There are two Matthew McConaugheys. There’s the serious, capital-a Actor whose semi-recent string of prestige roles we’ve somehow agreed to keep referring to as the McConaissance. And then there’s the easy-breezy bongo-bro who says things like “Just keep livin’, call me Thanksgivin’” during the goodbyes on a Saturday Night Live he just hosted, which definitely happened last night. One wins an Oscar; the other says “Sure, what the hell—I'll do a Lincoln ad” that same fiscal year. The two halves were almost suspiciously reconciled over the course of this week’s show.
McConaughey reported for SNL duty on Monday morning, his first time hosting in almost 13 years, and likely requested they not take it easy on him. "I'll do anything," he may have said — although considering his constant Southern-casual vibe, the word 'y’all' was probably in the mix somewhere. During half of the show, he is game but relatively restrained. Toward the end, however, McConaughey plays three self-consciously wacky characters in a row. In one, Kenan is the straight man; in the next, a wacky couple is forced to be less wacky compared to him; and in the final sketch basically the entire cast comes together as one collective straight man for the superstar to play off of. After watching so many characters stare bewilderedly at Matthew McConaughey for a half-hour, give or take, those characters become surrogates for us in the audience, who can’t help but internalize that bewilderment.
It’s not that McConaughey is out of his depth or that he’s not funny. He can ace his role in any sketch and he has a natural humor to him. It’s just that by the end of the show, it felt like he was over-making a case for himself as a load-bearing comedic entity that can support the weight of a whole episode of SNL. No other host this season has been given this much to do. In proving he’s not a McConaughey divided against itself — that the serious guy is also the laid-back guy — it felt like the host was putting a very serious effort into a job for the laid-back guy. It’s the kind of grade-grubbing performance Anne Hathaway might get raked over the coals for delivering. Damn it if McConaughey’s charm isn't such that he still comes out of it looking good, though.
Fox and Friends
The Syrian refugee crisis wasn’t a theme in this week’s show so much as a recurring motif, reminding us of the topic’s divisiveness. The first mention arrives at the top of the show with a Fox and Friends cold open — one of the more fun forums for squeezing in topical jokes outside of Weekend Update. The hosts conflate the Syrian refugees Southern voters fear with footage of Wal-Mart shoppers rampaging on Black Friday. It’s a clever way to call out how some people’s Islamophobia with regards to these refugees blinds them from the actual problems we already have. Elsewhere, Kate McKinnon appears again as Debbie Wasserman-Schulz. It's always fun to hear McKinnon play confident, quirky, accented women who congratulate themselves after their own jokes, and I hope she never stops.
And after last week’s strong showing, Jay Pharoah brings back his Dr. Ben Carson, who is fast becoming a character we’ll deeply miss once his real-life inspiration is eliminated from the 2016 election. Here's hoping he remains in the public eye somehow, for Jay’s sake and ours.
Matthew McConaughey Monologue
It's rare that someone who isn’t a stand-up is given the entire monologue to simply spin a yarn, but that happens here, with our host revealing the origin of his catchphrase — the word "alright" spoken three times in a row. (Do it in front of a mirror and a yellow-gray cumulus cloud of ganja-smoke appears.) Obviously, McConaughey has presence and he can tell a story, but it’s not exactly a hilarious or particularly informative story. You’d be glad to hear him tell it at a party, maybe, but that doesn't mean it’s the best way to start a live comedy show on television.
A Thanksgiving Miracle
Syrian refugees are back, along with interracial tension, and transgender civil rights, as hot-button issues your family will be at loggerheads over this Thanksgiving. ("I saw an ISIS in A&P today when I was picking up the yams," Aidy Bryant's character says.) Luckily, there's a new universal tension-defuser and it's called Adele. Whenever things get too heated at this table, the family's tiniest member unleashes Adele's emboldened sadness, and everybody gets swept up in a different kind of drama. As the tension escalates, so does the impact of the song. Not only is the family singing and mugging like Adele, soon they're made up like her and teleported into the "Hello" video. It's not the first SNL sketch about the transformative power of Adele, and it's not the last time the song will be heard in this episode.
This sketch has pretty much the same focus as Black Jeopardy, which is white people co-opting part of the black experience when it suits them. Here, that white person is McConaughey’s Howlin’ Bobby Wallace — great blues name, by the way — who is sitting in with Kenan Thompson's Whalin’ Otis Elmore at a dive bar. While Otis sings about his dead, cheating wife, and the rest of his band all have unenviable lives, McConaughey's bluesman can only lament things like his bad haircut and underperforming fantasy football team. The sketch is fine, but it may be more fun to just imagine the conversations the writers had about noted bluesman Dan Aykroyd while creating it.
