Ever watch a mediocre movie, see a performance that doesn’t align with anything else onscreen, and think, “I want to see whatever film THAT person is in instead?” (Think Alan Rickman in Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves and you get the gist.) That was the overriding feeling in this week’s Saturday Night Live, during which host RuPaul was having the absolute time of his life while the audience clung onto anything remotely funny. This outing was an unfortunate repeat of last week, in which a game host is abandoned by ideas that either didn’t gel or were dead on arrival.
While there are weeks during which everything seems effortless, this one wore its sweat on its brow. While undeniably an amazing performer, the show never gave RuPaul a chance to do much besides provide variations on his drag persona, lending an unfortunate sameness to the majority of the sketches. The overall feeling is one of a missed opportunity: the historical importance of RuPaul hosting overshadowed the actual episode itself, which wasn’t bad so much as almost instantly forgettable.
Looking on the positive side, at least one segment took time to acknowledge the meaning of the moment. SNL didn’t have to execute a flawless episode with RuPaul as host to make it meaningful: While that would have been ideal, simply having him as host will have lasting positive impressions on many that watched. With that in mind, let’s look at the three sketches people will be talking about until John Mulaney returns to host at the end of this month.
The best monologues tend to fall into three categories: Incredible stand-ups doing their thing, insanely complicated production numbers, and affecting autobiography. RuPaul borrowed a bit from category one but primarily leaned on category three to deliver a funny but primarily sweet story about his journey from originally arriving in New York City to finally making it to the stage in Studio 8H.
The monologue starts off in familiar territory as RuPaul outlines the gritty nature of New York City in the pre-Giuliani days (“Drugs, street walkers, and seedy night clubs…but it wasn’t ALL good”) and hinting at some of the more scandalous activity that went on during those days (something about Yonkers, a corrections officer, a House of Pancakes, and feet).
But primarily, RuPaul used the moment to extol the virtues of kindness and love, which is both corny as hell but also quietly revolutionary, given the anger on display in both the cold open and also “everything everywhere in 2020.” Being corny is being the opposite of cool. Being corny opens oneself up to pain and ridicule. But RuPaul was defiantly corny, and the crowd ate it up. Anything “funny” in this monologue was incidental: RuPaul’s very presence was a triumph in and of itself, and will certainly serve as inspiration for many for whom kindness and love may be in short supply these days.
Democratic Debate Cold Open
What’s fascinating about SNL’s current take on the Democratic Party isn’t the humor but rather abject terror that underlines every single punchline. In stark contrast to the run-up to the 2016 election – during which the show (and much of the country) assumed the eventual nominee would trounce now-President Trump in the general election – the show now looks wide-eyed at the in-progress slow-motion train wreck that is everything about the primary process in 2020.
The cold opens themselves have their own pattern at this point: Overlong, full of cameos involving non-members of the cast, and generally “fine-if-toothless.” But the end of this particular sketch, in which Bernie Sanders (once again played by Larry David) acknowledges that he could stop the “BernieBros” but doesn’t particularly want to do so. The twinkle in David’s eyes betrayed a Joker-esque anarchy that underlined everything that’s happened since the Iowa caucuses began.
Granted, that chaos started long before Tuesday night, but the sense of increasing insanity can be traced in these political cold opens. For all the vitriol SNL gets from non-fans about its lack of cultural relevance, it’s instructive to simply sample the cold opens since 2016 and see how closely they reflect (or even predict) national sentiment. It will be fascinating to see how the show reacts to what will undoubtedly be even more craziness as the march towards November continues.
Weekend Update: Chloe Fineman on The 2020 Oscars
Chloe Fineman’s primary role thus far during her brief tenure has been to have the occasional line here and there and make viewers paying half-attention to say, “Wait, is that Rose Byrne?” But here, she gets her breakout moment on the show, much in the way Bowen Yang announced himself a few months ago in a similar slot.
In the vein of best SNL chameleons such as Darrell Hammond, Jay Pharoah, and Melissa Villaseñor, Fineman stepped into several roles that mixed the familiar with the unexpected. Sure, getting a Meryl Streep impression is funny, but how many people are doing drop-dead Laura Dern impressions these days? Watching this several times reveals how many celebrities Fineman physically embodies above and beyond her facial and voice contortions. It will be impossible to not watch Timothée Chalamet’s next 15 performances (all before next year’s Oscars, at his current output rate) without looking at his manic finger machinations.
Aside from Fineman’s actual performance, this segment has one of the secret ingredients that has made “Weekend Update” as a whole much better this year than in previous Jost/Che seasons: It actively makes Jost a heel. Whether it’s Jost himself owning up to his privilege or the show seemingly sneaking it in Stefon-style (as with Melissa Villaseñor’s “White Male Rage” segment a few weeks back, in which he was surprised at the content on the cue cards), the show has all but turned Jost into a host meant to evoke a visceral reaction rather than calm the masses. He’s more Norm MacDonald than Seth Meyers at this point, and “Update” is all the better for having a serrated rather than a smooth edge when it comes to the comedy coming from him or directed at him.