As people are talking about Oscars for both Marriage Story and Jojo Rabbit this year, it’s worth remembering that Scarlett Johansson is constantly looking for projects that show her range. True, the projects she chooses don’t always reflect a diversity of actors (see the Rub & Tug hubbub) or honor the source material (see the Ghost in the Shell brouhaha) but that’s a different issue. As far as comedy is concerned, she does naturalistic, subtle, slice-of-life work equally as well as she does broad and goofy. Of course, SNL will always let her indulge the latter. This time around, which marks Johansson’s sixth time hosting, the bigger, bolder stuff wins out.
As usual, this week’s sketches are presented here in order from best to worst.
American Households Cold Open
Through the magic of hacking Nest cameras, the whimsical old snowman from the 1964 Rankin-Bass Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (Aidy Bryant) eavesdrops on holiday dinner conversations. In San Francisco, white liberals cheer on the impeachment hearings; in Charleston, white conservatives cheer on Trump; and in Atlanta, black folks wonder whether Bad Boys 3 is going to be any good. Most of the punchlines emerge from the Atlanta household, but each conversation offers clever ideas about politics as it plays out in average American households. Then Greta Thunberg (Kate McKinnon) bursts in with a doomsday prediction. This sketch is in the same vein as the Dave Chappelle–Chris Rock sketch “Election Night,” in that it views the minutiae of electoral politics as the purview of a privileged few who imagine themselves part of something bigger. It’s another smart alternative to simply setting the open in the Capitol.
Hallmark Dating Show
Busy city girl Lauren (Johansson) must marry one of three bachelor contestants: Brian (Beck Bennett), who works at a Christmas tree farm, Prince Simon of Caucasia (Alex Moffat), and Nick (Kyle Mooney), who swears up and down he isn’t Santa despite some incriminating details. Lauren can’t figure out the best option, but if she doesn’t choose by Christmas, the holiday is canceled “and the killer goes free.” This sketch doesn’t just parody the conceits that make these movies feel exactly the same, it prods the producers who pander to an adoring straight, white, Christian audience. Though there are a couple of moments that don’t hit, it’s carefully observed and the perky tone (delivered with tongue firmly in cheek) is perfect.
The usual elves of Santa Land step aside so that two other people who “work at the mall and fit the costumes” can present some of their own seasonal songs. Donna Duprese and Wondress Williams (Johansson and Kenan Thompson) kick out dance jams about Santa coming down the chimney ass-first, Mrs. Claus giving away her “cookie” to the elves, and the joys of cocaine. While it’s a little disturbing for some parents in the audience, one enthusiastic guy (Beck Bennett) catches the performers’ Todrick Hall vibe and gets everyone else onboard. ScarJo and Thompson give the short-and-sweet numbers a steady bounce, and Bowen Yang steals the scene in his walk-on as the songwriter recalling his late-night writing session high on “kruh-kraine.” Bonus points for the mugging extras and the continued trend of characters who witness a weird thing and are strangely okay with it.
A boss (Beck Bennett) brings out two employees being fired for harassment and asks them to apologize to the office staff for their improper behavior. VP of Sales Linda (Johansson) made comments about her co-workers’ short skirts and asked the one Asian employee where he was really from; Charlie at the front desk (Kenan Thompson) told just about everybody he wanted to “break off a little piece of that,” while grinning madly, and calls the Asian guy “Kung Fu.” Still, everyone loves Charlie. This framework and Charlie have both been used before, and this beat doesn’t diverge from the original all that much, but Thompson’s gleeful performance makes it sing. His jubilant and seemingly guileless Charlie is easy to watch even if his repertoire is limited. In particular, the Grinch bit is great.
A Conway Marriage Story
This Marriage Story parody plays on the first scene of the movie, in which the husband and wife talk (or don’t) about why they love the other person. Here, the couples’ therapist (Johansson) helps George and Kellyanne Conway (Beck Bennett, Kate McKinnon) figure out how to survive when one defends Trump while the other denigrates him. Most of the examples of love are ironic, as when Kellyanne praises George’s ability to “tell me what he thinks of me to my face” before he tweets about Trump employees being demons at dinner. This fantasy is for anyone following the Conways’ relationship from a distance who has undoubtedly wondered how on Earth the two of them make it work when their public personas are so at odds. It’s creepy and surely must have some truth to it — perhaps especially the idea that politics inspires wild sex between them?
Children’s Clothing Ad
Adult blazers and cashmere sweaters are on sale at Macy’s, but more importantly, there are discounts on kids’ clothes. Shoppers save on sweaters that “won’t fit over his head,” jackets so big the kids no longer fit in their carseats, and snow boots that are so difficult to put on “it’ll strain your marriage.” Even for those of us who have only witnessed toddler meltdowns and abject parental frustration, this feels pretty accurate. The wife-husband row between Heidi Gardner and Mikey Day, which keeps interrupting the commercial voiceover, is particularly good. Kudos to the editor who found a moment to quietly place a Macy’s red star in front of Kate McKinnon’s crotch as she crawls after a wayward child missing a piece of clothing.
