This is Octavia Spencer’s first hosting gig at Saturday Night Live, but she’s definitely no stranger to comedy. While Spencer’s biggest roles have been in dramas, she pops up in comedies on TV and film quite frequently: She’s done 30 Rock and Drunk History, Zootopia and Bad Santa 2, just to name a few. Even for her roles in The Help and Hidden Figures — the former earned her a Best Supporting Actor Oscar and the latter, a nomination for the same — Spencer has timing and a distinct comic flare that will surely serve her well on SNL.
Saturday Night Live
Jeff Sessions Cold Open
This open casts Attorney General Jeff Sessions as Forrest Gump, yapping away at anyone who sits on his bus bench for more than five seconds. “I am the attorney general of the whole United States,” Sessions tells a random stranger, “Have you ever been in the government?” The script hits several of the Gump staples — the box of chocolates, “Run, Forrest, run!” — while Sessions (Kate McKinnon) slowly comes clean about last year’s questionable meetings with Russian ambassadors. Eventually, Spencer shows up as her character from The Help to serve Sessions her signature feces-tainted confection. Though the sketch isn’t particularly biting, it’s a cute idea and McKinnon again proves she can endear an audience to just about anybody SNL wants her to play.
Octavia Spencer Monologue
Spencer keeps this monologue short and sweet: She identifies herself, reminds the audience how they know her, tells a few jokes, and gets things moving. The best moments find her revealing the reason she’s been cast as a nurse so many times — her “resting nurse face” — and consoling the American public that conflated the three different black movies at the Oscars this year. Her new project, designed to capitalize on the confusion, is “Hidden Fence Light,” about “three black women who send an introspective gay boy to build a fence on the moon.”
Republican Movie Trailer
This movie preview touts the gutsy acts of one lone Republican willing to “put country over party” and oppose the “unchecked power” of Donald Trump. When the preview has touted this legislator into an unforgettable, principled leader, we find out the biopic’s subject is, in fact, TBD. This person’s brave response to the Trump administration and his (or her) powerful message to unite the nation is entirely up in the air; the ad knows only one thing — that it’s not Paul Ryan. Though there’s not a lot of weight behind the punch here, it’s a certainly appropriate jab at conservatives, who have thus far failed to stand up to Trump. Who knows, maybe this light ribbing will goad ol’ TBD into action?
In an arbitration session with her former employer, Lyrica Williams (Spencer) swears that she has had too, too many of her ideas stolen. In fact, those “ideas” are just the names of her friends and family, which have been used by her employer — the pharma giant Merck — to name their drugs. As Williams talks about cousins and friends called Celexa and Nicorette, the lawyer starts to see her point. Though the joke isn’t particularly insightful, linking the bit to drug names is clever enough.
Girl at a Bar
At the top of this filmed piece, the titular girl (Cecily Strong) sits at a busy bar while waiting for her friend and gets hit on by a guy (Beck Bennett). He seems charming and thoughtful enough … until she refuses his offer for a date, then, he calls her a bitch and storms off. A series of dudes approach, one at a time. They’re Hillary supporters, they went to the Women’s March, they follow Kamala Harris on Twitter, but when the girl rebuffs their advances, they call her a bitch and storm off. The specificity of this sketch is great.
Zoo-opolis Voice Actors
Sometimes SNL just puts a spare framework around a bunch of impressions and calls it a sketch. Thankfully, this time around, most of the impressions are excellent and the specifics are amusing enough on their own. A director (Kenan Thompson) needs scratch tracks for the celebrities who will eventually record voiceovers for the new animated film Zoo-opolis. His voiceover artists (Spencer, Melissa Villaseñor, and Alex Moffat) take turns impersonating Hugh Grant, Judy Dench, Oprah, and many more. More than a couple get lost, but Villaseñor shines, especially impressing the in-studio crowd with a run of Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Owen Wilson, and Kate McKinnon back-to-back.
In this filmed sketch, a wise older man sitting at a chessboard (Kenan Thompson) invites a tough young kid (Pete Davidson) over for a lesson in life. Chess is a “roadmap to navigating these streets,” so the kid should act more like a “castle” or a “horseface” than a pawn. Also, there are apparently two kings sometimes, and one of the kings is an invincible troll doll. Yeah, the old man understands nothing about chess or life. With Octavia Spencer hemming and hawing over his shoulder, the sketch becomes a fun play on those movies and TV shows (e.g. The Wire) with bloated chess metaphors designed to illuminate the lives of street kids. Thompson is also at his charming best.
