Host: Will Ferrell
You wouldn’t have known it from the opening monologue, but this is Will Ferrell’s fifth time hosting. Yes, that means he’s made it into the Five-Timers Club. Honestly, it’s refreshing there isn’t an obligatory — and at this point, somewhat tiring — Five-Timers Club monologue bit. Instead, Ferrell officially kicked off his hosting duties with an unexpected bit of “crowd” work, with Ryan Reynolds coming to watch “SNL” alone, while his wife Blake Lively also watched it alone, but at home. (The joke is never that Reynolds just ditched Lively to go see “SNL” in person, but that obvious fact of the bit makes it funnier.) Ferrell becoming ridiculously nervous due to Reynolds’ presence and then Lively’s home viewership is a different approach to the monologue, but it’s also great before the Tracy Morgan impression kicks in. Reynolds’ “What is happening?” is the perfect encapsulation of the monologue.
The monologue launches a cameo-heavy episode — one that almost makes you wonder why Ryan Reynolds didn’t just host instead — which at least works with an “SNL” veteran and beloved comedic actor like Will Ferrell. It’s also the second week in a row where a host dunks on “SNL” during the monologue:
“Will, just do the monologue.”
“No, the monologue is terrible!”
Tracy Morgan was right: “The prophecy must be fulfilled!”
“The boy likes ketchup, just like his old man.”
When it comes to memories of “SNL” and Will Ferrell, one of the first things to come to mind is “high energy.” That’s strangely not the case in this episode when it comes to Ferrell’s hosting, and surprisingly, it works very well. To call it “low-energy” would be to praise Ferrell for what Harry Styles was criticized for last week, but it’s definitely “low-key,” with Ferrell reminding people he’s a master of comedy on numerous levels. Weird comedy has been the show’s best bet by far in the 2010s, and this episode pushes that agenda on all levels. This especially sticks out because this is also “the Thanksgiving episode,” an episode that is technically supposed to be for families.
Yet the first sketch is the sex sounds of the Heinz products pre-tape. Talk about setting the tone from the episode from there. This is not the only sketch of the night where Ferrell plays some form of a broken middle-aged man; this one just makes that break come from everyone at Thanksgiving dinner playfully joking about him farting after the ketchup bottle makes the sound. It’s a sketch born from a universal truth — everyone knows what it’s like when a plastic bottle makes a “fart sound” and the subsequent jokes — and flipped on its head in the most bizarre way possible, just to kick off the episode.
“Who told you the blankets are getting people sick?”
The “First Thanksgiving” sketch was hard to parse, and you could even tell that the live audience felt the same way too. Ultimately, that’s because it was almost too high concept. Immediately, the sketch is quite suspect with Melissa Villasenor playing Pocahontas and Will Ferrell, Maya Rudolph, and Fred Armisen — all former cast members — playing her family. On that front, the sketch works so much better on rewatch, knowing what it’s trying to do. Then the sketch becomes what it’s seemingly really about with Ferrell’s grandfather character being the typical racist family member that, at the holidays, you endure as they spread false information and hate instead of completely shutting out of the family. Except in this case, all of the information he’s spewing is actually true. That part right there kind of muddles things, as the first person ever to listen to “the fox” — about the “illegals” bringing diseases and how they should’ve built a wall to protect their land — ends up being absolutely right in every way. That’s definitely a choice.
But the point isn’t to think too much about that particular aspect at all, despite how much of the sketch it takes up, because the sketch is meant to bring forth similarities during the holidays in a different way: people’s shared difficulty in digesting corn. The sketch saves itself when it comes to the general concept too when Will Ferrell breaks the fourth wall at to end to even call out the fact that non-Natives are all playing these roles, like they very much would’ve in 2014. (For the record, in 2014’s Thanksgiving episode — hosted by Cameron Diaz — it did not happen. More like 2009.) But again, it’s still kind of muddled on its way to all of this.
Except for all the calling out of 30-year-old John Smith (Beck Bennett) going for 12-year-old Pocahontas. That was right on the money.
For the democratic debate sketch, the cameos continued to flow. Rachel Dratch showed up as Amy Klobuchar, Fred Armisen was a debate-crashing Mayor Bloomberg. Maya Rudolph’s “funt” (“fun aunt”) take on Kamala Harris didn’t work as well as it originally did in this season’s premiere episode, as the TNT procedural bit was simply funnier — and flowed better — than the attempted meme’ing bit. “Gonna tell my kids this was Michelle Obama” was great though.
