Though Fred Armisen hasn’t achieved the stratospheric success other former cast members have when they returned as hosts, he has plenty to recommend him: the ongoing popularity of Portlandia, his bandleader gig on Late Night with Seth Meyers, the new Documentary Now! series on IFC, and regular character appearances on shows like Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. He may not be a household name as of yet, but he remains an indie darling and critics’ pick.
Lorne Michaels must have waited to have Armisen on at the end of the season because he knew there was a good chance of ending on a high note. Armisen’s popularity on SNL and his reliably funny presence elsewhere peg him as great guest host: He knows the routine and the staff, he has a stable of characters and he’s willing to go wherever the writers want to take him. In this finale, Armisen is allowed to indulge some of his oddball characters and still delivers when the sketches call for tighter delivery.
Hillary and Bernie Cold Open
The bar is closing and only two people remain drinking: Hillary Clinton (Kate McKinnon) and Bernie Sanders (Larry David), the latter of whom swears he’s staying until the bitter end. This after-hours sparring session nails the sort of playful and antagonistic relationship one might imagine in the subtext of the candidates’ public stances. Even without one blazing headline to power the sketch, the crisp and clever writing addresses the slow, encroaching demise of Sanders’ campaign and a system that—as both candidates agree here — is rigged. (They toasted to DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who recently oversaw the Nevada primary debacle.)
Sanders and Clinton spar, drink, and, finally, dance. A campy, free-floating pas de deux leads them off the set, through the audience, past Bill Clinton (Darrell Hammond, who may as well be a credited cast member again at this point), through a corridor of tony couples and fantastical mist before Clinton twirls Bernie into an elevator and out of the building. The tried-and-true impressions, great script, and all of the extra attention paid here add up to one of the best cold opens in months.
Fred Armisen Monologue
This opening is a long-winded look at Armisen’s ostensible one-man show about his life with Saturday Night Live. As he recounts his time growing up on Long Island and getting cast on the show, his impressions of the people around him get worse and worse — his Lorne Michaels, for instance, is unrecognizable. (“He sounded exactly the way I thought he would,” muses Armisen.) As it drags on, Armisen says, “The critics said this part is too long, but I like it.” As a critic, I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell you it was, in fact, too long. All in all, it’s not hilarious but a fitting homecoming for Armisen, who loves improv and playing outside of formal joke structure.
An Albany schoolteacher (Aidy Bryant) announces a treat: A trio of community players (Armisen, Cecily Strong and Kyle Mooney) will perform excerpts from their play about Lewis and Clark for the classroom. While it’s hard to get a read on the thespians at first, as the story marches on, it’s clear that the rugged explorers of the West can only think about their need to hump Sacajawea or one another. Even as their inappropriate obsessions grow unbearable, the chipper attitude of the performers makes it all seem like a necessary part of the story — even as Lewis mounts Clark on the teacher’s desk, and Sacajawea encourages the dubious Clark with some creepy eye contact.
Digital Short: “Finest Girl (Bin Laden Song)”
Though this Digital Short doubles as an ad for the upcoming Lonely Island movie, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, it’s a solid number with production values befitting Andy Samberg et al. The premise is, as it is with many LI creations, outré sex — but it’s made bleep-ier than most by the appearance of the word “fuck” twice in the key line of the chorus … Ahem, the girl of Conner4Real’s dreams wants him to “Fuck [her] like we fucked bin Laden.” LI is never content to lean on one punchline, so the world of the piece keeps expanding even as Conner confesses that his lady’s metaphor leaves him cold (“I still can’t say that I see the appeal,” he raps.)
Amidst the blitz of LI releases including “Mona Lisa” and “Humble,” and appearances on shows such as The Voice, it bodes well for the movie that their level of funny remains this high.
Though the staff tagged this “New Girlfriend,” it’s really the return of Regine — Armisen’s snotty, smug bit of arm candy who can’t control her face when kissed or tickled. The formula is the same as it was with other hosts including Christoph Waltz and Daniel Craig: A guy (in this case, Jason Sudeikis) brings Regine to meet his friends, and she offends them with her superiority and her flailing. Armisen feels supercharged in this sketch, his big and bold choices in part bolstered by his comfort with Sudeikis. Somewhere between Sudeikis eating guacamole from a shoe and Armisen lolling around on the couch spread-eagled, Aidy Bryant and Vanessa Bayer start to break up. It’s loose and fun, and may be Regine’s best outing.
