Live from New York, it’s election season!
That’s right, Saturday Night Live is back and ready to kick off its 42nd season, with host Margot Robbie and musical guest The Weeknd. Over the summer, we lost a few key players (Taran Killam, Jay Pharoah, and Jon Rudnitsky) and gained a few new faces (Mikey Day, Alex Moffat, and Melissa Villaseñor), but as the season premiere revealed, things have stayed largely the same in Studio 8H. Still, season 42 isn’t any ol’ season of SNL: We are smack dab in the middle of an election year (and a particularly crazy election year, at that).
Although plenty of political comedy shows have emerged over the past 42 years, few hold as much weight as SNL. It may not be the edgiest political comedy on the air, but it is undoubtedly one of the most influential, often managing to permeate political opinion in a way that actually affects how we perceive American politics. When we think Sarah Palin, we think Tina Fey and “I can see Russia from my house.” When we think Gerald Ford, we think Chevy Chase and his constant klutziness. And when we think George W. Bush, we think Will Ferrell and “strategery.” (It’s also the reason so many people were ticked off when Donald Trump hosted last year, arguing his invitation to host was basically an endorsement for president.)
There’s a reason why everyone gets so excited when SNL starts back up again during an election year. The best SNL political sketches don’t just point out funny things that happen in politics; they actually help us see our politicians in a new light, for better or worse (usually for worse). And even if you’re one of the people who thinks the show was infinitely funnier when you were in high school, it’s still so much fun to watch professional comedians lampoon the nuttiness of the presidential race. And boy, is this race a weird one. With the first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump taking place last Monday, SNL had plenty of material for its season premiere.
Kate McKinnon has been SNL’s go-to Hillary for a while now, and she brings a kind of manic, crazy-eyed fire to the former first lady. A huge part of McKinnon’s recent Emmy win can be attributed to her power-hungry Hillary impression, and the show needs a Trump who can keep up with her. Ousted cast member Taran Killam served as the show’s Trump for a while, before former player Darrell Hammond took over last year. But earlier this week, SNL announced Alec Baldwin, who holds the current record for the most hosting stints ever, will be the one to don the Donald’s wig and orange spray tan this season. Baldwin has proven himself a more than capable impressionist in the past, but we’d never seen him publicly perform a Trump impression… until tonight’s cold open.
SNL kicked things off exactly as expected: with a note-for-note parody of Monday’s presidential debate. McKinnon introduced Hillary Clinton Gene Wilder style, perfectly parodying the late comedian’s iconic entrance in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. As for Baldwin as Trump, he started the debate declaring, “I’m going to be so good tonight. I am going to be so calm and so presidential that all of you watching are going to cream your jeans.”
From there, the pair launched into a pitch-perfect recreation of the debate, from Trump’s incessant sniffling to Clinton’s shoulder shimmy. Was it a particularly innovative take on the debate? Not really. But it was a great setup for the coming weeks of political nonsense, and I’m excited for the next few weeks of Baldwin as presidential candidate Trump (or, possibly, the next four years of Baldwin as President Trump).
Margot Robbie monologue
Also, Margot Robbie made her SNL debut this episode! The first-time host was more than a little overshadowed by all the political stuff, and she proved herself a solid but not-too-memorable host, livening up a few forgettable sketches. For her monologue, Robbie took a little inspiration from the preceding cold open, announcing she would fact check her own monologue for transparency’s sake. This resulted in gems like Robbie emphatically declaring that it was SO MUCH FUN when Jared Leto stayed in character on the Suicide Squad set, before turning to another camera and saying, “Not fun. It was kind of uncomfortable.”
Immediately after Robbie’s monologue, we got not one but TWO sketches where the central joke was simply “wow, Margot Robbie is really hot.” The first live sketch was a deeply unfunny bit where Robbie played a bombshell woman married to a croc-wearing, milquetoast nobody (Mikey Day, making his live sketch debut), and in the second, Robbie played the sexy librarian trope. Airing both sketches back to back made the joke feel a bit tired and lazy, which isn’t exactly the best way to kick off your new season. C’mon, SNL. You had all summer.
But the second sketch, a pretaped bit, felt a lot more fun: Robbie got to lampoon her sexy image by tearing out her hair, eating a banana peel, and… literally murdering someone. The best SNL hosts are up for anything, and with this librarian sketch, Robbie proved she was more than game.
Celebrity Family Feud
Kenan Thompson, who is now entering his 14th season (!) on Saturday Night Live, trotted out his Steve Harvey impression again for Celebrity Family Feud, this time pitting Trump supporters against Clinton supporters. On the Trump side, we had Robbie as a beautiful and vapid Ivanka Trump and Beck Bennett as a cold and occasionally shirtless Vladimir Putin. On the Clinton side, Darrell Hammond popped up as Bill Clinton, along with an always welcome Larry David as Bernie Sanders. Newcomer Melissa Villaseñor also made her debut with a Sarah Silverman impression, while Cecily Strong gave us all the excellent Lin-Manuel Miranda (more on him below) impression we didn’t know we needed.
Out of all the cast members, Leslie Jones earned the loudest cheers whenever she popped up on screen, and although she mostly took a backseat in the live sketches, Jones’ moment to shine came at the very end of the show with a pretaped bit parodying Mr. Robot. The Ghostbusters star poked fun at her recent hacking scandal at the Emmys a few weeks ago, and she doubled down with this hilarious sketch, starring Pete Davidson as a slightly too tall but otherwise perfect Rami Malek. She ain’t afraid of no trolls.
Over the summer, Weekend Update went live with a few special editions at the Democratic and Republican National Conventions, taking to the streets of Philadelphia and Cleveland. (Michael Che’s Pokémon Go parody, an attempt to find minorities at the RNC, was a particular highlight). Here, Che and Colin Jost returned to the Weekend Update desk to take aim at Clinton and Trump, and although there weren’t any real standout moments, the two have settled into a comfortable chemistry, and it’s fun to watch them actually trade jokes back and forth. (Jost: “I just want to point out that James Brown died of pneumonia.” Che: “If [Clinton] actually had black friends, she would’ve knew that.”)
Although it seemed a bit odd that Che and Jost focused so much on Trump and failed to mention the news about Trump’s tax returns that broke just hours earlier. One of the things that sets Saturday Night Live apart from other political comedy is the fact that it is, well, live. The show should take advantage of that.
They also brought back my favorite dumb joke from last year: The Weeknd Update. I love it.
Speaking of The Weeknd, he returned for his second stint as SNL musical guest, debuting his new haircut and his new songs “Starboy” and “False Alarm.”
Odds and ends
- Where was Vanessa Bayer? Earlier this summer, SNL confirmed she’d be returning this season, but she was nowhere to be seen. Here’s hoping she makes an appearance next week.
- I hope Cecily Strong’s “Melania Moments” are a recurring bit through the rest of the election.
- Michael Che did a decent job as Lester Holt, but it also emphasized what a big hole Jay Pharoah has left. With Pharoah’s departure, SNL lost its strongest impressionist, and right now, the show doesn’t have anybody to play Barack Obama. Sure, Obama’s term ends in January, but it’s a little weird that SNL doesn’t have anyone in the cast to play the sitting president.
- I miss Taran Killam.
- See you all next week, when Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda turns Studio 8H into the room where it happens (with Twenty One Pilots as the musical guest).