“Saturday Night Live” returns for its 45th season with now-four-time host Woody Harrelson and first-time musical guest Billie Eilish. Harrelson’s first “SNL” hosting gig was nearly 30 years ago, 30 whole seasons ago. Everyone’s favorite “SNL” cast member, Alec Baldwin, also hosted on that season. As did Fred Savage and Rob Lowe, in back-to-back episodes, if you’re a fan of “The Grinder” and care about that kind of kismet. Eilish was not born at this point. Nor was she born at the point of Harrelson’s second hosting gig, in 1992. Yet the generational gap between this season premiere’s host and musical guest is not the strangest choice. It’s more what this season premiere chooses to do — or really, not do — with its multi-time host.
Host: Woody Harrelson
In Woody Harrelson’s first three outings as “SNL” host, he’s hit the live audience (and the viewers at home) with the tried and true “SNL” cold-open format, complete with singing and acoustic guitar. Surprisingly, Harrelson doesn’t bust out the guitar for his fourth time hosting. But the monologue still manages to include that same infusion of the Harrelson brand of rambling charm, on point from the very beginning, as the tuxedo-clad host comes out and lets the world know he’s “a fashionista” now. The fashionista bit is enough of a joke for this opening—as Harrelson reminds the audience just how bad his fashion sense actually is, to the point where the final pajama moments are actually an upgrade from the norm.
But the real joke comes from Harrelson — in an effort to prove that he makes no mistakes when it comes to both fashion and his words — as he repeatedly sticks his foot in his mouth with phrases that are varying levels of offensive (if at all). (“Off the boat,” “pussyfooting,” “you people.”) This is the type of monologue that makes the case for the whole format to count as the true start to an episode of “SNL,” as it also makes the most sense given the very recent “SNL” hiring and firing of Shane Gillis at the same time as it also promoted Bowen Yang (who served as an “SNL” writer last season and made an appearance as in the Sandra Oh episode). It’s a joke that actually mocks the idea of being “overly PC” and of being “offended” over the little things, coming from a Hollywood actor who has self-identified as “an anarchist” and was friends with Mike Pence in college. But it does so without being a low-hanging fruit, pro-bigotry approach to the whole situation.
However, the rest of the episode basically forgets about Harrelson’s aforementioned brand of rambling charm or that he’s an actor who gained notoriety for comedic acting in front of a live studio audience. Sure, he’s here to promote “Zombieland 2,” but for some reason, Harrelson gets the straight man roles for most of this episode. And they make him invisible for most of the season premiere episode he has the honor of hosting.
Repetition is an easy form of humor, one that works and one that “SNL” employs often. That is pretty much the key to Woody Harrelson’s roles as Joe Biden in “DNC Town Hall” and as pundit Walter Dale in “Inside the Beltway.” The latter could’ve been a better sketch had it not collapsed on itself as a live attempt at flashback “Inception,” but in Harrelson’s case, all he has to say is “This feels like a turning point.” But Kenan Thompson’s reactions are what make the repetition as funny as it is — as that’s not the case for Harrelson himself — even though the sketch itself is a more elaborate approach to the Dave Chappelle “Election Night” sketch from 2016. And he’s also repeating himself a lot: “Ain’t nothin’ gonna happen.” This is Kenan’s sketch, with a giggle-fit assist from Aidy Bryant.
The earlier sketch, “DNC Town Hall,” allows Harrelson to actually do more (as Joe Biden), repeating punchlines but also just leaning into the creepy “Uncle Joe” of it all. This is a sketch where Harrelson, alongside the rest of the players — and Colin Jost, who plays Buttigieg because “SNL” surprisingly had no one else to play him — get a lot to work with. Especially Maya Rudolph, who could make a meal out of less but instead gets to turn Kamala Harris into the “Rizzoli & Isles” of this presidential race. But its length — at 10 minutes, 20 seconds — is really the greatest strike against it, especially as a return episode that feels like there are more commercials than sketches.
With “Locker Room,” the MVP of the sketch is without a doubt Heidi Gardner. Heidi can obviously do other types of characters, but she truly excels at playing a dirtbag. If there’s anything that might ever work against her as the “lead” female performer on the show whenever it becomes a post-Kate McKinnon world, it might honestly be that. This is another sketch that works based on everyone else’s work and reactions to Harrelson, not necessarily Harrelson.
