And Your Host…
Now, I’m not saying that the end-of-show timing was so off tonight (commercial break, band vamping, commercial break, title card, commercial break) because Woody Harrelson’s monologue was just all over the place. Or speculate as to why that might be. That’s not what I’m here for.
But that monologue was just this side of interminable, even before the whole thing was revealed as the wind up to what sounded suspiciously like the sort of anti-vaxxer conspiracy nonsense that Harrelson has been known to peddle in the past. And I’m not even complaining that Woody appeared to be lying in his claim to have abstained from his favorite recreational flora for tonight’s show—you book Woody Harrelson on a live, late-night comedy show, and the agreeable fuzziness is part of the bargain. That there weren’t any actual jokes in the monologue isn’t really an issue, either. (I did like the onscreen legend outing Harrelson’s manager for muling Woody’s weed across the country.) And if you’re tickled by various euphemisms for weed (“hooter,” “herb”), the Woodman’s your guy.
Harrelson’s a very good actor and a fun presence, and if he had to wait until the goodnights (and a Kenan fake out) to finally get his Five Timers Club blazer, well, the happy blazer himself seemed to be having a great time all night. I did, too, mostly, mainly because having someone like Harrelson on SNL brings a tingly element of unpredictability. Sure, much of that tension manifested in a blown line here and there and some more obvious than usual cue card reading, but you book Woody, you get Woody.
The Best And The Rest
My favorite sketch gets its own shoutout in the 10-to-one slot below, so I’ll hop over that one to tout the prison phone call sketch, for stylistic niftiness, if nothing else. Ego Nwodim and Kenan work so well together here as a pair of corrections officers who can’t stop commenting on the monitored call between prisoner Harrelson and visiting wife Chloe Fineman. Apart from giving Kenan and Ego room to work, however, I really appreciated the move where Harrelson and Fineman crank down their volumes while Ego and Kenan’s voluble C.O.s’ rise over them. It’s a nimble, in-performance innovation I haven’t seen on SNL before, and the cleverness elevates the guards’ already funny, skeptical mockery of the couple’s hopeful platitudes. Kenan can make me smile just by proclaiming himself “wall-a-paper,” and he and Ego maintain a giddy wavelength all throughout. Low-key hilarious.
This season’s been blessedly bereft of truly terrible sketches for the most part. The Hippo (a The Whale knockoff film canceled at the last minute) had two jokes, one of which was the reveal of Woody in a fat suit, the sort of “Oh, there that is” gag that probably seemed like a sure thing. To someone. Better was the conceit that method actor Harrelson’s costars all moan about their minor sacrifices (growing a beard, dyeing hair) made for the aborted project, while Woody’s dedicated performer actually gained 450 pounds for the part by eating the same stuff they give to underweight elephants. (Chloe, James Austin Johnson, and Ego all find sly little shades for their self-involved fellow thespians.) It’s not awful or anything—I liked how the piece parceled out further evidence of just how screwed Harrelson’s actor was by the doomed production. (He didn’t know that some Brendan Fraser-style prosthetics had been an option all along.) But the central gag was just, “Hey, look at Woody in a fat suit,” which, again, probably seemed like a killer idea to someone.
The submarine sketch worked for me, mainly for how straight-facedly everybody plays the silly gag that the Navy’s new sub is named Mr. Dingleberry’s Goochballoon asdfjkl;6969, thanks to an ill-advised internet naming contest. (Oh Boaty McBoatface, you were too pure for this world.) Harrelson’s full-throated captain barks out his exposition in fine deadpan rigidity, while the assembled crewmen (basically the entire male cast) matches him both in volume and ability to maintain while loudly noting how the second place name was “Dookiecruiser,” and how their previous attempt to pronounce the latter half of the chosen name as “Assdavajackal” went down in failure. SNL will spend ridiculous money backing up even the silliest of jokes, and the fact that Lorne spent untold thousands on a credibly mocked-up sub only serves to heighten the absurdity of it all.
Lorne Michaels’ admitted use of in-sketch product placement often leaves me wondering, “Did that company ask for this one, or is this SNL eschewing that sweet corporate synergy money in favor of a shit joke?” Those commercials about the mail-in colon screening service do contain subtext that the smiling people in the ads are definitely going to put their waste into that chipper cartoon delivery box, so Woody’s consumer getting freaked out when said box seems a little too into the transaction comes across in queasy hilarity. The necessary escalation serves the pre-tape well, too, with the receptacle’s receptiveness to what’s going to happen giving Harrelson the heebie-jeebies in well-considered increments. “I’m Thomas,” the box notes unhelpfully, before revealing that Kenan’s UPS driver is also a touch too eager to see Harrelson “unleash” inside the happy container. The kicker, that Woody is playing himself and that his neighbors are used to him, say, cowering before an army of inanimate cardboard boxes on his front stoop, is a satisfying little twist, too.
