After the much-hyped 40th season of SNL, season 41 eased back into normalcy with a premiere that saw Miley Cyrus taking the stage for her third stint. The episode was packed with 2016 election fever, predictably outrageous outfits on Miley’s part, and a healthy dose of new Ghostbusters Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon.
However, the biggest moment of the episode came when 2016 presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton appeared as rumored, not during the political cold open or on Weekend Update, but in a bartender sketch with Kate McKinnon. Aside from the bit, in which McKinnon did some gentle ribbing about the candidate’s lack of speed on supporting gay marriage, the night was decidedly pro-Hillary (she even introduced Miley Cyrus) with plenty of jokes ridiculing Trump and other GOP candidates, but with most of the digs against Hillary being humblebrags at worst.
The previous two seasons of SNL brought major cast changes, but season 41 has started with little-to-no turnover. The only new face on the cast belongs to Jon Rudnitsky, an energetic 25-year-old comedian who was recently named one of 2015’s “New Faces” at Montreal’s Just For Laughs festival. Colin Jost, Beck Bennett, Kyle Mooney and Sasheer Zamata were upgraded to full cast members. Behind the scenes, four writers left the show since last season – including former featured player Mike O’Brien – and six shiny, new writers took their place.
Overall the premiere lived up to its topical expectations while playing it safe with solid pre-taped material and a cast that viewers are getting more and more used to seeing as a unique era of the show. The episode did a good job of preparing us for another political season of SNL before the Amy Schumer train rolls in next week and we have the benefit of TV’s most recently lauded sketch comedian serving as host.
Donald and Melania Trump Cold Open
Continuing the trend of 2015 so far, the first thing we saw when SNL began its 41st season was Donald Trump’s face, played for the first – but obviously not the last – time by Taran Killam. The impression is solid, especially the extensive lip work, which made my face hurt just looking at it. And he may not be busting out his John Boehner impression this season, but that orange makeup is certainly being put to good use. Cecily Strong compliments him well as wife Melania Trump, with quips like “Welcome to our humble gold house” and “I’m not smart like Donald, I don’t go to Hogwarts school of business.” She also points out what the inevitable attention SNL must pay to Trump at this point in the election, that he only rises up in the polls when he says inflammatory things and the media talks about it. To drive that point home, Trump really didn’t seem to mind it.
Catching up on all the controversial figures (and Pizza Rat) that dominated the summer of 2015 news cycle, Miley’s monologue kicked things off with a song to say goodbye to all that. After breaking into a modified Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,” the cast began parading in as everyone from Rachel Dolezal (Vanessa Bayer) to Kim Davis (Aidy Bryant) to Cecil the Lion’s killer (Taran Killam) and “The Twerp Who Raised the Price of AIDS Medication” (Kate McKinnon). Extra bonus points awarded to Sasheer Zamata for portraying Lenny Kravitz’s wardrobe malfunction better than anyone undoubtedly will this Halloween, and Bobby Moynihan for seamlessly turning Jared Fogle into Josh Duggar with a simple removal of his glasses.
Abilify For Candidates
The first commercial parody of the year kept the topical jokes coming by repackaging Abilify (the prescription schizophrenia, depression, and bipolar disorder medication) as a drug “for people who think they can be President” – specifically Republicans Rick Santorum (Taran Killam), Mike Huckabee (Bobby Moynihan) and Jim Gilmore (Beck Bennett). The pre-taped bit hit all the classic SNL prescription drug commercial highlights, including stock footage of a WASP-y couple’s marriage improving and a doctor touting its effects over ridiculous graphics showing the drug working. The funniest jabs hit at Huckabee for his support of Kim Davis and that one time he disagreed with Donald Trump, who he calls “Our future President” (after medication, of course).
In the first live sketch after the monologue, Jon Rudnitsky makes his SNL debut in this parody of your typical “Grease” ‘50s sock hop alongside Taran Killam, Kyle Mooney, Kate McKinnon, and Cecily Strong. The game becomes obvious right away, with a poodle skirt-wearing Miley Cyrus busting into a hardcore rap and twerk-a-thon every third beat, which is hardly a shocking prospect at this point in history. But we do get to see her lick frosting off the new guy’s (hilariously horrified) face. At one point Killam’s character asks if Cyrus is from Montana, to which Strong says what we should all already know by now: “I don’t think she’s been from Montana for a long time.”
