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‘Saturday Night Live’ Review: Unexpected Host Liev Schreiber Thrives With the Power of Weirdness and Earnestness

The "Ray Donovan" star makes his hosting debut in a strong episode.

SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- "Liev Schreiber" Episode 1751 -- Pictured: Host Liev Schreiber during the "House Hunters" sketch on Saturday, November 10, 2018 -- (Photo by: Steve Molina Contreras/NBC)

Liev Schreiber in “Saturday Night Live.”

Steve Molina Contreras/NBC

Somehow, this is only Liev Schreiber’s first time hosting “Saturday Night Live.” And it’s not for a big movie — say what you will about “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” but how did he not host around that time? — but supposedly to promote the new season of “Ray Donovan,” a show that doesn’t need to be promoted for the people who are still somehow watching “Ray Donovan” to just know it’s coming back.

Host: Liev Schreiber

While the cold open is more or less standard “Saturday Night Live,” from the monologue on this week’s “SNL” does things a little differently and prospers. After all, Liev Schreiber is perhaps the most blank canvas host “SNL” has had in a while; while there have been plenty of other first-time hosts (like Awkwafina this season), they have also come with a particular style or sense of humor that can be gauged/clocked pretty well going into an episode, even if the show doesn’t work to highlight their strengths moving forward in the episode. At least prior to “Ray Donovan,” Liev Schreiber’s had a brand of quiet weirdness attached to him. It’s part of why his work as Cotton Weary in the “Scream” movies works so well (at least, the first two). And it’s something he’s allowed to bring along with him in pretty much every sketch he’s an integral part of. Plus, if he fails, as he notes in the monologue, he’s still a very famous actor with a good deal of money and a really nice apartment.

That “SNL” doesn’t try to do its usual monologue tactics with an actor of this type — an “audience” Q&A, cast interruptions — immediately says a lot about how the show chooses to approach his hosting. This episode completely plays to Schreiber’s strengths as an actor and now “SNL” host, never asking him to do anything outside of his comfort zone but still allowing him to actually be funny.

And it’s truly for the best, because it’s clear to see from this monologue that Schreiber’s got a big case of nerves. Even if he’s not being sincere about this being a dream come true, this is still something so far outside his usual realm that this could be an absolute disaster of an episode. The guy stumbles over his words a bit here, and then he makes sure to speak as slowly and as measured as possible, which is honestly the antithesis of an “SNL” monologue. And that happens again at the end of the episode, unfortunately hurting an otherwise solid 10-to-1 sketch.

Unrelated to himself or the episode itself, Schreiber also points out the record voter turnout for the midterms and thanks Americans. No jokes, no snark, no judgment — the genuine earnestness of this monologue is so unfamiliar for “SNL.”

Ah, this is more familiar for “SNL.” (Literally, basically.) This episode comes in hot with the weirdness, and bless its heart for keeping that weirdness going the whole time. But seriously, it is quite the bold move (Cotton) to make the first official sketch of the night (“Invest Twins”) one long incest joke. The live audience is not expecting it either, as the “oohs” of clearly thinking the sketch is going too far only get biggest as the sketch progresses. (That’s what this audience gets for their long “wooo” and applaud session for Robert De Niro’s return as Robert Mueller, though this season has honestly been better so far about the celebrity cameos.) The sketch is pretty much on one level in terms of the jokes, but it gets better as soon as Heidi Gardner shows up to form the “sister sandwich.” “INCEST FAMILY: ‘Our sister joins us sometimes.’”

Unlike Debette Goldry, this recurring Kate McKinnon character (the unlucky in supernatural experiences Colleen Rafferty character, which also always features Cecily Strong and Aidy Bryant) actually allows the other cast members to be funny and make jokes too. In fact, Liev even has a couple of unexpected ones in this sketch. (“It was magical. Like watching ‘Honey, I Shrunk The Kids’ for the first time.”) The sketch also seems tailor-made to get everyone to break, and it takes awhile to do it, but once Kate stands above Liev, to demonstrate the proper upper decker technique, the floodgates open. You can even hear Aidy cracking up whenever she’s not on camera, just because she has to let it out somehow.

This is one of those “very specific” sketches, which is apparent from the live audience not reacting to the first joke of the entire sketch, “the MeUndies Theater.” If you listen to podcasts often enough, even if you don’t listen to the type of podcasts this is mocking or “Serial,” the first podcast*, you most likely loved this sketch. Though you probably wondered why Alex Moffat’s Marc Maron was wearing a bad Milo Ventimiglia (on “This Is Us”) costume. (Alex Moffat does very well on this show and this episode, but this is a strange choice).

*”Serial” is not actually “the first podcast.” This is a Comedy Bang! Bang! joke.

But the stars of this sketch are really the graphic design (which peak with Heidi Gardner during the “Best Nervous White Girl in a Place She Doesn’t Belong” category) and the sight gags (Aidy Bryant’s photo in the seat), as well as Ego Nwodim’s ALF ASMR (which will probably exist soon if it doesn’t already) and Kenan Thompson’s Rhames-Cast (because it’s Kenan, of course the Ving Rhames impression is barely anything… but the graphic department strikes again).

In conclusion: This is why it’s better just to listen to comedy podcasts.

Somebody get Liev Schreiber in an Adult Swim infomercial or something. Honestly, that’s pretty much what this is.

Best Sketch of The Night: “Brothers”

This sketch is perfect. Hopefully Beck Bennett and Kyle Mooney never perform it again.

