Whew. What a week. Saturday Night Live had a pretty rough assignment: follow up the awful of Donald Trump’s victory and remind shell-shocked Americans that shit can still be funny. Host Dave Chappelle was in a strange position because he’s a performer that is too electric for the mainstream trappings of SNL, and when booking the comic, one runs the risk of either pushing SNL to an area it’s just not prepared for, or shoving him into an anodyne TV-friendly personality (just review Chris Rock’s disappointing hosting turn a couple years ago as evidence).
But last week’s episode managed to overcome these difficulties with grace, style, and compassion. As a host, Chappelle unsurprisingly dominated. His sketch show is legendary and he is a dynamic presence in the different sketches. And thankfully, as with most stand-up hosts, Chappelle devotes his monologue to a bit of stand-up work. A couple weeks ago, Chappelle seemingly defended Trump in a concert, drawing ire and anger from fans. In his monologue, Chappelle took the opportunity to highlight the absurdity of the election as well as pinpointing how white liberals’ shock over the election is just a repercussion of their privilege. Black voters, female voters, queer voters all know just how tenuous progress can be – and how vulnerable it can be to backlash. Chappelle points out that white people aren’t as surprising as we think – an important point because disenfranchised groups are used to being royally screwed over on a grand scale. Chappelle – not the most sympathetic voice in comedy, isn’t cruel in his assessment, just brutally honest. Towards the end of his monologue, he talks about approaching Trump’s impending presidency with hope – and uses a poignant anecdote of a White House party he attended, in which all of the guests were Black (with the exception of Bradley Cooper). He mentions seeing the portraits of the presidents, and notes that when Frederick Douglass was invited to the White House, he had to be escorted by Abraham Lincoln; he also shared how Franklin Roosevelt kowtowed to public pressure and never invited a black guest to the White House again after feeling a backlash.
And as potent as Chappelle’s monologue is, it’s Kate McKinnon’s cold open that not only outshines this episode, but possibly anything SNL did since having 9/11 first responders stand on the stage with Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Lorne Michaels. McKinnon – dressed as Hillary Clinton, maybe for the last time – sits at the piano and performs a stirring – and truly heartbreaking – rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Two things are happening here: McKinnon is paying tribute to the late Cohen who died earlier this week, and she’s paying tribute to Hillary Clinton who lost a very bruising and important presidential election. The song is an apt choice because it’s a melancholic tribute to regret. When McKinnon-as-Clinton sings “I tried my best/it wasn’t much” it takes on even more poignancy as one remembers just how hard Clinton worked throughout the primaries and the general election, and it’s a sad follow-up to Clinton’s apology to her supporters during her beautiful concession speech. It’s a heartbreaking moment – McKinnon, an openly queer woman and feminist embodying a woman who for many represented progress for queer folks and women – and it’s a rare moment when the show knocks it out of the park.
The Election Night sketch – with guest star Chris Rock – was a fantastic sketch, too. And scarily accurate of the tiny dinner party that I was at on election night. White liberals played by Cecily Strong, Aidy Bryant, Vanessa Bayer, and Beck Bennett, spoon fed with happy talk about Clinton’s chances of winning the election – are slowly realizing throughout the evening something that Chappelle and Rock have known since forever: America is often very racist. As the evening begins, the party is jubilant and the white guests settle in comfortably for what they think is going to be a great evening (Bennett’s character even predicts that we’ll never have a Republican president again – we can dream, can’t we). As the evening progresses, though, and Trump starts to pile on one victory after another, the party goers start to get desperate (Bryant is great as she concocts an impossibly convoluted path to victory for Clinton – again, I did the same thing). Meanwhile, Rock and Chappelle – playing a Greek chorus of sorts – remind their friends that this isn’t a huge shocker. When Strong gasps in disbelief that she thinks “America is racist” Chappelle responds with a sarcastic, “Oh my god, I remember my great-grandfather telling me something about that…but he was a slave or something.”
The sketch is exactly the kind of thing that SNL needs more of: it can get very smug, particularly when it comes to liberal vs. conservative politics. Though the show is often very toothless, it does hit slightly harder against conservative politicians (at least in the last 10 years or so – the awful early 1990s SNL was a different animal all together). Rock and Chappelle aren’t mean when they school their friends – but again, they’re doling out some much-needed medicine about privilege and awareness – something that the sheltered white liberals in the sketch (and throughout the country) need a lesson in. And there’s a great shot of intersectionality in the ignorant rant of Strong’s character who asks her Black friends, “Do you even know what it’s like to be a woman in this country where you can’t get ahead no matter what you do?”
The Kids Talk Trump continues to worry expectations – this time Vanessa Bayer is talking to a group of small children and asks about Donald Trump. Among the usual garbled six-year-old answers that refer to his “funny hair” or that he’s a “bully,” a little girl starts to share her perspective, in the same, innocuous cutesy way that her friends are, except she’s relaying her father’s hard truths about a Trump presidency, including legitimizing racism and xenophobia and that her black cat, Pussy, will be stopped and frisked. It’s a queasy sketch – but for all the right reasons – as a lot of the commentators were asking after the election “What about the children? What do we say to our children?” When Chappelle pops by as the little girl’s woke father, he joyfully announces, “Hey sweetie – sounds like somebody’s dropping some truth!”
Kate McKinnon makes another strong impression as Ruth Bader Ginsberg during Weekend Update. Like her other impersonations, Justice Ginsberg is more of a character than a detailed impression (she’s not an astute mimic like Jay Pharoah is). Like her Clinton, McKinnon’s Ginsberg is an amalgam of public perceptions, namely the woman’s stamina and no-nonsense demeanor. Now that Clinton’s lost, McKinnon’s Ginsberg is raring up to stay fit and healthy for the next four years so that Trump can’t replace her with a conservative justice. It’s a great – and silly – stab at partisan politics with Ginsberg burning Trump’s possible cabinet (calling Guiliani a vampire), and downing a giant packet of Emergen-C. It’s not a terribly smart joke – it’s very easy, but McKinnon’s energy carries it (and her implication that Mike Pence might be a little light in the loafers is funny – if again, a touch easy).
The rest of of Update was as always – okay…Though when Jost announced the record number of female minorities in the Senate and suggested we see all their names, I laughed heartily when just four names quickly zoomed by and we barely got through two seconds of Rachel Platton’s “Fight Song” (it cuts off at “This is my f…” The other jokes about the election were softballs – Trump’s old and unqualified, that kind of thing – though Michael Che handled a goof well, when he tried to land a Trump vs. Mexican immigrants joke.
Though the other sketches – the non-political sketches – were solid, they feel like above-average afterthoughts to the meat of the episode which was the country post-Election. Chappelle showed off some strong versatile acting chops and his subversive quality had an effect on the show as a whole, elevating it to something higher. As usual, when a strong comedic voice takes on the hosting duties, he/she is usually the dominant force in the sketches, and Chappelle’s turn at bat is no different. He proved himself to be an estimable live performer and his monologue was masterful.