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‘Saturday Night Live’ Review: The Best and Worst of Simu Liu’s Hosting Debut

This week saw Marvel’s “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” star Simu Liu take over things in Studio 8H.

SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- "Simu Liu" Episode 1812 -- Pictured: (l-r) Kyle Mooney, musical guest Saweetie, host Simu Liu, and Cecily Strong during promos in Studio 8H on Thursday, November 18, 2021 -- (Photo by: Rosalind O'Connor/NBC)

SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE — “Simu Liu” Episode 1812 — Pictured: (l-r) Kyle Mooney, musical guest Saweetie, host Simu Liu, and Cecily Strong during promos in Studio 8H on Thursday, November 18, 2021 — (Photo by: Rosalind O’Connor/NBC)

Rosalind O'Connor/NBC

Another week of “Saturday Night Live” — this time, a slightly Thanksgiving-tinged week — another new host. This week saw Marvel’s “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” star Simu Liu take over things in Studio 8H.

Host: Simu Liu

Also continuing this season’s trend of low-key opening monologues, Simu Liu’s opener relied on one simple fact: No, not the fact that he’s the “first Chinese host on ‘SNL’… to be the fourth Chinese host on ‘SNL’” but instead the fact that he’s Canadian. Which, of course, meant relying on easy — but still, effective — jokes about his politeness. Yes, he buttoned all that politeness with an “I’m Shang-Chi, bitch!” but it was a natural progression.

In fact, “natural” might just be the word that best describes Liu’s first time as “SNL” host. While he didn’t quite drive sketches the way previous hosts have this year, he had a confidence and poise in his performance that can’t be understated when it comes to this specific role.

Why, exactly, was “Karaoke All-Stars” set in Wilmington, North Carolina? Other than to have Chloe Fineman do that accent, that is? (An accent that was unexpected, considering most thoughts of Wilmington tend to come with “Dawson’s Creek” or “One Tree Hill” attached.) No idea. But it didn’t make her rendition of “Miss New Booty” any less funny, nor did it impact the effectiveness of this rather accurate sketch. As mentioned, right out the gate, Liu didn’t quite drive this sketch, as his bit — “Finance Bro Trying to Get Laid” (“I Want it That Way”) — was strong but not exactly memorable compared to the actual cast’s bits.

The sketch premise started strong with Bowen Yang and Ego Nwodim’s “Guy Who Was Doing Great Until the High Notes Came in” (“Take on Me”) and “Woman Who’s Been Overserved, Singing ‘Su Soppa Layla’” (“Smooth Operator”), respectively, and all the very specific karaoke tropes of the sketch clearly came from a place of familiarity that made the sketch work.

It’s always kind of a toss-up with game show sketches. While Liu and Nwodim were technically the driving forces of this sketch, considering the fact they were the contestants on the “Republican or Not” game show, honestly, Kenan Thompson stole this sketch with his amused reactions to their failure at this game. Liu and Nwodim played solid straight men in this sketch — with Nwodim’s questioning especially leading to the funniest, non-Thompson bits — but the sketch never really reached another gear, even with Strong as Liz Cheney to wrap things up.

This pre-tape musical sketch perhaps worked best if you were familiar with the memeification of the Page Six description of “Pete Davidson’s Native NYC.” Or if you were familiar with all the very specific New York references included in the song. Or possibly if you knew who Big Wet was. But if not, a “Walking in Memphis” parody song is pretty universal. (As long as you’re old enough to know the song, which… could be an issue too.)

Davidson pivoting from pre-tape rapping to pre-tape singing was an interesting pivot, but still this was a fun sketch for what it was. (Again, it was the result of the “Pete Davidson’s Native NYC” meme.) Marc Cohn’s meta refusal to be in a parody of his own song, only for it to be too late was a fun bit, and it’s always nice to see Method Man.

