Saturday Night Live: has the show found a new comedy star?

When Saturday Night Live signed off last May, signs pointed to big changes come season 47. It really looked like a number of the show’s long-time cast members, including Kate McKinnon, Aidy Bryant, Cecily Strong, Kenan Thompson and Pete Davidson, would be leaving. That turned out not to be the case, with everyone returning save Beck Bennett and Lauren Holt, even as several new featured players and writers joined the show.

That the above-listed names seem so reticent to depart speaks to how bad SNL is at making stars these days (this is especially evident in the lackluster movie careers of McKinnon, Davidson and Thompson), as well as the dire state of film and television comedy as a whole. That said, there are reasons to be hopeful that the show can turn things around, as evidenced by the cold open giving the spotlight to an exciting new face.

The episode kicks off with featured player James Austin Johnson playing President Joe Biden. Addressing the nation, Biden laments his mostly, but not all bad summer – “everyone keeps razing me about that drone strike, but on the bright side, I went the entire summer without falling down the stairs once!” – even as he focuses on the future.

He attempts to save his infrastructure bill and social agenda by bringing together “moderate” Democrat senators Joe Manchin (Aidy Bryant, whose impression is completely indistinguishable from her Ted Cruz) and the insufferably quirky Kyrsten Sinema (Cecily Strong) and progressives House members Ilhan Omar (Ego Nwodim) and AOC (Melissa Villaseñor). His attempts to bridge the divide are a total failure though, since Manchin and Sinema hate the very idea of roads, let alone bridges.

Of course, it wouldn’t be an SNL political cold open without at least a couple of random walk-ons, and so we get treated to brief appearances by disgraced New York “Governor-ish” Andrew Cuomo (Pete Davidson) and dweeby, gutless Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer (Alex Moffat), before the sketch signs off with a dig at moderate or progressive Dems alike, noting that they’re all essentially the same in one essential way: they’re all “Screwed!”

This was on par with last year’s immediately forgettable cold opens. The harshest (though not undeserved) dig was aimed at “the Cruella of the Met Gala”, AOC, because she “wore a dress that said Tax the Rich, then spent all my time partying with the rich. Oops!” While the show does poke fun at Sinema, it feels like she gets off light (the same is true of Manchin, although he can’t help but make for a boring character). That said, everything is elevated by Johnson. The comedian, who rose to internet fame for doing the best (and only funny) Trump impersonation, shows off an equally good Biden.

The night’s host is Owen Wilson, who celebrates performing in front of people – including his brothers and fellow actors Luke and Andrew – for the first time since the pandemic began. He reminisces about his misspent youth and bad reviews he’s earned throughout his career, including one that compared his laid-back energy to “an old golden retriever laying next to a fire”. It’s a rambling, low-energy monologue that, while light on laughs, makes good use of the host’s easy-going charm.

Owen’s first sketch of the night sees him playing a doctor who constantly interrupts a live episode of a View-like daytime talk show in order to divulge positive Covid (and HPV) test results to the hosts. It’s utterly devoid of laughs or a point and goes on far too long.

Star Trek: Ego Quest promises “a mid-life crisis of cosmic proportions” by making Jeff Bezos the captain of a new penis-shaped Enterprise. Along with his first mate and brother Mark (Luke Wilson), he hangs out and does battle with fellow “weirdo billionaires” and would-be space explorers Richard Branson and Elon Musk. SNL has made fun of Bezos on several occasions, but after last season’s disastrous Elon Musk episode, the punches have no weight behind them. They’d probably welcome Bezos on to host if he asked for the gig.

Next, Wilson finds himself at Pixar Studios to lay down voice work for Cars 4. Things start out normal, with Wilson recording his character’s famous catchphrase “Ka Chow!”, but it quickly becomes apparent that something’s off this time. The script has him reading lines such as, “Back-off jack-ass, I’m not looking at your wife!”, “Calm down jerk-off, I didn’t touch your daughter – she was coming on to me!”, and “Grow up man, your sister sure did!” Wilson suspicions about Disney turning Lightening McQueen into a creepy perv are confirmed when he runs lines with co-star Larry the Cable Guy (Johnson, doing another bang-on impression) and finds that all of their dialog revolves around deployment of “the R-word”. Wilson stumbles over a couple of his lines, but this still makes for a funny and enjoyable piss-take on the family friendly franchise.

