Saturday Night Live Recap: A Night for the Theater Geeks

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Cecily Strong, Lin-Manuel Miranda. Photo: NBC/Rosalind O'Connor
Saturday Night Live
Episode Title
Lin-Manuel Miranda
Season
42
Episode
2
Editor’s Rating
3/5

When was the last time an SNL host was a theater composer — or, okay, a composer-slash-actor? Sure, Sting and Paul Simon have written musicals, but that's not why we know them. Of course, Hamilton is a pop-culture phenomenon, so perhaps it's not too surprising that SNL wanted the man behind the musical, Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Appropriately enough, the show goes full-on theater geek for the occasion, delivering sketches about high-school theater parties and classic musical numbers. As host, Miranda gets the right sort of treatment from the writers, who cast him as dew-eyed dreamers and inspired (if misguided) leaders.

(A quick disclosure before we jump into this week's episode: Lin is a friend, so any objectivity I have will be thrown out the window.)

Vice-Presidential Debate Cold Open
After delivering a quick hit on the VP debate, this open takes on the big news of the weekend: the disgusting things that Donald Trump was caught saying about women on a hot microphone in 2005. As played by Alec Baldwin for the second week, Trump is ostensibly on CNN to "apple-a-gize" for the awful comments and, of course, makes things worse. (Surprising, but they let Baldwin come right out and spray, "Grab them by the pussy" on live TV.) Trump's best defense: "Listen, women, if you give me a chance, I promise I can do a lot more than just grab it." And oh, thank that talented soul who wrote the Bop It joke that follows. Baldwin's Trump feels even looser and vocally more indistinct this week, and if you look past all the grimacing and mugging, he has the candidate's rhythms and pauses down. A laser-sharp Kate McKinnon steps in as Hillary Clinton's campaign celebrates Trump's recent missteps. To women still voting for Trump, she says, "My babies, your brain broke. I love you, but bish, you're cray."

Lin-Manuel Miranda Monologue
Less for the grins, more to ensure the audience knows who Miranda is and what he does. (Early on, he acknowledges, "Most people watching at home have no idea who I am.") Rather than write some new song with a cute concept, SNL just lets Lin rap welcome lyrics to one of Hamilton's big numbers, "My Shot." There's a dig at the time Trump hosted SNL, and a pathetic Lorne Michaels begging for Hamilton tickets, but this bit mostly exists to draw viewers in.

Campfire
The sketch initially seems like four friends around a campfire, but it's slowly revealed that one couple (Miranda and Cecily Strong) had their space invaded by two weirdos (Kyle Mooney and Vanessa Bayer). The main gag — rather than singing standard campfire tunes, the weirdos loudly singing "Footloose" in vaguely Eastern European accents — feels like something the writers were doing in the halls of 30 Rock late at night while trying to come up with a sketch idea. It's dippy and fun, though each little reveal about the weirdo couple, like how they're incestuous siblings, feels like it comes from an entirely different sketch. This one would have been better as a weird ten-to-one sketch.

Crucible Cast Party
This pre-taped music video is one is for the small percentage of the audience who attended high-school theater after-show cast parties … and for those people, it will be delightfully, painfully spot-on. In the eyes of the girls starring in Jefferson High's production of The Crucible, the cast party will be the "horniest event in town." They will rip it up until 11:45 p.m. in their character shoes and old-age makeup while getting the (very few straight) guys revved up with the most risqué dance moves they know — that is, bits of choreography from Chicago. Things get hot with a "10 p.m. massage train" and a brace-faced Miranda laying the girls down to whisper what next year's show will be. (Squeee! It's Rent!) Theater kids of all ages will love this one.

Substitute Teacher
With Miranda in the role of English substitute Dale Sweez, SNL tackles every movie that sends a clueless-but-well-meaning teacher into the ‘hood to teach kids about ballet or Shakespeare through hip-hop. The clueless Sweez pulls out all the stops to reach these kids, telling them to "question everything," and saying things like, "This is actually mad inspiring." It's a fun role for Lin and it's a nice touch to hear the reasonable students say, "I would love just a quiet math class." All in all, the sketch has an interesting target, but the Sweez character doesn't do much beyond rehashing movie tropes. The best bit is Leslie Jones hollering at the class that they smell like Hot Pockets.

A Day Off With Kellyanne Conway
This excellent filmed piece gives the audience a peek behind the curtain at what happens in Trump's damage-control room when its central operator tries to enjoy some time off. As you might imagine, it isn't easy. McKinnon, as a chipper yet bedraggled Conway, must constantly interrupt her day off — underscored by Katrina and the Waves' "Walking on Sunshine" — to address Trump's latest misstep with CNN's Jake Tapper (Beck Bennett). Yoga, groceries, and even a romantic bubble bath are halted by the buzzing of Conway's phone, and her explanations get shorter and less thorough as it rolls along. The writers have a great time flinging themselves through Trump's bizarro brain. Conway is seen defending statements from "It's gross to watch gay people eat pasta" to "Black people have one less toe than white people." The whole exercise almost makes me feel bad for Conway, because the possibility of her wailing, "He's crazy, he's the worst person I've ever known," has to be real.