“The Stakeout” is another amusing Please Don’t Destroy short film, with Ben (and an overeager, armed Woody) tailing John and Martin after they bail on an after-work hangout. That John and Martin are not only a happily married suburban couple, but have three kids (including a surly teen) and are auditioning new Bens comes as a shock, naturally. Worse still is the absurd gag that everyone involved immediately throws their cell phones dismissively in the garbage once they see it’s Ben calling. Kenan shows up, too, to puncture Ben’s rationalization that his pals are only hiding their love story out of fear of discovery. (“Uncle Kenan!,” the kids shout happily.) The punching bag with Ben’s face on it is just the kicker. (“Where did they even get that?”) I like the PDD guys quite a bit—their taste for the absurd pairs with their chummy goofiness in a most pleasing way, while yoking their pieces to their supposed position as the lowest-rung SNL writers grounds things nicely. Cry “nepo babies” all you want, but funny is funny, even if I question whether this slight little goof is strong enough to be so prominent in the running order tonight.
The carnival ride, one of those spring-loaded, crane-mounted things that hurls you into a mile into the air, is basically just an excuse for Kenan to lose it, a prospect that should have been funnier, honestly. Kenan found a few ways to make his terrified rider’s distress amusing—the guy can pass out in subtly different ways. But the whole green-screened plummeting gag lacked momentum.
Weekend Update update
Jost and Che did their thing, the longtime duo’s chemistry taking up the slack left by the jokes both delivered and omitted from their customarily breezy and self-impressed fake news. Trump being the one to eliminate exactly the sort of train regulations that would have prevented the East Palestine disaster at least gets a mention, if not an actual joke, per se. Che’s joke about China’s proposed peace plan needing to be assembled by children got the expected groans (what, audience, you like child labor?), while he continued to explore the boundaries of his own schtick, with Jost setting him up to supposedly defend convicted multiple sex criminals R. Kelly and Harvey Weinstein. “You’re not gonna like this next one,” Che warns happily at one point.
Jabs in passing are Jost and Che’s style, and if those jabs seem more about making themselves look clever and cool than about sparkling political satire, then the jabs are what they’re graded on. I liked Che’s observation about Florida despot and possible GOP frontrunner Ron DeSantis’ autobiography, The Courage to Be Free, sounding exactly like a book about Black history DeSantis would ban from schools. Could he have done more with a sitting Republican representative openly calling for a second Civil War than an ad hominem slap at Marjorie Taylor Greene’s appearance? I’m gonna say yes.
Two fine character pieces tonight, with James Austin Johnson debuting NBA legend and noted space case Bill Walton, here letting his freak flag proudly fly as the cosmically minded commentator expounds on everything from the Lakers (whose fortunes he can see thanks to his “headless Babylonian priestess” spirit guide) to Walton favorite John Mayer’s tenure with what remains of the Grateful Dead. It’s the sort of all-out yet impeccable impression work that Johnson’s become known for, and his Walton’s timing is perfection, his play-by-play of a yet-to-be-played Lakers game interrupting his flow with understated flourish.
Heidi Gardner brought a new characterization, too. Less an impressionist than a character actor, Gardner is great at imbuing her Update pieces with a lived-in authority that’s tough to resist. Here she’s an enthusiastic older mom who can’t stop slighting her four daughters (“They’re doctors,” she admits dismissively), while heaping motherly praise on her one son, a 38-year old deadbeat whose repeated larceny and dissolution she presents as adorable. It’s the sort of character sketch birthed from a kernel of observational comedy (internalized patriarchal self-loathing, in this case) that Gardner spins into a potently funny performance. The turn toward overt incestuous obsession doesn’t quite land as well, but that’s a quibble. Gardner’s a truly singular actor.
“I feel like I want to punch you.”—Recurring Sketch Report
Any episode that continues the season’s streak of non-repeaters gets an automatic grade bump.
“A leader has to make some very tough decisions. That’s why I’m going with the chimichangas.”—Political Comedy Report
James Austin Johnson does an amazing Donald Trump. The voice, cadence, and syntactic scramble are all in place, and the impression benefits from SNL’s decision to parcel out these sketches with less frequency. (Help us all when the 2024 election madness ramps up.)
