Saturday Night Live Recap: Jimmy Fallon Does Two Travoltas, Sean Spicer Apologizes

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Photo: NBC/Rosalind O'Connor/NBC
Saturday Night Live

Saturday Night Live

Jimmy Fallon / Harry Styles Season 42 Episode 18
Editor's Rating 3 stars

After last week’s dive into a world of racist chickens and stolen clown sketches with Louis C.K., tonight’s SNL starring former cast member (and incorrigible giggler) Jimmy Fallon should be a light, silly confection. There isn’t a huge list of characters that fans will be waiting to see — for my part, I’ll be chanting please no Jarret, please no Jarret — but who knows what Fallon-the-noted-musical-impressionist might cook up? The lingering question: Will he or won’t he ruffle Alec-Baldwin-as-Trump’s hair, just as he did on The Tonight Show? And in a nod to Twitter and Facebook users, SNL will be broadcast live for the first time coast-to-coast — so, presumably, diehards on the West Coast won’t have anything spoiled for them (other than a nice night out). Also, Angelenos will finally hear those errant F-bombs we catch from time to time in NYC.

Donald Trump Cold Open
Ever ready to praise himself, Trump (Alec Baldwin) wants to celebrate the accomplishments of his first 100 days as presidency. But as Mike Pence (Beck Bennett) points out, Trump has to stop the infighting between his advisors: Steve Bannon, a.k.a. the Grim Reaper, and cute, mute Brooks Brothers model Jared Kushner. Once these men enter the Oval Office, it’s essentially an episode of The Apprentice as Trump decides who stays and who goes. While the sketch happily plays with a few news headlines, it remains pretty broad, and doesn’t soundly rap anything or anyone. (Except maybe Kellyanne Conway, who has been banished to “the basement.”)

Fallon Opening Number
The former cast member and 30 Rock neighbor eschews a traditional monologue in favor of a celebration (SNL was, for the first time, broadcasting live across the country), with Fallon doing a credible David Bowie while singing “Let’s Dance,” as disco balls spin, the cast and a host of lithe extras shimmy through the hallways. There are no laughs to be had here, but it sets the tone well enough: Tonight’s SNL will be fun and high-energy, offering spectacle over substance.

Celebrity Family Feud: Time-Travel Edition
On this edition of the Feud, celebrities from 2017 duke it out with celebrities from 1977. “How the hell can this happen?” Steve Harvey (Kenan Thompson) confesses, “I don’t know.” Though Liza Minnelli is a longstanding, popular impression with its own comedic shorthand, Cecily Strong does an impressive job with it. Kate McKinnon’s Kristen Stewart is all uncomprehending, inarticulate wonder and, though she’s only got a couple of lines, Melissa Villaseñor’s Gwen Stefani is spot-on.

Of course, the game itself is an excuse for the impressions, so the important bit is Fallon playing both wide-eyed, innocent 1977 John Travolta, with a big grin and feathered hair, and 2017 black-clad Scientologist drone Travolta. It’s a playful double act — anybody can do a chunk of Dana Carvey’s “It’s so weird here” Travolta, but Fallon impresses with his pinched, strained elder Travolta and all the ridiculous machinations it takes to get out of one costume and into the other.

Before the Show
As the young ladies of Milton Middle School prepare for their staging of Legally Blonde — the very first middle-school production in the state of Kansas — the anticipation is palpable. There’s backstage talk of cast chemistry, big solos, and tough choreography. As the scene intercuts moments from the kids’ performance, however, it’s a different story: None of the nervous teens project, no one is quite on key, the jazz hands are performed with a significant lack of confidence. It’s every uncomfortable middle- or high-school show to which you’ve been subjected, whether you saw it or starred in it. And yet, even when unknowingly humiliated, the cast is over the moon about how well it went.

Take Me Back
Jen (Cecily Strong) cuddles up on the couch with a new beau (Beck Bennett) before her ex-boyfriend Doug (Fallon) bursts in, full of apologies. In order to win her back, he’s prepared an odd, nasal version of Savage Garden’s “Truly, Madly, Deeply,” and has invited back-up dancers to burst in and play along. But even though Doug winds up on one knee with a ring in his hand, Jen is having none of it. The mistake for which Doug is apologizing is just too big to forgive; it’s also not worth ruining here, because the turn is the best bit of the sketch, and one of the best moments of the show. It’s actually a double reveal, because immediately afterward we learn something unsavory about Bennett’s character, too.

Easter Message From Sean Spicer
Melissa McCarthy makes her third appearance as White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, a man who had to defend himself this week after awkwardly trying to defend Trump (saying that Assad deployed chemical weapons against his own people, something he claimed Hitler never did). The occasion is right, the defensive vitriol is in place, and it’s fun to have McCarthy play this character she seems to know inside and out. The sketch doesn’t stretch or grow in this incarnation, but it would be hard to top McCarthy’s earlier, wonderfully unhinged performances. All in all, it’s the weakest of the Spicer sketches thus far, but there are fun Spicer missteps — he didn’t mean “Holocaust centers,” he meant, “concentration clubs” — and Jewish jokes — “Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice, shame on Jew.”

