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‘Saturday Night Live’ Review: Kumail Nanjiani Helps Deliver The Season’s Strongest Episode Yet

Despite a truly funny host, "SNL" still needs some focus.

SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- "Kumail Nanjiani" Episode 1728 -- Pictured: Kumail Nanjiani during the opening monologue in Studio 8H on Saturday, October 14, 2017 -- (Photo by: Will Heath/NBC)

Will Heath/NBC

An actual comedian hosting “Saturday Night Live”? That’s a concept as simple as… Well, as simple as an actual comedian hosting “Saturday Night Live.” While there’s definitely nothing wrong with actors, musicians, etc. hosting the show, there’s typically a better chance for a comedian’s creative voice to come through in a show that’s known for often having a static voice. So it’s no surprise “The Big Sick”/”Silicon Valley”/”Burning Love”/plenty of funny things star Kumail Nanjiani and his voice make the perfect choice for “Saturday Night Live” host.

Of course, you can’t expect any host — comedian or not — to singlehandedly change the structure of the show. Especially when the season is already off to a wobbly start.

Host: Kumail Nanjiani

In terms of actual hosting choice, this episode of “Saturday Night Live” starts off very well. Kumail Nanjiani is a charming, genuinely funny host — you can go back and watch “The Meltdown With Jonah and Kumail” if you’re still not completely convinced — and that’s immediately evident in his opening monologue. Again, “Saturday Night Live” gets away from the musical number tradition, instead playing to Nanjiani’s strengths with a standup set. It’s the type of monologue that sets the tone for a fun rest of the episode, which is key.

Funnily enough, that does not mean an episode of jokes about racism (and the “inaccuracy” that tends to come with that). Instead, it means the episode works with Kumail’s dry delivery in sketches like Hotel Check In and Nursing Home, one sketch which uses his delivery to a maddening effect and one which just induges in simple, childish grossing out. Kumail Nanjiani saying “Stargazer Lounge” (as well as “Latitudes”) over and over again is good enough for an easy laugh. Simple as that. And while “Saturday Night Live’s” choices when it comes to how they present things they’re doing product placement for (in this case, Marriott) are baffling, this sketch is all worth it for the final reveal of what, exactly, The Danny Band is.

The Bank Breakers sketch is also a solid sketch with a simple premise, thriving off Kumail Nanjiani’s general likability. Which is also a major key to this:

As usual, the pre-tapes in this episode are the standouts. It’s the second one (and final sketch of the episode), essentially a mini-indie film, that features Kumail Nanjiani… alongside Cecily Strong’s Melania Trump. It’s also an oddly poignant story about friendship, bullying, and spiders. You know, classic Saturday night comedy. It’s also the most outside of the box — but not just for the sake of being outside of the box — sketch of the evening, which explains its placement in the episode.

Best Sketch of The Night: Kellywise

“What’d you do to your make-up?”
“I toned it down.”

Again, you can hardly go wrong with a pre-tape sketch for “Saturday Night Live,” and a Kellyanne Conway meets “It” horror story is a match made in comedy heaven. Or hell, more accurately. It’s surprising “Saturday Night Live” hasn’t gone to the Kellyanne Conway “put me on TV” well every other week, considering just how well these bits are received. But every time they come, it’s like Christmas — or holiday, if you’re hoping to stick it to Baldwin Trump — morning.

Worst Sketch of The Night: Office Halloween Party

What exactly is this sketch? Is it a Hepatitis A joke? Is it an office party joke? Is it a speakerphone joke? Is he Groot? Should they just have done the full “Thriller” dance for the audience instead? Those are just the major questions that come out of the Office Halloween Party sketch, and they still remain unanswered by the end of the sketch.

Meanwhile, Aidy Bryant does not dress like an animal and fall in love with a human in this episode.

Most “It Can Be… Many Things” Sketch: Film Panel

It goes without saying that Kate McKinnon is a force of nature, to the point where a lot of her sketches are recurring bits where she is the force of nature. In recurring bits like her character in the alien abduction sketch, while Kate is obviously the laugh maker, everyone else in the sketch is working to at least provide something fun in their straight man routine.

That’s not the case in this sketch. For starters, the sketch is already on shaky ground with Leslie Jones as Viola Davis, simply because Viola Davis is a critically-acclaimed actress and Leslie Jones is the one black female cast member. This isn’t a call to action on the latter front but merely an addressing of the point that there is no joke or even effort put into this particular choice. Comparatively, there isn’t much of a joke in Cecily Strong’s Marion Cotillard, but there is at least character work involved. The height of comedy when it comes specifically to these two in the sketch is Kate’s Debette Goldry calling them “Violin David” (okay) and “Macarena Copacabana” (pretty good), but this is a one-woman show. A one-woman call out show. Which is awesome… but it’s nice to have a little bit more balance.

This is also coming after “Saturday Night Live” apparently removed all of its Harvey Weinstein jokes from last week’s episode because they didn’t get much of a reaction during dress rehearsal. That excuse didn’t quite land well, and here we are with this sketch, as well as the Weekend Update segment dedicated to it.

Best Female Performer: Kate McKinnon

Remember the force of nature thing? This is earned just based on Kellywise’s Kellyanne Conway/Hillary Rodham Clinton one-two punch alone.

Best Male Performer: Mikey Day

Mikey Day is essentially only an “SNL” featured player in name only, as he’s all over this episode, smoothly making Kumail feel even worse about himself in Bank Breakers and progressively getting more and more frustrated with Kumail in the hotel sketch. Basically, stick with the host, kids, and you’ll go straight to the top.

Best Impression: Cecily Strong as Ivana Trump (Weekend Update)

The majority of Cecily’s Ivana Trump impression is absolutely incomprehensible… and that’s officially what makes it so good. Nonsense + Incomprehensible Nonsense + Ferrero Rocher = Comedy Gold. Or at least, something funny enough to make Colin Jost crack up in confusion. Cecily Strong plays both First Ladies in this episode, which makes her the new First Lady. That’s obviously how it works.

Grade: C+

Ultimately, this is another uneven episode. The material is very much strengthened by its host, and musical guest Pink (or P!nk, if we really must) also gives a good performance on the music side of things. But this season still feels unsure, not completely selling what it wants to be (whether that’s comedy-wise or even what role it wants certain non-Kate McKinnon cast members to play) or what it wants its hosts to be. Keeping with the comedian on “Saturday Night Live” trend, one can assume Larry David’s episode next week might be just what this season needs.

In a sense, this unevenness is understandable: Look at the cold open. There are so many ridiculous things to touch on that there’s never a real focus other than Trump’s pronunciation of “Puerto Rico.” And the real thing is even more absurd than what Alec Baldwin tries to do with it. This episode has been the most sure of itself this season — and Weekend Update should be commended for how much better it’s gotten over time — but there’s still a long way to go from here.

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