As we’ve seen throughout SNL’s 40th season, standup comedian hosts bring with them strong points of view that dictate the temperament of their episodes. Sarah Silverman launched her night with her signature irreverence, followed by sketches that made light of Ebola, white privilege, and the late Joan Rivers. Chris Rock aimed to ease audiences’ discomfort over topics like the Boston Marathon bombing and 9/11, with his sketches (including confusing twists on ISIS and old age) largely overthinking themselves. Kevin Hart was, as usual, a burst of energy, with his sketches trying to keep up with his manic speed. And last weekend, Louis C.K. opened the show with 8 minutes about how life was different in the 1970s – including casual takes on racism, the Middle East, and child molestation – just to follow it up with sketches about domination fetishes and workplace racism.
Although Louis C.K. didn’t mention it, Saturday Night Live too has changed since the 1970s. In those early formative years, the show made its name with sketches that were way racier than what you’d see on the show today, from Michael O’Donoghue pretending to shove needles in his eyes as “Mr. Mike,” to Chevy Chase shouting the N-word at Richard Pryor. It was a more extreme time with very different rules about what could be shown on television – while networks have eased back on profanity and sex, they are far more calculated with their shows’ handling of offensive subject matter. Louis C.K. not only grew up in that decade, his comedic philosophy still embraces its devilish abandon. His sets have unapologetically used the N-word (more specifically, why he hates us using the term “the N-word”) and described his daughters’ genitalia with vivid detail. We allow Louis C.K. to joke about these things because he has proven himself as a master comic without coming off as too mean-spirited, and we trust that he’s working towards a broader statement beyond the laugh. I’m not sure we’d be OK with any other SNL host this season talking like an angry black woman or shitting on elves for sexual pleasure.
As thrilling as it was to see Louis C.K. turn his third time hosting the show into a series of off-beat, “10-to-1” style sketches, as a season finale of a historic year, the episode fell a little short. The night’s back stretch failed to pay off the promise of its exciting first half, with hardly any of the fireworks we’ve come to expect in season finales. (I’m less impressed by random star cameos, and I had my fill during the anniversary special, but I’m sure the show could’ve wrangled someone to drop in other than on-site announcer Darrell Hammond.) Still, despite not being much of a closer, the season finale gave us one of the stronger, edgier nights of comedy we’ve seen on SNL this year.
Summertime Cold Open. One of the more interesting setups to open a show this season saw the cast as beach goers singing a jaunty tune about summer, with Kate as Hillary Clinton dropping by to do some hand-shaking. The sketch didn’t cut as deep with the candidate as past cold opens have, but it resulted in some amusing moments, like Clinton running alongside a tandem bicycle and smashing the sandcastle of kids whose parents don’t like her. Mostly, this sketch worked thanks to the entire cast committing fully to a fun premise that we normally wouldn’t see as a cold open.
Monologue. Louis C.K. has grown increasingly gutsy on SNL since his first hosting appearance in 2012. Then, his monologue centered around a funny but tame anecdote about escorting an elderly immigrant through the airport. When he returned in 2014, his monologue took a pointed turn with his thoughts on atheism and gender equality. (The sketches of his episodes have grown darker as well, from the “Lincoln” Louie parody in 2012 to the more controversial “Black Jeopardy” in 2014.) This third appearance showcased Louis C.K. embracing his twisted sense of humor, describing his mild racism and bravely musing on the tenacity of child molesters: “You can only surmise that it must be pretty good – from their point of view, not ours – It must be amazing for them to risk so much.” Dark stuff, but C.K. pulled it off with the finesse of an orchestra conductor, staying with the crowd and pushing them just far enough. SNL works best when it summons the nerve to offend us, and Louis C.K., with several sketches that would push the envelope on any other night this season, showed a lot of nerve. Best of the Night.
