Well, hopefully the Super Bowl will be more entertaining than this week’s Saturday Night Live.
It’s easy to put the blame on first-time host J.J. Watt, as the show’s history with sports-related hosts is spotty at best. But Watt did enough in the sketches that worked to suggest that the problem was the material, not the defensive end from the Houston Texans. His larger-than-life physique, coupled with an “aw shucks” attitude, produced several excellent comedic moments. But those moments were few and far between in an episode that seemed unsure how to be funny in the current political moment.
Indeed, other than the cold open and “Weekend Update,” the show didn’t deal with the impeachment trial at all, opting for often outdated pop-cultural references instead of anything remotely topical. That’s not exactly a new approach for the show, which often confines current-day events to those two slots. But SNL felt more comfortable this week in the worlds of Frozen and Rudy rather than inside the halls of the Senate.
Whether that reflects an inability to mine anything funny from the trial or a general exhaustion over incessant political drama is up for debate. But as the show mirrors the march towards this fall’s presidential election, it will be fascinating to see if the show leans into the circus or turns a largely blind eye to it.
In the meantime, here are the three sketches people will be discussing until RuPaul hosts for the first time next week.
The Sex Talk
After a fairly interminable half-hour in which the audience desperately clung to anything remotely funny to laugh at, in walked Watt with a towel over his shoulders to regale Kyle Mooney with tales of “clapping those cheeks.” It was as if the training wheels had been removed and Watt could actually start hosting the show for the first time. The childlike joy with which he described what he and his in-sketch wife (Aidy Bryant) had just done was all sorts of wrong, but Watt’s charm made the proceedings almost sweet.
Speaking of childlike, not enough attention gets paid to the way Kyle Mooney can portray awkward innocence in order to endear himself to the audience. SNL simply doesn’t have many actors in its storied history that mine this type of vulnerable on this frequent a basis. Although he started off on the show primarily as part of an alt-dudebro combo with Beck Bennett, he’s forged his own path over the past few years by going smaller rather than bigger. No one can do what Mooney does on the show right now, and it’s a joy to see him evoke the kind of awkwardness to which most of us can relate.
As soon as this sketch starts, you know exactly what you’re going to get. Other than not getting a reveal that one of Watt’s brothers was producing the latest Madden game, thus explaining the terrible dialogue handed to him, everything more or less proceeded as expected. But the lack of unpredictability didn’t penalize the proceedings. Indeed, the anticipation of the next terrible line is what drove the majority of the laughter than Watt’s delivery provided.
Even more so than the father-son sex talk, this sketch proved that Watt could carry an SNL sketch on his own given strong material. Onscreen by himself for the majority of its running time, Watt had to do little more than stare at the cue cards and bark out the dialogue. But he brought nuanced line readings to each separate instance, which meant that the laughter had as much to do with him as the increasingly insane script. If there’s one football sketch from this episode that people will be sharing in the run-up to the Super Bowl, this is the one.
“Welcome to Big Willie Pizza, home of The Big Willie.” That’s an objectively dumb line written in the year 2020, and Lord help me I laughed a lot at it. Kenan Thompson has been making lines like that sing since roughly the Reagan Administration, and this ten-to-one sketch was filled with equally unsubtle innuendo from start to finish. Between Thompson’s exasperated (and rather clueless) boss and Watt doing his best Channing-Tatum-as-Owen-Wilson-as-Dirk-Diggler impression, this was a fantastic way to end a wildly uneven episode.
As funny as the dialogue between the two of them was, I probably could have watched thirty minutes of Thompson either answering the phone with an increasingly inappropriate catchphrase (“We come where you ask!”) or coming up with new scented candles for Goop (“You smell like shellfish and karate class!”). This sketch probably won’t make the inevitable “Best Of Kenan” compilation, but it’s another reminder of how well he’s anchored the show for the last decade and beyond. Even in the weakest of episodes, Thompson brings his A-game to every moment.