Saturday Night Live Recap: Adam Driver Knows It Has to Be Hard

Photo: NBC/2015 NBCUniversal Media, LLC
Saturday Night Live
Episode Title
Adam Driver/Chris Stapleton
Editor’s Rating

Football ruins everything — including the top of SNL tonight, pushed forward because of the end of the Packers/Cardinals game. This led to some pacing weirdness throughout, and, one presumes, the truncation of a Bowie tribute (nothing about Bowie should ever be edited). The timing problems also caused this recapper some consternation as she had to go online in search of the last sketch, "Dr. Rockhard," which was sliced off my DVR recording. Terrifying pun intended.

So, I felt for Adam Driver, having to be part of a weird and discombobulated episode, but I also felt that his charming, dickish lightness didn’t quite pay off in ways it could have. That’s not necessarily his fault — it’s probably a combination of factors, but always leading back to the writers room. I should have been ready — Driver is not an “elevate the material/showman” type. He’s a “play it as it lays” type. And when it works, like in HBO’s Girls, it works well. Here? Not so much. But he’s still sexy. Yeah, I said it. 

Republican Debate Cold Open
I know there’s an unwritten SNL requirement to do something with every debate, every big political moment, in the campaign, but I’m always a little ho-hum about these debate cold opens. I wish they’d commit to them being a check-in on the actual moments of a particular debate, instead of generalities about candidates. Here, at least, we’re told that any candidate who falls below 3 points will be hauled offstage, Amateur Night at the Apollo style (gong, cheerful dancer hooking you), which is a nice, silly turn on an overused setup/premise for this show.

Notable lines: Ted Cruz (Taran Killam) admits he looks like he’s peeing when he smiles (true), and that he is mostly made of pudding (also true); Ben Carson has a “beast mode” (and Jay Pharoah’s impression continues to delight); and Jeb looks positively surprised when a question is for him (“It is?!”). Oops, actually, it’s for Cruz. But Trump calling Jeb “Jebra” is sooo December 19 episode. C’mon, guys.

The highlight of this one is when Ted Cruz uses Seinfeld premises as examples of “New York values” before admitting “if I could just say liberal Jews, I would.”

Adam Driver Monologue
Could Adam Driver become this generation’s Jeff Goldblum? Discuss, using this monologue and Driver’s body as examples. Show your work. Driver is perfectly charming discussing his past in the Marines and his role in Star Wars — for which he’s interrupted by fans Taran Killam and Bobby Moynihan — the latter wearing an expensive self-made Kylo Ren costume, which he asserts is good enough that “it could be Kenan in here.”

Then along comes Leslie Jones, who confidently states she loved Adam in Good Will Hunting. “That was Minnie Driver, not me …” Sure, it’s an okay joke. But I wish they’d channel Leslie’s bluster into better stuff. They tread a line of making her look stupid in moments like this. She’s not — she just doesn’t care much about or buy into pop culture. (White-people culture? Maybe.) Good on her. Stop torturing her about it, writers!

NFL Sketch
Hey, it’s a football sketch, and a reminder that football ruins everything, including the idea that it’s funny to see a cartoonishly traumatic injury played over and over. Yes, that’s what sometimes happens in football; no, there’s really nowhere to go after the first time we see it. Best here is when Kenan, as the team doctor, holds a Bible and a gun over Jared Schleff’s (Pete Davidson’s) broken body and asks himself to choose.

Undercover Boss
What if Kylo Ren went undercover to find out what his employees really think of him? We get to find out in this high-production, pre-taped sketch, which had its moments, like Kylo as Matt asking, “Do you guys feel like he’s really gonna finish what Darth Vader started?”; the card he gives to Taran, an employee whose son he killed, and the assertion that Kylo Ren has an eight-pack and is “shredded.” But for all its production value, this sketch missed opportunities to draw on Star Wars specifics a little more, and for Driver to really push the menace factor. Like a lot of pieces this week, a high-concept premise didn’t necessarily pay off with equal laughs. Speaking of which ...

A Whole New World
A great, specific premise — Aladdin and Jasmine’s carpet ride interrupted by various terrible flying objects — never really finds its feet (yes, I was going to say “takes off,” but I stopped myself). As SNL’s best straight man, Cecily Strong (Jasmine) continually takes a pelting, from a fat bird, a bomb (“We must be over Syria,” Driver as Aladdin deadpans), and finally, the contents of an airplane bathroom, they continue to try to sing about their burgeoning love. Props to Strong, whose line “I think I pissed my little thing I’m wearing” was the only hearty chuckle I had all night, and her final line, “Mama horny,” which ended this with as much lift* as was muster-able.

