Saturday Night Live is in the middle of a four-week run ahead of the Winter Olympics. You would forgive the show if it had a lull somewhere in that grueling schedule. And yet, through three weeks, the show has constantly delivered good-to-great material week in and week out. This week’s Will Ferrell-led episode might have been the best one yet. It helps to have a host who is probably on most fans’ Dream Cast list. But he also had not performed with the majority of this cast, since this was his first hosting gig since May 2012. There was no guarantee his energy would mesh with these Not Ready For Primetime Players.
Ferrell dominated the night, appearing in every single segment, including the cold open and “Weekend Update.” While he could ably play the supporting role during his run on the show, here he was front and center at all times. But he was also generous in that leading capacity, acting inside of the ensemble rather than outside of it. With only a few exceptions, he surrounded himself with the current cast as often as possible, making this a fantastic bridge between past and present. Here are three sketches people will be discussing as we head towards Natalie Portman’s return to Studio 8H.
George W. Bush Returns Cold Open
Putting one of the show’s iconic cast members back into one of his most iconic roles? That’s the definition of a no-brainer, and a fantastic way to kick off the show to boot. It’s also another deft way of putting Trump into the show’s periphery while still discussing his presidency: By discussing the nostalgia for Bush’s era, SNL can simultaneously talk about the present while resisting the reframing of the past.
This wasn’t simply a regurgitation of Will Ferrell’s Greatest George W. Bush Hits, but a smart updating that felt simultaneously familiar and fresh. The single shot, straight-into-camera Presidential cold open is a staple in the show’s arsenal, but having Bush conduct it via Twitch in his basement did enough to contemporize it. On top of that, all the usual verbal staples – the malapropisms, the bizarre analogies – were on display and instantly iconic. I can see “I’m no economer” turning into a meme, as well as this gem: “Shoe me once: Shoe’s on you. Shoe me twice…I’m keeping those shoes.”
Nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake can be painful to watch. This was an example of the show dipping into its rich history and demonstrating its lasting power.
Sometimes you want smart, insightful, topical humor. Other times, you just want something silly involving clown genitalia.
We get the latter in this Top Gun-esque parody, and while the repeated use of the phrase “Clown Penis” is the central comedic conceit, it works because of Ferrell’s restraint in this sketch. While he’s agreeably over-the-top throughout the episode, here he downplays the ridiculousness, which in turn makes it that much more hysterical. This isn’t just a random phrase devoid of context: His pilot coldly and methodically lays out the reasons for his call signal. While it’s offensive, it also has purpose.
You could make an argument that while his call signal is uncouth, his flying should straight up expel him from the Air Force. Ferrell’s cool demeanor instantly changes each time his pilot finds himself upside down. While that’s probably one tic too many for a sketch this short, it’s hard to argue with the visual of Ferrell floating in space, wondering how the hell he got there. In an episode filled with solid sketches, this one breaks through with its unique verbal and visual elements.
It takes some guts to air a sketch whose entire point is to make people feel uncomfortable. Yes, SNL has always pushed boundaries, and will continue to do so, but that doesn’t mean it’s not easier just to do a bunch of sketches about mistaking Cracker Barrel for Crate And Barrel. Along with the “Next For Men” short, this sketch continued this season’s thematic through line of looking at the #MeToo landscape, and once again the show did an excellent job commenting on its complexity.
What’s smart about this sketch is that everyone understands when another person at the table is about to cross a line, but is systematically unable to navigate that boundary once she or he tries to talk. The point of this sketch isn’t to come to some conclusion or introduce any new revelation. That’s smart, but also means the sketch resists catharsis. Everyone at the table wants to simply talk about their dogs, but realize in doing so they are masking a much bigger problem. The absurdist touches (Kate McKinnon drawing a small theatrical curtain over her face to shy away from the conversation, the cutaways to nuclear explosions and Pizza Rat) don’t remove, but rather add, to the reality of what’s depicted. This is a high-stakes sketch for a high-stakes world, and it’s great that SNL is participating in the conversation.