A familiar face had a welcome homecoming on SNL this weekend, just in time for Halloween. Maybe it was a bit expected, given the time of year, but having this character back on the show was an utter delight: more nourishing than a 2 a.m. tiny box of Milk Duds, and more of a relief than taking off a too-tight Catwoman costume before tumbling into bed. I’m talking, of course, about the long-awaited return of Cecily Strong, who has been out on theatrical leave for the entire season thus far.
Oh, and David S. Pumpkins was also back for the first time since his 2016 debut.
It’s not merely that Strong is a deft impressionist and dulcet songbird with some recurring characters to boot. She’s also a reliably funny utility player, a ten-year veteran who brings more legacy and continuity to a cast largely full of folks still establishing themselves. Her presence in nearly every sketch this week may have been an intentional effort to hammer home her reemergence, but more likely it was just because when you have Cecily Strong on hand for your sketch show, by God, you put her in as much of it as possible. Welcome back, queen.
Making his center-stage debut was previous musical guest Jack Harlow, who followed Megan Thee Stallion’s October 15 turn, marking the first-ever back-to-back double-duty hosts in the show’s history. Harlow is a southern rapper with a cool-sounding name who, in just a couple of years, became so popular that a pair of referees went viral during the Eastern Conference finals last spring for not being aware of him. Beyond his breezy confidence, there does not seem to be much obvious material for the writers to hang on the hitmaker. He has no “Hot Girl Summer”–type branding to speak of, for instance. However, Harlow’s opening monologue used a series of savage internet roasts about the rapper to introduce him as someone with a sense of humor about himself who can deliver funny lines without betraying any awareness that what he’s saying is funny — even as the studio audience cracks up. That first impression proved accurate throughout the episode. No wonder he booked the Woody Harrelson role in an upcoming remake of White Men Can’t Jump with his first-ever movie audition.
In an interview with Variety last year, Harlow spoke openly about operating out of a place of fear. “Every time I sit courtside at these games or go to the Met Gala or maybe the Grammys,” he said, “what’s in my head is, I’ve gotta be here next year. I don’t want this to be the last time.” Based on his performance on the show, not to mention the chart performance of his songs recently, this won’t be the last time he hosts SNL.
Now, on to the highlights.
Extreme repetition is a dicey gamble in sketch comedy. (See: “The Story of Everest” from Mr. Show for a master class in execution.) It requires that something be funny at first, then unfunny, and then funny again — although it’s just a little too easy to get stuck at step two. So, it’s kind of miraculous that pretty much every one of the 14 uses of the words “dressed like Joker” in the first two minutes here lands. (Especially when Andrew Dismukes’s Ledger-loving best man manages to cram extra ‘o’s into “Joker.”) From its silly premise to its bizarre voting turn to the random cameo from Jeff Probst, this sketch proved a solid tone-setter for a weird episode.
What’s the protocol for comedically covering the sad grotesquerie of Kanye West, whose brazen antisemitism has inspired a trend of neo-Nazis publicly celebrating him? There’s a danger in giving his hateful words more oxygen, but there’s also a danger of leaving money on the joke table by ignoring one of the biggest cultural stories of the moment. SNL wisely homes in on one aspect of the whole debacle — companies cutting ties with Kanye — and even more wisely makes fun of those companies just as much as the entrepreneurial pariah himself. An extended “Weekend Update” bit riffs on TJ Maxx severing ties with Kanye, despite nobody being aware of their partnership in the first place, to link several other unlikely partners to the rapper. (I would have definitely sought out a TCBY in 2012 to order the “Nougats in Pretzels” from the Kanye menu.) The Skechers digital short, however, was easily the most inspired sketch of the night. It starts with some spokespeople breaking their arms to pat themselves on the back for turning down Ye’s feeble stab at a partnership earlier in the week. They seem to be making the most of their moral high ground. The shoe-shillers then proceed to spend several minutes reflecting on how cool it makes them look to turn down someone who, up until recently, was one of the biggest stars on the planet. It’s a complicated commentary on brand perception, and it’s probably an accurate depiction of certain Skechers Slack threads throughout the week.
Just as getting immediately turned down by Skechers shows how far Kanye West has fallen, it says a lot about where Pixar is these days that the movie Jack Harlow pitches in this sketch sounds right in the company’s lane. One can easily picture dead-eyed parents wishing they never had to hear “Pack Yourself With Love” ever again, and having that wish be futile.
David Pumpkins Returns
If Tom Hanks’s appearance in the AA sketch wasn’t enough of a tip-off that this was happening, the return of Bobby Moynihan’s Drunk Uncle during “Weekend Update” cinched it. The man, the myth, the legend: David S. Pumpkins is back, baby. Admittedly, this outing was so much of a retread, it was almost a straight-up remake of the original juggernaut, which nabbed 23 million YouTube views and spawned an animated Halloween special. However, there were just enough fresh touches — an Ibizan backstory, some onboard attendees — to justify its existence. Should they have left well enough alone? Probably. Is it still funny to see those goofy smiles accompanying those goofy dance moves all these years later? No question.
It might be a little insulting to Whoopi Goldberg to build an entire sketch around the iconic EGOT being horny for Jack Harlow. You’d have to ask Whoopi herself about that. What this brief sketch is really about, though, is the joy of seeing Ego Nwodim’s impeccable impression combined with Sarah Sherman’s cackling take on Joy Behar. (Sherman inherits the role from Kate McKinnon.) There’s a lot of potential here, and it will be fun to see where they go with it.
• Although the Skechers ad was an inventive way to handle topical material, this week’s cold open was less successful. It’s a straightforward, barely exaggerated depiction of three ridiculous Republican candidates for Senate, all of whom may still eke out midterm wins. More depressingly realistic than funny.
• Jack Harlow as Frat Guy Dressed As Giant Tampon in the Post-Halloween Red Carpet Special looks unmistakably like Justin Timberlake in those “Bring it on down to whateverville” sketches. A stealth callback to the monologue joke about how Harlow looks as if someone drew Timberlake from memory?
• I could have watched many more minutes of Drunk Uncle doing a TikTok dance sarcastically.
• Congratulations to whoever picked the perfect song — “Unholy,” by Sam Smith and Kim Petras — for that bartenders sketch, and congrats to the abbreviation “cockt” for hitting the big-time.
• I will forever associate David Pumpkins with the 2016 election, since that episode arrived just before President-elect Donald Trump did. However, sketches like this week’s cold open and the 2024 horror-movie trailer are reminders of how SNL has changed since that era. Instead of host Tom Hanks assuring viewers that things will soon return to normal, the show now seems to reflect the idea that if political normality ever even existed, we’ll probably never see it again.