Jimmy Fallon took a lot of heat for rubbing now President Donald Trump’s hair on The Tonight Show last summer, and neither he nor the program have truly recovered since. With Stephen Colbert and ex-head Saturday Night Live writer Seth Meyers turning increasingly political pre- and post-election, Fallon has kept his show as non-topical as possible. That’s his preference and temperament, but it’s also kept him increasingly out-of-touch. Yes, people want to be entertained when they tune into late-night television, but escapism is almost impossible at this point in time. The shadow of that hair tussle lingers over the program, and ignoring it has not made it go away.
Would it have been a surprise for Fallon to use this opportunity as SNL host to course-correct? Yes, if for no other reason than his appearance with Tina Fey on “Weekend Update” during the Lin-Manuel Miranda-hosted ep was as close to an on-air mea culpa as we were going to get. Fallon is Fallon, and his strengths during The Obama Years have become complete and utter liabilities in The Trump Era. It’s not fair to expect him to change: He’s a people pleaser at heart, and that’s fine when things are going fine. It’s one thing to play songs with The Roots using classroom instruments. It’s another when the only tune people can hear is “Nearer My God To Thee.”
Here are the three sketches from this week people will be talking about until the show returns for the season’s final three-week run.
Jimmy Fallon Let’s Dance Monologue
How did SNL truly kick off its first coast-to-coast show? With a giant song-and-dance number from a song first written over thirty years ago. Topical? Heck no. High energy? Heck yes. From a pure production standpoint, this was incredibly impressive: The combination of camera work, choreography, and sheer number of individuals involved (including a cameo by Harry Styles) made it feel like the spectacle it was intended to be.
This was less comedy piece than statement of purpose: “We’re experiencing our biggest ratings in years. Expanding to the west coast will only make us bigger. Rather than alienate anyone, we’re going to go with the most inoffensive, four-quadrant piece of entertainment we can possibly conceive. Luckily, we have just the host to avoid anything remotely controversial. Let’s not think about anything, let’s just party, America!”
Even if it might have been bolder to use the large audience, it’s not surprising (nor should it be) that this was the equivalent of the Super Bowl Halftime Show rather than a personal/political piece.
Take Me Back
Sometimes a sketch just needs one really good punchline to launch it into the stratosphere. Probably the best recent example of this is “Farewell Mr. Bunting,” which just might have the best punchline in the last ten years of the show. This sketch doesn’t quite reach those heights, but it does have another trick up its sleeve that makes it almost equally impressive.
Fallon plays Doug, a man trying to win his ex back after a recent break-up with Jen (Cecily Strong). It seems like this is just an excuse to have Fallon sing intentionally terribly, and while that charade lasts, the sketch does kind of drag. (Having Mikey Day and Kyle Mooney doing backup helps, especially with their deadpan “Jen!” cries.) But just when the concept is about to overstay its welcome, we learn why Jen left Doug: He was part of the security team that forcibly removed David Dao from his United Airlines flight. “You dragged a man off a plane this week!” she screams, which unleashes the loudest laugh of the entire week from the crowd.
But it gets even better: It turns out the man whom she is now dating directed the ill-fated Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad. That’s not just worse news on top of bad, but an amazing callback to last week’s SNL episode in which Beck Bennett, who plays the new boyfriend in this sketch, was the director of said ad. In other words, he’s playing the same character in both sketches, which creates in-universe continuity. It’s a small, subtle, super nerdy thing. But it one that rewards viewers in incredibly satisfying ways, and it’s a great way to encourage episodic viewing rather than selected sketches online after the fact.
Easter Message From Sean Spicer (With Melissa McCarthy)
There’s no way Melissa McCarthy as Sean Spicer doesn’t make every Sunday morning talk show, every entertainment website, and probably fifty percent of your social media feed come Sunday. That’s just the way it is right now, and it’s well-earned. When Spicer melted down spectacularly this past week, people were salivating in real-time about what SNL might do about it. That’s how pervasive the link is at this point.
Turns out, when you have McCarthy-as-Spicer as a solo act, it’s not nearly as effective. McCarthy needs someone to actually react to in order to make this truly sing, as it personalizes the adversarial nature that makes this so potent. Why did the show do this? Because she wasn’t even on set: Due to scheduling conflicts, she had to do it remotely. SNL knew it HAD to do something this week, but this was the best they could do under real world circumstances.
That’s the rub when you have someone not in the cast create an instantly popular character. The show is at the mercy of the schedules of Alec Baldwin and Melissa McCarthy to perform the season’s most popular characters. The ratings have been in the show’s favor, but it’s not only stealing time from the actual cast, but suggesting they aren’t good enough to fill these roles. As the show tries to get bigger and bigger to capitalize on this season’s success, might the Not Ready For Primetime Players turn into afterthoughts on their own show? They are the lifeblood of the show, and overshadowing them will do more harm than good in the long run.