Johnson, who had a fine show tonight, does what Alec Baldwin never did as Trump—he finds a hook. Here, that’s Trump’s inseparable egotism and intellectual aphasia, the former president and about-to-be-indicted demagogue’s speech to the beleaguered Ohio train derailment victims aswim on a sea of digressions, tacit admissions, and gassy insults. “Pete Butt” is Trump’s killer nickname for the current Secretary of Transportation, while the smiling supporters assembled for Trump’s speech endure tangents about Rihanna at the Super Bowl and how pretty their newly poisoned river is.
Johnson is outstanding, even as Saturday Night Live continually fails to find much for his Trump to do. Part of that is the satire-slipperiness of the failed steak salesman and reality show host’s whole hateful schtick. How does satire top Trump wandering into a town irrevocably poisoned thanks to his deregulation of rail safety standards, toting expired, Trump-branded bottled water, cold McDonalds, and MAGA hats. He didn’t toss rolls of paper towel to the townsfolk, but that’s about all that can be said this time. Chloe Fineman’s been working on her impression of the grand jury foreperson whose raft of giggly post-service interviews teasing Trump’s impending indictments sees her being invited to the trainwreck, although that’s the sort of tittery sideshow that SNL can’t separate from the actual satirical point. I don’t dread these more intermittent Trump cold opens the way I learned to under Baldwin, even though I’m often left more amused by Johnson’s brilliant conception that by anything the sketches can be bothered to say.
Not Ready For Prime Time Power Rankings
James Austin Johnson still being categorized as a featured player might be de rigueur in the SNL tenure scheme, but the second-year man has certainly graduated by any measure. Tonight, he had Trump, debuted Bill Walton, and brought color to even his smaller roles with a Phil Hartman-esque aplomb. In the goodnights Johnson was swaddled in a hoodie and baseball cap, the nondescript disguise of a craftsman who’s perhaps not overly eager to take over the show. But he’s capable of doing so on any given night.
Ego had a second strong show in a row, while Kenan was Kenan, which is the compliment the veteran has earned. Heidi and Chloe had some nice character work.
I like how the ball’s being passed around this season. Fewer cast members than last season, plus the departure of some heavy hitters has seen SNL make at least some room for most everybody. That said, not much for Punkie, Molly, Marcello, or Devon tonight, and Mikey Day continues to recede, as a performer anyway.
“I thought I was banging Seal Team Six, but it was actually sixteen seals. I was like, ‘Thanks America! Arf, arf!’”—10 To One Report
“Two Men Speak in the Most Beautiful Gym in the World” is 10-to-one done right. Bowen Yang and Harrelson are wonderfully contained as the two elegantly dressed workout acquaintances whose languorous exertions are accompanied by a string of smoothly delivered absurdities. Tuxedo-clad Bowen reveals he’s just come from his own wedding (“Her name is Ashley, or something”), while Woody, asked about his favorite machine, coyly replies, “I like the one that makes the toast.” Michael Longfellow gets in on the vibe perfectly, his in-gym pianist replying to Woody’s question about what he’s playing with an airy, “A big piano, sir.” Bowen’s reference to himself going “beast mode” on the rowing machine is revealed to mean he has a rose preserved in a bell jar, while Woody’s query about Yang’s “cheat day” elicits Bowen’s eager, “I’m allowed to commit adultery.” Toss in an actual puppet gym rat, complete with tiny pumping dumbbells, and I’m all yours, sketch.
The memorial cards keep coming when your show’s been on the air for nearly half a century. Tonight SNL paid passing tribute to comedian Richard Belzer, who made a few appearances on the show and was the warm-up comedian for several years back in the day, and Eugene Lee, the show’s original set designer who created Studio 8H’s signature looks over the years.
“Did it doo-doo?” “That sounds like Morse code.”
Woody interrupting his own intro of musical guest (and fellow-five-timer) Jack White to ask if White gets a jacket, too, feels like the sort of Adrien Brody-style ad lib designed to rile up Lorne Michaels. (And throw off the episode timing.) You book Woody, you get Woody.
Woody and Jack both, indeed, got their jackets, Woody receiving his from a visiting-the-hubby’s-work Scarlett Johansson.
Dennis Perkins is an entertainment writer who lives in Maine with his wife, the writer Emily L. Stephens, and their cat, (Special Agent Dale) Cooper. His work has appeared in places like The A.V. Club, Ultimate Classic Rock, and the Portland (Maine) Press Herald. You can find him on Twitter, where he will anger you with opinions, and Instagram, where you will be won back over by pictures of Special Agent Dale Cooper.