In 1993, hungry young comedian Louis C.K. auditioned to be a cast member on Saturday Night Live. He did not make it. In the years since, however, the comedian has ascended to the highest levels of comedy, selling out multiple nights at Madison Square Garden, appearing in movies and his own Emmy Award–winning TV series, and, of course, hosting SNL three times in as many years. (And gifting the world with the classic Lincoln sketch in the process.) In a recent essay for The Hollywood Reporter, C.K. described coming to terms with not having been cast on the show. Perhaps being rejected was one of the many motivations that put him on track to be a recurring and well-received host someday, a vastly preferable fate. “Spending a week there is one of my favorite things I get to do,” he wrote in the essay, and the evidence is all over his performance last night.
During the finale of SNL’s 40th season, Louis C.K. is a live wire crackling throughout the studio. The entire first half of the show is awash in weirdness, unpredictable turns, and ideas that likely inspired a sizable portion of the audience to tune out before the tamer second half. Some of these sketches would have worked with any other host, though. In an uneven season of a show still struggling to forge a new identity after the big turnover of 2013, this assured episode makes a strong case for SNL’s ongoing relevance and reliability in season 41.
Summertime Cold Open
It’s all hands on deck for an unusual opening that finds Kate McKinnon’s Hillary Clinton constantly interrupting a summertime musical about to happen. There’s both affection and critique in McKinnon’s portrayal of Clinton. We’re seeing a person who is exceptionally competent but whose common touch feels forced. This strained warmth is brought into sharp relief with the inclusion of Darrell Hammond’s resuscitated Bill Clinton, who is basically a sentient high five. The sketch mostly just hums along amiably, but it builds to a fever pitch with Hillary’s out-there projection of the peacefulness she will finally know come the end of her two-term presidency. It also ends with the pleasing spectacle of the entire cast delivering the “Live from New York” intro line.
Louis C.K. Monologue
In the same way that if you have Darrell Hammond on hand, you let him do Bill Clinton; if you have the best stand-up comic in the world right now, you might as well let him spend the monologue performing ten minutes of new material. It’s something we’ve come to expect from C.K., who has eschewed songs or audience interruptions in his previous hosting gigs to do wall-to-wall joke monologues. This time, his goal seems to be seeing how much he can get away with. If the material on his “mild, benign racism” didn’t rub people the wrong way — which, of course it did — then his amazing closing joke about child molestation surely got the job done. This is audacious stuff for live television, and while people are entitled to be offended, I LOL’d.
The Shoemaker & the Elves
From that risky monologue we segue right into a sketch about elves who long to be sexually dominated. Kenan Thompson and Vanessa Bayer don hats shaped like crooked crescent moons, and some deft camera trickery, to portray a pair of horny Keebler cohorts. They speak with deep vocal fry and gusto as they ask to be spanked and abused, and Louis C.K. plays it straight for most of the sketch until we learn he’s kind of on the same page. Following that monologue, the show is just reiterating its host’s edgy bona fides and gleefully flinging good taste out the window.
This Is How I Talk
There’s a surprisingly common trope in sitcoms and romantic comedies in which someone is in the middle of doing an impression of their boss when — oh no! — that very boss is now standing right behind him ore her. This very fate befalls Louis C.K.’s Sprint Store employee, but he’s got a novel solution. He wasn’t impersonating boss Leslie Jones; rather, he just happens to have the speaking voice of a brash, street-smart black lady. Now he has to stay in that mode all the time. Those who were not onboard for the jokes about “mild racism” during the monologue are probably not going to love this sketch either. The idea of C.K. keeping up this ruse for five full years, though, is wacky enough to sooth the pain of hearing him say “on fleek.”
A two-part runner throughout the episode confronts us with the question: “If you don’t use wooden things, what will happen to the lumberjacks?” In an echo of the famous Keep America Beautiful ad with Iron Eyes Cody, Louis C.K. is a lumberjack with a single teardrop who appears wherever wood is in even the slightest state of decline. (An unused toothpick, for instance.) These goofy interstitials are too short to make any real impact, but they seem to channel the freewheeling spirit of old-school SNL.
Taran Killam’s turn as Tom Brady is most notable for the fact that Taran Killam looks absolutely nothing look Tom Brady, and that there’s no well-known vocal tic to latch on to either. Luckily, Killam knows how to save a flubbed line with a bit of fourth-wall flaunting improv. (“That was a rare Brady flub there, Michael.”)
Resident Young Person Pete Davidson introduced himself to the audience in a Weekend Update segment on the season premiere, and now he’s back for the finale. In between these two episodes, he’s appeared at the desk numerous times with varying levels of success, but no loss in likability. The topic of turning 21 causes him to reflect on Harry Potter’s neglected sex opportunities and wonder why SNL ever hired him in the first place. Rather than plead his case for Lorne Michaels to keep him around next year, he lists off reasons why he shouldn’t. Probably, he’s aware none of these reasons actually matter. While some freshmen tend to get axed in between seasons, Davidson is popular enough that it’s a non-option.
Finally, Bobby Moynihan is back as Riblet, Michael Che’s childhood friend who dresses like a dance-battler, has hair like streamers on bike handles, and speaks with a Swedish Chef–inspired vocal tic. By now we know the drill, but it’s still fun to see how that inevitable mike-drop will be delivered.
While Pete Davidson has job security over the hiatus, I wouldn’t be too sure about the Colin Jost–Michael Che pairing. Their chemistry has grown in fits and spurts throughout the year, and it’s expected that they haven’t grown into a classic Update duo yet, but Lorne is just as likely to experiment as he is to provide room to grow. Perhaps we’ll be seeing an injection of feminine energy here next year.
If last week’s High School Theater sketch was a surprise sequel to a bit from earlier in the season, this revisiting of that dinner sketch from the Dwayne Johnson episode was a shocker. Louis C.K. fills in as half of an almost-supernaturally annoying couple interrupting Kenan and Vanessa Bayer’s romantic stay in a cabana. All the same beats are back, only this time Cecily Strong won me over more with her vapid British aspiring musician Gemma. Unfortunately for C.K., the Rock made more of a striking impression with his Über-Guido character, whereas this host is barely operating out of his normal range.
After Pete Davidson got attacked outside a theater, he must identify the assailant from a police lineup composed entirely of actors. All assembled treat their reciting of the attacker’s line — ‘“Let’s make this quick, give me everything you’ve got, I have a knife” — like an audition. This must have been a fun sketch to rehearse. All the choices the “actors” are making here must have come from choices the performers made when they were figuring the sketch out. These are the types of things that can’t be written into a sketch. It’s not a hilarious sketch, but it’s hard not to get caught up in Beck Bennett and Taran Killam trying to one-up each other, and Pete Davidson straining to keep from laughing.
Forgotten TV Gems: Whoops! I Married a Lesbian
The show, and the season, ends on a high note, with Kate McKinnon playing an I Love Lucy–era sitcom actress in the role of an ignorantly written lesbian. (“I may be a lesbian, but there’s nothing like the love of a good man!”) It’s an extreme version of the way that Saved by the Bell characters always talked like they were written by 47-year-old dudes indifferent about whether their guesses at young-person-speak are accurate. Although perhaps its also a withering internal critique of how SNL’s straight writers and performers have portrayed gay characters over the years. In any case, it’s nice to see Kenan Thompson as Reese DeWhat one more time before he potentially does not return for a 13th season.