In his most recent stand-up special, Saturday Night Live alumnus John Mulaney jokes at one point that, “Building a gazebo during the Civil War is like doing stand-up comedy now.” It’s a little hard to understand what he’s saying without hearing his inflection, but in essence he’s pointing out the weirdness and/or futility in doing normal things during extreme times. For his part, Michael Che noted something similar during last night’s episode, in which he makes an off-handed remark about how the entire Seth Meyers-hosted episode should probably be a telethon instead of a normal SNL episode. You could (and probably should) make an argument for normalcy in times of strife, that such things ground us and keep everything from floating into the ether. But it’s also a fairly succinct explanation for the weird energy around this episode.
The combination of the country’s mood, the often intentionally off-putting nature of the comedy on display in many sketches, and bizarre production issues in the second half of the episode that led to cut-off sketches and a rushed finale did Meyers few favors. What should have been a successful homecoming turned into an episode that featured some brief flashes of brilliance but more often struggled to find any semblance of rhythm.
Still, there are a few sketches that people will discuss during the first break of the 44th season until Jonah Hill hosts on November 3rd.
How you feel about this sketch probably depends on your reading of its intent. On one hand, you could read this as one of the absolutely darkest segments the show has pulled off, in which Bill Cosby’s dementia has fashioned his prison-based reality into an episode of his sitcom The Cosby Show. This interpretation doesn’t dismiss the horrific acts he perpetrated but suggests that confronting what he actually did would or already has broken his brain. The other way you could read this sketch is that it’s one of the more tone-deaf ways to deal with Cosby’s past acts that’s possible to execute. Through this lens, jokes about Jell-O suggest the show would rather discuss his artistic past than his criminal one, thus diminishing the pain inflicted upon his victims.
I’ve watched this sketch several times to get a beat on it, and in the end, my inability to come down on one side or the other probably means it’s a mixture of both extremes. This is a risky sketch, and while the show’s mandate is to make people laugh, I think whoever wrote this always wanted people to squirm. It’s an incredibly awkward sketch, but the groans it elicits from the audience are intentional. I can’t continually ask the show to go to riskier places and then criticize it when it does, but it’s also not clear that the show knows how to walk the type of tightropes it attempted in this sketch. Regardless, it’s a fascinating mixed bag, and will probably be the water cooler sketch from this episode.
Kanye West Donald Trump Cold Open
It’s unclear if SNL has a Trump problem or an Alec-Baldwin-playing-Trump problem, but it’s a problem all the same. Nothing about portraying the President should seem perfunctory at this point, but that’s what happens whenever Baldwin appears onscreen since the start of Season 43. As presidential candidate Trump, Baldwin was electric. As actual President, both he and the show seem utterly exhausted.
People will talk about this sketch because talking about Donald Trump’s meeting with Kanye West is what we do in this particular microcosm of history. But the show’s insistence on pushing actual (albeit unbelievable) reality just slightly more extreme is the safest way it could proceed. At one point, Baldwin’s Trump calls West “The Black Me,” which sounds like a phenomenal sketch premise. Heck, even re-staging the press conference using the actual transcript might have provided a house-of-mirrors approach that would have highlighted its inherent absurdity. What was got instead was another instance of the show being unable to parody what already feels like parody itself. It’s an unwinnable no-man’s land, and the sooner the show finds its way out of it, the better.
Weekend Update: Really!?! with Seth Meyers, Colin Jost and Michael Che
Meyers oversaw what might have been the show’s strongest sustained “Weekend Update” run. In many ways, his “A Closer Look” segment on Late Night With Seth Meyers is still the best version of “Update” on television. So it’s no surprise that he came most alive last night when behind the desk once again to do this segment. (I actually placed money on “Meyers will be the first host to do an SNL monologue from behind a desk” earlier in the week and lost, so we can blame him not only for Trump becoming president but also for my inability to pay for groceries this week.)
While Meyers’ skill at this type of comedy overshone Colin Jost and Michael Che in this segment, both men also landed some solid comedic punches here as well. Jost’s joke about Trump’s overly clean desk yielded one of the biggest laughs of the night, and Che’s negotiation of four uses of a certain word not only provided a cathartic reaction in the moment but also builds curiosity about when the next three might be deployed. It offers up a type of narrative continuity for the rest of the season and also gives this version of “Update” a new segment that feels unique unto itself.