Saturday Night Live
Prior to a couple of weeks ago, it seemed plausible that ascending alt-pop confection Halsey could be an SNL musical guest. An all-in-one host and musical guest combo? Much less plausible. This sort of thing happens primarily for stars that have proven their chops in both arenas, e.g. Justin Timberlake, or at least show some sort of inclination toward some thespian shit beyond music videos. But then again, Halsey did pop up in A Star Is Born. And hey, even MC Hammer did double duty back in the day. (The only plausible explanation: Parachute pants look great on camera.) Even Halsey’s dark tunes have a candy coating, but she’s got a curious backstory and a punk spirit — something likely to appeal to a formerly countercultural show like SNL.
(As a reminder, we’re ranking these sketches in order of excellence.)
The Update guys find the Virginia blackface scandal irresistible this week, talking about the racist yearbook photo and what they call “the least accurate Michael Jackson costume possible.” Better jokes come when they move onto topics including the State of the Union. “President Trump began his speech with his tie crooked in his jacket,” says Jost. “While Mike Pence’s tie was so straight it makes me suspicious.” The first half caps off with Melissa Villaseñor, who ostensibly arrives to give Grammy predictions. The fact that she’s dressed like Lady Gaga and singing Lady Gaga is not about cramming in her impression, it’s just coincidence. It’s great she found the excuse; her rendition is sharp and nails some well-observed Gaga physical and vocal tics.
The second chunk has a handful of jokes, including one about a brawl that broke out in a nursing home in Canada over bingo: “It’s the first brawl that began with everybody in critical condition.” Most of the time is taken by two guest features, including one by Mikey Day and Heidi Gardner as cute Instagram couple Brie Bacardi and Nico Slobkin. Their feed, “Once Upon a Snuggle,” belies a longterm relationship that has hardened into a pattern of jealousy, revenge, and forgiveness. He has to cheer her up by doing a Shrek impression and convincing her he doesn’t want to sleep with Halsey. She defends having had sex with his friend Ryan (“I was buzzed!”) and sings him “I Want It That Way.” It’s disturbing and excellent. Alex Moffat appears as his recurring character “The Guy Who Just Bought a Boat,” the fast-talking douche full of sexy double entendres and abbrevs. Moffat’s smarmy performance is winning and the writing is tight — especially with fewer references to the guy’s dick size.
A trio of ladies (Kate McKinnon, Aidy Bryant, and Halsey) present this instructive Valentine’s Day jam that encourages all attentions from friends, family, and acquaintances to wait until February 15, at least. One receives a Valentine from mom right when she’s preparing to get it on with her man. One is given a big, pink bear right from her boss just as she gets dick pics from her significant other. And the third gets a card from her son that reads, “Baby, I can’t wait for tonight” — because he knows they’re going to eat cake. Interspersed throughout, Kenan Thompson asks all extraneous loved ones and acquaintances to “stand down,” because V-Day is for lovers. It’s a nice throwback to a friendlier era of R&B. Every beat of the scene plays well, and Thompson kills his incredibly tiny moments.
With this series, the producers of Empire ask the question: “What if Donald Trump was black?” In this second visit to the black Trump clan, Darius Trump (Thompson) is doing his best to dodge his scandals before the State of the Union. Meanwhile, his family Malika (Leslie Jones), Darius Jr. (Chris Redd), L’evanka (Ego Nwodim), and a Trump adviser (Halsey) pepper him with questions about Russia, Robert Mueller, and the failed Trump Perm Academy. Nothing will deter Trump — that is, until the limo they’re all riding in is pulled over by a white cop. Despite the fact that he is the president, as he’s yanked out of the vehicle, he prepares his handlers to “record it for World Star.” It’s a quick but funny bit that’s unfortunately not far enough from the truth.
Now that Virginia’s governor and attorney general have admitted to wearing blackface, a VA statesman (Thompson) asks fellow legislators whether they, too, have tried it. The admissions start with Glen (Pete Davidson), who dressed as Mr. T. Tom (Beck Bennett) wonders if blackface is okay if it’s just “part of a costume,” as another lawmaker (Kyle Mooney) asks whether it’s okay when it’s just an homage to a hero — in his case, Al Jolson. There’s talk of winning a contest for “Blackest Face,” appearing at a party as “fat Al Sharpton” and dressing up as “both Michael Jacksons” and calling it biracial. Eventually, the only black man in the room exits “before I lose my damn mind.” The relentless stupidity of the white legislators is a nice exaggeration and the specifics are great.
An architect’s big meeting with clients gets interrupted by a call from mom and dad (Halsey and Bennett). How’s he liking the new grill they bought him? Also, they don’t want to be a bother, but dad shattered all the bones in his legs. They hang up, but the architect (Mikey Day) can’t let it go there. He calls back, finding out that mom was shot several times while running across a shooting range, there’s a hole in the family’s living room floor, and so much more. And no, the architect doesn’t particularly want to talk about his love life. After a while, the architect’s clients (Villaseñor and Redd) are too emotionally involved to let go, and ask to put the parents on speakerphone. Those who know a good passive-aggressive parental guilt trip will find it a little too relatable.