3-D Printer Man
Three dudes appear on a panel in matching, powder blue sweaters and khakis, but one of them is actually a lab-grown 3D-printed facsimile. Which one could it be? McConaughey gets to cut loose for the first time as the high tech-golem trying to pass as human, answering "Who me? As for me …" every time he’s addressed, suspended in a state of mechanical enthusiasm. Just when it feels like the bit is getting stale, they introduce a new wrinkle: movement. It turns out the 3-D bio-print can only pad around like a toddler, sort of recalling sketch-costar Beck Bennett’s beloved Baby Boss. McConaughey gets a lot of laughs for it and he earns them.
Star Wars screen tests
J.J. Abrams introduces a video of other actors trying out for The Force Awakens. It’s a hurricane of impersonations both familiar (Aidy Bryant’s Reba McEntire) and otherwise (Jon Rudnitsky’s John Mayer.) Eventually, Star Wars stars Daisy Ridley and John Boyega join the crew, along with, rather inexplicably, Emma Stone and Jon Hamm. Bobby Moynihan steals the show, though, as both George Lucas and Danny DeVito auditioning for the role of round robot BB-8. The sketch is strong enough on its own but it benefits from the nostalgia factor of piggybacking off of a classic Star Wars auditions sketch.
The much-improved dynamic between Michael Che and Colin Jost has stood out on the show this season, and it continues its trajectory tonight. When Jost’s joke about Jared Fogle accrues boos, Che asks "How did you think that was gonna end?" Their playfully antagonistic banter that makes it work. Later, they celebrate the long-ago exchange between pilgrims and Native Americans, by exchanging jokes each wrote for the other. Wouldn’t you know it, the one Che wrote for Jost ends with Jost not having a penis.
Kenan Thompson is back as Big Papi David Ortiz, talking about food and sponsorships with equal passion, and getting a huge response from the audience with his pitch for the dating website Go Outside. ("Wanna meet some people? Go outside.") Obviously, this audience has never been hit on in a Whole Foods before. The more intriguing guest is Vanessa Bayer’s Laura Parsons, whom we’ve met before in the Spotlightz Acting Camp for Serious Kids sketches. Appearing as the winner of a Newscasters of Tomorrow contest, Parsons reads the news with an inflection that has exaggerated upticks at the end of every sentence and says things like "HIV is when your whole body goes 'Oh boy.'" It was a smart idea to remove the character from its usual context and insert her here. Perhaps she will go on to be the most successful transplant to the Update desk since Stefan.
Should You Chime In On This
It’s a game show sketch so of course Kenan is the host. (This time he's named Alan DeGeneres, the name being said to have gotten him the gig by accident.) The central joke of this sketch is that the answer should always be no, but never is. If some of the beats feel a little familiar — Aidy Bryant playing someone with an uninformed opinion of ISIS — it's because the Adele sketch already covered the idea of clueless people popping off at the mouth, occasionally with regard to ISIS. Also, McConaughey’s very deliberate delivery here is the first pane in a triptych of roles toward the end of the show that could all be called A Bit Much.
Right Side of the Bed
Taran Killam and Cecily Strong are back as Gracelynn and Cory Chisolm, the married Southern morning TV hosts, featuring a closeted gay guy even Liberace might side-eye. McConaughey plays their guest, chef Buster Littles — great chef name, by the way — who has hippy hair coiling out of every pore on his head. The Chisolms are outlandish enough already, so it takes a fumes-inhaling McConaughey doing turkey ventriloquism to make them into the straight men of the scene. You have to admire McConaughey’s enthusiasm and how silly he looks in this get-up, but this sketch sort of feels like the lunatics are running the asylum and also the patients are lunatics. Wacky guest on normal show works fine and normal guest on wacky show does too, but wacky multiplied to the power of wacky veers perilously close to being wack.
Town Hall Meeting
The final sketch of the night is an all-out showcase for McConaughey’s range (of similarly over-the-top weirdballs.) His Earl is a low-rent, leather-jacketed spokesman for the town of Benson, upset about Amtrak's municipal planning. The formula for the sketch finds Earl continually asking other people, "Do you think you’re better than me just because you didn’t _________?" with each __________ escalating into higher stratosphere's of ridiculousness. Although it completes that triptych of A Bit Much, and then some, the world is a better place for this sketch having delivered unto it an image of Thomas the Tank Engine with a Hitler mustache, and the phrase "$22 smile."
After the season started out strong, with three killer episodes in a row, all momentum was lost with the Donald Trump fiasco of early November. It’s been tough to recover since then, but perhaps the promising slate of upcoming episodes — including a joint Tina Fey/Amy Poehler episode on December 19 — will close out the year on a high note.