The seasons have certainly changed at Saturday Night Live. The show’s 40th season began with an episode that hardly resembled a season premiere, with little pomp or circumstance over SNL’s impressive four-decade lifespan, and in its place a straightforward night of comedy that reflected a show well adjusted to its new lineup. Nerves did occasionally get the better of the performers – especially first-time host Chris Pratt, who coasted on his signature goofy charm, flashing that Andy Dwyer “oops” face a few times – but overall the episode charged forward with a leaner (and more colorful) cast, and a greater confidence in its sense of humor.
We aren’t out of the woods just yet, though. SNL’s live sketches suffer from the same issues that plagued them last season: those low-hanging fruit gags, punchlines overwhelming the premise, the tendency for characters to randomly walk out of a scene without the sketch actually ending, etc. Also, the show has yet to reclaim its satirical edge, and with John Oliver so thoroughly setting us straight on Sunday nights, it’s doubtful progressive America will look to SNL for its comedy any time soon.
But for the first time in a while, we have reasons to look forward to the future. Pete Davidson’s masterful Weekend Update set gave SNL the newcomer starpower it seemed unable to locate last season. Michael Che and Leslie Jones’ frequent on-camera appearances suggest the show might actually try to embrace its diversity, rather than use it as a quota. And a few clever sketch setups found their way into the set list, giving us hope that SNL can still do comedy outside of the format of a talk show parody.
If those little “40”s in the opening credits and interstitials become the only on-air milestone celebrations we see on the show over the next months, Season 40 may be a year SNL steps proudly into the next generation, rather than again be overshadowed by its glorious past.
Cold Open: Candy Crowley on the NFL. The night got off on a shaky start when SNL resorted to one of its favorite go-to formats for the cold open: the political talk show parody that seems like the writers are making commentary on a topical issue (in this case, the NFL’s recent scandals), but aren’t really saying anything at all. Now that Piers Morgan Live has been cancelled, SNL has turned to Candy Crowley’s State of the Union, with Aidy Bryant reprising her amusing impression of the newswoman, Chris Pratt as a bumbling Roger Goodell, Kenan Thompson as Ray Lewis, and Jay Pharoah in his Foghorn Leghorn-y Shannon Sharpe. As usual, the one-off punchlines took precedence over building a clear, unifying game, and ultimately the only one of the sketch’s many running gags to pay off was Lewis’ meandering, oversimplified views on raising children: “Let me be perfectly clear: School buses are yellow. Or sometimes orange, depending. Bus pulls up. Child gets on. Bus takes him off to school.”
Monologue. The first-night jitters bled over into the monologue, where Chris Pratt channeled his inner Mouse Rat frontman by strumming his guitar and, it would seem, making up lyrics as he went along. Anna Faris was on hand to lend her husband moral support, but Pratt would prove to be as beneficial an SNL host as he is on Parks & Rec: a charming, lovable Golden Retriever who hits his mark without eclipsing scenes.
Cialis Turnt. This faux-commercial for amped-up ED meds certainly satisfied the crowd well enough, but it comes a little late in the game from SNL. Erectile dysfunction is pretty well worn territory, and I feel like the rest of the world moved on from the DJ Snake & Lil Jon anthem six months ago. (Note: for the online version of this sketch, “Turn Down For What” was replaced by a royalty-free “Everybody Get Turnt.” I’m not sure this bit was worth the fuss of writing an online-safe song, but I’m glad to see SNL find ways around those pesky music licensing restrictions.)
He-Man and Lion-O. The night’s centerpiece sketch saw Kyle Mooney as a lonely birthday boy who wishes his He-Man and Lion-O action figures come to life, only to find them to be loud, horny idiots who aren’t used to having human bodies. It’s a premise so silly and clever that I’m surprised – and thankful – that SNL didn’t bury it at the end of the night. (I’m reminded of that 10-to-1 with Russell Brand as George Washington, brought back from the past by today’s congressional leaders, just to immediately freak out over being in the future and attack them all.) While the timing seemed a little unrehearsed, Chris Pratt and Taran Killam’s performances were enjoyably unhinged, smashing up the kitchen and shouting, “Why is cake, Danny?!” Though I could have done without the drawn-out bulge-patting and Ariana Grande’s cameo as She-Ra. (Camera’s over here, She-Ra.)
Vet Office II. We first saw Cecily Strong and Kate McKinnon’s chatty veterinarians last season with Josh Hutcherson, and while I’m a little surprised to see this bit again, I can’t blame Chris Pratt for wanting to be a third pea in that pod. And everyone loves animal sketches! (Even dead animal sketches, apparently.) The characters do give off some of the frustrating bad-employee-implausibility that we saw in Target Lady and, uh, Good Burger, but this sketch makes up for it with the characters’ warm bluntness: “Don’t worry ma’am, she did die very slowly.”
