SNL Recap: Kumail Nanjiani Tackles Islamophobia and Horny Grandmas

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Photo: Rosalind O’Connor/NBC
Saturday Night Live

Saturday Night Live

Kumail Nanjiani Season 43 Episode 3
Editor's Rating 3 stars

First off, SNL deserves kudos for asking Kumail Nanjiani to host. This summer saw his rom-com The Big Sick blow up, but he’s been proving himself for years as a stand-up, on HBO’s Silicon Valley, and in sketch shows such as Portlandia. He’s a dynamic straight man, whose wry sarcasm helps give character to the distant, high-status underlings and service personnel he often plays. He’s also got a broader, wackier side, so it’ll be interesting so see how the writers use him.

Donald Trump Trucker-Rally Cold Open

This fast-and-furious open finds Trump (Alec Baldwin) at a rally in Harrisburg ostensibly to tout his tax plan. Instead, he rambles on about everything from Bob Corker’s height (“He’s so small a dermatologist found him on a mole”) to Rex Tillerson’s disparaging comments about him (“Talk about the pot calling the kettle Mexican”). As all that goes on, Mike Pence (Beck Bennett) is out and about, exiting various offensive events — just as he left the Colts game last Sunday when players took a knee. There wasn’t one big Trump story this week, so it’s a bit of a hodgepodge, but in any case, the writing feels a bit less sharp than the cold opens of last season. This might be due to the departure of former SNL head writers Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider, but it’ll take time to know for sure.

Kumail Nanjiani Monologue

As it is with most stand-ups hosting SNL these days, Nanjiani gets a solid chunk of time to tell his own jokes. He talks about The Big Sick for a minute before delving into a number of issues revolving around his Pakistani heritage, Islam, and racism. He addresses internet trolls who complain about “race-mixing,” likens the resurgence of Islamophobia to the return of Will & Grace, and determines we’d all be Muslim if the Quran successfully predicted the advent of the automobile (just to ensure that women couldn’t drive it). His set feels polished and assured, and happily gives a voice (and face) to some tricky issues. It does what a good intro should do and then goes much, much farther.

Bank Breakers

This game show, in which “greed isn’t good, it’s great,” Paul (Nanjiani) and Gretchen (Cecily Strong) answer questions and snatch one another’s money to win. While the noxious Paul plans on buying only “jackets and jeans” with his winnings, his opponent needs a “medical procedure to restore the hearing of [her] 10-year-old daughter.” Oh, also, Gretchen served four tours of military duty and just had her house robbed. Though he works for Marlboro, Paul isn’t a monster. He stops gloating and even tries to let Gretchen win, but weirdly, that isn’t as easy as it sounds. The sketch is a fun one — the game of this scene is clearly outlined, and the writing cleverly follows that outline — though Paul’s downfall isn’t as joyful as it could be.

Kellyanne Conway/It Parody

After a long night working at the CNN studio — and shaking his head at Kellyanne Conway’s recent antics — Anderson Cooper (Alex Moffat) heads home. In the pouring rain, Conway (Kate McKinnon) tries to sucker Anderson into a storm drain, à la Pennywise from It. As it was when she stalked Jake Tapper in a sketch last season, Conway is desperate to get on TV again. “I’ll give you a crazy, crazy quote,” she says, before launching into a bizarro story about how Puerto Rico was better off before the hurricane and how Tillerson said “moron” because he was hoping for additional ice-cream toppings for his sundae. This sketch is a nice addition to the growing suite of scenes that take on Conway’s terrifying habits. So far, she’s been portrayed as an overworked employee, a megalomaniac showstopper, and a seductive psycho. Why not a fantastical monster?

Office Halloween Party

An office Halloween costume party is interrupted by a phone call from the boss, Greg (Beck Bennett). The long and the short of it: Greg has Hepatitis A, and he may have given it to all of the employees who ate a cake he made for them. And what about Sarah, who had no cake? He drank from her water bottle. (“What an inconvenience for me and my family,” she says sadly.) This sketch is short and a little scattered, like an idea that never found its legs was plunked into a Halloween framework and left to its own devices.

