Well, this episode was a mixed bag. Whether in the form of sketches, standup or Weekend Update, it tackled race in the most direct (and consistent) way we’ve seen since the Dave Chappelle episode. It also made some deeply problematic comments on the weekend’s demonstrations. Parts were legitimately funny. Parts were troubling. In a word, it was uncomfortable. It was also surprisingly musical, for an episode not hosted by Lin-Manuel Miranda. So, what worked, and what could have used some work prior to air? Let’s take a look.
Host: Aziz Ansari
Aziz Ansari — the show’s first South Asian host in its history — brought his brand of shouty, verbose standup to the 8H stage. Throughout the night, Ansari entertained with a mix of political insight and weird voices, trading his signature pop culture references for cultural commentary, and for the monologue, he launched into pithy, meaningful standup that acknowledged the rise of blatant racism in the U.S. It was nice to see him performing again; his doofy smile was a welcome sight. But without a “thing” to plug — a book, an album, his Netflix show, anything — one kinda has to wonder why he was tapped to host now.
Best Sketch of The Night: Kellyanne Conway
Kellyanne Conway finally answers the question on most of our minds — Why? Why did you do this? Why did you help make Trump? — through the majesty of song. Specifically, the song “Roxie (The Name on Everyone’s Lips)” from the musical “Chicago.” For those not hip to the intricacies of “Chicago,” that tune reflects aspiring celebrity Roxie Hart’s desire to be famous. Not successful, per se, but known; and by extension, loved. Aha. Slow claps for “SNL,” folks.
The crew faithfully echoes the film’s rendition of “Roxie,” and witnessing McKinnon’s Conway grow increasingly drunk on power is just… perfect. If “SNL” feels like giving away that dress anytime soon, I do have room in my closet. Just saying.
Best Parody: Attorney Ad
This commercial parody was wonderful, though admittedly ridiculous. The sketch satirized low-budget commercials for personal injury attorneys (we know them well) and, honestly, made us laugh more than we wanted to. The posturing, the jingle, the awkwardness — it’s all there. And there’s something about Aziz Ansari’s frustrated yelping that’s just endlessly watchable. Plus, it was live! A commercial parody that wasn’t pre-taped? When was the last time we saw that?
Worst Sketch of The Night: Weekend Update
Okay. Could “Women’s Marches” stand to be more intersectional? Absolutely. We the people have a long way to go in terms of inclusivity. But Michael Che reporting that there are “levels” to supporting feminism, or that feminism shouldn’t require a label because its tenets are so “reasonable,” or that Saturday’s protesters deserved to be mocked for the manners in which they demonstrated? Dude. That’s gross. It’s also abusive, reductive, and turns “feminism” as a concept into a punchline. Literally. It does the exact opposite of the joke Update was trying to make.
These casual jokes (that only straight male privilege can generate) are just one reason a significant percentage of the American population turned to support women’s rights on Saturday. Che’s offhand commentary, dispensed between his barely-stifled giggles — and coupled with a just plain dumb bit about “The Friend Zone” — overshadowed Update’s actual highlight: Leslie Jones’ list of crucial inventions created by black innovators. She called out for all of black history, all of everyone’s history, to be taught in schools year-round. But since we witnessed it in the middle of “SNL” ceding men the floor to make light of feminist activism, does it count?
Best Impression: Beck Bennett
Putin should hire Bennett as a stand-in. Bennett’s Putin has roughly a billion times more charisma than the actual guy, but somehow they’re equally frightening. As always, our fearless leader — haha, just kidding, we’re almost certainly not being controlled by a spoiled container of borscht — appears shirtless, this time offering Americans a pep talk about the state of our definitely-not-shared-with-Russia union. Bennett’s accent is strengthening, and his Putin/Grinch smile more menacing than ever. Yikes. This impression also outdid McKinnon’s exceptional Kellyanne Conway, so, there’s that too.
Runner-up: Melissa Villaseñor, for those weirdo ones she pulled out next to Aziz Ansari. Let’s hope she has an opportunity to use ‘em more in the future.
Best Female Performer: Kate McKinnon
She’s getting the Emmy next year. There’s just no other way to say it. Like, yes, she got the Emmy last year. But there’s no way McKinnon doesn’t repeat. You watched the Conway sketch, right? Really, though, McKinnon is a one-woman show. Even her bit parts (like bringing Update character Olya Povlatsky to the episode’s Cold Open) are funny. The wig she wore in the Attorney Ad was silly enough on its own, but becomes a character itself on McKinnon’s head. Much like the male cast members were pushed aside to allow Beck Bennett and Ansari to shine, several female cast members only made a brief appearance — or so it seemed — when compared to McKinnon last night.
Best Male Performer: Beck Bennett
Beginning with the cold open, Bennett was ubiquitous last night. Or maybe it just felt that way? He brought back regular impressions (Vladimir Putin, CNN’s Jake Tapper) and took on new characters, and while Bennett probably wasn’t in that many sketches, we didn’t see much of cast members Kyle Mooney, Pete Davidson, or Alex Moffat. We’re not saying he was the standout male performer by default — we’re really not — but no one was stealing scenes away from Bennett or Ansari.
Runner-up: Bobby Moynihan. His physical comedy in the Attorney Ad, as well as the pizza sketch, was a delight to watch.
Sketch Most Likely to Go Viral: Five Stars
If your Uber driver isn’t up to your standards, try checking your own rating. If you aren’t satisfied with your passengers, do the same. And if all else fails, you can always try talking about “Black Mirror.”
What happened here? Can “SNL” only take on one cause at a time? Writers’ room, you have some ‘splainin to do. “Saturday Night Live” takes a break next week, and returns on February 4 with host Kristen Stewart and musical guest Alessia Cara.