Marvel Trailer. I love a good list joke as much as anyone, but this fake trailer for upcoming Marvel movies about obscure superheroes – which echoed the sequel montage at the end of 22 Jump Street – devolved into random crazy town without really earning it, as if the writers (like the studio execs they’re mocking) just started looking around the room for things to star in their joke Marvel franchises without bothering to play out what those movies would look like. That said, “Pam 2: The Winter Pam” definitely had something going for it.
Weekend Update. While it came as a surprise that new co-hosts Colin Jost and Michael Che dove right into the two-liners without calling attention to themselves, it was for the best. The business-as-usual routine of the news segment led to it becoming an episode highlight. The punchlines were a little too hit-or-miss for supposedly being the cream of a crop of hundreds, but Che made it through his first night with only a few scratches, and Jost’s slowed-down delivery gave him a confidence we were missing last season. And while I’d like to see more of their personalities come to the surface over the coming weeks, I enjoyed their interplay in the “Cheer Up, President Obama” segment, with Kenan Thompson crooning The Five Stairsteps’ “Ooh Child” (a song SNL loves, apparently) while Jost and Che reminded the president of his upcoming retirement: “One day, parents will tell their kids not to go north of Barack Obama Boulevard.”
The true strength of the news segment saw Jost and Che playing straight men, wasting no time bringing back Cecily Strong’s much-missed Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With At a Party (V), whose inebriated rants included her taking a selfie with Che to piss off her dad. Then, SNL gave a well-deserved middle finger to viewers’ misplaced outrage after Leslie Jones’ routine last season by bringing the writer back to again furiously lament her single status, with the slavery metaphors replaced with Ghost Whisperer references. The segment ended with 20-year-old newcomer Pete Davidson, who calmly reasoned why he’s OK with going down on a guy: “I would do it for $3,000 if I had to be honest with myself. Even if I was doing well. Like, even if I was on a boat, and it was my boat, I’d still do it. A boat needs fuel. A lot of people don’t realize that. They just get a boat, and they’re in the middle of the ocean with no fuel, and they’re like, ‘Ah, I wish I went down on that guy.’” The hilarious send-up to homophobic “bro culture” was so well delivered that you’d think Davidson had been on SNL for years. And hopefully he will be.
Booty Rap. The episode’s back nine led off with this musical sketch with two nerds (Aidy Bryant and Chris Pratt) flirting with each other the only way they know how: sexually explicit lyrics from modern pop/rap music. The clash of context proved an effective crowd pleaser, but this trick has become a bit of a crutch for SNL recently, as we saw more than once last season (“Your Love,” “Little Mermaid“). However, the piece gets points for actually breaking down the nonsense lyrics after the fact: “Todd, did you just say, ‘plow through your panties like I’m running on diesel’?” And, unlike the other live sketches we had seen this episode, it actually had some semblance of an ending.
Bad Boys. Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett turned out this follow-up to last season’s cut-from-dress “Wing,” in this hilarious 90s after-school special parody about a roommate (Pratt) who gets mixed up in the wrong crowd. The video contained all the hallmark traits of a great Good Neighbor piece: cheesy editing, unnatural staging and deliveries, bizarre establishing shots, saxophone riff transitions, throwaway lines like, “I called the park. They’ve been closed for two hours.” It’s the kind of targeted humor that I’m thrilled to see on SNL, especially to hear it kill with the studio audience. Those three kids were notably amusing – threatening Pratt and running off set at awkward times – impressive, given how often child actors derail bits on SNL. Sketch of the Night.
NFL Intros. I was grateful that SNL provided another take on the NFL scandals besides that uninspired cold open, even if this list joke (in the style of Key & Peele’s “East/West Bowl,” but with the players announcing their criminal records) ran a beat too long. The crimes were as hit-or-miss enjoyable as the corrections reel of a “Fox & Friends” sketch – “brought a machine gun to a barbecue” or “did a whole bunch of stuff on a cruise ship” – and it was a treat to see Leslie Jones, Michael Che, and Colin Jost get showcased outside of Weekend Update.
Video Game. This clever 10-to-1 setup featured kids testing a video game in which the characters (Chris Pratt and Vanessa Bayer) intensely make out when a puzzle is completed. The game escalated well, avoiding gross-out Vogelcheck territory by exploring the pointless utility characters’ backstories – “I was in an explosion… I’m hideous!” “Shh… (kissing the scar) you’re beautiful.”
I’ll see you next week, when Sarah Silverman will host with musical guest Maroon 5.
Erik Voss is a writer and performer living in Los Angeles. He hosts the Evil Blond Kid podcast and performs on the house teams Wheelhouse and It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way at the iO Theater.