Melissa McCarthy joined the Five-Timers Club, having hosted Saturday Night Live for the fifth time this year. She’s only the fifth woman to reach the milestone, and it’s clear that she’ll probably have the honor of hosting a few more times. McCarthy is the kind of guest host who would’ve been a cast member – she’s a strong physical comedienne and versatile actress. In her fifth hosting gig, she once again stole the show and dominated the sketches with her on point physical comedy and her ability to create fully-formed characters in the tiny five-minute sketches. Her episode was also helped tremendously by some above-average writing, as well (something that elevated last week’s Chris Pine episode, too).
As per usual, the cold open was a political sketch, with Alec Baldwin popping by to do his increasingly diminishing Donald Trump. At this point the writers have gotten lazy with the Trump sketches and are relying on simply lambasting the guy’s physicality and verbal tics. This week, Trump’s in the news because he fired James Comey, head of the FBI. This development provided SNL with some much-needed oomph, and as a result, though not a great sketch, it still shone brighter than the other Trump sketches because it actually had something to say.
McCarthy’s monologues are always delightful. Often the writers have her do a musical number or perform some kind of slapstick, but this time, it was a sweet bit in which she grabs a mom, Joan, from the audience, and takes her on a breakneck speed tour of the studio. On her way, the pair gets to meet Baldwin, Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively, musical guests HAIM, and some of the cast members. Joan’s a good sport and McCarthy gets to use her improv chops (she’s a Groundling alumna), and it makes for a sweet bit. I’m liking the “taking a tour of the studio” gimmick that is becoming more popular among the hosts (Jimmy Fallon did a sparking version of David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” with a dance troupe around the studio).
The best of this episode combined great jokes and quality storytelling. Add to that McCarthy’s acting chops (Oscar nominated, no less), and you get what could be conceived as an ideal episode. The cold open was pretty toothless, but McCarthy’s return as Sean Spicer was great. Aidy Bryant cameoed as Sarah Huckabee Sanders as a supposedly even-keeled, thoughtful alternative to the blustery Spicer (though I think Huckabee Sanders is simply a slick oil saleswoman, as well). The sketch takes an unexpected turn when Spicer hears that he may be the latest in Trump’s administration to be given a pink slip. He plunges into self doubt as he jets away on his lectern-mobile to Trump’s golf course in New Jersey to confront the guy. The sketches loses some steam at the end (and yeah, the open-mouth kiss was predictable), but it was great to see McCarthy’s Spicer do his crazy, violent antics (and his demonstration of Comey’s firing by using Russian nesting dolls was great), but it was smart to fold in some more actor-y moments in which Spicer begins to doubt his importance within the Trump administration.
McCarthy also does wonder with her Gaye Fontaine, the wizened Hollywood vet who is on a film panel with her pal Debette Goldry (Kate McKinnon). Joining the two “legends” are Lupita Nyong’o (Sasheer Zamata, finally given something to do) and Cecily Strong’s Marion Cotillard. Often when a host joins a cast member in a recurring sketch, the writers create some weird twin of the recurring character, and the results are often kinda sad because a) the host is not as funny as the cast member and b) the “other” character is rarely as interesting. It’s smart then that in this sketch Gaye Fontaine is a character on her own, that relates to Debette because they both had to suffer through the same sexist indignities in Hollywood yesteryear. The implications behind these sketches is that actresses now don’t know how good they have it. And yeah, there is some of that, but there’s also a pointed critique in how long sexism has endured in the film industry. McCarthy does some great character work as Gaye, and whoever told her to play the lady as a stroke survivor was pretty aces.
But as great as McCarthy is at creating characters, she’s also a wonderful physical comic, so the game show sketch was predictably a highlight. The premise is so simply and hacky, it’s almost embarrassing – essentially it’s “how to get Melissa McCarthy to be repeatedly pied in the face.” And the actress takes it like a trouper, being pelted with pies repeatedly. It’s low brow, broad, and ridiculous, but McCarthy goes all in, recalling Lucille Ball at her best. The bravest comics are the ones who abandon all sense of vanity.
Even low key sketches in which McCarthy is merely featured – I’m thinking of the production logo sketch and the birthday sketch – benefit from the star’s presence. In the logo sketch, especially, she is given room to play, creating yet another one of her unlikable social misfits.
The Weekend Update sketch was okay, but it was Pete Davidson and Strong who made the sketch truly remarkable. Davidson appeared, essentially doing his stand-up act. He was candid and honest, talking about his sobriety – his delivery is idiosyncratic – some may be put off by his lazy manner, but I find it appealing. I also like how unsparing he was in talking about getting sober (and his story about going to horse therapy is hilarious, especially when shares how as a child he didn’t know he was allergic to horses because his family was too poor to ever be around them). Strong appeared as Cathy Anne, a politically-astute grotesque whose life is filled with drugs and tragedy, but she manages to soldier on, despite her demons. Cathy Anne initially was a recurring character that was about just how ugly and ridiculous Cecily Strong can be. As time went on though, she became a great voice for someone who is fed up with how ugly and ridiculous politics can be.
Though Saturday Night Live is ostensibly live, some of its highest moments are the pre-taped bits. In a beautifully filmed and acted piece, Kyle Mooney and Leslie Jones are in a committed relationship – with an adorable moppet named Lorne – that is in trouble. Her rising star and career demands means that he’s feeling left out and neglected. What I love about this film is that the writers and the performers don’t fall into the racist and sexist trap of making it about how tiny, nebbish Mooney is in love with the tall and athletic Jones; instead, it’s treated pretty straight forward. The absurdity comes in Mooney’s besotted misery and Jones’ busy indifference. Jones has gotten a lot of flack for her live performances, because she often will fumble a line or miss a cue. These pre-taped sketches show audiences just what an asset she is to the show.
The other pre-taped sketch was also a winner – the Amazon Echo, which helps old people out. As with the pie sketch, it’s a threadbare conceit: old people are old! They like it to be hot in a room! They’re cranky! What makes this sketch work is the pure performances of the cast members. Again, Jones is an appealing presence as an old woman who eyes some neighborhood kids warily, while Kenan Thompson is a marvel as a befuddled grandpa who relies on his Amazon Echo to decipher just what he needs from it. Both the pie sketch and the Amazon Echo sketch prove that one doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel to be funny – if we have to go back to cliches – which is sometimes unavoidable – doing a committed job with engaging actors can sometimes be enough.
Next week, the host will be fellow Five-Timer Dwayne Johnson (who will be hosting for the sixth time). Johnson, out promoting Baywatch, is a genial and funny presence himself. If the writing is as good next week, then we’re looking at a pretty strong streak for SNL.