Not only does the quiet weirdness of Liev Schreiber shine through the most in this sketch — seriously, he needs to be in an Adult Swim infomercial or show — Beck and Kyle somehow channel the ‘90s (their go-to humor anyway) in a way different from their usual sketches. In fact, while watching this sketch, it very much looks like something you’d see flipping channels and landing on an “SNL” sketch from the Sandler/Spade/Farley years. It could be the decor, it could also be the tighty-whities/stoner “Space Jam” shirts combination, but it’s really mostly the bizarre physical comedy that “SNL” doesn’t really go to anymore. There’s the plate smash, of course, but especially the crash through the wall; this show really doesn’t do bits like that on a regular basis anymore. So watching it play out here feels fresh and outside-the-box. Also, watching Cecily, Aidy, and Kenan lose it over Liev Schreiber hosing down their co-stars is a rush.

Honorable Mentions: “Unity Song” / “Permission” (Booty Kings)

While Liev Schreiber’s opening monologue takes a non-partisan approach to politics, that isn’t an indicator or a guarantee that the rest of the episode will be the same. But somehow/for once, the opening monologue truly does set the tone/stage for rest of the episode. The power of shared dislike/hatred of the most trivial things, of course, is what will truly unify this country after all. That and the realization that Ego Nwodim is going to do just fine on “SNL,” as she’s already sharing music video sketches with both Cecily Strong and Beck Bennett.

In addition, by the end of this season, Chris Redd will have created quite the “SNL” mixtape. Seriously, Future and Lil’ Wayne are on this track, and while it’s got jokes, it’s also legitimately got bars. (“That booty got insurance / That booty got Progressive” is art.) The “respect” twist on this sketch is great, especially as the actual point of the sketch is very hard to see before that. (Though the “apple”/“Snapple” rhyme is pretty on point, pre-twist.) Also, The Uncle Butt grill joke ending on the “ain’t got no damn teeth” beat continues this episode’s weird streak.

On a buzzkill note, while this ends up being a really smart and funny sketch, it also ignores the fact that the hip-hop industry hasn’t really been hit by the #MeToo movement and it’s actually a really big problem.

Worst Sketch of The Night: “Outside the Women’s Bathroom”

One sketch has to get this designation, and it’s not even that this sketch is bad or even week; it’s just that Liev Schreiber’s nerves get the best of him in the episode home stretch, and he trips over his words the most he has all night and trying to avoid reading the cue cards the whole time and failing, all which leads to the timing of the sketch being off, at the very least. (It almost could work as intentionally part of the bit, as it’s a pilot from a character who has no business doing any of this.) And it’s pretty great once Heidi Gardner shows up as his girlfriend who’s worried his stupid bathroom show — this sketch is the epitome of bathroom humor — will make him very famous and wealthy, because honestly, Gardner already feels like an old pro when it comes to “SNL” and making hosts more comfortable.

Also, it’s kind of amazing just how pure and innocent this sketch is.

Best Male Performer: Beck Bennett / Kyle Mooney

They deserve it for “Brothers.” They deserve it.

Best Female Performer: Cecily Strong

Cecily Strong is all over this episode — cracking up a lot, too — but she should perhaps always be a character on Weekend Update. This week, she plays the White House intern in the Jim Acosta situation, and in addition to just playing that awkwardness perfectly, she also adds a lot weird physical comedy that his unexpected (and often unseen) but just amazing. Like the way she keeps ducking behind the table or the roll she must do (with only her legs showing) at one point. Plus, she steals Colin Jost’s pencil, and he most certainly deserves it.

Also, because of the rest of the stuff going on in the sketch, it’s easy for this to get a little lost, but her role as the desperate anchor trying to keep the show from going more off the rails in the “Invest Twins” sketch is absolutely integral to making the sketch work as well as it does. This episode is also a subtle reminder of just how deep Cecily’s well of characters is, as this is the first time she’s dusted off her brilliant approach to Sarah Koenig since the show’s actual Serial sketch back in 2014.

Final Thoughts

This is one of the few sketches where Mikey Day and Alex Moffat’s Don Jr. and Eric Trump are outside the confines of the Weekend Update world, and while they’re not the focus of the sketch, they make good use of their portion. Also, is it too much to hope this is truly the end of Kate McKinnon’s Jeff Sessions? Besides being a pretty great send-off, now it just seems like any Sessions after this will be unnecessary and shoe-horned in. Kind of like Robert De Niro as Robert Mueller.

These reviews don’t usually focus too much on the musical guests, but with Lil’ Wayne’s second performance (his first performance, with Halsey, who doesn’t quite know what to do in the background when she isn’t singing, is here), it’s hard not to think the show has somehow traveled back in time to the early 2000s. Because that’s really kind of the only thing that explains what Swizz Beatz (SWIZZY!) is up to here and the beat, really. None of this is a bad thing.

Honestly, Pete Davidson as an “SNL” cast member is fine. Pete Davidson as Pete Davidson on “SNL” is already a headache right now, and it’s only five episodes into this season. This particular Weekend Update appearance is at least his best one so far this season, even though it only exists as a result of his boneheaded one from last week’s episode, which included a very blasé aside about Texas congressman-elect Lieutenant Commander Dan Crenshaw and his eye patch. (Maybe Pete Davidson shouldn’t do political bits. Especially since most of the bits involve him basically saying, “I’m not qualified to talk about any of this.”)

Again, this is the episode allowing itself to take the non-partisan approach to things, which again leads to finding common ground in hating on things together: In this case, it’s Pete Davidson. But besides that, Crenshaw leaves the “SNL” audience with just a genuinely decent message to have on Veteran’s Day weekend. And then there’s also the Ariana Grande bit, which is funny… but again, it’s part of the Pete Davidson as Pete Davidson on “SNL” thing. The funnier part is the “Martin Short in ‘The Santa Clause 3’” comparison.

Finally: Unsurprisingly, there is no “Ray Donovan” sketch on this episode of “SNL.” Still, and despite the obvious first-time jitters, Liev Schreiber leaves quite an impression here.

Grade: A-

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