Issa Rae was supposed to host Saturday Night Live back in March, when she had two new movies coming out (The Photograph, released in February; and The Lovebirds, which got pushed and released via Netflix in May) as well as the fourth season of Insecure, the HBO series which she created and stars in, but you know, COVID-19 shut down her spring SNL opportunity.
But she’s here now, so how’d it go?
What’s The Deal With The SNL Cold Open for 10/17/20?
Well, first, we knew we’d have to sit through another unconscionably long cold open about the presidential election campaign. The first two weeks of Season 46 opened with debate sketches that lasted between 12 to 14 minutes, and this week’s sketch about the dueling broadcast network town halls clocked in a few seconds short of 13 minutes. We’re also still waiting for a sketch about this election or this president that heightens the ridiculousness of the reality they’re supposedly spoofing past any of the obvious jokes everyone else already made. Instead, SNL continues merely holding up the mirror of our surreal politics using celebrity cameos as if that’s enough to hold our attention.
One thing the two televised town halls does afford the show is the ability to utilize much of its 20-member ensemble cast. Chris Redd, Heidi Gardner, Alex Moffat, Melissa Villaseñor, Chloe Fineman, Lauren Holt, Ego Nwodim and Kenan Thompson all showed up to ask questions of Trump (Alec Baldwin) or Biden (Jim Carrey), while Mikey Day served as ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, and Kate McKinnon took on the task of NBC’s Savannah Guthrie.
When the cameras cut back and forth between the two forums without context, it finally gained momentum because they finally stopped belaboring the set-ups (which remains the biggest time-waster in these segments), which also begged the question why they didn’t just do that from the get-go.
I suppose the show deserves some credit for imagining Carrey’s Biden as late great PBS painted Bob Ross in addition to Mister Rogers, as well as a WrestleMania act-out between McKinnon’s Guthrie and Baldwin’s Trump, although that could have been even bolder.
I guess I really suppose my frustration stems from knowing (sometimes personally) how many great and talented comedians SNL has in its cast and writing staff, yet somehow still subjecting them to long, lackluster openings to the episode. Give them some more freedom to play creatively with this election in the final two weeks, I say; nay, I beg!
How Did The SNL Guest Host Issa Rae Do?
Wait a second you guys. I just noticed something small but weird. The time on the clock on the video above for Rae’s monologue reads 11:48, but it was only coming up on 11:45 in real-time when the episode aired live overnight, so lemme watch this video again to see if they sneakily uploaded her “dress rehearsal” monologue instead. THEY DID!
When the show aired live, Rae ad-libbed an extra hello to her family (which didn’t happen in dress rehearsal, obviously, since they wouldn’t have been watching), and didn’t get the enthusiastic audience applause that she received in rehearsal when she mentioned her 2011 webseries, “The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl,” which led to her HBO deal in the first place. In both cases, however, she did cop to feeling “so scared” that she “might throw up,” compared her four years in TV to high school, making her SNL her prom, and jokingly suggested: “If this show goes bad, though, just blame it on me, Mary J. Blige.”
No need to worry about that, though. Not even from the horror show that’s Twitter.
Rae performed great throughout, from her monologue joke about learning the “OhMyGod, hey!” trick at celebrity functions to stall while trying to remember who they are, to covering “Drake Watch” for a Montreal-based morning TV show, to a pre-taped fantasy dance-off with Kyle Mooney, to another talk-show segment (SNL always has, always will love the talk-show format to drive premises and characters) set in Chicago where Rae played a local NAACP official coming up with any possible reasons to support incompetent and/or corrupt Black political candidates — except Kanye West.
But the sketch with perhaps the lowest stakes made the biggest impact: A live sketch (airing at 12:03 a.m. Eastern) in which she’s on a first date with a lawyer (Redd) experiencing outdoor dining in Midtown Manhattan during COVID-19 restrictions. The outdoor dining experience means anyone can amble by, and those anyones just happen to include everyone Rae’s character, Sharon, has dated and/or had sex with recently: That New Yorker (Thompson) who tries to sell roses to couples on the sidewalk, “Karate Man” (Pete Davidson), and “Robot” (Bowen Yang). There’s even an opportunity for newbie Punkie Johnson to get in on the action. So to speak. Why and how does Sharon know all these characters? And why, pray tell, do all the guys comment on her “titty meat”? And how many times did they initially tell NBC’s “Standards and Practices” censor they’d utter those words on TV? Somewhere, the ghost of Patrice O’Neal is smiling.
How Relevant Was The Musical Guest? And Who Sang With Justin Bieber?
Justin Bieber is so identified with SNL at this point he might as well be related to Alec Baldwin. Wait. What’s that? You don’t say. Oh, Twitter does say.
