Back in the late ’90s and early aughts, then-“Saturday Night Live” cast member Jimmy Fallon was notorious for breaking on camera, succumbing to fits of giggles that often made it hard for him (and his sketch-mates, depending on who he was matched with) to keep a sketch going without, at the very least, shaking too hard from the exertion required to not laugh. Fallon did this a lot, and while it could get wearing, it was always a good reminder that “SNL” is put on live (it’s even in its name, imagine that) every week and that the show is still at the mercy of a multitude of factors that could (even temporarily) derail it. (It’s amazing, in fact, that more things don’t happen to derail the show on any given Saturday night.)
Ryan Gosling is apparently from the Fallon school of “SNL”-ing, and that’s just fine. The actor made his hosting debut on last night’s show (timed to his upcoming turn in “The Big Short,” a film in which Gosling is the funniest he’s been in years), and although he handily made his way through a Canadian-flavored opening alongside fellow countryman Mike Myers, by the time he appeared in his first real sketch, he was all giggles.
But it worked. And, really, it was kind of sweet. The other amazing thing about “SNL” is that, not only is the production tasked with delivering a full show (live, again, live) every week, but that they also have to do it with someone who ostensibly serves as a brand-new cast member who may or may not have a background in comedy, improv or live television. Not everyone is great at this — the vast majority of them are not — but it’s incredible how far a good attitude will carry a show, and Gosling showed up last night with a damn fine attitude.
The Two Best Sketches: “Close Encounter” and “The Wiz”
During a sketch about alien abduction — LOL? — Gosling was tasked with playing one-third of a small-town trio that was temporarily stolen by aliens, before being returned to the planet and swiftly snatched up by some very concerned FBI agents. Both Gosling and Cecily Strong had mega-super-awesome experiences with their new extraterrestrial friends, all of whom were very nice and lovely and sweet to their guests. Kate McKinnon, however, did not have a nice time, apparently taken by some bottom-tier aliens who were only interested in watching her pee and slapping her boobs around. That’s the joke, and it’s a fine enough one at that, but it was soon hijacked by a giggling, shaking, red-faced Gosling, who simply couldn’t hide his glee. The giggles spread like wildfire, and soon even Kate McKinnon — consummate everything! — couldn’t hold back. The joke is funny, but the sketch is an instant all-timer.
The Worst Sketch: “Birthday Party”
Around these parts, Aidy Bryant can do no wrong, so it stings when she actually does do wrong and it must be acknowledged in a formal fashion. There was a low-simmering sexuality running through much of last night’s show (hello, Ryan Gosling, hello), and while it hit a breaking point with the late-show “Santa & the Elves” sketch (a recurring nightmare of weirdness that is built around the central conceit that the elves are S&M devotees who want nothing more than to be punished by the big guy in red, an idea seemingly engineered to ruin entire childhoods), it started early enough with “Birthday Party.”
Bryant’s over-the-top Morgan (or was it Melanie? the sketch went with both names, a messy trick that only heightened a messy bit) spends a pal’s birthday party going gaga over her dad (Gosling, so yeah, kind of understandable), but the joke never goes anywhere. Instead, the aimless sketch ultimately wraps up with Bryant tossing herself onto a coffee table (shades of Matt Foley) and covering herself in destroyed birthday cake. End scene?
Best Male Performer: Ryan Gosling
Although “SNL” didn’t trot out any “hey, girl” meme gags or even a sketch centered around “The Notebook,” it still felt as if Gosling was more than willing to poke fun at himself, contribute fully to his assigned sketches and generally have a good time. It’s hard to ask for more from a celebrity host, and a willingness to have fun and do the work will always be the hallmarks of a reliable host, no matter their comedic ability. Turns out, though, Gosling is funny — or, perhaps even better, he likes things that are funny — and while his consistent giggles might have looked amateurish or distracting on another performer, on Gosling they just serve to emphasize that what we’re watching is funny.
Honorable Mention: Bobby Moynihan
Best Female Performer: Aidy Bryant
Despite the belly flop that was “Birthday Party,” Bryant otherwise turned in a fantastic show, putting in lots of facetime and cycling her way through a wide variety of characters. Even when she’s playing a supporting role, like in the dizzyingly bizarre (and wonderfully so) “Santa Baby,” she still earns every reaction, every shot, every gag. Kate McKinnon may be the undisputed female star of this current iteration of “SNL” (and, make no mistake, she very much is), but Aidy Bryant is the next generation, the future of the show, and that’s more than fine by us (just no more “Birthday Party,” okay?).
Honorable Mention: Cecily Strong
Sketch Most Likely to Go Viral: “Hometown Bar”
“A dancing boy?!” Much like “The Wiz,” “Hometown Bar” never fully capitalized on its primary plotline — Gosling goes home to Canada with a GQ writer, played by Cecily Strong, who is writing a profile of him, only to run into a major moron (Kyle Mooney, transcendent as ever) from his school days — instead opting to give itself over to a best-of look at Gosling’s other talents. He sings! He dances! He looks good in a shirt! It wasn’t a hit, but the dancing alone is so instantly GIF-able that there’s no way this thing doesn’t spend the next couple of days breaking the Internet.
Best Impression: Bobby Moynihan as Danny DeVito
Moynihan’s newly unleashed Danny DeVito impression is suddenly everywhere. First trotted (rolled?) out during the previous episode’s “Star Wars Auditions,” Moynihan-as-De-Vito returned mere weeks later in this sneakily great “Nespresso” commercial. Sure, Taran Killam’s George Clooney impression — all winks and nods and looking vaguely as if he’s about to faint at any given moment — is a good one, but Moynihan’s De Vito is already one of his most interesting characters. He doesn’t really look like him or talk like him or move like him, but there’s an essence here that Moynihan has captured twice in as many shows. Keep ’em coming.
Character Most Likely to Become a Franchise: Jill Davenport
Has Cecily Strong got it out for magazine writers? She played two of them on last night’s show, including the GQ writer from “Hometown Bar” who giddily teetered, “I love secrets!” while hunched over her notepad, and then there’s Jill Davenport, a new character who apparently hails from Allure Magazine. What’s good, Cecily? This character. Sort of. A bit of a spin on Strong’s frequent “Weekend Update” contributor, Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With at a Party, Jill is a writer meant to be chatting about new gadgets who can’t restrain herself from baldly (and badly) flirting with Colin Jost. Strong’s ability to skewer bad female behavior is one of her most unacknowledged strengths (ol’ party girl does it, and so does Kyra from “Girlfriends Talk Show”), and Jill is popped from that same mold, both totally hilarious and horribly recognizable.
“Saturday Night Live” returns December 12 with host Chris Hemsworth and musical guest Chance the Rapper.