Over dinner, Maurice (Thompson) confesses to his wife (Jones), daughter (Nwodim), son (Redd), and his son’s girlfriend (Halsey) that he’s working as a model on CamFansOnly. “Its for Thirsty gays who spread their buttcheeks online for $10 a month,” the girlfriend says. Yes, but … he does it because he feels beautiful and in control of his body. He has enough subscribers that strangers in the restaurant approach to tell him how much they liked the video of him pushing his ass into a cake. Maurice is making so much money, his wife can almost forgive him for getting up on the countertop and using her best hand towel. “I’ve been drying my dishes with your ass towel?” she cries. Once his image appears on the CamFansOnly website, everyone is thrilled. In a way, it’s a plea for tolerance and acceptance wrapped up in a few ass-towel jokes.
While filming a scene from the season finale of Riverdale, Betty (Halsey) visits the morgue with Jughead (Bennett) to identify her cousin’s body. They shoot the scene, and the body starts moaning. The extra playing the body is Lionel Rogers (Pete Davidson), a man who studied up on corpses and says that any accurate depiction would include the sound of gas leaving the dead body. Every take, he’s making odd noises or convulsing, much to the chagrin of the director (Thompson). The actors seem to dig Rogers’ dedication to the craft, so even the director has to step down after a while. This is a perfectly silly 10-to-1 that also gives Davidson room to play broad and goofy — it’s not something he does a lot of, but he does it well here.
Three pledges (Villseñor, Halsey, and Strong) descend on a karaoke bar and jump onstage to sing 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up.” It isn’t just for fun; it’s part of a list of challenges they have to complete in order to be accepted by their sorority. The male bar patrons anticipate that they might enjoy kisses or body shots with the girls. The patrons get disappointed. Some of the challenges include pushing one guy’s dinner onto the floor, cutting another guy’s hair off, and calling one guy’s parents to tell them their son is a Scientologist. After all this, the senior member of the sorority wasn’t watching, so they have to do it all again. Watching this sketch turn an expected cuteness into derangement is pretty delightful.
Black History Presentation
This tribute to SNL’s black performers begins earnestly with Jones, Thompson, Redd, and Nwodim. It becomes something different when Kyle Mooney shows up. He wants to “lend his support,” and goes on about why comedy is color-blind and how revolutionary Sidney Poitier really was. Beck Bennett comes onstage, ostensibly to correct his friend’s well-meaning but tone-deaf ramblings. Soon, however, the two white guys are trying to see who can reference the most black performers and digging deep enough to stump Redd. (“Who is Beverly Johnson?”) When they get called out for Googling names just to impress their black friends, Bennett and Mooney are thrilled: “We have black friends!” It works both as a tribute and as a gag.
Meet the Press Cold Open
As Jeff Bezos deals with blackmail from the National Enquirer’s parent company, Chuck Todd (Mooney) and his panel deal with questions of privacy, influence of foreign powers, and what Bezos’ peen looks like. Okay, mostly, they’re thinking about the peen. Peggy Noonan (Strong) is sure it’s “small potatoes,” while Eugene Robinson (Thompson) is convinced its closer to the shape of an Amazon Echo. Meanwhile, Donna Brazile (Jones) is just confused about everything. Then Wilbur Ross (McKinnon) swoops in to talk about what it’s like to switch dicks with a homeless man, and Matthew Whitaker (Bryant) gives an exit interview. Mostly, though, it’s about Bezos’ peen — so if you didn’t get enough Bezos peen jokes this week, you’re good.
Women of Congress
After the State of the Union, in which many of the women of Congress wore white, it’s clear they must be some sort of massive, superheroic crimefighting organization. Nancy “Madame Clap Back” Pelosi (McKinnon) leads a team that includes Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (Villaseñor), Maxine Waters (Jones), Kyrsten Sinema (Strong), Ilhan Omar (Nwodim), Annie Kuster (Bryant), Abigail Spanberger (Gardner) and Rashida Tlaib (Halsey). While it may not be a dynamic sketch, it’s visually playful and a nice nod to the growing number of women in Congress.
Halsey gives America this intro: “Whenever you scream at your daughter to turn down that angsty music, that’s me.” She also talks about her home state of New Jersey and that though she may not look like an Ashley Nicolette Frangiapanni, that’s her given name. That’s it. It’s abridged, presumably because everyone agreed to spell it out quickly and give more time to sketches and songs. Halsey does a pretty fun Jersey mom in there, though.
Halsey exceeded expectations by far, giving charismatic performances as a musician and a comic. She leapt from sorority girl to mom with ease, and made it clear she understood the tone and pacing of sketch comedy. Weekend Update’s features were uniformly great, and it’s always exciting to see the talented Villaseñor get time and space to do what she does well. Much of the topical material was kind of a wash, but it hardly mattered. The cast and writers all seemed to be having fun this week, and it showed. Next week is live, too, with host (and Black Monday star) Don Cheadle.