a real corker about Jeb Bush's willingness to slay Baby Hitler. Elsewhere, Kate McKinnon offered a serviceable Olya Povlatsky, buoyed by a perfect Hamilton reference, Pete Davidson delivered one of his best desk pieces, deconstructing Houston's just-defeated bathroom bill, and Kyle Mooney kind of flamed out in what may prove his final turn as veteran comic Bruce Chandling. As a bit, Chandling is almost Andy Kaufman-level daring in its antihumor. Chandling is a slick-haired relic of the backrooms of dingy comedy clubs, the guy who never quite made it but still goes up every night he can. It's a tightrope walk to make people laugh with a character who's sole trait is bad at making people laugh, and this rendition of Chandling found Mooney in more trouble than ever. The centerpiece of the appearance is a long riff on gender differences that devolves into Chandling earnestly pining for his girlfriend, whom he seems to be losing, only to then further reveal that this girlfriend is a high school student. It's a dark joke with limited appeal, and quite a gamble. It doesn't pay off. While a lot of Mooney's fellow comedians probably ate up the discomfort, the live audience is not on board. The whole thing landed with a hard thud, calling into question how it ever got past dress rehearsal.
Young Ben Carson
The spiritual sequel to the very funny Undercover Sharpton from last year's Seth Rogen episode, The Adventures of Young Ben Carson finds Jay Pharoah bringing to life some of the astoundingly craze-balls things the presidential candidate was recently revealed to have said. With his tiny afro and plus-size mutton chops, Pharoah hits a lot of specific and nuanced notes — he sounds slow and unsure about everything, like a porn actor under police questioning. The writers smartly pepper in actual quotes from Dr. Carson and cite them below Pharoah on screen with the dates in which he said that, for instance, America today is like Nazi Germany. (2014.)
Especially in the era of crowdfunding, walk-on roles as prizes for non-actors are becoming more and more common. Hopefully, though, no kickstarter devotees will ever have to experience one quite like what Bobby Moynihan goes through during this sketch. It turns out his role as Clothing Store Customer on an episode of The Bureau has a little more to do than ask where the fitting rooms are: he's playing a pedophilic felon. The glasses and walrus mustache the wardrobe team has Moynihan wearing could easily go either avuncular or sinister, and the sketch soon starts playing up the latter. The sketch gets a lot of mileage out of showing him squirm while the detectives played by Banks and Pharoah repeatedly explain directly into camera the depths of his perversity.
Uber For Jen
After six years as a writer on SNL, Mike O'Brien worked out a pretty sweet deal wherein he left the show with an open invitation to come back anytime and contribute surreal, idiosyncratic videos like Monster Pals and The Jay-Z Story. His first video this season finds O'Brien's Uber driver ignoring passenger Elizabeth Banks and going about his day. After some initial resistance, Banks feels more sympathetic to his need to apply for a bank loan, and they end up spending a whole day together. There's a time-distorting, Wet Hot American Summer-style escalation to the sketch — at one point, they hit a guy and dump him in an alley — that is complementary to Banks's strengths, while staying true to the rhythms of A Mike O'Brien Picture.
The show comes to a close with another installment of an unofficial series that could be called Stop Saying That. (The last entry was the Dino Bones sketch that hammered home the point that not everything can be categorized as being "so random.") While a gathering of girlfriends keeps describing anything suboptimal as "so ghetto," Elizabeth Banks's character keeps one-upping them because she is actually living in low-income government housing. The wide gulf between her tales of a self-sufficient lothario baby and her friend's description of a guy wanting to split the check on a date serves as a passable eulogy for this particular phrase. Much like with the Black Jeopardy! sketch, the theme is stated plainly as the last line of the episode: "Let's stop saying that forever."
The absence of a cold open changed this episode a great deal. It started things off on a somber note, and likely necessitated adding an extra sketch to fill in the time. (Speculate amongst yourselves about which sketch that might have been.) In any case, no matter how the performers felt at the time, they still rallied and pulled off a decent episode on a night when a lot of viewers needed one. It's something we should all be grateful for; laughing is something terrorists don't want us to do.