The true highlights of the sketch, however, were Cecily Strong’s amazing Cruella de Vil take on Tulsi Gabbard (“underdog candidate and tonight’s villain”), Woody Harrelson’s return as anti-marijuana Joe Biden (which is almost too good, with or without Ray Donovan nearby), Colin Jost’s continued “Is there really no one else who can play him?” approach to Pete Buttigieg, and, retroactively, Ferrell’s Tom Steyer. An actual Tom Steyer ad aired later in the night after this sketch. He did not blink at all.
Best Sketches of the Night: “Party Song” & “Pizza Ad”
As previously mentioned, “Heinz” wasn’t the only sketch where Ferrell played a broken middle-aged man in this episode, as both the pre-tape “Party Song” and “Pizza Ad” — which even aired back-to-back — both end up hinging on it. For the former, Mikey Day and Cecily Strong’s early 2000s teens’ house party — a la a more mature “Aaron Party” — introduces Ferrell as AP English teacher Mr. B, whose midlife crisis gets progressively more depressing at these youths’ house party. “It’s just weird that he’s here watching Shawshank Redemption.” Yes, yes it is, Mikey Day.
“Honey, how’s your period? And son: Fight me.”
The latter is a showcase for both Ferrell and Kate McKinnon as the parents in a family of four who won a contest to be in a commercial for their favorite party. (While no one on the cast gives better teenager energy than Kyle Mooney and Heidi Gardner, they were not the driving comedic forces of this sketch.) McKinnon going from “Nummy nummy, I’m all horned up for this pizza” to depressed (“Well it doesn’t matter what I want.”) because the family shames her for what she wants to say. As is her departing line of, “I missed volunteering for this. I teach typing on death row. Those men appreciate me.” But then the sketch gets even better when Ferrell completely loses himself because “I can’t do anything without your mother, okay? Anything.”
Worst Sketch of the Night: “Cinema Classics: The Wizard of Oz”
When there has to be a “worst” sketch of the night, it’s a shame to pick the one that brings back Kenan Thompson’s Reece De’What, but it was easily the weakest of the batch. However, it does get points for being surprisingly relevant, considering ‘tis the season when “The Wizard of Oz” is rebroadcast on television the most. The sketch itself is pretty funny, providing an out-of-dream origin for the munchkins from Oz, but it’s just not anything special.
Best Female Performer: Cecily Strong
With her villainous Tulsi Gabbard role and her turn in “Party Song,” plus her work as a concerned audience member in “Ventriloquist,” Cecily Strong gets it this week.
Best Male Performer: Will Ferrell
This was easily an episode where the host was the MVP, without question.
If anything really knocked this episode down a peg or two before it even really began, it was the cold open with the return of Alec Baldwin’s Trump. In any other case, it would be a blessing that an “SNL” cold open — especially a Trump-focused one — is short, but this sketch was clearly so devoid of any actual content that it felt like everyone involved in making it happen was coerced to do so. It was also Ferrell’s first appearance of the episode (as Ambassador Gordon Sondland), and it started with a weird timing miscommunication.
You know, it’s still not too late to have a revolving door of celebrity Trumps instead of just Baldwin. Men, women, puppets, celebrity cameos, Lorne Michaels — you name it. It’s already been proven that the impression doesn’t have to be good; it just has to be.
Also, “SNL” going from a musical guest (and host) with major name recognition — like Harry Styles — to one without — like King Princess — isn’t always the easiest thing to pull off. But you wouldn’t have known from King Princess’ performances that this was her first time on “SNL.” And now she’s going to be opening for Styles on tour, so her name will only be getting bigger.
As an all-time great cast member, one of the best things about Will Ferrell as a host is that he’s not afraid to share the comedic spotlight with others. But while he spent most of the night playing low-key roles, allowing the actual cast to get the laughs — like Kenan Thompson and Cecily Strong’s quite concerned married couple in “Ventriloquist” — he also didn’t end up disappearing as so many hosts seem to do. Because it’s kind of impossible for Will Ferrell to really disappear, even when he’s not going big. To the point where there were even three more sketches made for the episode, that all had to be cut for time.
Now did this “SNL” get anyone in the Thanksgiving spirit? Probably not. But that’s what the “SNL” Thanksgiving special — the standard sketch clip show — on Wednesday night is all about. This episode was more about getting weird with condiments, dummies, and pizza.