As the glowing profiles will tell you, 2018 is the year of Awkwafina, a.k.a. Nora Lum. The rapper-turned-actress more than held her own in Ocean’s 8 and, more importantly, gave sweet raunch as the best friend in this summer’s hit Crazy Rich Asians. SNL surely had to invite someone from the movie to host, and though it’s not Constance Wu, Awkwafina’s exuberant delivery and improvisational skills are probably more suited to antics of 8H anyway. It’s really too bad SNL didn’t reserve time for her to rap: With genuine sincerity, I invite you to enjoy “My Vag.” It’s Awkwafina’s 2012 viral hit, and is a delight.
Brett Kavanaugh Post-Game Cold Open
With Supreme Court hopeful Brett Kavanaugh confirmed (and immediately sworn in), CNN visits an ecstatic party in the Republican locker room. “A lot of pacemakers being put to the test tonight,” says Mitch McConnell (Beck Bennett, bunching his neck into a cascade of folded flesh). Lindsey Graham (Kate McKinnon) thanks “the male Lord” that Mike Pence didn’t have to break a tie, and Susan Collins (Cecily Strong) tells people she’d rather not make it about her while making it about her: “It’s important to believe women, until it’s time to stop,” she says. Meanwhile, on the Democratic side, Chuck Schumer (Alex Moffat) sums things up: “Well, the Dems lost another one, it’s what we do now.” It’s all mighty depressing, and Republicans’ gloating probably isn’t far from the truth.
During this short and sweet intro, Awkwafina delivers her bona fides and a bit of her background: She’s from Queens, she’s less a crazy, rich Asian than a “rebuilding my credit Asian,” and otherwise is just the standard “Asian trumpet player-turned-rapper-turned actor.” She also gives props to Lucy Liu, the first Asian-American woman to host back in 2000, who helped convince Awkwafina that such SNL dreams were achievable. These jokes aren’t remarkable, but all of the material feels carefully tailored to her, and they’re delivered with a calm confidence that gives a good sense of her persona.
Two rival crews face off for an epic dance off in the back alleys of Brooklyn. While Baby Tooth (McKinnon) and her pals (Redd, Day, and Ego Nwodim) get to business to standard street jams, Tiny Biggs (Awkwafina) and her dancers (Thompson and Leslie Jones) make magic while the The Price Is Right theme plays. Then they bust moves to the Family Feud music. Finally, Tiny Biggs’ crew bests their rivals with the help of Lil Bang Bang (Travis Scott), who pop locks to the “Final Jeopardy” tune. While there aren’t a lot of scripted jokes here, the physical aspect of the scene is a nice change-up and the crowd loves it.
This commercial parody considers the new Presidential Alert texts, the first of which arrived on most smartphones this week. A cross section of Americans begin to receive many texts in short order, which inform them of things such as “Puerto Rico is fine now. I guess the paper towels worked,” and “Warning: White men are under attack.” Eventually, as confused phone owners get fed up with political, useless, or outright insane messages from the commander-in-chief, they throw away their phones. That’s when the real subject of the ad is revealed: Cricket Wireless didn’t deliver these messages to their users. Though the premise is the obvious take on Trump’s impulsive behavior (and similar gags were all over Twitter), the twist is still funny.
The Hidden Tales of Egypt
In ancient Egypt, Cleopatra (Strong) welcomes her beauticians Isis, Xerxes, and Becky (Awkwafina, Thompson, and McKinnon). These image assistants are catty and sassy, but they’re ready to deliver Cleo a new look that will make her proud of having her image on thousands of vases. “Bury my organs in lots of little jars because I am dead,” Isis says after seeing Cleo’s dramatic new eyebrows. “This is your look for everything: errands, brunch, executions.” Caesar (Moffat) shows up too, dismissing the Queen’s appearance and thereby turning her on. There are a couple of fun turns of phrase that incorporate standard ideas about the Egyptians, but it doesn’t take long to see that’s really all the sketch has going for it.
Ted Cruz Rally
With the senatorial race between Beto O’Rourke and Ted Cruz neck-and-neck, Cruz (Bennett) jumps onstage at a rally in an attempt to rouse his voters. The Republican has trouble with his mic, his confetti cannon, even his dab (during which he gives himself a nosebleed). Not even his hype squad (Awkwafina and Thompson) can save him. Given how little that his fellow legislators like him, this Charlie Brown side of Cruz is a nice twist. Bennett’s a solid player, but impressions aren’t his strong suit; this sketch might feel a bit more rewarding if the impression were a bit sharper.
