Each episode of Saturday Night Live is its own beast, complete with its own rhythms. There’s zero predictability about what will unfold, which is precisely of the point of its inherent architecture. On paper, having Bill Hader return to Studio 8H to host should have been a slam dunk. Instead, what unfolded was a curiously stilted affair in which actual live content seemed few and far between.
For someone who used to dominate the show when on, Hader often faded into the background this week. Part of that had to do with the content of the sketches, but the overall ebb and flow meant that he simply wasn’t onscreen for large chunks of the evening. Now, that’s hardly a problem unique to this episode, but when you have a potential first-ballot all-time SNL cast member hosting, that feels like a missed opportunity.
It’s not as if nothing worked last night, but the pickings were slimmer than most might have anticipated. With that said, here are three sketches people will be discussing until the show returns with Chadwick Boseman in April.
Weekend Update: Stefon On St. Patrick’s Day
Just as Ben Franklin said, “Nothing is certain except death, taxes, and that a Stefon segment will be really, really funny.” (He said that. Look it up. The rest of us will wait.) When Hader made his first post-Seth Meyers appearance, I’ll confess I thought that this character should have been retired when Hader left the show. But that’s an insanely rigid way of thinking, especially considering the ongoing quality of the character. It just always
works, and in a show in which comedic chaos reigns, it has to feel good to have
a segment that isn’t just reliable, but reliably great.
It’s tempting to just quote the entire piece here and call it a day (especially that amazing Billy Joel/Bruce Springsteen portion), but special props have to be given here to John Mulaney, co-writer of every Stefon segment, who made his first onscreen cameo as Shy. Mulaney has a place in the SNL Hall Of Fame for Stefon alone, a tour-de-force of singular vision, off-kilter references, and the complete conviction of his comedic vision. There’s simply never been anything quite like Stefon in the history of the show, and while Hader rightly gets showered with all the praise, it’s appropriate for Mulaney to get this onscreen nod.
Anderson Cooper White House Turmoil Cold Open
This selection has more to do with onscreen pedigree than actual comedic content. (There’s one exception, which I’ll get to shortly.) Having John Goodman, Bill Hader and Fred Armisen in a sketch in 2018 is something special, and their presence lent an old-school feel to this particular political cold open. Rex Tillerson’s deliberate speech patterns don’t easily lend themselves to comedy, but Goodman does a good job showing a coiled serpent lurking under the surface. Hader’s Anthony Scaramucci is Washington D.C. by way of Jersey Shore, but still elicits plenty of laughs from an adoring audience.
But it’s Armisen’s Michael Wolff that takes the cake here, because he’s the personification of this era’s inability to differentiate fact from fiction. Wolff isn’t a monster, but rather an indifferent exploiter of the present-day environment. He continually makes up things that pass the barest of smell tests, and profits handsomely from the chaos. Armisen seems convivial as Wolff, but that persona masks some serious subterfuge just underneath the surface. It’s damn near terrifying to see him in this role.
Girlfriends Game Night
It’s probably odd to say that the “less is more” approach works in a sketch in which Bill Hader uses an electric scooter like a battering ram, but it’s precisely how little he does here that makes it work. His elderly character Horus is the eye of a hurricane, casually destroying anything and everything around him. But like a much-happier Herb Welch, he’s in his own reality at all times, one in which the concerns of others are distractions to be ignored.
There’s nothing profound about this sketch, but I like how 90% of it would still work exactly as is were it a silent film. Everything you need to know about everyone’s intent is in the facial expressions of the performers, and no audio could augment the image of Hader accidentally backing Melissa Villaseñor up from stage right to stage left like a deleted scene in a Mad Max car chase. (Props to Heidi Gardner for protecting the back of the set as if she was making the last stand in a Marvel movie.) This probably won’t be a sketch people remember in a month, but it’s a great example of what Hader, the 13th best SNL cast member, could bring to the show each week during his eight-year run.