The forty-first season of “Saturday Night Live” kicked off last week without too much of a bang, forgoing performance fireworks for actual whimpers from host/musical guest Miley Cyrus, whose characteristic energy eventually morphed from loudly screaming about drugs to openly weeping about her deceased pets while playing the piano (a genuinely moving, if strange scene that seemed real, out of place and real out of place within the context of the show). How much difference a week makes.
Riding high off her big-time summer of success, comedian Amy Schumer took the stage for her very first turn as “SNL” host, ably slipping into the role by utilizing the key elements that make an “SNL” host shine: being funny, being themselves and being one with the cast. It’s easy to imagine Schumer as a regular member of the standard “SNL” lineup, though her major energy and natural force shone through during every sketch she appeared in. Schumer was clearly happy to be there — when she started her monologue by gleefully shouting, “I’m hosting ‘Saturday Night Live’!” the joy was apparent — and the rest of the cast seemed happy to have her.
Perhaps it was that happiness that inspired the “SNL” team to inject the second show of the season with a hot button issue: Gun control. “Saturday Night Live” has recently balked when it comes to doubling down on controversial issues, but after another week marked by still more school shootings, they had to relent. And, boy, did they ever, with not one, not two, but three sketches that addressed the gun culture in America with precision and intelligence. Schumer may have ended her opening monologue with a joke about being trash, but she was nothing but a treasure during what we hope is her first of many appearances on “Saturday Night Live.”
The Two Best Sketches: “Guns” and “Delta Flight”
Guns appeared in the later half of the show, thanks to a segment on “Weekend Update” and a sneaky bit during the “City Council Meeting” sketch, but they were the focal point of an early sketch, and the best of the night: “Guns.” Utilizing the tried-and-true fake commercial launching pad, “Guns” craftily moves from a sketch that could be about anything — was this another drug sketch, like last week’s “Abilify for Politicians”? maybe some kind of household product, a little “CNN Pregnancy Test”? — to being pointedly about guns and their place in American culture. As biting as last year’s ISIS-centric “Father Daughter Ad” and with a more clever premise, “Guns” wasn’t just the best part of a very good show, it was the most necessary bit the series has done in years.
Frequently pairing Schumer up with Vanessa Bayer during both the show’s run and a series of commercial promos was kind of a no-brainer — Schumer did, after all, cast the “SNL” star as her dim bulb best work pal in this summer’s smash hit “Trainwreck” — but it’s one that very much worked. These two are hilarious together, and they’ve also got the kind of chemistry and comfort that’s hard to manufacture during the standard one-week prep time that goes into a regular episode of “SNL.” As two terribly peppy Delta flight attendants, the ladies gleefully zig from appropriating Spice Girls songs to deliver important in-flight messages to living most people’s worst fears and getting tossed out of a moving plane. The whole thing is bolstered by Taran Killam running wildly around in the background, alternating between singing and screaming, and Kenan Thompson looking both very amused and very freaked out.
The Worst Sketch: “Porn Teacher”
Here’s the mark of a good show: Even the worst sketch really wasn’t that bad. Starring Kyle Mooney and run through with the kind of awkward humor the third-year performer is best known for, it seems clear that this was also a Mooney-penned joint. But despite a very game Schumer (her delivery of “get rammed” was the single funniest throwaway line of the entire show) and plucky turns from both Bayer and Aidy Bryant, the whole thing just never came together. Like Mooney’s own too-tight denim vest (that came from a kids’ store, right?), it just wasn’t the right fit, a meandering bit that took up too much time without delivering enough in the way of laughs or cracking observations. And still, it wasn’t even that bad!
Best Male Performer: Kyle Mooney
“Porn Teacher” missteps aside, Mooney was easily the male MVP of the show, a hard honor to earn in the face of Taran Killam’s continued — and well-earned — reign as the series’ most visible male performer. After going whole-hog on his off-kilter humor in “Porn Teacher,” Mooney played it straight in the over-the-top “Ford’s Theater” bit, got hammy in “Hands-Free Selfie Stick” and turned in a genuinely sweet performance in the painfully true “Guns.” Mooney was everywhere last night, and the range he showed in just this single episode is some of the best stuff we’ve seen from him so far. And, admit it, there’s nothing quite like watching a starry-eyed Mooney and Sasheer Zamata fire guns into the sky to celebrate first love. That’s romance, Mooney style.
Honorable mention: Taran Killam.
Best Female Performer: Amy Schumer
Sure, it’s probably a gimme to name the host of the show — and the comedy world’s current biggest star — as the best female performer of the night, but Schumer earned this. She was everywhere and doing everything, from going brassy babe in “Ford’s Theater” and “Baby Shower” to porny teacher in, ahem, “Porn Teacher” to even hitting high notes as a musically inclined (and spacially challenged) flight attendant in “Delta Flight.” Yes, Schumer stars in her own sketch show, “Inside Amy Schumer,” but she seemed to easily embrace the demands of doing live sketch comedy with a large cast of established talent, and the rewards were almost immediately evident. She’s a star.
Honorable mention: Vanessa Bayer.
Sketch Most Likely to Go Viral: “Hands Free Selfie Stick”
There was a lot of talk about butts last night — Schumer even dedicated part of her monologue to a discussion on proper cleaning techniques — but nothing went so deep (sorry) as “Hands-Free Selfie Stick,” a glossy, shiny commercial about selfie-obssessed oversharers who are compelled to violate themselves in the name of a good picture. Putting the sweet-faced Aidy Bryant center stage only upped the sketch’s mileage and added to its uncomfortably perky position with greater visual dissonance.
Best Impression: Pete Davidson as Jason Chaffetz
Sketches about Utah congressman Jason Chaffetz are easy targets, but enlisting Pete Davidson to try his hand at some political humor instantly bulked up a mostly one-note joke. It’s also pretty refreshing to see Davidson taking his “I don’t know anything” gag and applying it to someone who really doesn’t know anything.
Character Most Likely to Become a Franchise: Aidy Bryant’s Jan Krang
“They dry hump in their cars.” In a sketch that seems mostly concerned with allowing performers to trot out new characters — and with one last dig at gun owners, care of Amy Schumer as a child, pretty much the perfect summation of the entire evening — Bryant’s pissed-off and teen-hating Jan Krang still managed to break out. Take this woman out of the city council meeting and let her loose on the world.
“Saturday Night Live” returns on October 17, with host Tracy Morgan and musical guest Demi Lovato.