Over the past few months, “Saturday Night Live” has struggled with mining the eminently mockable 2016 presidential election for some of its trademark political comedy. No matter your political affiliation, most everyone can agree that this year’s field is filled to the brim with big personalities that should be easy to turn into classic “SNL” characters. Although Kate McKinnon has been allowed to keep feeling out her Hillary Clinton impersonation, Taran Killam was swiftly taken off the Donald Trump beat and tasked with taking on Ted Cruz. Elsewhere, non-cast members like Larry David and Darrell Hammond were brought on board to play essential players like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Even the results of actual candidates showing up in sketches (including Trump’s turn as host, where his funniest bit included dancing to a Drake song) have been entirely mixed.
Although “SNL” hasn’t pushed their political impersonations into truly fresh territory – the closest they’ve come is when Clinton herself appeared on the show and interacted with McKinnon playing her – it’s been a lot of bad fireside chats and limp versions of the debates. However, having David on the show did result in some new takes on political jabs, aided by a much-touted Sanders appearance and a slew of non-political sketches that were funny enough to make everyone wonder why “SNL” didn’t hire David on as a cast member way back when.
The Two Best Sketches: “Bern Your Enthusiasm” and “FBI Simulator”
“SNL,” for all the wild woolliness of being, well, live, has a set schedule they stick to. Around the midnight mark, audiences can expect to see the one-two punch of the first musical guest appearance, followed by a commercial break that leads directly into “Weekend Update,” a neat way to bisect the show into two parts. That didn’t really happen this week, thanks to an overlong “Weekend Update” section that made it nearly impossible for the sketches of the second half to have any of the same momentum of the first. Fortunately, that first half included a whiz-bang double-whammy of the night’s best sketches, which aired back to back.
Viewers unfamiliar with David’s work beyond “oh, he’s kind of crotchety” were likely very pleasantly surprised by his turn in the very silly and very funny “FBI Simulator,” with David taking up the role of “Kevin Roberts!,” all flashy suits and utter nonsense. As Kenan Thompson’s bewildered FBI trainee attempts to gauge the threat level of a simulation that he (quite rightly) believes is not representative of a real person, David gets sillier and sillier, selling it more and more by the second.
The wackiness of “FBI Simulator” was immediately followed by the pure genius of digital short “Bern Your Enthusiasm,” which so cleanly injected Bernie Sanders’ sensibilities into the world of Larry David’s HBO show that it made the sketch not just the best of the night, but one of the best of the entire season.
The Worst Sketch: “Weekend Update: Jon Rudnitsky”
During the past few seasons, “SNL” has employed a larger cast than is actually necessary, one so big that it often leads to newbie cast members getting pushed to the side while more established stars take the lead on the splashy sketches. Such is the case with Jon Rudnitsky, the most recent addition to the cast and the one with the least amount of screen time under his belt. If you’re eagle-eyed, you’ll see Rudnitsky filling out the frame in other sketches, and he even toplined his own outing with that pirate sketch last year, but otherwise, he’s easy to miss.
Good for Rudnitsky then that he managed to get another of his own sketches on to the show last night, and during “Weekend Update,” no less. Too bad, though, that the sketch – a weak take on “Dirty Dancing” – was such a disappointment, one that was too long (in an already too-long “Weekend Update,” not funny and punctuated with a punchline ripped straight out of a middle school talent show). Rudnitsky, funnily enough, can dance, so a spin on “Dirty Dancing” and the recent rash of live musicals on television isn’t a bad place for him to start from, but the results didn’t work. Instead, we got a low energy affair that did nothing to explain the inevitable, “Hey, who’s that guy?” line of questioning that the comedian’s scant performances likely inspire.
Best Male Performer: Larry David
As ever, it’s almost too easy to crown the host as the best of the evening, but David displayed a range and a willingness to try all sorts of things that demarcate the very best of hosts. That Bernie Sanders impersonation might have given him a leg up, but the rest of the show was all David’s own doing.
Honorable Mention: Kenan Thompson
Best Female Performer: Kate McKinnon
McKinnon, though not a strong presence at the top half of the show, made her stand during the “Weekend Update” halfway point with a brand new character, the strength of which she rode all the way to the end of the show, when she trotted out another one of her half-horrifying, half-amazing “Last Call” sketches, which included an appearance from the best new character the show has offered so far this year: The Vodka Cheddar.
Honorable Mention: Cecily Strong
Sketch Most Likely to Go Viral: “Steam Ship”
This is your “Bernie Sanders shows up while Larry David is hosting” sketch. It was inevitable, of course, but at least its writers had the creativity not to craft another sketch that involves dueling Sanders personalities, instead casting David as a one percent jackass who is brutally rebuffed by Sanders’ forward-thinking ship passenger.
Honorable Mention: “Derek Zoolander & Hansel” on “Weekend Update”
Best Impression: Larry David as Bernie Sanders, Of Course
I mean, come on.
Character Most Likely to Become a Franchise: Kate McKinnon as Sturdy Barbie
Despite its bloated runtime, last night’s “Weekend Update” did offer up some very worthy entries, including ever-improving banter between anchors Colin Jost and Michael Che, a timely dig at the evening’s Republican debate and Kate McKinnon unveiling her newest character, “Sturdy Barbie.” Just call her Barb, or better yet, call her when you need help moving a couch. (Alternately, you can call her “Been Through A Lot Barbie,” which is both very sad and very, very funny.)
Colin Jost Tie-Watch: Still Wearing It
Can you dry clean a tie? How often should you dry clean a tie? Does it come home in a tiny little bag made just for ties?
“Saturday Night Live” returns on February 13 with host Melissa McCarthy and musical guest Kanye West.