Saturday Night Live Recap: Keegan-Michael Key Delivers a Muppet Beatdown

Saturday Night Live

Keegan-Michael Key
Season 46 Episode 19
Editor’s Rating 3 stars

Saturday Night Live

Keegan-Michael Key
Season 46 Episode 19
Editor’s Rating 3 stars
Photo: Will Heath/NBC

As Keegan-Michael Key is working on the upcoming musical parody series Schmigadoon! with Cecily Strong and Fred Armisen, as well as executive producer Lorne Michaels, there’s an easy tie-in for this first-time host. But the challenge with inviting a sketch-comedy king like Key to helm the show is figuring out how to utilize what he does well without becoming a pale imitation of the things he’s done in the past. It would be weird, if not downright copyright infringement, to write a second beat of Key & Peele’s “Substitute Teacher,” or to replace Jordan Peele with Kenan Thompson for a beat of MadTV’s “Man Up” sketch. Still, something like this might have been nice. The writers don’t find much that really plays to Key’s strengths, so he ends up making lots of boner puns and giving puppets beatdowns.

As usual, this week’s sketches are presented here ranked from best to worst.

Weekend Update

Update” starts by looking at the CDC lifting of mask mandates, and Republican responses to a few different phenomena. Michael Che’s emphatic delivery makes jokes about post-COVID erectile dysfunction and Liz Cheney work particularly well. (They’re also good jokes, with smart points to make, so that helps.) Colin Jost has a couple of nice moments about the new things people will be ready to try post-COVID, and IBM’s new microchip. The hosts don’t even try to wade into the situation in Israel, perhaps in part chastened by audience responses to an Israel-focused joke a few weeks ago. Then Liz Cheney (Kate McKinnon) comes on to talk about her ouster, and the ostensibly bright future of her renegade Republican party. The take on Cheney, as a formerly popular Republican trying hard to bolster her confidence, is nicely focused, and McKinnon’s nasal monotone indicates a perfect disconnection — especially while she dismisses her (gay) sister.

The two remaining segments of “Update” jokes are fairly short, though Che has a nice bit about a name change for Uncle Ben’s rice and a cutting joke about the fate of a weapons stash discovered on a boat in the Arabian Sea. Then Andrew Dismukes comes on for his first “Update” feature to talk about his great-grandmother, in a leisurely, discursive monologue that feels like a few stand-up bits stitched together. It goes on too long, but Dismukes is calmly confident and his material is not without its charms. And finally, horse trainer Bob Baffet (Beck Bennett) comes on to defend Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit, despite the positive drug test. While trying to make himself look credible, Bennett’s mush-mouthed creep still recounts the horse birth by saying, “He fell out of his mother’s hole, and then I got right in his face and said, ‘Run, you little bitch.’” It’s an unsettling character, well done.

No More Masks Cold Open

With much confusion surrounding the CDC’s relaxed masking rules, Anthony Fauci (Kate McKinnon) and the “CDC Players” set things straight. Sorta. In a series of scenes about how to behave in various public settings, bar owners agree they deserve COVID, flight attendants bang passengers, and one woman touts the immunity granted her by being a lesbian. It’s fun to see an open with the full cast as an ensemble, and each of the scenarios have a nice ironic twist or two. McKinnon’s skilled impression makes her more than just an emcee here; she brings a world-weary but amused Fauci who just happens to have a few zingers waiting. And Freudian-slip lovers, listen closely as McKinnon subs in “fucks” for “folks” after watching the airplane sex scene.

The Muppet Show

Before Kermit (Kyle Mooney) and Lily Tomlin (Melissa Villaseñor) can kick off this episode of The Muppet Show, hecklers Waldorf (Mikey Day) and Statler (Beck Bennett) get warned by security guys (Kenan Thompson, Key) to knock off the heckling. They don’t, and it gets ugly. Making jokes about jokes is always odd, but Key and Thompson bring the right kind of over-the-top energy to make even cartoonish Muppets look tame by comparison. Unsurprisingly, their partnership is excellent. The sketch’s best moment comes after Statler’s beat down; Thompson breaks as the puppet sports black eyes and Waldorf looks visibly shaken. Villaseñor’s Tomlin is worth singling out — the tone, cadence, and attitude are all very well done — but Mooney, Bennett, and Day are also solid. No idea what kind of legal wrangling was required to bring the Muppets to NBC, though.

