Sunday, 18 November 2018
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Jonah Hill joins the Five-Timers Club on a uniformly funny Saturday Night Live

Jonah Hill joins the Five-Timers Club on a uniformly funny Saturday Night Live
04 Nov
5:33
Tina Fey, Jonah Hill, Candice Bergen, Drew Barrymore
Screenshot: Saturday Night Live

“I guess the worst part of the play was their confidence in it.”

“I’m not an actor, I’m a [movie, Netflix, directing] star!

It’s be nice to think that Jonah Hill has fully stepped out of his pigeonhole at this point. A couple of Oscar nominations, co-lead in an hit Netflix series, writer-director of a promising new coming-of-age movie, Hill has emerged from the Apatow star factory still straddling the line between serious artist and broad comedy movie star. (Sort of like James Franco, except that people actually seem to like Hill’s directorial debut and no one—as of this writing—has accused Hill of being a sex creep.)

That dichotomy showed up in Hill’s monologue, as SNL legend Tina Fey ushered new Five-Timers Club member Hill into the selective lounge set, where fellow FTC members Candice Bergen and Drew Barrymore celebrated his entry by showing an old sketch where Hill’s character admits to doing some serious damage to a toilet. Protesting that he does more than toilet humor now (“But that’s where you shined!,” enthuses Bergen), the disappointed Hill can only endure an all-ladies Five-Timers welcome, since, according to Fey, Bergen, and Barrymore, all the male members have turned out to be, well, sex creeps. (Steve Martin will just play his banjo “without consent.”)

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Fitted with the coveted FTC smoking jacket, Hill is disappointed to find that the new female leadership has refashioned it into something like a kicky boldero number. It’s a neat little way to incorporate Hill’s evolving comic persona while still trading on the downtrodden victim vibe he carries with him, especially once Kenan pops in to remind everyone that his record-breaking seniority carries its own privileges. “This is my show. I let you in here sometimes,” he responds to Hill questioning his presence in the Five-Timers lounge.

Over at Vulture, AV Clubber Jesse Hassenger recently did a ranking of the relatively rare phenomenon of SNL hosts’ recurring characters, and placed Hill’s Borscht Belt six-year-old Adam Grossman near the top. I get it. For one, the field isn’t exactly littered with gold (glad I’m not the only one sick of the Omletteville guy), with most of the bits weathering even faster than those done by the actual cast. But Grossman keeps working as well as he does because of a character throughline, as the garrulous little guy keeps tossing out his inexplicable Catskills schtick to his unlikely Benihana co-diners alongside a series of guardians indicating the unstable family life that’s somehow spawned such a weird creature. Here it’s forbearing nanny Leslie Jones, sighing deeply as she weathers Adam’s insult comic “I’m just kidding” one-liners as Grossman attempts to puncture any tension his borderline racist material generates by proclaiming his age (complete with specific and funny awkward hand gestures). It’s never been my favorite sketch, but Hill (who created the bit alongside Bill Hader and Seth Meyers, based on a bafflingly tracksuited child diner Hader once sat with) is into it, and he suggests the merest hints of the defensive mechanisms that are powering Adam’s transformation into a hacky joke machine, which always lends just enough shadings to the idea. Leslie kept breaking, but, then again, so did I.

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Weekend Update update

There was a certain elegance to the way SNL kept weaving themes through its political material tonight, with jokes about Trump’s “caravan of scary brown people” terror tactics, and the importance of voting on Tuesday reinforcing each other throughout. Jost and Che were on, each landing their material confidently. On the caravan (of desperate asylum seekers that are a thousand miles away), Jost noted how Trump’s sweatily named “Operation Faithful Patriot” (where American troops are needlessly stringing barbed wire for a piece of election eve fear-mongering theater) sounds like a company that makes “reverse mortgages and catheters.” (Fox News commercial viewers get that.) Che followed up on the race-baiting scare tactics by urging that the old white people being hyped about the looming but nonexistent threat should be more worried about the less-easily-scapegoated specter of their grandkids stealing their pain pills.

