Another season of Saturday Night Live is winding down, and looking back, it’s hard to figure out a particular through line to describe the past year of the show. If there’s one, it’s that the show has finally decided during the second half of Season 44 that simply showing clips of President Donald Trump rather than having Alec Baldwin portray him is the right way to go. Political cold opens tend to dramatize his associates rather than the man himself, instead leaving “Weekend Update” to make the most direct comments about the Trump Presidency.
With Emma Thompson hosting, the show opted to forgo American politics as much as possible, focusing instead on Mother’s Day and a host of pop culture-independent premises in the middle of its final three-week run of the season. After the nostalgic highs of last week’s Adam Sandler-hosted installment, this week’s show managed to start extremely strong but ultimately didn’t have quite the firepower to sustain things after “Update.”
While it pains me to omit Heidi Gardner’s amazing Bailey Gismert, I can only share three sketches in this space each week. And while Bailey’s love for Pikachu should be celebrated, these are the three segments that everyone will be discussing until Paul Rudd hosts next Saturday’s season finale.
Emma Thompson Monologue
Mother’s Day is as celebrated a holiday as Christmas on SNL, with the casts’ actual moms making several prominent appearances in recent seasons early in the annual episode. While only Pete Davidson’s mom appeared onscreen this week during “Weekend Update” (and getting her promised meet-up with Jon Hamm during the final bows), having Fey and Poehler flank Thompson for a rapid-fire “Mother Speak 101” was a delightful way to start the show.
Nothing about either the premise or the jokes themselves were particularly original or illuminating, but the pace and precision at which these three passed the verbal baton to one another make the piece sing all the same. One missed hand off would have sent the entire endeavor careening off the side of a cliff, but these three pros make it look easy. Each got a chance to both set up another and then spike home their own respective punchlines, turning the monologue into a Cirque du Soleil comedic juggling act. Thompson’s breakdown of the various meanings of the word “splendid” was a particular highlight, in which she demonstrated how it’s the British equivalent of the word “aloha.” Had the show just been these three doing a three-woman weave all night, it might have been the best episode of the season.
As subtle as…well, a slap across the face, this sketch nevertheless produced the loudest, most sustained laughter of the evening. Leslie Jones has made a name for herself on the show for playing characters with an outspoken, often intimidating presence. But here, she’s taken down peg by peg by an etiquette coach with a penchant for the rules and MMA-esque fighting techniques.
Some sketches overwhelm you with comedic ideas, such as this week’s semi-successful but ultimately flat “Chopped” parody. Here, the jokes are few and far between, but completely connect each time. The audience realizes what’s going on the first time Thompson’s coach slaps the tea out of Jones’ hands, and from then on the tension rises as the scene builds to the next escalated burst of violence. Thompson will get the lion’s share of the credit for her cold, calculated performance. But Jones is what makes this really work. Her increased panic at what she’s gotten herself into makes her the heroine of a horror film, with the only goal being survival. I’m looking forward to the season of The Crown in which Thompson appears as this character.
The Perfect Mother
Back in December, SNL hit a home run with “Best Christmas Ever,” a wonderful ode to the way people romanticize the past in order to omit life’s less-than-perfect moments in favor of a storybook tale. That same concept was applied again this week, with Heidi Gardner’s harried mother marveling at the way her own mother (Thompson) did everything with so much more composure and grace. Of course, the opposite is true, and what ensues are parallel examinations of the daily small traumas that each woman experiences.
As with “Best Christmas Ever,” there’s an ultimately sweet message at the core of this chaos. Both mother and daughter flat out lie about their respective experiences to one another, but they don’t do it out of spite or in a passive-aggressive manner. The sketch deconstructs the word “perfect” in its title, transforming it from meaning “without flaws” to “with flaws but all the better for it.” The final card reads: “To All The Moms In The World: To Us You Were Perfect, Even When You Weren’t.”
The comedy of SNL is fundamentally ironic, but has worked best in recent years when it wears its emotions on its sleeve. That takes the form of forlorn sketches like “Sad Mouse,” the moral outrage of its #MeToo humor, or its clearly autobiographical sketches like this and “Dyke And Fats.” It started as counterculture in the 1970s, rebelling against the country in an “us vs. them” mentality. But SNL really shines when it’s not just the Not Ready For Prime Time Players against the world, but when they include the audience as members of that exclusive club. By opening its heart, the show swells its ranks. In 2019, that type of inclusion is much needed and greatly appreciated.