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‘Saturday Night Live’ Review: First-Time Host Don Cheadle Gets Great Sketches

The "Black Monday" and "Avengers" star had a great night in Studio 8H.

SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- "Don Cheadle" Episode 1759 -- Pictured: Host Don Cheadle during the Monologue on Saturday, February 16, 2019 -- (Photo by: Will Heath/NBC)

“Saturday Night Live.”

Will Heath/NBC

Another new “Saturday Night Live,” another first-time host. That’s no problem at all: It’s always nice to see some fresh celebrities in the rotation, and even if the episode material itself hasn’t been the most stellar, the season has definitely on the right track with the guest host choices. That definitely continues with Don Cheadle, though, like Liev Schreiber before him, it’s surprising he’d never hosted before. Actually, even more surprising than the Schreiber thing, to be perfectly honest.

Host: Don Cheadle

How did Don Cheadle do as a first-time host? Well, not only does Cheadle give an actual comedic monologue — honestly, one who didn’t know him might think he’s a stand-up comedian — he reminds everyone he was in an episode of “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” while doing so. Cheadle is a man who commits when he’s in a project, whether it’s his “Cockney” accent in the Ocean’s movies, five seasons of “House of Lies,” or his first time hosting “Saturday Night Live.” From his first sketch (the recurring “Fresh Takes”) it’s clear Cheadle is going to go all-in with this episode, but unlike many of the recent first-time hosts, “SNL” actually provides him with good and substantial material at the same time.

Best Sketches of The Night: “Extreme Baking Championship” & “Bar Fight”

The unexpected nature of the baking sketch — from the terrible finished products to the impressive self-deprecation and shame that happens as a result of it — is all so funny. The “Sean” Cookie Monster cake is already funny as is (especially with the lead up of Cheadle’s character strangely introducing him in a roundabout way as “Tickle Me Elmo’s best friend” and the lack of reasoning behind “Sean”) even before Kenan comes in as the voice of Sean, begging for someone to “Kill me!”

As for the “Bar Fight” sketch, the Mika album that song “Lollipop” came from — “Life in Cartoon Motion”, a great album — actually came out almost exactly 12 years ago as of this sketch. (It was released back February 6, 2007.) Anyone who listed to this album back in 2007 and 2008 was caught between a flood of nostalgia and, honestly, awe that “SNL” was doing a sketch all about it in 2019. And the sketch, like the baking sketch, is so unexpected and delightful that even the final big choreography and then punch from Cheadle’s character are actually surprising. This episode has genuine surprises in its sketches, and that can’t always or often be said on a weekly basis.

Worst Sketch of The Night: “Family Feud: Oscar Nominees”

There have been a lot of “Family Feud” sketches on “SNL,” because it’s one of the easiest ways to get out a bunch of impressions, which is a big part of the show. This particular “Family Feud,” however, is pretty weak. Don Cheadle’s Spike Lee is only recognizable because they say it’s Spike Lee, and his height doesn’t help. (If possible — and this totally sounds like it’s saying certain people are interchangeable, but that’s not the point — Cheadle should’ve played Mahershala Ali and Chris Redd should’ve played Spike Lee.) Melissa Villasenor’s Lady Gaga doesn’t hit quite as hard the second week in a row, and Kyle Mooney’s Bradley Cooper… doesn’t seem like any version of Bradley Cooper that has ever existed. Pete Davidson’s Rami Malek should be a slam dunk because him playing Rami Malek is one of those things that always seems like it should be good, but just that assumption is really all the effort he puts into it. (And Pete’s not really an impressionist in general, so there’s not much of anything to work with there. Really, it’s surprising “SNL” doesn’t just say screw it and have him as Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury.)

But…

Best Impression: Cecily Strong as Olivia Colman (“Family Feud”)

What an unexpected delight — much like Olivia Colman herself. In a sketch where even the decent impressions aren’t much to write home about (like Melissa’s Lady Gaga and Beck Bennett’s Sam Elliott), Cecily’s Olivia Colman sticks out even more. Yes, the baseline is that she’s “pissed,” but every good impression has one specific baseline.

Worst Impression: Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump (“Trump Press Conference Cold Open”)

Well, as long as there’s Alec Baldwin’s Trump on an episode of “SNL,” it’s fairly obvious which impression is the worst. This cold open just might be the shortest of the seemingly never ending political cold opens this season, but it still feels like it lasts much longer than… less than seven minutes. Even the easy-to-placate live studio audience has never sounded more forced in their laughter than during this cold open, but that could be because there are no other celebrity guests to make them “woo” and distract them from the lack of jokes. But hey, Baldwin says “CHINA” that Trump-y way, so that’s… something he does every time.

Best Male Performers: Mikey Day & Beck Bennett

From now on, the host won’t be up for the “best performer” designation, but if he was, Don Cheadle would get it this time. In terms of the cast, though, this is definitely a great episode for both Mikey Day and Beck Bennett. Both men are skilled at playing the straight man, but they’re at their best when things get weird. For Mikey, that weird peak is in the Roach-Ex sketch. For Beck, it’s the “Lollipop” sketch.

Best Female Performer: Heidi Gardner

For her performance in the Roach-Ex sketch alone, she gets this distinction. But her reactions in the baking sketch are also great, as she’s the only competent (and possibly sane) one in the whole group.

Final Thoughts

This is honestly a surprisingly risky episode of the show; it goes full tilt on the weirdness (see: “Wedding Venue Ad”), only taking a reprieve during the disappointing Family Feud sketch. The true weakest parts of the episode are the cold open and Weekend Update, but the latter is not for the usual reasons, actually. This week’s Weekend Update drags particularly in the form of the features (especially Alex Moffat and Kate McKinnon’s Schumer and Pelosi, unfortunately), and the crowd’s really not biting when it comes to a lot of Colin Jost and Michael Che’s punchlines. But it actually starts off very well early on, with Michael Che showing actual frustration with having to keep talking about Donald Trump week in and week out. That right there works so much better than the aloofness (and “both sides are bad” rhetoric) he and Jost always show, although Jost trying to defend Amazon in New York City does its best to remove the good will Che creates.

But when it comes to the episode proper — including the musical guest, Gary Clark Jr. — it’s hard to deny how strong of an episode it is. It’s also hard to understand how Don Cheadle hasn’t hosted before now.

Grade: A-

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