The first half of Update is predictably dedicated to Trump, his address to Congress, the Democrats’ response, and the mess with Jeff Sessions. Michael Che channels the confusion of a nation when relating Trump’s train of thought to a crazy man on a train: “They’re tapping my phone, Schwarzenegger sucks, I can lick my own elbow!” While Jost talks about the value of immigration and why his Irish ancestors came to the States, Che nabs one of the segment’s biggest laughs with an ad-lib regarding those ancestors: “At least they had a choice.” Then Mikey Day and Alex Moffat show up as Don Jr. and Eric Trump: The former talks business while the latter drinks from a juice box and yells pertinent tidbits of information like, “I drove a golf car!” This is the most stage time the slick-but-vapid Don Jr. and the infantilized Eric characters have been given, and it’s well worth it.
Jost and Che earn some groans in the second half, taking broad swipes at Chicago, Jared from Subway, and Women’s History Month. After one final, silly Bono joke, Vanessa Bayer pops in as the perky, cute, and startlingly adult “newsreader” Laura Parsons. For her, the Trump rollback of transgender bathroom rights means “the government wants to lift up your skirt and check for ding dongs,” and she warns listeners that elderly care facilities have records of abuse and sexual assault: “You might want to Google it, before Nanna gets raped!” As gross as it looks in print, Bayer’s chirpy delivery works.
While under the watchful eye of two managers, potential new hires of the chain bakery Sticky Bun get behind the counter to run through training scenarios. As a paid actor (Bayer) stands patiently waiting to order, the newbies (Spencer, Day, and Villaseñor) make her uncomfortable with questions like “Will you eat?” and “Do you like being white?” Things get weirder as the trio insists the store is closed for Christmas and call milk “cow piss.” All of the weirdos behaviors are a little scattershot, but there’s an underlying, agreeable wackiness to the sketch.
During this girls’ night out, Teri (Cecily Strong) introduces her gal pals to a new friend named Jode (Spencer). Teri is delighted by the cultural capital of having a black friend, going on and on about how Jode keeps it real and wants to get her drink on; in reality, Jode is less a sassy cliché and more a garden-variety weirdo — she orders two liters of Diet Rite and asks that the bathroom be declared “out of order” while she’s inside. When Teri’s friends eventually call her out, it gets real. While the premise is a relatable one, there’s no new take here — and Jode’s weirdness only distracts from the central gag.
The Chocolate Man
An office manager (Spencer) calms her worker drones about the traumatic events of the previous week until the cause of the trauma, a creepy former employee named Steve (Bennett), shows up with a bow tie and a cart loaded with chocolates. While he tries to feed all of his former co-workers sweets and apologizes for being “a bit of a dick,” his old friends remain unmoved. (The cheery man-boy apparently pulled a gun on them last week, and no one really knows how he got past security.) Though Bennett manages to break a few of his castmates, the dark implications of the sketch make this homespun Willy Wonka just a bit too disturbing.
Spencer’s Gifts HQ
In a life-or-death board meeting, Octavia Spencer — the child and heir to the Spencer’s Gifts fortune — demands that her employees present the best ideas they have for novelty items. Wearing glasses with eyeballs painted on them and drinking out of an “I Love to Fart” mug, Spencer dismisses silly ideas about hillbilly dentures and fake-poop keychains while waiting to hear something she likes. The dismissals aren’t so funny, so it’s really just about trotting out gag gifts. Presuming Spencer’s Gifts didn’t throw cash at SNL for this sketch, it feels like one of the writers was too delighted by this thought: “Octavia Spencer … Spencer’s Gifts!”
Given all of the pointed political material SNL has been doing of late, this week’s episode is a bit of a letdown, but Spencer is an energetic host who makes the most of the moments she’s given. (The material isn’t all great, and it feels a bit too wacky at times.) Update had a strong first half and, as elementary as the structure of the Zoo-optia sketch is, it’s really nice to see Melissa Villaseñor get more time onscreen to show off her impressions. Next week, we’ll see what the writers can cook up for ScarJo.