Don Cheadle brought lots of enthusiasm to his first Saturday Night Live hosting gig, appearing in every sketch, both live and pre-taped, besides the cold open. Unfortunately, Cheadle’s game attitude was paired with a heaping helping of lackluster material, with most of the sketches never really finding a rhythm. There were a few that stood out, but overall, this was another mediocre outing for SNL. At least they kept it light on the political sketches, a nice change of pace from last week’s episode.
Musical guest Gary Clark Jr. also did fine work in his two performances. The guy plays a mean guitar.
Alec Baldwin was back yet again as Donald Trump to tackle the biggest political news of the week: Trump declaring a national emergency to force construction of his long-promised border wall. It was pretty dull stuff, limply lampooning the president’s Rose Garden speech announcing the state of emergency. Baldwin held forth at a podium, spouting lines like “Wall works, wall makes safe” and “I can has wall,” and waxing hopeful about the days when his “personal hell of playing president will finally be over” in true meta fashion. He then took questions from reporters, or more accurately, dodged their questions, calling reports that undocumented immigrants commit fewer crimes than U.S. citizens “faker than this emergency” and telling newly confirmed attorney general William Barr (Beck Bennett) to make up new stats on the spot. When the sketch ended, I found myself wondering, “Was that it?” That would turn out to be a recurring theme over the course of the night.
Cheadle started off strong with a quick but fun monologue. He got in some good quips (“I entered the Avengers host raffle, and I won!”) and a riff about people recognizing him on the street and asking for photos. The bit lost some steam when Leslie Jones came onstage to get her own photo with Cheadle (“Say, ‘Rwanda forever!'”), but it ended quickly after that.
A lot of the sketches had an absurdist bent tonight, which I usually tend to enjoy, but they didn’t quite hit the right mark in terms of absurdity. It was more like the writers went with the weirdest ideas they could think of in the hopes that weirdness alone would be funny. Case in point: the “Pound Puppy” short, an ad for a giant dog costume you can have sex in…you know, so your dog isn’t upset by watching you have sex. It’s an amusing image, I guess, but the bit falls flat because of the flimsiness of the premise. (Couldn’t you just…lock your dog out of the bedroom?)
And I genuinely didn’t know what to make of the “Extreme Baking” sketch. It started out as a flat one-joke bit — the contestants had to make cakes in the shape of famous cartoon characters and were terrible at it — before taking a hard left turn with the revelation that Cheadle’s Cookie Monster cake was so bad, it could talk. (And also vomit? Gross.) It was an utter mishmash, and it was terrible.
The standout sketch for me was the return of the “Fresh Takes” high school news show, which had the highest highs of any sketch tonight even if it, too, was kind of a mixed bag. Cheadle was fantastic as teacher “Mr. Paul,” appearing on a student-run news show to report on all the hottest teacher gossip with enthusiasm aplenty. (“Which teacher drives an Uber on the weekend? It will blow your mind! It will also make you sad.”) There were also a lot of amusing touches, including Kate McKinnon’s freshly out of braces student who couldn’t stop licking her teeth, and the running thread of the upcoming winter formal dance. (After McKinnon rejected Kyle Mooney’s invite to the dance, Cheadle breezily declared, “If I were that kid, I’d change schools!”) The sketch had its share of clunker jokes (a bit about the whole wrestling team having ringworm came out of nowhere) but the good moments were enough to save it, which was decidedly not the case with most of the other sketches.
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“Celebrity Family Feud” returned with an Oscar nominees edition, a.k.a. an excuse for the cast to trot out their best celebrity impressions. Melissa Villaseñor got to bring back her Lady Gaga from last week, but none of the others made much of an impression (sorry) besides Kate McKinnon’s hyper-dramatic Glenn Close, spoofing Close’s Oscar-nominated performance in The Wife. Other than that, there was nothing special here.
Even the slightly more absurd sketches just weren’t that interesting. A bar fight sketch had an amusing enough premise — Cheadle and Beck Bennett really want to throw down, but can’t resist dancing to the song playing on the jukebox — but plateaued, steadily turning into a big group dance number. It wasn’t terrible, just flat.
I kind of liked the Roach-Ex short, which featured Cheadle’s giant cockroach trying to take over a suburban dad’s (Alex Moffat) life. But that also didn’t have much of a build to it, just an abrupt ending that came out of nowhere. On the whole, there wasn’t anything here that people will be watching much in the future.
Colin Jost and Michael Che were a bit off their rhythm tonight. They spent most of Update tackling the national emergency, but the jokes were kind of toothless. Jost discussed how Trump sounded “like a cocaine addict” during his speech (with clips to demonstrate) and relied on fake or nonexistent crime statistics, and Che suggested Trump be allowed to at least “do a PowerPoint presentation” so people can see how ineffective the wall would be. A cutaway to Pete Davidson as “Tommy,” a construction worker helping build slat fencing at the border, didn’t help: he accidentally built the fencing horizontally, so it’s a ladder now! (“That was it,” quipped Jost.) It’s all comedic ground that’s been covered before, something even Che seemed to be aware of. “I’m so tired of telling Donald Trump jokes,” he sighed.
The rest of Update wasn’t much better, though Che drew gasps from the audience with a joke about Ryan Adams being accused of sexual misconduct: “Just another example of a white musician doing something a black musician did first,” he said, as a picture of R. Kelly flashed onscreen. (That was the best joke in the whole segment, for my money.)
The correspondents also flopped hard for me. Kate McKinnon and Alex Moffat showed up as Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, urging their fellow Democrats not to gloat over winning the budget fight with the president while trying and failing not to gloat themselves. To quote Jost, that was it. And Beck Bennett’s “Jules, who sees things a little differently” returned, ostensibly to offer his thoughts on the Oscars, but of course, he digressed, suggesting such features for the awards show as “a little boy buying his first penny candy.” I’m not really sure what the joke was here, unless it was simply, as Bennett put it, “whimsy!” Jules just isn’t a richly drawn character, and he’s always struck me as a pale imitation of Bill Hader’s Stefon.
The last correspondent was Mikey Day as over-age-110 Mort Fellner, reporting on his fellow supercentenarians in the U.S. Spoiler alert: they’re all dead. Again, that was the whole joke, though there was one line that got me: “He was awarded the 2019 Sexiest Supercentenarian Alive award…posthumously.”
SNL is off next week but will be back March 2 with returning host John Mulaney and musical guest Thomas Rhett.