Prom Show

Like any good awards-ceremony pre-show hosts, the student journalists of Tamar Braxton High School (Bowen Yang, Heidi Gardner, Key) cover arrivals, wardrobe, gossip and more. Unlike last week’s “Millennial Hospital,” this sketch depicts teens in a way that feels a bit more universal; some prom tropes are evergreen. There are dorks who bang (Aidy Bryant, Mikey Day), a hot homeschooled girl (Chloe Fineman) who is either “hippie or crazy religious,” and a popular girl (Ego Nwodim) wearing a peekaboo dress because she doesn’t have a mom “and no one is honest” with her. All of it is very well observed, and each character’s introduction ends with a sharply written joke. Key is well-cast as Schneeb, a beloved perpetual senior who won’t graduate without singing a snatch of Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me).”

The Last Dance: Extended Scene

In this deleted scene from ESPN’s Michael Jordan doc The Last Dance, Jordan (Key) challenges his head of security, John (Heidi Gardner), to a game of pitching quarters before Game 5 of the 1993 NBA finals. John gets a little cocky, and like all of his other opponents, Jordan destroys him. Key is a steady, if unremarkable, Jordan. There’s also a fine assist from Kenan Thompson as Charles Barkley, even if the gambling stuff feels a little on the nose. The real star, though, is Gardner. She delivers the subtle portrait of an everyman extra suddenly thrust into the spotlight, only to be entirely dismantled for Jordan’s amusement. (The hair, makeup, and costuming crews do a good job helping to flesh out John, too.) Watching the pants-less man slowly fall apart is just a little heartbreaking.

Gershwin Tribute

At this Kennedy Center celebration of George Gershwin, a couple of graying Broadway belters (Cecily Strong and Kate McKinnon) and a hoofer from way back (Key) try to keep afloat while singing Gershwin’s “I’ve Got Rhythm.” Any sketch featuring Strong and McKinnon as prideful, salty stage divas of a certain age is a welcome one. Key’s presence feels a bit spritely and broad by comparison, but it’s not entirely outside of the tone the others set. This sketch didn’t make it online for rights reasons, but imagine the trio spanking one another while telling stories about getting into hot tubs with the casts of Blue Man Group, Stomp, and Cats. The jokes feel a little canned and one-note, but there’s still fun here.

Gemma & DJ Balls

Before his TGI Friday’s birthday party kicks off, Gene (Kenan Thompson) confesses to officemates that his wife just left him. But it’s too late to stop the band his friends hired — DJ Balls (Key) and Gemma (Cecily Strong) — from singing some inappropriate, sexy dedications. One fun element of the Gemma sketches: Strong’s presence is always essential punctuation, but she’s never quite the focus. She gets paired up with a new beau, dropped into a strange situation (often with long-suffering Gene), and given room to spit one-liners about anal bleaching. Amid all the sex puns here, she’s the best part. Though it is fun to have Gene’s strange co-workers help to confirm that he really is one sane man in a crazy world.

High School Graduation

A principal (Alex Moffat) asks that the crowd hold its applause until he finishes reading the names of all the high school’s graduates. They do not. One family (Kenan Thompson, Punkie Johnson, Chris Redd) tries to get a bit more stage time for their kid, while another (Ego Nwodim, Key) chides its perambulating godson for being a “non-backflipping little bitch.” There are white families, too, though one (Beck Bennett, Aidy Bryant, Andrew Dismukes) is written as a pack of dopes and the other (Mikey Day, Heidi Gardner) is milquetoast. Moffat doesn’t bring a lot of dynamism to the straight-man role, so the bad behavior doesn’t have a lot to push against, but it’s still fun to hear lines like, “That’s right, little white baby, we’ll feed you biscuits and cheer while you eat.”

Keegan-Michael Key Monologue

As a kid from Detroit, Key never imagined he’d be hosting SNL, so he’s going to make the most of it. The music kicks in as Key enumerates his plans: sketches, voices, audience questions, a tattoo from Pete Davidson, and helping everyone differentiate between him and Kenan Thompson. Key is perfectly in control here, and shows off some genuine musicality. The song itself echoes a bit of Steve Martin’s old “Not Going to Phone It in Tonight” open, but unlike that one, the bits here don’t add up to something bigger. There are a couple of good jokes, though, and one worthwhile costume change.

Overall, it feels like the writers missed their opportunity to let Key loose tonight. There aren’t many big, physical moments outside the puppet beatdown, and his chances to get laser-focused on a character were limited. The cut-for-time sketches don’t add all that much, though the oddball suitors of “Sending Drinks” do give Key a bit more space for some of the above. The communal cold open has a nice spirit to it, and definitely addresses one of the pressing issues on Americans’ minds — but given the crush of news this week, there does feel like a dearth of topical material. The crew will have one more chance to pick things up before summer break, when The Queen’s Gambit star Anya Taylor-Joy hosts for the first time with musical guest Lil Nas X.

SNL Recap: Keegan-Michael Key Delivers a Muppet Beatdown