The Shoemaker and the Elves. If the monologue wasn’t radical enough, it was followed by this aggressively weird scene with Kenan and Vanessa as elves who purposely sabotage a shoemaker (Louis C.K.) because they get off on the idea of him punishing and dominating them. This premise is very messed up, very hilarious, and very non-SNL – it’s the kind of shock-value setup you’d see on a backroom stage rather than on NBC late night – so I applaud the writers for going for it and the producers for putting it so early in the episode. I loved the mix of fairy tale sweetness and gross-out horror, but the “choose your own ending” felt like a bit of a cop-out when this sketch never came back later in the episode. Or maybe I was the only person who actually wanted to see the end of this sketch.
This Is How I Talk. Louis C.K. has also gained confidence as a sketch actor, with his 2012 appearance mostly keeping him in straight roles, but this episode letting him steer the comedy of a scene. Here, he played a white Sprint employee caught imitating his black boss (Leslie Jones), trapped into maintaining the bit as his “normal voice” so she doesn’t think he’s racist. It was a clever, complicated role that C.K. handled well, skipping past an early miscue by Jones and upping the ante without losing his inner discomfort.
Wood PSAs. In another break from the norm, this episode contained a runner with Louis C.K. as a lumberjack who cries a single tear when people don’t use wood products (ala the Native American in the famous ”Keep America Beautiful” spot). It was a silly, one-off idea that feels like the kind of thing C.K. would cook up with Robert Smigel during their Late Night / “TV Funhouse” years.
Weekend Update. It’s remarkable to see the progress Colin Jost and Michael Che have made this season – they’ve gone from stiffs reading cue cards to funny stiffs reading cue cards, nearly restoring Weekend Update as the SNL tentpole it was under Seth Meyers. The two delivered with confident line-reads, as well as some fun curveballs – the “closing credits” for ISIS and their favorite cut jokes (Jost’s “jalapeño business” punchline was solid, but I wanted to hear Che’s Malaysian Airlines joke!). Taran made one of few appearances this episode as the likable Tom Brady charming his way out of questions about “deflate-gate,” and Pete Davidson bookended the season with another funny desk appearance in which the gawky, non-versatile comedian questioned his existence on SNL: “How did I get on this show, Colin? Did my mom see a NBC executive hit a kid and drive off?” The segment closed with another appearance of Bobby’s Riblet (III), the jealous high-school tormenter of Che that I’ve always enjoyed watching despite not really getting why we keep seeing him. I suppose his inventive mic-drop gags are worth it.
Jemma II. Cecily Strong’s British wannabe pop star Jemma was the amusing silver lining of the one misfire from Dwayne Johnson’s episode earlier this season. But here, it fared even worse, with Louis C.K. too miscast in his character and Jemma’s song sample missing the funny “long banana, short banana” hook of her first appearance.
Police Line-Up. The police line-up has become a classic comedy setting since The Usual Suspects, but Taran, Kyle, Beck, and Louis C.K. made it work as struggling actors viewing it as their big break, overacting the line-reads with accents, dramatically lighting cigarettes, and complimenting the “script.” The real joy here was watching the four support and encourage each other, with Beck nailing aspiring content makers: “One video a week! We have no excuses, guys!”
Whoops, I Married A Lesbian. This “Forgotten TV Gems” look-back at an I Love Lucy-style sitcom with an offensively backwards depiction of lesbians had an inspired premise but could have used more funny moments beyond Kate and Aidy’s lifeless face-mashing. I liked seeing this concept in the lineup, but as the closing 10-to-1 sketch of an exceptionally racy season finale, I would have preferred the show go for broke with something truly over-the-top, or at least a callback to “The Shoemaker and the Elves” or the “Wood PSAs.”
Cut for Time: Bruce and Louie. Due to a longer-than-normal cold open and monologue, there were fewer sketches this episode, and poor New York hack comic Bruce Chandling (Kyle Mooney) once again landed on the cutting room floor. (His video was also cut from the Kevin Hart episode.) It’s a shame too – Bruce’s amusing Comedy Cellar encounter with Louis C.K. felt like something right out of Louie (a recent episode with Jon Glaser, actually) and would have given the night the strong pre-taped element it needed.