A post-inauguration installment without Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump? That seemed almost inconceivable, given this past week's events. But that was the only negative surprise on a bounce-back episode for Saturday Night Live, which deployed host Aziz Ansari to great use throughout the evening. There were no instantly classic sketches, but there were no straight-up disasters anywhere to be seen.
That sounds like damning the show with faint praise, but there were a lot of sketches tonight, so the overall quality is nothing to sneeze at. Some sketches barely lasted two minutes, which meant the episode favored getting onto the next segment early rather than milk a premise past its prime. There's no rule about how many sketches an episode of SNL has to have, and it's always interesting to see how they program each episode. For now, here are the three sketches people will be talking about until the show returns next month.
Aziz Ansari Stand-Up Monologue
With certain hosts, you wonder how SNL will navigate around his or her lack of live experience in front of a crowd. When stand-up comedians host, you basically never have to worry about that. You also never have to really worry about the format, either: When you have a seasoned stand-up artist do a monologue, you have that artist do stand-up. This show need not always be rocket science.
Ansari was an inspired pick for this moment of history, able to speak directly to President Trump (who Ansari assumed was watching live) and the country after a tumultuous, rowdy, and fairly historic 48 hours. After a slightly strained analogy of "Donald Trump as the Chris Brown of politics," Ansari settled into some absolutely amazing material about the Alt-Right (which he dubbed "the lower-case KKK"), using "Yakety Sax" the next time an Islamic character prays in a film, and the how surprised he is to be wistfully watching speeches made by former President George W. Bush. Throughout, Ansari managed to be incisive and compassionate in equal measure.
La La Land Interrogation
The stealth sketch, in which the original premise is revealed as a subterfuge to mask its true intent, is probably my favorite genre of SNL sketch. What seems initially like an over-the-top interrogation by two police officers transforms into an indictment of critical indignation. Sketches like this work a little like an episode of The Twilight Zone: What seems normal soon goes crazy until it bends back through its own internal logic to something approaching normalcy.
The cops in question badger Ansari's confused "criminal" over his lack of utter love for the film La La Land. Cecily Strong and Beck Bennett form a formidable duo here, with the type of seasoned character work that veterans of this show often employ to little fanfare. Soon, however, the sketch becomes less about reaction to this particular film, but rather the entire subculture in which people are enraged that someone else has a different opinion on a piece of art than they do. Sure, this sketch takes place in a police station, but really could take place in a comments section just as easily. After all, it's not just politics that causes violent division: season one of Westworld has claimed many friendships as well.
Weekend Update: Leslie Jones on Hidden Figures
Does Leslie Jones end up featured here a lot? Indeed, because her "Weekend Update" monologues are a consistent highlight since she joined the cast. Excluding this iteration simply because others have been featured in the past doesn't seem exactly fair.
Ahead of Black History Month, Jones details all the new things she has learned about African-American trailblazers, and laments that she never learned about any of them in school. These figures include the inventors of the traffic light and call waiting, the latter of which led to the line of the night: "Charlie know who he is!" It's a simple line, but within the context of the monologue, and thanks to the incredibly delivery of Jones, it turned into the biggest in-studio laugh provider all night.
Jones still has yet to make the same impact in sketches as she has on "Update," but that doesn't mean her centrality to the show's current successes is any less diminished.