The first half of Update take some solid swings at Brett Kavanaugh and the confirmation process. “He basically lied under oath at a job interview to become a judge,” says Colin Jost. “That’s like cheating on your wife during your wedding.” They doctor a wonderfully brief Law & Order episode to simulate Kavanaugh’s F.B.I. investigation. Michael Che wonders if the women who voted for him are “hostages,” and feels sure that “If a white lady in Tens can’t get justice, there’s no hope for my black ass in Jordans.” Then, Eric and Donald Trump Jr. (Moffat and Day) return to talk about the upcoming midterms. While Jr. tries to talk about his dad and the ostensible “blue wave,” he also distracts a blabbing Eric with a puppet. The formula for this bit is well established by now, and though it still has its moments, the returns are diminishing.
There are several fun gags in Update’s second half, in which Che uses Trump’s own words to defend the idea of felons voting in Florida. Jost also talks about a new whiskey inspired by Game of Thrones: “Whiskey so strong, you’ll forget she’s your aunt.” Then, Pete Davidson comes on to talk about what happened after the cameras stopped rolling last week, when Kanye wore a MAGA hat and rambled about politics while the cast waited onstage. From the outset, as Davidson talks about whether he or Che should address this issue, it’s amazing: “Che’s black and I’m crazy, and we both know what side of Kanye is at the wheel right now.” Though Kanye may feel he’s avoiding meds in order to show off his authentic self, Davidson says this: “Being mentally ill is not an excuse to act like a jackass. I’m quoting my therapist, my mom, and my mailman.” He concludes by donning a “Make Kanye 2006 Again” hat.
So You’re Willing to Date a Magician
On this game show, Tracy (Awkwafina) talks about the dates she had with four magicians: the card trick master Marconius Wilde (Thompson), escape artist Henry Van Dazzle (Mooney), endurance artist Dante Raven (Davidson), and one-half of a brother-sister team, Justin Byrd (Moffat). Tracy describes a series of sad dates in which the magicians tried to pump up their bruised egos and show her a good time at middling restaurants such as Chili’s. (Raven, for his part, asks if he can pay the tab by “running a sewing needle through his testicles.”) Eventually, Tracy sidesteps all the sad (and in one case, incestuous) behavior by choosing none of the bachelors. The premise is right in the title, which is already funny, and the scene more than fulfills its promise with lots of fun specifics and odd little moments.
Though Carrie (Strong) is at a bridal shower for a friend (Gardner), she invites her dogwalker Didi (Awkwafina) to join. Everyone gets riled up when Didi feels the group is taunting Carrie about her lack of significant other and children. Didi pumps Carrie’s ego, then demands all the decorations come down and all babies get moved to another room. Eventually, the selfish and vain Carrie calms down when one of her friends points her to an old email Carrie deleted, which was an invite to go on a date with a cute guy friend. The concept and the performances from Strong and Awkwafina are all really interesting, but something about this sketch doesn’t quite click.
The Pumpkin Patch
In this filmed piece, the owner of a pumpkin patch (Day) confronts three of his employees (Awkwafina, Mooney, and Bennett) about some disturbing information: Some of the pumpkins were humped and tossed in the dumpster. The guys confess to doing the deed on what was “kind of a horny night in general,” but it’s clear they’re still fantasizing about boning gourds. The owner still has to fire all of them, but as a consolation prize, he fills up their hatchback with a load of pumpkins. “The more orange the skin,” he tells them, “The softer it is inside.” The whole exercise is odd and awkward, but it’s worth it to see the pumpkins beckon these hapless guys while they’re being chastised.
A roundtable of women including Marion Cotillard (Strong), Allison Janney (Gardner), Sandra Oh (Awkwafina), and the inimitable star of yesteryear Debette Goldry (McKinnon) consider the state of women in Hollywood as the #MeToo movement moves forward. Of course, Goldry has no time to talk about the petty business of harassment when the real issues are much scarier: “They need to stop using our fingerprints when the commit party murders!” She also can’t see what the problem is about multi-ethnic representation in film. “There were plenty of parts for Asian gals in the 1940s,” she says, “And I played all of them.” As usual, this sketch is a McKinnon showcase, and she doesn’t disappoint.
Awkwafina comes across as entirely likable and she certainly stands on her own two feet, but she doesn’t deliver the sort of dynamic, articulated moments that, say, Tiffany Haddish or Melissa McCarthy did during their SNL hosting debuts. This week, some premises felt a little canned or askew, and though there were winning ideas including “So You’re Willing to Date a Magician,” there were more misses than hits. Update was solid this week, though, and closing with Kate McKinnon is always a good idea. Next week, Seth Meyers hosts.