Elizabeth Banks is the perfect host for Saturday Night Live – she’s the kind of host that the show should book. The week before her show, SNL found itself trying to prop up the tragedy that is Donald Trump. As if to apologize, the show booked Banks, a talented and wonderful comedienne, who predictably shown bright and was a bright, consistent, and reliable member of the cast. Though, it’s become a bit of a cliche to complain about just how safe and boring SNL got, Elizabeth Banks’ episode was a surprisingly strong entry with no real clunkers.
The Cold Open wasn’t the usual ho-hum political sketch, but a stirring message of love and support to Paris after the terrorist attacks that killed 136 people. An emotional Cecily Strong, invoking 9/11 delivered a beautiful message that read,
“Paris is the city of light. And here in New York City, we know that light will never go out. Our love and support is with everyone there tonight. We stand with you.” She recited the lovely message in both English and French.”
In times when the outside world intrudes on the insular comedy landscape of SNL, it’s interesting to see how the show responds. After 9/11, Lorne Michaels, then-Mayor Rudy Guilliani, and a fleet of first responders opened the show; and in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting (which took place around Christmas), musical guest Paul McCartney invited a children’s choir to pay tribute to the 26 victims of the shooting. Strong’s message was simple, direct, and affecting.
Elizabeth Banks’ monologue was sprightly, and well-paced. After gliding onto the stage in a ball gown, Banks name checked the Hunger Games films, and then references her successful directing gig, Pitch Perfect 2, before launching into a rendition of “Flashdance…What a Feeling.” Before audiences could get too bummed at yet another musical monologue, we see that Banks’ directing has gone to her head, as she takes over the direction of the monologue (she loves star wipes and a green screen). Banks isn’t a great singer, but she sold the number and her increasingly weird requests made the monologue a great start.
The first sketch was a take on Angie’s List, Aron’s List – like Angie’s List, except the folks on it are nonviolent sex offenders (is there such a thing?). Despite the potential hairiness of the sketch, it yet again proves that Saturday Night Live does amazing fake commercials. Vanessa Bayer, whose grown into an important player, plays the oblivious customer wonderfully – and the guys – Kenan Thompson, Beck Bennett, Kyle Mooney, and Pete Davidson – are funny and appropriately creepy. While I love these fake ads, it’s a little disconcerting that a show with the word “live” in the title continues to excel in pre-taped segments.
Black Jeopardy! returns with winning results (see what I did there?) It’s a one-joke sketch, but does give Thompson, Jay Pharoah, and Sasheer Zamata some much-deserved screen time. With categories like What Had Happened Was, It Ain’t Like That, Who’s Try’na, Banks stars as the resident clueless white person, so infused with privilege, that she cannot keep up with the show. Obviously, the sketch mines stereotypes, but I give the show props for allowing for some more (mildly) comedy in the mix – though, for a sketch that purports to skewer white privilege, in the two times it’s ran, it worked as a vehicle for the white hosts (like Banks, Louis C.K. shone in his turn at BJ!). Having Banks win the show by exclaiming in frustration, “No matter what I do, I can’t win!” is devastating only because Thompson’s Alex Treblack exclaims that it’s the blackest thing that could be said.
The following sketch – another pre-taped one – is another chance for the female cast members to shine in a music video. This time, the ladies along with Banks, perform a slow jam “First Got Horny 2 U” in honor of all the mid 90s hotties (Carson Daly, Taylor Hanson, Charles Shaughnessy, and Bayer admitted to loving Eric Menendez while Aidy Bryant fell in love with the teen-aged son from Dinosaurs) that first introduced the ladies to masturbation. It’s one of SNL‘s braver sketches – exploring and discussing female sexuality – that would never have been done before, showing that despite its age and its milquetoast qualities, its moved away from its boys club mentality.
The Woodbridge High School Theater Show Case sketch was stronger than usual, possibly because of Banks’ presence, but also because the as they go along, these Woodbridge High sketches are starting to find a voice, teasing the over-earnest teens and their well-meaning if slightly ridiculous performance art pieces about social justice (Bryant warns her audience that the show may “bring extreme bouts of progress“) It’s funny to see these zealous PC warriors put together a terrible show that does nothing.
