I had a weird moment while watching Saturday Night Live this past weekend: during a sketch featuring the immensely likable and talented Issa Rae in which she portrayed a woman on her first date confronted by increasingly terrible exes, a deranged Kenan Thompson uttered the phrase “titty meat,” and I laughed. Maybe it was because it was an unexpected turn of phrase and I was caught off-guard; maybe it was the simple joy of an ad-lib Kenan tossed into the sketch unvetted; I don’t know. But I do know this: it was the first time in the episode I’d audibly laughed out loud. That was it. “Titty meat.” That’s what made me laugh.
I mention this to say that I don’t think it was because I’m the lowest common denominator of comedy fan (though, let’s be honest, this would certainly be evidence that I’m displaying symptoms of it). I mention this because it’s disappointing that this was the first moment I laughed, thirty minutes in, at the episode. And at this. Yikes.
What followed next was my own personal descent into depression at the fact that this was the third straight episode of SNL I found to be woefully terrible. Spare me the gazillion responses in the message board reading “SNL’s never been funny” or “SNL stopped being good when [your favorite SNL cast member] left.” That’s not true, and I don’t buy it. In fact, often I think SNL is still very funny. I even thought there were some nuggets to be found in the painfully awkward “SNL at Home” episodes early in the current pandemic landscape (forgiving, of course, the fact that if we’ve all learned anything in this COVID-19 era it’s that comedy timing’s really hard to pull off on Zoom). But the purest fact about SNL is that it is always a mixture of good stuff and terrible stuff, our memories over time have simply retained the good stuff. There have been quantifiably bad seasons (I’m looking at you, Michael McKean/Chris Elliot/Janeane Garofalo season 20), but if you’re pining for the good old days of SNL, you’ve clearly forgotten the sketches which similarly didn’t work in your favorite season. Let’s get this out of the way up top. But still, I found myself wondering on Saturday night: am I becoming that guy who thinks SNL isn’t as good as it used to be? Because objectively, the top three episodes of this season have been some of the worst I’ve seen in some time.
I don’t want this to be happening. I still love SNL; it’s very likely my favorite American television institution. So what’s the problem this season? Arguably this cast and crew has been hand-delivered more pure gold to work with than any cast in years. The amount of raw material to mine has never been greater, and one of SNL’s strong point has always been to riff on misery-inducing topics — from which we literally can’t get away right now. Let’s take a look at some of this season’s symptoms.
They can’t mine better material out of all of THIS? Seriously?
The season premiere was primed to be a softball knocked out of the park. COVID restrictions, political attacks, and social/equality issues (paired with a massively talented African-American and LBTQ-representative cast) should be a huge meatball for the institution to devour. The first episode alone came two days after the most ludicrous debate in our nation’s history, and they can’t seem to stick the landing. On pretty much anything, really. Lotta misses that should be direct hits. Instead, here’s Kyle Mooney acting like a thirteen year old gamer in a sketch that’s not doing anyone any favors.
Jim Carrey gonna Jim Carrey
It’s invaluable for SNL to pair the right players with the right targets, something Lorne and company has done ably over the years. Larry David was a ringer for Bernie Sanders, Fey famously trounced Palin and Baldwin — although seeming exhausted by the four-year gig — gamely goes after Trump. Maya Rudolph’s admittedly an inspired call for Kamala Harris as well. But with Biden, Lorne has screen-tested a few different Veeps (among them Jason Sudekis, Woody Harrelson and, for a sublime moment, John Mulaney) before settling on Jim Carrey. And when Carrey initially revealed as Biden, he seemed sound. The problem is that you can’t stop Jim Carrey from being Jim Carrey, which means he’s gone from Joe Biden to Fire Marshall Bill in three episodes. The fact that we might get four years of a Carrey Biden is likely the greatest argument against his candidacy.
The cast doesn’t seem to be gelling.
If Kentucky fans know anything, it’s the importance of a crew firing on all cylinders and working together. Maybe it’s a symptom of pandemic distancing, but this current cast doesn’t seem to play off one another well, and often seem to be acting in completely different sketches. Take “Bonjour Hi,” the Montreal-morning-show spoof this past weekend wherein Bowen Yang and Kate McKinnon both has outrageously out-of-sync co-hosts, McKinnon with wild eyes and Yang with a three piece suit playing to the top row. Not a bad idea, but you can’t help thinking that these guys don’t seem to be on the same page. Rough timing on a Zoom sketch is one thing, but in person the beats need to be perfect. Gotta get this together by Thanksgiving.
Aidy Bryant’s doppelgänger
Are none of us going to talk about the fact that Lorne Michaels hired an actress who looks, sounds, and performs — so far, at least — exactly like Aidy Bryant? Look, I love Aidy Bryant, I think she’s had a Moynihan-esque rise to one of the best in this cast, but this is an actual text exchange I had with Nick Roush on Saturday.
As it stands, it shouldn’t surprise you that the best chemistries on the show right now are McKinnon/Bryant and Che/Jost, two pairs who play well off one another and can read each other well enough to kill most of the time; and let’s be fair, Update has been the most solid parts of all three episodes. But some of the writing just seems aimless. Your first post-monologue sketch after a summer of pandemic/election insanity is a rehash of the “silly name” sketch from two seasons ago? You’re just going to let the talented Issa Rae talk about how exciting it is to be at SNL, and that’s the monologue? Any time one of your first-30-minutes sketches stars Kyle Mooney (which happened in a premiere episode STARRING CHRIS ROCK), you’re just looking to fill time. The best sketch of the Issa Rae episode was one cut for time which featured Rae trying to explain the absurdly-ridiculous-when-detailed-out-loud HBO series Lovecraft Country, a sketch which could have killed if any thought had been put into it at all, because it’s a sharp critique of the show. A sketch from the recent Bill Burr episode mined the new American institution of social distance nights with others on an outdoor deck, and it had no hook whatsoever. These are amazing opportunities to be relevant right now; Saturday Night Live is full of cultural earmarks which reflect our nation’s modern history (Will Ferrell appearing in an American flag thong to prove his nationalism after 9/11 is a perfect example), and sketches which reflect these dark COVID-era times are ripe for the picking.
It’s not Issa Rae’s fault that she seemed out-of-water on Saturday, she was supposed to host when Insecure was premiering and she had the Kumail-Nanjiani-costarring The Lovebirds coming out on Netflix (watch that movie, by the way), so she didn’t have anything to plug. Chris Rock was a great get to host the premiere and came out with an incredibly defanged set, and although I generally like him I still don’t understand how Bill Burr got tapped. To top it off, this Saturday’s episode features singer Adele. Not as the musical guest, mind you; the musical guest is H.E.R. — because we’d all much rather see Adele do comedy than sing. So much about SNL right now simply seems like it’s missing the point, and when a thread is there it’s rarely followed to its destination.
Look, no one wants to call this out less than I do; those of you who know me that I know way more about SNL than, say, my 401K, or how a mortgage on a house works. I hate that this is happening. I think this cast is (mostly) very able; it may not be the top half of the show’s history, but there’s some real talent there. The writers’ room seems to be dropping the ball. And worse, SNL seems rather apathetic about it.
I’m not giving up on SNL; it’s been too much a part of my life to turn my back on — but c’mon. If they can’t right this ship with the writing, the least they could do is throw Kenan out there to say “titty meat” for an hour and a half and call it a night.