Bieber, at age 26, already had appeared on four previous episodes (including 2014 when he hosted and performed as musical guest), and as recently as this February! But the Biebs has kept busy during the pandemic, putting out two new songs in the past month, and he performed both of them. “Holy” with Chance The Rapper first.
And then later, coming back out of his dressing room with “Lonely” featuring Benny Blanco on keyboards. And also yodeling!
Which Sketch Will We Be Sharing?
You don’t have to be labeled a virtue signaler to get why this parody of 5-hour Energy called “5-hour Empathy” might get circulated far and wide.
The spoof ad featuring interactive voiceover by Thompson questions why Beck Bennett’s basic white guy won’t try the drink that’ll give him a better handle on systemic racism and structural oppression. “You’re not scared are you?” Alas, both Bennett and his partner (played by Heidi Gardner) will try to talk, walk or jump through a window out of drinking this magic elixir. There’s nothing more to the bit than that. But that might be enough for the message to preach to its choir.
Who Stopped By Weekend Update?
You ever notice how Weekend Update anchors Colin Jost and Michael Che tend to make more jokes about the same subjects they covered in the cold open? Seems like overkill. They also, especially this season so far, seem surprised that some of their jokes made it to air, and they’re the co-head writers who chose them! Anyhow. Enough about them.
We’re treated to the first Update appearance of the season from the Trump sons Eric and Don Jr. (Moffat and Day). This Eric wears a mask, even if he’s not sure what to do with it. SNL‘s cast of Trump brothers generate more effective and consistent laughs than their celebrity cameo counterparts, in part because they’re not so concerned about getting the look or voice down as much as they enjoy being goofballs. This act gets upped by the emergence this week of their half-sister Tiffany (Fineman), still celebrating her birthday.
New segment alert? “Aidy in America!” Sounds promising, but it’s a trick bit. We see Aidy Bryant out in a cow pasture, unable to find any undecided voters, and unsure of where she even is. That’s the bit. Short and sweet. Would’ve been sweeter and funnier if they’d repeated and heightened the bit later in the same show.
Gardner also stopped by, stuck in the 1980s as Carla, a “cocaine wife,” to talk about the damage to NYC’s nightlife scene seven months into the pandemic shutdown. Oh, how this makes me miss Stefon. Stefon would have adapted and told us where to go. Carla, on the other hand, stands up and writhes, asking Jost: “Colin will dance with me, won’t you baby?” Jost’s reply? “I don’t want to be involved with this.” Does anyone? Only at the end, when Gardner breaks character, does she reveal what we already were guessing. This was “directed by David O. Russell.”
What Sketch Filled The “10-to-1” Slot?
Can we just pretend the sketch that aired at 12:52 a.m. Eastern never happened? It starts out as an ad for a restaurant named Jack Flatts thanking customers for their patience during the pandemic, only to get hijacked metaphorically and literally by bearded white men who demand the restaurant’s reopening, or else they’re gonna kidnap the governor…you know, like the plot the FBI foiled this week against Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Even if this sketch does give newbies Andrew Dismukes and Lauren Holt something to do, it’s not something they’ll likely be promoting on their socials, either.
Instead, let’s focus on what the show aired in the final block before goodnights. This is a more traditional fake ad, making fun of any of us who purchased things during the pandemic, hoping to take up new hobbies with all of our newfound free time, only to find ourselves disinterested and looking to resell them. Enter eBay! Now with “PreBay” service, which intercepts your dubious purchase before you even open and then decide to return/resell it.
Two fun notes about this sketch: Features voiceover from Cecily Strong, whose absence has been felt this season. Also, she reads the following disclaimer at the end: “This commercial doesn’t apply to you if you work or have kids.”
Who Was The Episode’s MVP?
Yang had to get in and out of makeup twice (counting the dress rehearsal) to go from French-Canadian news anchor to Times Square robot. Redd and Gardner, meanwhile, get As for their effort across multiple sketches and videos. But it’s Chloe Fineman’s two appearances in the episode that’ll linger most with viewers. Fineman nailed both of her impersonations; first, as the Florida woman at Trump’s NBC Town Hall who thought the president looks handsome when he smiles (even if she’s still voting for Biden); later, as Tiffany Trump bringing even more to the Update desk segment about the Trump family.
Sean L. McCarthy works the comedy beat for his own digital newspaper, The Comic’s Comic; before that, for actual newspapers. Based in NYC but will travel anywhere for the scoop: Ice cream or news. He also tweets @thecomicscomic and podcasts half-hour episodes with comedians revealing origin stories: The Comic’s Comic Presents Last Things First.
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