Farewell, Mr. Bunting
This filmed piece—a parody of the final “Oh captain, my captain” scene from Dead Poet’s Society — is a very, very long walk. The scene differs little from the original film, and is played incredibly straight until its startling, gross and wonderful finish. The twist is definitely worth the two-minute wait. Just prepare to cover your eyes. Often, when writers hold onto specific obsessions about movies that linger in the public consciousness, the payoffs can be great. This one feels like someone has been carrying this particular idea around for some time, waiting for a chance to stage it.
The first half of Update mulls over the N.R.A.’s endorsement of Trump, a man who echoed Obama’s pained frustration after the shooting in Newtown. Jost even likens Trump to a gun: “We think he’s going to make us feel safe and strong, but he might end up accidentally killing us.” Wary (or weary) laughter follows. Che’s take on guns and Jost’s skepticism about Trump’s imperturbable, all-caps pronouncements are also well done. Maya Rudolph drops by and charms as the embattled former president of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff. Between her credible Spanish accent and her incredible Spanish gibberish, she makes a character with almost nothing to say feel quite articulate.
The jokes in the second half are, in part, gags that were cut because Che and Jost decided they were a bit harsh. A couple are a bit mean, but none are all that rough … they earn groans nevertheless. My favorite, a jab at Jared Fogle, who is currently serving part of a 15-year sentence: “Good news for Jared’s cellmate: Jared has a ton of experience eating the same thing every day for 15 years.” Kenan Thompson wheels onto the Update set to play Che’s cheerful neighbor Willie, who is looking forward to summer despite the fact that summer means having a “sack over [his] head, wrists tied together, pee running down [his] leg, pee dripping down [his] chin.” As with all Willie bits, it’s fine but not fantastic.
In the year 2050, four crew members on a crippled space ship draw straws to see who will leave in the ship’s one escape pod. Dean (Armisen) wins. While praising the kindness and sacrifice of his fellow crew members, Dean gets distracted by the escape pod’s automated system. The computer asks increasingly more ridiculous questions as part of its pre-launch checklist — Will Dean eat during the flight? The Korean-style chicken, perhaps? Given the circumstances, Dean is embarrassed by the inanity, but still can’t resist picking his in-flight movie (City Slickers 2: The Legend of Curly’s Gold). Neither the script nor the cast belabor this one, and because it’s short and sweet and light, it works.
High School Theater Show
During this self-indulgent production, a bunch of high school kids believe they’re kicking truth to the great world beyond the doors of the school — when, in truth, they’re only boring their parents. The kids editorialize while taking on big issues, ensuring that everyone knows they are smart and sensitive (“And this whole time, none of us were white. We were Asian.”). Meanwhile, the parents cringe, grouse or just leave outright. It’s a trick, making something funny out of something everyone understands is awful, and this sketch is somewhat successful in doing so. The entire cast seems to be having fun, and that’s enough to make the overtly sophomoric writing work.
The Harkin Brothers
This is not so much a sketch as an excuse for the entire cast — including visitors Rudolph, Sudeikis, and Samberg as well as Carrie Brownstein — to don wigs and sing. An announcer (Sasheer Zamata) invites the denizens of 38th Street Community Center to enjoy the “early-’70s-style Southern rock” of the Harkin Brothers, and they play. The song tries to twist clichéd, hard-luck imagery into something more absurd — e.g., taking naps in a burned-out pickup truck and swallowing fireflies — but misses the mark. It feels as though this sketch was longer and more detailed but some chunk of it got cut for time.
Despite a head-scratcher like “The Harkin Brothers,” this is quite the send-off party and one of the best episodes in an otherwise middling season. As a whole, the cast is still searching for the hook that will make it memorable, still hoping for consistency but not really finding on it yet. And while it’s true that some of the joy of this episode is due to the reappearance of former cast members, everyone who gets airtime has at least a nice moment.