This season of “Saturday Night Live” has been punctuated by some weird lows (a usually stellar Jonah Hill, a mostly toothless take on current politics) and some unexpected highs, particularly as they apply to a strong new crop of first-time hosts who have impressed in unique ways in their debuts. While Larry David’s official first hosting gig was destined to become a classic, few people anticipated the amount of weirdness that would also run through an episode that simply had to include a spot-on Bernie Sanders impression (only David could deliver a line like, “Can a bitch get a donut?” with such gusto). Elsewhere, it’s hard to imagine another newbie host who so pleasantly surprised the “SNL” crowd than Ariana Grande, who showed up ready to wow and did just that.
And then there’s Peter Dinklage. Like David, Dinklage’s first time as host isn’t his first time on the show (though David, a former writer, certainly bests him when it comes to shot-for-shot appearances), and it’s surprising that last night marked his hosting debut. Back in 2013, the “Game of Thrones” actor unexpectedly popped up in a Weekend Update bit as “Peter Drunklage,” ably matching wits and slurs with Bobby Moynihan, complete with coordinating outfits. It was glorious and it showed off the kind of riotous work we could expect from Dinklage as host. It’s just too bad it’s taken this long to come to fruition.
Despite a slow start — including another mostly floundering political cold open that couldn’t quite nail down what it wanted to be, and a oddly truncated monologue that suffered from the same problem — the show rapidly picked up steam, with Dinklage seemingly being game for anything and everything (within the first two sketches, the man had donned a Winnie the Pooh suit and then nothing at all; try to top that). Dinklage clearly had an excellent time last night, and, as we head into the final stretch of this season (including two more episodes in a row, and a rumored one-week break followed by yet another three-episode run, wham bam style), that kind of energy and skill is enough to remind us how and when “SNL” can still be the funniest thing around.
The Two Best Sketches: “Mafia Meeting” and “Winnie the Pooh”
It’s fascinating to imagine the pitching that went into the deliriously weird and seriously delightful “Mafia Meeting.” Did they start from the top — “What’s the strangest thing that could happen during a mafia meeting at stuffy club?” — or did they work backwards — “We’ve got Dinklage singing a song about space pants. Where’s the wackiest place we can put him?” Either way, this sketch works, mostly because Dinklage commits 100 percent to the bit, deftly sing-screaming about space pants like he dropped out of the world’s most overlooked eighties Euro-synth band and landed smack dab in a mob hangout. It’s that commitment that makes the eventual involvement of the rest of the cast — including Pete Davidson and Jon Rudnitsky as in-over-their-heads lackeys who can’t help but forget their imminent mob murder because of the insanity playing out around them — so aces. SPACE PANTS!
The episode’s early stumbles were almost instantly forgiven and forgotten the second the lights came up on this post-monologue sketch, with Dinklage adorably outfitted as Winnie the Pooh, horribly tiny tee-shirt and all, and the rest of the cast gathered around him in celebration of another honey-heavy birthday. Initially, it was unclear where this was going (and who cares, because the costuming work here and everyone’s great attitudes were already enough to recommend it), until Jay Pharoah appeared as Pooh’s very cool cousin, Denny the Real. Denny, of course, spoke for all of us, demanding explanations for some of the most bizarre sartorial choices that seem to be de rigueur in the Hundred Acre Wood. A classic gag, totally elevated.
The Worst Sketch: “Peter Dinklage Monologue”
It gives us no pleasure to ding Dinklage like this for his first-ever “SNL” monologue, but the truncated, uneven offering was a sobering start to a show the ended up being very solid otherwise. Even excellent impressions (Bobby Moynihan, wow), couldn’t save the bit, which played up baseline jokes about how slow George R.R. Martin is at writing and how “Game of Thrones” features a lot of boobs that have been told better, and worse, way too often. Fortunately, it only got better from here.
Best Male Performer: Peter Dinklage
Dinklage didn’t just excel when it came to selling the big, broad gags, he also drilled down on his own persona to deliver self-serious characters with both hilarity and actual gravitas. From the goofy stuff, like “Winnie the Pooh,” to the totally unique, like “Mafia Meeting,” Dinklage flipped between different flavors of humor with ease. Even here, in “Trendy Restaurant,” Dinklage combines his natural dignity with some unhinged-great physical comedy. Dinklage doesn’t break, he’s the guy who makes everyone else break.
Honorable mention: Taran Killam, whose work as a floating corpse deserves some kind of award.
Best Female Performer: Leslie Jones
Putting Jones and Dinklage together is total brilliance, as Dinklage playing up his “relaxed, but with gravitas” persona alongside Jones’ increasingly hinged comic mania bred all kinds of sparks. The pair first showed promise during the lone bright spot of the monologue, with Jones appearing as a dragon (woof woof) that Dinklage couldn’t quite fathom. The flinty unease that Colin Jost likes to put on when Jones sidles up to him on Weekend Update is translated here to Dinklage in a new way, and the pair turn in hilarious work that entirely hinges on their perceived ill fit.
Honorable mention: Cecily Strong, whose reaction to that floating corpse deserves some kind of award.
Sketch Most Likely to Go Viral: “Game of Thrones Sneak Peek”
A nice recovery from a “GOT”-heavy monologue that didn’t quite stick, the sketch builds on usual “GOT” games (dragons! CGI! behind the scenes sneak peeks!) and finds its heart in Bobby Moynihan’s deeply disturbed dragon dude. Desperate to fit in, he’s all bad jokes and (actually kind of good) dragon screams. Dinklage and company had to do something big and brassy for “Game of Thrones,” and fans of the series are going to eat this one right up.
Best Impression: Bobby Moynihan as George R.R. Martin
Between this and his George Lucas, Moynihan’s impression work is at an all-time high this season.
Character Sketch Most Likely to Become a Franchise: “Naked & Afraid: Celebrity Edition”
An absolutely easy slot to fill with any and all hosts that are down for being, well, naked and afraid with another cast member. Because the sketch is so dependent on the chemistry between the leads, this thing can go just about anywhere. Make it a regular franchise piece, and there’s three minutes neatly ticked off of every show.
Colin Jost Tie-Watch: Still Wearing It
Sigh. We just hope you’re investing in a good dry cleaner, Colin.
“Saturday Night Live” returns April 9 with host Russell Crowe and musical guest Margo Price.