On the election front, Che continued his role as Update’s resident “slow your roll” skeptic, confessing that, while he does intend to vote (on Tuesday, November 6, kids), he’s not going to buy into any “final notice for democracy” panic. Joking that, if final notices were actually final, his college debts would actually be paid, Che, as ever, positions himself for the long view, an edgy place to be in a time of national crisis (see, there’s that panic), but one consistent with his stance as a (black) guy who’s been living in a dangerous situation his entire life. For Jost (white guy), the jokes were less pointed, but not bad, as he noted that things are pretty dire when ice cream is taking a side, and that it has to be a complicated feeling when Oprah knocks on your door, only to present you with a pamphlet about Georgia governor candidate Stacey Abrams instead of a new car.

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Pete Davidson has become such a strange star on SNL, his very public statements about his battles with mental health and substance abuse and the recent ongoing saga of his tabloid-fodder relationship with now-ex Ariana Grande have made Davidson more of a personality star than anyone I can think of in SNL history. Pete’s never been the most polished sketch guy (although he’s improved), and his Update pieces as himself have always been his best showcase, especially since he’s sharpened up his material beyond the adorable stoner little brother schtick he started out with. Here, with newly-dyed hair and the elephant of his recent, much-publicized breakup hanging over his head, Davidson delivered a solid series of political takedowns in advance of the Tuesday midterm elections. Sure, they were all cheeky appearance smack (NY Republican Peter King looks like “a cigar came to life,” Florida candidate Rick Scott looks like “if someone tried to whittle Bruce Willis out of a penis”), but, for a young comic staking out political material for the first time in his life, it’s funny stuff. And since SNL has made hay all season long about Davidson’s rising media profile, his genuinely sweet and decent-sounding appraisal of ex Grande was both de rigeur and unexpectedly touching.

Melissa Villaseñor made the leap to the main cast this year, but hasn’t had much opportunity to show off her mimicry skills or her comic chops much on the young season. So, taking a page out of Heidi Gardner’s playbook, she debuted a specifically targeted character piece on Update, with her “Every Teen Girl Murder Suspect on Law & Order.” Honestly, it’s such a specific Gardner niche at this point that I was surprised to see Villaseñor in the chair, but Melissa did fine, as her Brittany—ostensibly there to talk about young adult literature—squirmed and equivocated about what happened to her friend Logan at that “big alcohol party.” Not to harp on the comparison, but Brittany wasn’t as immediately memorable as any of Gardner’s similar turns, even if Villaseñor delivered on the premise with a uniformly strong performance.

Just when I think I’m tired of Kenan Thompson’s Big Papi, he pulls me back in. It helps that there’s a reason for his appearance tonight, as, you know, the Red Sox won the World Series again. (That’s, like, what, four in 15 years, right? Huh. Cool.) Petty sports partisanship aside, Kenan’s performance as retired and beloved Boston slugger David Ortiz has never been the problem. Kenan’s Ortiz, with his nonsensical endorsements, gap-toothed ebullience, and food obsession, is an all-time belly laugh, his infectious enthusiasm for baseball, food, his spokesman deal for the concept of spokes, and simply being Big Papi is impossible to hate. (Presumably even for Yankees fans, whose team got clobbered in the ALDS 3-1, including a humiliating 61-1 loss on their home diamond.) But the jokes don’t change much (as in, at all). Thankfully, it’s been a while, the Sox won the series, and it was nice to see the big lug again. Mofongo all around.

Best/worst sketch of the night

Look, some of you are going to clamor for a “worst” tag on Kate McKinnon’s teacher sketch. You’ll point to both its unexplained weirdness and its languorous pace, and how it never quite announces its authority as something that should appear as early in the show as it did. Well, shush. This was great stuff, not as much for the sketch itself (it really could have used more writing punch to match McKinnon’s performance), as for how it represents the sort of oddball conceptual idea Saturday Night Live desperately needs to encourage. The premise of someone acting weird while other people comment on it is hardly new SNL territory, but, as McKinnon’s overly dramatic drivers ed teacher sprawls on the classroom floor and rambles on about her predicament and its meaning, it was like a cool drink to realize that the sketch wasn’t going to go out of its way to hammer the premise home with explanations for the slowest possible viewer. It was just weird for weird’s sake, and McKinnon, accusing her charges at laughing at her “like this was some episode of Friend,” worked within the framework of the sketch to craft an enigmatically loopy character whose comic integrity isn’t over-explained. There is room on SNL for a lot more shades of humor than its current template generally allows.