Film Panel With Debette Goldry

At the New York Film Festival, female film stars talk sexual harassment in the wake of the accusations against Harvey Weinstein and his subsequent firing. Once again, the brassy, golden-age Hollywood legend Debette Goldry (McKinnon) makes disturbing, modern circumstances look positively space-age. As Viola Davis (Leslie Jones) and Marion Cotillard (Strong) talk about the poisonous culture in Hollywood and why women fail to come forward after assaults, Goldry talks about being part of the moon landing and old saws like, “You scratch my back, I’ll keep mum about the girl who drowned at your pool party.” While previous Goldry sketches were lighthearted excoriations of an industry in need of an update, the difficult subject matter in this one makes for uneasy jokes, to say the least. There are still great images here, though, like Weinstein’s creepy, batlike gambit as described by Debette.

Weekend Update

Although it’s about half as long as it usually is, Update takes on the week in Weinstein and Trump. Maybe it’s safer to toy with Weinstein now that he’s shunned by Hollywood, but SNL lets loose all the jokes about him they reportedly prepared (but failed to deliver) last week. Some of it is smartly done: “Harvey doesn’t need sex rehab, he needs a specialized facility where there are no women, no contact with the outside world, metal bars, and it’s a prison.” The hosts then liken Trump to a reckless old woman knocking over displays on a Rascal scooter and knock him for his anger against those who choose not to say the phrase “Merry Christmas.” Michael Che has a nice, honest riff here, talking about how Trump gets offended on behalf of Christians but could care less when women, black, and gay people are involved. In the end, Che wants to say “Happy Holidays” not because he hates the nation’s dominant religion, but because “all holidays matter.” When Jost tells a joke about Trump’s phone autocorrecting oh, something, into the African nation of “Niger,” there’s a fun moment when Che cheerfully goes against the groaning crowd: “I liked it.”

Soon after, Cecily Strong comes on as Ivana Trump, who made headlines this week by calling herself “the first lady.” The smarmy, naughty, and heavily accented Ivana doesn’t really have a lot to say, but it’s a silly sort of fun. Even when Ivana eats a Ferrero Rocher and becomes entirely unintelligible for some reason, Strong’s commitment to character saves the bit.

Hotel Check-in

An American documentarian (Mikey Day) recently extracted from North Korea arrives at the Marriott Chatsworth House for a relaxing weekend paid for by the U.S. government. The front-desk clerk (Nanjiani) would like his exhausted guest to know a few things: They have a lovely bar called the Stargazer Lounge, a glass of free champagne will be available in the Stargazer Lounge, and the man’s suite is adjacent to the entrance of the Stargazer Lounge. Oh, also, many of the hotel’s amenities were featured in Southwest’s in-flight magazine, Latitudes. This framework is perfect for Nanjiani, who always seems to play these sort of high-status gatekeepers. There’s not a lot of variation in the jokes, but Nanjiani’s playfulness helps.

Nursing Home

Two grandkids (Day and Heidi Gardner) find their Grammy (McKinnon) a little out of it when they get to the old folks’ home. The reason: The 91-year-old is fighting off gonorrhea after getting it on with a large number of the home’s residents. Grammy’s doctor (Nanjiani) patiently explains that she is a cognizant adult, and that none of the residents are exploiting her. “They’re running a train, but she’s the conductor,” he says. Though family members may want to put their loved ones’ sex lives out of their minds, and this take is obviously exaggerated, the writers get points for considering a very real circumstance in homes across the country. The sketch hits one note — gramma gets around — and it’s funny one.

Customer Service

In this filmed piece, a customer-service drone in a Pakistani call center (Nanjiani) falls into a long, emotional conversation with Melania Trump (Strong). Ever under lock and key, Melania longs for companionship and understanding, and something about the man’s helpful, far-off voice does the trick. Melania wonders which of them is more trapped in their lives, and eventually, she flies to Pakistan to visit him. This may not be a Julio Torres sketch, but it’s dreamy, slightly surreal, and seems to match the tone of other Torres sketches like “The Sink.” In any case, it’s not a riot, but it’s worthwhile in that its thoughtful, engaging, and has a great tone.

From Nanjiani’s personably political stand-up intro to his well-imagined characters, his presence is the best element of the show this week. The sketches themselves are solid enough, but often feel as though they’re lacking the explosive moment that could make them really funny. Unfortunately, the new cast was nearly absent this week, and after last week’s silence on the Weinstein scandal, SNL’s two segments about him this time have varying degrees of success. The show will be off for a few weeks, save for an animated David S. Pumpkins Halloween special. The next announced date is November 4, with host Larry David.

SNL Recap: Kumail Nanjiani Tackles Islamophobia