Best Sketch(es) of The Night: “Dad” & “Apple Picking Ad”
Part of the reason Kyle Mooney (and Beck Bennett) sketches don’t play as well for some is that they’re made with an equally ridiculous knowledge of and nostalgia for very specific bits of ‘80s and ‘90s pop culture. For example, the whole premise for “Dad”? That comes from the “Saved by the Bell” episode “Rent-a-Pop,” the one where Zack has James from The Max pretend to be his dad because his real dad is too busy (on his big ol’ cellular phone) selling computers to be present in his son’s life. Kyle’s character’s bedroom is even dressed like Zack Morris’ bedroom for this sketch, right down to the bean bag.
But would anyone call “Rent-a-Pop” a top-five “Saved by the Bell” episode? Probably not. Would that stop Kyle Mooney from creating an entire “SNL” sketch about that, while also breaking into the lamest “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” style rap (with an added “It Takes Two” reference) imaginable about the dangers of big ol’ cellular phones and relationships with dads? Of course not. And he does it with an era-appropriate synth score for the “serious” moments too.
However, outside the general awkwardness of Kyle’s movements and lack of cool, Woody Harrelson — the titular dad — might have the funniest beats of the sketch. Both with his post-phone call song wrap-up (“…and that’s why I’m your dad.”) and the fact that the dancers are still dancing to the “funky beat” even when the beat has completely dropped for him to talk on said call.
“Apple Picking Ad” is your standard episode-ending weird sketch, but it’s also the sketch where Harrelson gets the most to do and the most character to play (outside of Joe Biden, and to a lesser extent, “Dad”). It’s easily his best sketch as host, especially as he’s able to drive the comedy just as much as — or even more than — Aidy, Kate, and the other cast members involved. When Aidy and Kate combine their forces, it’s always something weird like this, and it tends to work. Plus, Harrelson has already proven that when it comes to him and sketches about apples, he knows what he’s doing.
Worst Sketch(es) of the Night: “Roadside Museum”
If this isn’t the result of trying to think outside the box on product integration, then this sketch doesn’t even have that to defend it. While there are some minor quips in this sketch that would typically help it stand out, the realization that “Roadside Museum” (aka the “World’s Biggest Cheeto Museum” sketch) truly own exists for the moment of destruction. It’s one of those sketches where you can tell the audience is really waiting for the punchline or the joke that will last through the sketch. But of all the sketches that are elongated with a specific joke, this isn’t one of them.
Best Female Performer: Cecily Strong
As much as the Cheeto sketch doesn’t quite land, Cecily Strong’s Jo (of “Jo on the Go”) does. She’s a surprisingly realized character for a not-so-realized sketch. And going back to the cold open, her Jeanine Pirro obviously picked up a lot of steam last season, and “SNL” realizes that. It’s a shame this season premiere’s Weekend Update only has one character bit, as it would’ve been nice to have another strong Cecily character in her natural habitat.
An honorable mention goes out to Aidy Bryant for her case of the giggles, both in “Inside the Beltway” (understandable, given the snafu) and the “Apple Picking Ad” (the result of trying to get through a weird sketch at the end of the night). But at the same time: You gotta keep it together, Bryant!
Best Male Performer: Kenan Thompson
Let’s just take a moment to praise Kenan for his promise to never, ever leave this show. Don’t ever leave, Kenan. “SNL” needs you and your reactions. Sure, he busts out his David Ortiz—a popular character to the live crowd, at least — on Weekend Update, but it’s clear that his strength in this episode was those reactions.
Perhaps the worst way to start things anew is to start them with one of the worst — if not the worst — aspects of current “SNL,” Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump “impression.” For a few seconds, you might think that it’s a bait and switch to introduce either a new performer for the role or to somehow write it off forever — making the “SNL” version of Trump heard but not seen. But it’s not. It’s just another long cold open that, in its defense, does actually have some decent jokes. Mikey Day and Alex Moffat’s Donald Jr. and Eric tend to always kill, and the “Teriyaki 69” line might date the episode, but it works for this moment in time. As mentioned, Cecily’s Jeanine Pirro also comes in hot. This is arguably the best Trump cold open in a while—though, it’s also been months since the last—but it’s also another Trump/phone/conversation cold open.
One final note, specifically on the cast this season. After their two-season dues, Heidi Gardner and Chris Redd are now officially repertory players, as newcomers (“SNL” writer-turned-cast member) Bowen Yang and Chloe Fineman join Ego Nwodim as featured players. (Chloe Fineman has a solid first-time outing as Marianne Williamson, but then the “Downton Abbey Trailer” sketch is one of those early reminders that it can be hard to remember who the newbie is when they don’t have such a… bold character.) And it was announced just three weeks ago that Leslie Jones had left the show.
Also, Pete Davidson is actually still part of the show; he just wasn’t in this premiere because he’s currently filming ”Suicide Squad.” You know, casual Pete Davidson things.