This week’s branded content sketch, on the other hand, was pretty unnecessary, even if some of the performances livened it up a little, as another NBC property got some free advertising. Not watching interminably long-running televised talent shows as a rule, I’m not particularly invested in how the celebrity judges were impersonated here (although Kyle Mooney’s perpetually amazed Howie Mandel got a laugh). But at least the joke that there are only a very few possible narratives to every contestant’s journey on such shows took the piss a bit, and Cecily Strong, Kenan and Leslie, and Jonah Hill all sang their hearts out as the contestants who are probably terrible—but then are shockingly not terrible!

Also not terrible but not that surprising was the newscast sketch, where Cecily Strong’s weatherperson is nonplussed by boyfriend Hill’s decidedly unwelcome on-air proposal. Hill manages to create a nicely realized character is his unimpressive suitor, unwisely wearing a green shirt in front of Strong’s green screen and even more unwisely busting out a proposal rap. And the bit even has a decent turn, when Strong reveals that her refusal was only because she’d planned an elaborate on-air proposal of her own. I kept waiting for the reveal that Strong’s too-perfect twist was only in the downtrodden Hill’s head, but the sketch decided to let the improbable duo have their happy ending, so that’s nice.

“What do you call that act?” “The Californians!”—Recurring sketch report

Adam Grossman, Big Papi.

“It was my understanding there would be no math”—Political comedy report

With SNL’s resident guest Trump Alec Baldwin otherwise occupied (and pointedly joked about), the show opened with the always more-profitable tack of doing Trump without Trump. With Kate McKinnon adding Fox News talking head and smirking white supremacist Laura Ingraham’s glint-eyed provocation to her long list of current right-wing a-holes (“No, you’re an a-hole,” McKinnon’s Ingraham responds to her viewer mail), the sketch ran through the usual roster of weekly outrages. Finding ways to satirize the news at this point is a thankless task since reality is so far beyond satire that our pals at The Onion can essentially just transcribe stuff. Here, the jokes leant on hyperbole to make comedy out of Fox and friends’ (and Fox And Friends’) daily klaxon blare of racist bullshit designed to make white parents vote against their self-interest. Like Trump’s ginned-up, racist, Hail Mary, pre-midterms caravan, which Cecily Strong’s appropriately wild-eyed Jeanine Pirro’s claims contains such terrifying, non-white figures as “Guatemalans, Mexicans, the Menendez brothers, the 1990 Detroit Pistons, Thanos, and several Babadooks.” Similarly, Kenan Thompson’s cowboy-hat-wearing disgraced former Sheriff David Clarke showed footage of the caravan in the form of a swarm of migrating crabs. “And those are humans?,” gently presses McKinnon’s Ingraham, to which Clarke replies, “Basically, yeah.”

Unlike Baldwin’s uninspired Trump, which serves as a crutch for some very one-dimensional writing as a rule, the satire here is more layered. There are the performances, which are uniformly great. (McKinnon and Strong don’t need more praise at this point, but they are both outstanding, nuanced comic actresses). And the sketch casts a wider net, encompassing Ingraham’s fleeing sponsors (and the reason why), leaving her thanking warm ice cream, nurse’s sneakers, and White Castle. (“A castle for whites? Yes please.”) And, divorced for now by Baldwin/Trump’s absence, the cold open works to lay the groundwork for some recurring satirical themes for the rest of the show. There’s GOP voter suppression, here prodded along by Ingraham giving non-white voters the wrong advice. There’s Fox’s feverish efforts to mock the very idea that Donald Trump is a bigot. (“Except for his words and actions throughout his life how is he racist?”) And there’s the transparent propaganda of Trump’s latest “brown people are coming at you from below” propaganda, with McKinnon claiming that Trump’s try-hard gung-ho operation is actually named “Operation Eagle With A Huge Dong” and bragging that there will be “five armed soldiers for every shoeless immigrant child.”

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Hey, there’s a midterm election coming up on Tuesday, so vote in that. Pete Davidson ended his amiably goofy Update stint by urging everyone to vote, as did musical guest Maggie Rogers (via T-shirt), and, in the Vote Blue campaign ad, so did a roster of very fucking nervous Democrats. While polling shows