The Weekend Update was okay – I barely watch them at this point. The highlights were the guests – Kate McKinnon’s Russian Olya Petrovsky, who continues to report from the cartoonishly grim Russia; (I always felt that the Olya character was kinda Xenophobic). Kyle Mooney’s interesting hackey stand-up comic, Bruce Chandling. I always felt Mooney’s character – though not a real knee-slapper – is the kind of strange, well-acted character that would’ve thrived in the 70s, when the show was at its height. The comic is a dark pit of self-loathing and lack of talent – and it’s fascinating to watch the sketch collapse into a disturbing tale of sadness and loneliness (it appears as if Chandler’s girl is cheating on him. And she’s a senior in high school); Pete Davidson, a fantastic stand-up comic, also shows up to decry the failure of the anti-discrimination laws in Houston which were supposed to protect the rights of trans folks. It’s a particularly yucky week for trans folks, given the asshat who petitioned to remove the “T” from the LGBT movement, or the tool who decided to return his late wife’s (a 9/11 hero) Glamour Woman of the Year Award because the magazine decided to honor Caitlyn Jenner this year. I’m so glad that the show decided to take some kind of stand – it usually stays just above the fray -and Davidson’s highly appealing schtick is a great way to deliver an important message without sounding strident.
The Adventures of Young Ben Carson was another winning sketch. Jay Pharoah proves to be an incredible mimic, as he portrayed the leading Republican candidate – especially, Carson’s clipped, soporific speech – in a sketch that lampooned Carson’s bizarre and untrue tales of violence. Kenan Thompson appears as Black Jesus, who sets Carson on the right path. Carson’s stupid assertions about evolution, politics, and homosexuality are used to make the guy seem doofy. Carson’s latest public persona as a grade-A dummy would be funny except he and human septic tank Donald Trump are leading among the Republican candidates. Leading. So while the joke is funny, the subtext is pretty scary.
Bobby Moynihan, along with Thompson, has always been an under sung hero of the cast. Though his Drunk Uncle has slowly become an annoying recurring character, it’s still imbued with some real character work. So it’s nice that the guy gets a sketch for himself, in which he plays an affable high school principal who wins a walk-on on a Law & Order style show. Unbeknownst to him, though, he’s the episode’s weekly pedophile, and thttps://thechicagolibrary.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=4226&action=edito his increasing horror, the promotional push for the episode is clearly gonna make him look like a child rapist. The sketch’s writing is good – very SNL goofy – but Moynihan’s a wonder, playing expertly as his character goes from ebullient enthusiasm, to confusion, and finally horror, when it’s clear that he’s going to look like a child molester on national TV.
The show’s final pre-taped segment, is probably one of the strongest of the episode. In Uber for Jen, Banks plays Jen, who gets into Mike O’Brien’s Uber car, and she’s dragged into his day of adventures, including getting a mortgage for his house, taking his pregnant wife to the hospital, even hiding the body of a man he runs over. I liked O’Brien, and thought his weird, off-kilter style was good for the show, and his sketches have always been a little more interesting and nuanced than the usual catchphrase salad that passes for usual on the show. Banks is every bit O’Brien’s equal, as the confused Jen quickly joins in on the fun, and becomes as enthusiastic about the daily errands as her driver is. Again, what makes the sketch work is that O’Brien and Banks do some great character work.
Speaking of great character work, Banks is teamed with Sasheer Zamata, Cecily Strong, and Vanessa Bayer in an insightful sketch that looks at how in “post-racial” America, our language has taken the word ghetto and completely corrupted its meaning and context. In the sketch, the ladies play young urbanites who are completely vapid and ridiculous and throw around the word ghetto like confetti every time they want to describe something cracked or down heel. It’s an offensive word tic that lots of people employ – whenever something seems broken down or budget-priced, it’s called ghetto. I like that the writers also want to show just how absurd the misuse of the word ghetto is, by having the young women continuously trumped by Banks, whose harrowing tales of urban blight are delivered in https://thechicagolibrary.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=4226&action=editthe equally vapid voice as her colleagues, who complain about inane, first world problems. Again, such a pointed sketch on race and class is a breath of fresh air on a show that can get a little safe – examinations of privilege and class often makes for great and smart comedy. It’s not surprising that this sketch was buried at the end, as this is probably the least buzzy sketch – but again, like the other sketches, it benefited from some wonderful acting as well as some great social commentary (in fact, this sketch felt a bit more like Inside Amy Schumer than SNL).
So, thank god for Elizabeth Banks who cleared out the stench of Donald Trump. It was recently announced that the Christmas episode will be hosted by both Tina Fey and Amy Poehler (which is almost guaranteed to mean that pals like Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph will probably stop by, too). I can’t wait for that episode. In the mean time, Matthew McConaughey, Ryan Gosling, and Chris Hemsworth (who did Okay last season) will appear. Hopefully, the memory of how bad Trump did, will keep the producers from booking another stunt guest star.