Hillary Clinton Bar Talk
The moment we’ve all been waiting for: the return of Kate McKinnon’s Hillary Clinton impression and her inevitable interaction with the real McCoy. McKinnon’s Hillary saddles up to the bar in need of blowing off some steam. “I’ve had a hard… 22 years,” she tells IRL Hillary, or Val the bartender, as her IMDB credit will forever read. What happened next is something that only a lucky handful of Oval Office seekers have gotten to do in Studio 8H before election day: a mix of just-barely self-deprecating jokes (“You’re so easy to talk to” / “That’s the first time I’ve ever heard that”) and some genuinely funny jabs at the competition (“Donald Trump? Isn’t he the one that’s always like, ‘Uh, you’re all losers?’”). There was also a short but sweet cameo by Bill Clinton (Darrell Hammond) and a pretty great – nay, the best – moment where McKinnon got to call out Clinton for balking on supporting gay marriage. It almost made knowing that Hillary’s appearance was a calculated political decision not utterly unnerving.
The election jokes continued with a few about Hillary’s assumed status as the Democratic nominee, a.k.a. “the woman who already won,” a new nickname for Bernie Sanders (“The Human Lorax”) and Jost’s astute observation that Ben Carson and Trump are tied “at too many percent.” Both Jost and Che appear more comfortable in their hosting duties, with room for an ad lib-y exchange here and there (Che’s reaction to Jost’s blackface joke, e.g.: “I begged you not to do that!”). Kyle Mooney kept his Pope Francis costume on from the monologue and delivered one hilariously nonsensical rant about partying on the Lower East Side, playing shuffleboard, eating Hawaiian pizza, and singing “Closing Time” with Mos Def, which I imagine was only part of how the real Pope spent his trip to New York. Resident Young Person Pete Davidson did the “sit-down standup” thing he does best and discussed his relatable bewilderment with American politics (“I just know I’m supposed to say I’m a Democrat or my friends will get mad at me”). He also offered a genuinely funny comparison of Donald Trump to American Idol’s Sanjaya that is actually really sad if you think about it. And of course, new Ghostbuster Leslie Jones returned with another one of her relationship expert segments/series of attempts to sleep with Jost. Her insight into the torture of texting will surely hit home to anyone currently in the modern dating world.
If the goal was to find the next “The Californians,” this sketch, however good on paper, didn’t hit that repeatable mark. Kate McKinnon, Pete Davidson, Miley Cyrus, and Jon Rudnitsky do a good job mocking entitled millennial culture, but it’s almost too easy. Yes, most twenty-somethings take their social media, cushy jobs, and “can’t evens” far too seriously and deserve to be mocked for it, but there’s something about it ending on Kenan Thompson and Taran Killam (dressed 10 years older) saying “I hate these kids” that just doesn’t feel genuine.
Katz’s Deli sketch
Dare I say the perfect When Harry Met Sally parody? Just like that moment in Leslie Jones’ “Weekend Update” rant when Jost goes to interject her but then says, “Leslie, just keep going,” no one in this sketch has any choice but to sit back and let her do her thing. Straight women Vanessa Bayer, Miley Cyrus, and Cecily Strong do their job with great supporting lines like “She’s having a big ol’ plate of potato salad” and “I’m not the waiter” while Leslie’s orgasm demo becomes the world’s most intense condom PSA.
In the second pre-taped sketch of the night, Vanessa Bayer and Aidy Bryant awaken a la Rick Grimes in The Walking Dead to a post-apocalyptic world left obliterated by the assembling of Taylor Swift’s “Squad.” It’s your standard horror movie trailer spoof, with Kenan Thompson playing a great disturbed survivor, rattling off how everyone in the world (“Police, fire department… Matt LeBlanc”) suddenly became absorbed by Swiftdom. All in all, a relatively safe concept for a season premiere to which a bunch of Miley Cyrus fans will be tuning in. I was a bigger fan of last season’s Swiftamine.
This sketch felt too rushed for the exposition required, which is unfortunate because it’s hard to imagine a sketch about an African-American woman late night host being on SNL even a year ago. This was also the only main sketch featuring Jay Pharoah and Sasheer Zamata, whom I’m guessing will open up next week’s episode as the Obamas.
Miley Wedding Video
I’m glad to see SNL slipped this into the 10-to-1 slot, if not because it was a welcomely succinct and silly way to end the show after “American Voices,” but because it was a callback to the Miley Cyrus Sex Tape sketch from when she hosted back in 2013, when we were just getting to know Kyle Mooney’s work on the show. This time, Miley marries Mooney and beleaguers him with adoration while his friends Bobby Moynihan and Beck Bennett look on in disbelief, as does the audience. Rudnitsky rounds out his first episode as the couple’s impossibly adult son while Cyrus makes fun of her superstar self (“Do your friends want any of my extra money?”).
So shoot, what else?