There's something about Larry (David). The man who, by his own account, once quit his writing job at SNL only to come back the next day, pretending he didn’t, lit up the stage last night as a host in its 41st season — in his own particular way, of course. Last night's episode was as Larry David an offering as it could be. If a good portion of America hates “New York Values,” as Ted Cruz recently implied, then a good portion of America would have hated last night’s show.
It was an SNL that understood, celebrated, and held its guest aloft, in all his curmudgeonly glory. It helps that we collectively have twenty-plus years of Larry David–speak in our brains to refer back to, be it from Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, or the mouth of Larry himself. It also helps that America (or at least the New York values portion) is currently in love with a similar old dude. When SNL is at its best, it wraps up a particular moment in culture and gifts it to us with ebullience and delight. That is this episode in a nutshell, and it was pretty ... pretty ... pretty great.
A Message from Ted Cruz Cold Open
With an almost audible sigh, SNL, along with the rest of American media, turned away from the Trump machine for a moment and towards a newer, creepier bedfellow: Ted Cruz. This opening gambit was also about fixing Cruz into his place in the comedy firmament as, as they put it, “a sneaky little stinker.” Killam’s impression of Cruz is not spot on, but it carries a whiff of goblin-like malice that makes it compelling to watch, and the writers clearly rejoice in putting words in his mouth — which one of these guys would be played by Paul Giamatti, indeed. Bonus points for Taran’s insane, and surprising, Ted Cruz laugh.
Larry David Monologue
Monologue of the season? Strong contender. “You’re gonna be very disappointed,” David opens. “I disappoint people.” But how could we be? We’re already on board. David’s self-deprecating humor is well worn, but we never tire of it. Why? David's style of griping is both uniquely his own, and also drawn from a continuum of comedians — and Jewish comedians, in particular. It’s practically vaudevillian (“Take my life ... please.”). He’s the worst person he knows, even if he has made the full transition from poor schmuck to rich prick. David also, in a cleanly comedic way, lays out the rules of the road for the night. “This is the part where I say, ‘We have a great show tonight,’” he says. “I’m not going to say that.” And we love you for it, Larry. We love to watch you hate yourself. “Yeah, I’m hosting. But honestly, I can’t wait to leave.”
FBI Cadet Training
A deft little sketch wherein FBI cadets are taught who they should and shouldn’t shoot with a pantheon of pop-up characters. There are white dudes with guns, old ladies looking for cats, and Leslie Jones on bath salts ... and then there’s Kevin Roberts (David), who Kenan, the cadet, balks at. “I couldn’t get a read on a man in a neon suit, holding a big old cell phone, saying he’s the coolest bitch in town,” Kenan says. The fun here is seeing David commit to the character, and Bobby, as his buddy, get that bitch a donut. “Why does Kevin Roberts have friends in this storyline?” Why not? He designed the course, after all.
Bern Your Enthusiasm
We all knew some version of this was coming, but the outcome is beautiful nonetheless. A pitch-perfect mapping scene that puts Bernie Sanders, in the Iowa caucus race, smack dab in the world of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Fans of Curb will recognize the plethora of supporting characters, with Bobby as Jeff and Cecily as Susie being the standouts. Plot wise, the idea of turning Sanders’ entire 2 percent Iowa loss on the five people Sanders dissed the day of the vote (the “hand cougher” and her family, and a woman who dislocated her shoulder on the way to the voting), is brilliant, both in the SNL world and in Curb’s. Beautifully done.
Women and Children First
What if, the SNL writers’ room asks, Larry David was on the Titanic? The answer is this sketch, in which David remains unconvinced that women and children should get on the lifeboat first, then desperately attacks each person on the boat, one by one, to try to get himself saved. “Check his pants! Check for pubes,” he says of one boy, before calling another a midget (it’s okay, it’s “olden times”). In a last attempt, he declares that he’s very rich and his life is therefore worth more than those in the lifeboat. Cue the real Bernie Sanders (aka Bernie Sandersitsky), who gets to play off of David’s rich prick mirror and espouse a bit of his “democratic socialist” platform at once. It says a lot about the rhythm of the sketch, and the willingness of its participants, that none of this feels forced or cloying. When they finally crash at Liberty Island, Bernie asks Larry to share a cab. “Meh, I think we’ve talked enough.” Fin.
Totinos Pizza Roll
We’ve seen this one before - or have we? SNL quickly tossed aside my initial hesitation at seeing this premise reworked with an awesome twist. The hungry guys are not watching anything on TV; they cheer in unison; they have black eyes. What happened to them? As you’ll recall from my previous recaps, football ruins everything. As this sketch demonstrates, that's because darker forces are afoot. Cue the X-Files theme.
In a marker of the goodwill this episode has built up, by the time Update hits, I’m not as sour on it as I've been before. Aside from a few bumpy jokes, Jost and Che are riding a nice light wave this week, buoyed along by some choice character appearances, chief among them Kate McKinnon as “Sturdy Barbie,” a rejected new doll choice whose life details are funny in their singular sadness (I’d bet dollars to Kevin Roberts’ donuts that a woman wrote this bit). There’s also a nice segment on candidate fashion courtesy of Derek Zoolander and Hansel (Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson), clearly promoting their new movie but charming nonetheless.
But! The best piece this week, in this recapper’s view, was John Rudnitsky finally showing his stripes with a silent character reenactment of Dirty Dancing — his version anyway. No one knows you’re on the show, huh? They know now. And now, I get why you were cast. Cool. After that, it’s just one weird, clearly unscripted aside from Jost about Black History Month (“Not nice, man,” says Che), and we’re out.
Intro to Songwriting
An oddity but a goody — a learning annex songwriting class gets derailed by Russ (David), a creative songwriter who can’t find a simple rhyme, but who can imagine a war between the toads and frogs, and its eventual destruction of frog hollow (his “opus”). A just-zany-enough premise that’s carried well by David and the supporting cast. Hat-tip to Pete Davidson as the patient instructor — a rare straight man role for him, nicely executed here.
Super Bowl Greeting
Lately SNL has been unafraid to address social justice issues in its sketches. This one is the latest iteration — a simple trip through “Ebony and Ivory” with Superbowl 50’s two opposing quarterbacks, Cam Newton and Peyton Manning. The gist and joke here are one and the same — that Newton gets treated worse by the press and public because he is black. It’s one-note, but the pacing and length of the sketch give it just the right amount of lift. Football doesn’t ruin everything, okay? I admit it. And yes, I did have to look up who these people are.
Another revisited premise, but David’s costume and the first few lines let us know we’re in for a good one. It’s last call, and “Vodka Cheddar” (McKinnon) and “Kentucky Night Cap” (David) are one another’s last chance for the night. This premise lives and dies by its specifics and how hard they’re sold by the participants, so it’s a good thing David’s game and McKinnon’s her usual excellent, committed self. The result is always the same — a weird makeout, while the beleaguered bartender (Thompson) tries hard not to throw up — but the journey is the fun of this one. We’re all confused down there, but we’re all also happy we stopped by.
This is a strong contender for episode of the season so far. All of its moving parts fit together near-seamlessly, while the Larry David/Bernie Sanders pairing was inspired and sweet. With two weeks’ break between the previous episode and this, it’s reasonable to assume that more writing time made for better sketches, but it’s also reasonable to assume that Larry David’s Larry David–ness was the biggest source of inspiration. A banner episode not soon to be forgotten.