We’re about a third of the way through the 43rd season of Saturday Night Live, and we’ve yet to see a truly great top-to-bottom episode. At this point last year we had seen three great eps (Lin-Manuel Miranda, Tom Hanks, and Dave Chappelle), all of which relied on the lead up to and aftermath of the 2016 presidential election for material and energy. So while a direct comparison might be unfair, we’re still heading into December without a signature episode under this season’s belt.
As with nearly every episode so far this year, this week’s Chance the Rapper-led installment still had some great individual segments, but the show is struggling to find this season’s voice thus far. Part of that could stem from trying to out-satire a reality that already feels like an SNL sketch. Part of it could stem from turnover in front of and behind the cameras. Maybe doing these shows in three-week chunks is unsustainable. These are all theories, unprovable because creativity is inherently unpredictable.
Also unpredictable? What people will be talking about this week from last night’s episode. But I’ll do my best. Here are the three segments people should be discussing around the Thanksgiving dinner table this week.
Sometimes you want a sketch to tear a hole in the pomposity of civilization. You want it to draw blood, to speak truth to power, to give voices to the voiceless. Other times, you just want Chance the Rapper to react like a deer in headlights for four minutes while you pause the DVR due to excessive laughter. This was one of those latter sketches.
One-note joke sketches live and die on execution but also escalation. Each variation of that joke has to be funnier but also bigger than the last, otherwise the sketch’s momentum stops dead in its tracks. Having an out-of-his-depths basketball analyst cover hockey is an instantly recognizable comedic situation, but not one that necessarily implied greatness. However, the premise allowed Chance’s inherent charisma to carry the sketch on his back.
With vets like Beck Bennett and Cecily Strong playing it straight, everything depended on Chance nailing the nervous rhythms of his character’s vamping. His timing here is incredible, finding the perfect pauses and phrasings to keep things interesting and funny throughout. Whether it’s his inability to understand the fundamentals of the game or inability to pronounce anyone’s name (“That’s an S and a K and a J next to each other, so that’s a nope!”), Chance showed why the move from musical guest to host was a smart move for him and for SNL.
Come Back, Barack
Anytime you can combine Chance the Rapper and ‘90s R&B music, you have to do it. That’s just a fundamental rule of nature. Here, in this Boyz II Men-esque ballad, Chance joins a trio that laments the fact that Barack Obama isn’t President. The reveal of Obama’s face at the end of the first verse is an excellent use of tension and editing, and sustains the pretaped sketch through its end.
If you listen closely, you can hear how similar the phrasing of “Come back, Barack!” and the catchphrase of another famous preproduced sketch (“Dick In A Box”) truly are. (Go ahead, sing both in your head back-to-back. I’ll wait.) While never reaching the comedic or musical heights of that piece, this one comes close, especially thanks to the non-singing lines sprinkled throughout the song. Kenan Thompson’s mid-song monologue was especially great: “I’m just getting rained on for nothing!” feels like a line that can be applied to many moments of 2017, and one that many people will repeat when they talk about this sketch.
Weekend Update: Pete Davidson on Staten Island
If Pete Davidson delivered like this every week on “Weekend Update,” would anyone object to him being as permanent a feature as Michael Che and Colin Jost? Davidson has had some great “Update” segments over the years, but this might have been the most complete one from top to bottom. SNL has yet to really unlock him as a sketch performer, but few can command the straight-to-camera approach as he can.
His sustained attack on Staten Island resonates not because everyone watching has an intimate association with that borough. Rather, the audience has what feels like an intimate association with Davidson. He is one of the more exposed performers in the show’s history, barely concealing his true self when on “Update.” We don’t truly know Davidson, but we feel like we do. As such, when he shows critics going after him, we instinctively want to protect him.
It helps that the jokes themselves are razor-sharp, playing off fellow Staten Island resident Colin Jost (who consciously transforms into an onscreen punching bag if it means getting audience laughter) while admitting his Hurricane Sandy joke on “Update” a few years ago probably landed him in this position. Rather than offer a mea culpa, Davidson doubles down, laying Staten Island smackdowns left and right through a barely-concealed grin. In the process, he confirms his status as one of the best “Update” performers in the show’s long history.