It’s been a heck of a season for Saturday Night Live, one marked by big changes (switcheroos on the Weekend Update desk, the unexpected addition of breakout talents like Pete Davidson and Leslie Jones), that humdinger of an anniversary celebration, and a punishing schedule that kind of made it seem like the whole thing would never end. Too bad then that it’s finally over – at 21 regular episodes, this 40th season was actually a standard length, but SNL40 certainly made it seem literal hours longer – because the Louis C.K.-hosted season finale featured some of the most original and biting humor of the entire year.
C.K. is becoming something of a regular on SNL, hosting once a season for the last three seasons (Melissa McCarthy recently did something similar, when she took on hosting duties for three seasons in a row, a streak that was unfortunately broken in this very season), and fans of the sketch comedy series already knew what to expect from him: shocking jokes, a sprawling monologue, and the giddy involvement of the rest of the cast. C.K. delivered just that, inspiring what has to be a fatigued cast to bust out some jaw-dropping gags and twisted humor that shows just how much punch and pull SNL still has in its pockets. If this is a look ahead at what the 41st season has in store for us, summer can’t end soon enough.
“Summertime Cold Open”
The 40th season of SNL has been mostly light on big song-and-dance numbers, depriving its viewership of seeing something fizzy and fun that they can sing along to. Starting off the season finale with just such a number – one that includes the majority of the cast, all eagerly bopping along – not only set the stage for a high energy show, it made it clear that this one was going to be a bit different than what we’ve previously seen. SNL‘s schedule mirrors that of most academic institutions, so that everyone is stoked about the impending vacation is an obvious joke, but it’s a relatable and fun one that’s nice to be reminded of.
And then you add in Hillary. As everyone warbles about the joys of summertime, Kate McKinnon’s Hillary Clinton – an impersonation that gets markedly better with each appearance – stumbles into frame, eager to use all that seasonal joy to capture the hearts and minds of new voters. The sketch hinges on multiple gags, from Hillary’s confession that she hasn’t had a vacation in decades, her bizarre attempts to bond with young people, and a concerned Vanessa Bayer inquiring about Hillary’s discomfort level from running on the beach in one of her omnipresent wool suits, and they just keep going. It’s almost a Stefon gag, because the sketch has everything – including current announcer Darrell Hammond’s second appearance this season as Bill Clinton, one of the former SNL player’s signature roles. Hammond looks to be firmly (and comfortably) back in the bit, which just might be only thing to look forward to about the impending election, at least from a comedy standpoint.
“Louis C.K. Monologue”
C.K.’s monologues have always been unique to his hosting gigs. Unlike other SNL hosts, he doesn’t sing a song or take questions from the audience or ramble about what’s going on in his life, he uses it as a place to try out material from his stand-up act. As such, C.K.’s monologues tend to run a bit long, but there’s always plenty to talk about the next morning. And, to put it delicately, there’s even more to talk about this time around.
The comedian has never shied away from talking about controversial matters – during his second appearance on SNL, his nine-minute monologue covered topics like the existence of God and the need for equality in U.S., bolstered by a strong feminist message – but he put a twist on that for his third outing, going whole-hog on the shocking stuff. It started off benignly enough (well, in C.K. terms), with C.K. talking about his “mild racism,” sprouted from growing up in the Seventies. It was low-key, and it was also a total misdirection, because as the audience was still tittering about the early jokes, the comedian then started in on pedophiles.
Yes, this is probably what everyone is going to remember the most about C.K.’s third turn at bat, a long-form stand-up bit about pedophilia, but despite its gasp-worthy elements, it’s classic C.K. (or, at least, classic C.K. working through some new material on a giant stage), and you’ve got to admire an SNL host who stays so true to their own style, no matter how many people it sends straight into pearl-clutching territory.
“The Shoemaker and the Elves”
This one is all about timing. Coming on the heels of C.K.’s divisive opener, the first post-monologue sketch could have gone for something sweet and fluffy to dilute the mood (for instance, another visit from Cecily Strong’s appetizer-loving wannabe British pop star, Jemma) or a bit that spoke still further to C.K.’s stand-up ability (like a Louie send-up that ended up as a digital exclusive), but “The Shoemaker and the Elves” instead kept pace with its predecessor.
A standard-seeming fairy tale bit, this sketch takes a slight twist (of the “oh, no, is that–? are they–?” variety) before going totally off the rails. As the shoemaker, C.K. cedes his power to Vanessa Bayer and Kenan Thompson, two too-eager elves (made teensy, thanks to the power of green screen) who want nothing more than to be punished for their flagging work ethic. Physically punished. Hard. (Get it?)
It’s the kind of sketch that comes totally out of nowhere, with a twist that you can see coming but can hardly believe will come true. Oh, it does come true. Combined with C.K.’s monologue, the first portion of this episode of SNL provided about fifteen minutes of astounding humor, sure to stir up lots of ire from pundits and viewers alike, just the thing to remind its audience how bold the show can go when it wants to. That’s how you end a season.