Scarlett Johansson Holiday Monologue
Johansson isn’t worried about hosting SNL for the sixth time, until people start to disappear like Thanos’s victims in Avengers: Infinity War. What follows is a solid series of self-referential gags about SNL players — e.g., Pete Davidson’s frequent absences — as well as internet rage, NBC’s new streaming service, and Marvel movies. Kenan Thompson gets a nice spot as Samuel L. Jackson (as Nick Fury), and it’s revealed that Davidson has just been backstage playing with the Infinity Gauntlet. It’s a fast and furious burst of jokes, plus, Colin Jost gets put in his place by a partner who makes much more money than him. It’s one of the better opening monologues in a while.
Impeachment is on the Update anchors’ minds, and Michael Che makes the most obvious point in a playful way: Trump being removed by the old white guys in the Senate is like “Obama being removed from office by the Wu-Tang Clan.” And now that nothing matters, Che encourages Dems to stop playing by the rules, up to and including Kamala Harris robbing a bank to help fuel her campaign. Che tortures Jost by comparing Jost to Bill Cosby, and then Bowen Yang returns as fab Chinese trade rep Chen Biao. (Of the Chinese stealing American intellectual property, he says, “Nobody needs your idea for a CBD lip gloss, Ainsley.”) The material is a bit thinner this time, but Yang’s precision and exuberance are undeniable.
The stray jokes in Update’s second half involve Harvey Weinstein and the new iHop casual restaurant for those who found iHop “just way too formal.” The best gag addresses the One Million Moms boycott of the Hallmark Channel after a commercial featuring a gay kiss: “If your kid is watching the Hallmark Channel, he’s already gay as hell.” Then Kyle Mooney comes on as internet celeb Baby Yoda. He knows he’s been killing it: He has a squad, a stand-up special, and an enemy in Baby Groot. Just the notion of Baby Yoda come to life will be enough for some fans, but the twist feels a bit obvious.
I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus
In this version of the holiday hit, a little girl (Cecily Strong) discovers not only her mommy kissing Santa Claus, but her daddy watching, too. From there, things get weirder: There’s some choking, money, and Santa flying off in his Nissan Altima. As traumatic as the events seem at first, the girl heads upstairs for a quiet moment of reflection in bed. This really is a fun play on not just the song but the ’50s perspective from which it sprung. Making it into a kind of public service announcement for kink is not the most obvious joke, something for which the writers deserve credit.
Out for dinner at La Grille, a couple is worried about hanging out at the bar in front of the safety poster on the wall. Really, talking about this one ruins its big, early twist, so suffice it to say that chefs of every stripe line up for selfies and eventually turn into a mob of demanding sycophants who just want a piece of their kitchen gods. There isn’t much interesting about the couple themselves, but the premise is funny, the unsettling back-of-house crowd is great, and the costume and hair departments deliver. Given the specificity of the reference, it’s probably going to play best in New York.
Hot Tub Christmas
A couple (Chris Redd, Ego Nwodim) sinks into the hot tub at the Radisson after hours, only to be met with the ghosts of two strippers (Johansson, Cecily Strong) who drowned in the tub in the ’70s. They’re less interested in delivering life lessons than they are singing about how they died — a series of events involving quaaludes, a game of chicken, and an assist from horny Big Jim (musical guest Niall Horan). The sketch can’t quite live up to the promise of its extremely silly premise, which partly has to with the story-song itself. Though it has a nice ’70s groove to it, the pacing keeps the sketch at a languid pace and some of the laugh lines get lost.
Reps from InnoTech (Johansson, Kyle Mooney, Mikey Day) hold another demonstration of their groundbreaking technology that helps dogs — and in particular, the female scientist’s pug, Max — speak their thoughts in English. The conservative Max spends his time trolling the liberal funders and scientists about Trump killing it, while goading his owner about her terrible behavior. Unfortunately, now that the surprise of a Trump-loving pug is gone, Max feels like just a troll. Writers heaped on the dog cliches and asshole attitude last time, and there isn’t much more to go on here. Oddly, the former Max (sadly suffering in his gigantic helmet) was a funnier dog.
As Johansson tells the crowd at the top of the show, it’s her sixth time and she’s completely at ease. (“What are they gonna do, fire my fiancée? What will we do without his paycheck?”) Many of the best sketches owe their success to smart writing rather than any wild performances from Johansson, but she anchors all of her scenes with a touch of emotional honesty that most hosts would never be able to locate. The cold open once again benefits from looking at politics somewhere outside of the Oval Office, and having several nonwhite SNL scribes helps here, too. Next week is the one we’ve all been waiting for: Eddie Murphy returns to 8H after 35 years. The comedy climate is much different now, so it’ll be fascinating to how safe Murphy and the writers decide to play it.