A local school board meeting about new Covid-19 protocols is interrupted by a several “concerned and also crazy” parents, students and private citizens who spout anti-vax nonsense and complain about unrelated issues such as critical race theory, local teens who “vape and anal each other”, and “Barak HUSSIEN Obama and Hilary Rodham HUSSIEN Clinton!” There’s solid laughs throughout, but the seemingly endless number of characters quickly wear out their welcome.

On Weekend Update, Colin Jost has to “pretend to be excited” to talk about Biden’s infrastructure bill, while Michael Che credits the plan – not for what it attempts to do, but because “you gotta admire the confidence of a guy with a stutter naming something The Build Back Better budget plan”.

Their first guest is A Black Woman Who’s Been Missing for Ten Years (Nwodim), on to discuss “missing white women syndrome”. She furiously highlights the disparity between how her case was handled versus that of a young white woman who went missing at the same time, comparing the photos put out for both (“Look at hers: just gorgeous … now look at the photo they used of me … I look like Old Dirty Bastard’s older, dirtier sister!”), the rewards offered to the public for information ($10,000 for the white lady, a $15 gift card to Chili’s Too for her), and the way the media covered their cases ( “White Virginal Dime Piece Ripped from the Hands of Her Loving, Still Married Parents” vs. “Girl Not Home for 40 Days. Probably Nothing. Family Cool with It.”) As always, Nwodim is great playing an exasperated and utterly defeated soul.

Next, Pete Davidson joins the desk to talk about his experience going to the Met Gala last month. He pokes fun at his own outfit (“I look like if one of the three-blind mice sold fentanyl”) before going off on tangents about his conservative uncle and Jost’s starring role in the negatively reviewed Tom and Jerry movie.

Davidson pays tribute to Norm Macdonald, who passed away from cancer two weeks ago, by wearing a T-shirt with his face on it. I was worried that this would be the extent of the show’s tribute to him, but thankfully, that isn’t the case. The last few minutes of Update are given over to Norm – not just the greatest Weekend Update host of all time, but arguably the funniest person to ever work on SNL – and we get to watch some of his greatest hits from his time at the desk.

At the funeral for loving grandmother, devout churchgoer and slot junkie Mariam Lewis, the headliner from her favorite casino (Keenan Thompson) takes to the podium to sing her favorite song, which unfortunately happens to be R Kelly’s I Believe I Can Fly. This upsets her grandkids, although they allow him to continue under the assumption that their nana was simply unaware of Kelly’s criminal acts. However, a picture slideshow reveals that she was close with a number of similarly disgraced celebs, including Louis CK, Donald Trump, Kevin Spacey and a “way too recent” Bill Cosby. This sketch is weighed down by one too many noticeable stumbles, including Wilson asking producers if they’re ready to start right as the show returns from commercial break, as well as the boneheaded decision not to wrap things up on a perfect punchline about how Miriam died.

On Fox’s NFL coverage, Johnson and Wilson play commentators Joe Buck and Troy Aikman. While awaiting an injury update, they pitch an awful-sounding new sitcom called Crazy House, which confusingly stars a monster puppet and features guest appearances from DaBaby and Stacey Abrams. Buck grows increasingly frustrated with the ridiculous taglines and story synopses he’s tasked with giving, as well as Aickman’s giddy questioning over the bizarre details. As with the cold open, this run-of-the-mill sketch is made much funnier thanks to Johnson’s truly perfect Buck impression. Other cast members, such as Chloe Fineman, are known for their impressions, but Austin has a talent for nailing more than just voices, instead finding the nuances in his subjects inflections and the tics that define their public image.

The final sketch revolves around a commercial shoot for Robinson’s Mail-In Stool Testing. The husband and wife team who run the clinic promise not to play with their patient’s stool samples, but the commercial’s director thinks their tagline — “We’re gonna take it out. Test it for diseases. Then that thing’s going right in the trash!” — is so direct as to be suspicious. This goes on a bit too long and never quite comes together, but it’s a solid introduction for Sarah Sherman, aka Sarah Squirm, the other notable new featured player. It’s doubtful that the show will give her much chance to display the surreal body-horror comedy that has made her a cult favorite on the internet and the LA comedy/art scene, but the fact that her first big sketch revolves around poop is an encouraging sign.

This is true of the episode overall, which gave a surprisingly ample amount of screen time to two of its three new hires. It’s probably a bit much to call Johnson’s turn a star-making performance, but it does seem clear that the show recognizes what a legitimate talent they’ve landed and are set to use him accordingly. Even with the overstuffed cast full of long-in-the-tooth talent, Saturday Night Live might be showing some signs of new life after all.




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