The phrase “Best SNL episode in years” has been thrown around a lot recently. The show has been uneven since the en masse departure of many of biggest stars, and the subsequent influx of new talent That gives fans and critics alike a tendency to overreact to the peaks and valleys that inevitably occur has another era of SNL takes shape and a new cast finds it voice. But this weekend’s outing really was the best show Saturday Night Live has put together since that era began, possibly even going back to the tail end of the last regime.
Much of the credit goes to host Larry David. David, who was briefly a writer on SNL in his pre-Seinfeld days, brought his particular energy to the show, and it paid real dividends from the word go. His monologue was pure Larry, with a tight five that leaned into his self-deprecating, borscht belt humor, touching on everything from his being a bad host, to the advantages of being a rich prick rather than a poor schmuck, to the unimaginable shame of being a young Jewish boy who might have an eating disorder. David has a distinctive style that he used to turn the usual SNL monologue clichés on their head just a bit, and he sold it like a champ.
Two other sketches in the evening played on David’s signature persona. The first was the superlative “Bern Your Enthusiasm” sketch, which served as the perfect culmination of David’s prior appearances as the Presidential hopeful, and expertly blended the rhythms of the populist political firebrand with David’s own irritable, alter kocker personality. Aping the presentation of Curb Your Enthusiasm was an easy and effective choice for the sketch, and beyond just playing on the similarities between Sanders and his satirical counterpart, the pre-taped segment told a tidy little story that managed to sew together David’s alienating style and Sanders’s close finish in the Iowa Caucus. It was a brilliant take and the best sketch in a night that wasn’t short on good ones.
The other sketch to take advantage of David’s usual kvetching was a Titanic-esque Lifeboat routine, which featured a brief cameo from Bernie Sanders himself. I’m always surprised when politicians make these cameos and these individuals who make their living trying to engage crowds and come off as charismatic almost invariably seem so stiff and out of place in a live comedy setting. Don’t get me wrong, Sanders gave it the old college try, and gamely played on his usual rhetoric (even throwing in a surprisingly good Trump impression); it’s just funny how the sitting senator was very clearly the only one on screen who wasn’t a comedic actor. Still, Sanders rode the wave of a sympathetic crowd, and David carried the sketch in his guise as the self-interested jerk questioning the social mores that just so happen not to favor him. He had some great, self-aware lines like “I can say it! It’s olden times!” and “That’ll trick ‘em,” and transporting David’s shtick to an old timey setting worked well to keep it fresh.
But what was more impressive in this episode was not only how David showed an unexpected bit of range in his other sketches, but how the rest of the cast (and writer’s room) rose to the challenge and assembled a set of stellar performances and sketches apart from the unique comedic voice at the center of the show. I almost didn’t recognize Sanders as the 90′s-esque, almost Jim Carrey-like animatronic robot in the FBI shooting range sketch. It was a delightfully offbeat premise–a bit of befuddling weirdness in the middle of the standard good guy/bad guy police training–and both Kenan Thompson and Cecily Strong gave strong performances as the confused trainee and the stereotypical hardass instructor respectively.
The other two instances where David stepped outside of his usual persona were fun as well, even if the sketches themselves were a little less successful overall. David’s role as the hippie-looking aspiring songwriter in the Songwriting Class sketch started out a little shaky, with he and Pete Davidson having timing issues in the early going, but the sketch eventually found its footing and turned into a pleasantly odd bit about David’s character fixating on a song about an endless conflict between frogs and toads. His other uncharacteristic performance, as a burnout who vaguely resembled Stan Lee in Kate McKinnon’s recurring Last Two People in the Bar sketch, was another surprisingly different turn from him. But the sketch itself was the only real miss of the night, with much of the humor falling into the “gross and unpleasant things are funny in and of themselves” category. That said, the show keeps redoing this premise, so somebody must like it.
But the parts of the show where David wasn’t much of a factor stood out as well. The cold open, featuring an address from Ted Cruz, wasn’t the sharpest political writing the show has ever put forward, but SNL has at least zeroed in on a take on Cruz. They’re presenting the candidate as an off-putting, semi-creep, and letting Taran Killam run with the premise. Again, it’s a pretty standard Saturday Night Live tradition to take one exaggerated characteristic and ride it till it dies when it comes to political figures, but Killam’s clearly having fun with it, and it’s a solid comedic direction to go with the character as SNL settles into the primary season.
But the real unexpected bright spot of the episode was the pre-taped Pizza Roll sketch. The bit, led by Vanessa Bayer, shared some DNA with a similar sketch from last year’s J.K. Simmons episode. The Stepford-esque rhythms of Bayer’s TV Mom were appropriately broad and funny by themselves, but I was wondering where exactly the sketch was going. The subsequent left turn into weirdness and horror, with Bayer’s discovery that her “Hungry Guys” weren’t actually watching anything, was a great little twist. In retrospect, the sketch builds perfectly, with the men’s rhythmic chanting growing more and more unsettling until the reveal, and the X-Files promo was the perfect tag for it.
At the same time, the Cam Newton/Peyton Manning sketch did well by filtering the different perceptions of white and black quarterbacks through a goofy “Ebony and Ivory” set up. Like a lot of SNL‘s humor in this area, the cops coming in to hassle Cam underlined the joke a little too much in a sketch that wasn’t terribly subtle to begin with, but it was an entertaining way to address the topic.
Finally, it needs to be said the version of Weekend Update anchored by Colin Jost and Michael Che has arrived. I will cop to having had my doubts about the pair, Jost in particular, from the beginning of their tenure. But the two have not only found a sharpness in the writing of the individual gags–from Jost’s riffs on Cruz’s show tunes habit to Che’s more bawdy one-liner about “the munchies”–but they’ve leaned more into their individual personas, with Jost performing an extended snark on the entrance snafus at the Republican Presidential Debate, and Che offering a humorous rant about Black History Month. Each is clearly more comfortable when injecting a little more of their own personalities into the material, and it’s allowed them to build a solid comedic back-and-forth that livens up the proceedings considerably. Update is now a strength, no longer a liability, and that portends good things for the show going forward.
That success carried over to this week’s guests at the Update desk. Kate McKinnon’s Sturdy Barbie didn’t win me over at first, but there’s such a specificity of character to both the writing and McKinnon’s performance that it was hard not to be smiling by the time she finished the bit. Similarly, Jon Rudnitsky has had some trouble finding his niche on the show (a fact he acknowledged early in his appearance), but the physicality of his pantomime, and his twisted take on Dirty Dancing, were a recipe for success that provided his most memorable moment on the show so far. Finally, the surprise cameo of Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson as Derek Zoolander and Hansel, there to add their characters’ usual clueless take to the fashion of the presidential race, was a pleasant way to end Update. True to their origin, the two characters feel more like throwbacks to 90s-era sketch comedy in their style, but it was a nice taste of the kind of humor Stiller and his compatriots are known for in a live setting.
All-in-all, there were no real duds in the evening. Even the sketches that couldn’t quite keep pace with the rest of the quality work that night had something to recommend them. While the musical guests weren’t really my cup of tea, The 1975 (whose lead singer looked like the second coming of Pete Burns and the Goth Kid from South Park), surely gave a few young viewers some strange new feelings, so there’s that. But this was, without exaggeration, the best outing Saturday Night Live has had in years. Larry David played his usual persona to the hilt while injecting his particular brand of comedy into the occasionally staid confines of modern SNL; the regular cast shined at nearly every opportunity, even apart from David; and the humor and performances were on point throughout. The idea that SNL has once again found a winning formula is a hoary cliché, but this was an episode worth going out of your way for.