Weekend Update
The first half of Update tackles the big headlines re: Trump, North Korea, and United Airlines. There’s a nice parallel about the economics of war, where Colin Jost excuses the use of the $16 million “Mother of all Bombs” to kill 94 ISIS members when “Fox spent $13 million just to get rid of 5 women.” (Cue image of Bill O’Reilly.) Some of the best audience response comes from straightforward jokes, as when Michael Che simply reacts to a Trump interview clip. In it, Trump refers to the “most beautiful piece of chocolate cake you’ve ever seen” he shared with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, and Che replies, “First of all, you don’t know what cakes I’ve seen.” Vanessa Bayer returns to talk Passover as the fastidious, hammy Jacob the Bar Mitzvah Boy. While it’s a charming and well-constructed character, it needs more than a few, thin Papa John’s jokes to make it soar.

The wilder and wider-ranging second half is brief, as the anchors talk about stolen bees, dog ice cream, and 13-pound Australian babies ruining a woman “down under.” Then, hacky stand-up comic character Bruce Chandling (Kyle Mooney) returns to talk about signs of spring. By now, this recurring bit has two things going for it: One, the moment in which Mooney breaks down and confesses his insecurities always feels nicely vulnerable, and two, Mooney’s commitment to repeating this lackluster bit of anti-comedy has become Kaufman-esque.

Civil War Soldiers
It’s nighttime in a Union camp during 1863, and the commanding officer (Beck Bennett) is trying to boost morale after years of war. He decides on a rousing song, “Old New York,” to get the blood moving. To his surprise, one of his soldiers (Fallon) punctuates verses about glory and liberty with a chorus about partying at his parents’ house. It’s so catchy, all the other soldiers abandon “Old New York” for this new pop hit. Indeed, this is the silliness a Fallon SNL promised, complete with anachronistic analysis (“Who am I kidding? That hook is fire. The whole track is absolutely lit”).

Turtle Shirt
This commercial offers an escape for those embarrassing social moments you yourself create. When the boss walks in on you talking shit about him, or you accidentally show a co-worker a dick pic, you can now hide inside your Turtle Shirt. Watching Fallon (as well as Beck Bennet and Pete Davidson) shrink into their button-downs is a very strange visual gag; that alone is worth it. The soundtrack, Lil Jon’s “Turn Down for What,” is also a weirdly delightful pick. Short, sweet, and to the point, this sketch might be enough to make the Turtle Shirt a reality.

Sully & Denise
Okay, one of the few Fallon characters potentially worth bringing back is Sully. The loudmouth Bostonian does what Bostonians do: Worships the Sox, drinks, and says things like “wicked pissah” as often as possible. This time, Sully and Denise (Rachel Dratch, natch) visit the Harvard campus with their daughter, Little Denise. They interrupt the tour guide (Alex Moffat) to make astute observations (“It’s like Hogwarts but with more Asians”), chug booze, and embarrass the kid (Kate McKinnon). Once Sully and Denise get trotted out, there’s not far to go, but there are a few good details: The paint chips the duo ate as kids are “radiator nachos,” and McKinnon’s one moment of taking on the vernacular is impressive. Plus, any chance to have the delightful Dratch back on SNL is a welcome one.

Basketball Scene
While the director of this unnamed basketball movie tries to keep the scene focused on its main characters — an inspirational coach (Kenan Thompson) and his young player (Pete Davidson) — the court-side extras (Fallon and Mikey Day) pull focus, since it becomes quickly obvious that neither has really ever held a basketball. (“I took sports movement class at Juilliard,” one of them explains.) What begins as obviously awful basketball playing turns into the players whacking themselves in the face with the ball, hitting the boom guy with a pass gone awry, and getting the ball stuck between the rim and the backboard. There’s a nice moment at the end, when the whole cast and crew celebrate a once-in-a-lifetime basket. Otherwise it’s basically a chance for Fallon and Day to goof off, and for that reason, it works.

There’s little remarkable in tonight’s show, but it remains steady throughout. Harry Styles — who pops by during the opening number, chews the scenery as Mick Jagger in Family Feud and later sings a chorus as a captured Confederate soldier — might as well be listed as Fallon’s cheery co-star. Though there aren’t any of Fallon’s signature breaks during the scenes — maybe due to the fact he’s not playing with Justin Timberlake or compatriots like Horatio Sanz — he looks completely at home. It’s surprising that, given Fallon’s history on Update, he doesn’t make an appearance during that segment. Considering that the characters they went with were Jacob and Bruce Chandling, Fallon would have given Update a bit more life.

SNL Recap: Fallon Does Two Travoltas, Sean Spicer Apologizes