The “911 Call” sketch honestly felt like it came as the result of the success of the Spectrum sketch from the Kieran Culkin episode, though this version — with Nwodim as the 911 dispatcher and straight man instead of the other way around — wasn’t quite as effective. It did allow Liu to play around more than he got to for most of the episode, doing an accent. This was definitely a sketch for accents. And being dead as the result of marijuana OD.

Best Sketch of the Night: “New Military Weapon”

While Liu was given much more to do in this second sketch of the night (“New Military Weapon”) than the first — and got to show his ability to nail his lines without fail early on, which would continue through the night — he was upstaged by the sketch’s real star, Dog Head Man. In Liu’s defense, Cecily Strong, James Austin Johnson, and Mikey Day were also all upstaged by the adorable dog in this sketch, both Strong and Day to (understandably) break throughout the sketch. (Liu managed to stay strong, somehow.) That only made the live audience love the sketch even more, as the dog’s cuteness and fondness for eating a sandwich — even when it was supposed to be defusing a bomb, as Strong noted — simply took over.

This sketch was the natural progression of the “Translator” sketches from the past couple of years, as well as a reminder of that era of “SNL” a few seasons ago when it seemingly insisted on having live animals on the show every week, despite… things like this. Of course, “things like this” have a natural, playful humor to them that elevates a sketch, even when it’s not going as planned — which is a reason why the fact that “SNL” is live matters. Anything can happen.

Worst Sketch of the Night: “Thanksgiving Baking Championship”

This was the return of a recurring sketch — and one of three Thanksgiving sketches, making it much more festive than the Halloween episode was — one that always hits the same beats, right down to Heidi Gardner being the one contestant who actually understands the assignment (and is ignored for it). There’s nothing technically wrong with the sketch, but it’s a go-to holiday season filler sketch that never changes the format.

Best Male Performer: Kenan Thompson

Again: When in doubt, the answer is always Kenan Thompson. Plus, just go back and watch him in the “911 Call” sketch. No one can do a surprisingly youthful mischievous face like Thompson.

Best Female Performer: Cecily Strong

It was an interesting choice for “SNL” to open with a Judge Jeanine Pirro sketch again so soon after the last one, but it was a strong (no pun intended) start for both the episode and Strong. (Also, James Austin Johnson’s Trump continues to be unsettling, though it’s hard to deny how funny the “Gossip Girl” non-sequitur was. He was right about Serena also being a bad friend to Blair.) From that, Strong was a highlight throughout the show, from her performance as “Girl Who Claims Her Friend Signed Her Up, But We All Know the Truth” from “Karaoke All-Stars” (singing “I Will Always Love You”) to (as noted) “New Military Weapon” to her Liz Cheney in “Republican or Not” to straight man-turned-pyro in the “911 Call” sketch

Final Thoughts

Kyle Mooney’s Baby Yoda is a real “love it or hate it” situation, but for some reason, pop-punk Baby Yoda really worked here. Perhaps because his performance of his single “10th Grade Is Hard” was followed up by the very pop-punk reveal that he’s 50 years old. Yeah, definitely that.

Had Aidy Bryant wanted to do her Mother Earth bit in the accent she’d started the Weekend Update feature with, she’d totally have nailed it. Instead, she’d revealed she was “normal” — kind of like Chris Pratt as Mario — and went on to just kill it. (Kind of like we’re killing the planet.)

At this point, it should be illegal for “SNL” to cut a Please Don’t Destroy video for time. But at the same time, this sketch is horrifying and it was probably for the best that it didn’t air live in the nighttime.

As a host, Simu Liu was natural, comedically competent, and charming — and that was even used as a weapon with his character in the “Target Thanksgiving Ad” pre-tape. But he didn’t necessarily get the chance to command or dominate the episode the way someone like Jason Sudeikis or (especially) Rami Malek — who both excelled in their hosting duties, despite coming into it from two completely different angles — and for that, as strong of an episode as it may have been, it felt like it could’ve had a whole other host entirely. Except for in his pre-tape with Yang, which was both funny and so specifically for Liu.

(Again, while he was all over “New Military Weapon,” there was only one true star there: Dog Head Man.)

Grade: B-

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