Melissa McCarthy returned for her fourth time as host at Saturday Night Live, and deservedly so: She’s one of a handful of people that essentially has an open invite to come on whenever she feels like it, with a skill set perfectly equipped to engage with the cast and also put entire sketches on her back when the need arises.
So it was interesting, in a bad way, to see her more or less recede to the background in last night’s installment. It’s not that McCarthy did a bad job, but it basically felt like an inferior retread of earlier episodes that she hosted. Nothing about her performance tonight took away anything, but nothing really added to the proceedings, either. Most of the strongest material (including a great installment of “Weekend Update”) happened without her at all. But there was strong material this week all the same. Here are this week’s highlights.
The Day Beyoncé Turned Black
There’s plenty to be said about the show’s lack of teeth when it comes to overtly political topics. Despite the almost embarrassment of riches when it comes to mining the current Presidential race, SNL still hasn’t quite figured out where to point its aim. And yet, when it comes to culture, the show can be surprisingly nimble and even incisive. Case in point? This pre-taped segment.
While the show’s history in terms of diversity both in front of the camera and behind it isn’t stellar, recent advancements on both fronts have yielded content that simply couldn’t have been produced even a few seasons ago. This sketch, inspired by the outrage (a word mocked by Michael Che during “Update”) stemming from Beyoncé‘s video for “Formation” and subsequent performance of it at the Super Bowl, is another example that.
Smartly, the segment focuses less on the content of the song and more on the reaction to it. In doing so, SNL doesn’t pretend that it’s above the outrage, but rather incorporates its new voices in with the old to discuss how much people enjoy Beyoncé and other artists so long as they stay within so-called “acceptable” terms. The show can’t do anything about its less-than-amazing record when it comes to minority representation, but it can do a ton in terms of owning up to it while actively working to amend that issue henceforth. This isn’t just smart politics. It’s smart comedy.
Sketches like the one about Beyoncé are great, and part of the lifeblood of SNL. Another big part? Sketches that don’t rely on anything in the current pop culture landscape to generate laughs. There’s literally nothing in this sketch that relies on anything since The Terminator came out in 1984, and it’s all the better for it.
After all, the sketch isn’t really about The Terminator at all, but the sheer embarrassment of watching a sex scene with your parents. It’s a simple, relatable premise that also happens to give Pete Davidson a leading role in a sketch. As someone primarily defined by his “Update” appearances, it’s great to see SNL explore ways to further utilize him. He’s a breakout talent, but the show hasn’t quite figured out a way to help him truly break out. More roles like this might help enable that transition.
Kyle vs. Kanye
Lost in the overt oddness of many digital shorts written by or featuring Kyle Mooney is his pure sweetness as a performer. He’s just an inherently likeable guy, which makes his mumblecore approach to comedy so endearing. But what takes this over the top from the normal Mooney-centric sketches is the combination of concept and execution. It’s a documentary wrapped inside another documentary filtered through an easily identifiable hook: The idea that we aren’t doing the thing we’re meant to do.
So yes, the Behind The Music approach is funny. And yes, the Kanye West throwdown at the end is cathartic. But what really takes this over-the-top are the fake scenes shots during supposed SNL rehearsals, in which we see the fake Mooney inserted into where the real Mooney would be to the point where the word “real” needs quotation marks. Not only does this sketch have to create its own universe, but also has to concoct sketches within that universe to exist simply to stage some of the action. From a sheer ambition standpoint, it’s breathtaking. But it’s Mooney that ultimately sells the illusion. Without someone to root for, this is simply a technical achievement. With him, it’s a true stunner.