Weekend Update
In the first half of Update, Trump gets the drubbing he avoided last week as every single joke is directed at his garbage mouth and the aforementioned hot-mic rant. Michael Che gets on a nice tear about why privileged white men should just assume they're always being taped. "Tape recorders have done more damage to old, rich white dudes than tennis elbow," he says. There's something innately funny in the fact that the Tic Tacs brand wanted to distance itself from Trump, but even funnier is Update imagining what would happen if the company just embraced Trump with a new campaign, "Tic Tacs: Grab Bad Breath by the Pussy." Pete Davidson then joins Colin Jost to talk about the ups and down of Propecia. It seems like a bit of stand-up Davidson is working out, but it's still more process than product.

Che and Jost lob a few in the second half, including one or two dark ones about a "Clown Lives Matter" rally, but they primarily get out of the way for guests Tina Fey and Jimmy Fallon. Dressed in a down vest (Fey) and Eagles sweatshirt (Fallon), the duo plays Denise and Doreen, a pair of undecided voters from a coveted county in Philadelphia. It's nice to see them back in action, especially in little moments like Fey razzing Fallon about his awful accent or cozying up to Trump on The Tonight Show. There are some great jokes, of course: When Fey's character dismisses Mike Pence as an Evangelical throwback to the ‘50s, she says if she wanted to relive the era, she'd put on a Pink Ladies jacket and have a conversation with her grandpa (who is deep in the throes of dementia). These aren't characters to revisit, exactly, but it's a great one-off.

Wells Fargo Wagon
The same people who remember high-school cast parties will likely also recall "Wells Fargo Wagon," from ‘50s musical smash The Music Man. In the song, the citizens of a small Iowa town await precious packages from afar; here, a Harold Hill–like shyster (Miranda) jumps down from the wagon to sell the rubes some new bank accounts. The sketch feels like a coerced kismet and an excuse to don period costumes, but you have to give someone credit for remembering the song and giving it this new context. Again, the musical-theater crowd will be delighted to see a random townsperson (Thompson) get smacked for trying to start the rhythmic chant of Music Man's "Ya Got Trouble" and to hear the shyster say he's going to "shipoopi his pants."

Diego Calls His Mom
A sweet and unassuming bit, but not particularly clear. The framework is a phone call from a recent immigrant telling his mother about strange aspects of his new home in North Dakota. These American oddities include: marshmallow salads, carpet everywhere, and a very, very good friend named Preston. (For the record, Preston likes hanging out deep in the cornfields, his eyes are baby blue, and he has a girlfriend whose name Diego can't quite remember.) It's more of a slice-of-life from Diego's perspective, so it doesn't really add up to much of a cohesive sketch.

Stranger Things Preview
When the creators of Netflix's Stranger Things first introduce a clip from the new season, it seemed the sketch might only appeal to fans of the hit series. However, as the sketch asks questions about plot details — most notably, "Where is the black kid's family?" — it broadens into something else quickly enough. While two of the three kids get ready to hunt the Demogorgon and find the Upside Down, Lucas (Sasheer Zamata) is stuck fighting with his parents (Kenan Thompson and Leslie Jones), who know that Lucas doesn't need to go searching for trouble. The best moment: When a cop emerges from the foliage, Lucas's parents holler, "The monster!" 

Melania Moments
Like last week's Melania Moment, this one plays like a stylish, softly lit Deep Thoughts starring Cecily Strong as the titular wife embedded in Trump Tower. In this one, Melania jolts awake because she feels "her replacement was just born in rural Latvia." It's not the first laugh line, but it's a great one.

Wounded Soldier
In this screening of an alleged WWII classic called A Degree of Valor, one mortally wounded soldier (Davidson) asks his commanding officer (Miranda) to do some things for him when he returns stateside. The requests are innocuous at first, but soon revolve around a hidden butt plug in the young man's garage. The CO pushes past doubts, eventually agreeing to not only find the butt plug, but to destroy the soldier's notebook of awful boogie-woogie songs and photos in which he looks "sassy." The sketch doesn't travel far, but this silly war-movie trope deserves scrutiny, and the specifics are great. Who doesn't love a jazz man spreading his jazz as thick as tuna?

By putting musical theater into the spotlight, SNL shows off the kind and gentle show it can be — minus the gross-out Trump stuff, of course, which is more or less a reflection of reality. From the outset, Miranda looks very confident for a first-time host; I guess you earn these chops after doing eight shows a week and performing your musical at the White House. With no gross-out bits or outright bombs, here's hoping all those tween Hamilton die-hards stayed awake for the whole thing.