Hi! My name is Alexis Pereira. I’ve been working on sketch comedy for years, and shows I’ve written and directed have been featured in the New York Comedy Festival. I even wrote and produced a sketch web series for IFC. I’ve been a longtime SNL fan, and I’m excited to recap the show for you all.
Saturday Night Live kicks off its 47th season without many changes to the cast (with the notable exception of Beck Bennet’s departure). It’s not too surprising that people decided to stay, considering COVID has thrown a lot of uncertainty into TV and film. But I can’t help but wonder if SNL’s upcoming 50th anniversary is starting to loom large. The 40th anniversary special in 2015 was a ratings bonanza for NBC, and leaving just before the 50th must feel like getting off the dance floor right before the party starts. I also can’t imagine NBC would let their stars walk without a serious negotiation.
You can’t just leave the Island of Dr. Lorneau.
But let’s get started with the season premiere, hosted by Owen Wilson with musical guest Kacey Musgraves. Here’s the entire rundown:
- Biden Unites the Democrats (Cold Open)
- Owen Wilson Monologue
- Women’s Talk Show
- Billionaire Star Trek
- Cars 4
- School Board Meeting
- Kasey Musgraves: “Justified”
- Weekend Update (A Black Woman Who’s Been Missing for Ten Years / Pete Davidson on the Met Gala)
- Funeral Song
- Kasey Musgraves: “Camera Roll”
- NFL on Fox
- Mail-In Testing Service (10 to 1)
Biden Unites the Democrats (Cold Open)
The episode kicks off with new cast member James Austin Johnson as President Biden addressing the nation. This impression is a refreshing change from Jim Carrey’s irritating “maverick” Biden. James nails Biden’s raspy whisper, and he deftly unleashes a few really good jokes (“Broadway’s back! That’s exciting. But so is the Taliban”). However, he soon goes into the infrastructure bill and brings on Joe Manchin (played by Aidy), Kyrsten Sinema (played by Cecily), Ilhan Omar (played by Ego), and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (played by Melissa). I’ll speak more about this sketch in the post-show notes.
Owen Wilson Monologue
I can sit and listen to Owen Wilson tell stories forever, but I find this monologue a little underwhelming. It would have been nice to have his monologue interrupted by some cast members. Maybe bring out Melissa to impersonate him to his face? It just feels like a missed opportunity.
Women’s Talk Show
Ego, Heidi, Cecily, and Aidy are the four hosts of a daytime women’s talk show called The Talking. Owen Wilson interrupts them as a doctor announcing Heidi has tested positive for COVID, and he asks her some very personal details live on air. This is a reference to a real moment on The View where Sunny Hostin and Ana Navarro were whisked away from the set after a producer announced they tested positive for COVID.
Owen visits a recording studio to record his lines for Cars 4. We soon reveal Lightning McQueen is in legal trouble over dating underage cars. Owen’s discomfort with the plot puts this sketch right in his wheelhouse. But he’s not getting much from the producer played by Mikey Day, who hasn’t made a choice about how he feels about the Cars 4 script. But the sketch lifts back up when James enters as Larry the Cable Guy to read the dialogue with Owen, and we reveal Lightning McQueen has said “the R-word.” This is the strongest sketch of the night, and James is dominating his debut.
School Board Meeting
Ego and Alex are running a school board meeting broadcast over public access. When they ask the public for questions, we are greeted by a bevy of crazy characters.
There are just too many characters with similar games, and I hate when SNL splits sets so that both sides are facing a camera. I understand it makes it easier to fit everything and read off the cue cards, but you can feel the energy lag since nobody is playing off each other. They would have been better off with just one large set and focusing on fewer characters, like Kenan’s hilarious Scary Gary Lewis.
Kacey Musgraves: “Justified” and “Camera Roll”
Kacey Musgraves sings her hit song “Justified.” I loved it! No notes.
Kacey comes back out to sing “Camera Roll.” I don’t know much about her, but my girlfriend is a Musgraves superfan and claims this is a “surprising choice.”
Colin and Michael come out for “Weekend Update.” Colin reminds us that in last season’s premiere, a lot was going on. He asks us to bear with them because now, the biggest news is infrastructure. But now that they’re free from the specter of Trump’s political circus, Colin and Michael will be freer to just be funny and have fun with how bad things are going. (“The infrastructure bill has been delayed indefinitely, so I guess we’ll just cross that bridge when it collapses on top of us.”)
With Missing White Woman syndrome in the news, Ego stops by as a Black Woman Who’s Been Missing for Ten Years. This is the type of terrific cultural commentary that only SNL can do, and even Ego’s throwaway line as she’s applauded off has me cackling. (“Y’all haven’t even asked my name!”)
Colin brings on Pete Davidson to talk about his time at the Met Gala. Pete is the resident celebrity of SNL, so it’s always fun letting him come on and do some stand-up about his personal life. Pete is wearing a nice shirt memorializing the recently passed Norm Macdonald.
They end “Weekend Update” with a collection of Norm’s best “Update” jokes, which is a nice touch.
This sketch is a miss. Owen Wilson is a priest eulogizing a recently deceased grandma at a funeral, and he brings on her favorite singer, Lavar B. Burton, played by Kenan. Lavar sings grandma’s favorite song, R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly,” much to the horror of the funeral attendees. While we know R. Kelly is a bad guy, it’s almost like “I Believe I Can Fly” has transcended him. It takes way too long for the audience to make the connection that this song is supposed to be problematic because R. Kelly originally sang it.
NFL on Fox
James and Owen are Joe Buck and Troy Aikman calling a football game for Fox. But during every pause in game action, they have to promote an increasingly nutty TV show called Crazy House. It’s a lot of fun listening to James as Joe Buck struggle with the millennial-focused copy. (“Because home is where the cray cray stay.”)
Mail-in Testing Service
Andrew and Sarah are two doctors filming a commercial for their mail-in stool-testing service. This is a classic “director keeps cutting to give notes on the dialogue” sketch. Sarah and Andrew have fun energy, and Owen gets a lot of laughs calling them out. (“It feels like you play with the poop.”) A solid weird sketch to end the night.
Post-show Notes: Biden Unites the Democrats (Cold Open)
While I think all the impressions are strong, the sketch started to meander because of how little sense it made for Biden to bring on the two competing Democratic factions to argue live on air. You can often give your sketch a lift by appealing to logic.
Let’s say instead of Biden bringing out all four, Manchin and Sinema ran out to interrupt his speech and warn him that they’re not going to pass his bill. Now Biden can try to appeal to them and induce a nice back-and-forth. But here come AOC and Ilhan Omar to drag Biden back over to the left. It’s much cleaner than just walking on and standing in a line like some demented comedy beauty pageant.
This was an incredible debut for James Austin Johnson. It’s a massive deal for a featured player in his first episode to star in the opening sketch and steal several scenes throughout the show. I can see SNL leaning on him for impressions and weirder characters as the season progresses. And we haven’t even seen his incredible Trump impression, which will bring the house down.
Meanwhile, Ego Nwodim might be becoming the backbone of the cast. She deftly played the straight person in several sketches, and she flexed her comedy chops in her “Weekend Update” bit. Ego and James get my co-MVP.
This was a solid debut episode (if lackluster overall). Newer cast members like James and Sarah were mixed in immediately, and Owen Wilson’s natural comedy chops helped buoy the show. In the next few weeks, I hope we keep seeing newer performers get in the mix alongside the veterans. This will serve as a nice passing of the torch. I would love to see James, Sarah, and Aristotle bring back some of the weirdness that the show has strayed away from in recent years. I also hope we see Kate McKinnon, who was curiously absent.