*I’m only human

America’s Funniest Cats
Here’s where I started to wonder if all the writers dropped acid with their cool Uncle Bob while they were home for the holidays. What in the holy God? Finn Raynal-Beads (Driver, and an obvious nod to two other Force Awakens characters ... and anal beads) is the 18-year-long host of America’s Funniest Cats, when he is suddenly joined by Strong and McKinnon (hi, Kate! missed you!) as the hosts of the show’s French counterpart, Les Amusant des Animaux. Their narration is much bleaker and more death-oriented than Finn’s, which plays out pretty much how you think it would: They watch cat videos and the women talk about the cats’ deaths. Boi-oi-oi-oing. 

Weekend Update
A Trump-hair joke, jokes about young women blindly trusting older men as a metaphor for Bernie Sanders, and a completely missed opportunity to say something real about the Oscar race being so white — that’s my Update summary this week. I don’t want to hate Jost and Che, but the number of times Jost’s frat-bro smug smile or Che’s heavy-lidded “I dare you” look substitutes for a punch line is starting to grate on me.

And a small aside, Mr. Che — just because you didn’t see Room or Brooklyn doesn’t mean a lot of other people didn’t. Using those as examples of why people don’t care about the Oscars is a crappy setup, partly because the two examples you used just reveal that you have a room full of male writers crafting these jokes for you. If what you’re trying to say is that no one sees prestige movies, really, then yes — good premise, but how about trying to use real examples of blockbuster movies that deserved applause and got it, and then use that as a pivot to the joke? Or, just, like, do your version better? Everything in Update these days feels like a first draft.

As always, the redeeming factors are the guests: Vanessa Bayer as a child reporter, Laura Parsons — an old bit, but a reliable one (and, side note, one of the characters she used to audition for SNL), and especially Pete Davidson, whose monologues/rants are not always super-well-constructed, but they get points for honesty and vulnerability in my books. Those qualities don’t often shine through SNL comedians these days, but it’s special when they do. Kyle Mooney has it, so does McKinnon; think about Chris Farley and Molly Shannon for a second, as well — Pete is not like them, in that this vulnerability shines through him and not a character, but it’s in the same vein. I miss the humanity of it, and of Update in general. 

Awareness Week
Again, a kind of high-minded premise that only sort of pays off. Driver and Strong have come to a high-school classroom for Awareness Week, to talk about social puppeteering — when you use other people to help bully for you (i.e., paying 80 people $1 to tell a guy “nice hat,” when he isn’t wearing a hat). Of course, the kids just want to know how to do it, but hey — at least Bobby Moynihan got to figure out he was being “21 Jump Street'd” and Strong got to share the perfect “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids'd” scenario. No real breakthroughs here, but good, earned laughs for the specifics of building your cousin’s room in an airplane hangar, in gigantic form, just to mess with him. 

Fred’s Bowie Tribute
A lovely, too-short tribute, performed with honesty by Fred Armisen and including Bowie’s classic performance of “The Man Who Sold the World” from a 1979 SNL episode. Was it shortened for time? We’ll never know. They could have also called this nice interlude something like, “Just a reminder that Bowie was cooler and better than what you’re watching now!” 

Golden Globes Parents
The best sketch of the night is this pre-taped piece where Driver and Bayer play parents and collaborators who win a Golden Globe and end their speech by telling their kids to go to bed. Cue the kids at home: Kyle Mooney and Kate McKinnon, cute as buttons, who go to bed because they’ve been told to. A montage ensues, alternating their sweet, pre-bed and bedtime ritual with their parents’ increasingly insane partying, including Driver seeing — and then using his Golden Globe to mimic Liev Schreiber’s — huge shlong. It all ends with the parents conked at home, the kids awake, and Ray Donovan himself cooking breakfast in the kitchen. Simple, not-too-wacky premise executed well: SNL’s bread and butter. 

Dr Rockhard
Your recapper had to seek this one out after the fact, because her DVR recording cut off the broadcast (#footballruinseverything). Again, a nice simple premise, that a gay porn shoot for Dr. Rockhard is interrupted by a little girl (Aidy Bryant) who thinks he’s a real doctor. A golden shower of porn puns, well deployed by Bryant, Driver, and Beck Bennett, follows. Chief among them? “I graduated best top in my class,” and “That must be hard.” “Oh, it has to be hard.” As the French cat women say: Boi-oi-oi-oing!

Overall, a weaker episode with some threads of potential woven throughout. Cecily Strong carried the show in her understated, committed, straight-man way. The lesson of “less is more” could have paid dividends here, but it was too infrequently applied. Hey, I get it: Bowie died, we all had a shit week. But I’m gonna go ahead and blame football.