Everyone loves to make wild prognostications about Saturday Night Live before each season starts. New cast members, departed cast members, cast members that got cast and never actually made it to the season itself: Fodder. Announced hosts (even stretching into December this time around): Total fodder. The anticipation of an SNL season in the run-up to the most polarizing election since… the last one: All of the fodders!
Here’s the real breakdown: over the next nine months, SNL will produce about 200 sketches. Fifty will be great, 50 will be awful, and one hundred will be fine. In other words, it will be another season of SNL.
That’s not a slam on the show. It’s what the show is. Both overly rosy as well as overly cynical analyses of the show usually miss that fact that it’s shockingly consistent at producing the same level of memorable and instantly forgettable content each season. Everyone’s “favorite” season has enough clunkers to fill a half-dozen episodes with nary a laugh to be found. Everyone’s least favorite iteration still has hours of incredible content. What you choose to focus on says more about you than the show itself.
So let’s forgo big-picture predications and see what Woody Harrelson did as host of the 45th season premiere. As always, these aren’t necessarily the best sketches, but the ones you have to see. These are the water cooler sketches, the one that for better or worse cut through the clutter and keep people talking until the next episode airs.
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DNC Town Hall
Much like the Family Feud sketches that use half of its run time to introduce every individual character, this took a long time to get going. But once the four leading Democratic candidates got center stage, this sketch took off like a rocket. Did it matter than only one of those four candidates were played by actual SNL cast members? Not really. At this point, that’s how the show is casting the major political players, and arguing against it is like arguing against the weather. You can do it all you want, but it won’t make a damn bit of difference.
It helps that Harrelson (as Joe Biden), Larry David (returning to play Bernie Sanders), and Maya Rudolph (as Kamala Harris) all killed their performances, with sharp writing giving each distinctive, meme’able moments. From Harris’ continued pitches of potential TV shows based on her catchphrases, Sanders’ angry odes to his measured pace of action (“If I accidentally hit ‘Input’, that’s a whole day!”), and Biden’s inability to understand why he’s now a complicated candidate (“I’m like plastic straws: I’ve been around forever, I’ve always worked, but now you’re mad at me?”), the comedic hits kept coming.
Could this sketch have simply skipped the extended intros of candidates that may not matter by Thanksgiving? Probably. But this 10-minute sketch was like an extended Grateful Dead jam that meandered for a while before hitting some incredible peaks. Patience can be a virtue. (Or, you can just skip ahead five minutes on the YouTube clip. Options abound!)
Inside The Beltway
So many people broke during this sketch that even Jimmy Fallon said aloud at home to no one in particular, “Well, that’s a bit much.”
Still! There’s something incredible about seeing so blatant a on-air screw-up as this. There’s something beautiful about it, because the number of times you should see something like this is approximately 10,000. Doing this show live is like walking a tightrope while blindfolded while on a unicycle while a hundred angry wasps swirl around your head. We should see awkward costume changes all the time. The poor woman that stumbles on around 4:40 in this video missed her mark by two seconds. That’s it! She’s done this flawlessly for probably a decade and we never congratulated her. Should we condemn her now? Watching Aidy Bryant die of embarrassment and then revive herself on national television was a moment of heroism I’ll never forget. I would have rented a paddleboard on the River Styx and simply kept rowing away from my mortal coil.
However, this error hid the incredible meta nature of this sketch that made it initially fascinating. This is a sketch about a talk show in which a lone voice insisted nothing was going to happen to Trump. Yet, all one needs to do is look at the initial few episodes of the 42nd season of SNL to see a similar instance of false bravado. Spoiler alert: THEY HAVE NOT AGED WELL. There was no lone voice at all! Watching Kate McKinnon as Hillary Clinton dance in victory after the release of the Access Hollywood tape is a mood at this point. Is Kenan Thompson’s character merely a political naysayer, or SNL learning from its past mistakes and noting that for all its Trump mockery that nothing will move the needle in 2020? I honestly don’t know. But I imagine a lot of people will debate that very thing this week, which is why it’s included here.
Apple Picking Ad
Maybe it’s because I’m from New England, and therefore a sucker for a sketch about the cult of apple picking. But this was another instance of a character breaking (in this case, McKinnon) and taking the already shaggy segment into “this might careen off-the-rails and straight into the Hudson River” territory. Harrelson was probably never better all night than as Hank, a cheery farmhand who constantly betrays fears about his surroundings. (“We found some animals, and now they’re in prison!” might have been the line of the night.) His effective use of pausing made every single joke land, and represented a master-class of comedic timing.
But this sketch truly belongs to Bryant and McKinnon, who have all-time SNL chemistry together. For many seasons, the show paired Bryant with Cecily Strong, and while both are individually excellent, the Bryant/McKinnon pairing just works much better. There’s a comfort and a camaraderie that extends past the material. The delight they take in one another casts a warm glow over whatever they do, even if what they are doing is showing gourds that came out “extra penis” this year.